Socrates Meets the Crocodile, or The Ironies of Brecht’s and Wuolijoki’s Play Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti


Text by:

Professor Timo Airaksinen

Abstract: Bertolt Brecht's and Hella Wuolijoki's joint play Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti employs various stylistic tropes. I focus on verbal and situational irony and provide examples. Can we also discover tragic irony? I ask how Socratic irony and dramatic irony work in the play. Matti is a Socratic character: he is the wise man who represents socialist and even communist ideas and ideals just like a conscientious individual in his precarious position should do, according to Brecht. Herr Puntila is drunk most of the time and thus becomes wide open to dramatic irony: the audience can read him better than he himself, which is what the authors must have intended. Matti and Puntila form a dialectical pair: their mutual opposition and conflict beget something interesting and even important. One must recognize the ultimate irony: Brecht failed to make Puntila an unsympathetic capitalist. This is a problem because a sympathetic capitalist is an oxymoron and an aesthetic failure. Therefore, Brecht's wants to make him look like a monster, or a crocodile, unsuccessfully.

Keywords: Brecht, Wuolijoki, irony, dramatic irony, situational irony, Socratic irony, tragic irony, socialism, agitation

JEL Classification: ???

1. Introduction: The Texts

Hella Wuolijoki and Bertold Brecht co-operated on writing a new play in Wuolijoki's Marlebäck Manor in the summer of 1940. See Pirkko Koski's contribution in this issue, and Koski (2000: 169ff). The result was two versions of the play. Hence, I use and study two parallel texts; the first is Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti (Brecht 1951), and the second, Iso-Heikkilän isäntä ja hänen renkinsä Kalle (Wuolijoki and Brecht 1946). The first version of the play is translated into English as is Mr. Puntila and His Man Matti, published by Methuen Drama (Brecht, 2007). The play is usually ascribed to Brecht alone, although the Methuen Drama edition follows the German text of 1951 that states on one of the tittle pages: "After stories and a draft play by Hella Wuolijoki." However, on the front cover only Brecht is mentioned. The second play was published by Tammi Publishing House in 1946; it is credited to Wuolijoki and Brecht jointly, in that order.1 These versions vary in some important ways, for instance, the final Scene 12 is different: in Wuolijoki's version Kalle leaves but promises to return and marry Eeva, Puntila's daughter; in Brecht's version Matti first chats with a servant woman and then departs alone. I read Wuolijoki's and Brecht's versions side by side taking no stand on details of their authorship - my interest in these works and volumes are critical, analytical, and philosophical. I simply read the two texts as they are printed.

2. Types of Irony

We first need a basic characterization of different types of irony. They are verbal or free irony, situational or contextual irony, Socratic irony, dramatic irony, and tragic irony. These concepts are sometimes used in scholarly literature as if everyone knew what they mean - which is not the case. I provide here a brief characterization of them. Verbal irony: the speaker says something she does not mean, or cannot mean, and her intended audience knows that; the effect is ironic. Situational irony: the target situation exhibits mutually discordant, paradoxical, or absurd features, for instance, a thief is furious when his loot is robbed and accuses the other thief of being a dishonest crook. This is situational irony. The thief behaves in an obviously inconsistent manner, and thus an observer is, as it were, invited to explicate the situation throughverbal irony. In this way, the situation invites verbal irony, too (Airaksinen 2020a, 2020b). This is to say that in many cases verbal irony is based on situational irony, but not always. I have bought a cheap car and it makes me happy; now someone comes about and says, "What a wonderful car you have there." The car is not wonderful, I know it and I never said it, but the ironist makes it look like that - here he does not mimic situational irony, it does not exist, but he creates it on the spot (Rorty 1989).

Let me then characterize briefly the other key terms. Dramatic irony: The audience knows more than the characters on stage (Airaksinen, 2021). This is the standard definition. Peter Goldie provides the following example:

In Shakespeare's King Lear, there is a scene that involves a very a powerful use of dramatic irony. Gloucester, who has recently been cruelly blinded, wants to die. He asks Edgar to take him to the "very brim" of the cliffs of Dover, to "a cliff whose high and pending head / Looks fearfully in the confined deep" (Act IV Scene i). Edgar misleads him into thinking that he has done just that. [...] The audience knows that what Gloucester does not know: that, contrary to what he thinks, he is not on the edge of the cliffs of Dover, and thus not able with one step to cast himself over the edge to his certain death. This is dramatic irony. (Goldie 2014: 27)

Compare this with Goldie's second example: "[I]n Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, the audience knows that Oedipus killed his father at the crossroads, but Oedipus thinks he killed a stranger" (Goldie 2014: 26-27). Macmillan Dictionary agrees: dramatic irony depends on "a situation in which an audience knows more about what is happening in a play or film than the characters do." Britannica adds to this: "the words and actions of the characters [...] take on a different - often contradictory - meaning for the audience than they have for the work's characters." Richard Nordquist also mentions the idea of different meanings and the knowledge gap (Nordquist 2017). Dramatic irony entails "irony that is inherent in speeches or a situation of a drama and is understood by the audience but not grasped by the characters in the play." This last version is the most interesting one (Airaksinen, 2021).

Dramatic irony comes, obviously, in three forms: first, the factual beliefs of the audience are more accurate than those of the characters; second, the meanings assigned to certain key events on stage differ from the corresponding interpretations of the audience and the former misses something important; and third, the characters fail to see the intended ironies on stage, unlike the audience, when the ironies are verbal or situational. I keep these three forms separate throughout my argument, and I refer to them as the epistemic type, semantic type, and iconic type of dramatic irony. It is easy to see that these three types of irony overlap. For instance, when a character misses irony on stage, we can say she does not know that her situation is ironic, unlike the audience,. In this case the first type of dramatic irony replaces the third type. However, it is useful to distinguish between these three types of dramatic irony.

Socratic irony: A person pretends to be ignorant and willing to learn, and she therefore invites her opponent to show how clever and knowledgeable he is. In the end she exposes his ignorance. It is a trap that demonstrates the opponent's lack of logic, knowledge, and understanding. Many interpreters think that Plato's Socrates acted like this (Vlastos 1987). He was the wisest of them all, and yet he said he knows nothing. But this is an oversimplification. Actually, Socrates led, using his dialectical question-answer method, his overconfident fellow discussants to face a personal epistemic catastrophe. They do not know, but the irony is that they never saw it coming before it was too late. In many cases Socrates admits that he does not know either, but the difference between him and his discussants is that he knew that he does not know. Socratic irony is closely related to dramatic irony, or perhaps its sub-type.

Tragic Irony (in a romantic or Hegelian sense): A hero fails and falls but his tragedy and the tragic events divulge something that is grand or even divine and now allow its emergence and beneficial influence. (Huson 1998:23). Many different definitions of tragic irony exist in the literature, but I find the Hegelian notion by far the most interesting, compared for instance to the overly simplistic idea that some instances of dramatic irony also involve tragic mistakes (Casali 1995: 509f; cf. Williams 1992). Dramatic irony can as well focus on happy events, for instance, a fair maiden does not see and believe what is obvious, namely, the prince charming loves her, because she fails reading the amorous signs correctly. We may call this the Cinderella version of dramatic irony.

3. Dramatic Irony in Puntila

Matti, Herr Puntila's chauffer and, to use a modern term, his fixer, is a socialistic Socratic character who uses a variety of ironies and sarcasms as his verbal tools. Puntila is his dialectical opposite, a rich farmer and capitalist. Puntila's language is consistently literal and honest, in this sense of devoid of any irony, and thus he means what he says. The problem is, when he is drunk what he says tends to be the opposite of what he says when he sobers up - but in both cases he honestly means what he says, which is exactly why he is so vulnerable to Matti's irony. Puntila is a fully ambiguous character, both a nasty and lovable man who is a constant target of dramatic irony: when he gives Matti money or a whole forest and promises his daughter Eeva to him, the audience is bound to realize that his generosity will change to rage and accusations in due course. Puntila's intentions may be perfectly honest but the audience will only see drunken whims. This entails the semantic type of dramatic irony.

But we also can find exceptions to Puntila's expected behavioral pattern: He is supposed to be an amiable drunk and otherwise a nasty person. But this is a common misconception that may result from only reading the initial parts of the play. Later on, Puntila is drunk and yet viciously attacks Eeva's suitor, the attaché Eino Silakka, or "Ilmari Silakkala" in Iso-Heikkilä. Incidentally, in Puntila his name is funnier than it is in Iso-Heikkilä, which is odd because the German audience will not understand the joke anyway: "Eino Silakka" is a funny name to a young, silly, overconfident, and narcissistic person: silakka is herring-like small fish in Finnish. This is an odd case of verbal play, but a Finnish-speaking audience will get it: Eino is a little fish in a big bond. Eino's character is a caricature and so is his name. The main point, though, is that drunken Puntila gets raving mad with Eino and throws him out during the engagement party of Eeva and Eino (Scene 9). The audience may not anticipate this turn of events if they subscribe to the simplified idea that plastered Puntila is nice but nasty when sober - of course, he is nasty when he is sober because of his terrible hangovers (Scene 11).

Eeva wants to marry, she is fervent about it, but then she wavers. Her desires are ambiguous. She may want to marry regardless of costs, or the costs that afflict her social status and the ideals of true love. She offers herself to Matti, which would mean her loss of social status, and she considers marrying Eino, whom she does not love - nor does Eino love her. Eino's main motive seems to be money and Puntila knows it. Both men are tangled in a pseudo-romantic love game that seems to display a fair amount of dramatic irony in the semantic and iconic sense: the audience may be skeptical of the results because they realize that these romantic deals are not going to work, unlike the characters on stage who retain various degrees of hope and try different strategies of love. The audience anticipates a failure: Eino is silly, Matti a communist agitator, and Eeva far too eager to offer herself to any available young man - this scenario is all about iconic dramatic irony.

Kalle in Iso-Heikkilä is more difficult to understand when he thinks he can marry Eeva. Moreover, Puntila's ever-shifting moods will torpedo the best of plans. However, Iso-Heikkilä ends when Kalle and Eeva look like a couple in love, but yet their relationship is too ambiguous to be convincing to the audience or allows them to approach it ironically. They will ask, will Kalle really want to come back to Puntila Manor? Presumably he could do it - let us see what the problem is.

The final episode (Scene 12) in Puntila and Iso-Heikkilä differ radically, and this is relevant to their sustained dramatic irony. Brecht's Puntila end in this minimalist manner:

Matti: [. . .] Thanks for the good lunch and goodbye, Laina.

Laina (the cook) sniffing: Have a good trip. Goes in quickly.

Matti departs and starts singing,

That oil and water can never blend/ Let's waste no tears, there's nothing we can do:/ It's time your servants turned their backs on you / They'll find they have a master who really cares / Once they're the masters of their own affairs.

This is something the audience may predict, especially after Matti's politically charged question and answer session (see below) that reads like proper communist agitation. He cannot stay after that performance, and to marry Eeva would look more or less comical - therefore the audience knows more than Puntila and Eeva. Especially Eeva is amorous and naïve; she refuses to respect the facts. The plot contains its thinly camouflaged dramatic irony, both in the semantic and iconic sense.

The end of Puntila is politically conventional, but Iso-Heikkilä displays an even more conventional, even banal Hollywood style naive happy end (Scene 12). Eeva notices Kalle carries a suitcase and asks why. Kalle says he is leaving and evades the relevant reasons by explaining simply, "I cannot stay forever." But he also says he will be back for Eeva in a year, and Eeva solemnly promises to wait. Kalle continues: "By then I will have my sawmill" (Brecht 2007, Editorial Note: 155). Eeva promises she can then darn socks and have read some books, presumably communist tracts and other suitable political material Kalle will send her. She wants to be a good working-class housewife. Kalle says, "Then it will work. Bye." Eva: "Bye." In the Finnish version published by Tammi (1946) this scene is somewhat richer, for instance, Kalle says, "I don't know if I then already have a saw and mill, but I try" (my translation.) Anyway, Kalle wants to be a capitalist and Eeva a proletarian, but such a reversal of roles sounds not only funny but ironic. If Kalle succeeds, he will return as a capitalist, but Eeva prepares to be a wife of a proletarian. For an additional reason, the end is not fully convincing: Kalle promises to come back when in the end he sings: "And your man waves to you and to you turns his back." This is not what one thinks and says if one is planning to come back.

The ironic twist here (Scene 9) is that the proletarian Kalle and bourgeois Eeva originally form a mutually incompatible couple. Such a reversal of roles is fully comical and ironic, but a possible way out has already been sketched above. If they both learn about the lifestyles and values of the other and read propaganda books, they will develop mutual insight and understanding that overcomes the limits and limitations of the class and social status. Wuolijoki might have believed that such a utopian solution is possible but Brecht certainly rejects all of this. His Matti is made of sterner stuff. This is a good example of iconic dramatic irony: the audience can see situational irony here but Kalle and Eeva miss it. They think their positions are mutually compatible, but the audience may not agree, or Kalle's and Eeva's ideal audience would know better. Kalle leaves the Puntila Manor and Puntila's daughter Eeva for a year, and then he already will be a capitalist, and as Matti would say, master of his own affairs. Wuolijoki's ending exhibits no trace of class consciousness, unlike Brecht's. She did not accept real-life communism (Koski 2000: 57).


Next, let us briefly consider the historical frame of the play. The two versions of the play were conceived in Finland during the brief peace-time between the Winter War and the Continuation War in the summer of 1940. Soon the hostilities broke out again and Finland attacked USSR together with the German army located in North-East Finland and Lapland. The war was lost in 1944, and the country after three wars was in bad shape.2 Think of Kalle and his capitalist dream, what would come out of it? The same question can be asked if we place the events of the play to the period before the Winter War. Nothing would come out of it, Kalle should go to war, or he as a socialist became a deserter, perhaps got imprisoned or killed, and if not, came back to a country where life would be in many ways different. The audiences, especially after the war, would realize all this, unlike Kalle himself. He might think he will have a fighting chance, but the war will trash anyone's dreams; a war promises no sawmills to workers but death and destruction, especially that kind of war that your side cannot win, for instance the Winter War. Of course, I do not deny it, many fortunes were created in those troubled times, especially in timber trade, but not by those who were in Kalle's position. Timber was the main source of wealth in Finland at that time, as Matti and Kalle knew so well. Hella Wuolijoki herself was a saw-mill owner and started as a serious playwright only after she lost her sawmill (Koski 2000: 47).

This is a clear case of epistemic dramatic irony, but is it also a case of Hegelian tragic irony? Herr Puntila and his Manor will survive - we can see nothing tragic in its horizon, only some trouble caused by local communists. Matti leaves Puntila without entertaining any illusions, but Kalle's big dreams will come crashing down, and in this way his situation is tragic. But does it display tragic irony? He will never get what he once wanted; he will waste his youthful years in war - what is ironic about this? What is the supposed noble end-result emanating from all this misery, i.e., the tragedy of war and Kalle's destiny? A simple answer à la right-wing ideologues would refer to the free, independent, liberal, flourishing state of Finland later on - that is, after the initial moral, political, and economic morass has been cleared after the final war.

Matti and Kalle are communists. After the war this was a much more acceptable position than before the war. But before the war and especially in 1941 any communist and socialist agitation was dangerous, and Matti and Kalle certainly were in a vulnerable position. After the war agitation became a norm. But their fate has at least one situational ironic twist: in Puntila and Iso-Heikkilä Manors both men are communists living in a belligerent right-wing state, and their fate augurs the coming of the flourishing capitalist future of Finland and the co-operation of right- and left-wing parties. In other words, Matti and Kalle may suffer but the country will flourish anyway. I do not think this is quite what Hegel means by tragic irony, but it comes close. Indeed, Kalle's and Matti's story can be read ironically at two levels, situational and tragic. I am not, however, quite sure about the latter interpretation, but at least it shows what tragic irony is supposed to be and where to find it.

4. Puntila as a Monster and Crocodile

Anyone who bothers to read both versions of the play, Puntila and Iso-Heikkilä, must notice how well-developed, rich, and interesting the character of Herr Puntila is. He is the true hero of the play, and obviously the audience cannot get enough of his antics, his loves and irritations, his amiable and sordid character. How could anyone think of him mainly as a mean capitalist exploiter of his workers? His image is much too rich for that. Perhaps he does not treat people so well when he is sober, but when he is drunk, he may drink with them and treat them as equals, as he himself says. In the last part of the play, where the fine folks discuss, speculate, and argue in Puntila Manor, several of the servants participate at an equal level, especially Matti but others as well.

Herr Puntila is an interesting and challenging character, even a caricature, but Matti and Kalle are like normal living human beings, perhaps sketchy but also real, not necessarily remarkable types like Herr Puntila but certainly worthy of one's attention. They display Socratic wisdom and a sharp tongue. They speak the truth that comes from the world beyond the Manor, and beyond the village, from the outside world where people know more and fight harder. In this sense, they are like divine messengers who come out from the cold to talk to the local sinners and then they vanish. They teach and they leave to teach somewhere else, wherever they are needed.

However, Herr Puntila is a sympathetic character, to Brecht's great dismay. He knew he must do something about it. From his point of view, Puntila was not a fancy drunk but a capitalist exploiter who has no moral or historical right to existence. What to do? The situation is now packed with situational irony, i.e., the evil Puntila is everyone's favorite character - or what is evil now looks good, which is one of the basic paradigms of irony (Airaksinen 2000: 359). Brecht wanted to call evil what it really is, or to call a spade a spade, which is neither an amusing nor a controversial trope - so, what to do? Brecht's V-effect (Verfremdungseffekt), or alienation effect, is now called for. His plan was to alienate his audiences from this monster, which is paradoxically his own monster. He even suggested masks and strangely crippled walks that would show what Puntila really is, a crocodile who is ready to swallow anyone alive. In his Notes, Brecht writes (2007: 120-121): "The Puntila part therefore must not for an instant be deprived of its natural attractiveness." (111) Later on, he seems to change his view: "The actor playing Puntila must be careful not to let his [own] vitality or charm in the drunk scenes so win over his audience that they are no longer free to look at him critically." (114) Next, Puntila is called a monster (120) and, finally, this "parasite" should wear a grotesque mask and move "in a foolish, regal manner" (122-123). Ultimately, only an actor "with social understanding and socialist principles" may be able to play the role of this "crocodile" correctly.

How to make Puntila a crocodile is a good question. Franz Kafka turned his Gregor Samsa into an ungeheures Ungeziefer but Brecht ailed to make his Herr Puntila a crocodile. Think of Lasse Pöysti as Herr Puntila in Ralf Lånbacka's film (1979). How to make an actor like Lasse Pöysti look and behave like a crocodile? I cannot imagine. The idea of a crocodile has of course been tried on stage by showing a puppet crocodile, but how successfully I cannot tell.

All this makes the case more and more ironic when one considers Herr Puntila as a character its creator now wants to destroy. Brecht looks like a latter-day Mary Shelley and Dr. Frankenstein, who wrestles with his own creation, the monster that he cannot destroy - the monster lives and misbehaves, and it flourishes however unloved it may be. But, of course, originally Herr Puntila was not created by Brecht, only copied, stolen, and adopted by him, and now he wants to destroy it. Wuolijoki herself was an ambiguous type of communist and her art reflects this ambiguity - cf. Kalle and the Iso-Heikkilä version of the play. Perhaps she was not at all worried of the attractiveness of the character she created. For her, Herr Puntila was a Finnish Bacchus. The ancient Bacchus, or Dionysus, or Bromius, is a god of drunkenness, joy, and ecstasy; but he is also a cruel eastern god, whose devotees, the Bacchic women or Maenads, the Bacchants, in their drunken rage tore apart limb by limb the great Orpheus. Obviously, Brecht did not fully appreciate this ancient reference. Perhaps the Kurkela women are a parody of the Bacchants who follow this Finnish Bacchus Herr Puntila all the way to his Puntila Manor?

5. The View from Hattelmala Ridge

The true masterstroke of the play must be its final scene (Scene 11) when Matti and Puntila pile up furniture at the Manor in order to re-create Hattelmala Ridge, a famous beauty spot close to Hämeenlinna town. The event is told somewhat differently by Wuolijoki and Brecht, but that does not influence the importance of this final scene. I explain what happens and what it all means but let me first point out some of its peculiarities. Hattelmala is now a suburb of Hämeenlinna but in Hella's time it was just a ridge with a wonderful view to Hämeenlinna town and the lakes around it. As all Finns used to know, J. L. Runeberg writes in this poem Vänrikki Stoolin tarinat (1848 and 1860):

Hämeenlinna, ensi kerran kun sun kuutamossa näin

Hattelmalan harjanteilta, tuo ei mene mielestäin!

Or, in English, in his Lieutenant Stool's Stories: "Hämeenlinna, when I saw you first time in moonlight, from Hattelmala ridges, I will never forget it!" (my translation).

The Methuen Drama version contains strange errors: Hämeenlinna town is called by its Swedish name Tavastehus, misspelled Tavasthus, which seems to be an old spelling used for instance by Runeberg in his poem. The ridge is called mountain (no mountains in Finland), and Hattelmala is Hatelma. The lake Roine is called Roina ("roina" in Finnish means crap!). - The German text gets the name right. - Moreover, Roine is not near Hämeenlinna. Kalle's surname is spelled "Altonen" when it should be Aaltonen. Eeva becomes Eva, which is a Swedish and German language name. Häme is said to be in South-Western Finland. People of Häme eat herring, when they actually ate local fish - which is not herring. This is typical of the text: no love of details, strange mistakes, as if the audiences and reading public would not care at all of the Finnish landscape or place names. Kalle Aaltonen becomes "Altonen" and the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat "Helsinki Sanomat." Tampere is Tammerfors when Helsinki retains its Finnish name, not Helsingfors. Kurgela is not a viable Finnish language name; it should be Kurkela, which is not a sizable town but a fictional place, although Kurkela village (population 503 in 2016) is located near Salo, in Real-Finland (Varsinaissuomi). This mess originates from Wuolijoki's text and her tendency to use Swedish language names, at least with Brecht, and is exaggerated by Brecht, and finally accepted by the Methuen translation without an adequate comment (Brecht 2007: 130). For a native Finnish reader, this is irritating as it seems to reflect a rather cynical underestimation of the Finnish geography and language. Hella Wuolijoki was an Estonian, and Brecht seems to have had a rather low opinion of the Finnish culture, although he liked the local nature. The English translator and commentator did not bother to check the facts.

The Finnish Tammi version does not contain all the mistakes. But even the Tammi version has these strange geographical blunders: when Herr Puntila starts eulogizing about the view from Hattelmala Ridge, he seems to draw his inspiration from Zachris Topelius' poem (original in Swedish, 1853) called "Kesäpäivä Kangasalla, or "A Summer's Day at Kangasala," which is a village near Tampere. Finns tend to remember the opening line: "Ma oksalla ylimmällä Harjulan seljänteen", or "I sat on the topmost tree branch over Harjula ridge. There one can see the lake Roine and "and its lovable waves" ("Roineen armahat aallot")(my translation), but alas this is not Hattelmala and Hämeenlinna, this is Harjula and Kangasala, near Tampere. I wonder why Hella wanted to play such a misleading game with place names and their related esthetic allusions. Perhaps she did not know better, and she was confused between the two great authors, Runeberg and Topelius?


Amidst such heterodox esthetic and nationalistic aims, Herr Puntila and his man Matti start constructing their Hatelmaberg in the middle of the room. Here the Wuolijoki and Brecht versions describing the construction work are radically and explicitly different. Both invite a different reading because Matti's action is a symbol of revolution and Kalle's merely participation in the destruction of a room in the Manor. In Iso-Heikkilä the scene is devoid of symbolism. Matti and Kalle are both obedient servants but their actions are quite different. Their motivations differ, too. Matti leaves Puntila and his household for good: his work is done, and a traveling agitator as he is, he continues his wanderings. Kalle, on the contrary, is fully domesticated, and he promises to come back to Eeva and start a new life as a member of the bourgeoisie, that is, a mill owner. Now we can see that Matti will not return unlike Kalle, or Kalle's return is left as an open possibility: in fact, he is not hostile or prone to violence; he - he would not destroy the place where he wants to return.

The drivers do not want to do overwork late in the evening, as they say, and therefore they suggest an imaginary trip to the ridge instead of driving there in the car. Kalle lifts a couple of chairs on the table, and there it is, the mountain. They stand on the chairs while Puntila eulogizes Häme and its lovely scenery. Matti acts in his own way:

Matti kicks a valuable grandfather's clock and a massive gun locker to pieces, using the wreckage together with a number of chairs to build Mount Hatelma in a fury on top of the big billiard table.

Matti is aggressive and furious when he destroys the library. When the other servants arrive their reaction is, "They have smashed up the whole library." In the Wuolijoki version they say, "Herra Jessus! Mitä hulluja ne ovat tehneet? Kaikki sekaisin," or "Christ, what on earth have they done? What a chaos" (my translation). Brecht's Matti destroys the library while Wuolijoki's Kalle just moves some furniture around, which for the ladies looks like a mess. Destruction and chaos may not look and sound that different, but their metaphoric significance in this context is crucially important. A mess you can clean and fix, what you destroy you cannot. Make a mess and you can return to the scene - destroy it and you cannot. Mess is an aesthetic category, destruction a moral matter.

What does Matti destroy first? A valuable, large, self-standing clock is the first item to go; Matti's ideology aims at new, revolutionary times and that necessitates the destruction of the old times and its ancient régime, now the ancient clock. This is a typical nihilistic allusion, in the proper sense of the politics of nihilism: our times are so corrupt and unjust that all of the old world must be destroyed before the new one may come about. A large weapons cabinet: in an ambiguous manner, the weapons are now set free so that they become available to people, or the weapons are discarded so that nobody can use them. At the same time, to mention weapons that are now out of the cabinet is to allude to war, revolution, and bloodshed. Time and weapons together make a weighty metaphor of revolution in this context; it has nothing to do with the perfectly literal image of disorder. Puntila's drunken mind might be disorderly but that is all, and the audience is not surprised. And a billiard table! What is more bourgeois than a billiard table in a private library? Now its green cloth will be ruined for good, and then the playing ground of the fine folks does not exist any longer. Kalle would have none of this - on the contrary, he displays a decent attitude and proper restraint. He puts the chairs on an ordinary, mundane table where they make no harm. Finally, Wuolijoki's version does not mention the library.


Puntila's "Hattelmala in a Library" is and has been immensely effective: it is part of the Finnish national imagery, or Puntila standing on top of a pile of furniture talking about his grand vision to Matti who stays on a lower rung of the artificial mountain. It is an arresting sight, a mountain in a library and the two men standing there, but it is as well a mocking image of the nationalistic Finnish sentiments and sensibilities à la Niskavuori, at the same time fully quixotic, even idiotic, and yet so true of national romanticism. This is how to experience Häme.

In a strangely convincing manner, Wuolijoki and Brecht capture the infinite vistas of the Finnish Häme landscape inside the house and behind closed doors, although these plays were not written in Häme but in Iitti near Kouvola in Kymenlaakso. This entails double imagination: we imagine inside our mind, in our perfect private freedom, but Puntila projects it all onto the destroyed room. He externalizes his imagery while at the same time staying inside, in the full safety and privacy of his own library. He externalizes his vision without going outside. Therefore, the external world and its shifting realities cannot shake his grand vision and strong convictions. All of it is safe. In this way, the scene in the library is a parody of the conservative mind and its insular implications. We do something similar all the time, of course, but Wuolijoki and Brecht spell it out in a uniquely convincing fashion. We externalize imagination without going outside it; what is imagined stays inside and internalized. The crux is the power and magnificence of Puntila's vision: it becomes real first to him and then also to the audience, but never to Matti. The scene - what Puntila sees - is not beautiful but sublime in the classical Burkean sense. It entails peril and aw, something that goes beyond what one can know and understand, danger, threat, and ultimately madness. Puntila then insists on having more cognac to see more clearly, as he says.

We must agree that Puntila's vision is much more than a mere play of imagination, it is more like an extended hallucination that not only makes his mind's contents evident but introduces what is external, the Häme landscape, inside the room. His vision is a divine miracle, and it is exactly this power, the power of the external world twice internalized that makes this scene so convincing that it deserves its classic status. Puntila conjures up a whole world and sees it as it should be seen. It is an ideal world, not the real one, and does not exist anywhere just as seen - therefore, it is all the same if they stand on Hattelmala Ridge or on the billiard table in the ruined library. It is an ideal world as seen in the safety of your own mind, or in the relative safety of the library, and then projected outside, although it all stays inside.

What Puntila sees he takes as his private property. Hence, Matti does not want to participate and reacts with sarcasms. All this belongs to his master, or to the people like him, owners and exploiters who might dwell in aesthetic pleasures when they are in a suitable mood and then go back to work misusing the beautiful land and exploiting its good people. Therefore, all this is a hidden display of social power - of Puntila over his man Matti. Puntila asks, or commands, him to see things: "See that little tug with a bow like a bulldog. [. . .] Where else do you find that? Where on earth is there such a view?" Matti answers, submissively, "Nowhere, Mr. Puntila." What else could he say? He does not say he does not see, he only agrees on what his boss is seeing and saying. Matti's mind is not there, this is not the game he wants to play. Here is the ever-growing irony of the parable of Hattelmala Ridge: in all its beauty, the landscape is private property that Matti is falsely invited to share. Brecht politicizes the story.

6. Matti, the Working-Class Socrates

Matti is the master of sarcasm, Kalle less so. Let me illustrate this by means of their different reactions to the imaginary trip to Hattelmala Ridge (Scene 11). When Puntila shows Matti the fertile fields around, his reaction is sharp:

PUNTILA: O Tavastland [Häme], blessed art though! With thy sky, thy lakes, thy people and thy forests? To Matti: Tell me that you heart swells at the sight of it all.

MATTI: My heart swells at the sight of your forests, Mr. Puntila.

This is typical of Matti who, however submissive he is initially, next he reacts with sarcasms to drunken Puntila's follies. Alas, Kalle's sarcastic moments are not quite as successful:

ISO-HEIKKILÄ: [. . .] Kalle, say, doesn't your heart swell, when you look at our forests.

KALLE: My heart swells though I look at your forests. Long live Häme and its people and its Iso-Heikkilä. (They sing.) And the beloved waves of Roine. (My translation)

Both men aim at the same trope but quite obviously Matti is more successful. His sarcasm is sharp and to the point; Kalle buries his insult in the middle of compliments as if he stated a fact. And, of course, the key stylistic problem is his use of the word "though" in "My heart swells though I look at you forests," which makes it sound like any psychological description. His sarcasm fails. But Matti is sharp as Puntila admits. He tells a story, "at Tammerfors [Tampere] he [Matti] lost his job with a company director because when the man drove he so crashed the gears that Matti told him he ought to have been a public hangman."3 At those times gearboxes were tricky to use and yet a good driver did not crash gears - it was the number one measure of a true driver.

Now, in Scene 9, Matti is a communist Socrates and that entails mastery of Socratic irony, or pretending you do not know although your audience knows you know, unlike your target. But this is just the dictionary definition made in epistemic terms. Here we need something more practical, or knowledge as practice, or know-how - understood in a Marxist sense. What we expect to see is a dialectical question-answer session that shows how the wise Socrates compares to his discussants. The logic of the scene now is as follows. Eeva drinks a little too much, Puntila as usual is pissed, and Matti starts doing his magic. It all starts when Eeva says she wants to marry Matti, now that Eino is out of the picture. Matti counters by saying that she is not ready for the kind of life in poverty and hardship that marrying a farmhand and chauffeur entails. Eeva is more optimistic and wants to prove that she can. Matti tests her in various ways and she fails all the time - she is an upper-class lady and totally ignorant of working-class life, whatever she might have thought of it. She has, for instance, no idea how to use an "egg" to darn socks. She is not as knowledgeable as she thinks she is, or practically able. She is overconfident, so Socrates can start his educational work in earnest

This may be what we see happening on stage, but it is not the point of Matti's attack: the real target is Herr Puntila himself. He has already insulted Eino Silakka and his socially powerful colleagues - he is now drunken and angry. Matti uses his teaching of Eeva as a dialectical trick or device to destroy Puntila; he negates Eeva's desires by interrogating them and in that way shows she knows nothing of the life he knows, the real life. He says, show me how to do this, which is a Socratic move, show me your practical knowledge and know-how, in this case, of darning socks. She fails of course and all this drives Puntila crazy. He disowns her loving but naïve daughter and shows what kind of person he is, a crocodile, even if he is supposed to be an amiable drunk.4

In this way, Matti has revealed the true nature of things both to his stage audience and to the theatre audience, first to Eeva and then to Puntila and finally to the audience of the play in the theatre. By negating Eeva, Matti reveals the truth of Puntila who is a nasty old bastard even when he is drunk and praises himself for being so amiable. The servants could not care less but the better folks are shell-chocked and tumble out as quickly as they can. In the end, Matti dances with a servant woman. A little later he leaves the house and his job and rejects Eeva. Kalle still promises to love her and come back for her after a year. Wuolijoki's ending is rather weak and almost sentimental; Brecht is logical and ruthless, as I already said.

Let us look into some further details of this crucial scene of the play, its ironies and obscenities. How does Matti perform his Socratic magic, or his questioning of Eeva, which also reveals the false consciousness of Puntila, even when he is drunk? It all starts when Puntila sees himself as a latter-day Nero: "I saw how you looked as I stood on the balcony like Nero and drove away beloved guests in my blindness and confusion." He must mean Nero watching Rome burn in the year 64. He himself has burned all the bridges behind him. He then declares his love and respect and asks Matti to forgive him - Puntila is now in his submissive mood. Matti asks him to tell his daughter that she cannot marry a working-class man as she possibly could not know what it means. Eeva seems to think they would get mills and a forest as a wedding gift but Puntila fails to respond to her suggestion.

Puntila gets aggressive and asks Matti if he can fuck and fuck indecently, which he says is the main point. Now Matti evades the challenge, and Puntila must wait until Matti tests Eeva's sock darning talents and questions her knowledge of how to treat a working husband. She fails all the time. Puntila tries to compensate and says the other Puntila, not this one, is "our common enemy" and this Puntila is "practically a communist." He finds Eeva's behavior too irritating to bear, perhaps because she fails the test, and gets even more obscene: "How the hell did I come to have a daughter like that, fancy catching her sodomizing with a scavenging diplomat," or fucking indecently. A moment earlier Eeva has said: "And I now see my education was all wrong. I think I'll go upstairs," and she does not mean she rejects sodomy and cannot fuck indecently.5 She has earlier played with the idea of going into the night with Matti in order to "catch crawfish without a net," which shows she is not that prudish herself.6

Matti has won all the rounds and he has a good reason to dance the last waltz. He has shown his own superiority at all fronts: he could have married Puntila's daughter, yet he refused; he did not want to because he wanted something else. He might be a farmhand and servant but all this is just camouflage, a Socratic disguise of servility, humility, and submission. Of course, his recurrent sarcasms tell a different story, a story that unfolds now when he starts his Socratic inquiry in earnest making Puntila look like a low-class raving madman, who accuses his own daughter of sodomy and calls himself a communist. Matti instead apologizes very properly and politely that he has improperly touched Eeva's bottom - he is a gentleman. Notice that touching her bottom slyly continues the theme of sodomy.

Nothing that happened that night has any lasting effect, except on poor Eino Silakka, because they all know Puntila and his unpredictable mood changes: he can get nasty also when he is drunk. In the next scene all is well again, life goes on, and Puntila tries to sober up, unsuccessfully of course. Matti's display of Socratic irony was an unconditional success but, ironically, it does not matter: it was just verbal play. Matti may have shown them the truth, but who cares when the material conditions of life remain unaltered: "Why all the people on the estate look so wretched, all skin and bone and chalky white faces and twenty years older than they should be." Who cares? Finns still believe that their old countryside was all milk and honey in a land of plenty. This is how the life in Niskavuori House was and will forever be in the blessed minds of Hella Wuolijoki's intended audiences in Finland. Puntila Manor is not part of the Finnish imagination in the same way.


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