Birgitte Hesselaa Talks About the Breakthrough in Modern Danish Drama

Birgitte Hesselaa, Danish dramaturg, theatre critic and writer


Birgitte Hesselaa is a Danish dramaturg, theatre critic and writer. She received her master degree from the University of Copenhagen, majored in Scandinavian Languages and Literature. She had worked as dramaturg and script editor at DR (Danish Broadcasting Corporation)  and Royal Danish Theatre for twenty years before working at Dramatics Education in Aarhus in 2002. She is also lecturer and head of Literature and Drama Studies at the Extended University of Copenhagen (Folkeuniversitetet). Besides, she has been invited as guest lecturer at St.Petersburg State Theatre Arts Academy (aka Russian State Institute of Performing Arts). 

Birgitte Hesselaa is the author of several books on dramaturg and theatre. Her latest works include Poet Morti Vizki (Digteren Morti Vizki, 2014), an anthology on late Danish poet and playwright Morti Vizki (1963-2004), and The Dramatic Breakthrough  – About the Breakthrough in Danish Drama from the 1990s to Present (Det dramatiske gennembrud – om nybruddet i dansk dramatik fra 1990’erne til i dag, 2009).

Tan Shuo

Birgitte Hesselaa Talks About the Breakthrough in Modern Danish Drama

(Based on the interview by Tan Shuo on 12 March 2018)


It is true that many of the new Danish plays that were staged by new playwrights in the 90s were comedies — so-called ‘life-style-drama’, showing problems and conflicts especially of young people, young couples. The stages were almost flooded with this kind of tragic-comically plays for a shorter period. Danes like comedies, and these ‘lifestyle’ plays had the quality that wanted to put young peoples’ lives on the stage as it was and as right now, but they were not always of really dramatic value. And today most of them have disappeared.  Some of the best plays in the 1990s were not comedies. The works of Jokum Rohde, for instance, are absolutely not comedies. And, actually, if you try to say something about Danish drama of the 90s, about the really good, new dramatists, the only generalization you can come up with is that it is impossible to generalize about them. They are so different.

In the 90’s there was a really enormous shift of generations in Danish film and theatre. New young actors, new young film directors, new young dramatists. There was a general atmosphere of renewal and a wish to connect the theatre with, for instance, novel-authors, cartoonists etc.

The new generation were the children of the 68’s, which means that they had been brought up by the famous Generation ’68. The relation between these young people and their parent’s generation became a very big theme in the drama of the 1990s.  The generation before them had made a kind of uproar against all sorts of authority. Their children often found themselves left alone in a world where they could not find anything to hold on to. No fixed values. No fixed borders between good or bad. They felt that they had to find everything by themselves.

“It is forbidden to forbid!” — a slogan in Paris in May 1968. © Wikipedia

Many old traditions were broken down by the generation of 1968. They wanted another world, politically, sexual, in education, everywhere. As it often is, a generation of freedom-seekers and utopians are followed by a generation of more conservative people. Many of their children felt their parents had been very selfish and thought too much about themselves and too little about their children. Therefore, some of the plays made by them showed a new generation that felt extremely alone and very confused. They had to choose for themselves almost everything. They had got the freedom their parents had fought for, but what mattered more to them was that they felt a kind of fear of growing up. All the things that they had to decide by themselves were not only a wonderful freedom but also a feeling of being totally left alone.  Some of the best artists, as for instance the very talented and rejuvenating dramatist, Line Knutzon, told about this confusion and fear of growing up. Like being caught in a limbo – wanting to remain children.  In my view, this was a beginning of a new post-modern situation, a new way of living with your family and living with your friends. Family began to be of less importance. The old family-forms did not seem very stable. Divorces were so ordinary. Mixed families, new collective lifestyles etc. For many young people friends became a kind of new family.

The new generation was the first to whom television and films had been more important in their childhood than literature and books. They had watched drama on TV and also theatre productions for children. Denmark is very famous for children’s theatre, which is also performed at kindergarten and school and for young people. Therefore, they were more familiar with dramatic fiction than with literature.

Talented young people who wanted to express themselves were much more familiar with the visual arts than with literary fiction.  But film or TV did not leave much room for artistic freedom. They are, of course, mass-media. And for a scriptwriter, this means that you have to learn and respect a lot of rules for how to make a manuscript for a film or for TV series. On the contrary, theatre provided the possibility to play – to make your own personal universe at the stage.

As to the audience, more young people began to go to theatres in the 1990s in Denmark. There was this feeling that theatre was the place where something new was happening. 

Theatre Får302, the smallest stage of Copenhagen, was founded by a group of young actors in 1987 at the dawn of Danish Drama Breakthrough. © TANTANYY

“Breakthrough” means “breaking through the theatre of the past” – the more traditional kind of drama. Most of all they broke through with a new language. And with a new kind of criticism concerning a whole lifestyle, a whole way of civilization. Most important among them were: Line Knutzon, Morti Vizki, Jokum Rohde, Astrid Saalbach and Nikoline Werdelin.

In the 2000s there has been no general breakthrough, although we have had a bunch of new talented dramatists. But now it has become much more difficult to get a new play on stage because of the economy. The economic situation for theatre has not been as good as it was in the 1990s. Most theatres are subsided, but the subsidies depend on how many tickets you are able to sell. And, no wonder, many theatres have, on the whole, become somewhat more commercial.

In Aarhus, we have a very good education for dramatists/playwrights. I have followed this education for some years and been a teacher there myself. And I think that young talented playwrights — when they finish their education — will meet a theatrical world that has become more commercialized than it was in the 1990s.  And if they want to make a living by their work, they have to accept to a much larger extent what others tell them to do until they have may have made themselves a name.  Television also has an important role to play in this. Today Danish television companies produce quite a lot of drama-series of a rather high quality. Especially the crime-series, “Nordic noir”, are famous and have been an international success. Many gifted playwrights now write for television, but it is, of course, not as ‘free artists’.

What is the future of Danish drama? A difficult question to answer. Things are changing all the time. It is very difficult to tell what the theatre scene will look like in five years from now. In ten years things can change very much. But still, it is possible to make your own way and become a very important and rejuvenating force in Danish theatre. Christian Lollike, dramatist and director, has really made his own way. He is the head of his own theatre and also works at the big scenes in Copenhagen and Aarhus. So that’s possible.

The Royal Danish Playhouse © Jens Lindhe

Many productions nowadays are based on literature adapted for the stage. Novels, films, even books that are not fiction, are dramatized and adapted for the stage by dramatists. This, of course, cannot be compared with original plays.

During the last 10-15 years, a new trend has turned up important in Denmark as in other European countries and in Russia as well. We call it ‘social theatre’. The idea is to collect case-stories and experiences from “ordinary people” on a special issue, chosen by the theatre and the director. It could be all kind of issues – often themes that are a little taboo,  for instance:  losing a child, being in a war, suffering from cancer, incest,  divorce… The manuscript will be a  kind of montage,  a mixture of several personal stories. And often they are performed by those who have experienced them themselves. I think this trend is the latest of importance to new Danish drama.

For Audiences, Artists, and Theatres

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