Ludvig Holberg, a Danish Playwright on the European Stage - Bent Holm - ebook

Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754) is the founding father of the art of theatre in the Nordic countries. He was a satirist - and university professor - who took his main inspirations from the comedies of Moliere and from the commedia dell'arte to create a number of plays that mirrored contemporary costums and conducts in a both realistic and grotesque way. Due to the psychological and philosophical strength behind the comic mask the plays have been staged and revisited ever since. In the 18th century the were part of the European canon. They should be so now again. This book presents Holberg in a European context as a reformer in the spirit of the Enlightenment even before Goldoni, Diderot and Lessing, and at the same time as an exponent of a carnivalesque tradition.

Ebooka przeczytasz w aplikacjach Legimi na:

czytnikach certyfikowanych
przez Legimi

Liczba stron: 577

Odsłuch ebooka (TTS) dostepny w abonamencie „ebooki+audiobooki bez limitu” w aplikacjach Legimi na:



Series Editors




Translated from the Danish byGAYE KYNOCH

Layout: Nikola Stevanović

Printed and bound in the: EU

Frontcover image:

Benoit le Coffre, A Masquerade. Ceiling painting, Frederiksberg Palace, 1704

Backcover image:

Handle of Holberg’s cane, xylograph (anon.) in “Illustreret Tidende” 37, 1860

The publication was supported by


The translation has received funding from:

Statens Kunstråd – Danish Arts Council

The Holberg Society

Lasson Andersens Fond


Wilhelm Hansen Fonden

English language edition: © HOLLITZER Verlag, Wien 2018

Bent Holm: Ludvig Holberg, a Danish Playwright on the European Stage

Masquerade, Comedy, Satire

Translated from the Danish by Gaye Kynoch

Wien: HOLLITZER Verlag, 2018

(= Specula Spectacula 6)


der HOLLITZER Baustoffwerke Graz GmbH

All rights reserved.

Except for the quotation of short passages for the purposes of criticism and review, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form by any means, digital, electronic or mechanical, or by photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or conveyed via the Internet or a Web site without prior written permission of the publisher.

Responsibility for the content and for questions of copyright lies with the author.

ISBN pdf: 978-3-99012-481-9

ISBN epub: 978-3-99012-480-2



CHAPTER 1Holberg on the European Stage. Instrument, score, music

CHAPTER 2Holberg on the Danish stage. Mask, comedy, satire

CHAPTER 3Holberg our contemporary. Impact, interpretation, practice



Holberg’s plays



Dario Fo (1926–2016) in memoriam


De fleste Mennesker ere masquerede, og ligesom Comoedianter paatage sig fremmede Skikkelser, saa længe som Spillet varer. Naar Rullen er spillet, og Masquen aftages, legges allerførst for Lyset, om det haver været skrømt eller Alvor.

Ludvig Holberg: Moralske tanker (Moral Thoughts),Libr. I, Epigr. 117, 1744, p. 184

Most people are masked and, like performers, clad themselves as different figures for as long as the performance lasts. Only when the role has been played, and the mask removed, do we know whether it has been feigned or genuine.


On 23 September 1722, an audience in Copenhagen, capital city of the double monarchy Denmark-Norway, witnessed the premiere of Den gerrige, a translation of L’avare (1668; The Miser), a play by Molière (1622–1673), performed in Danish on a stationary, professional stage; a few days later, on 26 September 1722, the audience witnessed the first performance of Den politiske kandestøber (The Political Tinker)1, a new satirical play by Ludvig Holberg (1684–1754). This was a first in the northern reaches of Europe, where the concept of professional theatre was synonymous with foreign players: touring companies or troupes affiliated to a royal court. Now, for the first time, the citizens were being presented with a new form: a professional, stationary theatre offering performances in the national language. Seen in the wider perspective, the two premieres represent a watershed moment, even though, in the immediate perspective, within a couple of years the theatre project, despite its initial success, struggled to function as a viable proposition. Matters were not helped in the early days by a lack of goodwill from official quarters; in certain arenas – university and clergy – it was regarded with considerable scepticism and vigorous animosity. Despite the enormous significance credited the event in a wider cultural and historical perspective, traces of its manifestation in the contemporaneous news media were correspondingly microscopic – or, to put it bluntly: non-existent. Other events, such as royal appointment to office, were deemed to be of far greater interest. In short: the introduction of a stationary stage with performances in Danish was an event of crucial significance while also being quite unwelcome and completely irrelevant – all depending, of course, on the vantage point.

This book aims to look at the watershed event of 1722 from the perspective of its day, the after-effects and the present. The project was born of the author’s conviction that it is impossible to get close to a playtext – with a view to putting it on stage, for example – without bothering about its original context and without an understanding of the colouring-in undertaken by various posterities. The former, the context of its original day, in order to have a sounding board for the tones and themes the text once activated within its contemporary setting. The other, the affixed conventional understandings, in order to wipe the slate clean and approach the material with a fresher gaze than if neither of the two exercises – examining the play in its contemporaneous setting and reviewing treatment by its posterity – had been attempted. An appreciation of playtexts in their day is thus also a foundation for their application to our day. Historicising is a good tool with which to achieve both alienation and proximity.

Responsibility for establishing the theatre can largely be attributed to the French actor René Magnon (1661–1737) with the stage name Montaigu. The principal dramatist at the theatre, author of the Danish opening performance and subsequently of a body of playtexts that constitute the main stem in Danish-Norwegian literature and theatre, was the above-mentioned Ludvig Holberg. Any other part he might have played in the project is actually difficult to substantiate. He must, however, have participated in some way; otherwise he would hardly have been in a position to take the leap as a more or less fully-fledged dramatist – in itself a debut that is and remains mysterious, looked at from any angle. Whatever role he might have played, he did almost immediately gain a position as the leading figure in the life of the new theatre – and, in the longer historical term, he is a dominant figure.

At the time, Holberg did not operate primarily from any kind of status as central notability; he was a minority figure and peripheral. Other individuals and events were central, powerful or celebrated; they have since become peripheral. The writer became a central figure. By letting this now-famed man shrink to natural size – or to ‘rehabilitate’ the forces and mindsets he was up against – his stature will possibly emerge more clearly.


Holberg’s significance should also be seen in the overall perspective that he developed Danish literature in a number of genres; not only was he a playwright, he was also a satirist, novelist, historian, philosopher. He was a modernist on solid classical ground, a Danish European and a European Dane, while, by virtue of his travels, his studies and his works, he was part of the European intellectual life of his day. His project was to evolve the language, taste, cognisance on the national level, precisely in order to assert the nation in a European context. He was a national internationalist, publishing in Danish, French and Latin; of modern languages, he also mastered, to a greater or lesser extent, German, Dutch, English, Italian and Spanish. The point is, however, it was not only as a Danish writer that his influence was felt in his day; Holberg made a contemporaneous name for himself on the European cultural scene, via translations and via the works he wrote in the European readable language of Latin. The latter involved his memoirs and, in particular, the satirical fantasy travel novel Nicolai Klimii iter subterraneum (1741; in Danish: Niels Klims underjordiske rejse; various published English-language translations with various titles – here the book will be referred to as: Niels Klim’s Journey Underground), which, before a year had passed, had been translated into German, English, French, Danish and Dutch, later followed by translations into Swedish, Russian and Hungarian. His plays were of great significance to the German theatre of his day, in the development of a contemporaneous repertoire in counter position to the prevailing Baroque theatre. The desired major breakthrough in France – home of his playwriting ideal, Molière – did not, however, materialise; in that particular setting, Holberg’s plays looked more to the past than to the future. International familiarity with his works has since dwindled, largely because he mainly wrote for a very small language area. If a Holberg play is known beyond the Nordic countries, it will usually be the comedy Jeppe på Bjerget (1722; Jeppe of the Hill).

It therefore makes sense to treat this significant and brilliant eighteenth-century man for what he is: a major European intellectual, writer and, not least, comic and satirical author and dramatist. Even if Holberg’s literary output covers philosophy, history and fiction, his name endures primarily as a dramatist. It is as such he will be addressed here; and, as such, he ought to be placed on a different shelf than the one occupied by, for example, Molière and Carlo Goldoni (1707–1793), with whom he is often compared.


The idea here, however, is to view the dramatist in the light of the greater whole formed by his literary activities per se. Furthermore, to see the body of work in relation to his day. Plus, the dramaturgic approach: putting the plays into a modern stage setting. For this latter reason also, the historical research must cover a very broad spectrum – given that it is impossible to know beforehand where there might be a piece of information, a circumstance, a story, holding a key to the creative development of the stage universe. The dramaturgic position is a matter of taking an audience vantage point as the basis, be it in a historical or a contemporary context. All the same, the audience of Holberg’s day registered experiences via the complex actuality that was their life and times. Radar and echo sounding alike thus have to be employed in the strategic mapping around the horizon and into the depths.

History is written by the victors, it has been said, and in that sense Holberg has been victorious into death – he has left such a mark on Danish theatre and thought that he has practically vanished as controversial player in opposition and interaction with the prevailing dynamics of his times. Fractured veneers, ambiguities and uncomfortable provocations are softened in the perspective of the writer as national treasure: Holberg is left as a man who is of course right, and with whom we – the audience – agree. And thus, as often as not, the work in practice has the stage form of an apotheosis of self-righteousness or comedy for comedy’s sake. But Holberg was at outright odds with his times – the actuality of which was also complex.

In other words, this book is largely a reaction to the curse of the classics: the tradition, canonisation, cliché. The picture of the classics is the result of the agendas – political, national, cultural – in which the works have been embedded. It is not until these layers of applied varnish have been scraped off that the material can be seen in a context relating to circumstances in which it was originally embedded – to regain its original edge or bite, which has often been worn away over the years or hidden under familiarity’s layers of cotton wool and bubble wrap.


The material thus has to be placed in a framework that locates it in its own day, which is simultaneously a contemporaneous European day, in order to suggest strategies and pointers by means of which the potential of the playtexts can be released in our day.

All this is introduced in Chapter 1. A thematic-biographical chapter aiming to paint the historical, cultural and location backdrop, and introduce a number of themes fundamental to the Holbergian pen in the broad sense, while cutting across, for example, poetry, philosophy and theatre. One starting point is an understanding of theatre as the physical instrument for which the work is composed, and then – figuratively speaking – the plays as the music made to sound in manifold registers by that instrument. The point is that the ‘scores’ – the playscripts – cannot be read without an eye for their specified instrumentation. This applies, in particular, because they revolve around role-playing, illusion and staging as existential themes. In other words, they disclose the philosophical implications in three dimensions; and they do so in a dialogical interaction with the audience, in a complex plastic dynamic between stage and spectators. And this is precisely where it is crucial to have insight into the mental and physical circumstances of the audience: the reception apparatus through which the one party in dialogue between stage and spectators perceives. Once these dimensions are in place as sounding board, the more acute tones can make themselves heard.

Based on these principles, Chapter 2 will present analyses of selected plays. The chapter addresses three groups, each of two plays, and each of which will be deployed in the historical and thematic context as outlined above. The actuality of any epoch is kaleidoscopic; every vantage point – that of theatre history, for example – is a construct. Fields beyond history of drama and theatre are therefore involved in the analyses. The exercise will consist in looking at the contemporaneous perception of theatre and at the theatre’s perception of the contemporaneous day – at the theatre’s actuality and the actuality’s theatre. The inner context is accounted for by circumnavigations of related themes: theatre, theatricality, staging, role-playing, illusion, religion, sorcery, masks – in relations between the plays and the whole body of works, in relations between the plays, in relations between theatre and world.2

It is not a representative selection in terms of form; consideration of theme has taken precedence over consideration of genre – the purpose is not to cover the various genres in which Holberg wrote with examples, but to try to cover basic themes in his universe in interaction with the tensions, upheavals and scruples of an era. Genre categorisation is potentially a freezing of interpretative complexity; if Jeppe of the Hill is studied as a comedy of character – which is definitely also is – the focus is swiftly shifted away from, for example, the pivotal carnivalesque and political implications contained within the comedy, and which contribute to its extraordinary complexity and durability. We could nonetheless say that the genres represented are: comedy of character, comedy of intrigue, comédie des tiroirs, and comedy of parody. And, therefore, we could say that the genres not covered are: comedy of manners, of which Holberg wrote two, and tragicomedy, of which he wrote one, plus allegory, of which he wrote three in his old age. The selection largely consists of playtexts written in the early days of the new Danish theatre.

Common to the plays in the first group is their reference to the actual circumstances of the theatre: Hekseri eller Blind alarm (1722/23; Witchcraft, or False Alarm) is an apology for the theatre, written in a situation where it was under hefty pressure from hostile forces. And then Maskerade (1724; Masquerade), written and staged in connection with the ban on masquerades, which were a significant source of income for the theatre. After this, two plays with certain mutual references in environment and characters: Jeppe of the Hill, which was one of the first plays to be produced on the new Danish stage, coupled with Erasmus Montanus (1722/1723). These two – in several ways related – comedies will illustrate, for example, Holberg’s handling of the form that revolves around one central protagonist. Holberg’s connection with commedia dell’arte is illuminated by the two harlequinades Ulysses von Ithacia (1722/1723), which parodies the grandiose Baroque drama by means of technique borrowed from the burlesque Italian theatre, combined with De usynlige (1731; The Invisible Ones), as a critique of the new, more sensitive tendencies at work in the field. Not all the plays were staged immediately; Witchcraft, or False Alarm and Erasmus Montanus might have initially stepped really quite close to sensitive subject zones.

In all, the intention is to cover the central areas of comedy, masquerade, role-playing. Reduced to bare bones: the plays are shown in confrontation with Church, convention and Crown. They represent a number of Holberg’s interfaces: from Aristophanes, via carnival, Molière and masked comedy, and on to the sophisticated sensitive drama genre, all executed in an unmistakable instrumentation and thematisation.

The staging of a playtext in a later era involves a shifting of the text from one context to another. Again: this manoeuvre presupposes an embedding of the playtext in this ‘other’ actuality: that time in the past, with its norms and conventions, when the play was written, which first emerges when the cultural landscapes are reconnoitred. This is where the classic breathes. The focus in Chapter 3, therefore, is first on the way in which the Holbergian formula – the coupling of Grotesque and realism – has left its mark as a distinctive feature of Danish drama and theatre. The discussion then moves on to the principle thematics of consorting with classic drama texts in our contemporary context, often tending towards either unreflective reverence or violation of the text as an end in itself. The subject of Holberg in stage practice is rendered more specific via examples of modern productions of Jeppe of the Hill and Ulysses von Ithacia.

Footnote references to Holberg’s written works relate to the first editions, which are the basis for the website Ludvig Holbergs Skrifter (The Writings of Ludvig Holberg), see Bibliography. All verse passages quoted are translated for meaning, without rhyme.

Data for Holberg’s output of stage plays – date of writing, premiere and publication – is found in an appendix at the end of the book.

Bent Holm, March 24, 2018


Holberg on the European StageInstrument, score, music

Handle of Holberg’s cane, xylograph (anon.) in “Illustreret Tidende” 37, 1860. Allegory on the theme: Nosce te ipsum – know thyself. This emblematic motif is recurrent in various folk cultures – the Austrian “Vogel Selbsterkenntnis” (bird of self-knowledge), for example. (See p. 17, “Work and World”)

Mand kand sige, at alt hvad et Menneske bryster sig af, er ikke andet end en Skygge, der synes større end Legemet, og er dog intet. Saa er udi alt, hvad mennesket hovmoder sig af, ingen Realitet. Alexander maatte døe udi sin beste Alder […] Montagne siger: […] Den store Seyer-Herres Liv er kun en Frokost for en Madik.

(Ludvig Holberg “Epistel 122” in Epistler II. Copenhagen: 1748, p. 184)

One can say that everything of which a human being boasts is but a shadow that, even though it seems larger than the body, is nothing. Thus in everything of which a human is proud there is no reality. Alexander had to die in his prime […] Montaigne says: […] The life of the great victor is but breakfast for a worm.


The handle of Holberg’s cane has been preserved. It represents a bird, its beak pecking the nose of a fool’s mask on its own breast, illustrating the maxim: Nosce te ipsum – know thyself. The figure is also known as ‘the bird of self-knowledge’. It is quite literally searching its own heart, which wears a fool’s face. This tenet constitutes pivotal point, the point of orientation in Holberg’s path and productivity, the grip and stanchion underwriting his pilgrimage through life and art. But the image is not unequivocal. While Holberg stresses self-knowledge as prerequisite for an understanding of reality, he also questions – in a consistently dialectical way – the self itself, vividly depicting its instability and relativity. This interplay is a fundamental dynamic of his pen.

The writing and the reality are in a mutual give-and-take relationship. The concept of reality is largely a matter of interpretation. The biographical sketch below will therefore also indicate the themes and areas of focus that function as prisms in the relationship between pen and preconditions.

Ludvig Holberg was born in the dynamic Norwegian commercial centre of Bergen in the double-monarchy Denmark-Norway. His father, Christian Nielsen Holberg (c.1620–1686), came from the peasantry, had a military career, including active service with, for example, Venetian and Maltese armies, rising through the ranks to the position of lieutenant colonel in charge of the Bergen defences. He died when his son was but an infant; but Holberg later described his father, with obvious admiration, as an adventurous man. Holberg’s mother, Karen Pedersdatter Lem (1647–1695), was the grandchild of Ludvig Hansen Munthe (1593–1649), Bishop of Bergen.

Having graduated from the University of Copenhagen, Holberg expanded his intellectual and cultural horizons and expertise by undertaking several trips abroad. He spent time in Amsterdam during 1704–1705, purely for the experience and sensations; in 1706–1708 he and a well-heeled friend travelled to England, where he studied the new ideas current in Oxford at the time while supporting himself by giving private language and music lessons; 1708–1709 he travelled in Germany, working as mentor for the young son of a learned professor; in 1714–1716 he went to France and Italy, also with the aim of furthering his studies. He describes how students in Paris would queue up in the mornings outside the Mazarine library to be the first that day to read Pierre Bayle’s (1647–1706) Dictionnaire historique et critique (1695–1697), which ventured to relate God to the evil in the world, and how in Rome he tried in vain to gain access to the heretical work. In Rome he saw commedia dell’arte during the carnival. His travels were undertaken on foot, hundreds of kilometres, and at one point during a bout of malaria he had contracted. In 1725–1726, by now a relatively well-established intellectual, he undertook his second Romanesque journey, this time something in the nature of a specific theatre tour, main destination: Paris.

Holberg’s literary undertaking went through fictional, historical and philosophical phases. Even though his posterity has largely connected his name with his plays, his work in the fields of history and moral philosophy was also pioneering. In fact, works of history made up half of his – enormous – output. As indicated, watertight bulwarks will not be placed between, for example, comic and philosophic areas of his literary output; themes in the more contemplative texts, which can elaborate upon and clarify statements and conflicts in the plays, will be deployed on the field.

Holberg saw fiction – expressing oneself through “digtning, fortællinger og lignelser”3 (writing, stories and parables) – as a way of ‘moralising’: critical reasoning on human behaviour. He set out one approach to this in his 1716 publication Introduktion til naturens og folkerettens kundskab (Introduction to the theory of the law of nature and of nations), underpinned by a modern secular philosophy of right and a corresponding view of human nature, with substantial reference to the work of Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) and Samuel Pufendorf (1632–1694) and their theories of natural law and the law of nations. A general theme in Holberg’s analysing literary output is the view of fashions and conventions as secondary constructs, in the face of which ‘nature’ is claimed to be a more stable base. Human behaviour, which is controlled by all sorts of norms ascribed authoritative weight, will therefore fundamentally amount to a fiction – and thus ultimately constitute a form of theatre.

Holberg’s more regular academic position was, after 1717, as professor at the University of Copenhagen, first teaching – much against his inclination – metaphysics and logic, then oratory and classical Latin literature. Eventually, in 1730, he was promoted to teaching his actual subject: history. In 1735–1736 he was in addition rector of the university. As ‘quaestor’ – an administrative official in charge of revenue and expenditure – he subsequently handled the finances of the institution, with great pecuniary skill. This was a job with no lecture-room responsibilities, which was not unwelcome given that teaching was neither Holberg’s aspiration nor his area of expertise – on the contrary, he was known as an entirely mediocre teacher and lecturer.

In 1719, the lengthy comic epic Peder Paars, written in alexandrines with inspiration taken from Don Quijote as a Grotesque parody of the Homeric-Virgilian epic and the lavish Baroque writing style, launched what Holberg called his “poetiske raptus”4 (poetic rapture, in the sense of outburst, frenzy): a frenetic comic-satiric productivity that also encompassed philosophical satirical poems. Peder Paars created a sensation. The epic put Holberg on a collision course with the mythological implications of the Baroque. In terms of storyline, it is close to Virgil’s Aeneid, but taking place in a very simple setting on a small and backward Danish island, Anholt, a micro-society with all the essential institutions in miniature, where the eponymous hero, an artless shopkeeper, is stranded on his voyage. The intervention of the gods is played out in a Grotesquely parodic register as a frontal collision between an older and a modern perception of reality. In form, the poem referenced popular genres such as the printed broadside – in itself an ingredient of the cavorting with references, masks and fictions in which Holberg indulged with great relish and ingenuity.

Holberg here demonstrated a talent for satire and character delineation, however the poem created quite a scandal. Satire as technique and strategy was alien and unfamiliar. The inclination was to view it as persiflage, with a specific and not general target, an accusation against which the satirist continually had to defend himself. The Grotesque depiction of fundamental social structures mirrored in a microcosmos nearly cost the writer dear. The owner of Anholt, one of the realm’s extremely mighty men, lodged a complaint with the king in which he called for the book to be burned by the executioner. One accusation in the charge of general subversive activities was a perceived contempt for the literature of Antiquity. The case ended up being dismissed, but that it had been brought at all was a serious matter. The next symptom of the ‘rapture’ was four “Skæmtedigte” (lit.: jestful poems), satires in which Holberg took a critical look at the contemporaneous position on, for example, gender roles, and also displayed an outlook on life and human nature that points to futility as a condition of existence – to such an extent that he almost burst the demarcated framework of the poem. In 1722 Holberg looked to a different creative medium in which he would be able to expand his thematics, and now in three dimensions: in the setting of the new playhouse, where his poetic rapture reached a frenetic tempo.

Holberg personally was of the opinion that he had laid the foundation of Danish drama – or at least the comic part of it – per se. This is true in the sense of professional theatre. Previously, church and school drama had featured as a didactic project in which not least humanist and in particular Lutheran virtues were to be trained.

Karrig Nidding (Stingy Miser), a play by Latin school (: academic secondary school) headmaster Hieronimus Justesen Ranch (1539–1607) in approximately 1600 – making it a contemporary of William Shakespeare’s (1564–1616) Hamlet – represents a refreshingly original contribution to the genre, written as it was for amateurs in the Danish school. The play is a farce-like comedy of character, including a comical pair of servants, in five Acts, drawing particular inspiration from Aulularia by Plautus (c.254–c.184 BC). Unlike Plautus’ miser, however, Ranch’s is a wealthy man whose miserliness makes life a misery for all and sundry, especially the servants and his beautiful wife Jutta, despite a store cupboard bulging with hams, pork and bread. His pathological meanness leads him to lock everything away and leave his estate for a while, taking the keys to the larder with him, in order to subsist by begging. In walks merry Jep Skald, who has his pleasure of the wife, breaks open all the locks and has them changed; clad in Nidding’s first-class outfits, he now acts the part of master of the house. When Nidding returns, compelled by a dream in which a beggar has usurped his place, the plot machinations are played out where no one will recognise him, but instead threaten to give him a thrashing. Nidding becomes confused and begins to wonder if this is even his own home. Discovering that his keys do not fit the locks, he is convinced he must have dreamt that he is the master of the household; wearing Jep Skald’s beggar cloak he sets forth to find his estate and his wife! Underneath the comic plot and the horseplay, we can quite clearly see the Shrovetide-farce motif with its battle between carnival and Lenten fast.

Another example – not in the school play tradition – is Grevens og friherrens komedie (c.1678; The Comedy of the Count and the Baron) by nobleman Mogens Skeel (1650–1694); the play is a tough satire on the new nobility, which was created by the absolute monarchy in 1671 and considered by the old nobility to be a bunch of upstarts. The somewhat trivial plot – based on the French model – is divided into five Acts, revolves around the newly-minted Baron Klingenbeutel (: the clanking purse), to whom the new Count and Countess would like to see their daughter married – even though she loves a reliable, but untitled squire. The Baron, meanwhile, has acquired his title by means of trickery. The quick-witted pair of servants hatch a plot against the Baron, he swallows the bait, and his daughter ends up with the man of her choice. The play, which circulated in transcriptions, was not intended for performance, nor is it a masterpiece of literature or drama.

In short: before Holberg arrived on the scene, a quantifiable Danish tradition of playwriting only existed in the form of sporadic preambles.

Besides members of the French artists’ colony in Copenhagen, actors in the new Danish theatre were recruited from students who had gleaned some stage experience when they were pupils at the Latin school. Meanwhile, their university hinterland did not look favourably upon this ‘frivolous’ activity. In his “rapture”, Holberg penned play after play in record time: a total of twenty-six between 1722 and 1727. The main source of inspiration was Molière, with the plot structured around a foolish protagonist – Holberg’s versions usually drawn with rather Grotesque lines – plus the comedy of Antiquity, particularly Plautus, and commedia dell’arte, the Italian masked comedy with its robust and disrespectful jesting. The plays are often set in a universe peopled by the bourgeoisie and artisans of Copenhagen. Holberg swiftly developed a regular gallery of types: Jeronimus, Leonard, Magdelone, Leander, Leonora, Henrik, Pernille, Arv. Stock characters, but with a wide variety of individuals within the categories: parents, lovers, comic servants, and so forth. In the same way, the localities – the stage design – were standardised settings for the action, without adhering too strictly to the actual logistics of the fiction; the realistic mindset of his posterity has liked to characterize this particular feature as ‘sloppiness’ on Holberg’s part. The point here is that in Holberg’s day no contract had been made with the audience stating that the fiction was real – an idea that first became current later in the century. Holberg was more concerned with probability and familiarity. A flying dragon, therefore, is only an option as parody.

The fruits of Holberg’s “poetic rapture”, including the plays, were published under the pseudonym “Hans Mikkelsen, priviligeret hvidtølsbrygger udi den stad Kalundborg” (Hans Mikkelsen, licensed brewer in the city of Kalundborg), ostensibly a worthy man living in the (real) city of Kalundborg. When the plays started being published in 1723, they were supplied with a preface written by the learned ‘Just Justesen’ – another of Holberg’s masks, and a man who had also written scholarly comments and annotations to Peder Paars and the verse satires – in defence of the performance stage that, for religious reasons, was a controversial topic at the time.

So, the purpose underlying the project was to ‘moralise’: to take a critical look at human behaviour, from a belief that exposure of irrationality and foolishness had a therapeutic effect, that satire operated “som en Chirurgisk Kniv, der heeler naar den skiær”5 (like a surgical knife, healing as it cuts). At the same time, the enormity of ludicrousness contained its own fascinating wonder. Grotesque comedy was a vital necessity: energy and survival strategy rolled into one. Social and psychological satire, it should be added, had to be developed with an eye to entertainment value. Theatre was also a matter of box-office business.

In addition to the comedies of character, of intrigue, of manners, and so forth, written in the 1720s, the six plays Holberg wrote in his later years also show a more didactic-allegoric approach to the scripts, plus a single heroic-serious drama. By and large, however, everything is about making a fool of others or being the one made to look a fool, about the strange and wonderful interplay between fiction and reality. Knowing oneself, which, on the face of it, is the be-all and end-all, involves a critical ironic eye for the reality in which this ‘self’ is located. The theme references the playfully dialectical Socratic method; insomuch as Holberg had heroes, then the ironist Socrates (489–399) was one of them. Socrates challenged people via questions that forced the interlocutor to see the seemingly obvious – and ultimately his- or herself – in a different light. “Thi, hvis Mennesker ikke først lærer at kende sig selv, er det umueligt for dem at komme til noget grundigt Videnskab”6 (For if people do not first learn to know themselves, it is impossible for them to reach any profound insight) states Holberg in a portrait of the philosopher – which has undertones of self-portrait. Irony is dialogic, involves the other party, provokes dizziness.

Holberg’s satirical exposures of various forms of (self)delusion and affectation are rendered in harmony with the view of civilisation as convention and construct. They go from the practices and superstition of the peasantry to the ridiculous ambitions of the bourgeoisie and the ritual self-promotion of the elite, exhibited with merciless mockery – albeit under the disarming mask of comedy – as theatricality. Side-by-side with the theme of reason and rigour, his artistic – and philosophical – universe accommodates a deep-rooted perception of inconstancy as condition and of madness as dynamic necessity. Seen in this perspective, constancy is, in a word, illusion, and stasis is a hazard. Holberg does not merely engage ‘theatre’ for the depiction of everyday life, but fundamentally and absolutely as thematic instrument in itself. His delight in absurdity and nurturing of paradox should be seen as an almost visceral carnivalism and a Socratic sabotage of noetic rigidities, in a tactic that undermines the fortifications of the other party rather than launching a frontal attack.

When the theatre had to close temporarily for the 1725–1726 season, due to financial and attendance woes, Holberg was staying in Paris – one reason being his hope of an international breakthrough. He tried in vain to win favour with the French-Italian troupe, where a new drama genre with focus on emotional sensitivity and moralism was beginning to surface, which ran contrary to his ironic usentimentality, burlesque comedy and a view of human nature devoid of illusion.

During the period 1728–1747, religious factors led to theatre being, in practice, banned in the Danish king’s territories. During the final years of his reign, King Frederik IV (r. 1699–1730), had been overcome by religious contrition, and his successor, Christian VI (r. 1730–1746), was a sworn devotee of the radical pietism Christian movement, which was in effect imposed as the state religion. At this theatreless time, Holberg devoted himself mainly to historical writing – works dealing with, for example, history of the Jews, the Church, heroes and heroines, and Denmark-Norway – and literary activities addressing issues of moral philosophy, with principal essayistic works such as Moralske tanker (1744; Moral Thoughts) and Epistler (1748–54; Epistles) in addition to his major administrative efforts on behalf of the university. In 1741 he published the satirical fantasy travel novel Niels Klim’s Journey Underground, originally written in Latin. The protagonist falls through a hole leading to a universe in the inner globe, where he experiences the most Grotesque and strange planets, countries and continents, with masked references to the oddities of the outer globe. His trajectory is embedded in an overarching composition around the philosophy of government, dealing with the greater or lesser efficacy of governmental forms. Klim’s unrestrained pretentions of greatness come to an abrupt halt once he falls back to earth again.

Holberg was his own bookseller. He was a small, slight man, unmarried and childless, and he led a spartan life – with something of a reputation for parsimoniousness. He had a lucky touch when it came to business – marketing his own works, for example – and gradually accumulated such a fortune that he was able to buy up estates, eventually becoming a property-owner with substantial farmlands. Furthermore, in 1747, he was ennobled to the rank of ‘baron’, as part of a transaction that involved him bequeathing his possessions and capital to a modern educational institution: Sorø Akademi (Sorø Academy). The academy was set up as an alternative university, giving prominence to knowledge and skills with practical and meaningful relevance to the day – unlike the University of Copenhagen, which, seen from that perspective, was theoretical and out of touch with the real world.

When the theatre reopened in 1747, after the death of the pietist king, Holberg became actively involved in undertakings and wrote, as mentioned, a further six plays, which lack however the inspired wit of his first period. By this time, he was a notable intellectual and cultural figure with, for example, considerable influence on the direction taken by the theatre and a voice in the European debate, in French. He died in the exercise of his official duties; an affliction of the lungs, which he had contracted on an inspection trip of university lands, got the better of his frail constitution.

Over the years, Holberg has had considerable audience appeal and has periodically been a veritable father figure for Danish theatre. In his day, he had substantial success in Germany, where he could play his part in the modernisation of the repertoire. The situation in France, however, was almost the opposite: here, his base in the Molièresque comedy was now seen as outdated. Despite a personal attempt to launch his work, and although he started a project to translate his plays into French editions, he did not manage to make his name in France. The significance of fashionable trends on the fate of the works is now a matter for the history of drama. We are left with the stage vitality and thematics of the plays.


One route into the more subtle qualities of Holberg’s work for the stage is to ask: to which questions are the playtexts answers? This is a matter of, among other things, the intense polemic about theatre as non-reality that raged while the new Danish stage was being established. Particular focus will therefore now be directed at the contemporaneous understanding of theatre as art form – and to fields that were intimately linked with theatre in the wider sense: staging, role-playing, and so forth. Mask, fiction and theatricality seen as staging of reality are fundamental themes in the entire Holbergian perception of world, culture and history.

In this respect, it is important to keep in mind that the conceptual environment was essentially different to that of later ages. The enlightenment, rationality and secularism that we now link with the period were not prime points of orientation, albeit pragmatics and realpolitik were a natural element of the overall strategic methodology. So when, in 1743, one of Holberg’s university colleagues, eminent theologian Erik Pontoppidan (1698–1764), characterised theatre as “Eet af Sathans Mester-Stykker”7 (one of Satan’s masterpieces), he was not merely uttering bombastic rhetoric, but literal reality for people both of high intelligence and high status. And this is far from a specifically Danish motif. On a European level, the issue is familiar from the Molière case, for example – the troubles encountered in getting the great performer and playwright properly buried – which is, conversely, merely a notorious detail in the larger narrative of theatre as a depraved zone, a story that has not yet really been told. And the story probably remains untold because certain conceptual norms of the past seem so alien that later generations have had difficulty in focussing on them in a discerning way. In a sense, they belong to an ‘alien’ culture that is nonetheless our own. And their threads can be traced running through the annals of history.

Therefore – as already suggested – focus will be placed on ostensibly secondary circumstances in which to reflect the texts, including voices that were central at the time but became peripheral or silent as that time became the past. Plus: Holberg’s philosophical-existential relationship to theatre as mode of expression.Theatrum mundi is more than just a cliché.

In other words, being the essential medium for the dramatist – ‘dramatist’ in the sense of someone working in three dimensions and five senses and in ongoing creative dialogue with the audience and the times – theatre looms large both as controversial institution and metaphorical motif. The same applies to the masque, which is related to theatre and is, in both a concrete and an abstract sense, its prerequisite: masquerades were a financial necessity for the running of the playhouse, masked comedy was a significant inspiration, fiction involves masks, which can reference the world as a location for role-playing. In the Holbergian harlequinades, theatre and masks robustly manifest the motifs ‘fiction’ and ‘power’ through the lens of theatricality and staging. The question is thus: for which day and age and for which stage did Holberg write?


At the time, the double monarchy Denmark-Norway was ruled by an absolute monarch, a king whose scheme of ideas and articulation were essentially organised in line with the French absolutist model. Absolute monarchy was imposed in Denmark in 1660 – which was actually the year before Louis XIV’s personal assumption of power in France. The king was a lofty figure, above and beyond the earthly dimension. Official governance was ritualised as a total stage production in the Baroque’s antiquisation, the grandiose-heroic form of manifestation that the regime saw as expressive of a deeper truth, and which, conversely, in a more sober light, looked like empty theatricality.

Being a veritable Versailles-imitating ruler, the Danish monarch retained a troupe of French players at his royal court. New appointments to the troupe were made regularly. In 1686, Christian V (r. 1670–1699) hired an actor – René Magnon, known as Montaigu – who was the son of one of Molière’s colleagues: dramatist Jean Magnon (d. 1662). In 1700, when the new king, Frederik IV, after the period of court mourning, came to the business of setting up a new French troupe, Montaigu was called upon to be their leader. Montaigu was of the Molièresque school. In Paris he had made the acquaintance of Luigi Riccoboni’s (1676–1753) Italian troupe, from which he drew inspiration for his work in Copenhagen. Riccoboni could be called a forerunner of a reformer such as Carlo Goldoni, whose transformation of the genre was, in outline, to shift the stylised types of the masked play towards more nuanced contemporaneous characters, complying with regular dramaturgical guidelines derived from Molière. Dramatist and dramaturg Ludvig Holberg must also be inscribed into this European context. He was quite simply one of the first reformers in the eighteenth century, not merely on a par with Denis Diderot (1713–1784) and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781), but actually ahead of them. Holberg drew, as we shall see, on the same sources as Riccoboni and later Goldoni.

Montaigu assembled a troupe of French artists for the Danish royal court: twelve actors, singers and dancers, a production manager and a balletmaster. From 1703, plays and music dramas were performed in a newly-built ‘opera house’, located close to the fashionable centre of Copenhagen. The opera house had been planned for both court and city, but did not function as intended – custom was insufficient. In 1712, a theatre opened in the royal castle, devised by the king after a lengthy pleasure trip to Venice. In this venue, stagings by Montaigu were in many ways consistent with principles from Molière’s theatre. This practiced continued a few years later when he started working with theatre in the Danish language. In addition, he drew on his knowledge of French-Italian masked comedy, which he updated on a number of trips to Paris in pursuance of his duties as leader of the royal troupe. Montaigu’s production manager at the court troupe was Étienne Capion (d. before 1759), an immigrant from Gascony in southwest France, a man with a varied career – including that of chef, wine merchant, sutler, candidate for debtors’ prison – and thus a valid exponent of the shadier aspects of the theatre profession.

During the eighteenth century, the kingdom had more than one string to its bow and operated with Danish, Norwegian and German components; the Danish kings, at the time also monarchs of Norway, were dukes of the north German territories of the Habsburg Empire. A final attempt was made to recapture the Swedish region of the kingdom, which had been lost after wars in the mid-1600s, during Den Store Nordiske Krig (1700–1720; the Great Northern War) – but in vain. Once this enervating war had come to an end, a material and mental vitality was freed up to kick-start greater civic self-assurance. This was accompanied by the awakening of a need for entertainment; a market for potential earnings began to flourish. Thus, the aftermath of war generated Danish professional theatre as an outlet for energy following the lengthy period of horror.

In practice, the art form was supranational. Professional drama in Copenhagen had hitherto been synonymous with French or German theatre. English players, too, visited Denmark and at an early date: just three years after The Theatre playhouse had opened in London (1576), a troupe of English players was appointed by King Frederik II (r. 1559–1588). They performed at, for example, Kronborg Castle in the town of Helsingør (Elsinore), known throughout the world as the setting for the tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. A troupe from Lord Leicester’s Men later came to the Danish royal court, one member being the comic actor William Kempe (Will Kemp, d. 1603). Three of these performers later joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, where Shakespeare wrote roles such as Bottom, Falstaff and Toby Belch for them – thus forging a link between the Danish court and the writer of Hamlet. During the seventeenth century, German and Dutch companies came to Denmark: significant names such as Carl Andreas Paulsen (c.1620–c.1685), Johann Velten (1640–1697) and Michael Daniel Treu (1634–1708) performed a typical touring-troupe repertoire, consisting of biblical, mythological and dramatically spectacular plays about, for example, Faust – modelled on Christopher Marlowe’s (1564–1593) Doctor Faustus – or thoroughly adapted versions of German Baroque, Spanish and Italian dramatic and epic material, plus Shakespeare plays such as King Lear and Titus Andronicus. The latter featured in the repertoire of, among others, the German theatre manager Samuel Paulsen von Quoten (d. after 1747). One script of special interest in the repertoires performed by the troupes – although we do not know if it was ever staged in Denmark – is Der bestrafte Brudermord oder Prinz Hamlet aus Dänemark (Fratricide Punished; or, Prince Hamlet of Denmark) which added the obligatory comic figure to the character gallery, and let him, for example, supplement Ophelia’s mad scene with his slapstick comedy. A small number of playbills have survived from von Quoten’s theatre, one of which has the title, typical of the genre, Der unschuldige Brudermord oder das blutige Rom, unter der Regierung des Römischen Kaisers Antonini Bassiani Caracallä (The Innocent Fratricide; or, Blood-Soaked Rome under the Governance of the Roman Emperor Antoninus Bassianus Caracalla) – an adaptation of Andreas Gryphius’ (1616–1664) tragedy Großmüttiger Rechts-Gelehrter, oder Sterbender Aemilius Paulus Papinianus (1659; The Courageous Jurist; or, The Death of Paulus Papinianus) – performed by “die weltberühmte Hochteutsche Compagnie”8 (the world-famous High German theatre company). Puppets were also an ingredient of the repertoires: von Quoten’s for example. The spectacularity of the Baroque was displayed in the use of flying dragons, floating clouds and so forth in the sensationalist, biblical, mythological, romantic and heroic plays, performed in grandiose costumes, which with stunning stage effects, leaps in time and space, and a multitude of storylines had more in common with, for example, Shakespearean dramaturgy than with the more tautly-constructed French form. From the late seventeenth century there was, as mentioned, a French royal court troupe in Copenhagen. The German troupes appealed both to court and commoners, whereas only the elite could understand the French players. The French language was generally associated with the upper social strata; German, however, was one of the languages of the Danish realm.

Capion saw the potential of the market, so he applied to the king for permission to operate as an independent theatre entrepreneur. He could not, however, boast of a monopoly on theatre performances in Copenhagen, given that the German ‘charlatan’ (: ciarlatano, quack) and theatre producer – a classic combination – von Quoten, already had a monopoly on theatre entertainment in the capital. So Capion entered a partnership with his rival, the German entrepreneur, in a form of mixed entertainment enterprise with masquerades, card tables, theatre and so forth, in combinations of pursuits as known from, for example, the Italian opera houses. Capion encountered a problem, however, in 1721 when the tenancy on his theatre venue, a former cannon foundry, was terminated. He therefore planned to build a new venue, designed specifically for purposes of entertainment, including regular theatre – in short: a playhouse. This edifice was built a stone’s throw from the finest square in the capital city, Kongens Nytorv, in Lille Grønnegade (present-day Ny Adelgade), and was equipped to be a fully-functioning Baroque theatre.

Meanwhile, another course of events now entered the picture. In line with the princely fashion of the times, the king was interested in appointing an opera troupe – undoubtedly also as an act of goodwill to his opera-loving son, resentful after his mother’s death over what he saw as his father’s hasty marriage to a former mistress, now queen. The opera in Hamburg was famed in its day. It was the foremost company in Northern Europe. Frederik IV appointed a number of artists from Hamburg to replace the French troupe, which was thus dismissed. Capion and Montaigu got together again, and when Capion’s playhouse in Lille Grønnegade opened in 1722, it offered a programme of music, masquerades, dance, refreshments, French comedy, and more. The French troupe, meanwhile, returned to their homeland – all except Montaigu. Capion then concentrated on German drama, but when his working partnership with the supplier of productions ran into difficulties, the contract with the German troupe fell through.

Capion’s situation was becoming desperate; and Montaigu had lost his job as language teacher for military cadets. So: a theatre director without a theatre for his troupe, and a troupe leader without a troupe and without a theatre. Montaigu now embarked on a project that was considerably more complex than his previous activities: to establish a theatre producing plays in Danish!

Montaigu wanted to get back into the king’s good graces. He personally sent an application to the king regarding the project. There was no apparent prestige surrounding a Danish troupe, and there is no record of how it was actually set up, but these progressive new-thinkers moved in government- and university-circles, from which they drew support. Montaigu also had contact to individuals at court, and they promoted his scheme. Moreover, contemporaneous trends favoured the project: as mentioned, on a completely down-to-earth level, there was a quantifiable material basis for the development of an entertainment market, but there was also potential for patriotic projects.

The foundation of a new Danish theatre occurred during a period of incipient focus on the development of national language and literature – in Germany, indeed, even of a concept such as ‘national theatre’. In this context, too, the project of a Danish-language theatre should be seen as part of the process to reinforce the nation’s greatness and identity after the end of the war. In Montaigu’s application to the king, dated July 1 1722 and written in French, he stresses that the establishment of a theatre would be a manifestation of the flourishing might of the kingdom now that his majesty had delivered peace to his people after a victorious outcome to the war; and he refers to the plaisir and gloire that will result from the foundation of a Danish theatre.9 In his Nytårsprolog til en komedie (1723; A New Year’s Prologue for a Comedy), Holberg expands on the theme of language intensifying power: Apollo refers to the close connection between the development of theatre and “et Riges Magt og Ære” (the power and honour of a realm) in Athens and Rome, in Elizabeth’s England and in the Sun King’s France; language, power, self-assurance and prosperity are organically linked. And Thalia adds a thank you to the monarch who has “Os banet Veyen til at skrive det paa Dansk,/ Som man med mindre Fynd før læsede paa Fransk”10 (heralded the way for us to write in Danish/ that which was previously, with less potency, read in French).

In his application, Montaigu describes the project as being his enterprise – or, at least, as a prime mover behind the initiative, which was clearly the case. Holberg’s function in this context is, however, unclear. At the time, he was a professor at the university, but he was also in the process of establishing a national literature in the genres of the day, in which he had shown a considerable talent for creating characters. The aim was to provide the kingdom with a cultural dimension that would raise it to the level of other nations. The ambition was to create an art form equal to that of the countries with major cultural profiles.

Montaigu was granted royal approval to “forestille Comedier i det Danske Sprog” (present plays in the Danish language), although the royal financial subsidy he had sought was not forthcoming; the concession added the stipulation that he should:

holde saadanne Personer, som med deres Comedier alle og enhver for billig Betaling kunde fornøie, saa og at de ei nogen Tid forhandler det, som anrører Religionen og den hellige Skrift, eller strider mod Ærbarhed, god Skik og Ordning, eller kan være Publico til nogen Forargelse, saafremt han ei denne Vores Bevilling vil have forbrudt.11

employ such people whose plays could give enjoyment to each and every one for reasonable payment, also that they at no time treat of matters concerning religion and the Holy Scripture, or are contrary to modesty, good practice and orderliness, or might cause any offence to the public, if he does not wish to forfeit this our concession.

With extreme speed – seemingly just a couple of months – the whole theatre project was realised: an ensemble was hired, translators/adaptors of French drama were at work, new Danish original plays were written. The language was Danish, as were the majority of the performers – albeit approximately one third of the troupe had links to the French arts community in Copenhagen, including familial links to one another, with names such as le Coffre, Pilloy, Montaigu.

The patriotic point of the professional-theatre-in-Danish project was a matter of gloire and of raising the cultural standard, and the introduction of home-grown drama added new aspects to this purpose. At the same time, the project was subject to commercial requirements, and in the midst of all its moral, cultural and patriotic self-justification it was compelled to take into consideration the procurement of a paying audience by employing elementary devices. Theatre was and is part of the entertainment industry.

The small stage inside the theatre building will inevitably reflect reality as it is played out on the large stage outside. The new rigour of the day implicated a toning-down of the Antiquity-related style in favour of a modern, non-metaphysical view on art related to its contemporary society. From this vantage point, grandiosity and passion were seen as being in conflict with appropriate balance and functionality.

The establishment of the theatre should thus be seen in connection with the new tendencies that had started to influence concepts of actuality. The idea of the superhuman prince gradually shifted towards a more temporal, tangible and down-to-earth understanding of the rational, expediently functioning state. In accordance with the new ideas, absolute monarchy was understood on the basis of natural law as a sensible organisation of the state, in which power is delegated to one authoritative and knowledgeable figure. Development of the modern, centralised state with citizens and public officials in a steadily stronger position depended on subjects who behaved appropriately. The European project of enlightenment aimed at, among other things, elevating the subjects to a position of well-functioning components in a state machine that would serve everyone’s best interests if it functioned at its optimum. And so: the people should be made citizens. This required education, instruction. Long-standing superstition had to be resisted, inappropriate extremes and passions had to be corrected. It was, all in all, a period of reform manifest in, for example, the setting up of schools for the general populace. The motives underlying this education might well be of an ecclesiastical nature, and would thus be a matter of defending the true doctrine and the learning of Christian propriety.

Holberg’s concept of the ruler is indeed modern and practical, based on the rational natural law and contrary to the metaphysical Baroque view of the ruler as a divine figure. In his dedication “udi dybeste underdanighed” (in deepest subservience) to Frederik IV in his Danmarks og Norges beskrivelse (1729; Description of Denmark and Norway), Holberg designates the monarch “den ældste og flittigste Høye Embeds-mand udi landet”12 (the most senior and diligent high official in the land) and not an absolute superhuman figure at whose feet it is necessary to throw oneself in abject servility, as the convention and the fundamental assimilated conception generally prescribed

It must also be seen in the light of Holberg’s view of humankind in general – which is complex. Human nature is potentially destructive, egoistic – as formulated in the proverb: homo homini lupus, man is a wolf to man. At the same time, the human is a zoon politikon, a political animal, able to form a community given that, through God-given reason, the human reaches the conclusion that if the risk of the war in which all are against all – and thereby risk of the ultimate massacre – is to be averted, then power has to be delegated to a particularly competent individual who sets the rules for human interaction. Blind reflex, urges and instincts must be controlled by ratio, in society as well as in the individual. A wise patriarchal regime, in which the individual voluntarily forgoes part of his or her freedom in return for a constructive social order, is a simple necessity. This is a thematic pole in the writer’s universe – the need for a functionally jurisdictive body, which can act with authority from a basis of consensus.

For his day, Holberg was a modernist – secularist, believer in natural law, pragmatist – and thus on something of a collision course with the canonised view of power and social hierarchy. To his mind, the classic legitimisation of absolute monarchy in divine stratifications, which ranked people in relation to station and gender, was utterly irrational. Birth or gender were not entrance tickets handed out in advance, nor were they barriers to social status. Talent and appropriate schooling were decisive criteria. And serviceable productivity, usefulness to society, were decisive parameters. This fundamental modernity in the outlook on world and theatre came into its own in practice on the stage.


The new stage now had to define itself as artistic and cultural institution for a growing middle class in the process of developing an independent identity. The theatrical universe it represented was of a radically different stamp to the spectacular universes rooted in Antiquity that were typical of the Baroque theatre and the regime’s symbolic imagery: the Crown’s self-promotion in pictorial art, emblematic language and ritualised appearance, with the monarch himself, for example, happy to appear as ‘Roman’ hero.

Theatre now had to mark itself out as a proper, urban institution, which can be understood in several ways as a ‘translation’ of the French troupe at the royal court into civilian terms. In this, the confrontation between theatrical universe and real-world universe was to be of crucial importance. This is the very theme taken up by Holberg in the preface of the 1723 published edition of his plays, “Just Justesens betænkning over komedier” (Just Justesen’s Reflections upon Plays), which is in effect a dramaturgic manifesto. This will be discussed forthwith; here simply mentioning that the cultural and artistic strategies included the circumstance that for a show to involve the audience it was desirable: