Johan Ludvig Heiberg Essay - Critical Essays


Johan Ludvig Heiberg has come to be represented almost exclusively by Elverhøj, which is a weak and boring play, but even his best efforts, such as Recensenten og dyret or A Soul After Death, are neither weighty nor universal enough to have anything but historical value. Heiberg was a major figure in his own time who created a national Danish Romantic drama and was an important intellectual force, but he has not been able to penetrate the time barrier and reach modern audiences as more than a voice from the past, a voice locked in the past.

Heiberg was a writer with a program. He wanted to create a Danish national comic drama; he wanted this drama to embody his ideas about the nature and function of art; and he wanted to infuse this drama with his Romantic vision of the world. The central themes in Heiberg’s work are his ideas about the Romantic movement and his Hegelian convictions. For Heiberg, Romanticism meant, first and foremost, a focus on the national. He believed that each nation has its own unique “spirit” and that this spirit is a force, a raw energy. The spirit is expressed in such ancient sources as myths and folklore, and the task of the Romantic artist is to take the raw energy locked into the myth or folktale and give it an artistic/moral form. Heiberg perceived myths and folklore as embodiments of nature, but nature with a national imprint. The Romantic artist must transform nature into art, or rather, weave a thread intertwining nature and artistic form.

Heiberg regarded the drama as the ideal medium for his artistic creation, a conviction based on a rather unwieldy argument. Drama, he contended, is the most complete of the verbal arts; in turn, by intricate Hegelian dialectic, he argued that the verbal arts are the most sophisticated of all the arts. That lyric drama is the pinnacle of dramatic forms is established by another set of dialectic equations. Poetry, the most sophisticated of the verbal arts, has two primary modes, lyric and epic. Drama is both lyric and epic—that is, it embodies both poetic form, which is timeless, and a story, which is located in time. Heiberg’s insistence on dialectic equations is both amusing and pathetic.

From a more practical point of view, Heiberg wanted to create a new dramatic art form, the Danish vaudeville, which he wanted to be different both from classical drama and from its contemporary forebears, French Opéra Comique (or song plays) and German plays with songs. Heiberg castigated both of the above as hodgepodges of drama, music, and dance in which the three performing arts are thrown together without taste or artistic merit. The songs and the dance in these theatrical forms were, Heiberg said, unmotivated interruptions of the action, and the action an unwelcome activity to be endured between musical numbers. He proposed to create a drama in which the three forms united to compose a synthetic whole. Most important, the music was to be incorporated into the action, growing naturally from it. In addition to this strong emphasis on form, his drama would be distinguished by a preoccupation with the Danish national character.

Recensenten og dyret

When one reads Heiberg’s plays, especially the best ones such as Recensenten og dyret, his program comes to life. To be sure, Recensenten og dyret is light fare, but it is witty, well constructed, and closely follows Heiberg’s specifications for what a good vaudeville should be.

Recensenten og dyret is, like all of Heiberg’s vaudevilles, a play about young love. Keiser and Viva love each other, but as Keiser is a young and penniless student, and Viva’s father is in financial trouble caused by his vain ambitions to be a serious publisher, Pryssing, the father, refuses to let the young lovers marry. He has decided that he wants a son-in-law with money, one who can help him out of his economic distress.

The setting for the play is the Copenhagen amusement park, Bakken. For a paper he publishes, Pryssing has hired Torp, a sixty-year-old law student, to write reviews of everything from the circus to streetsingers. Pryssing thinks that his paper will succeed if it has reviews. He and Viva come to Bakken, Pryssing to check on Torp, Viva to meet Keiser secretly.

Torp, because his pay from Pryssing is not merely low but also overdue, has devised the scheme of presenting an act of his own in a tent at Bakken. He wants to display an unusual animal that he has happened on and captured (thus the title, the critic and the animal). Pryssing is somewhat upset because this will mean an artistic event that will not be reviewed in his paper, but he is put at ease when Torp assures him that he will review his own act, too. Two other characters show up, Klatterup and Lederman. One is a writer (he writes social criticism for newspapers) and the other is a publisher. They are at Bakken because Pryssing owes them money, and they have heard that he is going to be there.

As the intrigue develops, young Keiser uses his quick wits to save Pryssing from his angry creditors. He has Torp give Pryssing the animal, which Pryssing, in turn, gives to Klatterup and Lederman in payment of his debt. In the end, when Pryssing has already given Keiser and Viva his consent, it is disclosed that the “unique” animal is merely an insect that has lost one of its legs. The audience who has gathered to see the animal is justifiably furious, and the representatives of greed, bourgeois stupidity, and self-righteousness, Pryssing, Torp, Lederman, and Klatterup, are the butt of the public’s anger.

The themes of Recensenten og dyret are young love, greed, and literary and critical dilettantism. The major conflict is the typically Romantic one between nature and culture. Keiser and Viva, who are young and in love, embody nature as an invincible force. They also represent, because they symbolize nature, Danishness: If one is Danish, one should act Danish and not try to imitate foreigners. The older characters represent a dying social system based on unnaturalness, on greed, and on misunderstood and naïve artistic pretensions. Un-Danishness is represented by various characters who perform at Bakken. They are Italian, German, and French (important cultural influences in Denmark at the time). The older characters succumb to the charms of the Italian equestrienne; the other foreigners have equally “elevated” artistic pursuits. Clearly, the moral is that the two young people, representing nature and Danishness, have the moral right over the older generation, which finds its ideals in foreign dilettantes. There is a logic in nature (young love) that invariably overcomes all cultural constraints.

The form is light but witty and linguistically sophisticated. Heiberg shows great skill in the construction of his play. The songs are textbook examples of his theory on how to use music in vaudeville: They never intrude, but fit neatly and naturally into the action and often have the character of dialogues and dramatic encounters. The more straightforward songs effectively set the mood, which is an important aspect of Heiberg’s theory concerning the use of music in vaudeville. He deliberately uses light tunes that are already known to the audience, so that the tunes can help to set a mood without themselves becoming intrusive. Recensenten og dyret is probably Heiberg’s most successful vaudeville in terms of his program for the creation of a Danish national vaudeville. Its principal drawback is that it seems to have been written, in part, as a polemic against particular individuals in his own day.

The April Fools

All the other vaudevilles that Heiberg wrote are variations on the same theme: A boy and girl are in love, and their parents or guardians oppose their love because of greed and because they are part of an old and dying system. In the end, romance and young, unbridled nature win out, and everybody is happy. The April Fools is no exception. It follows the pattern in every way. It is interesting, however, because it clearly exemplifies Heiberg’s rather heavy-handed use of symbolism.

The April Fools is set in a girls’ boarding school and depicts the love affair of Sigfried Møller and Constance, who are young adults, and the love...

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