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by Bamber Gascoigne

Gustaf von Numers (1848-1913)


Finnish playwright, unpractical dreamer, whose best known works were made in cooperation with Kaarlo Bergbom, the central figure of Finnish theatre in the 1880s. Later Numers cut off with Bergbom and wrote his plays for Swedish speaking theatres. Numers's female characters were exceptionally strong. In his comedies, such as Kuopion takana (1891, Behind Kuopio) and Pastori Jussilainen (1895, Pastor Jussilainen), Numers dealt with women's rights and conservative attitudes of the rural Finnish people, especially among the clergy. Numers's romantic-realistic plays gained popularity in the time, when Minna Canth struggled for acceptance to her realistic and naturalistic works.

"Me käytämme niitä aseita, mitkä maiselle on annettu. Ne ovat vähän terävämmät kuin miehen raaka voima, josta he aina kerskaavat, ja jonka avulla he ovat vuosituhansia meitä sortaneet." (from Kuopion takana)

Gustaf von Numers was born in Maksamaa into a well-to-family aristocratic family. His native language was Swedish, but some of his plays were first performed in Finnish theatres. Numers's father, Lorentz August v. Numers (1818-1968), was a practical and energetic person who had increased the family fortune by spirit distilling. Johanna Gustava Malin, the writer's mother, died at the age of 25 in 1849. Lorentz August v. Numers then married her sister, Serafia Lovisa Malin.

The old Tottesund manor, where Numers spent his first five years, became later the scene of Anni Swan's classic juvenile novel Tottisalmen perillinen (1914, The heir of Tottesund), about an orphan farm-hand who turns out to be in reality a heir to a large fortune. Like other upper-class children of the time, Numers was first tutored at home. From 1861 he studied in Vaasa and graduated from the secondary school in 1869. During this period he read poetry – Runeberg, Wecksell, Tegnér and others – and wrote for the student magazine. Shakespeare's works he read in Swedish.

After his father died, Numers inherited the Åminneborg manor and considerable sum of money, which was meant to finance his further studies. He lived a few years in Helsinki, but attend the university sporadically. In 1871 he travelled in Sweden and Norway, spent his time in theaters, and took a course in agriculture in Mustiala. In 1874 he rented a farm from Ilmajoki, where he lived a carefree life as a gentleman farmer, pursuing unpractical plans, and spending his days dreaming like Oblomov, until he had lost nearly all what was left from his father's inheritance.

Numers's marriage with Helena Lovisa Eleonora Roos did not change the situation. In 1883, he was offered a job as a railway official, but instead of focusing on his work he began to write. It also offered him a way to escape the dull reality and earn extra income to support his large family. Numers worked as a station master from 1888 in the Ostrobothnian countryside. After making patriotic speeches he was forced to resign in 1903 from his office. For a short time he worked for a timber firm. Between the years 1905 and 1907 he was a canal chief in Heinävesi, and then a station master in Kannus.

With the help of Kaarlo Bergbom, Numers's first produced drama, Eerikki Puke, was performed at the Finnish Theatre in 1888. However, von Numers wrote the work in Swedish, but the Swedish theatre rejected his early plays. This  drama  was set in the 15th century. Its central character is Kreeta, a kind of Finnish Joan of Arc. Her idealism encourages the hesitating governor of the castle Korsholm, Eerikki Puke, to pretend to the crown of Sweden.

The play was performed seven times and received good reviews. It was followed by Tuukkalan tappelu (1889, The battle at Tuukkala), based on archeological findings in Tuukkala village. The story dealt with a feud between the people of Tavastland (Häme) and Karelia. In 1890 Numers visited in Kuopio the playwright Minna Canth, the first notable Finnish social realist, whose radical opinions were constantly attacked by conservative and religious authorities. On his journey in eastern Finland, Numers also met in Lappeenranta C.G. Swan, the editor of Lappeenrannan Uutiset and father of the future writer Anni Swan.

Numers's major work and theatrical breakthrough is Elinan surma (1891, Elina's death), performed both in Swedish and Finnish in 1891. It was based on a well-known medieval ballad from Kanteletar, Elias Lönnrot's collection of lyrical and lyrical-epic folk poems. Lönnrot had copied the original story from a manuscript while a student at Laukko. In the play the gentle Elina marries Klaus Kurki, a recently widowed nobleman. His jealous mistress Kirsi convinces him, that his new wife is unfaithful, and Kurki kills her. Klaus becomes mad and Kirsi repents bitterly. It has been said, that both Numers's and Bergbom, who helped him to write his Finnish works, could be called the authors of this play. At one scene Klaus confesses his sins to a smirking Roman Catholic priest. Numers's attack on the Catholic Church was not uncommon, also Topelius portrayed a villainous Jesuit in Talvi-iltain tarinoita. Elinan surma was a great success at the Finnish Theatre, with the great Ida Aalberg as Kirsi and Axel Ahlberg as Klaus Kurki.

After Elinan surma von Numers's cooperation with Bergbom ended because of financial disagreement. The playwright also refused to accept Bergbom's creative contribution in finishing his play. "Mitä sitten tulee meidän yksityiseen asiaamme, myönnän minä kernaasti, avoimesti ja kaikkien kuullen, etteivät minun näytelmäni koskaan ilman sinun apuasi, tai kenties oikeammin kritiikkiäsi, olisi saaneet sitä menestystä mikä niillä on ollut, mutta yhtä oikeutettua yhteistyötä (ett lika berättigat samarbete) ja siitä johtuvaa oikeutta minun kanssani yhdessä määrätä niiden painattamisesta ja esittämisestä muissa teattereissa – sitä en minä myönnä sinulle koskaan." Eliel Aspelin-Haapkylä, who had known Numers in his youth, argued in Suomalaisen teatterin historia (1906-1910), that Numers's writings were "immature scribblings", and it was Bergbom, who was the mastermind behind the plays. Their disagreement was also discussed in the newspapers (see Casting the Ideal Past by Ilona Pikkanen, 2012, pp. 151-154). 

Following his breakup with Bergbom, Von Numers continued with comedies for the Swedish stage. In Bakom Kuopio (Behind Kuopio), which premiered in Helsinki in 1890, the ultraconservative minister Elias Jussilainen is cleverly duped by a young woman, Lilli, who is an advocate of women's rights. "Tärkeintä kaikesta on, ettet koskaan unohda naisellista arvoasi. Sinun tulee muistaa, Naemi, ettemme me ole mitään itämaisia odaliskeja emmekä keskiajan nunnia, vaan pystypäitä nykyajan naisia, jotka vastaamme omasta itsestämme. Paina mieleesi nämä kaksi asiaa: naisella on arvonsa ja naisella on elämäntehtävänsä!" (from Bakom Kuopio) The play was adapted to the screen by the Finnish-born Swedish director Mauritz Stiller under the title Den tyranniske fästmannen (1912, The Tyrannical Fiancée), but its end was taken from another comedy, Pastor Jussilainen.

Numers possibly wrote the play as an answer to Minna Canth's accusations that he showed an "excessive interest in young girls." The sequel, Pastor Jussilainen, was not translated into Finnish until 1923. In the story the reactionary Jussilainen adopts some modern ideas. The first film version of the play, entitled När svärmor regerar (When mother-in-law reigns), was made by Mauritz Stiller, who acted in the title role. The beginning of Matti Kassila's film adaptation from 1955 was shot as if it were a film recording of a stage performance at the National Theatre. The actors go to their dressing rooms to put on their make-ups and costumes, there is a sound of a gong and the curtain opens. Edvin Laine was cast in the title role; all the actors were from the National Theatre.

Gustaf von Numers died on February 6, 1913, in Kannus. For a long time he had planned to write a romantic opera Hvita frun från Tottesund (The white lady of Tottesund), which would fuse together his happy childhood memories and later experiences, but he never realized the idea. At his old age, Numers began to resemble more and more Leo Tolstoy; he had a thick white beard and a small cap, but instead of dressing in peasant garb he wore a uniform or a suit.

For further reading: Suomalaisen teatterin historia (4 vols.) by Eliel Aspelin-Haapkylä (1906-10); 'Bortglömda teaterstycken av Gustaf v. Numers' by B. Estlander, in Historisk Tidskfrft för Finland (1921); Gustav von Numers by V. Tarkiainen (1922); 'Gustaf von Numers' by Rafael Koskimies, in Suomen kirjallisuus IV: Minna Canthista Eino Leinoon, ed. by Matti Kuusi, Simo Konsala (1965); A History of Finnish Literature by Jaakko Ahokas (1973); McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Drama, vol. 3, ed. by Stanley Hochman (1983); Suomen kansallisfilmografia 5, ed. by Kari Uusitalo (1989); A History of Finland's Literature, ed. by George C. Schoolfield (1998)

Selected works:

  • Eerikki Puke, Korsholman herra: historiallis-romantillinen näytelmä 5:ssä näytöksessä, 1888 (suom. Niilo Sala, 1892)
  • Tuukkalan tappelu: kaksi-osainen näytelmä 7:ssä kuvaelmassa, 1889 (Swedish title: Striden vid Tuukkala; suom. Niilo Sala, 1889)
  • Elinan surma: seitsemän kuvaelmaa, 1891 (Swedish title: Klas Kurck och liten Elin)
    - film: Elinan surma, 1938, dir. Kalle Kaarna, starring Santeri Karilo, Ella Eronen and Hilkka Helinä
  • Kuopion takana: kolminäytöksinen huvinäytelmä, 1891 (Swedish title: Bakom Kuopio; suom. Eero Alpi, 1923)
    - film: Den tyranniske fästmannen, 1912, dir. Mauritz Stiller; Kuopion takana, TV film 1959, dir. Seppo Wallin, starring Heimo Lepistö, Helena Futtari and Sirkka-Liisa Wilén; Kuopion takana, TV film 1975, dir. Mirjam Himberg, starring Johanna Kumpulainen, Liisamaija Laaksonen and Seppo Laine
  • Dramatiska arbeten 1: Bakom Kuopio: komedi i tre akter, 1892
  • Dramatiska arbeten 2: Striden vid Tuukkala: skådespel i åtta tablåer: (tvänne afdelningar), 1893
  • Uusi pirtti, 1893 (Swedish title: Nystudansen; performed first in Suomalainen Teatteri; Uuren pirtin hyppijäiset: yksinäytöksinen kansannäytelmä, suom. A. A.-Q-T., 1907; Tupaantuliaistanssit, suom. Eero Alpi, 1923)
  • Utan präst, 1894
  • Pastori Jussilainen, 1895 (Swedish title: Pastor Jussilainen; suom. Eero Alpi, 1923)
    - films: När svärmor regerar, 1914, dir. Mauritz Stiller, starring Lilly Jacobson, Mauritz Stiller and Jenny Tschernichin-Larsson; Pastori Jussilainen, 1955, dir. Matti Kassila, starring Edvin Laine, Rauha Rentola,Tyyne Haarla, Kirsti Ortola: Pastori Jussilainen, TV film 1960, starring Pentti Siimes, Maija Karhi and Eila Pehkonen.  
  • Snällä flickor, 1897
  • Tuukkas son: (fortsättning på "Striden vid Tuukkala"): saga på 3 sidor: blad direkte från sjukbädden, 1902 (Tuukan poika, suom. Eero Alpi, 1903)
  • Mormor länsmanskan, 1909
  • Hvita frun på Tottesund, 1912
  • Vid Lützen, 1912
  • Valitut teokset, 1923-24 (suom. Eero Alpi)
  • Dramatiska arbeten i urval: Klas Kurck och liten Elin: skådespel i sju tåblåer, 1928 (edited by Hjalmar Procope´)

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