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Why writing drama became Denmark's national sport!

By Jesper Bergmann

Danish dramaturg Jesper Bergmann (L) and Danish playwright Line Knutzon (R) at "Scandinavia On Stage" conference in NY.
(Photo by Jonathan Slaff)
Jesper Bergmann is a script editor or dramaturg, presently working free lance with theatre and film. For 14 years he was a script editor in a particular dramatic genre which is non-existent in the USA today, but is still found in Europe: radio theatre. In Denmark it a close cousin to theatre. In that capacity, he worked closely with over half of the writers who today make up the world of Danish dramatic writing.

[01] The making of Denmark's national sport
[02] Peter Asmussen
[03] Erling Jepsen
[04] Astrid Saalbach
[05] Line Knutzon

Preparing this presentation, I did a little homemade list of current Danish dramatists. I wrote down the names of the living playwrights who to my oppinion deserve some interest, and I ended with a list of around 50 names. Afterwards I made a similar list of dramatists 15 years ago and could only come up with 15 names. In other words an explosion has occurred with a tripling of the number of Danish dramatists since the mid-eighties.

Danish drama is being produced abroad to an extent we have never experinced before. Some questions seem to be especially important when looking back at the explosion of Danish drama over the last twelve to 15 years:

- Why did a great proportion of Danish writing talent suddenly set their sights on the world of theatre?
- Is new Danish drama a trademark for uniform artistic endeavour - in other words do the dramatists look - or write - like each other?
- Why are theatres prioritising new Danish drama, and is this healthy at all?

How did it all start ? A couple of years ago, one grand old man of Danish drama, Jess ěrnsbo, was interviewed by a major Danish newspaper. He suggested, and I quote: "It seems as if the year 1990 has been ordained by the Lord as the year that we'll bloody well get New Danish Drama!"

Perhaps the Lord had a hand, but I can with greater certainty point out the fact that a handful of Danish theatres and theatre persons decided in the beginning of the nineties that we bloody well would get New Danish Drama! Now, theatre can and must be many things. And Danish theatre in the nineties was many things. But the new was that an emphasis was made - in hitherto unseen proportions - to attract New Danish Drama.

From time to time the words "Theatre in Crisis" pops up in the public debate in Denmark. Around 1990 it was, for example, suggested that the theatre arts were going through an identity crisis. Danish theatre is - in comparison with the theatre in the USA - highly subsidised at both national and local levels. So as soon as questions like "What is the theatre for? Why theatre?" turn up, it quickly becomes a question of whether the taxpayers' money should be used for the theatre at all! And occasionally, that kind of viewpoints get dangerously close to the politicians who make decisions on the matters! Theatre obviously needs to legitimise its existence within society. Danish drama has become a way to legitimise the theatre towards society and politicians. Furthermore, actors, directors, artistic directors and others have their own reasons, and needs, for defining theatres role in the midst of this modern, whirling, media lead reality that we today call Globalisation. This word, Globalisation, was hardly used in 1990, but another word was and is, with greater or lesser right, used in Europe to describe cultural globalisation - Americanisation!

In any case theatre is swimming in international cultural waters that are increasingly trans-national, commercial and industrial - and where the new media are increasingly important. For a number of people within Danish theatre, the decision to concentrate on new Danish drama was an answer to this situation. With the help of Danish dramatists, the aim was to try and give theatre another, more important role in the country's culture. There is no political nationalism at the root of this thinking - but there is a conviction that plays written by living Danish writers speak in a very special way to the citizens of this little, rather closely knit cultural territory known as Denmark.

The first component for this new wave of Danish writing for the theatre was that a number of theatrical practitioners stretched their hands out to the writers. In the beginning, the approach to the writers came with a few exceptions from the smaller theatres - and from the Radio Drama Department. Later in the '90s, even the biggest theatres offered an invitation.

The writers welcomed the initiative with open arms. This included established poets and prose writers, but also the new and upcoming. Today it is high prestige amongst writers to write for the theatre, and many make the effort. It was not like that 15 years ago. Why did the attitude of the writers change ?

One of the grounds for the writers interest in the theatre was certainly economic. The fee for writing a play was never destined to make anyone rich, but it is better than what you normally get for a novel or a poetry collection. Even writers like to have a reasonable living.

Another even more important reason has to do with the '90s as such. In a period where everyone seems extremely preoccupied with leaving their visible trace in the world, it became attractive for writers to present themselves in another light than that offered amongst the lamplit, armchair-sitting reader. Writers have an innate desire to leave their mark in the world, and in our day this may very well be in the theatre spotlight. Danish theatre dramatists want their corner of showbusiness - but only if and when this corner is noncommercial or at least no too commercial. Danish theatre writers are individuals who do not feel happy working within economically-steered strategies for fiction, like the ones in commercial film and television. These writers do not do the TV-series. Instead the theatre has positioned itself as a kind of playground for these writers. It could also be added to this picture that Danish drama does not have very strong traditions which it can look to. It's not like Sweden with Strindberg, or Ibsen in Norway. The relatively weak dramatic tradition in Denmark makes it in a way much easier to be a playwright - theatre is almost what teachers would call a "free-play time."

The playwrights have used this freedom to experiment in many different directions, in many different styles covering many and varied themes. The new wave of Danish drama therefore does not appear to have any common artistic strategy. The writers seldom appear like each other. This will be clear when I discuss the four writers who are here in New York.

If you had asked me about the future of Danish drama just three or four years ago, I would have been worried. At that point it seemed as if the call for new Danish drama was becoming a sort of political correctness from Danish cultural politicians, reviewers and artistic directors. The expectations for new Danish drama felt "over-the-top," and it is true that not everything that was performed in the theatre in the nineties deserved to be put in the spotlight. My feeling now is different - I believe that the relation between theatre and writer is becoming a sound one. The success for the dramatists is also becoming visible internationally. Danish dramatists - including the four who are here today - are having their work performed in theatres throughout Europe.

Denmark has also had great film success over the last few years. Danish films have won many prizes - not least at the Cannes and Berlin film festivals. Many of you will surely know the names Bille August, Gabriel Axel, Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg and Lone Scherfig amongst others. Many here will perhaps heard about Dogma - the concept for a self-imposed creative puritanism in film production which was started by Lars von Trier. One could think that the flowering of Danish theatre writing was in close proximity to the successful Danish films, but this is not the case. Film and theatre often share the same actors, but seldom the same writers and directors. There are of course exceptions. One of them is Peter Asmussen, who is here in New York. Asmussen was co-writer on Lars von Triers' "Breaking the Waves," which won the Grand Prix at the Cannes film festival in 1996.

I would now like to discuss the four dramatists who are here today, starting with Peter Asmussen. Asmussen was born in 1957. His debut was in 1989. He is extremely productive. He has written ten theatre plays, four radio plays, five television plays and has published five books. It has been said that Asmussen builds upon an inheritance from Strindberg and Ibsen, and the influence of these two key figures in Scandinavian drama was also apparent in the play "Isbrandt" (a play that was produced at the Danish Royal Theatre in 1997, and made a huge succes in France with around 140 performances of a highly praised production).

But one could as easily point to many other writers as possible sources of inspiration for Asmussen. He is a writer who can without too much trouble incorporate a variety of styles in his dramas. He knows and he is able to use the formal rules of the game. He happily places a framework over his plays, and the friction between the framework and the material seems to be a source of primary inspiration for him. This formalised grasp of his serves to puncture the way the plot seduces the audience. Asmussen doesn't have much sympathy for emotional manipulation in the dramatic plot. He writes with feeling about great dramatic events, with a preference for passionate characters - but he doesn't want to throw his audience into a soothing experience of emotional padding.

Asmussen enjoys writing about love - love between men and women, between parents and children. Or rather: Asmussen enjoys writing about the lack of love. The love theme is also essential in the play that is being presented at the conference, "A Sunny room." The play is in three acts. The first act takes place in the first third of the 20th century. The second act in our time and the third act in the near future. The three acts seem apparently to be self-contained - none of the figures from one act appear in any of the other acts, and there is not one plot but three plots. In the first act a young couple move into a house with "A Sunny Room". The house has been bought by the mans father, and its great attraction is the room where the sun always shines. This room is the set design for the whole play, as well as being its central and ongoing symbol. It seems at first sight to be a symbol of loving harmony and brilliant sunshine - but all this is denied emphatically in the play.

The basic formal grasp of the play is that the same four actors play all the roles. The orchestration of the gallery of figures is central. There is an elderly male figure, a younger middle-aged man, and two younger/middle-aged women. Even though there are three separate plots, the figures are mirrored in each of the parts because the actors are the same. It is this formal concept which creates a whole - a three part-picture of a hypnotic, almost archetypal landscape where the Old Man figure seems to have a central relevance. It is this Old Man, the father in law, who in the first act buys the house and creates the false illusion of life in the sunny room. The Old Man could probably be called the villain of the piece, but it is typical of Asmussen that he does not offer us the chance to experience the Old Mans death at the end of the play as some kind of liberation. Asmussen is not sentimental, and he is not a messenger with some happy messages of liberation. His writing is certainly not without humour, but the sounding strength of his plays is a deep and honest seriousness.

Let us turn to Erling Jepsen. Jepsen is a contemporary of several of the authors representing the boom in Danish drama in the 1990s, but he does not belong to the "generation of the 90s". Like Astrid Saalbach, he was already a "veteran" when Danish drama finally became widely acknowledged as a necessary dietary supplement for the Danish stage. He made his debut already in 1977 with a play for radio that was a resounding success. Jepsen was 21 years old and he immediately decided to concentrate on writing. Things went well for him: with some 30 productions on television, radio or stage, he is now unrivalled as the most performed Danish dramatist of his generation. His plays find their way to distant corners of Europe, from Estonia in the east to London in the west. He has recently also moved into prose writing. In 1999 he published the highly praised "No Reason to Overdramatise", and another novel is on its way.

Erling Jepsen has a natural talent for drama, for sharp dialogue and the construction of plots. He often holds out a meticulously friendly hand to his public and creates plausible, basic situations in his plays. But his real objective is not a safe and reliable realism. He is aiming in a different direction; he wants to tell of other, darker motive forces in human beings than those we usually call "normal". In a number of his plays - plays that Jepsen refers to as "ironical comedies" - we have a light-hearted portrayal of the main character's encounter with dark, tabooed urges and cravings. Jepsen's "method" has often been the gentle seduction of the audience - a journey into the realm of suppressed urges and emotions with Jepsen as an artful guide. He has often aimed at persuading us, in a humorous manner, to appreciate the freedom encompassed in the fact that our established picture of what is "normal" is a fake. The gesture of humorous persuasion has been a feature of Jepsens drama for many years - but in plays over recent years he has tried to find new directions in his work.

The play "The Man who Asked for Permission to Exist" is presented at this conference. It was staged at a Copenhagen theatre last year. Jepsen allows himself here a freer relationship to the plot than in his earlier plays, and this means that he can with greater ease throw himself fully into the creation of grotesque and sharp material. He deals with one of his major themes - fundamental, existential guilt.

This theme has possibly, seen from an American point of view, the taste of something typically Scandinavian. But if anyone should think that the play was therefore extremely "heavy", then they would be wrong. It is a comedy. A comedy with two questions: If a person is actually guilty of something, can one then expect that he will FEEL guilt? Or put the other way, if a person carries a heavy burden of guilt does this necessarily mean that he is guilty of anything at all. The play answers both questions with a resounding "Noooot exactly!"

The main character, Allan, a 30-year-old man with ambitions to be a writer is definitely guilty. This comes out very quickly. He supplements his meagre social benefits as a swindler and con man. In the first act we see him in court, and we are immediately aware that he is "at home" here. This time he has rented a typewriter, which he hasn't paid for for six months. He doesn't have any money and to top it all the machine has disappeared - so he says. No one believes him - neither the judge, nor the creditors, nor the audience. Allan is guilty, but feels - passionately - that he has been insulted when they accuse him of lying and swindling. He really doesn't appreciate being accused of being dishonest.

In the second act a murder has been committed. There is an old woman in the flat above Allan, who has been killed. Police officers interview everybody in the house, and Allan doesn't have an alibi. Did Allan commit the murder? He's not sure himself. He can't really remember what he was doing on the night in question. He says that can't exclude the possibility that he might be the murderer - and his strange inverse guilt logic leads him to make a deal with the police: "Why don't we just say that you did it? Alright Allan." Says one police officer. "I suppose we'd better," says Allan.

In the third part Allan is in jail and is basically fairly happy, as it is nice and peaceful there. The evening in question is Christmas Eve and things are not following their normal course. In the wake of a number of comical and grotesque situations, an extraordinary occurrence takes place - the prison officer is locked out of the prison. For very specific reasons he cannot call for assistance. And we end the story with a prison officer trying to break into a prison. The play is all about guilt, but Jepsen twists and turns with the material in the funniest ways. Erling Jepsen is never happier than when he turns the world upside down.

Astrid Saalbach was, like Jepsen, already a fully-fledged dramatist when the new wave of drama hit Denmark in the nineties. She was born 1955, and made her debut as a dramatist in 1981 with a play for radio. She has written three plays for radio, two TV-plays, six stage plays and she has published a number of books of poetry and prose. Astrid Saalbach has achieved considerable international success throughout many years. Her plays have been produced in many countries, and for some reason the eastern part of Europe has been particularly interested in her work. I believe she could not herself explain why this is so, but she is a hot shot in Poland, and has been produced in Hungary, Czeck Republic, the Slovak Republic and otherwhere in Eastern Europe. Saalbachs plays have been translated into ten different languages.

Sometimes Saalbach is described as a modern political dramatist. But this does not mean that she writes her plays to promote simple "messages". Saalbach, who was originally trained as an actor at the National Theatre School, is a total "theatre person". She builds on her long experience with theatres aesthetic potentials. At the same time she is intellectually ambitious dramatist, and rather than call her playwriting political, Iwould prefer to say that her goal is to be critical of civilisation.

This is true particularly of three plays from the '90s, which could be seen as a trilogy. "Morning and Evening" from 1993, "Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust" from 1998 and in between these two, "The Blessed Child" from 1997. It is this final play that is presented here in New York. Astrid Saalbach displays here a healthy appetite for very big questions.

Saalbach belongs to the generation, which grew up in the period when feminist politics were at their strongest. A period where the woman was the victim, and the man the bearer of power and violence. But she does not accept this simplistic scenario. In her latest play, "Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust," the tragic main female character is a murderer. In "The Blessed Child," she tells a story which speaks of a sterile society of the future run by women. Saalbach would certainly not want her plays to be seen as a simple criticism of feminism. But the turbulence of contemporary male/female roles is one of the key themes in "The Blessed Child".

The play is a black comedy. From the very start we follow a family where the woman, Maria, is outgoing. She has a career dream of becoming a project leader - an ambition that does not come true. Her husband, Hans, stays at home - obsessed with survival strategies. Hans' project is typical for a lot of people in our contemporary, apprehensive middle class - he dreams of moving to the country and living a life of total self-reliance. He even experiments with making his own toothpaste. The main character of the play is the son, The Blessed Child of the family, Malte. The story slides decisively from realism when towards the end of the first act, Malte starts to mutate, and feathers begin to sprout from his body.

In the second act we are 30 years in the future. Society has become matriarchal - but it is a sterile matriarchy. Children are still being born, but they die before they are a year old. Malte is now the leader of an illegal underground movement. Malte is an almost Christ-like figure, but perhaps also a John the Baptist, who foresees the coming of the saviour. The question is: What kind of salvation will it be?

The play is encircled by a number of "animal scenes". We see a number of strange beings, living somewhere far away in the future. The animals are primitive but have, in truth, strong instincts. And this is the ironic point in "The Blessed Child" - that this new species on earth, that the prophet Malte talks of, are these animals. They have survived the humans.

"The Blessed Child" is a very complex play - Saalbach's plays are always large structures - and it takes along time to build them. She does not write quickly. Her first play in three years will finally be presented this Autumn. She has a considerable audience in Denmark who wait impatiently.

The fourth Danish dramatist here in New York is Line Knutzon, who is perhaps the most popular dramatist in Denmark at the moment. She is the youngest of the four writers here, and made her debut with a play for the theatre in 1991. Since then, she has since written seven plays for the theatre and three plays for the radio. Her plays are being produced in Italy, Holland, Scotland and the Scandinavian countries. Her plays do well commercially. The play "First You are Born" has breen great box office succeses both in Denmark and in Sweden. Her international success is growing quickly.

Line Knutzon has, perhaps more than any other writer, been presented as the dramatist who best represents the generation of the '90s - the generation that was born between the beginning of the sixties and the mid-seventies. This generation has been called many things - generation X, the narcissistic generation etc etc. But she feels deeply uncomfortable with the generation label. She has undoubtedly depicted the "life style" of her generation better than any other, but she has always had a greater ambition than mere delivery of generational self-observation. She speaks happily about the fact that she is against the a-politics of modern art, and her theatre contains a spiritual dimension.

From time to time Samuel Beckett is named as a source of inspiration for Line Knutzon, especially in the play "Torben Two Legs," which came out last year. One critic wrote, "'Torben Two Legs' is like Becket on acid and Line Knutzon free falling." The last couple of plays from Knutzon show her looking for new paths - perhaps paths that will take her closer to Beckett. "First You're Born," an excerpt of which is presented in this conference, is one of Knutzon's earlier works. It was written in 1994 and is a love comedy where Knutzon generously gives us a light-hearted and optimistic ending. The play is funny, Line Knutzon quite simply is always funny. There are three women and three men - and typically for Knutzon they are confused, chaotic and full of desires and longing. At the same time they use a particularly original and effervescent language. As always with Knutzon they are childish - but childish in thesame way that clowns are. They speak directly to the child in everyone, and one cannot help feeling for them.

The special Knutzon tone can perhaps best be illustrated in this passage from one of her plays, "First You're Born." The lines are spoken by Tis who lives with her sister Lis. Lis is a very typical girl's name in Denmark. Tis is definitely not. She explains her name as follows:

"Yes - No, actually it's not my real name, I'm also called Lis. Tis is a sort of pet name, I thought of it myself. It was because our parents...They didn't know how to make up their minds... And I fully understand, it can be extremely difficult nowadays... Our brother is called - or was called - he was called Lis, he passed away last year... Together with uncle Lis... I mean... It is easy to get confused when everybody is called Lis. So I thought it was appropriate to make a small change. Just a SMALL change, so one could know the difference, so for instance those people one might meet some day would know who was who and who was called what and so on, so therefore ... LIS ...yes, and Tis. That's the way it is".

There is a detail which says something about how grotesque Line Knutzon's fantasy is. When the young woman here is looking for a new name because she wants her own identity, a different identity from the rest of her family, she found a word which means something. The translator here has for some reason or other decided not to translate the word "tis" - but "tis" means something in Danish. The girl has looked for her place in life by calling herself "Tis" - and in Danish that means "Piss" (or Pee). [NYTW]

For further information, contact:
Jesper Bergmann
Falkonergaardsvej 14
1959 Frederiksberg C
Copenhagen, Denmark [NYTW]

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