Scandinavian Drama Since the 1600's Analysis


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The Scandinavian countries have been heavily influenced by and have heavily borrowed from one another throughout their dramatic histories. At the same time, these Nordic countries—notably Norway, Denmark, and Sweden—have been influenced by European humanist literary trends that have played a major role in enhancing Scandinavian drama. Under Swedish control until 1809, Finland did not produce much literature until the late nineteenth century, when a ban was lifted to allow original productions as well as numerous translations of literature. Isolated from the other Scandinavian countries and economically dependent on Norway and then Denmark, Iceland did not acquire complete independence until 1944. Iceland produced thirteenth century sagas, lyric poetry, and histories, but no drama until the late nineteenth century.

From the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries, Norwegian folk literature was the main form of literary production. A few royal documents, Danish bibles, poems, and ballads also were produced. The dramatic history of Norway was largely affected by and dependent on the country’s union with Denmark in the late fourteenth century, by its subsequent assimilation of the Danish language, and by its remaining under Danish control until 1814, when it created its own constitution.

Scandinavian drama in the first half of the sixteenth century was significantly affected by the Reformation, which seemed to sterilize literary production in all the Scandinavian countries. Because the Epiphany plays and gospel reenactments—which were influenced by European drama—were disallowed...

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1600’s and 1700’s

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Many factors contributed to the growth of Scandinavian theater in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: the opening of the opera house in Copenhagen in 1703 (the 1689 edifice burned after the second performance), the opening of the court stage in Copenhagen in 1712, the opening of Denmark’s first national theater in 1722, and the later temporary Danish Royal Theater of 1747 and permanent theater of 1748. The introduction of the Royal Swedish Stage in 1737 led to the opening of the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm at the end of the eighteenth century. These theaters introduced the tradition of regular performances to the general public rather than to an exclusively royal attendance, established the native comedies of Ludvig Holberg, and encouraged both French drama and sentimental drama. By the eighteenth century in Scandinavia, court entertainment and strolling players—many from England and France—gradually replaced the schools as the primary advocator of school drama.

Largely influenced by the Enlightenment and its attendant belief in wit, common sense, and rationalism, Dano-Norwegian Ludvig Holberg , the first comic theorist in Scandinavia, theorized that comedy must make people laugh and must instruct when performed. To achieve this aim, Holberg utilized the techniques and styles of previous comedy, combining the classics, in particular Plautus, with Molière’s plays and fusing these with native materials and stock characters in a comic yet realistic manner that ultimately allowed Danes to witness for the first time their own social manners, customs, and frequently objectionable habits. His comedies largely replaced school drama and restored the Danish language and Danish themes.

On the strength of his successful Peder Paars (1722; English translation, 1962), a mock-heroic epic poem, Holberg was appointed director of the newly opened Danish Theater in Copenhagen in 1722, a post that provided an opportunity for him to alternate his Danish comedy with translations of French plays. His first comedy, Den Vægelsindede (pr. 1722; The Weathercock, 1912), portrays a capricious character exposed to ridicule. The most important of Holberg’s comedies, perhaps, are Den politiske kandestøber (pr. 1722; The Political Tinker, 1914), which opened at the temporary Danish Royal Theatre in 1747; Jeppe paa Bjerget (pr. 1722; Jeppe of the Hill, 1906); and Erasmus Montanus (wr. 1723; English translation, 1885). In The...

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The Romantic and Golden Ages

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The early nineteenth century witnessed the first fruits of the Romantic Age in Scandinavia and intensified Denmark’s Golden Age. Danish poet and playwright Adam Gottlob Oehlenschläger, influenced by Friedrich Schiller and by German Romanticism, adopted Nordic mythology and history to create Romantic works. An early play, Hakon Jarl hin Rige (pr. 1807; Earl Hakon the Mighty, 1857), evokes Hakon’s adversary Olaf Tryggvesøn, who wishes to convert Norway to Christianity and to destroy Hakon’s power. Hakon sacrifices his son to gain Odin’s favor and is in turn sacrificed. His next tragedy, Palnatoke (pr. 1809; English translation, 1855), again details a doomed struggle against Christianity. The tragedy Corregio (pr. 1811; English translation. 1846), originally written in German, dramatizes the life of the Italian painter. Heavily influenced by French classical tragedy, he wrote Axel og Valborg (pr. 1810; Axel and Valborg, 1851), a more controlled drama that treats a twelfth century tragedy of love and duty. Staerkodder (pr. 1811) involves the repentance of Staerkodder, who slew King Olaf. Hagbarth og Signe (pr. 1816), also influenced by French classicism, reveals two lovers who are parted and finally joined in death.

Various Shakespearean productions in Denmark fostered a greater attention to costumes, settings, and lighting. The ability to mount three settings at once reduced the need for partial scene shifts. Then, too, the stage was expanded,...

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Movement Toward Realism

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In Sweden during the early nineteenth century, poetry and then the novel predominated. Although Per Daniel Amadeus Atterbom and Erik Johan Stagnelius wrote drama, they are mainly known for their Romantic poetry. Gradually, Sweden leaned toward realism and away from the subjective German philosophy of Schelling. Romanticism persisted mainly in the gothic and Platonic trends.

Carl Jonas Love Almqvist, a transitional Swedish figure, wrote in many genres, publishing his work in successive volumes of Törnrosens bok (1832-1851; the book of the briar rose). Johan Ludvig Runeberg, author of the Finnish national anthem, was another transitional figure; his Kungarne på Salamis (pr. 1863; kings on Salamis) is a classical tragedy influenced by William Shakespeare. A more important work, Kung Fjalar (pr. 1844; King Fjalar: A Poem in Five Songs, 1904), blends narrative and dramatic elements to achieve an approximation of Greek tragedy.

Another Swedish dramatist, August Blanche, imitated both Heiberg and Scribe. Blanche’s drama Läkaren (pr. 1845; the doctor) represents an early attempt at serious drama.

Nordahl Brun produced his tragedy Zarine (pr. 1722), and later Einer Tambeskielver (pr. 1772), the first Norwegian saga play. Henrik Anker Bjerregaard wrote a musical play, Fjeldeventyret (pr. 1824; the adventure on the mountain); Andreas Munch, an imitator of...

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Henrik Ibsen and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In 1850, the Norwegian Theater began to cater to professional performers and Norwegian drama and stage design rather than to Danish drama. This interest provided the impetus for the plays of both Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and his contemporary Ibsen , both of whom abandoned the well-made play and revolutionized Norwegian thought.

Known as the “Father of Modern Drama,” Ibsen showed promise with his first play, Catalina (pb. 1850; Cataline, 1921), the first Norwegian play published in years. Performed in Sweden in 1881, Cataline introduced the rebelliousness that was later to characterize most of Ibsen’s plays and also revealed his gift for psychological insight. Ibsen’s early plays lean toward Oehlenschläger, reveal romantic characteristics, and detail Norwegian culture.

While stage director of Bergen’s Norse Theater, Ibsen visited Copenhagen’s Danish Royal Theater, headed by Heiberg and directed by Overskou, and studied the stage in Germany. On his tour he was impressed with the plays of Scribe, Shakespeare, Holberg, Oehlenschläger, Heiberg, and Hertz. This directing experience provided him with a remarkable capacity to portray the psychological states of his characters and to use moods, lighting, and settings to enhance the action of the play. Hermann Hettner’s Das Moderne Drama (1852) and Danish critic Georg Brandes’s Hovedstrømninger (1872-1890; Main Currents in Nineteenth-Century Literature, 1906) also influenced Ibsen. The latter discussed modernism, espousing social, sexual, and religious themes and the new naturalism promulgated by Émile Zola. Moreover, Brandes’s astute criticism of Ibsen’s technique led to Ibsen developing a more realistic dramaturgy.

After he, his wife, and their son left Norway in 1864 for twenty-seven years of self-imposed exile, Ibsen wrote the poetic drama Brand (pr. 1885; English translation, 1891) and the celebrated Peer Gynt (pb. 1867; English translation, 1892). Brand, a play that reveals Kierkegaardian thought and depicts an uncompromising, idealistic religious crusader, established Ibsen as the pioneer of revolt against tradition, compromise, and hypocrisy.

Ibsen’s middle plays, written from about 1877 to 1887, are primarily sociopolitical and moral dramas. Many of them reveal Ibsen’s radical politics, and many champion the cause of women: Samfundets støtter (pr. 1877; The Pillars of Society, 1880); Et dukkehjem (pr. 1879; A Doll’s House, 1880), his first successful social play; Gengangere (pr. 1882; Ghosts, 1885), the last Ibsen play to use the first-person pronoun; En folkefiende (pr. 1883; An Enemy of the People, 1890); Vildanden (pr. 1885; The Wild Duck, 1891); and Hedda Gabler (pr. 1891; English translation, 1891).

These plays, perhaps his finest, mark a transition to Ibsen’s final phase of...

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Late 1800’s: Danish, Finnish, and Icelandic Drama

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Reacting to the realism and naturalism of the 1870’s and 1880’s, Norway’s Sigbjørn Obstfelder wrote three plays but is mainly known for his poetry. Like other Symbolist dramatists, he wrote “static” drama, a largely obscure form that communicates via suggestion and mood.

Compared with Norway’s prestigious output, Denmark’s creativity was meager during the late nineteenth century. Noteworthy is Holger Drachman, poet and playwright, who wrote Der var engang (pr. 1885; once upon a time), a fairy-tale comedy, and Vølund Smed (pr. 1894; Wayland the smith), a lyric drama. His plays adhere to poetic and lyric forms rather than structural forms.

Although overshadowed by Ibsen,...

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August Strindberg

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

August Strindberg —subjective, confessional, and misogynist—became Sweden’s greatest dramatist. A complex pioneer of reform, his dark, visionary mysticism added a new dimension to drama. Moving from realism to naturalism to mystical expressionism, he was the first to stage a psychological dreamworld and to explore abnormal behavior. Throughout his career, he incessantly searched for his own innovative literary forms, gradually rejecting nineteenth century staging conventions because they could not express his visionary concepts. Combining stylistic variety with economy of phrasing, his plays are compellingly direct. His sixty-two plays have profoundly influenced subsequent dramatists. His work may be divided into two periods:...

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1900’s: Interwar Era

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The most important of the neo-Romantic Norwegian dramatists writing between the wars were the aristocratic individualist Gunnar Heiberg , Knut Hamsun, Hans E. Kinck, and Nils Kjær. Heiberg’s Balkonen (pr. 1894; The Balcony, 1922) and Kjærlighetens tragedie (pr. 1904; The Tragedy of Love, 1921) are excellent character portrayals. The latter exposes the conflict between a woman’s love and a man’s work, insists on a new psychological emphasis, and owes much to Ibsen. Primarily a novelist, Hamsun wrote the dramatic trilogy that includes Ved rigets port (pb. 1895; at the gate of the kingdom), Livets spil (pb. 1896; the play of life), and Aftenrøde (pb. 1898;...

(The entire section is 176 words.)

Antinaturalism, Antirealism, and Expressionism

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Following Strindberg’s death, a new generation of Swedish dramatists and directors emerged who were concerned both with modernism and its attendant forms of expressionism and with proletarian drama. One important director, Per Lindberg, brought to the theater modernistic views of acting and staging that he had learned in Berlin. Seeking to revolutionize dramatic structure, playwrights often presented fantasies, hallucinations, nightmares, and other subjective experiences. In addition, they developed new lighting and staging techniques—particularly the turntable stage—that portrayed myriad moods rather than a single mood, and they excluded irrelevancy. Influenced by German expressionism, Symbolism, and Sigmund Freud, many of...

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Realism and Foreign Influence

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

After 1920, Icelandic literature became more realistic and more receptive to foreign influences. Kristín Sigfússdóttir interprets Icelandic rural life. Gudmunður Kamban depicts modern Icelandic life and, like Sigurjónsson, depicts possessive love. Vi mordere (pr. 1920; We Murderers, 1970), the first in a series of plays on marriage, written after his return from the United States, and Örkenens Stjerner (1925; the stars of the desert) are realistic plays critical of modern society. His last play, Komplekser (pr. 1941; complexes), satirizes the effects of Freudian complexes on marriage. Incorrectly believing that he was a Nazi sympathizer, Danish patriots shot Kamban.


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Post-World War II

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

During World War II, only Sweden was able to maintain its neutrality. Denmark and Norway were occupied by German troops, Iceland by Allied forces, and Finland became involved in a bloody war against the Soviet Union. Following the brutality and destructiveness of the war, the quest for a meaningful and existential basis of life became a driving force in Scandinavian literature. It found its expression primarily in a poetry initially permeated with feelings of impotence and fear but increasingly by a spiritual or metaphysical search for meaning. In the middle of the 1950’s, however, a gradual focusing on social and political reality became perceptible, primarily in prose works. In the 1960’s and early 1970’s, this trend was...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Gunnell, Terry. The Origins of Drama in Scandinavia. New York: D. S. Brewer, 1995. Traces twelfth and thirteenth century influences on the dramatic tradition in Scandinavia, including the dialogic poems of the Poetic Edda and folk use of mask and costumes.

Marker, Frederick J., and Lise-Lone Marker. A History of Scandinavian Theatre. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A thorough study of the history and development of Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish drama from the Middle Ages to the 1990’s. Focuses on major styles and trends. Special attention is paid to the interaction with European theater. Provides a select...

(The entire section is 224 words.)