Alongside The River Children, Kálevála is considered one of Dane Zajc’s most poetic plays. The protagonists’ language is characterized by the author’s distinctive poetic rhetoric, which is the reason that literary scholars have invariably positioned this play in the genre of Slovenian poetic drama. The term is actually applicable to the specific qualities of Zajc’s play, although he himself did not agree with such categorization. Not surprisingly, since his Kálevála eludes any conventional literary-historical definitions. In terms of motifs it does draw on the eponymous Karelian and Finnish folk epics, while, on the other, Zajc uses his idiosyncratic poetic metaphors to explore the complexity of an individual trapped by rigid life options, and to allude to the nodes of recent Slovenian history.
Finnish Kálevála is a work of epic poetry that was in the making for centuries among the peoples and tribes of the northern Finnish provinces and was preserved orally until the second half of the 19th century, when the oral tradition material was collected and written down in the form of 52 runot (cantos) or 22,796 verses by the physician and philosopher Elias Lönnrot. Dane Zajc does not rewrite the epic literally. On the contrary, he uses it primarily as a starting point for the development of his own narrative. He also departed from the original structure of the epic, characterized by two singers alternating. Meaningfully, the second singer renders variations on the themes of the first singer, thus creating parallel contents of the same narratives. Prompted by his wife, Zajc initially wrote Kálevála as a stage adaptation for a puppet show, but was not happy with it, because the script was “too impersonal”, as he put in an interview for the Nova Revija magazine. Not surprisingly, there are many more adventures and heroes in the original epic, as it forms the basis of mythological perception of the world shared by the northern Finnish peoples, and therefore includes diverse narratives, ranging from the creation of the world, travels between the lands of Kálevála and Póhjola and to the forging of the mythical Sampo. Dane Zajc, however, focuses on the journey undertaken by three heroes, which may also represent three aspects of a quest undertaken by a single person. The three protagonists of the play are also the heroes of the original epic: Väinämöinen, a shamanic singer with magical powers, Ilmarinen, the blacksmith of the Kálevála sky and the creator of the mythical Sampo that fulfils every need to the person who owns it, and Lemminkäinen, a young and arrogant seducer, brought back to life by his mother after he had drowned in the black waters of the underground river Tuonela during a quest for the object of his romantic desires. Zajc’s play features also Lemminkäinen’s mother Lokka (called Lempi in the original myth, and representing the archetype of love), Tantalla (originally Louhi), the darling of Póhjola, generous and hospitable, but also hostile, and Hiisi, an ambiguous demonic figure and mediator between the worlds.
Zajc’s Kálevála, directed by Meta Hočevar was presented on the Small Stage in the season 1986/87. Zajc was also a dramaturg of the production and pointed out some of his starting points in his dramaturgical notes: »There is no reason why should a singer, a blacksmith and a boy go to Póhjola together. Vӓinӓmöinen has already been to Póhjola, so his intention is obviously to revive his experience. Ilmarinen’s decision to travel is derived from his dissatisfaction with home. He wants to get rid of the cold and discontent with his life in Kálevála. Lemminkӓinen sets out on a journey to experience adventures, especially of erotic nature. As if Póhjola offered everyone what life had deprived him of, or as if Póhjola would heal everyone the wounds inflicted by life itself: the wound of memory, the wound of dissatisfaction, the wound of lust. Their wounds are diverse, their intentions are different, the three travellers are united only by their path. They are not joined by friendship, cooperation, opposition, or the same goal, the only thing they share is the direction of their journey).« (Dramaturgical introduction to Kálevála)
Dane Zajc won the national Grum Award for Kálevála. It has been staged only once to popular and critical acclaim. In 2019, it was recorded and produced by the Radio Slovenia as a radio play. Our Kálevála is primarily an audio play in which, at a time of complete lockdown of public life and limited opportunities, we wanted to create the possibility of travelling to an unknown, mysterious land. It may not offer familiarity and comfort but tries to ease the sense of suffocation that can gradually creep in during these difficult times. It was a risk we took, not knowing whether we would return from this journey less complete, but it turned out that we actually came back more alive. With this in mind, we present a metaphysical journey to a foreign, mysterious land to you as well.
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