Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 846
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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