Friday, June 6, 2014

I did it for the betterment of society - Ibsen's first four Realist plays

After Pillars of Society comes A Doll House (1879), in which Ibsen definitively invents the realistic play.  Whether he meant to do it, or whether the play takes on a different meaning in the context of his other plays, the deed was done.  A model was now available for other writers to put ordinary people and controversial social issues on the stage in a particular way, and they used it.

The dolls and doll house are used again in The Master Builder (1892).

Next comes Ghosts (1881), which is in some sense about inherited syphilis, all too relevant for its time, although the disease and its symptoms are also the manifestations and thus symbols of all of the other corruption and lies within the family of the characters, especially in the philandering father, another version of the hypocritical center of Pillars of Society.  It is a direct sequel to A Doll House, too – in that play, the wife leaves a bad marriage, while in this one  the wife stays, but with nightmarish consequences.

If any play set Ibsen’s reputation in England, it was this one.  Viewers had to form clubs and have private performances in order to get around obscenity laws.  Shaw, in The Quintessence of Ibsenism, prints two pages of newspaper abuse of Ghosts in order to scourge his enemies.  “Most loathsome of all Ibsen’s plays…  garbage and offal,” like that.  Two highly entertaining pages.

The arson in Ghosts is reused in The Master Builder.  I should stop doing this, but it is almost possible to dismantle any given play in the sequence and distribute its parts among the eleven others.  I won’t go into the strange things Ibsen is doing with the passage of time, either, or with all of the strongly foregrounded symbolism.  While inventing Realism, Ibsen was simultaneously inventing Expressionism.  At some point while reading Ibsen, Eugene O’Neill began to make a lot more sense to me.

The fourth play is An Enemy of the People (1882), which after the intensity of Ghosts is thankfully a comedy of sorts.  Dr. Stockmann discovers that the municipal baths, a great tourist attraction, are contaminated with industrial runoff and sewage.  The pillars of society strike back, though, isolating the brave truth-teller, in part because the town’s commercial and political interests are powerful hypocrites, but also because Stockmann’s scientific certainty has so inflated his ego as to make him unbearable. 

DR. STOCKMANN (lowering his voice).  Shh, don’t talk about it yet – but I’ve made a great discovery.

MRS. STOCKMANN.  What, again?

DR. STOCKMANN.  Yes, why not!  (Gathers them around him and speaks confidentially.)  And the essence of it, you see, is that the strongest man in the world is the one who stands most alone.

MRS. STOCKMANN (smiling and shaking her head).  Oh, Thomas, Thomas -!

PETRA [their idealistic daughter] (buoyantly, gripping his hands).  Father! 

These are the last lines of the play, which ends like a bad sitcom.  Has Stockmann triumphed somehow, or is he about to be destroyed, perhaps just as the curtain falls and the laugh track fades.  I feel even queasier here than at the end of Pillars of Society, where the hypocrite claims to have reformed in the name of the Truth, but who is fool enough to believe him?  The tragic ending of Ghosts is almost unbearable, but these seemingly happier endings are not so easy to take, either.

The title is from Act I of Pillars of Society.


  1. MRS. STOCKMANN. What, again?

    DR. STOCKMANN. Yes, why not!

    That's a rich comeback. So much about him is said with so little. You're getting me to look for editions to buy.

  2. Good, that's how I see it. You begin to worry for the doctor's mental health.

    I would love to see what you get out of Ibsen - what you see of Ibsen in Albee, for example.

  3. "so inflated his ego as to make him unbearable"

    I've only seen (or read) one Ibsen play, but one thing that caught my eye when watching "A Doll's House" last winter is how every character is full of pride, full to a dangerous and destructive amount. I'll have to find our volume of Ibsen; I think it's got "An Enemy of the People," too.

    This series is really good, Tom. I have nothing to add, but I thought I'd put my oar in enough to say I've enjoyed reading it.

  4. Oh, thanks. It's the most loosey-goosey thing I've written in a while. You are 100% right about the way the pride of Ibsen characters keeps blowing up on them, or on someone else.

  5. I've never been able to take the closing lines of "An Enemy of the people" at face value.

  6. They're completely ironic - a little amazing the way this play has so often been taken at face value.