To most people, Oddur Björnsson is a playwright first and foremost. This is not surprising, given that he has been most prolific in that area. But he has also published a novel, Kvörnin (The Grinder 1967), and the children''s story Í Krukkuborg (In the City of Jars) which came out in 1969. In 1979 the Icelandic National Theatre premiered a children''s play based on the latter. It is the story of a little boy, Siggi, who dreams one night about the world inside his fish tank, a world of amazing wonders (considerably greater than in the average fish tank). As in most good children''s plays, there is a struggle between good and evil, and the octopuses rule the world of the fish with an iron tentacle. Their leader is named Adolf, no less, and the name by itself speaks of his evil nature. There is a great deal of social critique in the story, mainly of oppression of any kind, and of human cruelty. Oddur is also always credited as the author of the children''s play Snjókarlinn okkar (Our Snowman) which was performed by the Reykjavik Theatre Company (Leikfélag Reykjavíkur) in 1967, although the work was written in a kind of a theatre workshop and many took part in creating it.
One might say that among Icelandic playwrights Oddur Björnsson is the one with the closest ties to the so-called "theatre of the absurd". He is undeniably a student of Samuel Beckett, and he is also influenced by authors like Jarry, Arrabal and Camus. Starting out as a playwright, Oddur was careful if one may use that term, his first works were short, sharp and to the point, but in spite of their simplicity they often had depth, complicated questions or a complex reality. Music plays a very big part in all of Oddur''s plays and some of his plays are practically impossible to stage unless the author''s musical instructions are followed.
Oddur''s first play which really caught the public''s attention is Köngulóin (The Spider). The work was premiered by the Gríma theatre company in 1962. It is a short one act play about Alexander Pope the 6th, his children Cesare and Lukrezia and Don Juan. It is a snapshot of these members of the Borgia family, famously known for their decadent lifestyle and cruelty but also for their political genius. Oddur plays around with the idea of a powerful man as a spider, and how fragile the power of such men is, by featuring a mass of spiders crawling about the stage in such high numbers that one cannot take a step without squashing a few. Oddur developed this work further and in 1970 the radio drama Brúðkaup furstans af Fernara (The Count of Fernara''s Wedding) was broadcast for the first time. Here Oddur continued to tell the story of the Borgia family, in particular its vices. The final thrust in that process was the play Dansleikur (A Dance) which premiered at the Icelandic National Theatre in 1974. In Dansleikur, Oddur has perfected the story which he started to tell with Köngulóin, this piece is extensive in its range and cruel but at the same time it has a certain lightness, and this kind of contrast is fairly typical of Oddur''s longer plays. Dansleikur is a commentary on corruption and hypocrisy, the plot is laughably naive – almost childish – but so true at the same time, and last, but not least, the work is a razor sharp criticism on the division of wealth in the world. In this work Oddur uses stage directions a great deal, complete with notes which it would at first glance not seem easy to convey to the audience. But they have all been carefully thought out, the actor absorbs them along with his lines and they enrich the director''s imagination.
Another one act play by Oddur is Partí (Party). The work was first performed by Gríma at the same time as Köngulóin. A third work which premiered at the same time is Við lestur framhaldssögunnar (Reading the Radio Story). Partí is a fast-paced fantasy play in the spirit of absurdism, told with quick-fire exchanges which seem without much content, weird characters and absurd situations. For instance a horse arrives at the party and proceeds to chat with the other guests, as if it were the most normal thing in the world. Við lestur framhaldssögunnar is subtitled Parodia (A Parody). This one-act play is a legitimate offspring of absurdist theatre, featuring only three characters: 1st Stoker, 2nd Stoker and Voice from beyond the door. It revolves around the interaction between the two stokers, and Oddur writes their lines colloquially, for instance "Whacolathey?" "What colour are they?", 1st Stoker reads 2nd Stoker a cheesy romance story from a magazine and they also exchange half-witted comments. The work does not have an actual narrative, but is a kind of a snapshot from an uneventful life.
Amalía is yet another one-act play from this period in Oddur''s career. It is a play about a woman who sits in front of a mirror in which appear images of her at various ages, of a different gender, and as different people. Amalía is a fairly grotesque play and not as absurd as it looks at first. Two versions exist of the play, one has been published and can be found in the collection 4 Leikþættir (4 One-Act Plays) from 1963. In 1965 the Icelandic National Theatre staged an interesting one-act play by Oddur, entitled Jóðlíf (Yolk Life). The play is about two fetuses having a conversation in their place of residence, a female womb. They ponder questions of life and existence and the choice of this particular setting and characters makes all the questions and speculations even more poignant. These archetypes of innocence are both tough social critics and victims of the material world. The work is comical in places, but also very sad. Above all, this is a very clever play.
In 1967 Oddur published a novel entitled Kvörnin (The Grinder). It is quite short, in fact hardly more than a novella. It tells the story of a young man who finds himself at a crossroads in his life after his matriculation exam. This is a sharp coming of age story, or rather a story of initiation into manhood, as the boy is breaking away from his mother, meeting other women, and at the end of the play he leaves.
Oddur''s first full length play is Hornakórallinn (The Corner Coral), a musical (music by Leifur Þórarinsson) which premiered in the Icelandic National Theatre in 1967. In fact the play is a variation on the Jóhann Sigurjónsson play Galdra Loftur (Loftur the Sorcerer), but at the same time it is a perfectly individual work and bears Oddur''s stylistic signature. The play tells of Loftur''s excessive ambition which does not lead to good, as the unholy figure of the Devil springs from it. The play also features Loftur''s mother who stands for the good old values, and the young woman Dísa, who symbolises love, beauty and simplicity. The play, despite being light-hearted and fun, is a cruel satire of man''s aggression and arrogance towards everything and everyone.
The following year the play Tíu tilbrigði (Ten variations) premiered at the National Theatre''s Lindarbær stage. This is a true absurdist play where "the same" story appears again and again in different versions. The characters are few and become fewer as the play continues. It is difficult to find any message in the variations but one can detect a certain parody on art, in fact the main character is a composer, Lúðvík. The chamber opera Dans på rosor (Bed of Roses) by Arne Mellnas is based on the play. In a similar vein is the play Meistarinn (The Master) which was staged at the Icelandic National Theatre in 1977. However the parody there is directed at something else, for instance at intellectual pretence and "wisdom". The play is mystical and the line between the characters'' selves is at times unclear.
Eftir konsertinn (After the Concert) is probably the most "normal" of Oddur Björnsson''s work, if one can use that term. This chamber drama premiered in the National Theatre in 1983. In the beginning, the work has a regular structure and it seems that the storyline will be fairly clear and conventional; for instance Oddur uses the classic device of a "visitor from the past" who creates a turning point in the play. But although the work is the most traditional of Oddur''s works, this does not mean it does not contain peculiar situations and happenings. The party in the play is magnificently bizarre and for a time it may seem that Oddur is taking the play in a direction of complete absurdity. This does not happen however, and with the use of a particular stylistic device he brings about a conclusion which is more in the original spirit of the play.
Perhaps Oddur''s most ambitious and also most substantial work if one may say that about a play, is 13. krossferðin (The 13th Crusade). Like the vast majority of Oddur’s works, this play which premiered at The National Theatre in the autumn of 1993, is written in the spirit of absurdism. It is about war in the many senses of that Icelandic word. Three soldiers are in search of a war (in the same way as Pirandello''s characters are in search of an author). The soldiers differ individually, like human beings do, but as so often with human beings, they all seek the same thing but they use different methods to attain their goal. The play tells of a crusade which is waged– as always – against something undefined which is supposed to make our lives complete when it has been won. Oddur realises that this is the way history has been and will probably continue to be for the time being, and in the ceaseless globetrotting of mankind the author sees a number of situations about which nothing can be done now, any more than before. One might say that Oddur''s authorial position is Brechtian – he stays quietly in the background when appropriate but blasts his horn with gusto when he feels it necessary. When performed on stage, the play is quite a visual display but it is a difficult read.
Apart from the works previously mentioned, Oddur Björnsson has written over twenty radio plays. There is the aforementioned Brúðkaups furstans af Fernara, and of other very good radio plays one could name Þrjár sögur úr heita pottinum (Three Stories From the Hot Tub 1983) and Aríetta (Arietta, 1985). The last is a very good example of the interplay between music and the spoken word in Oddur''s works. Many of his works have been translated into other languages and some have been performed abroad, both on stage and on radio. Other works by Oddur are the television dramas Postulín (Porcelain, 1971) and Draugasaga (Ghost Story, 1985). In 1965 the book Steinar og sterkir litir: svipmyndir 16 myndlistarmanna (Stones and Strong Colours: Portraits of 16 Artists) came out, and it included a chapter by Oddur, "Að sópa gólf" ("Sweeping a Floor") on the artist Sverrir Haraldsson. Occasionally, poems by Oddur have also appeared in newspapers and magazines, and some of his plays have poems in them.
Oddur Björnsson is a playwright who has almost solely devoted himself to the creation of Icelandic absurdist plays. Yet his works are not specifically Icelandic, in fact they are more international than they appear at first with their cast of bizarre characters. This is because behind Oddur''s absurdism there is often an intelligent satire with a universal relevance.
© Guðmundur Brynjólfsson, 2003.
Translated by Vera Júlíusdóttir.Back