Icelandic Theatre History

The beginnings of Icelandic theatre around 1800

The history of Icelandic theatre goes back to the last years of the 18th century. At that time the Cathedral School at Skálholt had been moved to Reykjavík, the future capital of Iceland, at that time a small town of about 300 people. Iceland was overwhelmingly rural until the 19th century and the extremely dispersed farm settlement made for few stages on which to act, so the development of theatrical art was naturally a late phenomenon. In addition, the remoteness and isolation of the island was a barrier for travelling groups of actors, which in the 17th and 18th centuries were otherwise a common phenomenon in Scandinavia.

Sigurdur Peturson´s manuscript Iceland was ruled by the Danes at that time and did not obtain full independence until 1918. Between 1918 and 1944 it was still a part of the Danish crown, but became a republic in 1944. The development of Icelandic theatre and drama has been closely linked with Icelanders' attempts to preserve their indigenous language and culture. The influence of Danish was of course great and it was for a long time not clear how an ancient culture like Iceland's would adapt itself to the demands of modern life. It is significant that the best comedy by Iceland's first prominent playwright, Narfi by Sigurður Pétursson (1759-1827), is based very freely on one of Ludvig Holberg´s comedies, Jean de France. Holberg's play reveals what happens to a young Dane when too much of Paris rubs off on him. In Pétursson´s play the stupid fob, Narfi, in a similar manner despises his own language and regards Danes and Danish manners with snobbery. As is proper in a classical comedy he finally gets what he deserves. There can be no doubt about the play´s message: Icelanders should treat their own language with respect, and ought not to be ashamed of it or think Danish culture too superior.

Pétursson only wrote two comedies which were both performed by the young students at the new grammar school in Reykjavík. The school was then moved from the town to Bessastaðir. It was not until 1846 that it was moved back to Reykjavík. The plays of Pétursson were published in the same year and were, especially Narfi, performed extensively during the next decades in the small towns which were coming into existence all over the country.

Theatre in Reykjavík in the 19th century

In the early years of the 19th century there were few recorded theatre performances in Reykjavík. In the 1850s Reykjavík's inhabitants numbered only about 1500, but the town was changing, not least due to two new schools: the old grammar school, which had moved back in 1846 from Bessastaðir, and a new two year seminary for priests. The young and lively students of these schools thought theater a highly attractive pastime, but the problem was of course the scarcity of Icelandic plays.

Fortunately, the first flourishing of Icelandic drama, after the beginnings at the end of the 18th century, would shortly take place in the 1860s and early 1870s. It was closely connected with the activities of the artist and stage painter Sigurður Guðmundsson (1833-1874). While studying in Copenhagen, he developed a keen interest in theatre, realizing its potential in the struggle against foreign oppression. This led him to voice the need for a national stage from which the people could be enlightened and made aware of their national identity. He became Iceland's first stage designer and encouraged poets to create national drama based on Icelandic folklore. He was an innovative artist and among his achievements for the stage were so-called "tableaux vivants": living but static scene pictures, using real actors, which depicted scenes from the old Norse sagas. This form, which reminds one of contemporary performances and installations, was then in fact popular in Europe, but usually based on famous paintings. In Guðmundsson´s case he himself envisioned the tableaux. As there was no permanent theatre stage in Reykjavík at this time the performances were necessarily sporadic and there were many years in which no plays were put on.

The Outlaws Under Guðmundsson´s influence two students wrote plays based on folklore. Matthías Jochumsson (1835-1920), who in later life became the best-loved poet of the country, wrote The Outlaws (1862), and Indriði Einarsson (1851-1939) wrote New Year´s Eve (1871), inspired by Johan Ludvig Heiberg´s Elverhöj and Shakespeare´s Midsummer Night´s Dream. The Outlaws, an immensely popular comedy, remains the most frequently produced Icelandic play, but its initial success owed much to the popular songs in the play and to Guðmundsson´s pioneering stage design depicting the Icelandic landscape. Einarsson, though a lesser talent than Jochumsson, was the first writer to concentrate on playwriting. None of his work has been as popular as New Year´s Eve, especially in the revised version from 1907. Einarsson´s strength was his sense of theatre; when he returned to Reykjavík after having finished his studies abroad, he often directed plays, among them Ibsen´s The Soldiers from Helgeland, a romantic play based on motifs from the Edda poetry and the Icelandic sagas. Einarsson´s major contribution is, however, his dedication to Guðmundsson´s national theatre ideal. Through his tireless efforts money was finally secured to begin construction of a National Theatre in the late 1920s.

The 1890s saw a flourishing of theatre life in Reykjavík. This was partly due to the erection of two new theatre buildings, and finally the superior Iðnó (Craftsmens' House), built in 1896-97. In these venues the young actors of the town found opportunities to act on a more regular basis than before, and in 1897 the Reykjavík Theatre Company (RTC) started staging plays in Iðnó.

RTC 1897-1950

The Reykjavík Theatre Company, RTC, may without exaggeration be said to have transformed the theatrical landscape of the town and the country as a whole. It was much more ambitious in its choice of plays than earlier groups and it nurtured the first core group of Icelandic professional actors. Even if Icelandic actors only became true full time professionals when the National Theatre was inaugurated in 1950, there is no doubt that the leading actors of the RTC were much admired by the public in general and regarded themselves as pioneers of artistic acting in the country. The most prominent of them was the actress Stefanía Guðmundsdóttir (1876-1926), who was both loved by the general public and admired by the critics for her versatility and professional standards.

From a play by Johann SigurjonssonDuring the 1910s Icelandic drama suddenly began to flourish. The most important dramatists at this time were two young authors, who both wrote their plays in Icelandic and Danish, Jóhann Sigurjónsson (1880-1919) and Guðmundur Kamban (1888-1945). Another prominent dramatist was Einar H. Kvaran (1859-1938), who was also periodically stage director with the RTC. Sigurjónsson was the most outstanding artistic talent of these three, but his tragic death at a relatively young age cut his career short. His most famous play was Eyvind of the Hills (Fjalla-Eyvindur), which was performed all over Scandinavia and many foreign countries. Sigurjónsson's plays were performed with great success by the RTC and some of Kvaran´s and Kamban´s plays also enjoyed popularity.

Despite small grants from the state and the city, RTC's existence was always precarious and the late 1910s were a very difficult period. There was no acting school in the country and when the first pioneers retired or died, there were few to replace them. The amenities in Iðnó, both for the public and the actors, were very limited and gradually people began realizing that if theatrical art were to survive in Iceland, a new theatre had to be built. Nevertheless, the supporters of the theatre in the Icelandic parliament (the Alþingi) met with great resistance when they attempted to introduce a law regarding the building of a new National Theatre. Finally, however, they managed to pass the law and the theatre building was erected in 1928-1932. At that time the project was suspended and the building's interior left incomplete, as state finances were said to be in bad shape due to the international depression.

In 1927 two young Icelanders, Haraldur Björnsson (1892-1967) and Anna Borg (1903-1963), completed their studies at the Royal Theatre´s Acting School in Copenhagen. Anna Borg, daughter of the above-mentioned Stefanía Guðmundsdóttir, who later married the famous Danish actor Poul Reumert, soon became a leading actress in Copenhagen, while Björnsson went back to Iceland, hoping to become an actor and director, working on a full time basis. The time, however, did not seem ripe for such a move; many still found it preposterous to suppose that such a small country ever would be able to sustain a professional theatre. The RTC was at this time hampered by financial difficulties and there were also difficult internal conflicts which did not enhance the general status of the art. But gradually the company got over these troubles and the 1940s were one of the best periods of its history. The leading directors at this time were Indridi Waage (1902-1963) and Lárus Pálsson (1914-1968), who were also outstanding actors and sensitive teachers. Another important figure was Þorsteinn Ö. Stephensen (1904-1991), a brilliant character actor who for almost 30 years was head of the Radio Drama Department. A foreign guest, who made an important contribution to the theatre at this time, was the Norwegian actress Gerd Grieg, who directed some of Ibsen´s and Björnsson´s plays at the RTC with great success.

Theatre in Reykjavík in the second half of the 20th century

The existence of the RTC was threatened in 1950 when the National Theatre opened, as nearly all its actors were recruited for the new theatre. A few idealists, including two leading actors, the abovementioned Stephensen and Brynjólfur Jóhannesson (1897-1974), decided to persevere, with Danish-born Gunnar R. Hansen (1902-1963) as director. The RTC became fully professional in 1963 under artistic director Sveinn Einarsson (b. 1934) and has since proved a vital alternative to the National Theatre. The RTC moved into the newly built City Theatre in 1989.

At the National Theatre, under the leadership of Guðlaugur Rósinkranz (1903-1977), who was director for the first twenty years, new works and classics, both Icelandic and foreign, were performed. The NT Drama School (1950-1970) offered the opportunity of professional training withing the country, and the NT Ballet School made it possible to establish the Icelandic Dance Company in 1973, making ballet part of the repertoire. Opera has been staged since 1951, the theatre being the country's only opera house until the Icelandic Opera was formed in 1980. It was not until the 1970s that new Icelandic drama became the backbone of the repertoire, after Sveinn Einarsson had moved from the RTC to become theatre director at the NT.

Hard-a-Port by Jokull Jakobsson Fringe theatre has made its mark since the 1960s, beginning with the Gríma Theatre (1961-1970), which showed that there was a demand for an adventurous alternative theatre with its successful productions of new avant-garde drama. The short-lived Leiksmiðjan (Theatre Workshop), under director Eyvindur Erlendsson, attracted attention with a return to folklore motifs. In 1975 the Icelandic Drama School was founded, training many promising young actors who were unable to find work in existing theatres. In the same year another imporant fringe theatre group, Alþýðuleikhúsið (The People´s Theatre) was established in Akureyri. It had a radical profile and wished to take its productions to the people. It was a rather loose organization, active through the 1980s but dissolved in the early 1990s. The fringe and avant-garde scene of the 1990s was dominated by the Frú Emilía Theatre, the Hafnarfjörður Theatre, Leikfélag Íslands, Leikfélagið Loftur, Íslenska leikhúsið and other groups, most of which have been rather short-lived. The most prominent fringe theatre groups of today are the Hafnarfjörður Theatre and The Vesturport Group, whose production of Shakespeare´s Romeo and Juliet reached the London stage in 2003 and 2004.

The 1960s saw a renaissance of playwriting, and ever since Jökull Jakobsson's (1933-1978) successful Hard-a-Port (1962) Icelandic plays have been predominant. This period produced a variety of playwrights. In the fifties Agnar Þórðarson (b. 1917), attracted attention with his psychological plays, often tinged with topical satire. In historical hindsight Jakobsson has to be reckoned the most important playwright at this time. He was more prolific than any other up to his death in 1978 and even if some of his plays had a mixed reception, he had the most distinctive theatrical style and the widest ranging influence of all the young playwrights of this generation. The Nobel Prize winner Halldór Laxness (1902-1998) also wrote a few absurdist satires in the 1960s and dramatizations of his novels have proved popular. Oddur Björnsson (b. 1932) and Guðmundur Steinsson (1925-1996), who were closely connected to the Gríma Theatre, can both be classified as modernist. Björnsson has been called the finest exponent of absurdist theatre in Iceland and Steinsson had great success with his tragicomedies about the failure of modern family life in the 70s. Other important recent playwrights are the popular comedy writer Jónas Árnason (1923-1998), Kjartan Ragnarsson (b. 1945), Sigurður Pálsson (b. 1948), Birgir Sigurðsson (b. 1937), Ólafur Haukur Símonarson (b. 1947), Árni Ibsen (b. 1948), Þorvaldur Þorsteinsson (b. 1960), Kristín Ómarsdóttir (b. 1962), Hávar Sigurjónsson (b. 1958), Jón Atli Jónasson (b.1972).

The Icelandic amateur stage

Strictly speaking all theatre in Iceland was amateur until the establishment of the National Theatre in 1950. An exception, however, has to be made for RTC, which could be termed a semi-professional company from the beginning. Theatrical performances have enjoyed great popularity since the late 19th century all around the country. There are records of performances staged at large farms in the countryside around 1860, and it is at that time that people began to put on performances in the fishing villages with their newly-acquired trade licenses. In most larger townships amateur companies have flourished since the early 20th century. The only one of them to have turned professional is the theatre company in Akureyri, the country's second largest town, which in 1973 became the first professional group outside Reykjavík.

Outside Reykjavík the amateur theatre is still flourishing. The Association of Amateur Theatres (Bandalag íslenskra leikfélaga) was established in 1950 and has provided a very useful service for the around 80 amateur companies performing around the country. Even in Reykjavík an amateur company, Hugleikur, has been active since 1984, specializing in comical/satirical plays, written by its own authors. Another ambitious amateur company in Reykjavík is Stúdentaleikhúsið (The Students' Theatre). The repertoire of the amateur companies has usually been oriented toward light entertainment, but new Icelandic plays have also been well received. It is quite common for amateur production to be directed by fully qualified professionals, which no doubt accounts for the high artistic standards some of these companies have been able to achieve.

Radio and TV drama

The Icelandic National Broadcasting Service (RÚV), established in 1930, began broadcasting plays, both live and recorded, from its first year of broadcasting. Radio plays soon became TV dramatication of a novel by Halldor Laxnessimmensely popular and had a huge number of listeners, especially in the 1940s and 1950s, before the advent of television. When drama started flourishing in the 1960s some of the leading writers showed great interest in the medium, not least among them Agnar Þórðarson, Jökull Jakobsson and Oddur Björnsson. The head of the Drama Department from 1947 to 1974 was Þorsteinn Ö. Stephensen (1904-1991), one of the finest and best-loved actors of the country, who created many of his best roles on radio.

Icelandic state television (RÚV) commenced broadcasting in 1966, and was already broadcasting Icelandic drama by 1967. To begin with, RÚV mainly took existing material from the theatres. But the station soon started producing its own dramatic material, most often on video but also on film. The first television film was made in 1970. Once in a while RÚV has collaborated with theatres; in such cases the theatre production is reworked, and then recorded or filmed on the stage or in a studio.

Children´s theatre

After the establishment of the National Theatre in 1950 children´s plays soon became a fairly regular part of the repertoire. The most popular of these were the plays by the Norwegian dramatist Thorbjörn Egner. The RTC put on some children's plays in the 1960s, but it was only after it had moved into the new City Theatre in 1989 that it could serve young audiences to a degree comparable to that of the National Theatre. Some of the fringe groups of the recent years have specialized in plays for children, such as Möguleikhúsið (whose name is a pun meaning roughly The Theatre of Possibilty) and Stopp-hópurinn (The Stop Group). Mention has also to be made of puppet theatre, whose founding father was the artist Jón E. Guðmundsson (1915-2004) who ran his Íslenska brúðuleikhúsið (The Icelandic Puppet Theatre) from the 1950s to the 1990s, often performing in school and social centres around the country. In later years his work has been continued by Leikbrúðuland and by various independent puppeteers.

Opera and ballet

Needless to say, it is not easy to get the necessary resources for opera and ballet in such a small society as Iceland. Nevertheless, one opera company and one dance company currently operate regularly in Reykjavík: the Icelandic Opera, founded in 1980, and the Iceland Dance Company, founded in 1973. After it was established in 1950 the National Theatre soon started producing its own operas, often with guest artists in the leading roles, and in 1952 a ballet school was founded. Many singers and dancers began to feel a need for independent companies, working outside the National Theatre where non-musical repertoire had a natural priority. The Icelandic Opera was founded on the initiative of a group of singers under the leadership of opera singer and conductor Garðar Cortes, who remained leader of the Opera for its first twenty years. The company operates in a old cinema house, which has been converted to a theatre, mainly concentrating on popular operas by composers as Verdi, Puccini, Mozart and Johann Strauss, as the works by composers like Wagner and Richard Strauss make rather too great demands on its small orchestra pit and shallow stage. The Iceland Dance Company, since 1996 stationed in the new City Theatre of Reykjavík, and working under the leadership of Katrín Hall, has in contrast focused on modern ballet.