Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Hey! Have you heard? Throngs of dwarfs and trolls swarm on the hills.

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.


  1. We went to a production of Peer Gynt and left at intermission. I think the plays with trolls in them are all from the first half of his career. The more 'realist' work is all later, yes?

    I can recommend The Master Builder and The Enemy of the People. We saw a production of Ghosts a few years ago that remains one of the best things we've ever seen in a theatre. I've only ever read Doll's House, not seen it.

    Doll's House basically set the theatre world on fire. It was never the same afterwards.

  2. Are trolls, then, perhaps "chaotic evil"? I think Heathcliff is probably chaotic evil, not too sure about Hedda Gabler though. Perhaps trolls are just chaotic?

    No idea why the alignment system is on my mind, but perhaps this could be my new shtick. Almayer is I think a lawful neutral, while his wife is a chaotic neutral. Edward Ashburnham--chaotic good? Fun times.

    Anyway, your first point, about Ibsen and realism, I seem to remember from my last high school English class. But I don't remember too much...

  3. For a troll's-eye view, try A.S. Byatt's "The Stone Woman", from her Little Black Book of Stories. A woman turns into an actual stone troll, in that one, and welcomes the experience, mostly.

    George Macdonald did trolls all the time, but again I mean real trolls.

    Hypothesis: all the teachers at Lowood were trolls.

  4. nicole - Hedda, at least, is merely chaotic, but there must be a full range of possibilities. Heathcliff is an evil human, certainly. (Geekish aside: Are any famous characters True Neutral?)

    CB - Hedda Gabler is as trollish as they come. Her play is from 1890. The Master Builder (from 1892) has a long discussion with - I forget which woman (not his wife) - about their trollish natures. Ibsen was not exactly hiding the trolls!

    That does seem plausible, though, that I should blame A Doll's House in particular for a vast swathe of dreary social realism. If only Peer Gynt had set the theater world on fire!

    Jenny - I appreciate the Byatt recommendation, a troll brought up-to-date, very clever.

  5. I studied Ibsen in college (a full semester course) over 25 years ago but nothing since. I read nothing but classics every summer and will definitely read an Ibsen play or two this summer.

  6. A semester of Ibsen. Once upon a time, I would not have thought that would be so much fun. I have completely changed my mind. Peer Gynt, in particular, is unbelievable.

    Thanks for stopping by - I did not know about your blog. I'll have to spend some time there. Very nice.

  7. The social realism begins with the dull The League of Youth but then stretches through a series of plays I think are brilliant (with Ghosts ranking at the very top). It was an interesting choice, I think, to move away from the verse plays and into the realism realm and thus a little further away from the literal trolls...

    Hmm... I want to reread Peer Gynt. I miss Ibsen.

  8. How does the exceedingly trollish (and late) Hedda Gabler fit into that story, though? Or the explicit troll discussion in The Master Builder? Or is the literalness (or non-) the important thing?

    I haven't read Ghosts. I did not detect trolls in The Wild Duck, but I did not detect any particularly realistic "realism" either.

  9. Minimal research suggests that Ibsen wrote a mix of plays in this later part of his career, some more over on the realism \ social problem side, some over on the fantastic dreamy side. I clearly need to read When We Dead Awaken and The Lady from the Sea as well as the plays CB and you, Biblibio, recommend.

  10. I think a True Neutral would just be too boring. But I'm sure we can find one. Maybe some kind of sidekick. Is Dowell a True Neutral? Haha.