by Douglas Messerli
Jens Bjørneboe The Bird Lovers, translated from the Norwegian by Frederick Wasser (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1994)
Jens Bjørneboe Semmelweis, translated from the Norwegian by Joe Martin (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1998)
As I mention in My Year 2007, in the 1990s I published two plays by the noted Norwegian writer Jens Bjørneboe, The Bird Lovers in 1994, and four years later, Semmelweis. Both works are "didactic" in the sense that the writer is determined to convey to his audience large, banner-like themes. In the early 1960s Bjørneboe stayed for a time with the Berliner Ensemble, working through a kind of apprenticeship with many of the major figures of Brechtian theater, and these plays, both of which contain songs that point up dramatic events, show the influences of the German playwright.
In short, as translator Frederick Wasser points out, Bjørneboe does not attempt to answer what to do about evil, but merely wants to recognize it in all of us. It is as if Bjørneboe, despite his hatred for all the tortures of individuals by human beings and institutions, does not comprehend a way to end it—accept through comedy and, of course, death. We are a race unforgivably cursed by our past.
Bjørneboe's play centers less on individuals that on the institutions, the universities, the hospitals and other organizations which, while supposedly searching for truth, fight any possibility of discovering it. The reality of these organizations is that the teachers, students, and doctors were to admit to being wrong, they would be crushed by the very thing they believe they are promoting. Accordingly, truth is the last thing that such institutions can permit. The playwright makes this even more ironic, but encasing his play in a student protest which ends with a male student insisting that such protests have been the "forerunners of fundamental change" while the students within the play are often the most resistant to Semmelweis' dictums.
Los Angeles, March 27, 2010