THE WINE TREADER
On April 5, 1768, Johann Friedrich Struensee was appointed Royal
Physician to King Christian VII of Denmark, and four years later
Ten years after that, on September 21, 1782, by the time "the
Struensee era" had become a common expression, Robert Murray Keith,
the British ambassador to Copenhagen, reported to his government
about an incident he had witnessed. He considered the incident
That was why he reported it.
He had attended a dramatic performance at the Royal Theater in
Copenhagen. Also in the audience was King Christian VII, along with
Ove Høegh-Guldberg, the actual holder of power in Denmark and
in practice the absolute ruler.
He had assumed the title of "Prime Minister."
The report concerned Ambassador Keith's encounter with the
He begins with his impression of the King's appearance; Christian
VII was only thirty-three years old. "He looks as if he is already
an old man, very short and gaunt, with a sunken face, his
smoldering eyes testifying to the sickly state of his mind." He
writes that before the performance the "mad" King Christian began
wandering around the audience, muttering, his face twitching
Gulberg kept a watchful eye on him the hole time.
The strange this was the relationship between them. It might be
described as that of an orderly and his patient, or a pair of
siblings, or as if Guldberg were the father of an unruly or sick
child; but Keith uses the expression "almost loving."
At the same time, he writes that the two seemed to be united in an
"almost perverse way."
The perverse thing was not that these two, whom he knew had played
such important roles during the Danish revolution, then as enemies,
were now dependent on each other in this way. What was "perverse"
was that the King behaved like a frightened but obedient dog, and
Guldberg his stern but loving master.
His Majesty acted as if he were cringing ingratiatingly, almost
cowering. The members of the courts showed no deference toward the
monarch, but instead ignored him or retreated with a laugh whenever
he approached, as if they wished to avoid his embarrassing
As if he were a difficult child they had tired of long ago.
The only one who took any notice of the King was Guldberg. The King
consistently kept three of four paces behind Guldberg, following
him obsequiously, seeming anxious not to be abandoned. Occasionally
Guldberg, with a gesture or look, would give the King a small
signal. This happened whenever he muttered too loudly, behaved
disruptively, or moved too far away from Guldberg.
At the signal, King Christian would hastily and obediently "come
Once, when the King's muttering was particularly disruptive and
loud, Guldberg went over to him, gently took him by the arm, and
whispered something. The King began bowing mechanically, over and
over, with fitful, almost spastic movements, as if the Danish King
were a dog seeking to declare his utter submission and devotion to
his beloved master. He kept on bowing until Guldberg, with another
whispered remark, brought the peculiar movements of the royal
personage to a halt.
Then Guldberg patted the King on the cheek and was in turn rewarded
with a smile so full of gratitude and submission that Ambassador
Keith's eyes "filled with tears." He writes that the scene was so
charged with despair that it was almost unbearable. He made note of
Guldberg's kindness or, as he writes, "his willingness to take
responsibility for the ill little King," and that the contempt and
derision expressed by the rest of the audience were not evident in
Guldberg. He seemed to be the only one paying any heed to the
Yet there was one recurring expression in the report: "like a dog."
The absolute ruler of Denmark was treated like a dog. The
difference was that Guldberg seems to show a loving sense of
responsibility for this dog.
"To see them together -- and both of them were physically of
remarkably short and stunted stature -- was for me a strange and
unsettling experience, since all power in the land, formally and
practically, emanated from those two peculiar dwarfs."
The report dwells the most, however, on what happened during and
after the theater performance.
In the middle of the play, which was Le Méchant, a
comedy by the French playwright Gresset, King Christian suddenly
got up from his seat in the front row, staggered up onto the stage,
and began behaving as if he were one of the actors. He tool up an
actor's pose and recited what might be assumed to be lines; the
words "tracasserie" and "anthropophagie" were the
only ones distinguishable. Keith took particular note of the
latter, which he knew meant "cannibalism." It was clear that the
King was strongly engaged in the play and believed himself to be
one of the actors, but Guldberg calmly went up on stage and kindly
took the King by the hand. The monarch fell silent at once and
allowed himself to be led back to his seat.
The audience, which consisted solely of members of the court,
seemed accustomed to this type of interruption. No one reacted with
consternation. Scattered laughter could be heard.
After the performance, wine was served. Keith then happened to be
standing near the King. The monarch turned to Keith, whom he had
apparently recognized as the British ambassador, and made a
stammering attempt to explain the central theme of the drama. "The
King told me that the play was about evil existing to such a high
degree among members of the court that they resembled apes or
devils. They rejoiced at others' misfortunes and grieved over their
successes; this was what was called, in the time of the druids,
cannibalism, anthropophagie. That was why we found ourselves
The King's "outburst," coming as it did from a madman, was
extraordinarily well formulated from a linguistic point of
Keith had merely nodded with an expression of interest, as if
everything the King said was interesting and sensible. He did note,
however, that Christian had not given an entirely incorrect
analysis of the satirical content of the play.
The King had spoken in a whisper, as if confiding an important
secret to Keith.
Guldberg, from a distance of a few yards, kept a watchful or uneasy
eye on their conversation. Slowly he approached them.
Christian noticed this and tried to end their conversation. Raising
his voice, almost as if in provocation, he exclaimed:
"They're lying. Lying! Brandt was a clever but wild man. Struensee
was a fine man. I wasn't the one who killed them. Do you
Keith merely bowed in silence.
Christian then added:
"But he's alive! They think he was executed! But Struensee is
alive. Do you know that?"
By this time Guldberg had come so close that he could here the last
words. He took a firm grip on the King's arm and with a stony but
soothing smile he said:
"Struensee is dead, Your Majesty. We know that, don't we?
Don’t we know that? We've agreed on that, haven't we? Haven't
His tone was kindly but reproving. Christian immediately began his
strange, mechanical bowing again but then stopped and said:
"But people talk about the Struensee era, don't they? Not about the
Guldberg era. Struensee's era!!! How odd!!!"
For a moment Guldberg looked at the King in silence, as if he had
been struck dumb and didn't know what to say. Keith noted that he
seemed tense or distressed; then Guldberg pulled himself together
and said quite calmly:
"His Majesty must compose himself. We think His Majesty must soon
retire for the night, to sleep. We are quite sure of this."
He then gave a signal with his hand and withdrew. Christian started
up his manic bowing again, but then stopped; as if in thought, he
turned toward Ambassador Keith and in a voice that was completely
calm and collected said:
"I'm in danger. That's why I must seek out my benefactress who is
the Sovereign of the Universe."
A few minutes later he was gone. This was the incident, in its
entirety, as British Ambassador Keith reported it to his
Excerpted from THE ROYAL PHYSICIAN’S VISIT ©
Copyright 2001 by Per Olov Enquist. Reprinted with permission by
The Overlook Press. All rights reserved.