Hidden undercurrents of “The Atlantic Ocean”


Keywords: Estonian literature, theatre, songs, Juhan Smuul

The play “The Atlantic Ocean” (Atlandi ookean) by the renowned Soviet-era Estonian writer Juhan Smuul has received very little critical attention so far. By closely looking at the work, we can find nuances and undercurrents that help us understand the motives and reasoning behind the characters’ – but in some cases also their author’s – deeds, choices, and attitudes. This article focuses on the songs referred to in the play. The shortish four-act play that is set onboard a Soviet Estonian herring trawler in the summer of 1955 contains references to 22 songs in total. The origin of the songs is remarkably heterogenous: there are songs from a Lutheran service book, references to classical music, hit music from pre- and post-WWII times and village dance parties, heroic songs from the tsarist period, and also some unidentifiable folk songs. Roughly one third of them are performed or played with melody; others are mentioned by either title or lyrics. The songs primarily function as condensed characterizations of the wide array of crew members (16 characters). Songs also function as indirect comments on a certain situation or character, letting the viewers draw their own conclusions. Such a writing technique – embedding songs into the texture of his stories – is characteristic of Smuul also in his other works which are yet to be studied from this angle.

We first provide a short overview of the critical response to the play upon its initial staging by Voldemar Panso and discuss the reasons for its subsequent limited success. After that, a statistical overview of the studied songs is provided. In the first part of qualitative analysis, the intertextual ties between Smuul’s own lyrics and those by an Estonian popular poet of the turn of the century, Georg Eduard Luiga, are discussed. The motifs and influences can be traced back to Robert Burns and Scottish folk songs. The songs referred to in the play are discussed in the two subsequent sections: first, the crew members’ favourite songs of which they request a recording from the onshore office; and second, the songs that the characters themselves sing during the voyage. The article concludes with a discussion of the necessity of songs and singing under the conditions of an enclosed space (be it real, as in the ship, or metaphorical, as in an authoritarian state), followed by a formal conclusion briefly summing up all of the foregoing.


Kadri Tüür (b. 1975), PhD, Tallinn University, Researcher (Narva mnt 25, 10120 Tallinn), tyyr@tlu.ee

Lauri Õunapuu (b. 1976), folk musician, founder of the Society of Traditional Male Singing, Head of the Estonian Folklore Council (Vene 6, 10123 Tallinn), lauri@metsatoll.ee