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...
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