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Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2199

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First produced: 1895

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Social criticism

Time of work: Late nineteenth century

Locale: Norway

Principal Characters:

Rachel Sang, a young liberal

Elias Sang, her brother, also a liberal

Bratt, an extremist union leader

Holger, an industrialist

Credo, his nephew

Spera, his niece

Pastor Falk, an idealist

Critique:

This play is the second and more powerful half of a dual play in which Bjørnson examined social and economic problems of his century. In Beyond Our Power, he probed the apparent inability of labor and management to understand one another. Bjørnson's own solution is propounded by Pastor Falk, who preaches Christian patience and forbearance, and by Rachel Sang, a moderate liberal whose aim it is to spread social enlightenment. There is in the drama a rather disconcerting mixture of naturalism and expressionism which slightly diminishes but does not too greatly detract from the effectiveness of the play as a document of social protest.

The Story:

In an industrial city of coastal Norway the workingmen were on strike against the factory owners. They were forced, by their poverty and low social status, to live in a dank chasm below the city, called Hell.

The strike dragged on, and from day to day the people grew more desperate and restive. Maren Haug, a worker's wife, was so distracted by the futility of the situation that she bolstered her courage with liquor and killed her two children and herself. The entire community of Hell attended the funeral, which was conducted by the good but ineffectual Pastor Falk. After the funeral service, the people gathered in what constituted the community square. There they listened while Falk tried to give them Christian advice; he told them that they should not despair, that they should avoid all violence, that the situation demanded understanding and patience.

As he talked, Bratt, a former pastor who was now leader of the workers' union, appeared and the crowd joined him Bratt harangued the workers with hate-filled words about the injustices suffered by the inhabitants of Hell, and he revealed that the owners were to meet that night in the castle, which had been bought and rebuilt by the town's most affluent manufacturer. Bratt's attitude suggested that violence might be done the owners while they were assembled in the castle, a symbol of their wealth and power.

As the workingmen trooped away to get money at the union office in Hell, Elias Sang, a young sympathizer of the workers, joined Bratt. Elias, in seeking solutions to the workers' plight, had been avoiding Bratt. Now, under Bratt's demagogic influence, he had changed; he appeared to believe that Maren Haug's recourse was one that more of the workers should take, that sensational examples of martyrdom would impress the owners and public opinion. Elias, clearly determined on more violent methods than those already employed, left Bratt deeply disturbed.

Meanwhile the industrialist Holger had turned his hilltop mansion over to Rachel, the sister of Elias; it was to house the workers' convalescent hospital that she had established. Rachel and Elias, who were from the northern part of Norway, had inherited a fortune from an aunt in America, and they had put their fortune into worthy endeavors. Elias devoted his time and money to the cause of the union; Rachel had established a hospital and a liberal newspaper. Holger, Rachel's friend, was about to move into the medieval castle he had recently bought and restored. At the same time he took under his own supervision his niece and nephew, Spera and Credo, the children of his late liberal brother, Summer. Since the death of their parents Rachel had been their guide and mentor.

When a delegation of workingmen called on Holger for the purpose of settling the strike, his highhanded attitude greatly incensed them. Aroused by his insults, one workman leaped at Holger's throat, but was restrained from doing violence by his fellow workers. The workingmen having left in despair, Rachel went to Holger and advised him not to hold the manufacturers' meeting in the castle that night; she foresaw danger. Holger, insisting that the meeting would be held there, declared that it would be lavish in hospitality and entertainment. When Rachel hinted that the workingmen might set off dynamite in the abandoned mine shafts which ran under the castle, Holger said that such a move would only aid the cause of the owners.

Elias, joining his sister in her new hospital, was disturbed as he tried to explain how deeply Maren Haug's suicide had affected him, but Rachel was unable to grasp the seriousness of his new attitude even when he told her that the only way to a new life was through death. The two reminisced about their happy childhood in northern Norway; then Elias kissed Rachel goodbye, as though for the last time, and left her.

Bratt, in excitement, went to Rachel and disclosed his conviction that Elias was about to end his life in the cause of the workingmen. Rachel, understanding at last, regretted that her brother had ever come under the influence of a leader who preached extreme, impracticable measures. Bratt himself, realizing what he had done, was filled with remorse.

In the castle, meanwhile, Holger was host to manufacturers from the entire country. The castle was festively lighted; servants dressed in medieval costumes carried refreshments to the guests; several orchestras provided music. In the great hall Holger presided over a meeting to decide upon the adoption of his plan to unionize the owners. The majority were quite eager, like sheep, to follow his plan, but two of the owners, Anker and Blom, spoke in behalf of an enlightened attitude toward the workingmen and toward capital's function in society. When they saw that they spoke to no avail, they left. A short time later they returned to report that they were unable to leave the castle.

All but one of the servants had disappeared. When Holger demanded an explanation from the remaining servant, who was Elias in disguise, he was told that the workingmen had filled the mine-shafts beneath the castle with high explosives, that the police who were guarding the castle had been tricked away from their posts, and that at his signal the castle would be blown to bits. As Elias moved to signal his people, Holger shot him.

The owners were thrown into a panic. One, out of his mind with fear, leaped from a window and fell to his death in the moat below. Holger, seeing that his fellow owners were, in their way, as wretched as the workingmen, joined Anker in a prayer for the good of all in the future; then the castle blew up.

Sometime later, at the hospital, Rachel mourned the loss of her brother. She was particularly disturbed by her inability to understand that when she had last talked to Elias he had then been intent upon self-destruction; she thought that she might have saved him. She felt bitterness because radical Bratt had brought death to her brother and barbarism to the city. Believing that the workingmen were in the right, she wondered why those in the right had ever resorted to violence.

As Rachel talked with Halden, a young architect, Holger, his right hand paralyzed and his head swathed in bandages, was brought to her in an armchair. When he disclosed to her that he had shot Elias, Rachel wept. Bratt, shaken out of his right senses by the explosion, came also to Rachel and disclosed, to her amazement that Halden was the son of Holger and that the architect, while employed in rebuilding the castle, had aided the workingmen in placing their dynamite.

After Bratt had wandered off distractedly, Credo and Spera came to Rachel and told her that Holger had given them permission to stay with her. Credo declared that he would dedicate his life to the inventions of devices that would bring mankind more leisure and happiness. Spera said that her intention was to work among women to bring them more freedom. The three went to find Holger, to ask him to forgive the workingmen and to confer with them.

Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:

Playwright, novelist, poet, orator, politician, and national symbol, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson was one of the greatest "Renaissance Men" of the nineteenth century and a dominating figure both in the politics and the arts of his native Norway. As an orator and public figure he was for half a century the driving force in the quest for Norwegian national identity, parliamentary democracy, and social justice. As a novelist and playwright he was Norway's most popular serious writer and a literary artist of world stature. The best of his intense dramatizations of contemporary problems equals that of his more illustrious compatriot Henrik Ibsen in immediate theatrical impact, if not in depth and profundity. Moreover, without Bjørnson's earlier theatrical forays into realism it is doubtful that Ibsen could have found an audience for his stark, disturbing dramas.

In Beyond Our Power (OVER AEVNE II), written twelve years after Part One, Bjørnson extends the thematic statement made about religion in the first play to politics, economics, and social reform. In the earlier play Bjørnson demonstrates the damage that results from a fanatical reliance on supernatural intervention. In Beyond Our Power Bjørnson points out the pain and violence that is unleashed when that same kind of fanatical idealism attempts to impose Utopian solutions—whether "Capitalistic" or "Revolutionary"—on the human problems of labor strife and social justice. All such idealistic solutions are "beyond human power," suggests Bjørnson; the solutions to man's problems can come only from a series of practical, moderate, imperfect compromises.

Critics have differed greatly in their opinions of the relative merits of the two plays. BEYOND HUMAN POWER I is certainly the more unified, controlled, and direct in both its rhetorical message and its emotional impact. Beyond Our Power, on the other hand, is the more extravagant, uneven, and ambitious. Its mixture of styles and frequent lack of focus denies it the clarity of its predecessor and diffuses its emotional impact, but the same things contribute to its greater daring, imagination, and, in some ways, theatricality.

The play has all of the ingredients of the classic labor confrontation play: a long strike, desperate workers and recalcitrant owners, demagogues on both sides (Bratt the ex-pastor for the workers; Holger, the industrialist, for the owners), and an impending sense of violence. The issues are crystalized by two events, the suicide of Maren Haug, a worker's wife, and the owners' decision to meet and form a company union to suppress the workers.

But the primary characters do not conform to the usual stereotypes. The industrialist, Holger, is implacable in his opposition to negotiations with the workmen; he has seemingly no compassion for their plight, nor does he see any justice whatsoever in their demands; and he is willing to spill blood to keep them in place. And yet, he is generous in his personal relationships. He turns his home over to Rachel Sang for a hospital and lavishly supplies her with equipment. He actually wants his workers to have the good life—but he believes that only he can provide it for them. Society, he insists, must be dominated by "big personalities who dare and can proclaim their own selves. When we get away from ant-heap ideas and centipedal dreams back to big men with genius and will."

Bratt's "communistic" vision is initially opposed to Holger's hyper-individualism, but the union leader is soon pushed aside by Elias Sang's passionate extremism. Anguished by the conditions of the workers, despondent over the probable failure of the strike, obsessed by a vision of the revolution and a future worker's paradise, he decides that a "great act" is needed to bring all the forces together and, for himself, he accepts a "religion of martyrdom." Thus, he becomes the driving force behind the plot to dynamite the castle and kill all of the meeting industrialists.

It is in this bizarre "castle" scene, where the capitalists are destroyed en masse, that the play reaches its "expressionistic" peak. What began as a matter-of-fact economic conflict becomes a surrealistic, Kafka-like vision of frenzy, insanity, and destruction. But such a nightmare is inevitable, Bjørnson insists, when men, violating "unwritten" laws, "overreach" and attempt to go "beyond human power" to resolve their problems. Instead of achieving Utopia, such extremes only unleash the daemonic side of man or what Bjørnson calls his "racial pessimism."

Beyond Our Power may not be a great play, but it is a fascinating one. A final irony of the play—one of which Bjørnson himself probably was aware—is that, while thematically the play demonstrates the folly of man's tendency to "overreach" his capacities, Beyond Our Power is a classic example of the play that "overreaches." Too many characters, ideas, and techniques are crowded into the single dramatic effort. But what the play loses in clarity it gains in excitement. These two powerful plays represent the pinnacle of Bjørnson's dramatic career and entitle him to a place beside his great Scandinavian contemporaries, Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg.

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