In 1882, when Minna Canth began writing plays, she had few Finnish predecessors to emulate. After Aleksis Kivi in the 1870’s, only some minor plays had appeared in Finnish. The lack of an established Finnish canon of drama was perhaps a blessing in disguise; it left the fledgling playwright with a greater sense of freedom.
The plot of Canth’s first play, Murtovarkaus, is conventional. The play ends happily with the well-to-do farmer’s son, Niilo, marrying Helena, a poor but beautiful crofter’s daughter. Before that, however, many a hurdle must be overcome. Niilo’s father wants him to marry a wealthy neighbor’s daughter, Loviisa, and she, quite aware of Niilo’s financial strengths, eagerly accepts the offer. Therefore, Helena’s appearance on the scene is most unwelcome. So that her rival will not pose a threat, Loviisa contracts the services of a village witch, who dutifully proceeds to arrange a break-in in Niilo’s house and have Helena accused of it. Fearing her alcohol-prone father to be the real culprit, Helena compliantly accepts her imprisonment. Finally, Hoppulainen, a happy-go-lucky drunkard, Helena’s other suitor, by chance comes on the true offender, the witch, and the innocent Helena regains freedom and fiancé. In the manner of the well-made play, the plot intrigue is built on unexpected happenings, misunderstandings, and overheard conversations. The characters are static, either entirely good or entirely bad, the most interesting of whom is Hoppulainen. Although irresponsible and saddled with many vices, he possesses a tender heart and a quick tongue. In him, Canth portrays the typical inhabitant of Savo province, known for his humor, carefree nature, and quick wit.
In spite of the play’s many weaknesses, Canth’s achievement in Murtovarkaus was notable, and the play has remained popular with audiences. It provides the theatergoer with light entertainment, events set in the Finnish countryside, and characters with whom audiences can identify. The dialogue flows effortlessly, and the cleverest lines are reserved for Hoppulainen, who is a virtual treasure house of Finnish proverbs and sayings. The melodious language, rich in parallelisms and alliteration, harks back to Finnish folk poetry.
After one more play, Roinilan talossa, in the national Romantic style, Canth turned her attention to more serious issues, the women’s question and the plight of the working class. In 1882, the Finnish diet had entertained a proposal that would have guaranteed married women the right to their own earnings. The defeat of the proposal provoked Canth’s anger, and the defenseless position of the married woman constitutes the ideological core of Canth’s next drama, Työmiehen vaimo. The play opens with Risto and Johanna’s wedding. The bride, an industrious young woman, enters the marriage with sizable savings that now, in accordance with the law, are the property of her husband. In a year’s time, all of her savings are gone, she has aged, and she is desperately struggling to support her ailing infant son. All her money, to the last penny, has gone to quench Risto’s insatiable thirst. Risto strikes the ultimate blow when he steals Johanna’s half-finished weaving from the loom, which causes Johanna to fall ill and die. Johanna’s has not been the only female life destroyed by Risto. With false promises, he has trapped and seduced the gypsy girl Homsantuu, a romantically wild and anarchistic child of nature. When Risto deserts Homsantuu, she shoots him. While being dragged away by the police, Homsantuu cries out the now famous lines: “Your law and justice. . . . These are what I ought to have shot.” These words crystallized all of Canth’s own resentment against the established social order.
Not only men but also bourgeois women and their lack of solidarity are chastised by Canth in Työmiehen vaimo. Two women, members of the local women’s club, break into a tirade of accusations against Johanna without ever investigating the circumstances surrounding the theft. Because of Johanna’s poverty and lack of social graces, the women regard her as a morally inferior being, unfit to be a mother and to receive their work consignments. Vappu, an independent and strong-willed person, is the only woman who supports Johanna, and after Johanna’s death it is Vappu who adopts her son. Vappu realizes that marriage can be an ensnaring trap for a woman, and she steadfastly guards her freedom. In that, Vappu contrasts sharply with another female character in the play, a representative of the traditional woman, who regards marriage, set by God, as indissoluble, is always quoting from the Bible, and urges Johanna to surrender herself in humility to her husband’s tyranny.
Kovan onnen lapsia
The tone of Canth’s next drama, Kovan onnen lapsia, is sharper. The scene opens with a young boy about to die of hunger and lack of medical care. His mother, herself worn out prematurely by worry and deprivation, is a deeply religious woman who suffers in silence and accepts without protest her lot in life, regarding it as God’s will. In contrast, a group of young workers, her husband among them, who have lost their jobs after openly challenging their...
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