To Shock and Offend

Does Henrik Ibsen still matter? Does the man still count? In any number of ways, the question is absurd, of course. From the strange fantasy of his 1867 Peer Gynt to the grim neurosis of his 1890 Hedda Gabler, the 19th-century Norwegian playwright is as famous as a modern dramatist can be.

He isn’t Shakespeare, but who is? And it used to be common to observe that Ibsen’s plays are performed more often around the world than those of any author other than Shakespeare. If you stumble on a chance to watch a superior production of Racine’s 1677 Phèdre—or Strindberg’s 1888 Miss Julie or Pirandello’s 1921 Six Characters in Search of an Author or any number of other plays once considered classic—you should probably buy a ticket, because a live stage version may not come back around in your lifetime. But if you miss a production of, say, Ibsen’s 1879 A Doll’s House, you needn’t worry. Like Shakespeare’s 1602 Hamlet or (God help us) Arthur Miller’s 1953 The Crucible, you can be sure that somebody somewhere will soon revive it.

And yet … Ibsen. Just to say the name, to roll it around in your mouth, is to recognize that Ibsen is something of a curiosity these days. It’s difficult to describe quite what has become of the man over, say, the past 30 years. He bestrode the earth like a colossus until one day we looked up and saw that, without our really noticing, the giant had grown a little pale. A little ghostly. A lot less substantial than he used to be. He appears on mental lists of the great literary dramatists with the comment, “Oh, sure, Ibsen, of course. Funny, isn’t it, how I forget him?”

Part of the cause may be the shredding of the 19th-century canon. Does a generally educated person still have to know even Dickens? What about Jane Eyre? Madame Bovary? Tennyson’s poetry? Victor Hugo? Pushkin and Dostoyevsky? Ibsen? The internecine struggles of the era’s theater—neoclassical drama versus Romanticism, Realism versus Symbolism—no longer seems to occupy much territory in the course of cultural education.

Another part may be the decline of high theater. What playwright now fills the cultural and intellectual space that, say, George Bernard Shaw or Eugene O’Neill once did? Or even Tennessee Williams? Samuel Beckett? Theater remains popular, especially musical theater, and Tom Stoppard survives, but we generally no longer look to the stage as one of the key artistic places where the great public-intellectual discourse of civilization occurs. Too much of what happens in plays these days is just transient politics that has donned the costume of art.

But the final and perhaps most significant part of the puzzle of Ibsen comes from Ibsen himself. Take, for example, his 1882 drama An Enemy of the People. Or melodrama, perhaps. The play tells the story of Tomas Stockmann, a medical officer in a spa town in Norway. The local hot baths are the major source of the town’s wealth, but Dr. Stockmann has scientifically determined that the water in the baths is causing disease.

That’s news that no one wants to hear, and the townsfolk turn on him, shouting him down as an “enemy of the people” and parading past his house to smash his windows. Fortunately, brave—oh-so-brave—Dr. Stockmann stands up to the mayor, the wealthy investors, his fellow citizens, and even his own family. Proclaiming the need for eugenics and the sterilization of the poor, he announces that he is the only person in town strong enough to stand alone.

George Bernard Shaw saw in such figures as Dr. Stockmann what he would call “the quintessence of Ibsenism”: a drama, structured as social realism, in which a great figure battles ignorance, indifference, and outdated morality. But if that is, in fact, the central motif of Ibsen, then who needs Ibsen? Perhaps that seemed daring art in the 1880s, but these days the motif is hackneyed, the settings seem dated, and the “advanced ideas” of Dr. Stockmann’s toy Social Darwinism prove mostly an embarrassment.

Ivo de Figueiredo’s newly translated biography, Henrik Ibsen: The Man and the Mask, is unlikely to resolve the puzzle of Ibsen. Even though condensed into one long, dense volume from the two-volume Norwegian edition, Figueiredo’s work should stand for many years as the definitive account of the playwright’s life, from his 1828 birth in the obscure reaches of Norway to his death in 1906 as one of the most grandly lionized literary figures of Europe.

Figueiredo helpfully summarizes Ibsen’s works, providing the range of interpretations suggested by critics for each of the plays and pointing out the ambiguities Ibsen wrote into the text. The biography proves especially helpful with the plays less known to English audiences. The 1866 Brand, for example, was Ibsen’s 11th completed play, and although it proved his breakthrough to his first fame after its performance in the national capital, it never had the popularity abroad of such later plays as Ghosts (1881), The Wild Duck (1884), or the inescapable Hedda Gabler.

Through the course of Figuelredo’s book, Ibsen emerges as a bothersome figure: a man diminished by his biography. He required his wife and son to leave the house each morning, wandering around the block, so he could work undisturbed. He abandoned the mistress and child of his youth, without a glance back. Ibsen always wanted his plays to shock and offend, which they did: Ghosts revolving around (a medically unlikely) syphilis, and Rosmersholm (1886) around adultery. In A Doll’s House, he wrote a dour drama designed to offend conservatives, and in The League of Youth (1869) he wrote a fast-paced comedy designed to offend radicals (who rioted in response). But while he was trying to shock and offend, he was also busy grubbing for honors, constantly soliciting medals and decorations from every government in Europe.

He often cast his characters as psychological types in way that lured later critics to read him as a kind of proto-Freud: the artist as the deep observer of the hidden structures of the human mind. Hedda Gabler and Hilda Wangel (in the 1892 Master Builder) are both fascinated by the intersection of sex and death, deep in the subconscious. In Ibsen’s last and most symbolic play, When We Dead Awaken (1899), the aging artist Arnold Rubek is reunited with his long-lost model Irena, and at the play’s end they climb together out of the audience’s sight toward something—sex? death? heaven?—in the mountains of Norway.

Perhaps the melodrama of it all is what hasn’t aged well. Suicides and secret adulterers, tyrannical men and shrewish women, brave loners and sweaty conformists: Ibsen’s employment of such useful characters in his plots was so successful that we no longer need Ibsen for them. They’re the stock characters of after-school specials, these days.

But then there’s Peer Gynt, Ibsen’s second triumph (after Brand) and by far his strangest play. Edvard Grieg wrote his famous Peer Gynt Suite originally as incidental music for the production, and even that fact reveals something of the play’s peculiarity. With its rapid scene changes, almost inexplicable plot twists, and indecipherable message, the play took a Scandinavian folk tale and made it into a story: a Falstaff made young and weirdly attractive to the female characters whose underappreciated solicitude carries him through his adventures. Given how difficult it is to stage, Peer Gynt may not be a great play. But it is great literature—the part of Ibsen to which the mind recurs, after such social-problem dramas as Ghosts, A Doll’s House, and An Enemy of the People have faded away.

And surely that’s enough, just by itself, to say that, yes, Ibsen matters. Still.

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