Danish National Theatre
( Originally Published 1896 )[an error occurred while processing this directive]
THE only instance in which unfamiliar forms of culture have a claim on public attention is when they are wholly original and individual. The development of the ages is now too vast for men to spare much time in the study of what is merely imitative, and even reproductions of ancient phases of art and literature must now be very excellent or very vigorous, to succeed in arresting general interest. But art is no respecter of persons, and merit in nations, as in individuals, is still not measured by wealth or size; and it sometimes happens even in these days that what is most worthy of attention is to be discovered in narrow and impoverished circles of men, the light of genius burning all the clearer for the atmospheric compression in which it is forced to exist. Of modern peoples none has displayed the truth of this fact more notably than Denmark, a country so weak and poor, so isolated among inimical races, so forlorn of all geographical protection, that its very place among nations seems to have been preserved by a series of accidents, and which yet has been able, by the brilliance of the individual men of genius it has produced, to keep its distinct and honourable place in the world of science and letters during a century and a half of perilous struggle for existence. There is not another of the minor countries of Europe that can point to names so universally illustrious in their different spheres as Orsted, Thorwaldsen, Oehlenschlager, Madvig, H. C. Andersen. The labours of these men, by nature of their craft, speak to all cultivated persons ; the electro-magnetic discoveries of Orsted tinge all modern habits of life ; the fairy-stories of Andersen make an enchanted land of every well-conducted nursery. These men have scarcely influenced thought in their own land more strongly than they have the thought of Europe. But I purpose here to speak a little of a form of culture which has penetrated no less deeply into the spiritual life of 'Denmark, and which by its very nature is restricted in its workings to the native intelligence.
Of all the small nations of Europe, Denmark is the only one that has succeeded in founding and preserving a truly national dramatic art. One has but to compare it in this respect with the surrounding lands of a cognate character, with Sweden, Norway, Holland, to perceive at once the complete difference of individuality. In all these countries one finds, to be sure, what is called a Royal Theatre, but on examining the répertoire one is sure at once to find the bulk of acting plays to be translations or adaptations. If the popular taste is sentimental, the tendency will be towards Iffland and Kotzebue, tempered with a judicious selection from Shakspeare and Schiller; if farcical, perhaps native talent will be allowed to compete with adaptations from Scribe, while the gaps will be filled up with vaudevilles and operettas translated from the French, and set on the stage purely to give employment to the gregarious multitude that sing tolerably and act most intolerably. In such a depressing atmosphere as this the stage can hardly be said to exist; what poetical talent the nation possesses pours itself into other channels, and sometimes a theatre is found stranded in a position of such hopeless incompetence, that it is ready to adopt the masterpieces of the contemporary English drama.
But the old dingy theatre that was pulled down in Copenhagen in 1874 had another tale to tell than such a dreary one. For within its walls almost all that is really national and individual in the poetic literature of the country had found at one time or another its place and voice. Within the walls that now no more will ever display their faded roses and smoky garlands to the searching flare of the footlights, almost every Danish poet of eminence with the exception of Grundtvig and Winther, perhaps every one had received the plaudits of the people, and been taken personally into the sympathy of the nation in a way no mere study-writer ever can be taken. Perhaps this is why the Danes preserve such an astonishing personal love for their dead poets. Men who had seen the white, sick face of Ewald grow whiter under the storms of applause, and the long thin fingers press the aching brow in an agony of nervous agitation ; the next generation that saw Oehlenschlager, handsome and burly, in his stall, receive the plaudits like a comfortable burgess, one of themselves ; the younger men that knew the haughty, keen face of Heiberg, master of all the best aesthetic culture that his age could give, yet a Dane in every feature, and a type to every romantic youth of what a Dane should be these men had a sense of being a living part and parcel of the national poetic life such as no citizens have had save at Athens, and Florence, and Weimar ; and their sympathy has been so far wider than these, that it was not the emotion of a single circle, however brilliant, of a single city, however potent, but of a whole nation not potent or brilliant at all, but beating to the heart's core with that warm blood of patriotism that has sent its men, again and again, to certain, hopeless death with cheerful resignation.
It is this living force in the dramatic art of Denmark that makes it worthy of study. No lyric or scenic excellence in native writers, no glittering and costly ornament, could have secured to the Royal Theatre of Copenhagen the wonderful influence that it has had over public life, if it had not in some way been able to stand as the representative of the best national life of the country. It is this that gives it a unique place in the history of the modern drama. In Copenhagen the stage has been, what it has not for centuries been in London, the organ by which poetry of the highest class speaks to the masses. The nearest parallel to the position of the Danish Theatre is found amongst ourselves in the new-born popularity of concerts of classical music. Just as crowds throng to hear the elaborate and delicate harmonies of Beethoven and Schumann, till one is set wondering how much of this is habit and fashion, and how much appreciation of the noblest art, so in Copenhagen is one astonished and puzzled to see crowded audiences, night after night, receive with applause dramatic poems that take a place among the most exquisite and subtle works in the language.
Nor is the position of the theatre as a means of widely popularising the higher culture the only or the main service it performs ; it is a school for patriotism. Here the people hear their native tongue spoken most purely and most beautifully, and the peculiar character of the ablest plays on the boards gives the audience an opportunity of almost breathing a condensed air of love for the Fatherland. The best Danish comedies, the old-fashioned but still popular pieces of Holberg, deal almost wholly with life in Copenhagen ; and after the lapse of one hundred and fifty years, the satire in them which lashes an affectation of German taste and German fashion is as welcome and as fresh as ever; the most popular tragedies are those of Oehlenschlager, almost without exception occupied with the mythic or the heroic life of early Scandinavia ; the later dramas of Heiberg mingle poetic romance with life out in the woods and by the lakes of Zealand; while the farces of Hostrup never stray outside the walls of Copenhagen, but point out to a keenly-appreciative audience the ludicrous side of the men and women that jostle them hourly in the familiar, homely streets. In a community so small that almost everybody knows everybody else, a copious literature studded with local illusion becomes as intensely interesting to the populace as the vers de société of a witty poet become to his circle of admirers and butts ; and when the interest thus awakened is led to concentrate itself on topics of the gravest national importance, art approaches its apotheosis, and nears the fulfilment of its highest aim. In fact, if a foreign power secured Copenhagen and understood the temper of the people, its first act would undoubtedly be to shut for an indefinite period the doors of the Royal Theatre.
The ugly old theatre that has just been pulled down to make room for a splendid successor was a disgrace to Kongens Nytorv, the handsome central square of Copenhagen, and its area had long been quite unable to offer comfortable sitting room to the audience. It was well that it should be pulled down and a better house be opened; but in the moment of destruction a thought of gratitude seemed due to the building that had seen so many triumphs of art, so many brilliant poetical successes, and had so large a share in the best life of the country. It was one of the oldest theatres in Europe, having reached the age, most unusual in this class of houses, of one hundred and twenty-six years. In Paris, where dramatic art has so lovingly been studied, and where the passion for scenic representation was so early developed, only two out of the thirty or more theatres now open date from the last century the Theatre Francais from 1782, and the Theatre Porte St. Martin from 1781. The latter suffered so severely under the Commune in 1871, that it hardly comes into the category. Here in London almost all the theatres date, in their present position, from later than 1800, although several of the most important occupy the same classical ground as houses that have been destroyed by fire. This greatest enemy of theatres has wonderfully spared the stage at Copenhagen, where the Royal Theatre, built in 1748, contrived to last till our own day, to undergo the more ignominious fate of being pulled stone from stone.
When Eigtved, the architect, finished it in 1748, it was not the eyesore that it had been of late years ; it was considered an adornment to that very Kongens Nytorva that lately groaned under its hideousness. But the growth of the audience, the necessity of more machinery and more furniture, at variou's times obliged the management to throw out frightful fungus-growths, to heave up the roof, and make all manner of emendations that destroyed the last vestiges of shapeliness. It was the first theatre where the Danish drama found a firm place to settle in ; and after doubtful and dangerous sojourns in Grönnegade and other places, this secure habitation was a great step forward. It seated, however, only eight hundred spectators ; and although the decorations and machinery were so magnificent that a performance was announced gratis, merely that there might be an opportunity of impressing society with a Mercury on clouds, and Night brought on in an airy chariot drawn by two painted horses, still a modern audience might have grumbled at having to spend an evening, or rather an afternoon for the performances began at 5 P.M. in the old building. The stage was lit up by tallow candles, which had to be briskly snuffed by a special attendant; the orchestra could only muster ten pieces, and the wardrobe suffered from a complaint the most terrible for green-rooms--poverty of costumes.
The heart and soul of the management was Holberg, that most gifted of all Danes before or since, who more than any other man has succeeded in lifting his country into an honourable place among the nations. If it be true, as has been said, that Goethe created for Germany the rank it holds in the literature of Europe, much more true is it that Denmark owes to Holberg what rank she has succeeded in attaining. This remarkable man played so important a rôle in the dramatic life of the early times of which we speak, that a few words seem demanded here on his life and personal character. He was born, like so many other men who have made a name in Denmark, in Norway, in 1684. When he was eighteen he came up to study at the University of Copenhagen, and, being left almost entirely destitute, was thrown on the resources of his own talents. Wandering all over the north of Europe, he came at last to Oxford, where he lived for two years, studying at the University, and subsisting in the meanwhile by teaching languages and music. After years of extraordinary adventures, including a journey on foot from Brussels to Marseilles, a narrow escape from the Inquisition at Genoa, and a return journey on foot from Rome over the Alps to Amsterdam, he settled in Copenhagen about the year 1716. Already a great part of his historical works were written, and he gave himself now to law and to philology. His name became generally famous in Denmark as that of a brilliant writer on the subjects just mentioned, but no one suspected that a series of comic poems, published under the pseudonym of Hans Mikkelsen, and over which Copenhagen became periodically convulsed with laughter, were produced by the grave Professor of Latin Eloquence. From 1716 to 1722 he successfully preserved his authorship a secret from the world ; but when a circle of those friends to whom his humorous genius was known besought him to try to write for the Danish stage comedies that should banish French adaptations from the theatrical répertoire, in assenting he took a place before the public as a comic poet which has outshone all his reputation in science and history, bright as that still is. Until then Copenhagen had possessed a German and a French, but no Danish theatre. The first of Holberg's Danish comedies that was produced was the Pewterer turned Politician (" Den politiske Kandestöber "), a piece that recalls somewhat the style of Ben Jonson in the Alchemist, but which for the rest is so wholly original, so happily constructed in plot, so exquisitely funny in evolution, that it is one of the most remarkable works ever produced in Scandinavia. Had Molière never lived, the genius of Holberg would have proved itself superhuman : but the fact is that the Danish poet, in the course of his travels, had had opportunity to study the French comedian thoroughly, and had adopted the happy notion of satirising affectation and vice in Copenhagen, not in the same but in a parallel way with that adopted by Molière in lashing Parisian society. In consequence, the series of Holberg's dramas display no imitation, but a general similarity of method, while the precise nature of the wit is characteristic only of himself. These comedies so far belong to the school represented among ourselves by Ben Jonson, and in our own day by Dickens, that the source of amusement is not found in intrigue, nor mainly in the development of the plot, but in the art of bringing prominently forward certain oddities of character, which in the Shakspearian time were called " humours." Holberg's loving study of the French drama preserved him from the temptation of exaggerating these studies of eccentric character into caricature; the odd lines are just deepened a little beyond what nature commonly presents, and that is all. These comedies show no signs of losing their freshness. They are as popular on the stage to-day as they were one hundred and fifty years ago, and compared with those English plays that just preceded them, from Wycherley to Colley Cibber, they appear astonishingly modern, and as superior in humour as they are in morality and decency ; whereas Holberg's comic epics and lyrics have long ago gone the way of most such writing, and are honourably unread in every gentleman's library.
The thirty Holbergian comedies formed the nucleus of the Danish drama. It was in 1722, before the actors had found a home in Kongens Nytorv, that the Pewterer turned Politician was produced, and the rest followed in quick succession. Some remarks in one of them against the German tendencies of the ministry then in power had the effect of bringing upon Holberg the displeasure of men in authority ; an attempt was made to burn the play publicly, together with another peccant book of Holberg's, the comic epic of Peeler Paars, and to punish the author. Fortunately, King Frederick IV. took the poet's part, and this incident only served to intensify popular interest in dramatic representations.
When the Royal Company flitted over to Kongens Nytorva in 1748 Holberg was the heart and soul of the new enterprise. The répertoire consisted almost entirely of his own comedies, and of translations of the best pieces of Molière. He was fortunate enough to secure in Clementin and Londemann two interpreters whose traditions still cling about the stage, and whose genius, if we may trust the reports of contemporary writers, was in the highest degree suited to set the creations of the great humorist in the broadest and wittiest manner before an audience that had to be educated into appreciation. The memory of these two men is so far interesting to us, as there seems no doubt that it is to them and to their great master that we owe the chaste and judicious style in acting which still characterises the Danish stage. A stranger from London, we will not say from Paris, is struck in Copenhagen by the wonderful reserve and poetical repose that characterises the general tone of the acting; no one is permitted to rave and saw the air; it is preferred to lose a little in sensation if thereby something can be gained in completeness. The great, merit nowadays of Danish acting is not the supreme excellence of a single performance so much as the intelligence of the whole company, and the happy way in which all the important parts are individually made to build up the general harmony of effect. This chastity of art has come down as a tradition from Clementin and Londemann, and for this, if for nothing else, they deserve a moment's recollection.
In 1771 the Royal Theatre entered upon a fresh and fortunate epoch. It became a pensioner of Government, and at the same time received its first important enlargement. This crisis was simultaneous with two events of literary importance. One was the production of the lyrical dramas of Johannes Ewald, the poet who composed the well-known national hymn " King Christian stood by the high mast," and who composed, lying on his back in bed dying, like Heine, by inches, some of the masterpieces of Danish dramatic literature ; and the other was the production of a single play, so unique in its character that it is worth while to pause a few minutes to discuss it. In the course of fifty years no poet had risen up whose talents in any way fitted him to carry on the war against affectation that Holberg had fought so bravely and so successfully. The comedies of that author, however, still kept the stage, and the particular forms of folly satirised by them had long ago died and faded into thin air. But affectation has a thousand hydra-heads, and if a Hercules annihilate one there are nine hundred and ninety-nine left. The craving after German support and German fashion was indeed dead in 1772, but another fearful craving had taken its place, a yearning after the stilted and beperiwigged chivalry that passed for good manners and good taste in France, or rather on the French heroic stage. To act in real life like the heroes of the tragedies of Voltaire was the universal bourgeois ideal in Copenhagen, and to write as much as possible in alexandrines the apex of good taste. Zaire was the model for a romantic Danish lady. This rococo taste had penetrated to the theatre, where the nobility and the court had introduced it after the death of Holberg. Voltaire had been translated and imitated with great popular success; and when the Royal Theatre was opened anew after its enlargement, a native tragedy by the court poet, Nordahl Brun, was performed on the opening night. This production, which out-Alzired Alzire, was the finishing touch given to the exotic absurdity. A young man, who had hitherto been known only as the president of a kind of club of wits, rose up and with one blow slew this rouged and ruffled creature. His name was Wessel, and the weapon he used was a little tragedy called love without Stockings.
The title was quite en règle; Love without Hope, Love without Fortune, Love without Recompense, all these are familiar; and why not Love without Stockings? The populace thronged to see this novelty, and Zaire and Zarine and all the other fantastic absurdities faded away in a roar of universal laughter. Love without Stockings is in some respects unique in literature. The only thing I know that is in any way parallel to it is the Duke of Buckingham's Rehearsal; and it differs from that inasmuch as that, while the Rehearsal parodies certain individual pieces of Dryden and others, Wessel's play is a parody of a whole class of dramas.1 Love without Stockings! Cannot one love without possessing stockings ? Certainly not, answers Wessel ; at all events, not in the age of knee-breeches. And out of this thought he develops a plot wholly in accordance with the arbitrary rules of French tragedy, with the three unities intact, with a hero and his friend, a heroine and her confidante, with a Fate that pursues the Iovers, with their struggle against it, their fall and tragic death. And the whole is worked out in the most pathetic alexandrines, and with a pompous, ornate diction. At the same time, while he adheres strictly to the rules of French tragedy, he does so in such a manner as to make these rules in the highest degree ridiculous, and to set the faults of this kind of writing in the very plainest light. The wedding-day of the two lovers has arrived ; all is ready, the priest is waiting, the bride is adorned, but alas ! the bridegroom, who is a tailor, has no stockings, or, at all events, no white ones. What can he do? Buy a pair? But he has no money. Borrow a pair of his bride ? On the one hand, it would not be proper; on the other, his legs are too thin. But his rival is rich, is the possessor of many pairs of white stockings ; the lover fights a hard battle, or makes out that he does, between virtue and love but love prevails, and he steals a pair. Adorned in them he marches off to the church with his bride, but on the way the larceny is discovered, and the rival holds him up to public disgrace. For one moment the hero is dejected, and then, recalling his heroic nature, he rises to the height of the situation and stabs himself with a pocket-knife. The bride follows his example, then the rival, then the confidante, then the friend; and the curtain goes down on a scene in the approved tragic manner. The purity of the language, and the exactitude with which not only the French dramas, but the Italian arias then so much in vogue, were imitated, secured an instant success for this parody, which took a place that it has ever since retained among the classics of its country. The French tragedy fell ; an attempt to put Nordahl Brun's Zarine on the boards again was a signal failure, and the painted Muse fled back to her own Gallic home.
The wonderful promise of Love without Stockings was scarcely fulfilled. Wessel wrote nothing more of any great importance, and in a few years both he and Ewald were dead. The death-blow, however, that the first had given to pompous affectation, and the stimulus lent by the second to exalted dramatic writing, brought forward several minor writers, whose very respectable works have scarcely survived them, but who helped to set Danish literature upon a broad and firm basis. The theatre in Kongens Nytorva took a new lease of vitality, and, after expelling the French plays, set itself to turn out a worse cuckoo-fledgling that had made itself a nest there the Italian Opera. This institution, with all its disagreeable old traditions, with its gang of castrati and all its attendant aliens, pressed hard upon the comfort and welfare of native art, and it was determined to have done with it. The Italians were suddenly sent about their business, and with shrill screams brought news of their discomfiture to Dresden and Cologne. Then for the first time the Royal Theatre found space to breathe, and since then no piece has been performed within its walls in any other language than Danish. When the present writer heard Gluck's opera of Iphigenia in Tauris sung there some years ago with infinite delicacy and finish, it did not seem to him that any charm was lost through the fact that the libretto was in a language intelligible to all the hearers. To supply the place of the banished Opera, the Danes set about producing lyrical dramas of their own. In the old Hartmann, grandfather to the now living composer of that name, a musician was found whose settings of Ewald have had a truly national importance. The airs from these operas of a hundred years ago live still in the memory of every boy who whistles. From this moment the Royal Theatre passed out of its boyhood into a confident man-hood, or at least into an adolescence which lasted without further crisis till 1805.
It was in that year that the young and unknown poet, Adam Oehlenschläger, wearing out a winter in Germany under all the worst pangs of nostalgia, found in the University Library at Halle a copy of the Icelandic of Snorre Sturleson's Heimskringla. The event was as full of import to Scandinavian literature as Luther's famous discovery of the Bible was to German liberty. In Oehlenschliiger's own words, he read the forgotten classic as one reads a packet of new-found letters from the dearest friend of one's youth ; and when he reached Hakon Jarl's Saga in his reading, he laid the folio aside, and in a kind of ecstasy sat down to write a tragedy on that subject, which was the first fruits of a new epoch, and destined to revolutionise poetic literature, not in Denmark only, but throughout the North.
To follow the development of Oehlenschldger's genius would take us too far from our present inquiry, and belongs rather to the history of poetry proper than to that of the Danish theatre. It suffices to point out that the real addition to national dramatic art given by these tragedies was that the whole subject-matter of them was taken from the legendary history of the race. Instead of borrowing themes from Italian romance or German tradition, this poet took his audience back to the springs of their own thought and legend ; in the sagas of Iceland he found an infinite store of material for tragic dramas in which to develop emotions kindred to the people in whose language they were clothed, and to teach the unfailing lesson of patriotism to a nation that had almost forgotten its own medieval glories. In place of the precious sticklers for the unities, Oehlenschläger set before his eyes Shakspeare for a model; but his worship was less blind than that of the German romanticists, and did not lead him into extravagance so wild as theirs. In later years, when he passed from the influence of Goethe, he fell into a looser and more florid style ; but in his earlier dramas he is, perhaps, the coldest and most severe playwright that has ever succeeded in winning the popular ear. So intent was he on insisting on the heroic, primal forms of life, so careless of what was merely sentiment and adornment, that he presents in one of his most famous tragedies, Palnatoke, the unique spectacle of a long drama, in which no female character is introduced. It was not intentionally so ; simply Oehlenschläger forgot to bring a woman into his plot. He rewarded the patience of the public by dedicating his next play, Axel and Valborg, entirely to romantic love. The success of this piece on the stage was so great, that, as the poet was away from Copenhagen and wished the printing to be delayed, large sums were given for MS. copies, and a clerk busied himself day after day in writing out the verses for enthusiastic playgoers. As it was seventy years ago with fashionable people, so is it to this day with every boy and maiden. The fame of Oehlenschläger, like that of Walter Scott amongst ourselves, has broadened and deepened, even while it has somewhat passed out of the recognition of the cultivated classes. It is usual nowadays, in good society, to vote Oehlenschläger a trifle old-fashioned; but for every thoughtful boy his tragedies are the very basis upon which his first ideas of culture are built up; they are to him the sum and crown of poetry, while all other verses seem but offshoots and imitations; they are to him what bread is among the necessaries of life. He measures the other poets that he learns to know, by Oehlenschläger, but there is no one by whom he dreams of measuring him; he looks at him as the sun of their planet-circle, and he knows nothing yet of any other solar system. Just as these tragedies are the foundation of a Dane's education, so for the Danish stage they have always been, and will remain, the foundation of everything that the theatre can offer of serious drama, the very corner-stone of the whole edifice : and, rightly enough, an ambitious actor's first de-sire is to fit himself for the performance of the heroic parts in these, the manner and style being already traditional.
The strings that Oehlenschläger touched had never before been heard in Denmark ; he led his audience into a world of thought and vision where its feet had never stood before, and he spoke in a language that had never yet been declaimed from behind the footlights. It was not, therefore, wonderful that some years went by before a school of actors arose whose powers were adequate to the burden of these new dramas, and who could be the poet's worthy interpreters. Without such interpreters the tragedies of Oehlenschläger might have passed from the stage into the library, and their great public function never have been fulfilled. But as early as 18r3, in Ryge, a man of superb histrionic genius, an actor, was found wholly worthy to bear the weight of such heroic parts as Hakon Jarl and Palnatoke; some years afterwards Nielsen and his celebrated wife began to share the glory, and the palmy days of Danish acting set in. Fru Nielsen was the Mrs. Siddons of the Danish stage; in her highly-strung sensibility, native magnificence of manner, and passionate grace, she was exactly suited • to give the correct interpretation to Oehlenschlager's queenly but rather cold heroines.
The next event in the Royal Theatre was the introduction of Shakspeare, but unfortunately he did not arrive alone. The newly-awakened sense for what was lofty and pathetic sought for itself satisfaction in the dreadful dramas of the German Sturm und Drang Periode, and threatened to lose its reason completely in the rant and bluster of melodrama. Again the popular sanity was rescued from its perils. We have seen the Danish drama created by the comedies of Holberg, and then fall into the snare of pseudo-classic tragedy; we have seen it saved from this wrinkled and mincing foe by a single scathing parody, and then subside gradually into a condition of tameness and triviality. Out of this we have seen it suddenly lifted into the zenith of the poetical heavens by the genius of Oehlenschlager's; and now we find it tottering dizzily, and ready to fall into some humiliating abyss. It does not fall, but is carried lightly down into the atmosphere of common life on the wings of a mild and homely muse. Hitherto the stage had been forced to adapt itself to the poet's caprices; it found in 1825 a poet who would mould himself to its needs and exigencies. Heiberg understood how to bring all forms of scenic individuality into his service; for the descendants of Holberg he provided laughter, for the interpreters of Oehlenschlager parts that displayed the mild enthusiasm of Scandinavian romanticism. Above all, he possessed the art of setting an audience in good humour at the outset; his most serious dramas had some easy-going prologue, in which good, honest Copenhageners found themselves lightly laughed at, and their own darling haunts and habits portrayed with a humour that was wholly sympathetic. And, having at his hand more than one young composer of enthusiasm and talent, and being from the first a passionate admirer of the Swedish airs of Bellman, he brought music and dancing into his plays in a way that the audience found ravishing, and that filled the house as it had never been filled before. His success combined with it that of his intimate friend, Hertz, whose southern imagination and passion flowed out in plays that brought an element of richness and colour into Danish dramatic art that had always been lacking before. Heiberg's wife became the first actress of her time; and these three friends contrived for a long succession of years to hold the reins in all matters regarding the theatre, and in measure, also, to govern public taste in general questions of art and literature.
These two poets are both dead; Fru Heiberg still lives in honoured age, the centre still of a keenly critical circle. The influence of Heiberg and Hertz on popular feeling in Den-mark has been extraordinary; in a larger country it could not have been so powerful, being, as it was, almost wholly critical and of a peculiarly delicate type. The average cultivated Dane nowadays is very much what Heiberg has made him; that is, one of the most refined, fastidious, and superficially cultivated men of his class in Europe, but wholly incapable of creating new forms of art, and so perfectly satisfied with its past that he has no curiosity for its future. The only new class of drama produced in Denmark in our own time is the farces of Hostrup, pieces that belong to the "cup and saucer" school, and are very much what Robertson would have written, if Robertson had happened to be born a poet. Let us hope that the new house will bring forward new writers, and that the period of lethargy and reaction after the last outburst of poetry is nearly over.
An account of the Danish Royal Theatre would be very imperfect without some notice of a form of art which borrows no aid directly from poetry, but which has developed itself in a quite unique manner at Copenhagen. Already in the middle of the last century, under the direction of Galeotti, the ballet was made a prominent feature on the boards of the Royal Theatre; and from the records of that time we learn that it already began to be regarded with a seriousness that has hardly been afforded to it elsewhere. However, it was not until about fifty years ago that it took the peculiar form which it now holds, and which gives it a national importance. If one can fancy an old Greek in whose brain the harmonious dances of a divine festival still throbbed, waking suddenly to find himself settled in this commonplace century as dancing-master at the Royal Theatre of Copenhagen, one can form some notion of the personality of Bournonville. This poet, to whom the gift of words seems to have been denied, has retained instead the most divine faculty for devising intricate and exquisite dances, and for framing stories of a dramatic kind, in which all the action is performed in dumb show, and consists of a succession of mingled tableaux and dances. These dumb poems in the severely intellectual character of which the light and trivial pettiness of what all the rest of Europe calls a ballet is forgotten are mostly occupied with scenes from the mythology and ancient history of Scandinavia, or else reflect the classicism of Thorwaldsen, with whose spirit Bournonville is deeply imbued. No visitor to Copenhagen should miss the opportunity of seeing one of these beautiful pieces, the best of all, perhaps, being Thrymskviden (the "Lay of Thrym," a giant king), to which Hartmann had set the wildest, most magical music conceivable. Certain scenes in this ballet remain on the mind as visions of an almost ideal loveliness. The piece is occupied with the last days of the AEsir, the gods of heathen Scandinavia, against whom, it will be remembered, betrayed by Loki, the Evil God, one of themselves, the powers of darkness and chaos rose, and who sank to destruction in the midst of a general conflagration of the universe. When once the natural disappointment that follows the discovery of these colossal figures of the imagination dwarfed to human proportions has subsided, the vigour and liveliness of the scenes, the truly poetic conceptions, the grace and originality of the dances, surprise and delight one to the highest degree ; and the vivid way in which the dumb poem is made to interpret its own development is worthy of particular attention, the insipidity of ordinary ballet-plots giving all the more piquancy to the interest of this.
It cannot be wholly without value to us to be made aware of the success of other nations in fields where we have been notoriously unsuccessful ourselves. Without falling into any of the jeremiads that have only been too plentiful of late years, we may soberly confess that our own theatres have long ceased to be a school for poetic education, or influential in any way as leaders of popular thought or taste. They have not attempted to claim any moral or political power; they have existed for amusement only, and now, in the eyes of most cultivated persons, they have ceased even to amuse. Over the drop-scene at the Royal Theatre at Copenhagen there stands in large gold letters this inscription : "Ej blot til Lyst " not merely for enjoyment: and in these simple words may be read the secret of its unique charm and the source of its power. It has striven, not prudishly or didactically, but in a broad and healthy spirit, to lead the popular thought in high and ennobling directions. It has not stooped to ask the lowest of its auditors how near the edges of impropriety, how deep into the garbage of vulgarity and slang, how high in the light air of triviality it dared to go; it has not interpreted comedy by farce, not turned tragedy into melodrama, nor dirtied its fingers with burlesque, but has adapted itself as far as possible meekly and modestly, to the requirements of the chastity of art, and has managed for a century and a half to support a school of original actors and a series of national plays without borrowing traditions or dramas from its neighbours. Denmark is an extremely insignificant country; but that exemplary insect, the ant, is also small, and yet the wisest of men deigned to recommend it to human attention.