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Aarne (Alarik) Orjatsalo (1883-1941)

 

Finnish actor, adventurer and writer, who died after a stormy life in the United States. The tall and handsome Orjatsalo attracted the attention of the public, and won success in leading roles in such plays as Othello, Hamlet, and Kullervo. Politically active, he wrote defiant articles to workers' papers. After the Finnish Civil war (1917-18) Orjatsalo fled from the country for 12 years.

"Sinä Jorma – sinä olet aivan kuin Per Gynt – samanlainen juuri. Sinä lennät taivaita ja maita, kummastut, kun ihmiset eivät voi sinua seurata, uskot heistä hyvää, petyt . . ." (Viettelijä by Aarno Orjatsalo, 1907)

Aarne Riddelin (later Orjatsalo) was born in Simo, the son of the forest officer Karl Alarik Riddelin (later Ritarsalo) and Anna Aline Braxén. His birth weight was over 6 kilos. The family soon moved to Paltamo and then to Kajaani. Before going to school, the young Aarne was tutored at home by Eino Leino's sister Hilda.

After secondary school studies in Vaasa and Tampere, Orjatsalo started his career as an actor in 1901, at the age of 17. He began at the Finnish Maaseututeatteri, managed by Kasimir Leino, but he embarked on his true artistic career in Helsinki at the Finnish Theatre; Orjatsalo's name (he still used the surname Riddelin) appered in reviews. The manager Kaarlo Bergbom, one of the founders of the Finnish Theatre in 1872, employed many young actors, among them Alli Paasikivi, Elli Tompuri and Orjastalo. During this period Orjatsalo joined the Finnish Labour Party, which changed in 1903 its name to the  Social Democratic Party of Finland.

Following a drunk night out with his friends and some pilfering ‒ he pawned his roommate's fur coat, among others ‒ Orjatsalo was forced to resign from the theater. To escape the scandal, he went to sea for a few months. He then became a staff member of the Theatre of Tampere (1904-06, 1908-10). Orjatsalo's breakthrough role was as the Reverend John Storm in Hal Caine's play The Christian

While in Tampere Orjatsalo had an affair with the writer Ain'Elisabet Pennanen, with whom he had in 1906 a son, Jarno Elisar.  As a result of the  publicity surrounding the affair and its aftermath in the city court, Orjatsalo gave up his post as the manager of the Theatre of Tampere, where he had first met Ain'Elisabet Pennanen, and joined the staff of the Tampere Workers' Theatre. This unhappy relationship became part of Finnish literary history when Orjatsalo and Ain'Elisabet Pennanen defamed each other in their books after separation. It also gained Orjatsalo notoriety as a Don Juan figure. 

Refusing to marry her former lover, Pennanen brought up their son alone. To uphold the family honour, her brother Väinö tried to shoot Orjatsalo but failed. Orjatsalo was married several times. After separating from Ain'Elisabet,  he was married to Sigrid (Siiri) Petronella Tyrni (1908-1909), who later moved to the United States and died there in 1916 in a car accident, then to Hellin Virkkula (1916), a dentist, and then to the journalist and playwright Toini Aaltonen (1928-1939); his last wife was the English actress Alice Phillips.

The writer Arvid Järnefelt suggested Orjatsalo for the role of Titus Flavius at the national theatre. The play, based on Järnefelt's Orjan oppi, had previously been performed under the title Jerusalemin hävittäjä. Armas Järnefelt composed the music and Robert Kajanus directed the orchestra.  The production, which was staged in May 1910, was a great success and Orjatsalo, who fitted perfectly for the role, was appointed a visiting actor. Moreover, Eino Leino had written favourably of his performance as Othello, although he considered the actor still too young for the role. The play had premiered at the Theatre of Tampere in January 1910.

Having an entrepreneurial spirit, Orjatsalo arranged his own tours. At Kansan Näyttämö in Helsinki he was a visiting actor  (1912, 1914), but tours were financially and emotionally more rewarding than regular contracts. However, whatever was earned was soon spent. Orjatsalo's drinking (and financial losses) strained his marriage. With Eino Leino, who shared similar drinking habits, he toured in 1915. Leino saw in Orjatsalo the future of the Finnish  theatre. ('Aarne Orjatsalo itsensä kuvailemana' by Eino Leino, 1916, in Orjatsalo: Taiteilija politiikan kurimuksessa by Jootarkka Pennanen, 2017, pp. 188-189)

Some of the plays with which Orjatsalo toured were not well-rehearsed. When Eino Leino's Carinus fell flat in Mikkeli, Orjatsalo told the audience: "We have just decided to sent Eino Leino a telegram and tell that his play was performed today in Mikkeli with a great success." The audience applauded enthusiastically. According to another  anecdote an indignant tailor appeared at rehearsals one day and told: "I don't have time to run after you constantly with this unpaid bill." Orjatsalo asked: "When do you have time?" The astonished tailor said: "Next Wednesday, I guess." Orjatsalo said: "Well, come then next Wednesday."

Orjatsalo was made for leading roles: he had charisma, he brought into his roles strong emotions, and his voice was booming. Reviewers saw his passionate temperament refreshing: "Suurin kiitos tulee ensi sijassa herra Orjatsalolle, joka nyt vieraili kansallisella näyttämöllämme. Hänen Brutus Cloteau'nsa oli suurin piirtein ajatelty ja esitetty, ja hän loi voimakkaan kuvan tästä kansanmiehestä, joka sekä aatteellisesti että käytännössä on tasavallan puolella, mutta jonka sydän silti riippuu kiinni aatelisessa isäntäväessään. Herra Orjatsalon voimakas temperamentti muistuttaa monessa suhteessa Kaarlo (Kaarle) Halmetta, hän samoin kuin tämäkin sulattaa itseensä sekä rajua intohimoa että äärimmäisen itsensähillitsemisen." (Helmi Krohn in the magazine Valvoja, Suomen kansallisteatteri by Rafael Koskimies, 1953)

     "Janne Nuppunen ilmestyi eräänä iltapäivänä suomalaiselle parakille. Laahustaen keripukista tönkkiä jalkojaan, kolisteli hän hitaasti pitkin käytävää ja saapui päivystäjän luo.
-    – Saapikos täällä maitoa ostaa omalla rahallaan, kysyä tokaisee hän esityökseen päivystäjältä.
-    – Ei tämä ole mikään maitokauppa, tämä on sotamiesten värväyspaikka, vastaa hieman harmistunut päivystäjä.
-    – No kai minä toki sen tiiän, vastaa Janne, mutta sen vain haluaisin tietää, saako sotamies ostaa täällä  omalla rahallaan maitoa? vänkää Janne tosissaan.
-    – No sotamieskö teistä pitäisi sitten tulla? virnistää päivystäjä Jannelle. Ja tuollaisilla jaloilla?
-    – No, no, ei pidä jalkoja nauraa, vaikka on itse sattunut keripukilta säästymään. Kyllä minusta vielä mies tulee, kunhan saan maitoa juodakseen.
-    – Ei tiedä tuleeko, mutta kyllä kai olisi sairaala paras paikka teille, vai mitä? naureskelee päivystäjä.
-    – No jos et osaa nauramatta olla, niin sanon vain, että herra se on herrallakin ja sinulla varsinkin, tokaisee Janne närkästyneenä. "
(by Aarne Orjatsalo, in Työväen joululehti, 1929)

As a writer Orjatsalo made his debut in workers' papers and edited the magazine Yhdenvertaisuus between the years 1906 and 1907. From then on he used the name Aarne Orjatsalo. In many of his articles he employed an agitative style of rhetoric. Orjatsalo also translated into Finnish plays from such authors as Gerhart Hauptmann (Hanneles Himmelfahrt), Adolf Paul (Die Teufelskirche), Ernst Preczang (Der Teufel in der Wahlurne; Die Polizei als Ehestifterin), Leopold Kampf (Am Vorabend), Max Kegel (Die Tochter des Staatsanwalts), and Frank Wedekind (Erdgeist).

In response to Ain'Elisabet Pennanen's novel Voimaihmisiä (1906), in which the central characters are Hellevi Kolarila, a 24-year old virgin, and the hedonist conductor von Braun, Orjatsalo published his only book, Viettelijä (1907). This roman à clef was about the relationship between a woman named Ein'Kathariina and a man named Jorma; he is compared  to Per Gynt. 

Orjatsalo tried to join to the board of the national theatre in 1913, but the board canceled its earlier acceptance. In the autumn 1917, just before the outbreak of the Finnish Civil War, Orjatsalo was employed as the director of the Tampere Workers' Theatre. There is a story, that the last performance in the theatre, Dumas's Edmund Kean, was interrupted by members of the Red Guards. Orjatsalo shouted that the revolution has begun and recited the Internationale. (Orjatsalo: Taiteilija politiikan kurimuksessa by Jootarkka Pennanen, 2017, p. 208)

During the Finnish Civil War Orjatsalo expressed in his articles and speeches  his belief in the victory of socialist revolution, but there is no evidence that he took up arms and fought with the Red Guards. It was later claimed that he brought to Tampere Russian seamen, who had gained legandary fame with their ideological impetuosity, and that he led a group several hundred men through the siege of Tampere. However, before the Whites launched their offensive against the city, Orjatsalo had already escaped to Helsinki. According to a fabricated story, he took with him several baskets of cognac, and as a result a number of his men were constantly very drunk.

In 1918-19 Orjatsalo participated in the intervention to Murmansk. While vising Moscow, he negotiated with Otto Ville Kuusinen, who encouraged him to join the Allied forces. When Archangel was occupied, Orjatsalo released a Finnish prisoner by telling a guard that he was the new commandant of the town. Orjatsalo was eventually promoted to the rank of lieutenant in the British Army. His major duties consisted of training and drilling the legionnaires. In August 1918, he signed with Oskari Tokio and others a manifest that denounced the Bolshevist tyranny. This ended Orjatsalo's  friendship with Kuusinen and made it impossible for him to ever set his foot in Moscow. After settling in England with his wife, he learned more English as the days passed, worked as a valet to T.E. Lawrence and met Ernest Shackleton, who hired him as an office manager. Orjatsalo also attended a party celebrating Charles Chaplin, who visited London in 1921 to promote The Kid.

Between the years 1921 and 1922, Orjatsalo acted at the Winter Garden Theatre, where he was cast as "Pops" in Jerome Kern, Clifford Grey & Guy Bolton's musical Sally. He toured in 1924 and 1925 in the United States, performing first mostly in amateur scenes. With his wife Alice Arnee he acted in Channing Pollock's play The Fool and had on Broadway a role in Shipwreck by Langdon McCormick.  Due to heavy drinking, he was dismissed from his post as the manager of the Socialist Opera House in Virginia, Minnesota. After moving back to New York, he was appointed director of  a Finnish workers' theatre (New Yorkin Suomalaisen Sosialisti Osaston Työväentalon näyttämö). During this period he cooperated with an old acquaintance, Annie Mörk; he had toured with her in Finland.

Upon returning in 1929 to Finland, Orjatsalo was arrested and  released after about a week. He acted in the role of Klaus Kurki at the Viipurin Työväen Teatteriin Elinan surma by Gustaf von Numers; Elli Tompuri played Kirsti. "Klaus Kurjen  osan esityksessä oli sellaista psykoloogista syvyyttä, jota ei opita tavallisilla  näyttämöillä." (Suomen Sosialidemokraatti, maaliskuu 1929)

Orjatsalo's character stirred up many emotions. In Tampere he was greeted both with applauds and cries "Down with Reds!" The reviews of his performance in Antonio Morano's Oikea rakastaja, which premiered in April  1929 in Tampere, were praising: "Aarne Orjatsalo on nyt taiteensa huipuilla: hän on ulkonaisesti sama kuin ennenkin, vuodet ja katkeratkin kokemukset ovat hänen ohitseen kulkeneet hellävaroen, sillä hän on sittenkin Onnettaren suuri suosikki." (R. in Kansan Lehti) Orjatsalo was a visiting actor at several workers' stages. From 1930 to 1931 he was the head of the Workers' Stage of Sörnäinen in Helsinki (renamed as  the Workers' Theatre of Helsinki). The theatre served as the springboard for the career of Tauno Palo, who became the most celebrated hero of Finnish films. Orjatsalo's dismissal from his post marked the end of his career in Finland.

A well-know leftist figure amid a climate of right-wing hate of the 1930s, Orjatsalo was constantly harassed, he received an order to stay away from the National Theatre, and his tours were rejected. After a year of setbacks, he moved to the United States, and settled  in New York City's Harlem, living there for some years with a woman named Katri Wilska. Struggling to survive in the Great depression, he took odd jobs, as a taxi driver, butler, and cook. Orjatsalo died in a poor's hospital under the pseudonym Aleksei Wolkow, on January 1, 1941, in New York. His ashes were brought to Finland in 1948. Orjatsalo's colorful life was adapted in 1983 to stage by Jotaarkka Pennanen and Elina Halttunen from Anja Vammelvuo's play Tulee aika toinenkin (1983). - Note: the text was revised in April 2018. 

For further reading: Tulee aika toinenkin: näyttelijä-rosvopäällikkö Aarne Orjatsalon elämä by Anja Vammelvuo (1983); Titaanien teatteri by Panu Rajala (2001); 'Orjatsalo, Aarne' by Panu Rajala, in Suomen kansallisbiografia 7, ed. Matti Klinge (2006); Orjatsalo: Taiteilija politiikan kurimuksessa by Jootarkka Pennanen  (2017). See also: Jarno Pennanen, Orjatsalo's son, who was born in Helsinki. Jotaarkka Pennanen later wrote a play Linnunrata, on his grandmother Ain'Elisabet. His biography Orjatsalo: Taiteilija politiikan kurimuksessa (2017) is a significant contribution to Finnish theatre history.  

Selected works:

  • Viettelijä, 1907
  • Translator: Leo Tolstoi - I. Bataille: Ylösnousemus (1904); Leopold Kampf: Suurpäivän aattona (1908); Max Kegel: Kuvernöörin tytär (1908); W. Krause: Takaisin taistelun tuoksinaan! (1908); Ludvig Lessen: Varokaa pommia! (1908); Adolf Paul: Pirun kirkko (1908); Ernst Preczang: Piru vaaliuurnassa (1908); Ernst Preczang: Poliisi naittajana (1908); Ernst Preczang: Riemujuhla (1908); Ernst Preczang: Tuhlaajapoika (1909); Alexandre Dumas: Edmund Kean (1909); August Strindberg: Kreivitär ja lakeija (1917); Channing Pollock: Ristiinnaulittu (1930)


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