Common to virtually all Kjeld Abell’s plays are the qualities of innovation, fantasy, and delight in the possibilities of the theater. Because of his background as a stage and graphic artist, his was a visually oriented drama, drawing on clever sets, stage tricks, and symbols to create the atmosphere he believed necessary to activate the audience. From sight gags in his early works through flashbacks, dream sequences, and the blending of past, present, and future time in his later ones, Abell consistently explored the rich possibilities of the stage. All too frequently, however, the formal structure of the play was subordinated to the author’s pleasure in creating a theater experience. Throughout his career, Abell was praised for his devotion to the magic of theater while being faulted for unclear or unresolved plots.
Also common to most of his plays is the theme of rebellion against the prevailing social structure and the praise of human freedom and fellowship. Abell’s variations on this theme roughly correspond to the concerns of Danish and European society in the 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s, and for each decade there is a single drama that best represents Abell’s work of that era. The Melody That Got Lost reflects the concern of the 1930’s with the tyranny of bourgeois life and the appeal of leftist politics as a possible alternative. Anna Sophie Hedvig, written only months before the outbreak of World War II, challenges the political tyranny and public apathy that marked the prewar and war years. Finally, Den blå pekingeser (the blue Pekinese) seeks to combat the feeling of fear and isolation that arose after the war and persisted into the 1950’s.
The Melody That Got Lost
Abell burst onto the scene in the 1930’s with three social satires—a ballet, Enken i spejlet; a musical, The Melody That Got Lost; and a comedy, Eva aftjener sin barnepligt (Eve serves her childhood duty)—the second of which attained the greatest success and became the signature work of Abell’s career. The Melody That Got Lost was staged at a small experimental theater in Copenhagen that was well suited to its light, colloquial tone. Danish audiences, accustomed as they were to ponderous, naturalistic productions, were enchanted by the inventive vitality of this work and responded by attending a record-breaking 594 performances.
The play, which has two acts containing twenty-one loosely connected revue or cabaret-style scenes, is enlivened by songs, the lyrics of which were composed by Sven Møller Kristensen, later a professor of literature. It is marked by numerous scenic plays calculated to entertain and stimulate the audience. Characters in the play directly address the audience, and a spectator climbs onto the stage to express his concern about the development of the play. Wedding plans, ceremony, reception, and honeymoon are telescoped into one brief, symbolic scene, with the ceremony itself represented by a spotlighted bridal veil, bouquet, and top hat passing across an empty stage. The dreariness of a typical day at the office is similarly compressed into brief but revealing scenes of song, dance, and mime, while offstage voices, wires, and rolling sets generate further novelty.
In addition to entertaining, Abell’s gimmicks also illustrate the depersonalized nature of the characters. The protagonist is Larsen, an undistinguished member of the “white-collar proletariat,” a “very nicely dressed” product of “very nice” parents and schools. His hope for a more exciting life is represented by a recurring light melody and a gaudy sheik’s costume, but this hope is threatened by the tyranny of conformity at work and at home.
The three typists at his office, all called Miss Møller, wear identical photographic masks and refer to themselves as copies and automatons. Their employer gruffly tells them not to expect any change in their dull routine and tries to stifle Larsen’s enjoyment of life’s melody by threatening to fire him.
Similar pressure is exerted by the parents of Larsen’s fiancée, Edith. They are first seen in a giant photograph of their living room, with only the actors’ faces visible through holes cut out of the screen. The father is small and timid, the mother, large and domineering, and she manipulates Larsen and Edith so that they renounce life’s melody. In their desire to obtain the material gifts proffered by the parents, they agree to conform to the middle-class conventions that celebrate niceness, order, and cleanliness at the expense of joy and adventure, and with that agreement, the sheik’s costume symbolically sails upward.
Larsen and Edith’s miserable life without the melody is brilliantly depicted by Abell in the last several scenes of act 1. Dull routine at the breakfast table, in the office, and during the obligatory Sunday visits with the parents drain all the vitality from Larsen and his marriage. Cozy evenings are not cozy, and Sunday is exhausting, not a day of rest. Larsen is passive and without energy. He is no longer the same man whom Edith married, and she resolves at all costs to rediscover Larsen’s melody.
Act 2 shows the family rushing about seeking the melody, which is now represented by three elusive young girls, who are seen and heard by the audience but not by the characters. The search proceeds to the police, the church, and to caricatured representations of death and nature, with little success. Edith finally discovers the melody with a little girl skipping rope, Little Edith, presumably her youthful, uncorrupted self. She also encounters others who know the melody—a worker, a cyclist, and a soccer-playing scientist—and hurries to share her discovery with Larsen, who resolves to abandon his “nice” self and repossess the melody of life.
The final scenes have been faulted for being artificial and dramatically inconsistent with the rest of the play, but such an avant-garde production cannot be expected to follow the conventions of traditional dramatic structure. To be sure, there may be too many consecutive scenes in which characters search for the melody, but the greater problem is the clumsy insertion of social and political commentary—on war and peace, class struggle, and child rearing—which distracts from the story of Larsen’s fate. One comment by Little Edith—“You can bet it’s tough being a child”—leads directly to Abell’s next play, Eva aftjener sin barnepligt, a critique of traditional child-rearing practices, but it is out of place in The Melody That Got Lost.
Anna Sophie Hedvig
With the growing political and military menace in Europe, Abell turned his attention to the issue of totalitarianism and the citizen’s response to its dangers. In Judith, a drama inspired by Giraudoux’s play of the same name, Abell challenges the audience to deal with the tyrant Holofernes. In The Queen on Tour, the issue is free speech in the theater, and Silkeborg documents the courage and conflict of the resistance movement in occupied Denmark. Unquestionably, however, Abell’s most memorable play of this period was Anna Sophie Hedvig, which centers on a country schoolteacher who reveals at a family dinner party that she has murdered the evil colleague who was...
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