Which is the hero?

David Edgar

  • Henrik Ibsen by Robert Ferguson
    Cohen, 466 pp, £25.00, November 1996, ISBN 1 86066 078 9

There is little about the charming Hotel Tramontano in Sorrento to indicate quite what inspired Henrik Ibsen to write a play about congenital syphilis while staying there, and not much more (I am assured) in the equally delightful Hotel Luna at Amalfi to evoke the dark midwinter drama of A Doll’s House. The incongruity between the stark Scandinavian gloom of the major plays and the Mediterranean lushness of the places where Ibsen wrote them is a warning against reading the art too readily from the life, and one that Robert Ferguson has not heeded. For him, the life is the only way to support his thesis, which is that the great plays aren’t great at all, and that after Ibsen’s first success, Peer Gynt (written at Casamicciola, Ischia, in 1867), it all went horribly wrong.

Ferguson, himself a playwright, and a translator of Ibsen, was inspired to write the first major biography for 25 years by seeing John Barton’s Oslo production of Peer Gynt ‘and wondering why a man who could create a comic circus like that should choose to devote the rest of his life to writing a series of dark analyses of unhappiness’. The explanation he comes up with is that between Brand, written just before Peer, and the social dramas written after it, Ibsen set out to construct himself, or rather reconstruct himself, as the black-hatted, grim-lipped and impenetrable Henrik Ibsen ‘of a thousand dour cabinet portraits’ – a reinvention of which the plays were an integral part.

The first half of this thesis is persuasive. Like Dickens’s, Ibsen’s parents were petit-bourgeois fallen on hard times; Ibsen’s equivalent of Dickens’s sojourn in the blacking factory was a period in an apothecary’s laboratory at Grimstad. Thrown together with the maids in this cramped establishment, Ibsen fathered an illegitimate child, whose upkeep was partially responsible for the debt which dogged him through the first half of his life and drove him into exile in his late thirties. It was after the success of his epic verse-drama Brand (written at the age of 37) that he consciously undertook that ‘radical process of self-reinvention to create an outward image that would become – through the Victorian fashion for portrait photography – the agent of his spreading fame’. And it was this Ibsen – he of the shaved lip and mutton-chop whiskers, the wardrobe of a London businessman and the demeanour of a patriarch – who wrote bombastically aggrieved letters of complaint to publishers, collaborators and associates, and who harvested awards and honours with the single-minded zeal of a small boy spotting trains.

This Ibsen was also a man of strangely mutating views. For Ferguson, ‘the popular definition of Ibsen as a liberal humanist is misleading in its simplicity and obscures several paradoxes.’ They include Ibsen’s increasingly dismissive attitude to the feminist movement he was deemed to have promoted in A Doll’s House, excoriating ‘feminist fanatics’ and declaring to the Norwegian Women’s Union that he was interested not in the woman problem but rather woman’s role as wife and mother. Though Ghosts was famously reviled as obscene, Ibsen remained silent as two young writers were jailed for writing ‘immoral literature’ in defence of sexual equality. He was the romantic nationalist who hoped that Italian unification would not bring about ‘too many changes to the usual way of things’, the erstwhile champion of working-class emancipation who opposed the introduction of democracy in his own country and the advocate of directness and honesty in family relations who took four months to reply to his sister’s letter reporting their mother’s death.

All of this is excellently and elegantly argued, copiously backed up by documentary material, old and new. Ferguson has, for example, found the letter in which the playwright admitted paternity of his son: ‘I cannot with any certainty deny the charge that I am the father,’ the young Ibsen writes, ‘since I have unfortunately had intercourse with her, encouraged as I was by her flirtatious ways.’ (Her response, reported somewhat later in life, was: ‘Well, you know, that Henrik, it wasn’t easy to stop him.’) He also reveals how close Ibsen came to being sentenced to hard labour for failing to keep up with his support payments, and the general humiliations attendant on his early poverty, which explain his eagerness for respectability when his fortunes changed.

The problem is not with the point that this was the person who wrote Pillars of Society, A Doll’s House and Ghosts, but with the idea that these plays were part of the same project of self-promotion. For Ferguson, the mythological Brand and Peer Gynt were timeless creations, but ‘it takes a certain kind of daring ... to erect monuments to ourselves and our ways while we are still alive.’ For ‘daring’ read ‘arrogance’: Ibsen’s sense of his own destiny demanded that he set about documenting his age and it was indeed the Ibsen of the photographs, the decorations and the monumental scowl who convinced himself that he should express ‘an absolute and attainable truth’ which had ‘been revealed to him alone’.

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