History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/Early Scandinavian 18th

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Ludvig Holberg[edit]

Ludvig Holberg was the dominant figure in 18th century Scandinavian theatre. A print from a book by J.P. Trap, Famous Danish Men and Women, 1868

The major figure in Scandinavian theatre of the early 18th century was Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754), born in Norway but spending most of his life in Denmark, where he wrote the following comedies in the Danish language: "Den Politiske Kandestøber" (The political tinker, 1722), "Jeppe paa Bjerget eller den forvandlede Bonde" (Jeppe of the hill, 1722), reminiscent of the prologue to Shakespeare's "The taming of the shrew", "Den Stundesløse" (Scatterbrains, The fidget, more precisely The busybody, 1723), and "Hexerie eller Blind Allarm" (Witchcraft or false alarm, 1723).

"The political tinker" is "a humorous delineation of the man who, without any practical experience in the work of government, or any knowledge of political science, boldly discusses questions of public policy, and makes the most grotesque proposals for the welfare of the state. The moral of this comedy finds wider application at the close of the nineteenth century than it could possibly find at the opening of the eighteenth, for politicians of the type of the Hamburg pewterer swarm in every country that has tried the great democratic experiment, and their numbers make them a dangerous force in our modern society, whereas in Holberg's time one might simply laugh at them without fear of their getting an opportunity to put into practice their ignorant or whimsical theories. The pewterer of the comedy is well cured of his budding political ambition by a trick of which he is made the victim. He is informed that he has been made Bürgermeister of the city in recognition of his distinguished abilities, and a number of practical problems are brought before him for solution. He finds that the actual task of government is a very different thing from vaporing about measures and policies, and is well-nigh distracted by the questions that he is called upon to decide. When he learns that he has been made the subject of a practical joke, his relief is so great that he goes back to his humble trade without a murmur, convinced that nature never intended him for a statesman at all" (Payne, 1899 pp 394-395). "Holberg was no thorough-going political democrat. The delightful vagaries of Hermann von Bremen, the political tinker, remind us that his creator distrusted popular political wisdom. To be sure, Holberg disapproved of hereditary titles and privileges, other than those of monarchy. Yet he believed that the government should be the business, not of the people, but of those fitted by natural endowment and careful training. In his comparison of the French and the English he writes 'The French respect most their superiors; the English themselves. The former are, therefore, better citizens; the latter, better men'" (Campbell, 1918 p 98). "Geske, the bourgeois mother in The Political Tinker^ possesses characteristics of another sort, yet just as clearly native and original. She is, to be sure, conventionally vigorous in objecting to her husband's neglect of business for political vapourings. Yet her furious outbursts are mere exhi- bitions of temper. They betray, indeed, a complete lack of control, and leave Hermann von Bremen bat- tered but steadfast in his ideas. Later, when Her- mann's political nonsense seems to have resulted in his elevation to the office of mayor of Hamburg, Geske shows immediately the feminine submission which is instinctive with women of her sort. She becomes most deferential to all his wishes. Every change in their way of living which her husband thinks their rise to power demands, she accepts as inevitable. Even orders which arouse in her a natural revolt, she obeys meekly. The supreme test of her submission comes when Hermann concludes a long list of instructions by saying: 'Listen. I forgot one thing. You must also procure a lapdog, which you must love as your own daughter. Our eighbour Arianke has a fine dog which she can lend you just as well as not, until we can find one of our own. You must give the dog a French name, which I shall hit upon when I get time to think about it. This dog must always sit in your lap, and you must kiss it a half score of times at the least, when we have callers.' Although nauseated at the thought of kissing Arianke's dirty beast, Geske bravely ac- quiesces in this demand of fashion, and later in the play she appears, dressed in all her finery, lugging a great hairy dog about in her arms" (Campbell, 1914 pp 120-121).

"In 'Jeppe of the Hill', Holberg has made a world-old farce a vehicle for realistic and profound deline- ation of character. Jeppe, the comic hero, is an extraordinarily complete and vivid human being...Jeppe in the first act is a wretch cowed into abject submission to everybody and everything...In the supposed presence of death, he exhibits real dignity and courage. The man who has been desperately afraid of Nille and cowed by the bailiff and the clerk, is not afraid to die. He does weep, to be sure, when he hears his advocate plead for him; and offers him, in a kind of maudlin gratitude, a bit of his chewing tobacco. But when the lawyer refuses the gift with the lofty remark that he is defending him solely from motives of Christian charity, he quickly recovers his shrewd sense” (Campbell, 1914 pp 77-81). "In the portrayal of 'Jeppe of the hill', "Holberg achieved one of his greatest triumphs. It is not so much the drunken humor as the genuine humanity of the peasant that appeals to us, and the springs of pity are tapped no less than the springs of mirth" (Payne, 1899 p 395).

Even more than Marivaux, Holberg's model is Molière, who ridicules the protagonist's failings and weaknesses. In particular, the first three Holberg plays presented here resemble Molière's "The bourgeois gentleman" (1670) in that the protagonist tries to become somebody he is not. "The Molière tradition demands first of all the creation of a character possessed of a single, essential, significant trait. This trait becomes the moving force of the whole play in which the character is involved. Once the trait is established, the character is then subjected to a kind of multiple exposure. He is shown in this situation and in that, involved now with this character now with that, and always we know that his conduct, his thoughts, his conversation are centered on and motivated by the essential trait which he personifies. The central character becomes the motif, played against and developed by the other characters, the circumstances, and the action of the drama. He is usually the father of a daughter who wishes marriage with a man of choice, but this she is denied, for her father cannot think beyond his fault. He would have a son-in-law who somehow pampers his vice, helps to solve his problem. There is also a cheeky servant who plays like a skipping violin against the basso ostinato which is the fault, vice, or obsession of the central character. And in the end, though the play ends well, our central figure is in no way changed. It is the major part of this tradition of Molière that Holberg uses time and time again, and no play of his is completely free of it" (Jones, 1961 p 125). "Yet Holberg did not have the power of holding a dramatic fact delicately in suspense through a long stretch of swift dialogue, a power peculiarly French, which Holberg's exact contemporary, Marivaux, possessed in the degree nearest perfection" (Campbell, 1914 p 111).

"The political tinker"[edit]

Tinkers consider themselves deep political thinkers but find out otherwise. "The state tinkers", caricature by James Gillray (1756–1815)

Time: 1720s. Place: Denmark.

Text at http://www.onread.com/book/Comedies-by-Holberg-Jeppe-of-the-hill-The-political-tinker-Erasmus-Montanus-286904/ http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5749 https://archive.org/details/comediesbyholbe01schegoog

Antony wishes to marry Herman von Bremen's daughter, but the latter refuses him because of his lack of interest in politics. Herman no longer tends to his business of making metal dishes and plates, preferring instead to discuss politics with his cronies. Geske, his wife, is exasperated about this mania of his and fearful for their future. During a meeting of the "Collegium Politicum" where he presides, when European politics and economy are argued exhaustively, though the participants must consult a map to find out whether Paris has a coast-line, the exasperated Geske hits him. He does not retaliate. Two members of the Hamburg council hear of these meetings and are annoyed at them. They seek to trick Herman by making him believe he has been elected burgomaster and a member of the council. Herman believes them and starts reorganizing his household in keeping with his new exalted position. In particular, he wishes to be addressed as "Master Burgomaster von Bremenfeld". To support the new magistrate, his wife entertains two of the councillors' wives by keeping a dog on her lap and serving molasses in their coffee, which she considers fashionable. After drinking some of it, the ladies escape hurriedly. While in function, Master Burgomaster von Bremenfeld is assailed by a multitude of tasks he is unable to cope with: understanding lawyers' Latin, solving legal problems, and handling a huge pile of citizen complaints. At his wit's end, he finds a rope behind the oven and prepares to hang himself until rescued by Antony. As a result of his experiences, Herman promises to return to his old position and accepts Antony as his son-in-law.

"Jeppe of the hill"[edit]

Jeppe prefers to drink with a crony than work for a living. Copenhagen Theatre, 1918
The baron convinces Jeppe he is a lord. 1840s painting of Jeppe by Wilhelm Marstrand (1810-1873)

Time: 1720s. Place: Denmark.

Text at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5749 http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/42022 https://archive.org/details/comediesbyholbe01schegoog

"I cannot believe that in the entire canton there is a lazier knave than my husband; I can barely wake him when I pull him from his bed by the hair," his wife, Nille, declares. When she asks him to buy two pounds-worth of black soap, he unfortunately gets drunk along the way. Baron Nilus spots him sleeping on the ground and decides to follow his servant's suggestion of playing a trick on the lazy good-for-nothing. The drunken Jeppe is carried by footmen to the baron's best bed and served on his awakening as if he were the baron. Jeppe is so naive that he is fooled by the baron and his servants into believing he is a nobleman with a loss in memory, reality being better than any dream. As a baron, Jeppe is convinced his servants rob him, and so he decides that half of them should hang, starting with the steward. As a result of these news, the steward's wife rushes in to plead for her husband's life. Acting as he imagines all nobleman do, Jeppe immediately says: "You are pretty. Will you sleep with me tonight?" But before he has a chance to, he gets drunk again to the point of lying in a stupor, and the baron orders him back to his dunghill, where he recognizes everything as before, including his "cuckold's hat". When Nille arrives, he protests having spent his time in paradise. As a result, she beats him and promises that he will spend two entire days without eating or drinking. Before this can happen, officials enter the house to take him to a tribunal for impersonating a baron. Despite his protests, Jeppe is condemned to swallow poison and to be hanged on the gallows. Instead he swallows a narcotic and wakes up hanged below the arms. Believing her husband to be dead, Nille repents her cruelties, when, to her astonishment, the dead man begins to speak. Outraged because he wants to get drunk again, she whips him until the judge in the case chases her away and frees Jeppe, because "the tribunal that condemns to die can also condemn to live". Jeppe returns to the tavern, where a stranger laughingly describes Jeppe's story without knowing he is speaking to the one concerned. The butt of the joke sadly walks back home.

"The busybody"[edit]

Shrill is always busy even when there is nothing going on. Print of act 1 scene 6 of the play by Christian August Lorentzen (1749–1828)

Time: 1720s. Place: Denmark.

Text at http://www.archive.org/details/threecomedies00holb

Shrill refuses to accept Leander as his son-in-law because he wishes his daughter, Leonora, to wed a bookkeeper, Peter Erichsen, more liable to help him in his affairs, requiring four secretaries. Magdalen, an aging servant, also wishes to marry, but Shrill is unable to find time for her, even to finish being shaved or eating a complete meal in his effort to keep track of household accounts, write letters, and feed chickens. Pernilla, a young servant, always helpful to her master, seeks to arrange matters so that the two couples may marry. She asks Oldfux, friend to Leander, to impersonate others to confound the master, to which he agrees. He tricks Shrill into believing Leander is Peter the bookkeeper. In turn, Pernille tricks Peter into believing Magdalen is Leonora. Oldfux next disguises himself as a lawyer, promising to help Shrill in response to a letter written by Leander, who threatens him with court proceedings for misleading him on false marriage promises. Instead of helping him, Oldfux confuses Shrill with jargon. Next, Oldfux accosts Shrill as a highly educated German, ostensibly to help him but in reality harassing him in different ways. The wedding preparations take shape: unknown to Shrill and Peter, the notary writes down marriage contracts in favor of Leander with Leonora and Peter with Magdalen. The worn-out father eventually discovers the trick played on him, but at last accepts his new son-in-law, who, to please him, promises to study bookkeeping. At first, Peter refuses the mere servant Magdalen as a wife, but changes his mind on finding out that she possesses the considerable dowry of 3,000 riksdales.

"Witchcraft or false alarm"[edit]

There are more false alarms than witchcraft in an early 18th century Danish play. Drawing of sorcerers and witches by Francisco de Goya (1746–1828)

Time: 1720s. Place: Denmark.

Text at ?

Leander is an actor with a heavy dept of 50 riksdales hanging over him. While he rehearses a tragic role alone, a superstitious man overhears him and becomes convinced that he is conjuring devils. Fearfully, the man mentions this to a woman, who in turn reveals this information to another man, each exaggerating what they hear every time until many people hear of it. A crowd gathers to take Leander into custody, but the people are scared away, first by Leander's pistol shot, then by the appearance of his fellow actor, Heinrich, as a conjurer. Leander next gets offers of money for conducting sorcery: to blind the eye of a robbing servant and to bewitch a man uninterested in a woman's love. A servant then asks him to discover who stole his mistress' ewer and spoons. Leander promises to discover the culprit. A young girl then shows up to see whether it is possible for her "to get her virginity back again", followed by a man who wishes his wife to become more amiable, then by a boy who wishes to become a doctor. All these people imagine that they are receiving help, while Leander merely talks and pockets the money. The woman having lost her household stuff accosts Leander along with her servants. Leander commands the servants to kneel, to lift their right hand, then the left, then to cross hands. "Has everyone crossed their hands?" he asks. "Yes," they answer in unison. "Even the one who stole the ewer?" "Yes," answers one man's voice. Thus, the culprit is discovered. The authorities, alarmed at rumors of sorcery in their midst, take Leander to a tribunal, where the judge accuses him of sorcery and writing a pact with the devil, but Leander misunderstands his meaning, thinking he is referring to the debt of 50 riksdales. To make matters worse, two of Leander's fellow actors are threatened with torture for being suspected to be in league with Leander. In his defense, Leander interrogates the man who first accused him as a sorcerer. It becomes clear, to the judge's disappointment, that the man mistook words in a play for real life.