Thursday, May 29, 2014

Jeppe of the Hill - 18th century Danish topsy-turvy land

What I am trying to do is avoid writing about Henrik Ibsen, so let’s look at one of his greatest influences, the 18th century Dano-Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg.  “In the nineteenth century, Holberg’s comedies influenced Henrik Ibsen, who wrote that they were the only thing he never tired of reading.”  So says one of Holberg’s translators  (p. xxxii).*  Ibsen was one strange bird.  He would have seen plenty of Holberg plays a young fellow, though.

And they turn out to be, unsurprisingly, awfully good.  I was at first planning to read only Jeppe of the Hill; or, The Transformed Peasant (1722), Holberg’s most famous, most translated play, but many months ago a friendly commenter suggested I try Erasmus Montanus; or, Rasmus Berg (1723), and since Jeppe was pretty good, why not, and then Erasmus Berg turned out to be pretty good, and who would want to resist something titled Pernille’s Brief Experience as a Lady or The Burial of Danish Comedy?  Both of the latter are from 1727 – as you can see, Danish comedy was lived a jolly but short life.

Jeppe of the Hill uses the old, old story of the poor man who becomes, as the result of a prank, king for a day, or in Jeppe’s case baron for a few hours before he drinks himself into a stupor.  I most strongly associate the idea with Sancho Panza achieving his dream of governing an island in Don Quixote, but there are versions of the story going back to classical Sanskrit and Chinese.

JEPPE:  There’s no mistaking that I am Jeppe of the Hill; I know I’m a poor peasant, a serf, a scoundrel, a cuckold, a hungry louse, a maggot, a scum; how can I, at the same time, be an emperor and lord of a castle?  No, it’s only a dream…  Maybe I drank myself to death yesterday at Jacob Shoemaker’s.  Died and went straight to heaven.  Death must not be as hard to pass through as we imagine; I didn’t feel a thing.  (II.1.)

Jeppe turns out to be a great character, obviously great fun for an actor and audience, a drunken peasant stereotype who somehow is full of life even when he thinks he is dead.  After the baron and his minions have played the prank making Jeppe the baron, and then returning him to the dungheap {“I thought when I woke up again I’d find my fingers covered with gold rings, but they are (to be polite) encrusted with something else entirely,” IV.1.) they launch a second, even crueler prank, arresting him, condemning him to death, and even hanging him, which he takes in stride.

NILLE:  Oh my beloved husband, how can you talk when you’re dead?
JEPPE:  I don’t know that myself.  But listen, my sweet wife, run like wildfire and bring me eight pennies’ worth of brandy!  I’m thirstier now then when I was alive.  (V.1.)

She responds by beating him; that’s her answer to everything.  The baron restores Jeppe to life (“the court that sentenced you to death can also sentence you to life again”) and the topsy-turvy world to order.

For the brief period that Jeppe ruled, he becomes a revolutionary tyrant, threatening to hang everyone around him.  The baron, the prankster, who is obviously a dangerous lunatic himself, ends the play by wondering if he should have allowed the hangings.  “I believe, without reservation, that you [his servant] would have allowed yourself to be hanged rather than spoil this delightful joke” (V.6.)  How it took over two hundred years after this to get to the Marx Brothers and Duck Soup I do not understand.  Holberg was almost there.

*  Gerald S. Argetsinger and Sven H, Rossel,  Jeppe of the Hill and Other Comedies, 1990, Southern Illinois University Press. The source of all the quotations.


  1. Ibsen is yet another embarrassing lacuna for me, Tom, but I've seen both Rubén Darío and Alfonso Reyes speak highly of him in essays I've come across more or less by chance recently. Maybe his "strange bird" qualities and not the surrealists' were what led to the development of magical realism as filtered by the early Latin American modernists (and Ibsen in turn from Holberg?). Interesting post about a playwright I'd never even heard of before, by the way. I like the sound of Jeppe's scoundrel speech here as well as his wife's propensity for physical violence--seems almost Ubuesque in a way or at least what little I remember from my brief, unfinished dip into the Jarry waters. I'm probably way off base, though, right?

  2. I have, I tell you what, closed that lacuna. I don't know what you're taking about with magical realism and surrealists. Ibsen is a realist, we all know that.

    No, Ibsen can be really strange. That he is so strongly associated with the word "realism" is a curious accident of literary and social history.

    The Jarry connection is not off base. Holberg and Jarry are both playing around, imitating, thieving the old puppet show / Commedia dell'arte traditions. Lots of puppets violence. Jeppe, though, is actually developed into a "real" character, which is pretty good for a human puppet.

  3. It's embarrassing how little I know about Danish drama. Literature yes, a bit, drama no. These sound really fun. I downloaded some of them and will try them out sometime.

  4. Did I mention that Holberg's plays are quite short? Just to encourage trying them out. Five act plays that come in under 50 pages. They move pretty fast.