Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Ibsen Triumphant

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Ibsen Triumphant

Article excerpt

WILL IBSEN EVER GET the respect he deserves? Even before he dwindled into the status of dead white European male, he was seen as a fussy writer of nineteenth-century social problem plays, whose very problems seemed old fashioned. Women got the vote, penicillin cures syphilis, even water pollution is getting under control, so who needs Ibsen? Nowhere is this asinine view more prevalent, even today, than in the English-speaking theatre, where few of his plays are ever performed. Those that get done are almost always from his middle period, which has the works that most fit the problem-play stereotype. (Even then, they do not fit it well: Women's voting rights are never mentioned in A Doll's House, for example, nor is syphilis even mentioned by name in Ghosts, while An Enemy of the People is really about the tyranny of the majority rather than about water pollution per se.) Over the past sixty years, starting with M. C. Bradbrook's Ibsen the Norwegian,1 there have been any number of outstanding critical works in English demonstrating that Ibsen was not some cranky pamphleteer but a profound poetic dramatist, the best since Shakespeare. Unfortunately, theatre people rarely read criticism.

Ibsen's natural penchant was for the writing of poetry. Most of his early plays are in verse, written during a period when he produced nondramatic verse as well, including a harsh poem on the death of Abraham Lincoln. He came to prose drama late (the one that made him famous outside Norway, A Doll's House, was actually his sixteenth play, written at the age of fifty-one), retaining in it the symbolism, mysticism, and poetic atmosphere from his earlier period, which are not to be found in the oeuvre of the French social problem playwrights like Augier, Scribe, or Dumas fils. If one of the Frenchmen had written A Doll's House, he would not have put a tarantella in it (in a play set in Norway!), nor set it at Christmastime, nor given us images like the one of Nora's imagined suicide: "Under the ice, maybe? Down in the freezing coal-black water? There, till you float up in the spring, ugly, unrecognizable, with your hair falling out."

One of the greatest plays of Ibsen's earlier, verse-drama period was Brand, an overlooked masterpiece that is hardly ever done. (I had never seen it performed before last summer, despite going to the theatre at least a hundred times a year for over three decades.) The reasons for this are more than just the usual prejudice against Ibsen, crucial as that is. The text is very long (longer than Hamlet), and loaded with allusions to Norwegian politics in the 1860s. (Ibsen was particularly incensed by the failure of Norway to intervene in aid of Denmark in its war with Prussia.) Furthermore, Ibsen specifically wrote Brand as closet drama, as a rebuke to the theatre of his time; it includes elements like a supernatural hawk that turns into an avalanche that engulfs the title character at the end, which is certainly a challenge to show onstage! Nevertheless, the late nineteenth-century theatre regularly depicted spectacular events with painted-on realism, including fires, explosions, volcanic eruptions, and Eliza crossing the ice in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Brand eventually got performed in Ibsen's lifetime.

Brand is a young preacher in an isolated Norwegian coastal town. Disgusted with the bland, palliative Lutheranism of his day, he stresses duty, self-sacrifice, and total commitment. His motto is "All or Nothing." Thus, when his tightfisted mother, who had married Brand's father for his money, is dying, he refuses to go to her unless she renounces her wealth. She offers to give up half her fortune, then nine-tenths, then dies alone. Brand thus sounds like some religious fanatic-he certainly has the passion of one-but his greatest challenges arise when he has to apply his "All or Nothing" creed to himself and his family. His beloved young son dies from the severe climate, for example, because Brand refuses to leave his parishioners in order to take the boy to a warmer country. …

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