Friday, May 30, 2014

You should be ashamed for ruining the whole story like this! - Ludvig Holberg's meta-comedy

How about some 18th century Danish satire!  Followed by some meta-theater.  Readers would be fleeing Wuthering Expectations, if they had not already done so, years ago.  Satire is, to so many readers, death.  I do not know why.  I have guesses, all unflattering, so I will keep them to myself.

In Erasmus Montanus, or Rasmus Berg (1723), the target is book learnin’.  The subtitular character goes to Copenhagen to the university and returns transformed into the title character, spouting Latin and syllogisms, completely ruined by his education.  Since I was only 70% ruined by mine, I laughed and laughed.

JACOB:  Then what should I call Brother?

MONTANUS:  You shall address me as “Monsieur Montanus.”  That is my name in Copenhagen.

JACOB:  If I can only remember that.  Was it Monsewer Dromedarius?  (II.2.)

There are circumstances in life when one should not go for the cheap laugh, but writing a comedy is not one of them.

Just as I am ready to see the disputatious Erasmus Montanus punished for his idiocy, the play swivels.  The villagers do not just condemn his pretensions and uselessness, but his real knowledge – is the earth round, does it go around the sun, and so on.  Montanus is threatened with heresy, expulsion, and finally with the military draft.  Things are taking an ugly turn.  But this is a comedy, so everything turns out all right.  Crushed by the community, Rasmus Berg renounces everything, true or false, good or bad, allowing him to marry his girl and save his hide.  Curtain.

Wait a minute, what happened here?  Holberg’s satire still has some sting.

Ulysses von Ithacia; or A German Comedy (1723) satirizes the conventions of theater.  It is in some sense built around Homer, but in a ludicrous mishmash of Classical, Biblical, and Nordic names and themes.    The central character, Chilian, talks to the audience and recognizes that he is on stage, so he gets to handle every gag involving false beards, props, and the passage of time.

CHILIAN:  I hope m’Lord won’t mind if I ask him how old he was when he left home?

ULYSSES:  I was in my flowering years, not more than forty.

CHILIAN:  Let’s see, forty years at first, then ten years in the siege makes fifty, and twenty years on the trip home make seventy.  The good Dido must be a great lover of antiquities.  She could have her pick from among so many young men, but she’s so cool toward them and falls in love with an ancient, bearded man.

ULYSSES:  Listen, Chilian, I will not listen to such reasoning, thou must have added incorrectly.  (IV.1.)

When Ulysses’ men are turned into swine by Circe, Chilian “cures” them by beating the actors, who are on all fours.

THE SWINE:  [They stand up and become men again.]  As sure as we’re honorable men, you’ll pay for this beating, my good Monsieur Wegner.  You should be ashamed for ruining the whole story like this!  (IV.5.)

He is a blend of Groucho and Chico.  I was surprised by how much of the humor seemed almost Yiddish.

CHILIAN:  Are your streets fairly clean?

TROJAN:  They’re spotless in July, but the rest of the year we can hardly go out for fear of drowning in the mud, but that’s only eleven months of the year, they go quickly.  (II.2.)

Thus it was somehow not a surprise when the play ends with two Jewish moneylenders shutting down the production, stripping the costume right off of Ulysses in lieu of cash.

I will not promise that many people will find these plays as funny as I did, but still, three hundred years later, why should they be funny at all?


  1. Both sound quite modern, too. I used to go to live theatre several times a month when I lived in San Francisco. It was common to see an actor break character, address the audience, do something like take the costumes away to pay the producer's creditors. Things like that, like the ones you describe in these 18th century plays.

    I'd love to see A German Comedy produced. It sounds like lots of fun, though I detect a hint of anti-semitism in it. Am I right to see that in the ending you describe?

  2. Ulysses von Ithacia; or A German Comedy seems to predate Pirandello. Amazing, just amazing! Where did you get your translation? I looked in Amazon and couldn't find it.

  3. If not actually modern, it is certainly easy to make Hoberg's plays seem modern. Current performance would, I am sure, seem almost contemporary.

    I would say the treatment of the Jews in the play is well within safe comic bounds, even for us today, unless it is anti-Semitic simply to have the moneylenders be Jewish. Maybe a performance today would just make them German.

    Prandello, I would say, takes this kind of playing around with theater and turns it into metaphysics, or hopes to do do. Of course there is also a metaphysics to the Marx Brothers - the world is chaos.

    Here is an American Amazon page. Personally, I got the book from a university library.