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by Bamber Gascoigne

Kaarlo Bergbom (1843-1906)


Director of the Finnish National Theatre, playwright, literary critic, and dramaturge. Kaalo Bergbom made the theatre his life's work with his talented sister Emilie. Bergbom's own writings are few, and his plays are not performed, but he discovered the first important Finnish dramatists (of whom the most notable were Aleksis Kivi and Minna Canth) 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 teatterissakin 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 the family spoke Swedish, the language of the educated classes, and Bergbom never learned to speak Finnish well. In the late 1840s, the Bergboms moved to Helsinki. Among the family friends were the philosopher and statesman J.V. Snellman (1806-1881) and Fredrik Cygnaeus (1807-1881), professor of aesthetics and modern literature.

From an early age, Bergbom's parents took him to the theater and opera; his first taste of opera Bergbom got as a 6-year-old. The journalist and art historian Emil Nervander recalled in his article in Valvoja (1/1906), that Bergbom had a beautiful singing voice in his childhood. He also took piano lessons. At the age of 17, Bergbom could play his favorite opera songs on piano.

While at school, Bergbom wrote poems and plays. Being anxious to learn Finnish, spoken by the common people, Bergbom spent in 1859 some time in Saarijärvi, the scene of J.L. Runeberg's patriotic poem 'Bonden Paavo' (1830, Paavo the Peasant). After graduating from the Helsingfors Lyceum, he entered the University of Helsinki, where he studied literature, drama, history, and aesthetics under Cygnaeus. At the age of 19, Bergbom received his M.A. His 1868 dissertation Det historiska dramat i Tyskland, which dealt with the historical drama in German, was good enough for an academic career, but his interests lay elsewhere, in the theatre.

Bergbom's first play, Pombal och jesuiterna (1863, Pombal and the Jesuits), was written in Swedish. The colorful story, influenced by Victor Hugo, was set in eighteenth-century Portugal, far enough not to attract the attention of the Tsar's censors. When it 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's early efforts as a playwright were not as successful as he had hoped, and at that time his mastery of Finnish did not extend to subtleties.

With J.W. Calamnius, Jaakko Forsman, and Frithiof Perander, Bergbom founded in 1866 the magazine Kirjallinen Kuukausilehti,where he published  literature reviews and the short stories 'Julian' (1867), 'Aarnihauta' (1868), and 'Sydämiä ihmistelmeessä' (1869). The magazine was closed in 1880. As a critic, Bergbom focused on drama and poetry. His articles, written in a lively style, radiated intelligence and confidence. Mostly because of Bergbom's aesthetic vision, Eino Leino considered him a worthy successor to Cygnaeus, who has been characterized as "more a stylist than a scholar" (A History of Finlands Literature, ed. by George C. Schoolfield, 1998 p. 317).

In 1871 Bergbom travelled 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.

Before becoming a permanent establishment in 1872, the Finnish Theatre 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 Theatre.  

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 collaborated with Minna Canth, who sent him her first play, Murtovarkaus (The Burglary). It was staged successfully in Helsinki in 1882.

Canth actually disliked the conservative theater manager, but their collaboration continued until Canth wrote her play Sylvi (1893) for the rival Swedish Theatre. Bergbom's sister Emilie, in practice deputy manager of the Finnish Theatre, met Canth for the first time, when the company visited Kuopio in 1883. They became good friends, whose correspondence was warm and understanding. In a letter from 1884 Canth wrote:  "But isn't it true, Emilie, that you would rather live, fight, endeavour, act and – suffer than go through life as a half dead person who leaves no trace behind, who is nowise missed after departing, the works of whose spirit bear no fruit?" (Sanoi Minna Canth, ed. by Ritva Heikkilä, 1987, p. 193)

Also the best-known works of Gustaf von Numers were made in cooperation with Bergbom, among them Erik Puke (1888), a historical drama, which had been turned down by the Swedish Theater. 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 dramas, 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 Kaarlo Bergbom, who could be described as an "enlightened dictator", and Emilie Bergbom, the wardrobe manager and cashier, were in charge of the theater for 33 years. The new building, which was designed by Onni Tarjanne and 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, Bergbom 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 Emilia died in September 1905. This marked the end of the Bergbom's era. 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 Theatre, 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. Like his sister Emilie, Bergbom never married. His close friends included the actor Niilo Sala, who committed suicide in 1892, Emil Nervander, and Jalmari Finne, who was a homosexual.

For further reading: 'Muistiinpanoja Kaarlo Bergbomin aikaisemmilta vuosilta' by Emil Nervander, in Valvoja (1/1906); Suomalaisen teatterin historia (4 vols.) by Eliel Aspelin-Haapkylä (1906-10); 'Kaarlo Bergbom', in Suomalaisia kirjailijoita: pikakuvia by Eino Leino (1909); 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); A History of Finlands Literature, ed. by George C. Schoolfield (1998); Ooppera suomalaisen kulttuuri-identiteetin rakentajana: Fredrik Paciuksen, Kaarlo Bergbomin, Aino Acktén 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); Nuori Bergbom: Kaarlo Bergbomin elämä ja työ I: 1843–1872 by Pentti Paavolainen (2014) - See also: Bergbom, Kaarlo (1843-1906) 

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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