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erasmus montanus

19 november 2016

When we last saw Jeppe of the Hill, he was just sobering up after having been the butt of an elaborate practical joke foisted to convince him that he was a baron and not a drunken peasant. Now, in Ludvig Holberg's sort-of-sequel, Erasmus Montanus, Jeppe has bounced back to do pretty well for himself. He, his wife Nille, and his industrious son Jacob are prosperous enough to send his elder boy Rasmus up to Copenhagen for a higher education. Now Rasmus Berg, having taken the Latinate name "Erasmus Montanus" as proper to his baccalaureate self, is coming home for a visit, hoping to marry his longtime (and very eager) sweetheart Lisbed.

Montanus writes to Jeppe in Latin, announcing his homecoming, and the local parson Peer is no wiser than Jeppe himself as to the letter's content. Jeppe's confusion (and Peer's blustering concealment of his) sounds the keynote of this modest little farce. Most of it consists of people talking at cross-purposes and playing language games with one another, games that pit Montanus' pretensions against rural common sense.

The comedy's themes recall Molière's various precious damsels and mumbo-jumbo-spinning doctors. It's all good broad witty fun, but the one dramatic complication points in a potentially more serious direction. Montanus has come back from Copenhagen with modern notions, such as the roundness of the earth. Lisbed's father Jeronimus refuses to marry her to anybody with such heretical ideas. In Act 3, Scene 6, they (plus a bailiff named Jesper) lay out the crux of their dispute:

JERONIMUS. I have been told that you have such peculiar opinions that people might really think that you had become mad or deranged, for how can a sane man be foolish enough to say that the earth is round?

MONTANUS. But, profecto, it is round. I must speak the truth.

JERONIMUS. The deuce it is the truth! Such a notion can't possibly come from anywhere but from the devil, who is the father of lies. I am sure there isn't a single man here in the village who would not condemn such an opinion. Just ask the bailiff, who is an intelligent man, if he does not agree with me.

JESPER. It is really all one to me whether it is oblong or round; but I must believe my own eyes, which show me that the earth is as flat as a pancake.

MONTANUS. It is all one to me, too, what the bailiff or the others here in the village think on the subject; for I know that the earth is round.
This is goofy, but at a great distance it foreshadows the situation of Dr. Stockmann in Ibsen's Enemy of the People. The truth is the truth, no matter how counter-intuitive or invisible to perception.

Montanus, powerful enough with words to convince parson Peer that he's a rooster, finally gets into a language game he can't win, and is conscripted into a local regiment. Trapped between a military future and having to declare the world flat, Rasmus proclaims it indeed "flat as a pancake." Girl gets boy, and the recruiting lieutenant delivers one of the speeches that (after reading all of three plays by him) I have come to expect from Holberg, setting everything right by telling all listeners not to get out of their respective spheres.

But for all the consensus at play's end, you know, the world is still round.

Holberg, Ludvig. Erasmus Montanus, or Rasmus Berg. 1723-1731. Translated by Oscar James Campbell and Frederic Schenck. New York, 1914. Project Gutenberg.