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Book Review: Amerikansuomalainen työväenteatteri ja näytelmäkirjallisuus vuosina 1900-1939

Auvo Kostiainen

Taru Sundstén, Amerikansuomalainen työväenteatteri ja näytelmäkirjallisuus vuosina 1900-1939 [Finnish American Workers' Theater and Drama Literature, 1900-1939]. Institute for Migration, Turku. Siirtolaisuustutkimuksia A 6. Vaasa, 1977. Pp. 103, illustrated, English summary. 30 FMK.

Finnish-American drama reflects an important aspect of Finnish immigrant culture in America and it seems that Finnish-American workers' organizations have been most active in the writing and production of plays. Before Sundstén's work, aside from a few scholarly references to drama, no larger study on the topic has yet been prepared, a fact which makes this volume indeed a pioneering work on Finnish-American theater activities.

Sundstén's work is divided into two sections. First, a historical description of Finnish drama activities is given in connection with general historical developments of the Finnish American community in the United States. And, second, an analysis is made of the contents of numerous plays. The discussion is accompanied by many handsome pictures of performances as well as reproductions of advertisements in Finnish-American newspapers. Included in the text are many significant quotations from the plays themselves.

The author points out how drama was incorporated into the general agitation program of the Finnish left in America, and she emphasizes the role of the theater in providing finances for other kinds of activities within the workers' organizations. Also emphasized is how such significant crises as the Great Depression were treated by Finnish-American playwrights.

It is clear, however, that the work is only the first major attempt to study the different aspects of Finnish-American drama in its large variety of forms. The author has not clearly separated the different groupings in the Finnish-American labor movement, nor shown how ideological differences were reflected in drama. What really were the characteristics of socialist, Wobblie or communist dramatic activities? In what manner were they similar? How did they differ?

The role of drama by workers as a part of immigrant culture needs much more clarification. Sundstén has limited her study to workers' theater only, but it must be understood that other groups within the Finnish-American population used theater also. What about temperance theater, which she discusses ever so briefly? It seems to have held a strong position among immigrants in the eastern United States. There are also traces of "cooperative theater" which cannot be identified solely as socialist or communist theater. And the attitude of the Finnish-American church toward theater would provide an interesting area of study.

Perhaps the most serious criticism must be directed at the way in which the author has defined her study. She has excluded "immigrant workers" such as Matti Kurikka, A. B. Mäkelä, Moses Hahl, Eemeli Parras and others because "Finnish background is reflected so much in their work". Thus, those authors who had written plays in Finland before they immigrated are not included. Those who are included are authors who "wrote for the moment's cause (kertakäyttökirjailijat) to supply the continuous need of new plays by the theaters". These playwrights as seen by Sundstén "are not so distinguished". If we consider authors in this way, Helmi Mattson, for example, must be regarded as an author who wrote only "for the moment's cause". This is a shameful means of underrating an excellent author like her. Also, her system of exclusion leaves out plays written by others than immigrants, which were frequently enacted: plays written by non-immigrant Finns, and plays written by European and American playwrights. The connections between Finnish-American theater and the theater in Finland could also use more attention. There were organized attempts to deliver drama literature from Finland to America as well as organizations which sent Finnish theater managers and directors to Finnish-American theaters.

In spite of the fact that Sundstén's work can be criticized because of its limited scope, it is a valuable study. Being the first major attempt in the field of immigrant dramatic activity, it deserves good attention and is certain to attract the fascination of those who research Finns in America and their cultural achievements. Hopefully this work will also provide inspiration for new studies with broader, more comprehensive views.

Published in Finnish Americana, 2(1979), p. 90-91.

© Auvo Kostiainen

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