A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

Henrik Ibsen

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 power.

 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.