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COMEDIES BY HOLBERG
JEPPE OF THE HILL, THE POLITICAL TINKER, ERASMUS MONTANUS
TRANSLATED FROM THE DANISH BY
OSCAR JAMES CAMPBELL, JR., PH.D.
Assistant Professor of English in the University of Wisconsin
FREDERIC SCHENCK, B. LITT. OXON.
Instructor in English in Harvard University
WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY OSCAR JAMES CAMPBELL, JR.
Ludvig Holberg is generally considered the most remarkable of Danish writers. Though he produced books on international law, finance, and history, as well as satires, biographies, and moral essays, he is chiefly celebrated for his comedies, which still--nearly two hundred years after then composition--delight large audiences in Denmark, and bid fair to be immortal. These comedies were the fruit of the author's actual experience; they are closely related to his other works and reflect the range and diversity of his pursuits. To understand fully Holberg's creations, one must first become acquainted with the events of his life.
Ludvig Holberg was born in Bergen, December 3, 1684, of good parentage on both sides. His mother was a granddaughter of a distinguished bishop, and his father an army officer who had risen from the ranks by personal merit. Bergen had long been a trading-post of the Hanseatic League, and in the seventeenth centurv was distinctly cosmopolitan in character. Perhaps as a result of his environment, Holberg seemed early to have acquired a desire to travel. In any case, he devoted most of the years of his young manhood to seeing the woild.
In 1704, shortly after receiving his degree at the University of Copenhagen, he made a journey to the Netherlands. About a year later, he went to England, where he spent more than two years, partly in Oxford and partly in London, studying history and absorbing new ideas. In
1708, as the tutor of a young Danish boy, he visited Dresden, Leipzig, and Halle. Soon after his return to Copenhagen, he obtained a small stipend in a foundation for students, called Borch's College, While there he wrote two historical treatises of enough value to win him an appointment as "extraordinary" professor in the university. Though this position gave him the right to the first vacancy that might occur in the faculty, it did not entitle him to any salary, and it was only through the good offices of a friend at court that he obtained a stipend of about $150 a year for four years, during which time he was to be a sort of travelling fellow of the university. In the spring of 1714, Holberg, then thirty years of age, left Copenhagen for his fourth journey abroad.
This excursion was far more extensive and picturesque than any he had undertaken before. He travelled first to Paris, by way of Amsterdam and Brussels, and later to Genoa and Rome, by way of Marseilles. Except for the necessary sea voyages, most of the journey was made on foot. After staying in Rome for six months, harassed the entire time by malarial fever, he turned his face towards home. In order to escape the discomforts and perils of travel by sea, he decided to return to Paris overland, and walked from Rome to Florence in fourteen days. Finding his health improved by the regular exercise, he continued on foot over the Alps to Lyons, and subsequently to Paris and Copenhagen, where he arrived in the autumn of 1716. Holberg had gone abroad to satisfy his keen intellectual curiosity; he remained to study in foreign lands, and to observe life as a philosopher and artist. Without his seemingly aimless years of wandering, he might conceivably have become an able historian; he could hardly have developed his brilliant talent for satire and comedy.
When Holberg returned home, he found no vacancy in the faculty. While waiting in penury for the death of some professor, he wrote one of his most successful works of scholarship, an Introduction to International Law. At last, in December, 1717, he inherited, as it were, the chair of metaphysics in the university, being thus forced to begin his academic career by teaching a subject that he held in contempt. Fortunately this situation was not permanent. In 1719, he became professor of Latin; in the following year, a member of the university council; later in life, professor of history, the subject he liked best; and finally he was elected treasurer of the corporation. Holberg was thus associated all his life with academic pursuits. The greater part of his intellectual work was devoted to regular university duties and to the composition of scholarly treatises and moral essays, while the writing of the comedies that won him permanent fame formed but a short interlude in his busy life. He became a dramatist almost by chance.
In 1721, some influential citizens of Copenhagen decided that the time was ripe for establishing native drama in Denmark. A company was formed under the direction of a cashiered French actor, Montaigu, who obtained royal permission to bring out plays in Danish. Holberg, having become well known by his mock-heroic poem Peder Paars, was at once invited to furnish the company with original comedies, and responded enthusiastically. For the next few months he wrote with almost incredible swiftness, and by the time the theatre was opened, on August 23, 1722, he had finished five of his best plays, among which were Jeppe of the Hill (Jeppe paa Bjerget) and The Political Tinker (Den politiske Kandestober). During the six years in which the company eked out its precarious existence, Holberg produced twenty-six comedies, most of which were successfully performed. His literary fecundity seems the more remarkable when it is remembered that he had no Danish models.
The theatre was not well supported by the public. After the first year, the receipts of an evening amounted to no more than $13, and sometimes the actors were compelled to tell the spectators who had gathered that they could not afford to present the play to so small an audience. In 1728, the company was at last granted a royal subvention of about $2500 a year by Frederick VI, and it had begun to play under the proud title of Royal Actors, when Copenhagen was swept by a devastating fire. The theatre itself was not destroyed, but the town was so badly impoverished that for the moment all forms of public amusement had to be discontinued. Furthermore, the pietists, to whose doctrines the crown prince was a devout adherent, asserted that the fire was God's scourge for the wickedness of Copenhagen, the most impudent form of which, they believed, was the drama. Before conditions in the city were enough improved to warrant the resumption of his subsidy to the actors, the king died, on October 12, 1730. Under the reign of his pietistic successor, Christian VI (1730-1746), no dramatic performances of any sort were sanctioned; the theatre building was sold at auction, the company disbanded, and Holberg ceased writing plays.
In the year of Christian VI's accession to the throne, Holberg was made Professor of History at the university. Pietist though he was, the new monarch was an enthusiastic patron of scholarship, and during his reign Holberg devoted himself almost exclusively to research, particularly for his History of Denmark, on which his present reputation as an historian rests. The one important work of pure literature that he produced at this time was his Niels Klim's Subterranean Journey (1741), written in Latin, and published in Leipzig to evade the Danish censor. It is an account of a series of visits that Niels Klim pays to certain strange nations within the hollow of the earth. Like Robinson Crusoe, its partial prototype, it contains much pointed satire on the customs of contemporary society. It was soon translated into most other languages of Europe, and it is one of the very few among Holberg's works that have been put into English in any form.
At the death of Christian VI, in 1746, the obscurantist character of the court immediately changed. One of the first forms of amusement to be restored was the Danish theatre. Although Holberg had no official connection with the actors, he seems to have agreed to advise them about their repertory, and soon his association with the stage revived his inteiest in dramatic composition. During the year 1751-52, he wrote six new plays, but they lacked the spirited criticism of contemporary society which gave life to his earlier work. They are either founded on Latin models, or are heavily didactic plays, in which the author's humor fails under the burden of the moral.
The latter part of Holberg's life was spent in peace and affluence. His interests were more and more devoted to his large estates, and particularly to improving the conditions under which his own peasants labored. In 1747, he was elevated to the rank of baron, after bequeathing his estates to the crown to endow the old academy at Soroe. He died on January 28, 1754, and was buried in the abbey church of Soroe, beside the great Bishop Absalom.
The plays in this volume will give a fair idea of Holberg's best work. They are all domestic comedies of character, in which the foibles of some one central figure are held up to ridicule, particularly as they are revealed in his relations with a well-defined family group. The scene in such comedies, usually the home of a peasant or a member of the bourgeoisie, is pictured with uncompromising realism. Holberg insisted that his audiences should see everything that he saw. If a Danish peasant actually lay at times in a drunken stupor on a dunghill, he saw no reason why Jeppe
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