To Become Merged in the Sea . . . or On Old Women on Stage

Soila Lehtonen*


Portrayals of old people on stage can be surprisingly stereotyped and dated. At what age does one become “old” nowadays? Does ageing increase wisdom or fear of death? The Swedish sociologist Lars Tornstam coined the term “gerotranscendence”: old age is “a natural progression towards maturation and wisdom.” The philosopher Bertrand Russell claimed the fear of death may be overcome by making one’s interests wider and more impersonal. Discussed here are three Finnish plays (1995, 2004, 2019) featuring elderly women: unconventional, fearless and outspoken, female characters in their own right. Age is not just numbers: it is letters―life stories.
Keywords: KOM Theatre, Sirkku Peltola, Laura Ruohonen, Pirkko Saisio, Marja Packalén, Heini Junkkaala, gerotranscendence, typecast old people, Finnish National Theatre

“Age is just a number,” as the well-worn adage has it. According to a recent survey in Finland, more than half of people over 65 feel younger than their age. About 70 years ago, it was not unusual to give a rocking chair as a present to someone celebrating his or her 70th (or, indeed, their 60th) birthday. Perhaps it might be said that 70 is the new 50.

Everyone wants to live a long life. However, it is slightly problematic that nobody actually wants to grow old. Consequently, the future is getting shorter day by day. The older one becomes, the closer death becomes (this is not optional). Many of us experience this fear at some point of our lives.

Philosophers offer us various approaches in order to deal with the inevitable. Bertrand Russell, in his essay entitled “How to Grow Old” claims the fear of death is best overcome by making one’s interests wider and more impersonal, so that “the walls of the ego recede, and life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life.”[1]

What surprises me is that portrayals of “old age” in society and in the entertainment business today often seem oddly dated and heavily stereotyped―for example, it is not unusual to see advertisements featuring funny-looking old folks, permed or bald, who wear chequered carpet slippers, have false teeth and spend their days in bingo halls. But as “old age,” more or less officially (in Western societies), starts at 65, those generalisations are ridiculous: people in their 70s today ride bikes or horses, play tennis, go to rock concerts and are interested in experimental performance arts, for example. Senior citizens are the financial backbone of cultural life, frequenting theatre, opera and dance performances, concerts, art exhibitions and movies. When I look back on my bygone, theatre-reviewing years (of which there were 32; I have been officially old now for a couple of years) and consider how older people have been represented, I remember a play in which the characters seemed particularly stereotypical (now, 10 years on, they seem even more so).

In Viimeinen valssi (“The Last Walz”, orig. Swedish: Sista dansen), by popular Swedish playwright Carin Mannheimer, produced at Helsinki City Theatre, the residents of an old folks’ home were represented by way of wheelchairs, incontinence, memory loss, and so on. “Instead of individuals the characters portray various problems of old age,” I wrote in my review at the time. “Less than 15 per cent of people aged 75–85 suffer from dementia. But the entertainment business likes to senilise old people, because evidently gaga is funny.” Few actors got a chance to delve deeper into their character’s soul, and the concept fell short of social criticism and satire. If somebody thinks signs of senility are amusing, what other explanation for this could there be except the secret fear of one’s own approaching gagadom?

Looking back in search of non-stereotypical portrayals of old age on stage, I recall two samples in which clichés were cast aside. Laura Ruohonen’s Olga, first performed by the Finnish National Theatre in 1995 (and translated into, among other languages, English and French),[2] portrays an old woman who lives alone, without close contacts with anyone, not even her children. Rundis is a young conman who attempts to rob her by pretending to be a cleaner hired by Olga’s daughter, who lives abroad. The two are an odd pair: Olga is an elderly woman born in the era of the Russian Czar (pre-1917) and Rundis is a lazy no-good idler who seems to enjoy living off women. However, in the course of events, the two grow fond of each other: an unconventional, unsentimental, fearless woman and, under his hard surface, a sensitive man realise how similar they are and how well they get along. The “biological” tragedy separates them by approximately 60 years. 

Events in the play are not conventional either; Olga and Rundis go bird-watching in a city park in the middle of the night, and Olga finds out that the old dance pavilion, a handsome Art Nouveau building she remembers from her youth, has been demolished. Olga protests:

Do you want to know why everything’s being torn down nowadays? Because if you show a man a three hundred year old barn, inevitably he’ll start thinking about people who’ve lived before him, and the people who will come after. Cuts him down to size. But if you live in a permanent building site like this, you start to think there’s something special about the present moment. That you can’t be touched by the past or by the future, so you can do whatever you want. You have to admit it. . . . And the younger the nation, the shorter its memory.[3]

Eeva-Kaarina Volanen (1921–99), in the role of Olga in 1995, was the grand old lady of the Finnish film industry and of the National Theatre, where she worked for 45 years. The role of Olga was written for her after her retirement.

Olga, written and directed by Laura Ruohonen. The Finnish National Theatre, Helsinki, September 29, 1995. On stage: Eeva-Kaarina Volanen (Olga), Markku Maalismaa (Rundis). Photo: Leena Klemelä

Another surprising old woman is the matriarch of a farmer family in the “European Union Finland,” in Sirkku Peltola’s black comedy Suomen hevonen (The Finnhorse, which was translated into eight languages, including English and French), first performed at KOM Theatre, Helsinki, in 2004.

Gram is a sharp-tongued, sarcastic and headstrong grandmother who rules the family, comprised of her unemployed, disappointed, divorced daughter (whose incompetent and inefficient ex-husband still lives on the poorly managed family farm) and her granddaughter Jaana, an appropriately gloomy, foul-mouthed teenager (with whom she gets along very well: they watch the cartoon series South Park on the telly together). The author describes Gram in her introduction of characters: “Aili’s mother, aged ca. 7898. Blunt, self-ironic, uninhibited and when needed generous, in both love and things. A strong woman.”

This vital, quick-witted old woman was portrayed by a male actor in KOM Theatre. Hannu-Pekka Björkman (then aged 35)―attired in a frumpy dress, chequered carpet slippers, pink bloomers and large spectacles―portrayed the verbally brilliant, deliciously mean senior in a cool, dignified manner. This time, despite Gram’s appearances, there were no easy, gender-bending laughs, but just the actor’s strong trust in the laconic, yet fast-moving, mordantly funny dialogue that constantly took the spectator by surprise.

Gram is not one to shy from the contemporary trends: wearing earphones, she keeps learning English, practising loud (“Is this Woody Woodpecker [she references a copy of the comic] new or old? It is a new one. Do you like Woody? Yes of course. I like Woody.”) She does not hide her feelings about her clueless daughter either. When she suggests Aili should really do something with her life, for example, find a new man, Aili replies: “I’ve my eyes open believe me, but the market’s not exactly buoyant,” and Gram comments coolly: “Dear oh dear. Nothing but fantasies. I’d get myself a beer if there was one going. When you laugh you look like you’re crying and vice versa. The whole pallid spectrum of your life is a mess. Dull as dishwater in both experience and expression. Flat as a pancake. A landscape as lacking in elevation and character as a flat-chested woman’s profile.”[4]

Gram keeps her “funeral money” in the microwave oven, the use of which is of course strictly forbidden in the household. But, as there are people in the unlucky family who, in financial desperation, will eventually break into this safe, Gram, again calmly, bursts into a verbally hilarious description of a grand personal tragedy:

My carefully budgeted funeral―oak casket, choir and fully catered hot meal. I don’t want to die at anyone else’s expense. I don’t know whether to step outside and scream or what. This is a nail in my coffin. Give me air, alcohol, drugs, anything. Might as well start singing hymns and carry me to the church or the old folk’s home. God how I regret that devil-crazed night when I allowed the seed inside me to fertilize, divide and turn to flesh. For fifty years now I’ve watched the fruit of that night’s fever, and the sacred mystery of life has just grown murkier and murkier by the hour and by the minute.

Suomen hevonen (The Finnhorse) by Sirkku Peltola. Director: Pekka Milonoff. KOM Theatre, Helsinki, September 29, 2004. On stage: Hannu-Pekka Björkman (Gram), Matleena Kuusiniemi (Jaana). Photo: Riikka Palonen

In Bertrand Russell’s opinion, as one gets older, the walls of the ego recede, so that “life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life.” Looking for interesting definitions of old age, I came across the Swedish sociologist Lars Tornstam and his theory on gerotranscendence: those who develop new understanding of the self, of relationships to others and the cosmic level of nature, time and the universe are gerotranscendent individuals.[5]

Through his research, Tornstam (1943–2016) seems to have come to conclusions similar to Russell’s about letting go of the obsession about the ego and embracing a decreasing fear of death. Tornstam summarises his theory in the following extract:

Simply put, gerotranscendence is a shift in meta perspective, from a materialistic and rational view of the world to a more cosmic and transcendent one, normally accompanied by an increase in life satisfaction. Gerotranscendence is regarded as the final stage in a possible natural progression towards maturation and wisdom . . . [T]he individual moving towards gerotranscendence may experience a series of gerotranscendental changes or developments. These typically include a redefinition of the Self and of relationships to others and a new understanding of fundamental existential questions. The individual becomes, for example, less self-occupied and at the same time more selective in the choice of social and other activities. There is an increased feeling of affinity with past generations and a decreased interest in superfluous social interaction. The individual might also experience a decreased interest in material things and a greater need for solitary ‘meditation.’ Positive solitude becomes more important. There is also often a feeling of cosmic communion with the spirit of the universe, and a redefinition of time, space, life and death.

It seems Olga could be called a gerotranscendent individual (Gram―perhaps not.) Aren’t maturation and wisdom something worth pursuing? It is evident that social and biological factors influence aging, but is it possible to consciously strive for greater understanding of oneself? According to the research, the process of gerotranscendence increases the sense of meaningfulness (perhaps, even, happiness) in life.

The World Happiness Report is a landmark survey of the state of global happiness that ranks 156 countries by how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be. Gallup conducts surveys and asks people about how their lives are going. The data are then compiled by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network into a global report. In 2019, Finland is, as in 2018, number one (now followed by Denmark, Norway, Iceland and The Netherlands). However, a great number of Finns seemed to be genuinely surprised at the result, as complaining about everything could actually be named a national pastime, despite the fact that, materially and culturally, Finland is doing fairly well.

Yet, in 2019, the poor care of the elderly raised a political and national storm. Homes run by large private companies were in a sorry state, with inadequate care, too few and, sometimes, incompetent staff, erroneous medical treatment, bad hygiene and, even, scarce food. One of the homes was shut down when the government and local authorities inspected it. The well-being, let alone happiness, of the elderly is of little interest to firms whose aim is to pay dividends to shareholders.

Age is not just a number, it is also a matter of words, life stories. It must not be pretended that old age can equal ongoing youth; it is very rarely possible to stay active, productive, healthy and independent till the day you die. One must learn to let go of more and more of what once was.

In September 2009, KOM Theatre produced a play called Odotus (‘Wait’), written by Heini Junkkaala, Marja Packalén and Pirkko Saisio. It portrayed the lives of Packalén (actor) and Saisio (playwright, author, actor), 60-something members of the baby boom generation, who were young in the radical 1960s. They keep wheeling coat stands onto the stage, changing clothes on them, making them play people in their lives. Great loves have come and gone, children have stayed. When their war veteran fathers die, the daughters try hard to hide their sorrow―customary in the emotionally repressed post-war Finnish baby boom era.

In September 2019, the same team produced a play entitled Valehtelijan peruukki (‘The Liar’s Wig’) at KOM. The interviews with the actors, conducted by the director Heini Junkkaala, first resulted in a transcript of hundreds of pages. She refers to verbatim theatre, a form of documentary theatre based on the spoken words of people interviewed. As before, a motley crew of coat stands on stage represent significant people in the lives of the two actors, Packalén and Saisio, now in their 70s.

Valehtelijan peruukki (‘The Liar’s Wig’) by Heini Junkkaala, Marja Packalén and Pirkko Saisio. Director: Heini Junkkaala. KOM Theatre, Helsinki, September 12, 2019. On stage: Marja Packalén (left), Pirkko Saisio. Photo: Noora Geagea

What is “true,” what false, is not the point: what the characters, named Packalén and Saisio, remember or think they remember, forget or choose to ignore, merge into the performance. But, due to their long careers in theatre, film, literature, and so on, they are familiar to their audience, and when they occasionally put on a grey wig, hinting at a deliberate exaggeration or a lie, it is possible to guess what is true. The coat stands portray real people, pseudonymously. Dramatised memories approach fiction; the performance mixes facts with figments.

Odotus toured the country, and, as it was infused with amusing irony directed at the actors themselves, it sold 30,000 tickets—and not only to female baby boomers. I wrote in my review: “Saisio and Packalén, by telling us, perhaps truthfully, about the lives of Saisio and Packalén, also tell about all women’s lives the way they always are.”

Now, 10 years later, a stern God also looms among the coat stands. Death, the loss of people one has loved and the planning of one’s own funeral play a bigger role―and not without ironic comedy, which resonates very well with the audience.

Packalén is retired, Saisio still occupied with theatre, both have become grandmothers. In an interview with the team (by Susanna Laari in Helsingin Sanomat, 8 September), Heini Junkkaala notes that “the egotistic and, at the end of the day, even superficial feeling of shame diminishes with age, and, in the case of these two actors, at least, what remains are ethical questions, feelings of guilt evoked by them.” On stage, the character Saisio notes sarcastically: “Ten years ago I still didn’t realise I may be guilty of what I’ve been accused of.”

In the end of his essay, Bertrand Russell presents his reader with a rather beautiful metaphor:

An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being.

Happiness arises from being able to enjoy what one has always loved, so it would be best to try to carry on while the waters still flow. It is delightful to watch an actor choosing to celebrate her 80th birthday on a large stage, in the solitary role of a small animal, as Seela Sella did in 2017, in the National Theatre (a tour ensued). Her furry little amateur ecologist, living peacefully in the forest, tries hard to figure out why humans so greedily pursue money and possessions. Sella’s charming creature, running, jumping and dancing, filled the large stage with energy and humour.

The team at KOM plans to continue its work with a third play: it (is hoped that it) will complete the trilogy, in 2029.

Pieni eläin. Seela Sella, 80 (‘A Small Animal. Seela Sella, 80’) by Leena Tamminen. Director: Kari Paukkunen. Celebratory night on the main stage of the Finnish National Theatre, January 3, 2017. Photo: Johnny Korkman


[1] From Portraits from Memory: And Other Essays, 1956.

[2] See also my review of her play Luolasto in Critical Stages.

[3] Translation: Nely Keinänen.

[4] Translation: Eva Buchwald.

[5] Gerotranscendence: A Developmental Theory of Positive Aging, 2005.


*Soila Lehtonen is a journalist and theatre critic, and the former Editor-in-Chief of the online literary journal Books from Finland. She is an Honorary Vice-President of IATC-AICT.

Copyright © 2019 Soila Lehtonen
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