Of Peasants and Playwrights

This piece was originally published in the Winter 2011 issue of the Quarterly Review.

The Dano-Norwegian writer and intellectual Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754) was in many ways a typical figure of the Enlightenment. A lawyer by training, Holberg made his living as a prolific writer of essays, poems, and scientific works, many of which espoused the rationalism and deism of the age. In Scandinavia, though, he is best remembered for his plays, the majority of which he wrote during an extremely productive period between 1722 and 1725, near the middle of his career.

But although Holberg was a product of his time, he was also, like most pre-Romantic artists, innately and instinctively conservative. This is revealed most clearly in his plays, and particularly in his crowning achievement, the comedy Jeppe på bjerget (Jeppe of the Hill), which remains a cornerstone in the repertoire of Nordic theatres. Although the play is set in the Denmark of Holberg’s time, it takes its plot from an old story found, among other places, in the Arabian Nights and Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

Early in the play, the eponymous Jeppe, a work-shy peasant with an unhealthy fondness for alcohol, falls asleep in a ditch after drinking away his wife’s grocery money, and is found there by a bored Baron and his party. They decide to play a trick on him, and take the still-sleeping peasant to the Baron’s estate, where they wash him, clothe him, and put him in the Baron’s bed. When Jeppe wakes up, the servants act as if he is the Baron, telling him that his life as peasant was nothing but a dream. (An unlikely explanation, yes, but this is a Moliére-style farce.) After a spell of fear and confusion, the boorish Jeppe grows accustomed to his new life, eating, drinking and tormenting his servants with greater vigour than the real Baron would ever dream of.

A few summers ago, I attended a staging of Jeppe… at the Norwegian National Theatre in Oslo. The staging was a modernized, vaguely politicized one of the sort so popular with provincial directors who want to imitate the things they’ve heard they’re doing in Berlin or Paris. Not for this director the prim historical correctness of powdered wigs and lace: instead, the Baron was dressed as a modern-day businessman — or rather, an over-the-top caricature of a modern-day businessman, complete with leather briefcase, designer suit, Brylcreemed hair, a gaggle of obsequious personal assistants, and the day’s copy of the Wall Street Journal tucked safely under one arm. (Jarringly, Jeppe still wore the rags of an 18th-century peasant.)

The implication was obvious: Jeppe… serves to highlight the cruel and arbitrary rule of the aristocracy of the past, and, with a little scenographic tweaking, the aristocracy of the present. In his wisdom, Holberg must have predicted the concept of class warfare, though it only emerged long after his death; after all, good historical determinists, be they Whigs or Marxists, know that the entirety of human history has been nothing but an inevitable march towards enlightenment and liberation. Men of past generations were simply stupider versions of us, and the astuteness of their ideas can be judged by their similarity to ours.

But this notion is folly. In the pre-Marxist age of Jeppe of the Hill, the realities of social station were often seen, not as arbitrary and unfair constructs, but rather as impersonal and unstoppable forces of an almost primeval nature. Poverty was not an intolerable and unnecessary evil, but, like death or taxes, a tragic and unavoidable fact of life, the moral and social implications of which depended on the amount of dignity with which it was borne by those it afflicted. There were those who sought to make the best of their plight, and there were those who preferred to surrender to laziness, self-medication, or self-deception. The feckless Jeppe, who is a figure of fun among his fellow peasants as well as the aristocracy, is a caricature of the latter. The play’s opening monologue, delivered by Jeppe’s shrewish wife Nille, sums up his personality well:

NILLE. I hardly believe there’s such another lazy lout in all the village as my husband, it’s as much as I can do to get him up in the morning by pulling him out of bed by the hair. The scoundrel knows to-day is market-day, and yet he lies there asleep at this hour of the morning. The pastor said to me the other day, ‘Nille, you are much too hard on your husband; he is and he ought to be the master of the house.’ But I answered him, ‘No, my good pastor! If I should let my husband have his way in the household for a year, the gentry wouldn’t get their rent nor the pastor his offering, for in that length of time he would turn all there was in the place into drink. Ought I let aman rule the household who is perfectly ready to sell his belongings and wife and children and even himself for brandy?’ The pastor had nothing to say to that, but stood there stroking his chin. The bailiff agrees with me, and says, ‘My dear woman, pay no attention to the pastor. It’s in the wedding-service, to be sure, that you must honor and obey your husband, but it’s in your lease, which is more recent than the service, that you shall keep up your farm and meet your rent–a thing you can never do unless you haul your husband about by the hair every day and beat him to his work.

I pulled him out of bed just now and went out to the barn to see how things were getting along, when I came in again, he was sitting on a chair, asleep, with his breeches–saving your presence–pulled on one leg; so the switch had to come down from the hook, and my good Jeppe got a basting till he was wide awake again.”

Some might be tempted to read this monologue as a Brechtian exposé of organized religion (no doubt my intrepid director read it that way). But Nille is hardly the sort of reasonable and likeable character that normally functions as the author’s mouthpiece. When the Baron, as a final, cruel twist, subjects Jeppe to a mock execution towards the end of the play, Nille’s attitude to her husband turns 180 degrees, from hatred to cloying, tear-drenched sentimentality. But at the moment it becomes clear that Jeppe is not dead, but simply sleeping, Nille reverts to her old abusive ways; when her emotional attachment begins to imply duties and responsibilities, Nille balks.

Holberg’s masterpiece ends where it began, returning Jeppe to the state of drunken destitution in which we first found him. The Baron has revealed the hoax to the peasant, given him four silver thalers, and driven off in his carriage, leaving him to continue his pointless existence. The ever-feckless Jeppe has got nothing out of the experience: no epiphanic carpe diem induced by the mock execution, no new love for Nille, no new appreciation of the perks and perils of power. Even the Baron’s four thalers are gone – spent, of course, on beer and spirits.

Nille and Jeppe often seem to embody the worst traits of what is now sometimes called ‘the underclass’: sentimentality, laziness, substance abuse, contempt for their betters, and an inability to understand the full weight and necessity of patriarchal and religious authority.

Jeppe of the Hill is hardly an uncritical paean to the aristocracy – the Baron comes off as cruel and unlikeable – but neither is it the class-warfare tract some moderns read it as. In Norway, the playis often associated with the saying ‘Skomaker, bli ved din lest’ (‘Shoemaker, stay by your last’), and to the extent that it can be said to have a moral, this is it. The catastrophic consequences of Jeppe becoming Baron for a day is a microcosm of the chaos that ensues whenever wealth and power are divorced from cultivation and responsibility. In an age where the stupidity and vulgarity of the European nouveau riche have nearly completely eroded the aristocratic traditions of old, such insights seem prescient. More than an irreverent farce or a product of the Age of Reason, then, Jeppe… is a defence, transcending any particular age or ideology, of tradition, continuity, and natural hierarchy.

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2 thoughts on “Of Peasants and Playwrights

  1. The Icelandic sagas, which survey a panoply of social types, also depict the “Jeppe” character, and, in their laconic way attribute unhappiness and poverty to laziness and other bad habits such as a penchant for gambling or drunkenness. We can go further, all the way back to Hesiod, who, recognizing reality as indifferent to subjective opinion, also attributes wretchedness to counterproductive behaviors. Knut Hamsun’s main character in his first important book, Sult (Hunger), is entirely to blame for his own misery, being prey to his own severe resentment, his irrational stubbornness, and his failure to take heed of actual conditions; he only finds escape from himself in the last chapter, when, ditching all his pretensions, he signs on as a common sailor. It has been a long time since I read Aksel Sandemose, but as I recall, his protagonist in En Sjoman Gaar I Land excuses his misfortune for a long time by recourse to second-hand ideological statements until, at last, after much self-inflicted suffering, he begins to take charge of his life and to live responsibly. (Some of the process might be worked out in the sequel.)

    Before the deconstructionists told us that literary texts are (a) the bludgeons of oppression or (b) inkblots into which the reader may project whatever fantasy he pleases, people recognized poems and novels as representations of reality and endowed them with authority.

  2. Pingback: Father Knows Best: Live Bait Edition « Patriactionary

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