A Farm in America|
The third and last act of an unpublished play by Stephan G. Stephansson
This, one of the first plays in memory by an Icelander in the New World, was staged in the summer of 1881 in North Dakota. Thorstina Jackson recounts the staging of the play in her book Saga Íslendinga í Norđur-Dakota (The Story of the Icelanders in North Dakota).
The fourth of July was celebrated at Garđar, and a committee was chosen to prepare for the festivities. Stephan
G. Stephansson was chosen to write a play in honour of the occasion. Stephan recounts the event as follows: "I was strong-armed into writing a play. I resisted, but to no avail. I was oppressed! I worked every day. The nights were long and bright, so I lay every evening on the hill above my cabin and stitched together a tale quickly enough to rehearse and act it in time for the day. I stayed awake all night before the festival. I worked through Independence day, the following night, and even the next day, only to fall head-over-heels asleep that night with horses a-pulling and a thrasher a-thrashing, though, luckily, no harm came of it!" The play has carried several titles such as "Vesturfararnir," "Teitur," "Amtmađurinn" (The West Farers, Teitur, The Governor), and others. Among those who acted in the play at Garđar were Baldvin Helgason (he played The Governor), Jakob Lindal (in the role of Teitur The Student), Jakob's sister Ingunn (Teitur´s Fiancé), and Karolína Dalmann. She played a comical woman who misunderstood everything, especially English.
This play is preserved in Stephan's handwriting. The last act is set in the New World and has as its subject the virtues and vices of life in America. Much fun is made of the meeting of the language usage of English and Icelandic. (N.B.: The manuscript is slightly damaged, and in some places, missing text is completed without due accreditation).
The setting: a farm in America. Actors: Halldór, Geirţrúđur, Balthasarsen, Fjósa-Gunna1.
Scene 1. Balthasarsen og Halldór
Balthasarsen: And I heard that you have become a congressman, Halldór. Is that correct?
Halldór: One hears so many things. My friends decided to nominate me without any support of my own, other than my permission.
Balthasarsen: Congratulations, Halldór. I tell you sincerely, though I have often denounced both you and America. Even though I came here to escape trouble, I now see that it is better to be a farmer here in America than a governor in Iceland.
Halldór: You were once one of those government officials in Iceland that opposed migration.
Balthasarsen: Yes, I resisted migration, and quite stubbornly too. I felt that no one should have left who was useful or who had a good life. However, the poor of the county and country could well have been sent.
Halldór: Well, was it so stupid to wish to rid the country of the riffraff?
Balthasarsen:It didn't seem so at the time. But look here. I wanted to put a wrench in the works of migration. I should have encouraged those at home who are well off, for they mostly meet trouble when they cross over. They curse the country and admonish it and crawl back home if they can. Their experience deters others from leaving. Paupers fare much better for they have nothing to fall back on save their own work. They blend with the natives and learn their customs, which is necessary to survive here. The stories of their advancement here seduce many a man to emigrate who may not have done so, had he not been of such a mind in the first place.
Halldór: You may be right. But I did not get through these tricky elections without my good word being tarnished.
Balthasarsen: It is odd about you Americans, that though you seem decent men while of no office, you are called thieves and crooks as soon as you attain commission.
Halldór: They have said of me that I stole a lamb from my neighbour ten years ago, during the first years I was here. To make matters worse, they proved it albeit in a perfunctory fashion. It did not occur to me to deny the allegations, even though they were based on lies, as we all knew. I allowed the nation to decide, and the nation chose to elect me. Here we find the opposite of what is true at home. Here the scrupulous man becomes a rogue if he attains office; at home the laggard, if he attains office, is seen to become honest. Such is the respect of people for authority there.
Balthasarsen: I don't understand how any honourable man can be called a rogue because he runs for office.
Halldór: To not be a crook, that does not necessarily follow. Yet the nation constantly suspects an official and notes his every deed. His faults and his virtues are placed under a magnifying glass until the truth is found, during which all his actions are examined and explained.
Fjósa-Gunna: (comes running panting onto stage). Good evening. My, what a journey! I was told the way was five miles but they turned out to be ten or twenty.
Halldór: What way is ten or twenty miles?
Fjósa-Gunna: The way from here to my Steinunn's place, the wife of that damned Páll the oppressor.
Halldór: From here to Páll's is four miles by the straight road
Fjósa-Gunna:Ah, heck. Perhaps for someone who wants to run into wild animals. Páll said I could go another way, but I would have cross over three fielts2 on the way.
Halldór: It would have been safe to walk over them.
Fjósa-Gunna: Sure, at my age, old and stiff as I am. Anyone just counting my chores would get stiff in the legs. It may have been easier when I was younger to get out from under a fielt. It's no small beast either. That Reverend Ţórlákur describes it as " the animal which most honour accords", that carried whole cities of people in the Bible when Senakerit waged war on the Jews.
Halldór: But these here aren't the same fielts.
Fjósa-Gunna:They're all related, aren't they? Oh my, oh my. No better than the one that tore the nose off of that little boy in France who stuck a pin in it's trunk. I heard Teitur read it from a Danish book, and me who gets pains in my heart because I've never recovered after Reverend Sveinn's misfortune of old.
Halldór: So which way did you come, then?
Fjósa-Gunna:Páll said that if I didn't want to go that way, then I could go north past his woods to a cross route. There I should take the route pointing west and then I would get home.
Halldór: So that's the way you came?
Fjósa-Gunna:Well I brought the damn root! But I'm sure you can't find your way any better for a root! It's a superstition. I found nothing north of the woods except for a daisy and it had next to no roots at all, at least none pointing to the west. This one lay more or less to the south-west so I picked that root. To think this damned thing could point your way!
Halldór: Highly improbable. But how are things at Páll's? What's the news?
Fjósa-Gunna: There's really nothing much new except that Steinunn said that Jón Guttormsson had built a new steeple adjoining the sheep-shed. Talk about indulging the sheep. Imagine building a steeple3 just like the one at home at Hólar Church when I worked for the Reverend Benedikt! …I also went to Gróa's, from Garđur; talk about progress. She left Iceland newly married and childless just two years ago, and now she has four or six.
Halldór: I heard that they only had one boy.
Fjósa-Gunna: Not at all. I heard her with my own ears call them at least twenty times while I was there. I heard what their names are: Alexander, Julius, Napoleon, Carl, Washington Franklin, and Hay. Well, maybe one's got two names, but what great blessed rascals they are. Only one of them obeyed, the one in the blue shirt.
Halldór: Let me tell you something. They only have one boy they call seven names, Alexander Julius Napoleon Carl Washington Franklin Hay, and they use them all when they call him.
Fjósa-Gunna: What a zoo. I remember only one at home called three or four names, a schoolboy, I think, and his name was Halldór Kristján, nicknamed Klćđa-Dóri, but they just called him Dóri. Imagine using all the names at once, like when the Bakka Brothers4 called Gísli Eiríkur Helgi and they were just calling one of them - oh, oh, the gout in my hip is killing me. I should lie down in bed. (She leaves)
Balthasarsen: There goes a perfect example of how people misconstrue speech. Those fresh off the boat, and half stupid like Gunna, misunderstand practically everything.
Halldór: One can't prevent it. These are the kinds of people that create the new language. Men here do not judge me by how I talk or what my name is, but rather by what I can do, and who I am. It is of course a good thing to speak properly even here, but poor English is better than nothing at all. If someone is such a dunce at language that he can speak neither his own language nor English without mixing them up, then he shouldn't worry to much about it. . We quickly learn to understand him in spite of it all.
Geirţrúđur: (enters). (addressing Balthasarsen) Hello, foster-father! (addressing Halldór) I have some business with you, my dearest. I have just received a letter from Magga. Teitur and she are now most likely in New York, on their way to settle here. Let's receive them well and let's try to make their lives happier from here on.
Halldór: I will help you with what I can, my dear. But I trust you are better suited for the job than I am. Who knows what may yet become of Teitur here in America. The free national spirit here is so strong that it often makes men able who would be unemployable elsewhere in the world. And that is the beauty of America.
1Fjósa-Gunna means Barn-Gunna.
2fielts homophone; sounds like "fields" (which in Icelandic is similar to "fílar", i.e. elephants)
3steeple homophone; sounds like "stable".
4Bakka Brothers; a comical trio