My Thoroughly Modern Ibsen

By Adamson, Samuel | The Independent (London, England), January 15, 2009 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

My Thoroughly Modern Ibsen

Adamson, Samuel, The Independent (London, England)

It was written in 19th-century Norway, but for the playwright Samuel Adamson, Little Eyolf speaks volumes about 1950s Britain. Here, he explains why he gave it a makeover

In 2005, I wrote an English-language version of Henrik Ibsen's early play Pillars of the Community for the National Theatre. Pillars has a problematic last act, one that is almost impossible to play straight. Bernick, the central character, is a Judas to his wife, son and town. Then he is rehabilitated by the noble example of an old girlfriend. All her goodness rubbed off on him, he confesses his crimes publicly, promises change, begs forgiveness. It's a remarkable turnaround, and every member of the community, including the girlfriend, believes it. Given that Bernick was prepared to send his brother-in-law to certain death in a dodgy ship - the one crime he neglects to admit - it's hard for an audience to accept that no one sees through him, which might account for the play's chequered performance history.

There are hints, however, that Ibsen's instinct was to write something more complex. Early drafts reveal that he cut lines that would have undermined the straightforward idealism of his chosen final ending. It is possible that he wanted his audience to question the authenticity of Bernick's transformation from bad man to good, but then lost his bottle.

After discussions with Marianne Elliott, who directed the play at the National, I decided to insert some of the draft lines into my version. Not many - just over 30. But, combined with a few cuts and a reordering of a key scene, they gave us a playable text. The girlfriend was freed from her Pollyannaism, a new layer of irony was revealed, and the actor Damian Lewis was able to locate the wily politician within Bernick and give a champion Tony Blair impression.

The experience of reworking the final act of Pillars got Marianne thinking. After the production closed, she asked if I'd consider adapting Ibsen in a more radical way, perhaps by imagining one of his plays as a window on to a place and time that wasn't Norway of the 19th century.

I'd been asked to do something similar before, a Noughties update of A Doll's House, that famous play in which Nora slams the door on her husband so she can make sense of the world. But Noughties Noras don't have to leave men in order to make sense of things - thanks, in part, to the original Nora - so I couldn't work out what she'd be slamming the door upon. I decided A Doll's House should be left alone - though I did wonder, briefly, if it could be set in the 1950s.

The 1950s bubbled-up again after I told Marianne I was going to look at Ibsen's later plays. In these symbolist works, ageing artists attempt to navigate the expansive landscapes of the soul, and are forever threatened by avalanches, real and imagined. They are challenging pieces, and two of them, Little Eyolf and When We Dead Awaken, are rarely performed. One day in September 2006 I found myself reading John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos, in which a green and pleasant Fifties England is threatened by a strange new outside force that undermines her self-confidence. Soon after, I put fingers to the keyboard. The scene was a kitchen fitted with fancy appliances, in a house not far from the sea. A white woman, Rita, was reading Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids. A black boy, George, entered and told her he'd just seen a crone called the Rat Wife. Rita was a character by Ibsen, from Little Eyolf. George was my own creation.

Various things about this scenario would change over the following months, but at that point the important thing was that I had two characters who were interacting with each other. The source was Eyolf, but the time was 1955, and the place, England. I gave Rita a new surname and Mrs Affleck was born. By the end of the year I'd completed a rough first draft of act one. I emailed it to Marianne.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

My Thoroughly Modern Ibsen


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?