Ibsen's Legacy: Making the Theater Matter

By Templeton, Joan | Scandinavian Review, Autumn 2006 | Go to article overview

Ibsen's Legacy: Making the Theater Matter


Templeton, Joan, Scandinavian Review


How the great Norwegian writer became the father of modern drama.

HENRK IBSEN'S LEGACY IS, QUITE SIMPLY, THE THEATER as we know it. Ibsen is the father of modern drama, a theater not about "them"-the kings and nobles of Shakespeare and Schiller, the bourgeoisie of Molière-but "us." The great novelty of Ibsen's plays was that they were about people who resembled his audience; his characters spoke the same language, lived in the same sorts of rooms, faced the same sorts of problems, or, quite often, the problems Ibsen wanted them to face.

The notion of an engaged theater that reflects its times is something that we take for granted. But it is a conception that Ibsen almost single-handedly invented. What I want to trace here is what happened to make Ibsen take Western culture's oldest continuing literary form, the drama, and turn it into a forum, how Ibsen, in making the theater matter, became Ibsen.

It has been suggested that Ibsen's radicalism had its roots in his early life, when the privilege into which he was born quickly became poverty. His mother, Marichen Altenburg, a member of Skien's local gentry, had brought wealth to her businessman husband Knud Ibsen. When Henrik was seven, his father's speculations resulted in enormous losses, and the family's property, including their home, Altenburg Manor, was put under the hammer. The Ibsens moved to a small, poor farmhouse, where Henrik and his three younger siblings led a Dickensian life. They walked miles to school in the snow and watched their mother endure the abuse of their father, who drank to escape his disgrace. Ibsen's famous sympathy with women began at home.

Henrik was clever in school and dreamed of going to the Royal Fredrik University in the capital, Christiania. But the family was so poor that there was often nothing to eat but potatoes, and when Henrik turned fourteen, Knut Ibsen decided that it was time he earned a living. He apprenticed his son to an apothecary in Grimstad, a hundred miles down the coast. Henrik arrived there with a trunk full of schoolbooks and no winter coat. He worked fifteen-hour days, then burned his candle deep into the night, reading-Voltaire, very probably Kierkegaard, Shakespeare-and writing. His first play, Catiline is a sympathetic portrayal of the famous Roman conspirator, and its first words, "Jeg maa"-"I must"- now seem a prophecy of their maker's whole career.

When his six-year apprenticeship was over, Ibsen went straight to the capital to try to matriculate at the university. He tried to get Catiline performed, without success, and wrote a second play, this time to comply with the taste of the day. Norway was rediscovering its indigenous Norse past, buried by 400 years of Danish rule, and "National Romanticism" was the prevailing artistic mode. Ibsen's Viking drama, called The Warrior's Barrow, was a slight thing, but it was produced by the Christiania Theater, hungry for "national material." It caught the eye of Ole Bull.

A great figure in Norwegian cultural life, Bull was in the process of founding a National Theater in Norway's second city, Bergen. He offered Ibsen a job as the theater's "dramatic author" and stage manager. Ibsen had failed the university entrance exam-he had tried to learn Latin and Greek by cramming-and he leapt at the chance offered him.

Part of Ibsen's new job was to write plays, and he tried hard, with works based on Norwegian folklore. His one good Bergen play, the historical tragedy Lady Inger of Østråt, was too serious to be successful. But most of the time, Ibsen put on other people's plays, and this meant giving the public what it wanted: translations of popular French farces and banal Danish "vaudevilles." Unsuccessful as a writer, trapped as a theater manager, Ibsen grew more and more unhappy.

One good thing happened in Bergen. Ibsen met Suzannah Thoresen, a courageous, superbly intelligent woman in whom he found his soul-mate and support. …

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