Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Henrik Ibsen ground work - the strange plays in the middle

Henrik Ibsen escaped a narrow little town much like (or so I imagine) the one in Kielland’s Skipper Worse.  His plays began to be performed when he was only twenty-two years old, and he was employed as playwright-in-residence at a theater company by age twenty-three.

This should be where my interest in Ibsen begins, but I have not come across an Ibsen scholar who has not steered me away from his first ten plays, mostly pastiches of Norwegian history or Viking sagas modeled on the history plays of Schiller and Shakespeare.  Too specialized for non-specialists.  And not all that good, even though one is titled The Vikings of Helgeland, which seems like a sure thing, but I guess not.

But no, the plays mostly flopped and Ibsen’s theater went bankrupt.  So he escaped again.  In 1864 he went to Italy with the help of a government art’s grant.  Inspired by the Italian air, or Roman antiquities, or a crisis of vocation, Ibsen quickly wrote a pair of verse drama masterpieces, Brand (1866) and Peer Gynt (1867) that made his name in Norway; a related closet drama, Emperor and Galilean followed in 1873 – it has ten acts, so I am assuming a big closet.

Now, finally, we get to the so-called “realist” plays that revolutionized theater around the world, Hedda Gabler and Ghosts and so on, twelve plays in twenty-three years.  To see what Shaw and O’Neill and Schnitzler are doing, these are the plays that will be helpful.  Those earlier plays are off in their own world, maybe even, in retrospect, dead ends.

But they are so good!  So I would like to spend a little time writing about them.  I wrote about Brand a bit a couple of years ago, a post about trolls and another about martyrdom, both posts shadowed by Alfred Jarry’s Ubu plays, which make explicit reference to Peer Gynt, perhaps even in Père Ubu’s name.  I have come at Ibsen from the wrong direction, from Jarry’s travesties rather than Shaw’s social reform.  Of course I am suspicious of received ideas about Ibsen.  Of course Peer Gynt is not a dead end.

I read Brand in Geoffrey Hill’s version, so it is trimmed but in first-rate verse.  Peer Gynt is Rolf Fjelde’s, Emperor and Galilean by Brian Johnston, two premier Ibsen scholars presenting every word of these long, crazy plays, leaving the dirty work of cuts to stage directors so I could enjoy the whole thing.

All right, good to get this out of the way.  Next, text.


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    And so you should be. Ibsen is still widely regarded as a "social dramatist" - who dramatised social issues. Even in the small handful of plays for which this is true (Pillars of Society, A Doll's House, Enemy of the People, and, possibly, Ghosts) it's only a small part of the truth.

    And it's a bit strange that it's GBS, perhaps more than anyone, who is responsible for this perception. In his other writings on Ibsen (collected in "Theatre of the Nineties") he is actually very perceptive, but in his most well-known work on Ibsen, "The Quintessence of Ibsen", he presented Ibsen as a sort of forerunner of himself, and popularised that view of Ibsen as primarily a social writer.

    Michael Meyer translates "Peer Gynt" in full, but "Brand" in a "performance version" - i.e. cut. Both plays are translated in full by James McFarlane in the Oxford edition (but that's hard to get hold of). I agree that Geoffrey Hill's version of "Brand" is exquisite.

    Both "Brand" and "Peer Gynt" are closet dramas: both need to be cut drastically to fit into a single evening's performance. It's strange that not having to write specifically for the stage seemed to free Ibsen's imagination. But even so, that imagination remained theatrical: both plays work superbly when staged in sensitively cut versions.

    Brand and Peer Gynt seem to epitomise opposites - Brand as the idealist who refuses to compromise on any point, and Peer Gynt as the man happy to put on whichever mask is closest to hand. And these two opposites seem to haunt Ibsen's subsequent works - most obviously, perhaps, in "The Wild Duck". Of course, after these two verse dramas, Ibsen embarked on a sequence of "realistic" prose dramasm but by the time he came to writing the last of these plays, "When We Dead Awaken", he seems to have gone back full circle: although it's in prose, it seems to inhabit the poetic landscape of Brand and of Peer Gynt.

    As for that very strange two-parter, "Emperor and Galilean", I tend to think of it in much the same way as I think of Flaubert's "Salammbô": just as Flaubert needed to get all that exoticism and exuberance and garish colours out of his system so he could focus on bored provincial housewives and aimless young men around Paris, so Ibsen too had to get similar things out of his system before he could focus on his doll's houses and master builders.

    There's another very strange play written at around the same time as "Emperor and Galilean" - "The Pretenders", a frankly rather heavy-handed and turgid historic drama. Good job he decided thereafter not to bother with historic epics any more.

    Finally, something that has long puzzled me: Why does Henry James evoke Ibsen in naming his most evil creation Peter Quint? I don't believe for a minute that the closeness of the names Peer Gynt/Peter Quint was a coincidence, but I never could figure out the connection.

  2. Incidentally - the bit of your post I had quoted in my comment (but obviously I shouldn'thave quited within <>)was:

    "Of course I am suspicious of received ideas about Ibsen."

  3. Can I just divvy up your comment into three or four pieces, pump in some filler, and take the rest of the off? I will put in some direct quotes, too. That ought to do it.

    I like the idea that Emperor and Galilean is like Salammbô. They are also alike in that they are both awesome. E&G is pushing the same ideas as Brand and Peer Gynt. It is all very Hegelian. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis, etc.

    The timelime in The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen puts The Pretenders a decade before E&G, so before Brand, and therefore in the "dismiss with a nod" pile. It is also (now quoting, p. 18), "indisputably the most important example of historical drama in Norwegian literature." I think I will have to leave that one to the Norwegians.

    Here you can see a genial madman claiming that the James villain is based on Shaw (so there's your Ibsen connection).

    1. It's interesting that people find a Peter Quint/Peer Gynt association. I'd always assumed the obvious echo of Peter Quince, author of "The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe"- another unsuccessful play- was the unconscious source...

    2. The dialectic is working. We have a thesis and an anithesis - what literary reference will provide the synthesis of Ibsen and Shakespeare?

  4. The plot thickens! I hadn't considered Peter Quince, but now you mention it ...

    So Ibsen named his character after the unsuccessful playwright in Midsummer Nigh's Dream, and henry James named his character after Shakespeare, orIbsen, or both. No - the threads are disparate for synthesis.

    But I do like the idea of GBS as Peter Quint!

  5. "I hadn't considered Peter Quince, but now you mention it ..."

    Of course, sometimes a coincidence is only a coincidence.
    What would be the Norwegian for Peter Quince- both as transliteration and translation?

  6. The miracle - or curse - of the internet is that I immediately had to look this up.

    Peter is Peter, Petter, Per, Pelle, Peder

    Quince is "kvede".

  7. Some say that Ibsen based his play on a Norwegian folktale, Per Gynt, about a 17th. Century deer hunter:

  8. I think that's right, although Ibsen sent his publisher a letter that confuses the issue:

    "Peer Gynt is a real person who lived in Gudbrandsdal, probably at the end of the last, or the beginning of this century. His name is still well know among the people up there, but nothing in particular is remembered of his doings, beyond what is to be found in Asbjørnsen's Norwegian Folk tales." (Fjelde's Peer Gynt, xv)

    Maybe Ibsen just confused the centuries, or maybe he is obfuscating.

    One of the best things in the play is in Act V, when Peer Gynt returns to Norway after decades and discovers that his youthful adventures and stories / lies have turned into folk tales.

  9. "Peer Gynt is a real person who lived in Gudbrandsdal, probably at the end of the last, or the beginning of this century. His name is still well know among the people up there, but nothing in particular is remembered of his doings, beyond what is to be found in Asbjørnsen's Norwegian Folk tales."
    Peer Gynt was published in 1867. If what Ibsen said was true about when he lived there would still be people who knew him or had very close connexions with him alive as Ibsen wrote.
    Looks very like obfuscation.

  10. Obfuscation is likely. Author's are always obscuring their sources.