I have often been told that I ought to write more drama. Trouble is, drama is not written in a vacuum. Connections with theatre are practically a must, and I have had very few, although I love both theatre and film. A few years ago I wrote a pretty good piece called “Nirvana,” about a “sixties” North American woman returning to Nepal and encountering something very strange. It would make a fine radio drama, I think. Or an even better opera libretto, but who produces new opera in Canada? Thanks to Maureen Labonté, I did once get a workshop at the NAC, but saying you’ve had a piece workshopped is like saying you’ve been in and out of a Gulag. “We’re glad you survived-and what else is new?” I hope you like my little piece on Knut Hamsun. It was written long before the appearance of that wonderful Swedish-Norwegian movie that features Max von Sydow as Hamsun.
I was pleased to see my little play mentioned in Hamsun-nytt, Number 4, 2004—the newsletter of the Knut Hamsun Society in Hamarøy, Norway.
(A ONE ACT PLAY BY TOM HENIGHAN)
Knut Hamsun. Great Norwegian writer and Nazi sympathizer. An old, bald man, worn out, cynical and detached, but capable of sudden fire, and of every kind of disgust.
Marie. His second wife. Still frustrated, confused, but capable of telling insights about her husband.
Bergljot. His first wife. Still elegant, amused, intrigued, but not so involved with Hamsun.
We see Hamsun sitting on a chair in the middle of the stage; the rest of the stage is in near-darkness. Marie speaks out of the shadows.
MARIE: There he sits, an old man now, as if getting ready to die. We’ve been together a long time, he and I. And for a little while we were apart.
Hamsun turns away in disgust.The lights show us Marie too. She and Hamsun are two islands in the darkness, not close together In the ensuing conversation Hamsun and the women talk as if in monologue; only where indicated, toward the end of the piece, do they take note of each other in a direct way.
MARIE: At one time everybody knew him. I had heard of him, of course. I was twenty-six, an actress then. It was in Christiania, Oslo, as they call it now. I was cast in one his plays. The director arranged for us to meet. It was a nice day. Hamsun came up the steps of the National Theatre, and walked over to the porter’s lodge to ask for me. He was a tall strong fellow with broad shoulders, thick blond hair and rimless glasses. There was a little crowd hanging around him–the great man’s followers; you know how it is. But I went up and introduced myself. He just looked at me from behind those glasses, and he said. “My God, child, how beautiful you are!” Then he dragged me away to the café and we had a long conversation. He didn’t say a word about the play. And the next day he sent me twenty-six roses.
HAMSUN: That was a long time ago. I was an old man, nearly fifty. My hair was growing gray around the temples. Already I was a bit deaf. She didn’t seem to notice.
MARIE: He hated actresses and schoolteachers. He was afraid of educated women, but he married me anyway. While we were waiting for his divorce from his first wife he decided I should make a few changes. Would I mind very much giving up my theatrical acquaintances? Would I please throw away my career? Would I come and live with him in the country? Would I mind not smiling in any of my future photographs–such smiles were just phony poses cooked up by photographers. It’s funny–he seemed to like me so much and yet he wanted to change almost everything about me. It was typical of him.
HAMSUN: We bought two farms together, she and I. The first one was at Hamaroy, in the far North, the place I grew up in. When we went there the snow was thick on the ground, the fjord was frozen, winter darkness lay over the mountains. Nearby was the little farm where I lived with my parents before they sent me off, a few miles away, to work for my uncle. He was a swine, uncle Hans. He beat me; he smacked my fingers when I wrote a wrong word. My only escape was to walk in the graveyard, where I told myself stories. Once, in the earth near a gravestone, I found an old tooth, and the ghost of a red-bearded seaman began to haunt me. He wanted his tooth back! It was a horrible experience, but I faced him down. It taught me how to be strong. I nearly drowned myself a few times, I hated my life so much. I was only fourteen.
MARIE: Oh yes, he was strong all right. And his weakness came out of his strength. Out of a kind of pig-headedness. He even shouted at Hitler and got away with it. Maybe because he was so famous–and so old then. He was a Nobel prizewinner after all. They read him, they spoke of him with such awe, all the great ones. Thomas Mann and Kafka, H.G. Wells and Hermann Hesse, Robert Musil and Hemingway. Gorky and Brecht, Einstein and Pasternak. “Never has the Nobel Prize been awarded to one worthier of it,” Mann said. They loved him because he was a “spiritual aristocrat,” because he sacrificed everything for his art. Because he celebrated the life of the individual. . . Knut Hamsun became a Nazi because he believed in the individual! When I think of it now. . . But it seemed different then, we both thought so. Besides, he hated the English more than anything. He would have joined the devil himself in order to plague the English.
HAMSUN: The English! Let’s not talk about them. I sent Goebbels my Nobel Prize ring; it was no use to me, I didn’t want it. And he appreciated the gesture. He was an educated man and he treated me very well. I remember how his lovely children greeted me, all six of them, standing like a set of organ pipes. I thought of that when everything fell apart later.
MARIE: The poet of the individual! Oh, he was an individual all right! All those books about vagabonds, young men who can’t settle anywhere. Driven nearly mad by a kind of dissatisfaction, something gnawing at them, making them want to hurt people, or just to take off somewhere. He understood all about that. Well, despite his dreams about living in the country nothing seemed to hold him there! I was having babies and he ran off, God knows where, cheap hotels likely, just to write, just to drink and let off steam. He was a great one with the bottle. Not a drunk of course–that would have meant losing control.
HAMSUN: At first I was interested in writing. I wanted to conquer the world with it. I wanted them to notice me, all those fine people, stiff little gods in white collars. I wasn’t a prodigy. I had to work for every word. I wrote as if my uncle were sitting there, ready to strike my hands with his ruler. I had such big hands–later I could have choked him. I dug ditches. I roamed around a little. I went twice to America. I lived in Minnesota. I ran a streetcar in Chicago. When I came back I nearly starved in Christiania. I was thirty before anyone noticed me.
MARIE: He could have done his writing at our farm. There were hired people enough to run things. The house was very comfortable. We did renovations; we picked out the wallpaper together. I even had a writing hut built to accommodate him. I don’t think he ever wrote there.
HAMSUN: I loved the farm more than anything. That second farm, the one at Norholm, bought with the Nobel Prize money. Writing is just scribbling and emptiness beside farming. Everyone should make a home and live close to the earth.
MARIE: He wrote a book called Growth of the Soil, that’s what the big prize came for. It talks a lot about the earth and planting. Naturally the man is the hero, the patriarch. The woman is always being foolish and her husband has to “give her a good shaking” to bring her to her senses. In Paris, many years before that, Hamsun had met Strindberg. They had more in common than you might think.
MARIE: Oh yes, women. Not that he was a philanderer. The women pursued him all right, but he was afraid of them. He ran much faster than their fantasies. Hamsun was a terrible puritan. I never had to worry about the women. If anything, he was afraid of sex.
HAMSUN: When I was living in Minnesota I spat up a great deal of blood. They thought I had tuberculosis, consumption, as they used to call it. The doctor said I might survive a few months if I could live long enough to get out of the north. I was twenty-five years old and I suddenly thought: I’m going to die. My only wish was to go to the nearest whorehouse and sin. I wanted to sin magnificently, to die in the act, to whisper hurrah and then breathe my last. I’m ashamed to admit it now. All my life I’d been so strict with myself, but what was the point of it, if I was going to die now anyway? I was burning up so violently.
MARIE: He told me at that time he developed an erotic passion for light. Can you believe it, for “light”! Torches, flares and firelight, all those things excited him. One day his landlady found that he had set fire to the curtains in his room. He was standing there in an erotic ecstasy, watching everything flame up. A regular Nero!
HAMSUN: I cured myself of consumption by riding from Minnesota to New York on the roof of the train. I let the cold air rush into my lungs. I was burning up in those days. All I could think of was fire.
MARIE: His admirers, the women that is, were sometimes as crazy as he was. His first wife, Bergljot, told a story. . .(She looks around at the darkness). I can’t imagine where she is now.
HAMSUN: Not Bergljot. I know what she thinks.
Marie fades into the darkness. As the lights come up on another point in the darkness, even further away from Hamsun, his first wife, Bergljot, is sitting there.
BERGLJOT: When he married me it seemed he had risen right to the top. The poor boy who made good. I was “society” after all, an heiress. We met at a hotel. He was madly in love with me.
HAMSUN: It didn’t last very long. I had to get away. I wanted freedom, to stay up all night, to write when I pleased. I could never sit at home and write. I felt like a caged bear.
BERGLJOT: After he left me, he started drinking. Marie is quite right; he was a puritan. He’d hardly touched the stuff until he was thirty. But later he made up for lost time. His binges were legendary.
HAMSUN: It was a mistake, marrying Bergljot. An affair was one thing, but to marry a woman like that. We had not a thing in common, as it turned out.
BERGLJOT: The marriage nearly didn’t come off. There was a crazy woman, Anna Munch, a writer she called herself. She followed him around, went to every one of his lectures, broke into his hotel room. She even wrote a book about their passion for each other. It was all her imagination–her rotten imagination. At least I thought so.
HAMSUN: Anna Munch was writing crazy letters to everyone. She wrote anonymous letters denouncing me as a no-good and a rake. And I was trying to marry Bergljot! But Anna wrote to all Bergljot’s friends and relatives, and to mine too. It was quite a scandal.
BERGLJOT: But what happened was so typical of Hamsun. He took all the letters he could find to the police. As clearly as possible and without any hysteria he explained what was happening. He assured them that he had never had sex with Anna Munch or encouraged her in any way. And the police gave the letters to a handwriting expert. You’ll never guess what the official conclusion was!
HAMSUN: I couldn’t understand it. The police claimed the letters were in my handwriting! They didn’t believe my story about Anna. She had denied it, of course, and now I too began to wonder whether I hadn’t imagined it all. But it was the truth. That woman had organized the whole thing!
BERGLJOT: I was horrified. Can you imagine? This was the man I was about to marry. We suspected some great conspiracy. People seemed to be watching us. Every time we walked down the street we saw people with innocent faces. But we knew they couldn’t all be innocent! The police went around in disguises, watching us the whole time. We thought it was a conspiracy by some secret society, the Anarchists or the Theosophists. The police thought Hamsun was behind it all.
HAMSUN: They were so suspicious. I had spoken out once too often. I had attacked my own country and its institutions. Even Ibsen! And our literati, who had worked so hard to establish their mediocrity–they could never forgive me. My scorn was too much for them. No one trusted me. . . . But I never should have married Bergljot.
BERGLJOT: It was impossible. We had a child to try to save it. Victoria, we called her. We named her after one of Hamsun’s famous heroines. But our marriage just faded away into nothing.
The lights dim and Bergljot fades into the darkness. At the same time Marie reappears. She is much closer to Hamsun now. They are almost within touching distance.
MARIE: We had four children. It was useful. When they were nearly grown up they could step between us, in the middle of one of our fights. Without them, we might have killed each other. Did I say Hamsun was afraid of sex? All the same I always thought he had a little actress hidden in Denmark somewhere. Nobody could want to be away from home that much just to write! One day I got fed up with his neglect and decided to kill him. I got our youngest daughter, Cecilia, to crumble some slimming tablets into his sandwiches. I didn’t think anybody would be able to trace it. Unfortunately, all it did was slow him down a little. For a short time he was almost normal.
HAMSUN: After Hitler fell, they arrested us. There was a preliminary psychiatric examination. They brought in Dr. Langfeldt, a famous specialist of the day. A master of blank spaces and labels, and also of moral blackmail. He broke down Marie without difficulty. “What are you up to now?” I said to her when they brought us together. I knew at once she had betrayed me. That was the end of our marriage, as far as I was concerned. The doctor concluded that I was not insane, though my mental faculties were “permanently impaired.” So I had to stand trial for my so-called war crimes. I was 87 years old. Three years later I published On Overgrown Paths, one of my best books.
MARIE: What could I do? For all I know they might have shot us! Of course I made everything seem even worse than it had been. Should I have told them we were blissfully happy? Is that what they wanted to hear from two war criminals? Should I have taken Hamsun’s line: that we had been happy and miserable, like everybody else, and that it was none of their business?
HAMSUN: She told the psychiatrist that I had been unfaithful to her many times. That I had an interest in young girls. That I attacked her constantly and misjudged people hopelessly. That I had no friends. That I was always absent. That I lived only for my writing. . . Some of these things were perhaps true.
MARIE: We were put in prison for what we did. They took away all our money. Norholm, our farm, became a shambles. We were old.
HAMSUN: Old age is no blessing, but there it is, nothing to complain about. It lies in wait for many. Along with permanently impaired faculties!
MARIE: After four years he came back to me. “You were gone a long time, Marie,” he said to me, forgetting that he had been the one to go. “All the time you’ve been gone I’ve had no one to talk to but God,” he said to me. Which means no one. But I took care of him until he died.
HAMSUN: One day, just before the end, my lawyer came to see me. Sigrid Stray, her name was, an educated woman, but despite that a good lawyer and friend. She brought a publisher’s catalogue from Oslo, a new one, and in it, on the glossy pages, I saw an advertisement for my collected works, together with a picture and a short biography. Imagine, it almost seemed as if they had forgiven me!
MARIE: We used to sit out in the garden, under the laburnum tree. Before his eyes failed Hamsun read the Bible sometimes. “What’s the worst thing you can imagine?” they once asked him.
Hamsun turns to Marie. This is the first time he has taken note of her existence.
HAMSUN: To die! I wouldn’t dream of doing it unless I had to.
Another part of the stage is lighted and we see Bergljot again, somewhat behind Marie but closer than before to Hamsun. The three form an almost intimate trio in the darkness.
BERGLJOT: When we got married, there were crowds on the sidewalk. They shouted greetings and waved to us. Hamsun was embarrassed. For our honeymoon we hired a villa on a lake. On sunny days we bathed naked together. We drank champagne from cut glasses. It was poetry.
MARIE: One day he just lay down in the bedroom. I took him some big pillows and made him comfortable. He was bald by then, he had a scraggly beard and he looked all skin and bones. He just slept and slept and somewhere in that sleep-time he passed away. There were a few books on the table, a little lamp and pictures of Goethe and Dostoevsky on the wall.
Hamsun stands up for the first time. He seems to stare into the heart of the audience.
HAMSUN: Above all, I don’t want to be forgiven.
MARIE: They’ll never forgive you. They might read your books but they won’t forget anything. Of course some will try to separate the man from the artist, but it will be like peeling an onion in search of its sweet-tasting heart: they’ll end up with nothing. As for me, I’ll never forgive you for the life we had.
HAMSUN: There’s nothing in the world like being alone. It’s something I remember from my childhood, back home, where I used to watch over the animals. On fine days I’d just lie on my back in the heather. I’d write with my finger against the sky–all sorts of nothings. I’d let the animals wander wherever they wanted, and when I had to find them again I’d climb up a rock, or a high tree and listen. . . It was a wonderful life. . .
Hamsun walks slowly off stage. Marie bows her head, does not look at him.
BERGLJOT: Who could understand such a man?
(Honourable mention in Ottawa Little Theatre National One-Act Play Competition