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Kaarlo Bergbom (1843-1906)


Director of the Finnish National Theatre, playwright, literary critic, and dramaturge. Bergbom made the theatre his life's work with his talented sister Emilie. Although Bergbom's own writings are few, and his plays are not performed, he discovered the first important Finnish dramatists and introduced their work to the public. Through his efforts he also in a way created a new audience for theater.

"Kaarlo Bergbom ei ollut luova kirjailija jos hän olisi sitä ollut, hän epäilemättä olisi teatterissaakin kirjoittanut edelleen mutta takaperoiselta ja oudolta vaikuttaisi väite, ettei tämä todella nerokas mies ollut tavallista suurempi luova taiteilija omassa työssään. Harva on luonut enemmän uutta, todella uusia arvoja kuin teatteripatriarkka Bergbom." (Rafael Koskimies in Elävä kansalliskirjallisuus, 1944)

Kaarlo Bergbom was born in Vyborg, the son of Doctor of Laws and Senator Johan Erik Bergbom and Fredrika Juliana Roschier, the daughter of a lagman; she died in 1854. At home they spoke Swedish, and Bergbom never learned to speak Finnish well. Being anxious to learn Finnish, Bergbom spent in 1859 some time in Saarijärvi, the scene of J.L. Runeberg's patriotic poem 'Bonden Paavo' (1830, Paavo the Peasant). In the late 1840s the family moved to Helsinki. Among the family friends were the philosopher and statesman J.V. Snellman (1806-1881) and the historian Fredrik Cygnaeus (1807-1881).

While at school, Bergbom wrote poems and plays. In 1863 Bergbom received his M.A., at the age of 19. His 1868 dissertation Det historiska dramat i Tyskland dealt with the historical drama in German. Bergbom's first play, Pombal och jesuiterna (1863, Pombal and the Jesuits), was written in Swedish. The story was set in eighteenth-century Portugal, far enough not to attract the attention of the Tsar's censors. Bergbom's sister Emilie noted influences from Victor Hugo. When the play was performed in Helsinki, the reviews were polite. Paola Moroni (1870), about the struggle between the Guelphs and Ghibellines in the 13th centrury Italy, was written in Finnish.

Bergbom founded with J.W. Calamnius, Jaakko Forsman, and Frithiof Perander the magazine Kirjallinen Kuukausilehti,  where he published  literature reviews and his short stories 'Julian' (1867), 'Aarnihauta' (1868), and 'Sydämiä ihmistelmeessä' (1869). In 1871 Bergbom went to St. Petersburg. He visited the Hermitage and attended opera performances and then continued to Berlin. During the daytime, he sat in the library doing research and in the evenings he went to theatre. After a trip to Venice with his sister Augusta Helena and Oskar af Heurlin, who were on honeymoon, he returned to Berlin and traveled back to Finland. Bergbom's early efforts as a playwright had not been successful and his studies of literature did not promise him a great academic future.

Before becoming a permanent establishment in 1872, the Finnish Theater had begun in 1869 with the production of Kivi's Lea. In the title role was seen Charlotte Raa, a Swedish actress, who had just had great critical success in J.J. Wecksell's historical tragedy Daniel Hjort. Raa learned by heart her Finnish lines. Although the performance went well, Raa later said that she did not want to repeat the experience. In 1872 Bergbom was appointed director of the newly founded Finnish Theater. By its sheer existence, the institution  greatly  contributed to the national awakening at the end of the nineteenth century. First it was situated in Pori, where the curtain for the opening performance rose on October 13th, 1872. The group of the actors included Oskari Vilho (a civil servant), Ismael Edvard Kallio (the son of a blacksmith), Aukusti Korhonen, August Alfred Aspegren (a former non-commissioned officer), Edvard Himberg (son of a carriage manufacturer), Maria Aurora Olivia Toikka (daughter of a sergeant-major), Selma Emilia Heerman (daughter of a watchmaker), Salida Savolainen (daughter of a dyer), Selma Evelina Tötterman (daughter of a merchant), Lydia Lagus (daughter of a cantor), Arthur Alfred Lundhal (son of a civil servant), Amanda Eufrosyne Kaarlonen (daughter of a merchant), Bruuno Wilhelm Böök (son of a rural police chief), and Benjamin Leino (son of a teacher). The theater moved in 1873 to Helsinki, where an opera department was set up in the same years, with Bergbom himself directing most productions. Because of financial difficulties, opera activities ended in 1879.

Bergbom cooperated with Aleksis Kivi, the Finnish national writer, whom he considered to be one of the "exuberant, original realists." For the publication of Kivi's comedy Nummisuutarit he took a loan of 700 marks from a bank, and paid back from his own pocket. He encouraged Minna Canth in her writing aspirations, and produced her plays, although Canth actually disliked the conservative theater manager. Also the best-known works of Gustaf von Numers were made in cooperation with Bergbom, among them Erik Puke (1888), a historcal drama, which had been turned down by the Swedish Theatre. The play was translated into Finnish. Von Numers' breakthrough tragedy was Elinan surma (1891 Elina's death), based on a ballad in the Kanteletar. Bergbom helped von Numers to write his Finnish works, and it has been said that both could be called the authors of these works. Its premiere was in October 1891, with the great Ida Aalberg in the central role.

The energetic Bergbom and his sister Emilie were in charge of the theater for 33 years. The new building, which was completed in 1902, crowned their life work. During his time the repertoire included classics of world literature Shakespeare, Molière, Holberg, Schiller, and Ibsen. Bergbom's quick temper and biting sarcasm often led him into conflicts with actors and writers. According to a story, once in his anger he tore a handkerchief apart with his teeth. Minna Canth, von Numers and Aalberg were known to have been hurt by his sharp tongue. Partly to follow new currents, he travelled much abroad. He also had to look after his failing health. In 1903 Bergbom had a fit of apoplexy in Genoa, but he managed to recover for the next season. His sister died in September 1905. This marked the end of the Bergbom's era in the theater. Bergbom died four months later on January 17, 1906, in Helsinki.

"Taide on kosmopoliitti. Sen tulee vain pyrkiä esittämään yleisinhimillistä, vapautettuna kaikista rajoituksista, sen ihanne on puhtaasti humanistinen, muodon kauneus ja täydellisyys. Me olemme pieni kansa, lainatkaamme parasta mitä muukalaisilla on; taiteen etu on ainoa teatteriasiain ratkaisija." (Bergbom in Kirjallinen Kuukausilehti, maaliskuu 1872)

Bergbom set out with determination to achieve the highest artistic goals in the art of drama. In doing so he established the National Theater, which toured the country in its early years, creating a national foundation for the future of stage art in Finland. Bergbom's early plays were written under the influence of Romanticism he admired Victor Hugo, but gradually adopted the ideals of Realism.

For further reading: Suomalaisen teatterin historia (4 vols.) by Eliel Aspelin-Haapkylä (1906-10); Kaarlo Bergbom by Jalmari Finne (1922); Näyttämätaiteen historia II by Karl Mantzius (1924); Suomen Kansallisteatteri 1902-1917 by Rafael Koskimies (1954); Kaarlo Bergbom ja Suomalaisen Teatterin synty by Kaarlo Bergbom, foreword by Eino Kauppinen (1960); Suomen Kansallisteatteri - The Finnish National Theatre, ed. by Ritva Heikkilä (1972); A History of Finnish Literature by Jaakko Ahokas (1973); Kansallisgalleria: suuret suomalaiset, 1850-1920, ed. by Allan Titta et al. (1996); Ooppera suomalaisen kulttuuri-identiteetin rakentajana: Fredrik Paciuksen, Kaarlo Bergbomin, Aino Ackte´n ja Martti Talvelan vaikutus suomalaiseen oopperataiteeseen ja kulttuuri-identiteettiin by Pentti Savolainen (1999); 'Bergbom, Kaarlo' by Hanna Suutela, in Suomen kansallisbiografia 1, ed. by Matti Klinge et al. (2003)

Selected works:

  • Pombal och jesuiterna, 1863
  • Det historiska dramat i Tyskland, 1868
  • Saimaan rannalla: I-näytöksinen laulunäytelmä, 1880 (music play, with J. Korhonen)
  • Morsiamen tulo miehelään, 1898 (music play)
  • Kaarlo Bergbomin kirjoitukset 1: Näytelmät ja kertomukset, 1907
  • Kaarlo Bergbomin kirjoitukset 2: Tutkimukset ja arvostelut, 1907  
  • Kaarlo Bergbom ja suomalaisen teatterin synty, 1960 (introduction by Eino Kauppinen)

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