Hans Wiers-Jenssen: Anne Pedersdotter

Staged in Denmark, Sweden, Finland, the UK and the US, as well as in an opera in Italy, the play Anne Pedersdotter (1908) was a huge international hit. Well over 100 stage performances in the playwright’s homeland, Norway, radio-play adaptations in several countries and later a film adaptation confirm Wiers-Jenssen’s artistic triumph and the enduring qualities of his play.

Day of Wrath is based on a play, Anne Pedersdotter (US title: The Witch) by the Norwegian writer Hans Wiers-Jenssen. Dreyer saw the play as early as the spring of 1909 in Copenhagen, when Folketeatret staged the first Danish version of the play. The title role was played by Johanne Dybwad, a respected Norwegian actress who also played the role in the original production in Kristiania. She also directed the Copenhagen production. Dybwad’s much acclaimed performance was a major reason why Dreyer in the following years began to see the potential of adapting the play for film.

There really was a minister named Absalon Pederssøn Beyer (1528-1575) whose wife, Anne, was convicted of witchcraft and burned at the stake after her husband’s death.

A versatile, productive writer

Hans Wiers-Jenssen (1866-1925) made his mark as a playwright, but he was also a theatre historian, a writer of popular prose, a cultural essayist and an agitator for a scientifically based approach to parapsychological phenomena. Moreover, he dabbled in screenwriting, penning two Danish films, Scenens Børn [Children of the Stage] (1913) and Et Syndens Barn [A Child of Sin] (1913), among others. Wiers-Jenssen wrote 22 stage plays, the vast majority comedies or musicals. His only two plays to be published took a more sombre tack: Anne Pedersdotter, which he lived to see published in English and Italian (the first Norwegian edition was not published until 1962), and the Biblical drama Saul (published 1916, premiered 27 December 1917).

The Witch on Broadway

Anne Pedersdotter was Wiers-Jenssen’s only true artistic triumph, but it enjoyed international success. Premiering at Nationaltheatret in Kristiania on 18 February 1908, the play was an immediate hit, running for 23 performances. Later, it toured various Norwegian towns for nearly 100 performances in 1908, and on 22 September 1909 it finally opened in Wiers-Jenssen’s native town of Bergen, with him directing. The play was regularly staged in Norway until the late 1950s. Meanwhile, the play triumphed in Sweden, Finland, the UK and, not least, the US, where it was published in two different translations, in 1917 and 1926 (both entitled The Witch), and produced on Broadway, in 1910 and 1926. The play was also a huge success in Italy. In 1918 it was staged in Rome, starring the famous Ibsen interpreter Emma Gramatica in the title role. An Italian edition of the play was published in 1921, entitled Anna Peters, and in 1934 the composer Ottorino Respighi was behind a somewhat less successful opera version of the play, entitled La Fiamma. Finally, it’s worth to mention that the play was reprised in the late 1950s in Scandinavia as a radio play: first on Norwegian radio, on 11 February 1958, and the following year in a Danish version, broadcast on 24 February, starring Emil Hass Christensen as Absalon and Bodil Kjer as Anne and featuring Poul Reumert in the supporting role of the Bishop. A few months after Day of Wrath premiered, the play was also reprised at Alléscenen in Frederiksberg.

The real-life Absalon and Anne

Wiers-Jenssen based Anne Pedersdotter on real historical events, but he interpreted them quite liberally. There really was a minister named Absalon Pederssøn Beyer (1528-1575) whose wife, Anne, was convicted of witchcraft and burned at the stake after her husband’s death. The real Absalon Beyer is considered to be one of Norway’s first major humanists, choosing to represent the new spirit after the Reformation. Likely, Wiers-Jenssen was also drawn to the story because Absalon Beyer in many ways was a pioneer of the dramatic arts in Norway, letting his pupils at the Cathedral School in Bergen stage dramas in Latin and Norwegian. In his play, Wiers-Jenssen entirely omits this side of Beyer, and he also made some distinctive factual changes: Absalon Beyer died at the age of 47 in 1575, while the play’s Absalon is supposed to be 60 at his death in 1574. The real-life Anne (who was actually Absalon’s only wife, not his second wife, as in the play) was not burned at the stake until 15 years after her husband’s death. Found guilty, among other things, of causing the death of five people, she was burned on 7 April 1590. Finally, the historical sources do not say anything about the actual Anne having a liaison with a stepson. In fact, she and Absalon had eight children, one of whom, a son, supported the burning of his mother at the stake.

Parapsychology and spiritualism

In the last half of his life, especially, Wiers-Jenssen was obsessed with parapsychology and spiritualism. In Anne Pedersdotter, this is most evident in the scene where the title character "summons" young Martin by the power of thought. On this point, Wiers-Jenssen can be considered a typical representative of some of the thought-currents of his day. In the first 10-15 years of the 20th century, many others like him, including Herman Bang, Aage Magdelung, Otto Rung and Sophus Michaëlis, flirted with mysticism, Buddhism and other exotic theories about the hidden depths of the soul. Wiers-Jenssen gave these subjects full rein in two books, both published in 1922, De store Medier, an introductory textbook to spiritualism, and Hvorhen? [Where?], a novel about a banker’s fateful discovery of his own abilities as a parapsychological medium. Moreover, Wiers-Jenssen founded Norsk Tidsskrift for Psykisk Forskning (The Norwegian Journal of Psychic Research) and served as its editor from 1922.

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