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Guðmundur Kamban, 1888-1945 / We murderers; a play in three acts (1970)

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  [p. ix]  


Guðmundur Kamban, an Icelandic playwright and novelist, spent most of his career in Denmark. Life was not rewarding for Kamban; his successes were never great enough to bring him the fame and fortune he sought. Numerous disappointments only enhanced his desire to continue striving toward his idealistic goals. His determination alone gave him the courage to withstand frequent criticism. Kamban was not a great literary figure, but his works do tell us something about his character and the character of the times in which he wrote. In order to facilitate an understanding of one of his better-known works, the play We Murderers, this introduction will provide a brief sketch of Guðmundur Kamban's life and literary development.

Kamban was born 8 June 1888 on a small farm just outside of Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland. He was one of several children of Jón Hallgrímsson and Guðný Jónsdóttir. His parents were poor, and his father's health was continually failing.   [p. x]   In spite of this, Jón was able to support his family with various part-time jobs in farming, fishing, and trading. When Jón was ill, Guðný would sometimes help out with the haymaking in addition to performing her household chores. They were industrious, hard-working people, and Guðmundur was later to show the same industriousness.

From 1904 to 1906 Kamban attended the Reykjavík Gymnasium, from which he graduated in 1910. During the intervening years (1906-1910) he worked as a journalist and studied on his own. Occasionally he would write a poem, and in 1906 his first book appeared. His most important writings at this time were three articles: "Surnames," "Philology and Style," and a review of a book by Jóhann Sigurjónsson. In "Surnames" he lashed out against the tendency in Iceland to favor, for reasons of nationalistic pride, the archaic practice of patronymics, which other Germanic nations had given up hundreds of years ago. He himself had dropped the patronymic "Jónsson" ("son of Jón") in favor of the surname "Kamban." In "Philology and Style" Kamban carried on his attack against excessive Icelandic nationalism by criticizing those who would consider any word as bad Icelandic, simply because it could not be found in ancient Icelandic texts. He pleaded for a new style in which the etymologies of words would be irrelevant,[1] rejected the stilted style of the sagas as inappropriate for modern expression, and claimed that the best literary language was the language of everyday speech, the language of feeling and emotion. This was Kamban the romantic—romantic in a restricted sense of the term. He had rejected the romanticism that accompanied strong Icelandic nationalism, but he (at least temporarily) held onto another form of romanticism that   [p. xi]   emphasized the beauty of human emotion and the power of human passion.

It is this latter form of romanticism that accounts for his favorable reception of the play Bóndinn á Hrauni (The Farmer at Hraun) by Jóhann Sigurjónsson, a romantic writer who heavily influenced Kamban's early thinking. Kamban was also influenced by the man he worked under as a journalist, Einar H. Kvaran, a popular author and editor at the time. Kvaran was a humanitarian, cosmopolitan, and political progressive. Kamban, who believed that man was essentially good and honest, protested, as we have seen, against narrow-minded nationalism in Iceland. Like many fellow Icelanders, he now prepared to seek new opportunities abroad. The world he later saw outside romantic Iceland was in desperate need of reform.

In 1910 Kamban set out for Denmark, where he studied philosophy and literature at the University of Copenhagen. He soon left school and turned to drama, which had been his greatest extracurricular interest. He wrote his first play Hadda Padda in 1912, but not until two years later did it appear in print. Hadda Padda is the nickname of a young girl, who is passionately in love with a boy named Ingólfur. In character she is very much like Norma in We Murderers. Ingólfur, however, falls in love with Kristrún, Hadda Padda's younger sister, who resembles Susan in We Murderers. In order to avenge herself on Ingólfur, Hadda Padda commits suicide right before his eyes. So the play ends. The famous Danish literary critic Georg Brandes lavishly praised Hadda Padda, and it was well received throughout Scandinavia.

In 1915 Kamban's second play Wrestling before the King appeared. Kamban had already been ranked among the better Dano-Icelandic writers, of whom the best known was Gunnar Gunnarsson. Both wrote in Danish in an effort to appeal to a larger reading audience than they would otherwise have enjoyed in Icelandic. Kamban's two plays are, however, set in   [p. xii]   Iceland. They are romantic plays of love, jealousy, and revenge, dramatically centered around the character of a hard, passionate woman, who acts very much like the strong-minded heroine in old Icelandic sagas. The essence of Hadda Padda and Wrestling before the King is summed up in the words of Dúna Kvaran in Kamban's short story by the same name: "Love grows stronger in the heart that gives than in the heart that receives."

After his initial success Kamban began to seek new markets for his works. Because of the world war he could not go to Germany, and so he went to New York in the fall of 1915, where he stayed until 1917. It was during his stay in New York that he wrote the short story "Dúna Kvaran," which became the last work by Kamban the romantic. It appeared in 1916, the same year he married his Danish sweetheart Agnete Egeberg. Nevertheless, America was a personal disappointment to Kamban. For all his efforts to stage Hadda Padda, he merited nothing but an English translation of the play in 1917. He regretted that he had not been able to write in English, the international language. More than anything he was disturbed by what he felt was an unjust, inhuman treatment of the criminal in American society. Romantic love per se was no longer Kamban's main concern, for he had now begun to see society as the very obstacle to such love. If man did evil, it was evil only in the eyes of society, and directly as a result of society. Society condemned, in the name of law and order, what in fact it had caused. This double standard, this hypocrisy, this deception in society had the potential to destroy a basically good man. It destroyed Oscar Wilde, something for which Kamban would never forgive society. Now a bitter social critic, Kamban returned to Denmark.

New York provided Kamban with most of the material for his major works up until 1930. With Marble (1918), a play set   [p. xiii]   in New York, he turned from romanticism to social realism, from wild passions against good and evil to idealistic protest against a decaying society. Like Oscar Wilde he satirized society's inhuman treatment of criminals. In Ragnar Finnsson (1922), his first novel, Kamban tells the story of an intelligent and sensitive young Icelander, Ragnar Finnsson, who seeks his fortune in the New World. Robbed of all his possessions, Ragnar resorts to stealing and is later imprisoned. As a youngster it was Ragnar's greatest desire, simple and naïve though it might be, to be good to everybody.

In We Murderers (1920) Kamban combined the social criticism of Marble and the passionate love of his first two plays into a careful psychological character study of an unhappily married woman in New York. The play is an imitation of the naturalistic works of Ibsen and Strindberg. Kamban does not explicitly condemn the society that will eventually punish Ernest for his crime, yet we do know where the author's sympathies lie. Kamban wants his audience to judge Ernest innocent, even though he is guilty before the law.

Norma is the typical strong-minded Kamban woman. Ernest is proud, sensitive, and hard-working. The cruelty and deception that each of them later shows are brought out in them through external environmental conditions, not through any natural tendency of their own to be cruel or deceptive. Each wants to be loved, and the conflict arises from two opposing expectations from love. Ernest asks Norma: "Hasn't it ever dawned on you . . . how different in their nature your and my love are?" Their differing expectations from love are conditioned by factors—in this case, persons—outside of their marriage. Norma has been influenced largely by her mother, Mrs. Dale, and Ernest by his friend Francis. These influences on both Norma and Ernest give rise to lies. Each deceives the other. Each puts the comforts of life or pride above being   [p. xiv]   sincere and honest with oneself and one's partner. The cost of deception is the loss of love, or even more tragically, the loss of life. Ironically, however, Ernest and Norma love each other very much. In the words of Oscar Wilde, "each man kills the thing he loves."

In spite of encouragement by Brandes, Marble was never staged. We Murderers, on the other hand, was very well received. Kamban directed the play himself when it had its premiere on 2 March 1920 at the Dagmar Theatre, then one of the outstanding theaters in Copenhagen. It was also a great success in Oslo, where the leading role of Norma was played by the talented Norwegian actress Johanne Dybwad. But in Reykjavík, We Murderers, like Hadda Padda before it, was not successful.

In The Arabian Tents (1921), which is a less bitter satire than We Murderers, as well as in Stars of the Desert (1925), Kamban criticized the contemporary attitude toward sexual morality. Kamban felt that marriage, as a social institution, foolishly prevented a man from the expression of sincere extramarital love. In his article "Guðmundur Kamban" Stefán Einarsson wrote in reference to The Arabian Tents: "The difference between the marital conventions of the old and the young generation is that, though the ideal for both generations is marriage in love, the old generation emphasizes the marriage, whatever the state of the love, but the young generation emphasizes the love, whatever the state of the marriage."[2]

The Ambassador from Jupiter (1927) was the climax of Kamban's social criticism, which had become bitterly didactic. He attacked the emphasis in society on the cultivation of the mind at the expense of the heart. According to Einarsson in his History of Icelandic Prose Writers, "Kamban fastens his   [p. xv]   hope for mankind on the passive resistance of conscience" against social injustices.[3] Only kindness, sincerity, and honesty can save the world. The ambassador from Jupiter says: "The only way to reach that everlasting goal of happiness, for which we all strive, is through complete, child-like sincerity." But the didacticism was too strong, and the play was harshly criticized for excessive preaching. In the spring of 1927, at a time when there was great discussion about building a national theater in Iceland, Kamban tried to convince the Dramatic Society of Reykjavík to present The Ambassador from Jupiter. His attempt failed, and so at his own expense he financed the production of the play in Reykjavík and played the ambassador himself. At the same time he restaged We Murderers. Both plays were failures. Again Kamban was deeply disappointed, as he had been in New York, and this disappointment had a great effect on his later literary development. In Morgunblaðið (Reykjavík), 22 May 1927, Kamban wrote:

I wanted to show foreign nations that Iceland had a modern culture. I wanted to do that in my first two plays by setting the drama in the cultural environment of Iceland. In my later works the action takes place in the cultural environment of large cities—the environment of international culture. The last link in this chain is The Ambassador from Jupiter, originating out of postwar Western civilization, transcending time and space.

Now I can turn back to my own country, where there is a wealth of subject material.

For the next two years Kamban read a great deal of Icelandic history, where he struck upon the seventeenth-century love story of Ragnheiður Brynjólfsdóttir and Daði Halldórsson, which became the basis of his historical novels, the Skálholt tetralogy (1930-1932). When Ragnheiður's father,   [p. xvi]   Brynjólfur, one of the bishops at Skálholt during the seventeenth century, realized that the love affair between his daughter and Daði, who also lived at Skálholt, might develop into a scandal, he forced Ragnheiður to swear that she would not have any sexual relations with Daði. Ragnheiður took the oath, but in obstinate defiance of her father's will she slept with Daði. Kamban portrayed the love between Ragnheiður and Daði as both spiritual and physical. The portrayal of physical love relations in print was a bold undertaking for Kamban's times, when the beauty of love was considered to consist essentially in its spiritual aspects. Through the strong-minded characters of Bishop Brynjólfur and his daughter, Kamban tried to contrast seventeenth and twentieth-century moral standards. Brynjólfur is the stem Puritanical churchman to whom love means a giving and understanding heart. Ragnheiður is one of the young generation to whom love means an understanding heart and a warm caress—a fusion of both the spiritual and the physical. One Icelandic historian criticized Kamban for having misrepresented seventeenth-century Iceland in the Skálholt novels, especially through his efforts to bring in twentieth-century moral standards. But we must remember: Kamban wanted to transcend time. He shifted, for example, from the use of the past tense in the novel Ragnar Finnsson to the use of the historical present in Skálholt. This shift was an implicit transcendence of time. Kamban felt that nothing changes; this feeling justified his desire to transcend time as well as space. The paradox[4] is that Kamban opposed the idea of art for art's sake; art for him was the means to express his humanitarian, cosmopolitan, and progressive ideas. But if nothing changes, what does social criticism avail?

During the 1920's Kamban had enjoyed some popularity in Germany. With Skálholt he became even more popular there.   [p. xvii]   The historical novel I See a Wondrous Land (1936) was written in Berlin. It is an adventure story about Icelandic viking explorations of Greenland and America. Political trends in Germany at the time no doubt influenced his writing. I See a Wondrous Land is dedicated to the Nordic Spirit. Kamban did not stay in Germany, but returned to Copenhagen, where he remained for five years. He was unpopular in Denmark because of his German connections and returned to Germany in 1943. His stay this time was very short, and he was soon back in Copenhagen. On 5 May 1945 the Allies were celebrating a victory in Denmark. That same day three members of the Danish underground approached Kamban; he was suspected of German sympathies. Kamban resisted arrest and was shot in the head—a tragic and ironic fate for a critic of social injustice.


[1] In fact, Kamban was the first major Icelandic writer to put the word takk ("thanks"), used by Icelanders for decades (instead of the native Icelandic þökk), into the mouths of his characters. Cf. K. Albertson, "Þróun íslenzkunnar," Skírnir, 113 (1939): 38.

[2] Stefán Einarsson, "Guðmundur Kamban," Tímarit Þjóðræknisfélag Íslendinga, 14 (1932): 21.

[3] Stefán Einarsson, History of Icelandic Prose Writers 1800-1940 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1948), pp. 142-148. ( = Islandica 32-33.)

[4] Kristinn E. Andrésson, Íslenzkar nútímabókmenntir 1918-1948 (Reykjavík: Mál og Menning, 1949), pp. 229-230.

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