Kjeld Abell

Kjeld Abell

Kjeld Abell (25 August 1901–5 March 1961) was a Danish playwright and theatrical designer. Born in Ribe, Denmark, Abell's first designs were seen in ballets directed by George Balanchine at Copenhagen's Royal Danish Theatre and London's Alhambra Theatre.

Roughly the dramatic work of Abell might be divided into three phases: a) criticism of middle class conventions, b) fighting Nazism and c) criticism of post-war pessimism and urge for death. Perhaps he is the first consequent modernist among Danish playwrights with his use of a flash back Chinese box system and a growing use of symbols and parallel actions.

His first play was "Melodien, der blev vœk" 1935, (English translation "The Melody That Got Lost", 1939). The play is an expressionistic piece that utilizes non-verbal and unrealistic elements, undoubtedly inspired by ballet. The first production of this play was in 1935 in Copenhagen followed by a production a year later in London by the Arts Theatre. In this play Abell describes the life of the "white-collar worker" limited by old-fashioned conventions and it is a fantasy about the mental emancipation of “the little man”. A young, disrespectful attitude together with a both lyric and imaginative dialogue has let it remain his most popular work and some of its song lines have become classics.

Both before and during the Nazi occupation of Denmark, Abell used his plays to protest the loss of freedom. Themes in these plays explore freedom and escapism as self-annihilation. These works include "Anna Sophie Hedvig" (1939, English translation 1971), a defence of violence as a necessary mean against tyranny and a criticism of passive humanism, beyond any doubt inspired by the Spanish Civil War, and "Dronning gaar igen" ("The Queen on Tour", 1943). Abell spent much of his time during the occupation in hiding due to his anti-Nazi activism. "Silkeborg" (1946) expresses the criticism of Danish passivity and accept of the German occupation.

Following the war many of his plays took on complex mystical elements. These plays include "Dage paa en sky" ("Days on a Cloud", 1947), "Den blå pekingeser" ("The Blue Pekingese", 1954), "Kameliadamen" ("The Lady of the Camellias", 1954 - a personal version of the drama by Dumas) and "Skriget" ("The Scream", English translation 1961). The much debated "Dage paa en Sky" both takes place among the Olympic goddesses and in the brain of a suicidal scientist, it warns against the atomic war and accuses scientists of prostituting themselves to the rulers. The even more complex "Den blå pekingeser" takes place in the head of a man too while his former love is threatened by death, also here the message is to break one’s isolation and to accept life. Abell died in Copenhagen.

Hailed in his prime as a fresh and humorous reformer, critic and teaser of Danish theatre and later respected for his anti-fascist attitudes Abell was after the war both accused of being a fellow traveller and criticised for being too complicated and strained. This together with his growing disappointments with the left wing partly led to isolation. However he is probably still regarded the most important new-thinker of Danish drama of the inter-war period. In European dramatic literature he has been compared to French names like Giraudoux and Anouilh. Besides he both acted as a song writer of revues and wrote some film scripts.


*Banham, Martin, ed. "The Cambridge Guide to Theatre". Cambridge University Press, 1992.
*Hartnoll, Phyllis, ed. "The Oxford Companion to the Theatre". Oxford University Press, 1983.
* Frederick J. Marker: "Kjeld Abell". Gloucester, Mass. 1976.
* Sven Møller Kristensen: "Dansk litteratur 1918-1952". 2. ed. Copenhagen, 1965 (entirely in Danish)

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