Since formally gaining its independence from Denmark in 1944, the island nation of Iceland has struggled with its Viking legacy. This history—a history rooted in barbarianism, primitive customs, and the worship of pagan gods—sharply contrasts with the nature of contemporary Iceland. Characterized by high ideals and intellectual mores, advanced artistic levels, and very sophisticated standards of living, contemporary Iceland generally rejects its barbaric past in favor of peace, Christianity, and high cultural standards. Prior to the financial collapse of 2008, which saw the failure of Iceland's three major banks, the standard of living in Iceland ranked among the highest in the world in terms of societal data such as quality of education, health care, social care, and other social systems. However, the economic crash in Iceland in 2008 has been classified as the largest suffered by any country relative to the size of its economy.1
In 2010, the National Theatre of Iceland undertook a major project to address the question of national identity in Iceland, considering why and how the financial collapse happened, how Iceland would recover, and the country's relationship with its Viking heritage. Using Halldór Laxness's 1952 novel Gerpla as the framework for this question, the National Theatre sought to create a work viewing Iceland's history and mythology through a contemporary lens. This essay will analyze the National Theatre's production of Gerpla, which explored Iceland's nearly one-thousand-year history, by examining the rituals and background of Iceland's history from the perspective of postcollapse Iceland in 2010.
The works of Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness (1902-1998) have been [End Page 69] adapted often for the stage throughout Europe and have generally presented a balanced view of Iceland's long and frequently difficult history. In Iceland's Bell, produced by the National Theatre of Iceland in early 2008, Laxness tells the story of Jon Hreggvidsson, a man convicted of theft for stealing a fishing line to feed his family. After numerous unsuccessful appeals, the petty crime escalates to international proportions; Hreggvidsson is taken to Copenhagen for a final appeal to the king of Denmark. At that point the story becomes a symbol of Iceland's struggle for independence from Denmark. According to Tinna Gunnlaugsdottir, artistic director of the National Theatre of Iceland, "The leading lady of the play, Snaefridur Eydalin, is a symbol for Iceland and she is in love with a man who is collecting all of the old books in Iceland and bringing them to Copenhagen to preserve them but at the same time he is stripping the country of its culture. So we did this play and it was highly successful for more than two years and I think it's because it . . . [had opened just before] the collapse happened. The work took on a new meaning as it asked the question: where are we now that the money has lost its value—what value do we stand for, who are we, and what set of values should you associate us with?"2
The production of Iceland's Bell paved the way for Gerpla, a work that arguably provided the most significant commentary on Icelandic history the country had seen. Staged by renowned Icelandic stage and film director Balthasar Kormárkur on the main stage of the National Theatre, Gerpla remained in the repertory for over a year and won the 2010 Grimàn award for Best Icelandic Production. The play attempts to present and reenvision Iceland's past by employing and commenting on the form of the Icelandic saga, addressing ideals of the Vikings and the barbarian "poet/fighter," and commenting on contemporary brutality and behavior patterns that ultimately led to Iceland's financial collapse in 2008.
First, the text of Laxness's novel should be considered. The title Gerpla loosely translates as "The Happy Warriors," a play on the Icelandic Viking tradition and a parody of the Icelandic saga, a traditional Scandinavian epic form that combines both narrative and dramatic action with fact and fiction. Icelandic sagas provide much of the source material detailing the history of medieval Icelandic life. However, the sagas often glorify acts of brutality, violence...