fri 19/07/2024

There's more to Karen Blixen than Meryl Streep | reviews, news & interviews

There's more to Karen Blixen than Meryl Streep

There's more to Karen Blixen than Meryl Streep

A new play celebrates the Danish storyteller. Its adapter explores her unique appeal

Karen Blixen: out of Africa

Karen Blixen (1885-1962), the prolific Danish storyteller, is perhaps most immediately recognised for the portrayal of her and her works on the big screen, above all by Meryl Streep in Out of Africa. But her own story, and her place in the literary canon, can often be overlooked.

Over the past three years I’ve been working closely with Riotous Company on Out of Blixen, a production exploring the many sides to Blixen and the rich layers of her tales. It is directed by and stars Kathryn Hunter (pictured below in rehearsal, by Dan Fearon).

Blixen’s life is ripe for theatrical interpretation. She herself played many characters during her life, publishing under multiple pseudonyms, most exhaustively as Isak Dinesen. She lived in Kenya for many years and single-handedly managed a coffee plantation. Her love affairs and in particular her intense relationship with Denys Finch Hatton are well documented. She was also a society figure mixing with the celebrities of her day including Maria Callas, Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller. In later years, having returned to Denmark in 1931, her health deteriorated but her powers as a writer never waned.

Kathryn Hunter, Out of BlixenAll of Blixen’s stories grip you – what is going to happen next? All of them evoke an intriguing atmosphere and sense of place. Whether it's a rough bar in a seaport, the opulent boudoir in a country mansion, or the cloistered solitude of an abbey, Blixen takes you there on her magic carpet. Many of her stories are set in the 18th and 19th century but they feel like they belong as much to dreamtime as to any historical period.

In spite of this sense of enchantment and of a parallel universe, Blixen's gaze is detached, unflinchingly trained on the violence, eroticism and disturbed mental states which lie below the surface. Everything is presented with great, even classical control lending her prose a rationalist, 18th-century feel. But this very control, together with her search for the right word and her terse descriptive powers, allows her the license to delve all the deeper into the darkness of the human psyche.

It's a perverse, even cruel place which is laid bare but also echoes with laughter. Displaying irony and wit, Blixen is like a dandy dancing over the abyss – a pierrot or clown entering the lion’s den.

It’s this sense of risk and playfulness which gives her work a very modernist sensibility. This is further reflected in the innovative form and structure of the stories. Many of them are stories-within-stories, a Chinese-box effect which plays with the reader’s sense of the real – especially when tales are told not just by one but several narrators.

The shifting tone is further enhanced by the seamless way in which Blixen weaves together mythology, folklore and the ancient story-telling traditions of the Bible and the Arabian Nights. Then there is the range of her political and philosophical reference, drawing in particular on the feminism which began to emerge out of the 18th-century Enlightenment. (Pictured below: Blixen's study in the Karen Blixen Museum in Denmark. Photograph by Jens Lindhe).

BKaren Blixen studyut she also embraced what has been called the Dark Enlightenment, the revival of interest in magic, hermeticism and the occult. Her work teems with characters who are magicians and witches. She once described herself as a witch. But she was also very aware of the tawdry, fake side of magic – reflected in all those mountebanks, charlatans and tricksters who also populate her work. There is a thin line between the artist and the con artist, between Jesus the miracle worker and Simon Magus the magician for hire. Along this thin line Blixen drives a coach and horses, all the while its occupants conveying stories to each other.

Blixen knew that as a writer she could never return to the oral tradition of story-telling. But she does evoke it, particularly the female tradition of the pre-literate storyteller in "The Blank Page". Women, like their male counterparts – sailors, ploughmen and masons – would tell stories while they worked, weaving cloth and spinning yarns. Textiles and the text: they share the same etymological root, the story and the cloth, the narrator and the weaver. Blixen’s typewriter is her loom.

  • Out of Blixen adapted by Paul Tickell is at The Print Room at the Coronet from 3 to 22 April. Babette’s Feast, adapted by Glyn Maxwell from Karen Blixen’s short story, follows from 8 May to 3 June
  • Read more First Person articles on theartsdesk

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