Runeberg comes to life in drama

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of J. L. Runeberg. Finns see Runeberg as playing an important role in their national identity, especially in Porvoo where he was an influential writer and lecturer for several decades. While living there, Runeberg became known as Finland’s national poet. As librarian and drama pedagogic responsible for cooperation with schools, Runeberg’s works gave Raija Airaksinen MA (Education), the inspiration to make Runeberg accessible to pupils and teachers in a new, vivid way.

In the Porvoo City Library – Regional Library of Eastern Uusimaa project, the ‘Life and Works of Runeberg’, we planned and presented three drama narratives based on Runeberg’s works. These drama presentations lasted a full school day: 1) Runeberg’s life and the creation of his works 2) Sven Dufva and 3) Paavo of Saarijärvi.We demonstrated that Runeberg’s subject matter and themes, such as perseverance, love for others, and kindness, are still of current interest. Furthermore, we demonstrated that, as literature, Runeberg’s works such as The Tales of Ensign Stål, or his lyric poetry still provide enjoyable reading experiences.

We also aimed to demonstrate that Runeberg’s texts are ideally suited as a basis for dealing with the subject matter of different curriculum subjects. Not only can Runeberg’s works be used in the subjects of Finnish and literature, they would also be useful in history, natural science, social studies, religion, psychology and even home economics. The dramas expand into several subjects and they also present guidelines for dealing with attitudes and feelings and give flight to the imagination. The drama exercises provide a creative stimulus for the senses, manual skills and physical and vocal expression.We illustrated the use of non-textbook material as a natural part of learning through information-based tasks and theoretical subjects of the drama narratives. This is certainly a way to spark the interest in pupils and teachers to learn data management skills, which enable them to acquire material from their surroundings.

The teachers and pupils in Porvoo readily accepted us to take the lead in presenting the drama narrative to classes; a total of 26 classes in Finnish and Swedish primary schools acted their way through one of the drama narratives during the course of one school day in autumn, 2003 and winter, 2004. Indeed more classes would have been interested in performing the drama narratives, but finances would not allow it. The project was financed by the Ministry of Education, the Porvoo City Runeberg Committee and the Uusimaa fund offered by Finland’s Cultural Foundation. Using the sample material from the project on the internet, any teacher interested can carry out a drama narrative in his or her own classroom.

What does drama education mean?
Drama education is comprehensive learning based on experience where doing things collectively is crucially important. The methods of drama are used to achieve the goals of learning and education. Drama is not the same as acting, nor does it require special skills in performing. The Life and Works of Runeberg drama narratives include theoretical subject matter and tasks, which require information about Runeberg. The information includes in-depth articles about various topics, links to websites, and lists of sources. Instructions, subject matter, lists of requisites (materials needed in the classroom) and resources are available for anyone interested at http//city.porvoo.fi/runeberg/etusivu.htm or http://city.porvoo.fi/runeberg/swe/hemsida.htm.

Runeberg’s life and the creation of his works
Not only does the drama narrative depict Runeberg’s childhood and school years, but it provides insight into the impressions he received of Finland and the Finns when he moved inland from coastal Finland to become a private teacher. Learning about the character of Finland’s Finnish-speaking rural population and the rich countenance of the landscape in Finland’s lake district, made a lasting impression on Runeberg which he has portrayed in his more important works. By and by, Runeberg’s view of Finns became a decisive factor in the way Finns think of themselves, and it has an influence on the works of other Finnish artists and writers even today.

Writing words on another pupil’s back, for example, illustrates how pupils wrote by drawing in a sand box in Granny Westermann’s school when ‘Janne’ was small. Using thought bubbles, pupils express ‘Janne’s’ feelings about being sent to his relatives in Oulu for a longer period of time and attending trivial school. Pupils can practise writing their own name with Greek letters or relate what they think would be the best thing to take along with them if they had to move to another town for a year. Pupils make a journey from Turku to Saarijärvi with graduate Runeberg by way of paintings painted by Finnish artists. The paintings (as slides) depict the varied landscape and people of inland Finland. The teacher plays the role of Runeberg and takes the pupils through the phases of the journey as young Runeberg himself.

This topic can be taken a bit further by acting out short scenes, or expressing the speech, thoughts and aspirations of the people in a particular painting, based on the theme of the painting. After their journey, the pupils paint a collective painting which depicts their view of the Finnish landscape in the 21st century, keeping in mind that the painting may be found 200 years from now.

Runeberg’s hymns could be discussed in scripture lessons, and his extensive works of individual poems, Dikter I-III, which have been made into compositions (Lähde – spring, Joutsen – swan), could be discussed in both Finnish and literature lessons. His surprisingly modern free verse poems, which portray erotic love, can also be discussed in these lessons.

Sven Dufva
The material for the drama narrative is the Russo-Swedish War (1808-09) and its consequences: Finland’s liberation from Sweden and its formation as a Grand Duchy under Russia. Runeberg describes the Russo-Swedish War in the form of poetry, The Tales of Ensign Stål, with his own artistic viewpoint. Pupils for many generations have learned these poems by rote in school.

The Sven Dufva drama narrative takes shape around a poem portraying the character Sven Dufva. Sven is the youngest son, large and strong, of a poor village policeman. Although Sven is diligent at home, he is constantly involved in mishaps due to his clumsiness and slow thinking. It has been presumed that Sven’s behaviour reflects the typical behaviour of someone with a reading and writing disorder because one symptom of this learning disorder is difficulty in distinguishing between different directions. After putting on their thinking caps and telling each other exaggerated accounts of Sven’s blunders in his home village, the pupils work in groups to come up with titles for an afternoon newspaper. Pupils can perform a move through time like this in the drama.

Sven aims to boost his poor self-esteem by deciding to go off to war, believing that there he can become a hero. The pupils form a ‘conscience lane’ where one side whispers words that support Sven’s departure to war and the other side whispers words that warn against the dangers of going to war. Pupils who wish to take part walk one at a time, eyes closed, through the lane as Sven. When ‘Sven’ reaches the other side of the lane, he must decide whether or not to participate in the war. The pupils can then perform a collective tactical field exercise where two groups test their strength by approaching each other in large leaps from opposite directions in a united front, making as much noise as possible. The pupils not participating decide which group is the winner.

At the end of the drama narrative, the pupils relate how Sven managed in the war, his battle alone against the enemy in Savo on the Koljonvirta bridge and his death by reciting the stanzas in question from the poem. The pupils then work in pairs (again, with their eyes closed) and make a commemorative statue of Sven Dufva out of clay.

The other theme of this drama narrative deals with reading and writing disorders, i.e. learning difficulties. The issue is embodied in the character of Sisko Savolainen who ‘looses’ her direction and ‘coincidentally’ comes to tell her life story in 1950’s Finland when the disorder was not recognised and help was not available. A child with dyslexia was considered feeble-minded or lazy. The teacher can inform pupils about the forms of manifestation of dyslexia and its treatment based on material from the internet and other resources.

Saarijärven Paavo (Paavo of Saarijärvi)
The background for this narrative deals with the farming conditions in 19thcentury Finland, the structure of the population, suffering from hunger, the significance of frosts, and rye as nourishment, as well as ‘pettuleipä’ (a kind of bread made from rye flour and pine bark) as emergency nourishment. The drama narrative helps pupils become close to the characters of small farmer, Paavo, his wife and their flock of children whose destiny is touching. Pupils learn the significance of frosts physically through both the improvisational expression of voice and theoretical material. Pupils also try real ‘pettuleipä’ and learn about rye through written material and an exercise. They can learn how to use wild plants in food preparation by making their own ‘pettuleipä’ or a meal based on recipes that require wild plants, a practice that has once again become a current interest among people.

The course of the drama narrative runs according to the phases of the ‘Paavo’ poem. The drama centres around two attitudes towards life – Paavo’s and his wife’s – as frost destroys the grain crop again and again. Paavo digs and cultivates again and again, and gnaws on ‘pettuleipä’, expressing perseverance and patience as well as a strong belief in God. His wife first suggests that they begin begging, and then eventually suggests that they surrender to death. She looses her faith after the first misfortune.

The pupils conceive the thoughts of the family by interviewing participants in a hot seat who are playing the roles of the family members, or by writing diaries of the family members during the years of famine in groups. Finally, a miracle happens: the frost moves to the neighbour’s land and Paavo is able to fill his granary with real rye flour. This is not, however, the climax of the poem. The pupils form a ‘conscience lane’ in which they walk one by one, eyes closed, in the role of Paavo and try to decide whether or not to give some of his grain to the neighbour or not because the frost has now destroyed the neighbour’s harvest. This would mean, though, that Paavo would have to add ‘pettu’ flour to his own bread dough because even Paavo’s rye is not enough for two families to feed on.When each pupil has reached the end of the lane, he/she tells the others what his/ her decision is. After all decisions are revealed, the teacher reads the positive decision for Paavo’s neighbour: “Use half the pine bark for our bread, the May frost took the harvest of our neighbour as well.” However, as each pupil walks through the lane, he/she must decide for himself/herself what their decision would be. The teacher and the pupils can discuss the positive and negative decisions that the pupils made and the discussion could be directed to the situation today.Which of us would give someone close to us something of our own and in what situation – who are today’s distressed?

Translated by Turun Täyskäännös OY

MA, Librarian, Porvoo stadsbibliotek-Itäinen, Uusimaa Landskapsbibliotek.