The Bøyg Explores the History of Making Art In Isolation
A new play in Derry tells the story of Norwegian artists finding inspiration in their work while trying to survive in a Nazi concentration camp.
It’s been a while since many people have seen live theatre due to the pandemic, and the main characters in a new play premiering in Derry also know something about isolation. The Bøyg is a play about a group of Norwegian artists attempting to keep their art alive while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp in World War II.
The Bøyg playwright A.J. Ditty joined NHPR Morning Edition host Rick Ganley to discuss the history behind the play.
Below is a transcript of their conversation.
Rick Ganley: This play is based on a real diary that a man kept while imprisoned in this Norwegian concentration camp. Can you tell me more about him and what's in that diary?
A.J. Ditty: Yes, so Odd Nansen, who wrote the diary, went on to found UNICEF and helped set up the U.N., and for four years during World War II, he was imprisoned in three different concentration camps. And during his time there, he took notes in a diary that he was able to sneak out with his wife, Kari, and later published those into a book called From Day to Day, which is an enormous tome and an extremely important primary text for this play.
Rick Ganley: A.J. what do we know about the other artists that he was imprisoned with?
A.J. Ditty: Most of them were the reigning intelligentsia of Norway at the time. So Per Krohg, who is ostensibly the protagonist of this play, and Per was an artist in his own right. He was a painter. The mural at the U.N. was painted by Per Krohg, and he spent most of his time while at this concentration camp where the play takes place, Grini, painting paintings on the walls of the barrack. And what happened was after he was released from Grini and the war ended, he was able to come back to his barrack, Barrack 12, and take those paintings off the wall and repaint them. It seemed as though while they were in prison, they wanted to return to something that made them feel Norwegian and celebrate their national pride while being, you know, force-fed this whole German culture down their throats every single day. And so Peer Gynt, Henrik Ibsen's, Peer Gynt, is sort of like one of the seminal Norwegian texts. Peer Gynt is one of the great Norwegian folk heroes, and so Peer Gynt, or Per Krohg rather, seemed very inspired by that story and painted like a whole suite of paintings about Peer Gynt, and they're beautiful and haunting.
Rick Ganley: So your play tells the story of one of the episodes in the diary when you talk about Peer Gynt, that 19th century Norwegian play and folk tale. Tell me about the play and the origin for that.
A.J. Ditty: The play takes place in 1942, in December of 1942, and it's based on a couple of very big events happening all in a row. That was sort of a big year in terms of World War II, but also in terms of events that were happening in the camp at the time. The play ends on Christmas, but it's them sort of preparing for the Christmas festivities to add a little bit of joy and light because that's sort of where they found most of their joy and light in the camps was around these major holidays. So the play is a lot about making art in isolation. I started writing it in 2018, and it was originally very much about making art under fascism because at the time we were, we had a fascist for a president. And now it's become because of the quarantine so much more about isolation and making things even when the world feels like it's ending and you feel like you're stuck in one place.
Rick Ganley: Ok, if this isn't going to spoil anything, let me ask you who is the Bøyg?
A.J. Ditty: So in Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt, there is a Scandinavian folklore monster called the Bøyg, and in most folklore traditions, he is a giant serpent monster that just devours passersby who happen to be going through the mountain. He's sort of a cautionary tale. In Ibsen's version of the Bøyg, he's just this giant unknowable nothingness. It's a voiceover that's done in pitch darkness. And the Bøyg for me, when I read it for the first time, I was like, "Oh, Henrik Ibsen wrote this while he was catatonically depressed. I think the boy represents depression." So in our version of the play, the Bøyg is, you know, is depression. It's the voice in the back of your head that tells you not to get out of bed every day and how to make art in the face of that voice. Like all these guys mostly came out of the war, you know, obviously psychologically traumatized, but they managed to live full lives afterward, which I think is one of the most helpful things.