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Aalberg, Ida (1857 - 1915)

actress

Ida Aalberg
Literature Archives of the Finnish Literature Society

The actress Ida Aalberg was the first real star of Finnish-language theatre. Her importance for the Finnish Theatre, directed by Kaarlo Bergbom, and through it for the whole of an awakening Finnish culture is indisputable. Ida Aalberg also achieved exceptional success on foreign stages. In Finland, where she was a much-fêted artist, she attained the status almost of a national symbol.

Ida Aalberg appeared on the stage for the first time in 1874, during an evening entertainment held at the Sipilä estate at Janakkala. Her interest in the theatre became so great that when, in the same year, the Finnish Theatre (Suomalainen Teatteri) came to perform in neighbouring areas, the 16-year-old daughter of a railway-track inspector ran away from home and travelled to Hämeeenlinna to join the group. The legendary tale of the poor girl who left her family to follow her vocation has traditionally been part of the Aalberg saga. But her interest in culture was not born out of the blue. Although Ida Aalberg's home background was indeed a modest one, she had, with the help of friends of the family, received an education not much different from that of upper-class girls of the time. Her knowledge of Swedish and German was later of great importance for her career.

During her first years at the Finnish Theatre in 1874 - 77, Ida Aalberg played a number of minor roles in various plays and worked as an assistant at opera performances. It was not until her success as Boriska in the Hungarian play The Village Scoundrel in 1877 that public interest was attracted to her acting in particular. In 1878 and 1880, Aalberg studied drama in Dresden, where her teacher was the well-known German actress Marie Niemann-Seebach. Besides becoming thoroughly familiar with role analysis, speech skills and acting technique, she studied German. The grand, declamatory style learned by Aalberg in Germany never disappeared entirely from her acting, though she did later develop her style more in the direction of Ibsen-style realism and also absorbed stylistic influences from Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonore Duse.

Her studies soon began to produce results. As early as 1879, Aalberg was seen in two promising interpretations in Helsinki when she played the main role in a stage version of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre and Schiller's Luise Miller. She was given a foretaste of international success in the summer of 1880, when a tour on the Continent proceeded via Munich and Vienna to Budapest. In Budapest, Ida Aalberg appeared before a kindred people of the Finns in her new hit roles; but it was especially the Finnish Boriska of The Village Scoundrel that was a huge success. Word of her triumph in Hungary naturally soon reached Finland and strengthened Aalberg's position not only as an actor but also as something of a national treasure. Her indisputable breakthrough at the Finnish Theatre came in the same year, 1880, with Aalberg's performance as Nora in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. The performance led to a real outbreak of Nora fever in Helsinki, and it was also a victory for the Finnish Theatre's new style of acting, which aimed at simply talking on stage instead of holding speeches. Ida Aalberg's performance was regarded as a laudable example of this new, 'realistic' way of acting, whose main emphasis lay on natural, lively delivery in place of ponderous pathos.

Aalberg's establishment of herself as a popular performer in leading roles and her increasing artistry both as a comedienne and a player of tragic parts meant a great deal to the manager of the Finnish Theatre, Kaarlo Bergbom. Thanks to a good leading lady, the company was able to expand its range both as far as the classical repertoire and new domestic works were concerned. She achieved enduring fame in a large number of Finnish-language premières of world classics. In the wake of Aalberg's development, Bergbom was able to attempt to raise the standards of the theatre as an ensemble as well. The tours continued as before; but from the 1879/80 theatre season onwards, Bergbom's company played for longer continuous periods in the capital. The general directions of Bergbom's repertoire policy also began to firm.

It is for this reason that research on Ida Aalberg's career has been associated above all with Bergbom's theatre and with national aspirations. It should, however, be noted that Aalberg left the service of the Finnish Theatre as early as 1883, having attained an established status as an actress. Although she made guest appearances in Helsinki almost every year, she also achieved considerable success elsewhere and directed much of her energy and interest towards the development of her career abroad. A long study trip to Paris in 1883/84 was followed by numerous foreign engagements, and Aalberg appeared mainly abroad from 1885 to 1887. In 1885, at the Royal Theatre in Stockholm, she played Ophelia in Finnish in Shakespeare's Hamlet, her leading man being Ernesto Rossi. In Kristiania (Oslo) in Norway, her Swedish-language interpretation of Nora achieved considerable success. In Copenhagen, she received a contract from the Casino theatre in 1885; but from 1886 she appeared at the Dagmar theatre, playing a number of important roles, first in Swedish and later in Danish.

For the public at home, her appearances at the Finnish Theatre were demonstrations of the constant development in Aalberg's professional skills. The guest seasons usually lasted for a few weeks, and the repertoire comprised several plays. The theatre was happy to put on repeats of earlier successes, since Aalberg packed houses with an admiring public. Ida Aalberg's marriage in 1887 to the well-known Fennoman Lauri Kivekäs was greeted in Finnish-nationalist circles with enormous enthusiasm. It was hoped that with her marriage she would settle permanently in Helsinki. And indeed, from 1887 to 1889, the Finnish Theatre presented a number of new interpretations by Aalberg; these included Schiller's The Maid of Orleans, Victorien Sardou's Cyprienne, Shakespeare's Desdemona and new Ibsen interpretations. However, contracts for appearances still kept the actress abroad for long periods.

In Berlin, Ida Aalberg succeeded in making the acquaintance of Josef Kainz, a well-known actor who had been in the theatre company of the Duke of Meiningen. Playing opposite Kainz, she performed the roles both of Shakespeare's Juliet and of Luise Miller in 1890. The reaction of the public and critics was fairly good, though Aalberg's German was regarded as inadequate for the stage. The trip to Berlin was also clouded by many problems associated with her health and domestic life.

The early 1890s were a difficult time for Ida Aalberg in many ways. As a result of her trips abroad, she began to become estranged from the Finnish Theatre and its nationalistic intellectual atmosphere, while not achieving a breakthrough in a foreign language. She did have a number of successes at the Finnish Theatre, especially in the main role of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and as Kirsti in Gustaf von Numers' Elinan surma ('The Death of Elina') in 1891. Critics' views on acting were, however, gradually changing. And Bergbom's theatre had developed in a direction of its own, moving increasingly towards ensemble acting and realism. Ida Aalberg nevertheless retained her special position as the great star of Finnish theatre until her death, despite increasing instances of criticism.

Lauri Kivekäs died in March 1893. In the autumn, Ida Aalberg gathered around her a group of actors and began a Finnish-language tour under her own name; the repertoire included Minna Canth's new play Sylvi. By the following year, 1894, Aalberg had already married again, this time to the St Petersburg nobleman Baron Alexander Uexkull-Gyllenband. News of the marriage was received with mixed feelings in Finland. Soon after the wedding, Aalberg left on a Swedish-language tour of Scandinavia organised by Harald Molander; the production of La dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils was given a particularly favourable reception. And dreams of conquering the German stage had not yet faded, either. In 1896, Ida Aalberg negotiated for a move to the Duke of Meiningen's company; but nothing came of this.

At the end of the decade, illness led to a break of almost three years in Aalberg's stage career. She undertook her last long tours in the early 1900s. The German-language Tournée Ida Aalberg of 1904/05 was favourably received in Riga, St Petersburg and Moscow; and in 1907 Aalberg appeared once again as a guest performer in Hungary. However, after the death of Kaarlo Bergbom in 1904, her interests became increasingly focused on her homeland and its theatrical life. In this, she had the support of her husband, who was thoroughly familiar with the theatre and new trends in dramatic performance. Together with him, she occasionally even considered the establishment of a theatre company of their own. Baron Alexander Uexkull-Gyllenband was above all a philosopher; but he supported his wife in her work in many ways, in the process himself developing as a director and an influential figure in Finnish theatre.

The Finnish Theatre had changed its name to The Finnish National Theatre (Suomen Kansallisteatteri) in 1902 with the completion of the new theatre building. Evidently Ida Aalberg became interested in directing it as early as 1907; but she was not appointed a 'director-actor' - i.e. effectively an assistant director - until 1909. In her repertoire policy in particular, she regarded herself as continuing the work of Kaarlo Bergbom. The first year's programme included Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman, Schiller's Maria Stuart, Johannes Linnankoski's Ikuinen Taistelu ('Eternal Struggle') and Eino Leino's Alkibiades. As a director, she was not, however, a success, and in her second year at the National Theatre, she worked only as an actor. Her interpretation of the main role in Sardou's Adrienne Lecouvreur can probably be regarded as Aalberg's last real triumph, since critics of different ages and attitudes were equally laudatory in their reviews. The cancellation of Ida Aalberg's contract by the theatre caused a cultural scandal and led to a rupture lasting several years in her relations with the National Theatre. In 1914, however, she agreed to a grandiose celebration of her 40 years as an actress. Her sudden death in January 1915 put paid to new plans for a guest appearance at the National Theatre.

Ida Aalberg's significance for Finnish dramatic art was great and her status almost as a national symbol understandable. In his assessment of her career, however, Aalberg's biographer Ilmari Räsänen made the following observations, which, from a distance, may still be regarded as an astute challenge for more recent research: "...I believe that she is more than just a cherished memory, an inexplicable miracle or a beautiful image: for the Finland of the present and the future, she is mainly a cultural problem, whose values will in all cases sooner or later be elucidated only by research that is as objective and impartial as possible".

Hanna Suutela

Translated by Roderick Fletcher

Appendix

Ida Emilia Aalberg, from 1887 Kivekäs, from 1894 Uexküll-Gyllenband, born 4.12.1857 Leppäkoski, Janakkala, died 17.1.1915 St. Petersburg. Parents: Antti Ahlberg, railway worker, and Agneta Charlotta Lindroos. First husband: 1887 - 1893 Lauri Kivekäs, lawyer, politician, born 1852, died 1893, first husband's parents: Karl Fredrik Stenbäck, vicar, and Emilia Ottilia Kristina von Essen; second husband: 1894 - 1915 Baron Alexander Uexkull-Gyllenband, born 1864, died 1923, second husband's parents: Alexander Uexküll-Güldenbandt, councillor of state, and Lina von Adelson.

© Biografiakeskus, Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, PL 259, 00171 HELSINKI

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