Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Soothsayer by Verner von Heidenstam

Serving two masters
Verner von Heidenstam
Swedish author Verner von Heidenstam was the winner of the 1916 Nobel Prize in Literature. His play The Soothsayer is one of only a handful of his works available in English translation. This quickie drama would have only lasted about ten minutes on the stage, but it was nevertheless published as a stand-alone book in 1919.

The Soothsayer is similar in style, substance, and duration to another of von Heidenstam’s plays, The Birth of God, which is also available in English. Von Heidenstam was a diehard romanticist, and he uses gods and characters from classical antiquity to convey a moral lesson. The play takes place in ancient Greece in the 5th century BC, around the time of the Persian invasion. The curtain rises on a man named Eyrytus, along with his wife, mother, and faithful old servant, worshipping at an altar to Eros, the god of love. His wife and family are the greatest joys of Eyrytus’s life, and he celebrates that fact by making offerings to Eros. However, Eyrytus was born with the prescient power of a soothsayer, and his destiny therefore falls under the jurisdiction of Apollo, among whose many titles is the god of prophecy. Apollo becomes irate when he sees Eyrytus devoting himself to Eros, and he demands that the young soothsayer make a choice between which of the two gods he is going to follow.

From there, the play essentially becomes a brief enactment of the proverb “you can’t serve two masters.” At only 48 pages long, there isn’t really room for a whole lot to develop out of that basic premise. Though it may be hard to get excited about a ten-minute play, this is still better than The Birth of God. At least The Soothsayer has one meaty scene for the actor who plays Eyrytus, and despite its brevity it does manage to get its point across with affecting poignancy. Von Heidenstam likely has more substantial works in his oeuvre, but if you want to sample the work of this Nobel laureate The Soothsayer is a quick and easy way to do so.

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