In Himmel og Jord (1938) and in the preface to I Brændingen, Kaj Munk sets forth his theories of drama. He states a desire to see the Danish theater return to the “grand drama” of earlier years. He proposes a bold approach to drama, in which the true world is depicted. He says that the public is better off watching motion pictures, in which dramatic things happen, than watching an insipid stage production.
Herod the King
Herod the King was Munk’s first play to be presented at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen but certainly not his greatest success. It was, in fact, met with a decided lack of enthusiasm on the part of the critics. It was later drastically revised, and the result was much more successful than the original had been. The play is fundamentally about the struggle between the king and God. It presents Herod as a person who will stop at nothing to remain in power. No sacrifice is too great if it will accomplish that end—even the murder of his own beloved wife.
This is only one of a number of Munk’s plays portraying larger-than-life characters, such as kings, emperors, and dictators. Act 1 begins with Herod’s sister, Salome, trying to influence him in the selection of a high priest. Salome is involved in plots and intrigues throughout the play, and she ultimately succeeds in turning the king against his lovely wife Miriamne, by wrongly accusing her of unfaithfulness, upon which Herod has Miriamne put to death.
In the first act, Herod clearly outlines his goal: “At last, at last—Edom’s foot on Jacob’s neck! Now my aim is to wield a ruthless scepter with a hated hand over this people, until I did. . . . No, I do not declare war on God. For what do I know of God? No, but—if He declares war on me, if He still sides with Jacob, well, then, I am a son of Edom and I shall not abandon my goal.” Later, he says: “I have but one goal: to wear my crown so that none can wrest it from me. For this I must sacrifice everything on earth.”
Herod’s love of power and his defiance of God can lead only to his ultimate failure and damnation. In act 8, Herod says: “My life has been one long fear—fear that He up there might at last rob me of my crown.” Then, hearing that the son of David has been born in Bethlehem, he orders that every male child less than two years of age be put to the sword. He finally realizes that he has failed, that the Messiah, the King of the Jews, has escaped his sword. He ends the play with these words: “I am alone with God. . . . Then wilt Thou hear me. . . . See, I kneel to Thee—forgive me my sins, my struggle, my defiance. But let the child die. . . . Give me back the crown for which I have sacrificed the blood of my beloved—my body and soul—all that I had. Take pity on me, my Emperor, my Master, Thou God of Jacob—take pity on They servant, Thy slave, Thy fool.” With those words, Herod dies, realizing finally the futility of his defiance of God and that his sacrifice has been for nought.
The Word was received with enthusiasm but was not without its critics. It presents the common, country folk and deals almost exclusively with religion. The theme is clearly laid out in the first act. The action takes place in the home of a seventy-five-year-old farmer, the father of three sons. The eldest son, Mikkel, is married and has two daughters. The second, Johannes, was studying for the priesthood but has apparently gone mad and imagines himself to be Jesus Christ. The youngest, Anders, hopes to marry a neighbor girl, Esther.
The subject of miracles continually arises. Interestingly, it is the local pastor who is most certain that miracles cannot happen in the modern world. On his first visit to the farmer’s home, the new pastor meets Johannes, who introduces himself as Jesus of Nazareth, and says: “You believe in miracles of two thousand years ago, but not in one now. Why do you believe in the dead Christ, but not in the living?” The priest later says, as they discuss a play by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson called Over ævne, annet stykk (1805; Beyond Our Power, 1913): “An incurable is supposed to be cured by a miracle—I remember. It simply couldn’t happen nowadays.” The old farmer also repeatedly says that he does not believe in miracles.
The second act takes place in the home of Rueben, Esther’s father, and represents a conflict between two groups within the state church. The group represented by Reuben is extremely conservative, believes in miracles, and is quite hostile toward those who do not share their beliefs. Because of these differences, Reuben will not let his daughter marry Anders, although they are all Lutheran.
The climax of the play occurs in the third and fourth acts, with the death of Inger, Mikkel’s wife, in childbirth. Johannes disappears for three days, reappearing just as...
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