Kjeld Abell’s life was marked by controversy and contradictions. Called Denmark’s leading modern dramatist, he was also at times vilified by the public for his leftist political sympathies and mocked by the literary critics for his strangely symbolic, highly personal plays. Friends and critics alike seemed divided about Abell’s true calling as an artist, and the playwright himself did little to resolve their questions. On the one hand, Abell was called “above all a playwright of ideas,” on the other, “a great writer for the theater but a weak thinker.” Both Abell’s moody, capricious temperament and his unwillingness to give an unambiguous explanation of his art contributed to the paradoxical quality that marked his thirty-year career in the theater.
Abell was born August 25, 1901, in the provincial town of Ribe on the Danish west coast. The son of a schoolteacher, he dutifully completed his studies in economics and political science at Copenhagen University, but his previous work at the Royal Academy of Art and a growing fascination with the theater exerted a greater hold on him. Above all, it was a 1920 production of Strindberg’s Spöksonaten (pb. 1907; The Ghost Sonata, 1916) that served as the catalyst for Abell’s lifelong commitment to theater. In Teaterstrejf i paaskevejr, he wrote of this experience, “I stopped thinking. In the brief moments in which the catastrophe took place, there was only time to feel. I felt with my eyes, my ears, my whole being.”
Immediately after graduation in 1927, Abell was married and traveled to Paris for what amounted to an apprenticeship in the theater. He painted scenery and absorbed the artistic impulses of the Paris theater and ballet world. His entrée to Danish theater came in 1930-1931, as stage designer for Balanchine’s guest season in Copenhagen, after which he worked for three years as a graphic artist with an advertising agency.
After writing the scenario for the experimental ballet Enken i spejlet (1934; the widow in the mirror), Abell scored his professional breakthrough with the enormously successful The Melody That Got Lost. Other plays followed, as did film manuscripts, revue sketches, and leadership in Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen’s elegant amusement park. In 1944, Abell was forced to go underground in occupied Denmark and later in neutral Sweden. He had interrupted a production at the Royal Theater to bid his countrymen to pay tribute to the martyred Kaj Munk.
After the war, Abell’s dramas continued to deal with current topics: the resistance movement, the dawning of the atomic age, and a sense of growing isolation, fear, and despair. The playwright and his wife were fascinated by the Far East and made three trips there that resulted in two colorful travel books. Abell’s final plays continued to provide fine theater, but their often obscure symbolism left many critics and spectators confused about their meaning. To some, their proclamations of life and vitality seemed unconvincing and forced.
On March 5, 1961, Abell died suddenly of a stroke suffered at his home in Copenhagen. His final play Skriget (the scream), was produced posthumously in November of that year.