The Taming of the Turk
The Taming of the Turk
PERCEPTIONS OF 'THE TURK'
The springboard for this book is dramaturgic. It all began with the Danish playwright Ludvig Holberg (1684–1754). In 2006, as one in a series of new interpretations of Holberg's plays, Danish regional Aarhus Theatre produced the little-known tragicomedy Melampe (1724). 1 During the preparatory process, it gradually became clear that a crucial key to understanding the plot – which takes place among aristocratic circles in Southern Italy and is played out in high-flown Alexandrine verse – is the absence of the head of the family, brave Pandolfus senior, for the very reason that he is involved in battles between Christians and Muslims in North Africa. This is stated in Holberg's script. We also know that shackled Turkish and Moorish prisoners of war appeared on the eighteenth-century Danish stage performance of this tragicomedy. These surprising, but on the face of it somewhat peripheral, details provoked a more thorough enquiry. One line of investigation led back to passages about fear of the Turk in Holberg's comic epos Peder Paars (1719–1720); and this led even further back to the writings of Martin Luther (1483–1546), which proved to be of fundamental significance for various identifications of 'the Turk' as figure of fear in a larger world drama stemming from religious concepts, and also with ramifications for secular power configuration.
Fig. 1 Scenefoto of Ludvig Holberg's tragicomedy Melampe . Aarhus Theatre, 2006. Merete Hegner as Dorothea, flanked by Rolf Hansen and Pelle Nordhøj Kann as Turkish prisoners of war. Photo: Jan Jul.
This world drama is sustained by an eschatological temporality – with a term derived from the Greek word eschatos , meaning 'last' and denoting a view that treats of the end times, the Second Coming of Christ and the Day of Judgement – critical events that can be presented in an apocalypse, an exposition of the ultimate count-down.
At the root of the universal drama, therefore, was a perception of history as a process, a battle between divergent forces working their way towards a definitive outcome: resolution of conflict, the restoration of order. This particular reading of time, discord, development and final destination, which is fundamentally dramaturgic, is very much culture-based. The idea that history has an objective and a purpose runs deep. It even influences the writing of history, which at some level must involve a dramaturgy, a lens that sees one element as being more important than another element.
The year after our Melampe production, I was working on the libretto to Jens Baggesen's and F.L.Æ. Kunzen's opera Holger Danske (1789; 'Holger the Dane'), in which the 'Turkish' dimension is highly relevant to the plot. The eponymous hero is in conflict with more than one sultan. I learned, to my surprise, that confrontation with the Turk was not just something that took place on stage, an element of the plot. Denmark as warring party during the period under consideration was also in a formal state of war with Turkey. This was not an area within the scope of my historical compass, to say the least.
The accumulation of connections between the stage references on the one hand and an underexposed historiography of the nation's dealings with an Ottoman Empire on the other, became so insistent that a more comprehensive reading of the different forms of material available was inevitable – and this material ended up stretching from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century.
THEM AND US
The term 'the Turk' has now been used several times. It denotes the image of an exotic or threatening figure that features in, for exampl