Tickets for the well over 2000 playhouse seats cost on average 1,700 krónur, and the last pan-European survey showed that over 250,000 guests bought tickets to the theater in 1997, setting a European record of an average of 1.5 visits per person per year.
For a country with less than 300,000 inhabitants these are big numbers. What is it that makes the theater such a popular destination for Icelanders? Is it the strong literary tradition of this country, going back a thousand years to the Sagas and Íslendingabók? In Iceland: a portrait of its land and people, Hjálmar R Bárðarson writes, “For centuries the national pastime in Iceland was recitation of sagas in the living rooms of country farms…There was a great wealth of reading material…planned with a view to the books being read aloud for entertainment.” This form of recreation could easily have developed into a taste for the playhouse, and is probably a strong reason for the theater’s popularity.
Reykjavik’s first theatrical troupe, Leikfélag Reykjavíkur, (the Reykjavík Theatre Group), wasn’t formed until 1897 and it was another 53 years before the National Theater, Þjóðleikhúsið, opened it’s doors. But when it did, the community showed it’s pride and nationalistic support so strongly that theater-going became a staple of the Reykjavík cultural diet. By the Sixties young playwrights such as Jökull Jakobsson and Guðmundur Steinsson had adopted the theater as a venue for social commentary, increasing the playhouse’s value as a part of the national consciousness. To be able to stage world-class productions of plays by world-renowned writers became, if not a goal, then an inspiration for actors, directors and designers. Supported by the government and encouraged by the community, Icelandic theater had blown a bit out of proportion. Drama critic Magnús Þór Þorbergsson notes that “the constant and ever mounting pressure on theatres and playhouses to survive on a strict budget based on subsidies from the state and/or local government that hardly suffice for daily operation costs, as is the case with the Reykjavík Theatre Company, has not only resulted in fewer premieres of Icelandic plays, but has also led to a more commercial and conventional programs based on box office ‘hits’.” (quote from www.nordic-literature.org).
After a one thousand year history of literature and recitation, and a flash hundred year development of a proud and nationalistic playhouse culture, Icelandic theater is a massive, many-legged production. Without dismissing the quality of larger-scale shows on offer, the recent success of smaller, independent theaters and troupes such as Vesturport, Hafnarfjarðarleikhúsið and Sokkabandið may hint at a turning away from ‘hit’ shows to more intimate, quality theater. Regardless of the direction Icelandic theater is taking, though, it seems to be firmly entrenched in the national psyche as a valued recreation.