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Aarne (Alarik) Orjatsalo (1883-1941)

 

Finnish actor, adventurer and writer, who died after a stormy life in the United States. The tall and handsome Orjatsalo attracted the attention of the public, and won success in leading roles in such plays as Othello, Hamlet, and Kullervo. Politically active, he wrote defiant articles to workers' papers. After the Finnish Civil war (1917-18) Orjatsalo fled from the country for 12 years.

Aarne Orjatsalo was born in Simo, the son of the forest officer Karl Alarik Ritarsalo (formerly Riddelin) and Anna Aline Braxén. After secondary school studies, Orjatsalo started his career as an actor in 1901, at the age of 17. He began at the Finnish Maaseututeatteri and the Finnish Theatre, from where he was forced to resign having allegedly committed some pilfering. He then became a staff member of the Theatre of Tampere (1904-06, 1908-10). In 1903, he joined the Social Democratic Party.

The director  Kaarlo Bergbom, one of the founders of the Finnish Theatre in 1872, employed many young actors, among them Alli Paasikivi, Elli Tompuri and Orjastalo. While in Tampere Orjatsalo had an affair with the writer Ain'Elisabet Pennanen, with whom he had in 1906 a son, Jarno Elisar. Pennanen refused to marry him and brought up their son alone. To uphold the family honour, her brother Väinö tried to shoot Orjatsalo but failed. Orjatsalo was married several times. After separating from Ain'Elisabet,  he was married to Siiri Tyrni (1907-1909), then to Hellin Virkkula (1916), and then to the journalist and playwright Toini Aaltonen (1928-1939); his last wife was the English actress Alice Phillips.

The writer Arvid Järnefelt suggested Orjatsalo for the role of Titus Flavius at the national theatre. The play, based on Järnefelt's Orjan oppi, had previously been performed under the title Jerusalemin hävittäjä. Armas Järnefelt composed the music and Robert Kajanus directed the orchestra.  The production, which was staged in May 1910, was a success and Orjatsalo was appointed  a visiting actor. Orjatsalo also arranged his own tours and was a visiting actor at Kansan Näyttämö (1912, 1914).

Orjatsalo was made for leading roles: he had charisma, he brought into his roles strong emotions, and his voice was booming. Reviewers saw his passionate temperament refreshing: "Suurin kiitos tulee ensi sijassa herra Orjatsalolle, joka nyt vieraili kansallisella näyttämöllämme. Hänen Brutus Cloteau'nsa oli suurin piirtein ajatelty ja esitetty, ja hän loi voimakkaan kuvan tästä kansanmiehestä, joka sekä aatteellisesti että käytännössä on tasavallan puolella, mutta jonka sydän silti riippuu kiinni aatelisessa isäntäväessään. Herra Orjatsalon voimakas temperamentti muistuttaa monessa suhteessa Kaarlo (Kaarle) Halmetta, hän samoin kuin tämäkin sulattaa itseensä sekä rajua intohimoa että äärimmäisen itsensähillitsemisen." (Helmi Krohn in the magazine Valvoja, Suomen kansallisteatteri by Rafael Koskimies, 1953)

As a writer Orjatsalo made his debut in workers' papers and edited the magazine Yhdenvertaisuus from 1906 to 1907. As a reaction to Ain'Elisabet Pennanen's novel Voimaihmisiä (1906), in which one of the central characters, the conductor von Braun, represented a typical nietzschean hero, Orjatsalo published his only book, Viettelijä (1907). This roman à clef was about the relationship between a woman named Ein'Kathariina and a man named Jorma. Orjatsalo also translated into Finnish plays from such authors as Leo Tolstoy, Adolf Paul, Ernst Preczang and Alexandre Dumas.

" "Janne Nuppunen ilmestyi eräänä iltapäivänä suomalaiselle parakille. Laahustaen keripukista tönkkiä jalkojaan, kolisteli hän hitaasti pitkin käytävää ja saapui päivystäjän luo.
- -Saapikos täällä maitoa ostaa omalla rahallaan, kysyä tokaisee hän esityökseen päivystäjältä.
- -Ei tämä ole mikään maitokauppa, tämä on sotamiesten värväyspaikka, vastaa hieman harmistunut päivystäjä.
- -No kai minä toki sen tiiän, vastaa Janne, mutta sen vain haluaisin tietää, saako sotamies ostaa täällä  omalla rahallaan maitoa? vänkää Janne tosissaan.
- -No sotamieskö teistä pitäisi sitten tulla? virnistää päivystäjä Jannelle. Ja tuollaisilla jaloilla?
- -No, no, ei pidä jalkoja nauraa, vaikka on itse sattunut keripukilta säästymään. Kyllä minusta vielä mies tulee, kunhan saan maitoa juodakseen.
- -Ei tiedä tuleeko, mutta kyllä kai olisi sairaala paras paikka teille, vai mitä? naureskelee päivystäjä.
- -No jos et osaa nauramatta olla, niin sanon vain, että herra se on herrallakin ja sinulla varsinkin, tokaisee Janne närkästyneenä. "
(in Työväen joululehti, 1929)

Orjastalo tried to join to the board of the national theatre in 1913, but the board canceled its earlier acceptance. In the autumn 1917, just before the outbreak of the Finnish Civil War, Orjatsalo was employed as the director of the Theatre of Tampere. Some of the plays with which he toured were not well-rehearsed. After Eino Leino's Carinus had fallen flat in Mikkeli, Orjatsalo told the audience: "We have just decided to sent Eino Leino a telegram and tell that his play was performed today in Mikkeli with a great success." The audience applauded enthusiastically. According to another  anecdote an indignant tailor appeared at rehearsals one day and told: "I don't have time to run after you constantly with this unpaid bill." Orjatsalo asked: "When do you have time?" The astonished tailor said: "Next Wednesday, I guess." Orjatsalo said: "Well, come then next Wednesday."

During the Finnish Civil War Orjatsalo joined the Red Guards, and led a group several hundred men. It was rumored that he brought to Tampere Russian seamen, who had gained legandary fame in the Russian revolution with their ideological impetuosity. However, the Russians were beaten in the first combats with the White Army. Before the battle of Tampere Orjatsalo escaped to Helsinki. According to an story (most likely fabricated), he took with him several baskets of cognac. As a result a number of his men were constantly very drunk. In 1918-19 he participated in the intervention to Murmansk. Orjatsalo was eventually promoted to the rank of lieutenant in the British Army. 

After moving to England, he supported himself as a street musician for a period, and learned English. While in London he met Charles Chaplin. Orjatsalo acted at the Winter Garden Theatre (1921-22), in Drury Lane, and toured in the United States in different theatres (1924-25). In New York he cooperated with Annie Mörk, who worked as the director of the New Yorkin Työväen Näyttämö (Workers' Stage of New York) for five months in 1920. Orjatsalo had toured with her in Finland.

Upon returning to Finland, Orjatsalo acted at the Viipurin Työväen Teatteri with his old colleague Elli Tompuri in the play Elinan surma. His return stirred up many emotions. In Tampere he was greeted with applauds and cries "Down with Reds!" The reviews of Antonio Morano's Oikea rakastaja, where he had the leading role, were praising: "Aarne Orjatsalo on nyt taiteensa huipuilla: hän on ulkonaisesti sama kuin ennenkin, vuodet ja katkeratkin kokemukset ovat hänen ohitseen kulkeneet hellävaroen, sillä hän on sittenkin Onnettaren suuri suosikki." (R. in Kansan Lehti) Orjatsalo was a visiting actor at several workers' stages. From 1930 to 1931 he was the director of the Workers' Stage of Sörnäinen in Helsinki. The theatre served as the springboard for the career of Tauno Palo, who became the most celebrated hero of Finnish films.

A well-know leftist figure amid a climate of right-wing hate of the 1930s, Orjatsalo was constantly harassed, he received an order to stay away from the National Theatre, and his tours were rejected. After a year of setbacks, he moved to the United States, where he settled  in New York City's Harlem. Struggling to survive in the Great depression, he took odd jobs, as a taxi driver, butler, and cook. Orjatsalo died in a poor's hospital under the pseudonym Aleksei Volkoff, on January 1, 1941, in New York. His colorful life was adapted in 1983 to stage by Jotaarkka Pennanen and Elina Halttunen from Anja Vammelvuo's play Tulee aika toinenkin (1983).

For further reading: Tulee aika toinenkin: näyttelijä-rosvopäällikkö Aarne Orjatsalon elämä by Anja Vammelvuo (1983); Titaanien teatteri by Panu Rajala (2001); Suomen kansallisbiografia 7, ed. Matti Klinge (2006). See also: Jarno Pennanen, Orjatsalo's son, who was born in Helsinki. Jotaarkka Pennanen later wrote a play Linnunrata, on his grandmother Ain'Elisabet. Orjatsalo and Ain'Elisabet Pennanen defamed each other in their books after separation. 

Selected works:

  • Viettelijä, 1907
  • Translator: Leo Tolstoi - I. Bataille: Ylösnousemus (1904); Leopold Kampf: Suurpäivän aattona (1908); Max Kegel: Kuvernöörin tytär (1908); W. Krause: Takaisin taistelun tuoksinaan! (1908); Ludvig Lessen: Varokaa pommia (1908); Adolf Paul: Pirun kirkko (1908); Ernst Preczang: Piru vaaliuurnassa (1908); Ernst Preczang: Poliisi naittajana (1908); Ernst Preczang: Riemujuhla (1908); Alexandre Dumas: Edmund Kean (1909); Ernst Preczang: Tuhlaajapoika (1909)


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