Björn Þór Vilhjálmsson: Furor uterinus and Bridal Chitchat: Nymphomania, Hysteria and Modernity in Halldór Laxness’ Straumrof
Laxness’ theatrical work has not received anything resembling the scholarly attention afforded his novelistic output. But even in that context, it is difficult to account for the silence that surrounds his first play, Straumrof, which was initially performed by Leikfélag Reykjavíkur in 1934. The play has only been staged twice, with forty years separating the performances. Someone might be tempted at this point to ask whether it was conceivable that the silence that characterizes the scholarly outlook and the play’s absence from the stage is simply a form of politeness towards Laxness and his ill-conceived work. That the play’s imperfection is so abundantly clear that it is hardly necessary to point a finger, to articulate them in words. That is not the case, however. When the play was revived in 1977, the reviewer for newspaper Tíminn called Straumrof a “masterpiece” and “probably the best play Laxness ever wrote.” The theater critic for Morgunblaðið agreed, referring to Straumrof as Laxness’ “lost play” and suggesting that it just might be “Laxness’ most cohesive play”. Looking at the initial reception of the play, it is immediately notable that the contemporary critical doldrums are the exception. Back during the play’s initial run, Reykjavík was scandalized and all the major newspapers and journals were filled to the brim with articles and reviews, and the play itself was not considered suitable for children who were barred from entering the theater. The article examines the cultural discourse around Straumrof and its reception history and posits that the main reason for the asperse reaction the play met with in certain quarters during its initial run is its frank thematization of female sexuality, gender politics and female sexual pleasure. A number of critics pathologized the lead character, Gæa Kaldan, referring to her as “pathological nymphomaniac” and “hysterical”, to give just two examples, and the article contextualizes this strand of the discursive formation that greeted the play by analyzing a tradition of medical, ethical and philosophical male musings on female bodies, female sexual desire and pleasure. The last part of the article sets forth an interpretation of the play that focuses on how the text “stages” a conflict between traditional ethical formations and modernization processes, including the rise of capitalism.
Keywords: Halldór Laxness, Straumrof, Icelandic theater, Icelandic literary history, feminism