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Three Dramas   By: (1832-1910)

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By Björnstjerne Björnson




The three plays here presented were the outcome of a period when Björnson's views on many topics were undergoing a drastic revision and he was abandoning much of his previous orthodoxy in many directions. Two of them were written during, and one immediately after, a three years' absence from Norway years spent almost entirely in southern Europe. [Note: Further details respecting Björnson's life will be found in the Introduction to Three Comedies by Björnson, published in Everyman's Library in 1912.] For nearly ten years previous to this voluntary exile, Björnson had been immersed in theatrical management and political propagandism. His political activities (guided by a more or less pronounced republican tendency) centred in an agitation for a truer equality between the kingdoms of Sweden and Norway, his point of view being that Norway had come to be regarded too much as a mere appanage of Sweden. Between that and his manifold and distracting cares as theatrical director, he had let imaginative work slide for the time being; but his years abroad had a recuperative effect, and, in addition, broadened his mental outlook in a remarkable manner. Foreign travel, a wider acquaintance with differing types of humanity, and, above all, a newly won acquaintance with the contemporary literature of other countries, made a deep impression upon Björnson's vigorously receptive mind. He browsed voraciously upon the works of foreign writers. Herbert Spencer, Darwin, John Stuart Mill, Taine, Max Müller, formed a portion of his mental pabulum at this time and the result was a significant alteration of mental attitude on a number of questions, and a determination to make the attempt to embody his theories in dramatic form. He had gained all at once, as he wrote to Georg Brandes, the eminent Danish critic, "eyes that saw and ears that heard." Up to this time the poet in him had been predominant; now it was to be the social philosopher that held the reins. Just as Ibsen did, so Björnson abandoned historical drama and artificial comedy for an attempt at prose drama which should have at all events a serious thesis. In this he anticipated Ibsen; for (unless we include the satirical political comedy, The League of Youth , which was published in 1869, among Ibsen's "social dramas") Ibsen did not enter the field with Pillars of Society [Note: Published in The Pretenders and Two Other Plays , in Everyman's Library, 1913.] until 1877, whereas Björnson's The Editor , The Bankrupt , and The King were all published between 1874 and 1877. Intellectual and literary life in Denmark had been a good deal stirred and quickened in the early seventies, and the influence of that awakening was inevitably felt by the more eager spirits in the other Scandinavian countries. It is amusing to note, as one Norwegian writer has pointed out, that this intellectual upheaval (which, in its turn, was a reflection of that taking place in outer Europe) came at a time when the bulk of the Scandinavian folk "were congratulating themselves that the doubt and ferment of unrest which were undermining the foundations of the great communities abroad had not had the power to ruffle the placid surface of our good, old fashioned, Scandinavian orthodoxy." Björnson makes several sly hits in these plays (as does Ibsen in Pillars of Society ) at this distrust of the opinions and manners of the larger communities outside of Scandinavia, notably America, with which the Scandinavian countries were more particularly in touch through emigration.

Brandes characterises the impelling motive of these three plays as a passionate appeal for a higher standard of truth in journalism, in finance, in monarchy: an appeal for less casuistry and more honesty. Such a motive was characteristic of the vehement honesty of Björnson's own character; he must always, as he says in one of his letters, go over to the side of any one whom he believed to "hold the truth in his hands... Continue reading book >>

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