Gunnar Heiberg was, above all, a dramatist of passion. In his first play, he passionately spoke in favor of the rights of oppressed workers and women. Later, he advocated the rights of passion itself. Although the public at large regards Tante Ulrikke as Heiberg’s most important work, literary historians generally view The Balcony and The Tragedy of Love as his most significant contributions to Norwegian drama.
Norwegian literature in the 1870’s and 1880’s focused its attention on those aspects of society that needed reform. Both the novel and the drama had pointed to abuses of power, social hypocrisy, and the situation of women as issues that urgently needed to be addressed. The chief dogma of the literary theory of the day was, indeed, that the primary purpose of literature should be to subject social problems to debate. Heiberg’s Tante Ulrikke fits this tradition well.
The title character of Tante Ulrikke is an older, unmarried woman whose brother-in-law, Professor Blom, is next in line to be named to the king’s cabinet. Ulrikke’s behavior is a threat to his future appointment, however, for she is a radical and feminist with Socialist sympathies. The conflict in the play is between her and Blom and his conservative friends, and a point of crisis is reached when Ulrikke declares that she will attend a Socialist meeting at which she intends to speak to the crowd about social and political issues. Blom and his friends consider having her declared insane, but this design is frustrated when Helene, Blom’s daughter and Ulrikke’s niece, states that she will accompany her aunt to the meeting. At the meeting, some students who have been sent there by one of Blom’s friends subject Ulrikke to so much scorn and derision that Helene feels driven to defend her publicly. This is such a scandal that Helene has to leave the home of her parents to protect her father’s political future.
Of particular interest is the dramatist’s portrayal of the character Ulrikke. Lacking physical beauty, Ulrikke, by her own admission, fell in love with the great ideas of her time because no young man showed an interest in her. The drama vividly shows the price she has had to pay for her radicalism. She is ridiculed both publicly and privately and even has to carry a whip to defend herself when she walks the streets of Christiania. At the end of the play, when Helene sides with her and wants to live with her, Ulrikke attempts to dissuade her niece from following the path that she herself has chosen. Heiberg shows that Ulrikke has paid such a high price for her political involvement that she cannot bear the thought that her niece, whom she loves dearly, should have to endure the same kind of suffering.
Although Tante Ulrikke belongs squarely to the realistic and naturalistic traditions in Norwegian drama, The Balcony takes place in no identifiable social or geographical reality. The characters are stylized, lack individual history, and can scarcely be said to have much individuality at all. The play is in three acts. As the action begins, it is sunrise, and the drama’s only female character, Julie, and her lover, Abel, are standing inside an open door to a balcony. They find it difficult to part even though they know that Julie’s husband, Ressmann, an older man, is about to come home from work. When Ressmann does arrive, Abel first hides and then comes forth, stating that he has heard that Ressmann’s house is for sale and that he might have an interest in buying it. While Ressmann is showing Abel the various rooms, he steps out on the balcony and jumps up and down to demonstrate that it is structurally sound, despite the fact that it has a visible crack. Ressmann’s jumping causes the balcony to collapse, and he is killed. At the end of act 1, Julie and Abel are kneeling together, thanking God that they may now remain with each...
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