Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Christiania Theater and Norwegian Nationalism: Bjornson's Defense of the 1856 Whistle Concerts in "Pibernes Program"

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Christiania Theater and Norwegian Nationalism: Bjornson's Defense of the 1856 Whistle Concerts in "Pibernes Program"

Article excerpt

IN MAY 1856, Bjornstjerne Bjornson organized "pipekonserter" [whistle concerts] at the Christiania Theater to protest the hiring of the Dane Ferdinand Schmidt. A former brush-maker with limited acting abilities, Schmidt was officially only visiting the Christiania Theater, but in fact he and his wife had been promised permanent positions. Outraged that the management of the Christiania Theater persisted in preferring Danes--no matter how untalented or poorly trained--to Norwegian actors, Bjornson and his followers convinced their friends and acquaintances to whistle during Schmidt's debut at the Christiania Theater on 6 May. Although this first protest was relatively small, a second whistle concert on 8 May was considerably more disruptive, with protesters numbering in the hundreds. Writing in defense of the protests, Bjornson set for his notion of the proper function of a national theater in the opening lines of his essay "Pibernes Program" [The Whistlers' Program], which appeared in Morgenbladet on 8 May 1856:

   Et Teater i Hovedstaden er Nationalitetens Forpostvagt mod Udlandet.
   I Hovedstaden foregaar den storste Brydning mellem det fremmede og
   vort eget, og Hovedstaden virker mest bestemmende indad. Den har en
   stor Kamp og et stort Ansvar, og den tiltronger Tropper og aarvaagne
   Vagter. (Bjornson, Artikler og taler 1:117)

   A theater in the capital city is a nationality's most remote outpost
   against foreign countries. In the capital city the largest break
   between the foreign and that which is out own takes place, and the
   capital city influences most decisively by working inwards. It
   fights a great battle and has a great responsibility, and it
   requires troops and vigilant guards. (1)

Although scholarly accounts have frequently quoted these lines in assessing the significance of the 1856 protests to the subsequent demise of Danish cultural influence in Norway, they have offered little analysis of the intellectual background of Bjornson's notion of a national theater and have also tended to overlook the problems associated with his efforts to use a nation to build a theater and the theater to build a nation. (2) As Loren Kruger observes in The National Stage: Theatre and Cultural Legitimation in England, France, and America, the "collocation of theatre and public sphere" which first emerges in the Enlightenment and becomes a tenet of cultural nationalism in the nineteenth century "is at once self-evident and problematic," insofar as it attempts to transform a diverse audience into an idealized vision of citizens united in the task of nation-building (6). (3) Indeed, Bjornson's visions of the cohesiveness and representativeness of the theater audience are in many ways as artificial as are the constructs of nationhood and nationality, which Benedict Anderson describes as "imagined communities" in his landmark study of nation-building and nationalism in the nineteenth century (6). The collocation of the theater with the public sphere is particularly problematic in nineteenth-century Norway with its deep chasm between the bureaucracy (embetsstand) and the farmers (bonder) and with few cities large enough to sustain cultural institutions such as the theater. Unlike most other European nations in the nineteenth century, moreover, the theater in Norway had little tradition behind it, (4) such that when Bjornson proclaims that a theater in a capital city should act as a guard against foreign cultural domination, he is in effect using a foreign import to guard against the foreign.

In light of these and other problems, this study explores the various intellectual arguments and rhetorical strategies that Bjornson employs in his attempts to transform the Christiania Theater from a foreign import into a Norwegian cultural institution charged with protecting national identity. In tracing Bjornson's notion of the break (brytning) with the foreign, which must occur if Norwegian nationality is to develop fully, the study examines his at times problematic attempts to style himself as a new Henrik Wergeland and also draws attention to the influence of Marcus Jacob Monrad, the Hegelian philosopher who insisted in the 1840s and '50s that if Norway was to fulfill its God-given destiny (or "Idea"), it must create a truly Norwegian national theater. …

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