Based on / Once Upon a Time

Holger Drachmann: Once Upon a Time 

What exactly did Dreyer see in Drachmann’s national-romantic, lightweight fairy play? Several possible theories have been proposed. Certainly, for Drachmann, a lot at stake – a political and literary showdown, notably with the Brandes brothers and their "modern breakthrough."

Personally, Dreyer thought Once Upon a Time, his adaptation of Holger Drachmann’s (1846-1908) popular and patriotic fairy play Der var engang (written 1884, premiere 1887), was his least successful film, second only to Two People. In 1939 he wrote a brief autobiographical note to his friend Ebbe Neergaard,

"From harsh realism [Love One Another] I made the leap into fairytales – with Holger Drachmann’s 'Der var engang –,' which taught me the bitter lesson that you can’t build a film on moods alone. Exactly when the film should have risen in dramatic strength and the acting have culminated in a tempestuous battle (…), the action was still as a summer day without a breeze" (Drouzy, 1982 [1939], p. 67).

A failed film

Dreyer’s assessment film has triggered a lot of speculation over the years as to how wholeheartedly he was behind his Drachmann adaptation and whether he saw any literary value in the play at all. Not only did he reject the film as failed later in his life, thematically the play’s national conservatism and fundamentally lightweight optimism would seem a far cry from Dreyer.

"... the play to a great extent can be seen as a polemical contribution to the debate against the Modern Break-through and its main focus on realism, contemporary critique, women’s suffrage and internationalism."

- Holger Drachmann

In that regard, it’s important to bear in mind that Dreyer himself first proposed adapting Der var engang – because of the play’s thematic ties to various Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales – to Sophus Madsen, owner of Paladsteatret, who was looking to produce a particularly Danish film independent of the other film companies. Moreover, 17 years later, in 1939, Dreyer raves about Drachmann’s play in an article discussing the possibilities of successfully adapting Andersen’s fairy tales for film, "In passing, let me just mention Holger Drachmann’s 'Der var Engang –.' Imagine such wonderful Danish material carried by the most Danish of all Danish music, Lange-Müller’s. Wouldn’t that be a film with a message for the whole world?" (from Dreyer’s Om Filmen, 1964, p. 56).

A hit play

The play’s popularity at the time undoubtedly contributed to Dreyer’s desire to adapt it for film. Der var engang had a difficult conception from the time Drachmann wrote the play, in May-June 1884, until – after a lot of back and forth, disagreements and consequent plot changes and adjustments – it was accepted by the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, where it premiered on 28 October 1887. From the day it opened and practically to the present, the play has been an enormous hit. By 1921, it had already been performed more than 300 times at the Royal Theatre, which since has staged more than 150 performances of the play. According to Johannes Ursin’s Bibliografi over litteraturen om Holger Drachmann (1959), the play by 1956 had been performed more than 1,400 times in Denmark and abroad, and had been translated into Swedish, German and Hungarian. Add to that innumerable productions at provincial theatres and open-air stages after 1956, most recently, in 1998, an open-air production in Ulvedalene in the Deer Garden north of Copenhagen, from a slightly revised version of the play that was later released in book form. By 1922 when Dreyer made his adaptation, 54,000 copies of the original book of the play had already been printed.

Der var engang as a polemical contribution to the debate

Before Der var engang, every literary source Dreyer had adapted was more or less written in the so-called Brandesian tradition. Early on his writing career, Drachmann had joined the Brandes brothers’ Modern Breakthrough, and so it might be tempting to see Dreyer’s choice of Der var engang as logically extending his earlier choice of works by Franzos, Janson and Madelung. However, that is far from the truth. In the period of his life when Drachmann wrote Der var engang, he had chosen to distance himself emphatically, and as far as possible, from the Brandes brothers and their literary program. In fact the play to a great extent can be seen as a polemical contribution to the debate against the Modern Breakthrough and its main focus on realism, contemporary critique, women’s suffrage and internationalism. Nor is it entirely insignificant to note that Der var engang won the reformed revolutionary Drachmann a royal Knight’s Cross of the Order of the Dannebrog, for which occasion he added a special verse to Midsommervisen [The Midsommer Song], a song in Der var engang, praising the king.

Drachmann’s political and literary about-face

The period when Drachmann joined the more National-Conservative and Neo-Romantic wing of Danish arts and letters stretches from 1883 to 1891, starting with Drachmann’s own polemical travel account Ostende-Brügge, in Skyggebilleder fra Rejser i Indland og Udland (1883), and Georg Brandes’s condemnation of Drachmann’s literary development in Det moderne Gjennembruds Mænd (1883). Brandes’s critical review caused Drachmann to resign from the party Venstre ("Left"), on 29 Dec. 1883, and instead join Højre ("Right") for the next decade or so. Drachmann now focused exclusively on making a cult of the national. He wrote Der var engang in Northern Italy a year after his political turnaround. In a long letter to his friend Otto Borchenius, Drachmann makes it evident that he saw his national play as a step in "this big battle that ever more unequivocally sets me outside the 'literary' left, in my lonely citadel, where legends, poetry, music, harmless jest, but also symbols fine and deep, are my faithful servants" (21 June 1884). Drachmann’s overarching goal with the play was to "take a stand against flat-bottomed and materialistic 'realism' " (ibid.) and, by creating a common foundation for cultivating the national past, to remove any political division in the fatherland.

Dreyer’s yen for poetry and beauty

Drachmann’s play, then, in its backward-glancing cultivation of romance, fairytales and nationalism, is anti-Brandesian to the core. There appear to be several reasons why Dreyer choose to adapt such a national-conservative and anything but solemn play. Mainly, Dreyer wanted to change moods from his last film, the gloomy Love One Another. He touches on this in an interview shortly after his Madelung film, "I now feel like doing something lyrical and lovely, something light and airy yet serious" (undated article from the Dreyer Archive). Moreover, we should not ignore that Dreyer exhibits a fundamental faith in nationally defined entities as value creating and that he sees both a national and an international point in conveying the typically Danish. Finally, there is a sequence in Drachmann’s play – where the princess has been relegated to live in a humble cabin in the woods with the prince, who is disguised as a pauper – that affords Dreyer multiple opportunities for riding his two favourite hobbyhorses: authenticity and realism, in depicting environments and in portraying complex psychological games between two people who are emotionally dependent on one another.

By Morten Egholm | 22 May 2010