St. John's Eve (play)

St. John's Eve (play)

St. John's Eve, (Danish-Norwegian: "Sancthansnatten") is a play written by Henrik Ibsen in 1853. The play is considered apocryphal, because it never entered Ibsen's collected works. The reason for this was a rather poor criticism when it was shown the first time, at den nationale scene in Bergen in 1853.

Plot summary

The play takes place during a midsummer feast on a valley farm in Telemark. Here, we find two very different attitudes, symbolized in the old farm house, inhabited by the old farmer, "Berg", and his granddaughter "Anne", and a new house, inhabited by her stepmother, "Mrs. Berg" and her daughter "Juliane", from an earlier marriage. At the time of the play, Anne's father is dead, and the big question is inheritance. The second "Mrs. Berg" wishes for her daughter to inherit the farm, and has found her a suitor from town, "Johannes Birk". He arrives with Juliane's brother Jørgen, and a fellow student, "Julian Paulsen". The young ones assemble for a trip to the hill of st. John (Sankthanshaugen), to take part in the revels of rural festivity. Jørgen prepares the Punch, but the people are not aware of the nisse, who lives in the attic of the old house. He mixes the liquor with a mystical flower, with the virtue of remembrance for those who have forgotten their past.

The young ones wander away after tasting the liquor. Anne walks with Birk, Julian with Juliane. As the night wears on, the elves dance in the forest, and Anne finds a flower, in Norwegian called "Keys of st. Mary". With this, she orders the mountain to open, and the couples witness a play-in-the-play, staging an old ballad of a girl who were abducted into the mountain by the mountain king, and drinking a cup of forgetfulness. Anne is brought up on old folklore and songs, and knows the verses, and, surprisingly enough, so does Birk. Paulsen, on the other hand, interprets The mountain king as a "Fine gentleman of the upper classes", from his own town.

After this play, Anne recognizes Birk as her childhood friend, and Paulsen recognizes Juliane from a dancing school in the city. The day after, the "right" couples decide to engage, but Mrs. Berg had plans of ruling the farm through Birk. The flower Anne found has turned into a real key, and with this, her grandfather opens a box containing her father's will, long lost. This states her rightful inheritance when marrying, and Mrs. Berg is beaten in the end. Anne marries Birk, Julian marries Juliane and all are happy about the change in plans. The real winner is the nisse, who staged it all from behind.

Reception and ctiticism

The comical figure of Julian Paulsen was at the time a satirical comment on the regular urban romantic, most notably Johan Sebastian Welhaven. Paulsen is a romantic nationalist, pining for the hulder in the Norwegian forests. He is heartbroken, because the fairy tales edited by Asbjørnsen and Moe, have made public that the Hulder is attributed with a cow's tail. The editors, Paulsen states, are "inhuman" because of this.

Ibsen, through some of the protagonists, seems to think Paulsen is far from the truth of both folklore and rural life, and as the play goes on, we learn that he is unable to tolerate the farmers at all. The satire was clear, and the public reacted with scorn. They felt offended, and the play was not well received. Ibsen himself stated that the whole gang of critics thought like Paulsen and decided not to offend them again. Therefore, "St. John's Eve" was never printed in his "collected works", and never played again until 1978, under the supervision of Ingeborg Refling Hagen. Since then, it has been played by youth-theater groups and children alike, and only twice by a regular official theatre. The two productions does not, however, render the play full justice.


The play takes into account to variants of romantic nationalism in Norway. On the one side (Paulsen), we have the naive and unrealistic idea of "nature" and "originality", or even "primitive life", seen from a safe urban setting. On the other hand, we get the more realistic wiew of the country and the norwegian farm culture. The first wiew is presented as arrogant, the other as humble. Some of the themes is inspired by similar plays written by Henrik Wergeland, and are used again fully in Peer Gynt.

The play relies on many sources. Most notably A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare. Ibsen takes a lot of plot devices from this play: Puck (the Nisse), the flower, the confusion of couples, the elves, and even the summer night itself. Like the Puck, the Nisse in the play has the epilogue.

Further, Ibsen alludes to norwegian folk tales, and ballads of abduction.

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