Anybody else out there carrying around the idea that Henrik Ibsen introduced something called “realism” to the stage? Plays were, for a long time, not realistic, and then Ibsen produced – I’m not sure which ones – A Doll’s House and The Wild Duck, let’s say, and then Shaw and Chekhov and other playwrights of a similar temperament took notice and thus was melodrama and nonsense banished from the legitimate theater, replaced by somber realism.
I think there is some truth to what I just wrote. Shaw and company really were inspired, partly, by Ibsen to do whatever it was they did. I do not know Ibsen well, and had not read any of his plays before last year; when I did, I could see the path the realists followed. The puzzle was: how did the realists escape all of the trolls hiding along the path? Ibsen’s plays, it turns out, are full of trolls.
Hey! Have you heard?
The priest’s flown away.
And now the throngs
of dwarfs and trolls,
all swart and spry
swarm on the hills.
The spiteful things,
they scratched my eyes,
look! with their claws. (near the end of Act 3)
The speaker here is Gerd, herself half-troll, the visionary madwoman of Ibsen’s Brand (1866). The title character is the priest, a uncompromising hellfire preacher who destroys all who come near him as part of his service to, or his mortal struggle with, God. I believe there is room for interpretation here. The novel – I mean play, or poem - ends with Gerd discovering that Brand, purged of all earthly remnants, is in fact Jesus Christ, with the unsettling consequences one might expect. Brand is some sort of anti-troll, all too attuned to the world’s trollishness.
I’m not sure what a troll is. I have not even read D’Aulaires’ Book of Trolls. They are easy to recognize, though. They are the characters who appear to be human but are not – Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, for example, or Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, destructive and chaotic, creatures whose presence in in the human world appears to be some sort of error. They make good villains, even if they are somehow too primitive to be genuinely evil (evil is a human quality). Quilp, from The Old Curiosity Shop, is a troll.
I am actually reading Brand and Peer Gynt (1867) because of Jarry, because of Ubu. Alfred Jarry translated Peer Gynt and actively tried to get it performed. Père Ubu, Jarry’s great creation, is himself something of a troll, as is the protagonist of his Rabelaisian anti-philosophical novel, The Exploits & Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician. Not that any of this matters much, except that there seem to be other paths leading away from Ibsen that have nothing whatsoever to do with “realism.”
The Geoffrey Hill adaptation of Brand that I am reading is, as an aside, spectacularly good.