Bjornson and the Inner Plot of A Midsummer Night's Dream

Article excerpt

IN JANUARY 1865, BJORNSTJERNE BJORNSON assumed the artistic directorship of the Christiania Theater, a position that he held until the summer of 1867. One of the first plays that he produced during his successful yet turbulent tenure as artistic director was A Midsummer Night's Dream (En skjorsommernattsdrom), which premiered on 17 April 1865 in Oehlenschlager's translation with music by Mendelssohn. Responding to unfavorable reviews of the production, Bjornson published an essay on A Midsummer Night's Dream in Aftenbladet on 28 April 1865 in which he claimed that the Aftenbladet reviewer of the production had focused unduly on the "ydre Handling" [outer plot] of the play--the "dream" and the various fanciful characters and events that add to the illusion of the dream. Two Morgenbladet reviews, he further charged, had elucidated "hverken [Stykkets] ydre eller indre" [neither (the play's) outer nor its inner (plot)]. (1) It is unfortunate that Bjornson's ensuing analysis of what he designated as the "inner plot" of A Midsummer Night's Dream--the main characters' experiences of love and rejection--has been given little attention in secondary literature. (2) His analysis yields significant insights not only into his attempts to interpret the classics for his audience, but also into the personal circumstances that most likely kindled his intense interest in the drama. (3) As will be shown, Bjornson saw in A Midsummer Night's Dream a play that would stimulate the Norwegian imagination without the need for extensive props or fancy costumes, and he also assumed that his spectators would identify with the tribulations of characters who dream about love and betrayal just as he had identified with the characters' predicaments in reflecting on his own personal life. Fixated on the clear relevance of this inner plot for his personal life, however, he appears not to have understood that his spectators found it difficult to discern any relevance of the play for their own lives since the clumsy acting and uninspired set and costumes failed to engage them. Despite this failure, the production represents the crucial first step in Bjornson's successful campaign as artistic director to stimulate Norwegian interest in the theater.

Before becoming artistic director, Bjornson had frequently protested against the Danish influence on the Norwegian stage. As a young theater critic in the 1850s, he had criticized the Danish director Carl Peter Borgaard for his unwillingness to cultivate the talents of the few Norwegian actors at the Christiania Theater. In an article published in Krydseren (1 March 1854), he raged that the aging Danish actress Augusta Schrumpf was given youthful roles while promising young Norwegian actresses were cast merely as extras (Artikler og Taler 1:51-7). In 1856, he organized "pipekonserter" ("whistle concerts") to protest the hiring of the Danish actor Ferdinand Schmidt, who officially was only visiting the Christiania Theater but had in fact been given a longer engagement. Norwegian actors were though in fact being cast in principal roles well before Bjornson assumed the artistic directorship of the Christiania Theater in January 1865, and only six of the theater's forty actors were Danes in the 1865-64 season (Blanc 183). But ensuring that plays would be performed with Norwegian pronunciation and by Norwegian actors did not alone satisfy Bjornson, who was convinced that creating a solid tradition of Norwegian theater would also entail both preparing the actors to perform more difficult pieces--first and foremost the classics, which he viewed as a means of measuring the growing abilities of the actors--and educating the theater-going public to appreciate serious drama. His expectation that A Midsummer Night's Dream would pique his spectators' interest in theatrical masterpieces is evident in his decision to have the play performed five evenings in a row, at the time a long run. (4)

The reviews of A Midsummer Night's Dream point to the difficulties that Bjornson experienced in attempting to achieve his goals. …