Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906): the great dramatist of the modern world 

Henrik Ibsen has been much misrepresented, especially in Britain.  His contemporaries tended to see him as the master anatomist of decadence and disease, and read his plays with a mixture of guilty recognition and spluttering outrage.  Bernard Shaw in The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891) tried to claim him as a playwright in his own image, eager to address the great social issues of the day.  Taking Shaw’s lead, feminists and reformers hailed him as a champion of women’s rights and a new model of living, while the British theatre staged him, initially, as an earnest, bespectacled do-gooder and, more recently, as the prophet of a new kind of theatrical expressionism.

But Ibsen resists such simplification.  He was above all—as he forcefully protested—‘more of a poet and less of a social philosopher than people generally seem inclined to believe.’  His great cycle of realistic plays—from Pillars of Society (1877) to When We Dead Awaken (1899)—are exquisitely constructed poetic artefacts, but of a very modern kind.  Taking his cue from Emile Zola’s Naturalism in the Theatre (1881), with its stirring declaration that ‘there is more poetry in the little apartment of a bourgeois than in all the empty, worm-eaten palaces of history’, Ibsen committed himself to writing plays about the everyday life of the Norwegian middle classes.

Crucially, Ibsen decided that these plays should be written in the simplest and most everyday language, as he recalled in 1883:

Verse has done the art of drama immeasurable harm.  An artist of the theatre, with a repertoire of contemporary dramatic work, should not willingly speak a line of verse.  Verse will scarcely find any application worth mentioning in the drama of the near future… In the last seven or eight years I have hardly written a single line of verse; instead I have exclusively studied the incomparably more difficult art of writing in the straightforward honest language of reality.

The result was a series of masterpieces that are not self-consciously literary texts: instead, like film scripts, the words are just the tip of the iceberg and the real meaning lies in what happens between people.  And it’s in that spirit that I’ve attempted my own versions, first of The Lady from the Sea and now of Ghosts, in an attempt to break free from the over-explained Victorian cadences of many existing translations, and give talented actors the space to express the depths that lurks so enticingly beneath.

One of the most striking things about Ibsen is that he located his plays in the deeply provincial world of contemporary Norway (which wasn’t an independent country until 1905 and whose population was a mere two million at the time).  Of course, Ibsen was a cosmopolitan figure, who spent twenty-seven years of his life abroad and, as Toril Moi shows in her brilliant study Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism, was in touch with the mainstream developments in European art and philosophy: ‘Il faut être absolument moderne’ demanded Rimbaud in 1873, and Ibsen seems to have heeded his advice.  But the plays themselves are specific in their social milieu, and the characters’ problems and behaviour are particular to the time and place in which they live.  And so it’s difficult to deprive Ibsen of the kind of naturalism which Zola called for, or grant him the kind of ‘universalism’ which is so often claimed for Shakespeare.

It’s important to stress, however, that Ibsen’s naturalism is in no way slavish.  Instead, the plays are drenched with delicate symbolism (a tendency which becomes increasingly marked in the later plays) and he was involved in creating a new kind of poetic drama.  For beneath the smooth surface of his best plays lurks a whole range of jostling theatrical and literary genres: Greek tragedy, the Bible, folk art, Shakespeare, Scandinavian mythology and the eighteenth-century comedy of manners.  Ibsen’s plays are intense works of art, not mere exercises in verisimilitude.

As a result, staging the plays has its own particular challenges.  For my new production of Ghosts, I’ve asked the designer Simon Higlett to take his inspiration from Ibsen’s fellow Norwegian Edvard Munch.  Max Reinhardt commissioned Munch to design Ghosts in Berlin in 1906 (the year of Ibsen’s death), and his numerous sketches and paintings combine practical, three-dimensional naturalism with an amazing intensity of colour and spatial expression.  The result catches the moment when nineteenth-century certainty gave way to the subjectivity and crisis of the early twentieth century, and places in perfect balance the contradictions not just of Ibsen, but of modern culture itself: the scientific against the mythic, the social with the private, and the objective clashing against the subjective.  Reinhardt’s production was a huge success and stayed in the repertoire right through to the 1920s.

But it’s Ibsen’s conception of character—and the philosophical ideas that surround them—that makes the plays so remarkable.  Ibsen was a child of the scientific movement and—like Marx and Darwin—believed that the hidden laws of society and the natural world could be rationally explained.  His subject was the human psyche and, again and again, he asks how people can discover their true selves and become fully rounded human beings.  He recognised that self-realization—what his younger contemporary Freud was to call ‘becoming a person’—is fundamental to psychological wellbeing.  And because he understood that this was especially challenging for women—for whom such opportunities were limited, even as the burdens of duty were enormous—he often granted them a central role, especially in the early plays: A Doll’s House (1879), Ghosts (1881), Rosmersholm (1886) and Hedda Gabler (1890).  He asks the same questions in the later plays—The Master Builder (1892), John Gabriel Borkman (1896) and When We Dead Awaken (1899)—but this time with a male protagonist.

In a crucial letter Ibsen summarised his underlying philosophy:

I believe that none of us can do anything other or anything better than realise ourselves in spirit and in truth.

This pursuit can be found in many areas, personal as well as social, but Ibsen never loses sight of the pain that it can cause and the destruction that is sometimes its inevitable consequence.   At times, especially towards the end of his life, it’s almost as if he is warning us against it.  But with a powerful instinct for tragedy, he shows that this process of self-realization is necessary if the individual is to live truthfully and if society is to be reformed.   In other words, it’s the struggle to be a human being, independent of social convention, which really interests Ibsen, not the repression of one particular group.  To interpret Ibsen as a mere social reformer is not good enough: his vision is much tougher and more austere.

Born in 1828 (more than thirty years before Anton Chekhov) and with his feet firmly planted in the nineteenth century, Ibsen reaches forward into the twentieth—even the twenty-first—century.  With his resolute commitment to carefully crafted, artistically satisfying and psychologically revealing classical drama, he is, at the same time, a great modernist playwright who asks the important modern questions: how can men and women live together on equal terms?  Can scientific truth triumph over superstition?  How do we achieve freedom and happiness in an increasingly fragmented and bewildering world?  And, above all, as Nietzsche was also asking, how is it possible to live a good life when God is dead and there is no hierarchy to tell you what to do?


Stephen Unwin’s production of Ghosts plays at the Rose Theatre, Kingston from 19th September to 12th October, prior to a seven-week national tour.  His version of Ghosts is published by Oberon Books.

The English Touring Theatre is touring Ghosts and for anyone interested in finding out where the show is headed please visit www.ett.org.uk



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