Staging Death

Martin Puchner

  • Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism: Art, Theatre, Philosophy by Toril Moi
    Oxford, 396 pp, £25.00, August 2006, ISBN 0 19 929587 5

Henrik Ibsen died in 1906, acknowledged as the founder of modern drama. Today, he is the most performed dramatist in the world after Shakespeare. It was an unlikely success story. Born in 1828 in an isolated town in Norway, when the country was still dependent on its long-time coloniser Denmark, Ibsen grew up speaking a language known by few and lacking any great dramatic tradition. In order to write himself out of this obscurity, he had to become European, and modern.

Ibsen left his destitute family at the age of 15 and apprenticed himself to a pharmacist in another town. There, he took up with the maid, ten years his senior, and fathered an illegitimate son. His life seemed set. But Ibsen began to hatch plans that had little to do with the world around him. When he was 22, he left his child and its mother, visited his own parents one last time, moved to Christiania (Oslo) and began to socialise with students and intellectuals. He also published his first play, Catiline, an awkward historical drama. Before long, he was taken up by the founders of the newly established Norwegian Theatre of Bergen, which sought to assert Norway’s cultural independence from Denmark. In Bergen and later, back in Christiania, Ibsen learned the theatre trade from the bottom up, working as acting coach, stage hand and eventually artistic director. He became acquainted with the dramatic styles of the period, and his early plays, often set in the Scandinavian past, followed popular Romantic and historical dramas or imitated the French comedies that were flooding European theatres. By adding local colour to these international styles, Ibsen managed to carve out a market for himself. Feeling more established, he married again and had another child. Once more, his course seemed set. And once more, he surprised everyone around him. He had become restless again, and did not believe that Norway was a place where one could become a writer of European stature. At the age of 36, he moved to Rome, wife and child in tow. He spent the next 27 years in exile, mainly in Italy and Germany. It was the most productive period of his life.

Ibsen’s decision to move abroad seems to have been coupled with a desire to distance himself from the theatre. He called the first two texts he wrote in Rome – Brand (1866) and Peer Gynt (1867) – dramatic poems because he wanted to be free of the practical requirements of stage business. Their imaginative power exceeded that of anything he had written before. Brand tackled a serious topic that anticipates much of his future work: an increasingly radical pastor pursuing the absolute. Brand is deserted by his congregation and finds himself at odds with the world: he retreats to the mountains, loses his mind and eventually dies in an avalanche. Peer Gynt explores the flip side of such single-mindedness in a picaresque satire whose protagonist sooner or later exasperates everyone, including the devil himself. With those two dramatic poems, Ibsen had begun writing for a European public. But he was not yet a Modernist.

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