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...
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