Abell, Kjeld 1901–1961
Abell was a Danish dramatist and screenwriter. In his work he sought to reveal the passive conformity of the bourgeoisie, the dangers of Nazism, and the erosion of moral integrity in modern life. In his highly regarded Anna Sophie Hedvig, even murder is vindicated as a means of achieving justice. With technical innovation, whimsy, and symbolic device, Abell created persuasive dramas concerned more with topical problems than character development. His early work bears the influence of the expressionist movement in drama, while subsequent plays reflect a more realistic approach.
BØRGE GEDSØ MADSEN
Abell has been a bold experimenter with dramatic form who has enriched Danish drama with a variety of expressionistic techniques. For some of these he is indebted to Strindberg whom he admired greatly. Kjeld Abell has, moreover, in the best of his dramas been a thoughtful and—despite all his playfulness and wit—serious critic of his times. It is this latter aspect of his work which is my subject.
There are three major motifs in Kjeld Abell's theater: (1) satire of bourgeois life and values (middle-class conventionality and respectability are seen by Abell as stifling to all human spontaneity, originality and joy of life); (2) criticism of political neutrality or indifference and moral passivity, connected with a call for active resistance to oppressive totalitarian forces; (3) criticism of emotional coldness and lack of solidarity with others in certain types of modern intellectuals, coupled with a conviction that emotional warmth and solidarity are found in the common people.
If the ballet Enken i Spejlet (1934) is excepted, Abell's satirical attack on bourgeois conventionality is embodied mainly in his two expressionistic comedies, Melodien, der blev vaek (1935) and Eva aftjener sin Barnepligt (1936), although this kind of satire appears sporadically in later plays as well. At the opening of Melodien the average Danish white-collar worker Larsen and his girl Edith do have the melody (the joy of life), but by Edith's formidably conventional mother Larsen is made to abjure all poetic nonsense. He must forget the melody, acquire some sense, marry Edith, and settle down to a career in the office. The cruel banality of an average Danish middle-class existence is reproduced by Abell with frightening exactness and considerable wit…. The melody in this play … symbolizes the poetry of existence, or joy of life, and a feeling of solidarity with others. And in Abell's view these values are rarely found in the unimaginative, self-sufficient middle classes.
There is a close thematic connection between Melodien and Eva. In Eva Abell shows us how and why so many members of the middle classes become the drab, joyless, frustrated individuals that they are. The reason for the calamity is the perverse system of education which children are subjected to, and which, often with the best of intentions, is handed down from generation to generation. Whenever a natural impulse of the child seeks a spontaneous outlet, it is met by the chilling dictum of the respectable: It isn't done! Eve, the mother of mankind, goes through this experience in Abell's play as she steps out of a painting in a museum and allows herself to be born into a decent, well-to-do upper-middle class family, Ernst. She finally rebels against the tyranny of the family over her personality which they, in fear of the future, try to mold in their own image to preserve the past…. Eva aftjener sin Barnepligt and Melodien, der blev vaek … make the same point: bourgeois conventionality and respectability are inhibiting influences detrimental to the creative and spontaneous urges in human nature. The two plays embody the Bohemian or aesthetic part of Kjeld Abell's many-faceted artistic personality.
The laborer whom Edith met in Melodien in a long, colorful speech severely criticizes the political indifference of the middle class. This speech gives the first adumbration of a theme which Abell was to develop further in a group of plays from the late 1930's and the 1940's…. The laborer's indictment of middle-class political apathy clearly reflects the troubled economic situation of the early 1930's with unemployment, strikes, and lock-outs. In Anna Sophie Hedvig (1939), Judith (1940), Silkeborg (1946), and Dage paa en Sky (1947), Kjeld Abell's scope becomes more comprehensive. In these serious dramas Abell is concerned with such momentous historical events as the rise of Nazism, the occupation of Denmark and the activities of the Danish underground, and the advent of the atomic bomb. Consistently in these plays Abell calls for active resistance to destructive totalitarian forces, whether they be political, technological, or military. And consistently he stresses the point, makes the accusation, that ordinary citizens by their political and moral passivity are partly responsible for the rise of dictators and technological tyranny.
The middle-aged, mousy-looking schoolteacher Anna Sophie Hedvig who has the courage to destroy a local despot when she feels her little world threatened is Abell's most impressive embodiment of the spirit of resistance; and the play that bears her name is one of his most forceful indictments of the policy of neutrality and of moral passivity. (pp. 127-30)
[Abell makes the point in Anna Sophie Hedvig that by] our passivity and political indifference we are all … responsible for the rise of dictators. This is a point that Abell makes even more emphatically in his next play Judith. (p. 131)
In the second act of his play Judith, Abell makes his modern Judith (a young society widow) remark that the Biblical Judith is so very remote from her, but the Young Man, her companion, rebukes her by stating that "she concerns all of us." This remark prepares us for the major motif of the drama. In the Biblical part of the play Judith sets out to kill the tyrant Holofernes, who is laying siege to her city; but after much anguished casting about she finds toward the end that she is unable to do this. The reason for her inability to act is the realization that she herself and people like her are responsible for the emergence of the dictator…. [Action] is taken in Judith, though not by the "unworthy" Judith but by Mrs. Branza, a woman of the people, a brothel keeper, who is not inhibited by Judith's weakness and feeling of guilt. The fact that it is she who kills Holofernes illustrates Abell's unshakable faith in the basic soundness and vitality of the common people.
The background for Anna Sophie Hedvig and Judith was the threatening rise of fascist dictators on...
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In general, astonishing technical virtuosity coupled with a prolific ability to devise new and provocative forms of theater are the qualities which set Abell's contribution apart from that of any other playwright of his generation in Scandinavia. "Why is there anything in the theater called realism?" he demanded in a seminal essay from the thirties. "Can theater ever be realistic? Has 'the human comedy' anything to do with everyday reality?… Must the actors always stand facing the audience?… Who has decreed how reality should look? Does it always look like that?" As his art deepened, the questions multiplied, and their urgency seemed to increase. Underlying his restless quest for an imaginative and "retheatricalized" theater is the fundamental purpose to which he incessantly returns in his theoretical writing: to restore the spectator, narcotized by the literal-mindedness of the naturalistic style, to his rightful function as an active participant in the theatrical event. (p. 19)
The interplay between ballet and theater is … a significant factor in Abell's early career…. [His] exposure to "the wordless theater" of ballet taught him to control "theatrical space, the abstract, invisible space, spatial balance created by the precision of movement and the will of the silent word." Ballet-drama sharpened and extended the range of his ability to integrate nonverbal elements and effective visual imagery into his theatrical poetry. From the very outset,… a lively interaction between the verbal and nonverbal elements of drama was one of his most distinctive traits as a playwright. (pp. 25-6)
The political apathy and indifference of the self-centered middle class, already a target area in Abell's earlier social plays and revues, emerges as a major thematic concern in the cycle of plays which deal, more or less explicitly, with the threat to personal freedom posed by the rise and spread of Nazi aggression. Although these "political" dramas continue to be animated by the persistent Abellian conflict between the "open" and the "closed" individual—the struggle of life against its nullification by false values and inhibiting societal pressures—the elements of action in them are more dramatically concrete than in the earlier comic fantasies. Concomitantly, the focus of concern shifts from the social mass to the individual and the affirmative, existential action which is required of him in the face of tyranny. (p. 51)
[His three-act drama Anna Sophie Hedvig] remains Abell's best known work…. [The] full explanation of the play's remarkable contemporary impact is to be found in its underlying message of political resistance—an exhortation readily apprehended by audiences living in the growing shadow of the Third Reich…. The character of Anna Sophie Hedvig, the mild little spinster schoolteacher who takes action to rid her small world of evil, became a symbol of freedom, capable of speaking more forcefully to the dramatist's contemporaries than any political tract could do. So forcefully, in fact, that discussions of the play's theme and ideas have virtually overwhelmed attempts to examine dispassionately its incontrovertible structural weaknesses.
Abell's principal weapons in this drama are a strong situation (almost melodramatically so) and the venerable but serviceable device of a dramatic catalyst introduced into a potentially explosive situation. In the glittering midst of one of his stuffiest and most shallow-spirited families, the playwright places his grey, self-effacing, and apparently harmless heroine—an unexpected house guest who has inexplicably deserted her post at a provincial girls' school and now finds herself a superfluous and barely welcome participant in a business dinner of crucial importance for the family's economy. The complacent after-dinner conversation, replete with Abell's customary satirical barbs and deliberate banalities, drifts to the justification of taking another's life. As the company smugly agrees that no "enlightened, cultivated, modern individual" could ever kill, the hitherto silent schoolteacher quietly casts her dramatic bombshell. Confronted in her own school-world with the rise of a malicious and implacably power-mad tyrant bent on seizing the principalship from a better qualified but less aggressive rival, Anna Sophie Hedvig has taken justice upon herself and has murdered the noxious Mrs. Miller by throwing her down a flight of stairs…. (pp. 51-2)
Clearly, Abell has serious designs on us here. His play is a protest against passive humanism and political neutrality, an allegorical attack on all those who … always understand both sides of a question. That's our glaring weakness in relation to the others who insist on getting their way, without any in-betweens. They drive straight ahead—and we give up and make the excuse that we're too humane"…. People must, according to the play's tough-minded morality, take a stand concerning the world around them, and must bear full responsibility for that stand. We remain free and alive only through engagement and direct action, and thus Anna Sophie Hedvig's decision to destroy tyranny is an "heroic" reaffirmation of her existence. (p. 53)
The idea that the meek must eventually stand up to the bullies if they ever hope to inherit the earth is a familiar one in the drama of this period. However, the transparency of the ethical stance in Abell's play … has perhaps tended to divert attention from the curious discrepancy that exists between the strength and aggressiveness of the theme and the oblique and even evasive manner in which it is dramatized…. [It is] in the play's structural fabric that its vulnerability mainly lies.
Anna Sophie Hedvig represents an obvious and deliberate departure from Abell's earlier expressionist techniques…. [However, despite the playwright's assertion that its form is realistic], the "realistic" texture of the play is only skin deep, and its use of the familiar devices of the drawing-room play and the thriller is freely combined with a distinctly cinematic fluidity of time and place. (pp. 53-4)
Within [a] double framework, the story of Anna Sophie Hedvig's strange visit and its consequences unfolds in an almost filmic manner, depicted in a fairly symmetrical sequence of episodes which dissolve, one into the next, by means of a "cross fade" technique…. (p. 55)
Anna Sophie Hedvig's "bombshell" remains, in a dramatic sense, a theoretical construct, inconclusively related to the drawing-room types who quarrel over her fate. No one within this dimension of the play is directly implicated in her life, and throughout the main conflict she remains apart and virtually silent. The philosophic defense of her stand-point is left to John, the playwright's angry spokesman, and, though his arguments cause dramatic sparks to fly, we are continually told rather than shown why and how this sudden encounter with naked, passionate commitment to a course of action will reshape the family's destiny. There is, in other words, a curious disconnectedness between Anna Sophie Hedvig's unseen deed and its postulated effect upon the uninvolved middle-class environment to which it is made known. (pp. 55-6)
[In the flashbacks the playwright characteristically] draws back from dramatizing the actual confrontation between his protagonist and her shadowy opponent, whose destructive malice is never shown and who thus remains [a symbol]…. But can a murder which is made the dramatic crux of an apparently realistic "mystery" play be handled in purely poetic or "symbolic" fashion? (p. 56)
[Anna Sophie Hedvig] is, as one of its characters remarks in retrospect, "no tragedy"—and its meandering structure often vitiates the full force of its strong central idea. Abell's meek, anti-heroic heroine provokes none of the fiercely emotional "soul tearing" caused by [other modern dramatic characters]. Nor, of course, has the playwright meant that she should do so. Through most of the play, her character seems strangely distant and peripheral, an idea more than a living human being. However, her final long speech, delivered in the closing moments … in the prison yard, marks a bold dramatic peripety, a moving existential reaffirmation that at last fuses philosophy and emotion and places both the speaker and her symbolic act in a universal perspective …
[Isn't] it wonderful that existence, no matter how it may look, can still get someone to die for it. It's as though you face death in order to live. Your faith keeps the world alive…. You fight for [the] future—when you die, it is to make it possible. You do not say that it is no use—you know it is some use….
No clear or unambiguous conclusion is reached, however, for Abell's theater, in this work as elsewhere, builds on questions rather than certainties. "If the poet answers, thinks he answers, his answer is a thousand questions. The answer comes from the auditorium. That answer is the life-nerve of the theater." (pp. 57-8)
The potential strength of will with which the mythic characters of Judith and Holofernes are so richly endowed is voided in order to make a philosophical point [in Judith], and the dramatic clash of wills virtually inherent in this material is thereby sacrificed…. The same propensity for dealing in "words about action" rather than "words and action" which critics had recognized in Anna Sophie Hedvig also besets this play, but the [protagonist, a] "charming and amiable and confused young woman who listlessly allows herself to be driven halfway toward a goal, but who accomplishes nothing beyond falling in love with a lieutenant" was unable to provide the same unifying focus of interest that the character of Anna Sophie Hedvig represents on the stage.
A related problem undermining the effectiveness of Judith in performance is its lack of structural coherence. The pleasant but irrelevant comedy of the vicarage scenes and the casually introduced but undeveloped emotional relationships of the biblical portion of the drama obfuscate the main line of the action. Crucial scenes … are barely dramatized. At the close, the spurious "happy ending" that restores the amiable young lovers to a brave new world of Sunday morning sunshine and freshly baked bread is only superficially related to the dramatic issues with which the playwright has ostensibly been grappling.
There is no doubt that Abell himself was, as Elias Bredsdorff points out, deeply engaged in the larger ethical questions around which Judith revolves—"the conflict between weakness and strength, thought and action, doubt and faith." The play remains among his most ambitiously "philosophical" works. Basically, however, Abell was neither a skilful debater … nor a brilliant dialectician … and abstract ideas and verbose arguments are generally his worst enemies as a playwright. "He was," writes one critic bluntly but with considerable insight, "a great poet of the theater but an inferior thinker. He was a visionary, not an intellectual. And as a poet he lacked the ability or the will to give his thoughts clear, unequivocal expression." His dramatic powers failed him when (as in Judith) he "allowed ideas to proliferate at the expense of spontaneous theatrical creativity." Much more often, though, his provocative and poetic style of theater represents a more controlled balance between idea and dramatic expression…. (pp. 64-5)
During the five years that German troops remained on Danish soil [1940–1945], Abell's embattled word-theater was obliged by necessity to adopt a more indirect, less outspoken tone, but his denunciations of moral passivity and political neutrality were never entirely silenced…. [Instead of drama] he turned to other forms—ballet, satirical revues, and film—for expression. Two Abell films from this period, "Tak fordi du kom, Nick" ("Thanks for Coming, Nick", 1941) and "Regnen holdt op" ("The Rain Stopped," 1942), have been extolled by one critic as "perhaps the best comedies of Danish making seen on the screen." Incorporating themes and motifs familiar from his plays, they offer more than a hint of Abell's largely unexploited abilities as a screenwriter. (pp. 65-6)
Although its theatrical impact has remained limited, The Queen on Tour [Abell's only stage drama of the occupation years] is remembered largely for its formidable central character, an aging but indomitable actress named Mirena Pritz…. Mirena personifies Abell's vision of the theater as "more than mere canvas and plywood" but as...
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