Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Burial of Danish Comedy - and its birth

One more Holberg post, if just to get at the mystery of why and how his 18th century Danish comedies exist.

The rough story, which I am pulling from the Argetsinger and Rossel selection of Holberg’s plays, is as follows.  A French entrepreneur opened a comic theater in Copenhagen, population 100,000 or so, that performed French and German plays.  He quickly found that however sophisticated the Copenhagen audience, he desperately needed Danish-language plays to keep the theater alive.  He commissioned quick translations, of Molière, for example, and cast about for original plays in Danish.

Enter Ludvig Holberg, a 38 year old professor of Roman literature who had just had a bit of success with a long verse satire blending Juvenal and Don Quixote, which I would guess is close to  unreasonable now, but have I ever been wrong about that sort of thing.  This does not, to me, sound like much of a qualification to write comedies for the stage, but it turned out that Holberg had a genius for the form.  He knocked out roughly five comedies a year for five years until a series of catastrophes, including a terrible 1728 fire that destroyed much of Copenhagen, shut down the theater for good.

Holberg stole like a genius: plots, characters, jokes.  I see Molière and Italian comedies as the main sources of the ones I have read, as if I know so much about early modern theater to know about Holberg’s sources.  But in a play like The Christmas Party (1724) or Pernille’s Brief Experience as a Lady (1727), the characters can be directly matched to their commedia dell’arte predecessors – this one is Harlequin, this one Pantalone, and so on.

What is new is the old story and characters in a not just a new setting but a thickly described one, so that in The Christmas Party the usual plot about a wife and her lover fooling the husband is given a background of Epiphany candles, rice puddings, Christmas games and gifts, and a little boy costumed as a ram.  Holberg is putting in his plays some of the strengths of the modern novel, which in some sense has not been invented yet, or perhaps was just invented by Daniel Defoe a few years earlier.  I am contrasting Holberg with his contemporary Marivaux, who was moving Italian comedies in the opposite direction, reducing them to a state of light, elegant, but almost abstract perfection.

Fires aside, Holberg’s theater was ultimately done in by money.  Even his brilliance was not enough.  The book I have used ends with a six page play, The Burial of Danish Comedy (1727).  The skit begins with an actor calculating his debts:

HENRICH:  “Chicken soup, for six pennies, boiled beef with horseradish for seven pennies, sauerkraut with pork for five pennies, buckwheat porridge boiled in milk for three pennies, three rolls and six mugs of beer,”  That’s true.  I ate well that day.  There’s no other advantage to these days of fasting.  (Sc. 1)

Henrich and the other actors learn some bad news.  “The interminably sick is the assuredly dead”  (Sc. 3) – Comedy has died, leaving nothing but debts to the actors.  What will they do, how can they find other employment? 

MADEMOISELLE HIORT:  We’ve offended everyone: officers, doctors, lawyers, pewterers, marquises, barons, barbers!

HENRICH:  That’s certainly true.  I haven’t dared to get a shave since we played that comedy about Master Gert.  (Sc. 4, “Master Gert” not translated, unfortunately)

The actors form a procession ahead of the corpse of Comedy, who is in a wheelbarrow.  They march around the stage three times before lowering the wheelbarrow through the trap door.  We live in a crueler age now, so if I were staging this I would ump the corpse in, headfirst.  “HENRICH jumps into the grave, full of sorrow, as though he will never survive the Comedy.”  This was actually performed, on February 25, 1727.

The company eventually  reformed again, but it was back to Roman literature and metaphysics for Holberg.  He had founded Danish literature.


  1. Juvenal, Cervantes, Danish Literature kilometer zero. Sounds like a road map to me! "I ate well that day" is a nicely played line even in translation, of course.

  2. There have been a few places where I have wondered if the translators were improving or punching up the jokes. But then they also keep all of the Latin "humor" and similarly obscure parts. I'll bet they are playing it straight. These plays can still be funny.