Exploring ethics in contemporary Finnish drama
Dr Katri Tanskanen shares her picks for Finnish plays that create a safe space for readers and audiences to face their feelings of shame prompted by our encounters with otherness.
The theatre offers a safe space in which we can explore our uncomfortable emotions. At the theatre, audiences can face up to their fears and preconceptions and develop a new awareness for how they personally respond when faced with otherness. As we watch a performance, we might recognise disquieting feelings of vulnerability, of ignorance and sense our own personal limitations. Shame is an ethical response. It arises when our own actions cannot bear the gaze of the Other.
Katri Tanskanen is a postdoctoral theatre researcher and part-time lecturer at the University of Helsinki. Her main areas of interest include dramaturgy and the politics and ethics of contemporary theatre and drama. She is also an author of several books discussing Finnish theatre history. Here, Tanskanen explores the ethical dimension of a selection of contemporary Finnish plays.
Researchers studying the ethics of theatre tend to focus less on the themes found within a given play and more on the reactions that it might evoke in its audience. This approach is based on Emmanuel Levinas’ ideas on ethics as an encounter with the Other. When we visit the theatre or read a play, we are not encountering an Other directly in the sense intended by Levinas but what we’re seeing may evoke a similar experience by exposing us to something unknown, something we struggle to understand or even something we would prefer to suppress.
Encountering the Other can be uncomfortable and even frightening and give rise to strong reactions ranging from rejection to violence.
In this context, the Other can be the representative of another culture, a taboo or something repressed within us. What all these Others have in common is that they are strange and incomprehensible to us. Encountering the Other can be uncomfortable and even frightening and give rise to strong reactions ranging from rejection to violence.
In this sense, an ethical feature of a performance or play may well be its capacity to evoke precisely these feelings of shame, which invite the viewer to explore their own relationship with the Other.
In Milja Sarkola’s My Capital and Something Different, the viewer embarks on a journey towards their own feelings of shame, almost without even realising it. The worlds these plays create are recognisable and the characters relatable. The humour has a warmth to it and the viewing experience is an enjoyable one, until you suddenly begin to wonder what it actually is you’ve just witnessed, what exactly has just made you smile. Did I just identify with a character that uses their social status and the power afforded to them by the capital in a highly questionable way? What lurks behind their socially acceptable behaviour?
Leea and Klaus Klemola’s four-part Arctic Trilogy presents us with a series of less than perfect people. They are often annoying, unreasonable, violent and behave badly towards others, but they all possess a sense of dignity and contain hidden and fascinating depths. Shame and confusion are ever present, as the audience follows the exploits of this strange and idiosyncratic community. Climate, a sense of place and even animals are constant feature of their lives. Death, the greatest taboo of them all, is a constant presence.
Shame can also be used for nefarious purposes, to silence and control. In Saara Turunen’s Medusa’s Room, the female protagonist is gripped by a constant sense of shame. The play invites us to see how Western culture generates those feelings of shame and leads to women diminishing and silencing themselves. The play title is a reference to Hélène Cixous’ The laugh of the medusa that encourages women to find their voice and use it.
E. L. Karhu’s Eriopis – Medea’s Daughter Survivor Tells All is intimately connected to the Western literary and storytelling tradition, now dominated by the media. In the play, we see media outlets falling over themselves to tell Eriopis’ life story but despite the screaming headlines suggesting otherwise, Eriopis herself does not want to. Unhappy with her lack of engagement, the media go ahead and tell it anyway, in their own words. One person’s unique experience is squeezed and manipulated to fit their agenda and served to satisfy their audiences, hungry for fresh content.
TINFO / 15.3.2021
Translation: Liisa Muinonen