Wednesday, June 4, 2014

We have to stand firm against all this experimentation that a restless age would like to foist on us - Ibsen systems

Yes, that’s the spirit!  What is most curious about Henrik Ibsen’s last twelve plays, from Pillars of Society (1877) through When We Dead Awaken (1899), and including his big chart-toppers like A Doll House (1879), Ghosts (1881), and Hedda Gabler (1890) is the temptation to treat them as a single big work, a thousand page avant garde novel in prose dialogue.  Ibsenists, beginning with George Bernard Shaw in 1891, insist that the plays need to be performed and seen in order, as with Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle.  Has this ever been done?  I did not even read the plays in chronological order, but rather in an order something like most to least famous.

I am certain, as a result, to be hopelessly confused about who appeared and what happened in which play.  Apologies in advance.

Ibsen scholar Brian Johnston has done the most audacious work, building the case that “the twelve plays constituted a single tripartite Cycle whose subject was modern humanity undergoing (in Hegelian terms) a journey of spiritual recollection,” and when he says “Hegelian,” he means it: each play is built around a stage of history as found in Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit.  Johnston took the unusual and admirable step of converting his books and research into a website, Ibsen Voyages, which I have used frequently.  It is full of valuable criticism and information even for the reader who finds the Hegel business laughable on its face.  I am unequipped to evaluate the argument, but am thrilled that it exists, a visionary critic’s mad work on a visionary playwright.

And like I said, the impulse is so common.  George Bernard Shaw finds a sustained ironic assault on bourgeois hypocrisy (“idealism,” he calls it), all detailed with verve in The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891).  Robert Brustein makes Ibsen the founder of the Theatre of Revolt (The Theatre of Revolt, 1964).  Hey Henrik, what are you rebelling against?  Whatta ya got?  “The great task of our time is to blow up all existing institutions – to destroy” – this is from an 1883 description of Ibsen expressing his views at a party, found in footnote 1 on page 38 of Brustein.

Here is the temptation, really.  Less subtle followers of Shaw, or really anyone who reads or sees the play, knows that A Doll House is an early feminist protest against the inequities, legal and social, or marriage.  Thus, Ibsen invents realist theater.  Prose, an ordinary family, a social issue reformed, at least for the audience.  Yet in later plays the actions of the heroine are rerun with different outcomes – she considers suicide; later characters do more than consider; she triumphantly leaves her husband; a later trapped wife stays with hers (admittedly, her alternative is not necessarily freedom but life with a sea troll).  If we think of plot as part of the author’s argument, and in doom-laden plays like these it has to be, allowing multiple outcomes in analogous situations undermines the argument of the earlier plots.

It is almost as if Ibsen invents realistic, socially engaged theater in the first four of the twelve plays, and then, once it is an existing institution, feels the need to blow it up. A grand scheme allows the critic to at least blow up received ideas about the plays.

Luckily, I do not understand Ibsen well enough to have developed any grand scheme of my own, so from this point I will just rummage through the plays themselves.  But they do hook back into each other and I will not resist following the connections, no matter how confusing.

For consistency and sanity, all quotations from these plays will be from Rolf Fjelde’s translations, with page numbers referring to The Complete Major Prose Plays (1978), Farrar Straus Giroux.  The post;s title is from Pillars of Society, Act I, p. 17.


  1. Here’s another way of approaching those last 12 plays:

    In those twin peaks from the middle of his career, “Brand” and “Peer Gynt”, Ibsen had presented a world that was epic, mythic, and full of grand gestures and haunting poetic imagery. Then - conveniently overlooking “Emperor and Galilean”, “The Pretenders” and “The League of Youth” - we get “The Pillars of Society”, the first of twelve plays that in retrospect may be seen as a unified series. But it’s almost as if Ibsen is deliberately and doggedly turning his back on “Peer Gynt” and “Brand”, because this play is different in every way. It is in prose rather than in verse (and the prose is everyday prose); the epic and the mythic have given way to the domestic and the everyday; and, instead of mountains and caverns, deserts and oceans, we are in bourgeois drawing rooms. But in the plays that follow, slowly, bit by bit, we return to the mythic (the white horses of “Rosmersholm”, say); we return to those elements of folklore (the troll-like figure to whom Ellida Wangel had been engaged in “The Lady From the Sea”); to the unconscious (the dream-attic accommodated within the otherwise realist sets of “The Wild Duck”); to those mysterious and elusive poetic imagery that resonate in the mind (those empty rooms and the lost dolls in “The Master Builder”). And we return, bit by bit, we leave the drawing room and go outside where the cold wind blows; and, finally, to the mountain-top itself: the last play “When We Dead Awaken”, ends, as “Brand” had done, back in the mountains, with the protagonists overwhelmed by an avalanche.

    Just consider the single play “Little Eyolf”. Here, we see the movement in microcosm. The first act is in the bourgeois drawing room, looking down on the fjord, and with mountains towering above. In the second act, we are down by the side of the fjord, and the dialogue takes us down deeper still - to the depth of the ocean, where the underwater currents have carried away Eyolf’s corpse. And at the end of this second act, we get one of those haunting images of Ibsen’s - those sea flowers that germinate at the bottom of the ocean, and then shoot up to bloom on the surface. In the third act, we too have shot up: we are now high in the mountains, and a new consciousness begins to bloom.

    Is this viable, do you think? Ibsen creates a visionary world, and then moves as far from it as he can, so he can trace the long journey back towards this world, exploring all those fascinating by-ways along the path, an deepening his vision in the process?

    Brian Johnston’s thesis is intriguing, and fits the earlier plays in the cycle quite well; but as he progresses to those later, more elusive works, the Hegelian model didn’t seem to me to hold quite so well. However, Brand and Peer Gynt can very easily be seen as a Hegelian pair - thesis and antithesis: Brand is utterly inflexible, and Peer Gynt is happy to put on whatever mask appears to be most consistent.

    “A visionary critic’s mad work on a visionary playwright”, you say: it’s hard to disagree!

  2. Since you mentioned the Ring Cycle, may I bore you with a little anecdote?

    Manyyears ago now, i took my brother, a Wagnerian but, at that time, not too knowledgeable on Ibsen, to see "John Gabriel Borkman" at the National Theatre. (It was a fine production, featuring Paul Scofield, Vanessa Redgrave, and Eileen Atkins.) He came out of it saying it was "like the Ring Cycle in miniature". I said there was nothing "miniature" about it. he conceded that he had meant it merely in terms of length.

    So that is the way I have thought of "John Gabriel Borkman" ever since: the Ring Cycle in miniature - at least, in terms of length.

  3. Oh good, you know these plays much better than I do. I have only seen one on stage, a good Hedda Gabler. Feel free to correct, admonish, etc.

    You are describing an Ibsen very close to the one I see. My guess, and it is just that, is that he himself was improvising early on after his radical break, but after writing the first three or four plays Ibsen saw the possibilities of what he was doing, so that much of the structure that follows really is deliberately constructed. The movement from depths to heights, as you described, is not just a recurring motif, but one that is thoughtfully varied and developed.

    I mean, it really is stunning to get to the end of When We Dead Awaken and find that we have returned to Brand!

    Great "comment," Himadri, many thanks.

  4. While English audiences could thank Shaw for promoting Ibsen, I am always wary of Shaw's arguments about drama. In other words, many of his plays are better than his opinions. He may regard Ibsen's second half career work as a whole that must be seen in chronological sequence, he overstates the case and misses the point. By this I mean that each of Ibsen's works stands on its own. Although certain ideas (i.e., Ibsen's POV on trolls and women and foolish men) can be traced through the plays, I prefer to ignore Shaw and focus on Ibsen's successes and near-misses in each work. For example, The Master Builder, The Wild Duck, The Doll House, and Hedda Gabler -- my favorites -- have common threads, each has singular power; conflating them by insisting upon chronological viewing is just silly. But, as so often happens in these things, I could be wrong.

  5. The Ibsenists all do this. E.g., Brian Johnston: "Until Ibsen's claim ['experienced in the order in which they were written'] is accepted and followed through, discussion of the plays, however interesting and informative, will overlook their real achievement."

    RT, you are overlooking their real achievement! Ha ha ha ha!

    In performance, especially, no one, no one at all, is worrying about how the plays work with each other, in order or otherwise. They have to stand on their own, or no one goes to see them.

  6. Alas, AR(T), my ability to overlook matters of importance must not be overlooked. My humble approach to Ibsen (and other writers of drama, poetry, and fiction) is limited in that I am a specialist in nothing and a half-baked generalist in everything related to drama (in which I have a BA) and literature (in which I have an MA). In other words, I know just enough to be dangerously opinionated but not enough to be an overbearing authority. You are right, though, about the performance test. Each play must succeed or fail on its own. Yet, many good plays have been ruined by bad performances, and no poor play has been salvaged by a good performance -- in my humble opinion (one of thousands that I can spew at any given moment). BTW -- I am enjoying your Ibsen posts and the comments. Bring on my favorite Ibsen plays. I wait impatiently.

  7. For a few years I saw every Steppenwolf production in Chicago. The quality of the acting was always first rate. Often, though, I wondered why the actors were wasting their time on such a dud play. And then I would see them do Chekhov - wow! Wow!

  8. May I recommend a set of BBC DVDs called The Ibsen Collection? It contains several Ibsen plays broadcast by the BBC over the years. The highlight is a quite coruscating performance of "Little Eyolf" from the early 80s with Diana Rigg and Antony Hopkins, and with Peggy Ashcroft turning up as the Rat-Wife (a figure straight out of Grimms' fairy tales).

  9. Oooh. Yes, you may recommend that.

    Little Eyolf is full of amazing things. And it is one of the weakest of the twelve.

  10. BTW, although looking closely at an author's biography can lead to critical fallacies, I would urge any reader of Ibsen to study closely his relationships with women (and study those women) throughout his life. Then the reader can more completely "understand" the women and the relationships in Ibsen's plays -- especially the second-half career plays.

  11. That reminds me - have you, RT - has anyone wandering by - read Lou Andreas-Salomé's Ibsen's Heroines (1892)? She builds an interpretive system around the female characters - and she's missing the last 4 plays. It sounds interesting. Ibsen has inspired a lot of interesting criticism.

  12. I do not know the 1892 study, but I cannot too vigorously recommend the Templeton study that I cited previously; the book was a superb revelation to me as it changed my understanding of Ibsen.

  13. I've read Shaw's book without reading a single Ibsen play; needless to say I didn't understand anything. But this:

    (admittedly, her alternative is not necessarily freedom but life with a sea troll).

    Wow, you weren't kidding, Tom, Realistic Ibsen is crazier!

  14. A reader may think that I am imposing something on Ibsen - I have been known to do that - but "sea troll" is in the text.