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

Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen, founded in 1748, as illustrated by a 1890s photochrom print

Ludvig Holberg

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 is Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754), born in Norway but spending most of his life in Denmark, where he wrote in the Danish language the following comedies: "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). The main character is “a typical representative of the time, so occupied with speculations and discussions on public affairs that he has no time to look after his own trade. It consequently goes from bad to worse. He is the central figure in a self-appointed board of Blue-Apron Politicians- a saddler, a cutler, a wig-maker, and so on. They are over head and ears in politics, discussing the events of the Spanish War of Succession, giving advice to Prince Eugene and the Duke of Marlborough or denouncing their dispositions, while expounding the most startling historical theories and making the most absurd geographical assertions. They are also eagerly taking down their own authorities…In the third act the Tinker Politician is most unexpectedly appointed Burgomaster of Hamburg a sham appointment, of course, arranged by some persons who wish to play a practical joke on him in order to put his remarkable political qualities and his much-boasted administrative faculties to the test. It need hardly be said that his burgomastership which, by the way, only lasts twenty-four hours, filled up with constant embarrassments, disillusionments and mortifications, finally turns out a complete failure. He is just about to hang himself in a fit of despair when he is informed of the joke which has been played upon him. He rejoices in his good luck, denounces his political vanity in a verse which has become classic, and the moral of which may be expressed in the old proverb: Stick to his Last” (Hammer, 1820 pp 20). "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 exhibitions of temper. They betray, indeed, a complete lack of control, and leave Hermann von Bremen battered but steadfast in his ideas. Later, when Hermann'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 neighbour, 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 acquiesces 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). "The most amusing portion of The Political Pewterer is that concerned with Herman’s wife, Geske, especially just after she supposes that her husband has become mayor. Up to that time Geske had thoroughly disapproved of Herman’s political ambitions, but after she believes that she has become the mayor’s lady she readily falls in with her husband’s views. She acquires a lap dog, she learns to play fashionable games of cards, and she serves coffee with syrup in it, to the disgust of the fine ladies who come to call upon her. Geske shows the height of bad breeding by scorning her former friends" (Sanderson, 1939 p 209). Addison (1710) described English versions of political tinkers discussing world affairs on a park bench (The Tatler, no 155, April 6).

In "Jeppe of the Hill', “in this version of the fable of the peasant made king for a day, based on a tale in Jacob Biedermann’s 'Utopia' (1640), the main character, a good-natured and witty soul with a predilection for sleeping his cares away and drowning serious concerns in the bottle, has no special quirk or pretension. The story of the play is that of a practical joke...The focus of this comic ‘tour de force’ never deviates from the earthbound reactions of Jeppe to the amazing experiences which befall him” (Marker and Marker, 1975 p 63)."The low social level of the Danish peasantry in Holberg's days which contrasted so unfavourably with the social standing of the Norwegian peasants, the state of drunkenness to which they stooped in consequence of the physical and moral humiliations to which they were subjected, and which they wished to forget, the common sense and keen power of reflection of which they nevertheless were possessed and to which Holberg has paid the famous tribute 'I never speak with peasants without learning something from them'- all this has combined to make Jeppe perhaps the most famous person in the Holberg gallery, conquering generation after generation by his inexhaustible flow of life" (Hammer, 1820 p 23). "The inciting force...is a nobleman who thinks that the pursuit of pleasure is the general aim of life and who argues that most men are willing to die if only they can first enjoy themselves. He finds his own amusement in laughing at stupid people, but he does not forget the serious consequences which may result if these same stupid people are allowed to exercise unlimited power. He takes pleasure in bringing it about that a drunken loafer, like Jeppe, should suddenly wake up and believe himself to be a lord. At first the humor comes from Jeppe’s incredulity, the violent contrast between his two sets of surroundings, and the doctor’s attempts to make him believe in the power of his imagination. Later it is Jeppe’s presumption in acting the part of a tyrannical nobleman which arouses laughter. He eats and drinks most intemperately and with the worst possible table manners; he shows that he is avaricious and stingy in money matters; he is suspicious of a bailiff’s capacities and honesty; and finally, after an orgy of singing and dancing, he prepares to take forcible possession of the bailiff’s wife. Jeppe’s temporary and unreal power makes his attempts at despotism harmless and amusing, but the traits of his character revealed in the process give point to Holberg’s central doctrine that changes in society should not be allowed to take place too swiftly...Jeppe was mentally incapable of assimilating his experience into the realm of abstract thought, like Segismundo, the hero of Calderon’s Life Is a Dream (1635), which Jeppe of the Hill so strikingly resembles. The scenes in which Jeppe and Segismundo awake to find themselves in unaccustomed positions of authority are extraordinarily similar, even to the martial music that both men enjoy, but Holberg’s treatment of this theme lacks the poetic implications of Calderon’s play" (Sanderson, 1939 pp 210-211). "Holberg has made a world-old farce a vehicle for realistic and profound delineation 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).

"The busybody" recalls Molière's The Imaginary Invalid (1673), with the principal character’s absorption in medicine changed to a mania for business. Shrill, the noisy, bustling man, wants to have his daughter marry a bookkeeper, but he is so careless of practical affairs that he is easily tricked into making it possible for her to marry her true lover...[He] is one of Holberg’s most memorable comic characters. He is drawn with some variety as well as with extreme consistency. He speedily changes his attention from economic to domestic matters, but always with ceaseless activity. His chief occupations are adding up figures, writing business letters, and supervising the expenditure of money" (Sanderson, 1939 pp 219-220). “To make use of Ben Jonson's distinction, [Holberg’s plays] present us with humors rather than characters. That is, they belong to the class which includes Jonson's own plays and most of Molière's, as distinguished from the class of which the plays of Shakespeare are the unrivaled type. Each character is, as a rule, the embodiment of some one characteristic, not a human being in the creative sense of Shakespeare and Scott. But Holberg at his highest, like Molière, transcends this general limitation of his genius, and presents us with a few types of genuine vitality. Reserving these for a more careful consideration, we will now briefly characterize the less important comedies. Best of all, perhaps, among those which depict humors, is the comedy of The Busybody. Here the chief figure, appropriately named Vielgeschrey, is that of a man who finds so much to do in fussing over affairs of trifling importance that he gets no time for serious matters and no enjoyment out of life“ (Payne, 1899b p 392).

In "Witchcraft or false alarm", "the large number of superstitious people introduced prevents one’s taking an interest in them individually but proves unmistakably how prevalent is the evil of which Holberg is here complaining. The group comprises the pious and the aged, foolish girls and silly fops, in fact anyone whose desires are unfulfilled and uncontrolled. From all of them the actor succeeds in getting money under false pretenses, until he is haled to court on the charge of being a sorcerer. Then Holberg has an excellent opportunity to join a general satire on lawyers’ methods with a specific attack on their proneness to unwarranted suspicion, one of the evils which ordinarily accompanies belief in witchcraft" (Sanderson, 1939 p 222).

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).

"While openly acknowledging that he owed much to Plautus, Molière and English Restoration playwrights as well as to the commedia dell'arte in the structure of his plays, he had the courage to add many features, both in his characterizations and in his choice of comic incidents, that were drawn directly from town and country lite in Scandinavia. Thus, like Marivaux, he created a style ot play that was uniquely his own. His gentle, mocking humour, however, appealed greatly to neighbouring Dutchmen and Germans as well as to his own countrymen, all ot whom came to regard him as the true founder of Scandinavian drama and theatre" (Wickham, 1994 p 173). “Viewing the comedies as a whole, and making due allowance for the types and situations transferred by Holberg from earlier writers to his own pages, we cannot fail to be impressed by his display of fertile invention, genuine humor, and exuberant vitality” (Payne, 1899b p 397).

"In their outward appearance Holberg's comedies are Danish customs and manners, names and scenery being contemporary Danish portraits hailing from Copenhagen or from the province but from within they are unmistakably Norwegian. In fact, the typical characters of the Holberg gallery are not only his compatriots ; they are natives of Bergen like himself. The old-fashioned gentleman, Jeronimus, narrow-minded, but possessed of a solid stock of common sense which will stand no nonsense from the younger generation; his wife Magdelone, who has some recollections of a merry youth and is not altogether proof against relapses into former extravagances; Henrik, the clever servant with the ever-inventive brain, the champion of the rights of youth; Pernille, the witty chamber-maid, alternately impertinent and obsequious, but always beaming with mirth, sure of a safe, however narrow, escape every one of them, as well as a number of less important characters, are stamped by their own dear, queer town. You may even meet them in the streets of Bergen today" Hammer, 1820 p 24).

"The political tinker"

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"

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"

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

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 after finding out her considerable dowry of 3,000 riksdales.

"Witchcraft or false alarm"

There are more false alarms than witchcraft in Holberg's 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.