In London in 2003 Henrik Ibsen enjoys a popularity
equal to that of Shakespeare, with impressive productions
that shed new
light on the well- and lesser-known works and reveal the playwright’s
timeless appeal. Produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company
and directed by Adrian Noble, “Brand,” with
Ralph Fiennes in the title role, is Ibsen’s powerful early play,
developed from his long prose poem and produced in 1866 when he
became the official playwright of a liberal theater in Bergen.
A missionary preacher, Brand interprets God as a harsh warrior,
demanding “all or nothing” from his flock. His deity is hard,
as Brand is himself, attacking the complacency and spiritual poverty
of his parishioners. Only in the final scene, in an anguished soliloquy,
does he doubt the convictions that have led him to sacrifice his
wife and child, to refuse final rites to his mother, and to alienate
his followers who stone him and desert him to die on the mountain.
“The Lady from the Sea,” another poetic work,
seen at the Almeida Theatre, stars Natasha Richardson in the title
role of a mermaid respectably married but longing for her lost love
and the sea that was her home. When the former lover appears,
she is forced to choose between the two men - - the romantic
and the practical. A production of “Peer Gynt” by Israeli
director David Levin demonstrated that this difficult, picaresque
work can be successfully staged, as Peer is followed through his
travels, and his disillusionment, in the world. “The Master
Builder” saw Patrick Stewart in the title role as the renown
architect who fears he is losing his grip and will be replaced by
ambitious younger members of his profession.
Henrik Ibsen, who was to influence such later
playwrights as Shaw, O'Neill, and Miller, was born in Skien, Norway,
in 1828 into a middle-class, prosperous family. But by the time
he was eight, his father, a businessman and speculator, had gone
into bankruptcy. Henrik was apprenticed to a druggist (chemist)
in Grimstadt, rose to assistant chemist, and prepared for university
entrance. He wrote poetry and in 1840 completed his
first play, "Cataline," a verse drama about a Roman in
conflict with his government.
At the university he studied literature
and philosophy, and then became interested in and associated with
liberal and socialist causes. This led to a progressive theater
in Bergen offering him a position as official playwright.
His first work for them was "Brand." Shaw,
the supporter and promoter of Ibsen in England, notes that Brand
"dies a saint, having caused more intense suffering by his
saintliness than the most talent sinner could possibly have done
with twice his opportunities."
"Peer Gynt," a picaresque fantasy was
followed by "The Pillars of Society," in which the first
of Ibsen's modern women appears -- Lona Hessell, who has a mind
of her own and does not rely on male protection. In 1879 "A
Doll's House" brought Ibsen into the forefront of the movement
for the emancipation of women. At the end of the play, when
Nora walks out on her close-minded, domineering husband Torvald,
the first-night audience remained in their seats; not believing
this is the end, they were waiting for a reconciliation.
The audience was shocked again by the subject
matter of "Ghosts," -- venereal disease.
The play concerns the damage done to a woman by strict adherence
to the conventions of marriage, regardless of the circumstances.
Married to a profligate husband, whose excesses she discovers soon
after the wedding, she flees to Pastor Manders for refuge.
Despite their affection for each other, Manders encourages her to
return to Alving and preserve the marriage. To save their
son, Oswald, from learning the truth about his father, she sends
the boy away to school, and creates for him and the community at
large an image of Alving as an upstanding philanthropist and citizen.
Pastor Manders encourages this endeavor.
As the action begins, Oswald, now grown but in
ill health, returns home for the dedication of an orphanage in the
name of his father, perpetuating the myth of Alving’s virtues.
Manders, who has handled the details of the building, arrives to
welcome Oswald, and although the parson has not changed his narrow
views over the years, Mrs. Alving has read liberal publications
and has widened her outlook – she is the New Woman. But she
is trapped once again, as Oswald’s illness increases and his symptoms
reveal that he has inherited the venereal disease of his father.
A brilliant production in London in the summer
of 2001 starred Francesca Annis as Mrs. Alving and Anthony Andrews
as Parson Manders. In their memorable encounter, in which
we learn how the years have affected each of them, these expert
actors revealed hidden depths of feeling through their nuances in
speech and gesture. In the final scene, when Oswald
pleads for euthanasia, Annis was brilliant as his anguished mother.
"An Enemy of the People" was seen in
an excellent production at the Royal National Theatre in London
with Ian McKellen as Dr. Stockman. The play was adapted by
Arthur Miller as a stage vehicle for Fredric March and Florence
Eldridge when the pair was attacked by the House Un-American Activities
Committee and banned from making films. The Miller version was screened
in 1977 with Steve McQueen as Stockman, Bibi Andersson as his wife,
and Charles Durning as his brother.
Stockman believes, wrongly, that the citizens
will thank him for revealing his discovery that the town's beneficial
waters and baths, a tourist draw, are actually contaminated.
Despite protests from the townspeople and his brother, the mayor,
Stockman persists with his crusade and becomes an enemy of the people.
“The Wild Duck" and "Hedda Gabler"
are considered Ibsen's masterpieces. In the former work, the
Ekdal family lives happily with its illusions, until Gregers Werle,
much like Hickey in "The Iceman Cometh" insists on destroying
those illusions. As Miller was to do later, Ibsen combines
poetry and realism in this work, the lyricism centering upon the
Ekdal daughter, Hedwig, and her grandfather, who create an illusory
world in the attic, where they keep a wild duck. Ibsen's compassion
extends to all of the characters, even Werle, whose revelations
of past secrets destroy the family.
"Hedda Gabler" is the tragedy of a
woman destroyed by her frustrations. In the times in which
she lives, she finds no outlet for her mind or her energy except
in petty gratifications, like put-downs of her husband's well-meaning
aunt. She obtains the fine home, comfort, and security she
desires in the only way open to women then -- she marries.
But the mild-mannered, scholarly Tesman is hardly a match for the
fiery Hedda -- General Gabler's daughter.
She believes that a university professorship
for Tesman might bring some distinction to
their marriage, but that hope is jeopardized by the arrival of her
old flame, Lovborg, a scholar bearing a highly original manuscript
that could assure him of the professorship. Jealous
of her rival, Thea Elvsted, an independent woman who has assisted
Lovborg with the manuscript, Hedda burns the only copy of their
joint creation: "Now I am burning your child, Thea. You,
with your curly hair. . . .Your child and Ejlert Lovborg's…I'm burning
it -- burning your child."
The creation of Hedda is so complete and complex
as to be frightening, so convincingly has Ibsen drawn her.
In addition, Ibsen reveals compassion for Hedda as well as for those
who surround her. As a star vehicle the play is often performed.
Fiona Shaw gave a memorable performance in this demanding part,
and most recently “Hedda Gabler” was seen on Broadway with Kate
Burton in the title role.
Arthur Miller has pointed out how important it
is for a playwright to recognize, as Ibsen does (and Miller) that
the past has shaped the characters and action about which he writes.
Too many plays, complains Miller, drop their characters into the
middle of the present, with no sense of the past or how they became
as they are. "The Price" is a good example of Miller’s
using the past to explain the present.
Ibsen's later plays include "The Master
Builder," on the theme of ambitious youth succeeding age reluctant
to relinquish its power, and "John Gabriel Borkman."
“The Master Builder” most recently in London stars Patrick Stewart
as Halvard Solness, a renowned master builder obsessed with building
tall spires for his new house. The aging Solness fears his
younger rivals even as he is inspired by youthful Hilde Wanger.
“John Gabriel Borkman” was given a memorable production recently
at the Royal National in London with Paul Scofield as the failed
financier Borkman, Eileen Atkins as his determined wife, and Vanessa
Redgrave as her frustrated sister, with whom Borkman was formerly
in love. Now the sisters struggle over the fate of the Borkman
son, as the father dreams of regaining his former reputation and
After suffering two debilitating strokes,
Ibsen died in 1906, leaving behind great plays to captivate and
hold audiences of today and a legacy that affects almost every major
playwright who followed him.