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.

This would change after he set out on a series of prose plays with provocative contents. His dramatic poems had earned him the respect of Europe; the prose plays earned him its anger. This suited Ibsen: scandalising the bourgeoisie was the best way of becoming a certified Modern. His plays were taken by some as a rallying cry for everything new and daring. Particularly in France, England and Germany, small but vocal groups of supporters defended Ibsen against official censors and the press. In Britain an Ibsen campaign was started by an unlikely pair, George Bernard Shaw and the aspiring writer William Archer, who also became Ibsen’s first English translator. Shaw’s pamphlet, The Quintessence of Ibsenism, makes Ibsen into a Norwegian Shaw, intent on shocking Britain out of its Victorian wits. Shaw liked best about Ibsen what others abhorred – his daring discussion of moral issues – and thought of him as a fellow propagandist for all radical causes. Ibsen, he felt, had brought critical thought back to the theatre and should be seen as the founder of the New Drama. Shaw was not alone. Eleanor Marx joined the Ibsen campaign and translated Enemy of the People into English. James Joyce adored Ibsen’s irreverence and laboriously studied Norwegian in order to read his work in the original.

The Norwegian bourgeois families populating Ibsen’s plays talk of adultery and suffer from an assortment of diseases, including syphilis. There are corrupt politicians, complacent priests and fatuous husbands. And there is Nora, the heroine of A Doll’s House, who in daring to leave her husband became an icon of the New Woman. Ibsen’s use of such subjects riled censors and self-appointed moralists, but they don’t explain the enduring power of his plays, or how he came to invent an entirely new form of drama.

Twentieth-century Modernists and their followers often dismiss Ibsen’s plays as so many stodgy living-rooms stuffed with 19th-century problems. Ibsen, they argue, belongs with high-minded realists such as George Eliot, not with formally innovative Modernists such as Joyce. It is Toril Moi’s aim, in this magisterial book, to make a new case for Ibsen against such opposition. The problem with Ibsen’s detractors, Moi says, is that they have a narrow understanding of Modernism, based on the formal experimentation and fragmentation typical of the early 20th century. Ibsen’s long and varied body of work, she claims, shows us the birth of Modernism, which we have conveniently forgotten and which had its origins in a drawn-out battle against idealism, the belief in the ultimate coincidence of aesthetic and moral perfection. Originally a radical doctrine held by Romantics such as Schiller and Shelley, idealism lingered on after Romanticism and ossified into an aesthetic and moral conservatism. Idealists objected to the depiction of broken marriages and corrupt politicians, because they believed that art should disregard imperfection and aspire to ideals. Like Ibsen, they took art to have a serious moral and political purpose; but the purpose, they believed, had to do with formulating lofty ideals, not delivering ruthless critiques. Ibsen, to them, was simply muck-raking. This conservative brand of idealism spread not so much among philosophers and serious intellectuals as among reviewers, opinion makers and journalists – precisely those who attacked Ibsen most vehemently.

Moi shows that this idealism was embodied by the Nobel Prize committee during its first decade of existence. Alfred Nobel had specified that the prize should go to ‘the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency’, and the committee saw itself as the last bastion of idealism against the Modernist onslaught. The first Nobel laureates, now long forgotten, were all chosen for their idealism, and each of them was preferred over an anti-idealist rival: Sully-Prudhomme (1901) over Zola, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1903) over Ibsen and, after Ibsen’s death, Paul Heyse over Hardy (1910). Ibsen had been friendly with Bjørnson and Heyse and knew what he was up against. No wonder he sought to engage with idealism more and more explicitly by depicting idealist characters in his work. His most programmatic anti-idealist play is The Wild Duck, in which the spoiled son of an industrialist wreaks havoc in the family of his friend with manifestos and speeches reeking of high ideals.

Another facet of idealism was its rejection of daily routine and the ordinariness of existence. In play after play, Ibsen created characters who reject the everyday, and showed that this rejection leads to certain destruction. Hedda Gabler’s dissatisfaction leaves her with nothing but suicide. For an idealist, however, suicide has to be a beautiful act, and so she contemplates and then executes the most ideal form imaginable: a clean, heroic shot through the head. But there are other pleasing forms of suicide, too. The Master Builder climbs a tall building, despite his vertigo, in order to fall to a dramatic death. Rebecca, in Rosmersholm, plans to kill herself for the man she loves until they decide that a double suicide would be even better. Ibsen’s career as a dramatist ended with another romantic double suicide, in When We Dead Awaken, when the protagonists climb a mountain as a blizzard begins, never to return. Surrounded by idealists in life, Ibsen killed them off in his plays.

Whether Ibsen got rid of idealism along with the idealists is another matter. With a few exceptions, such as the Wild Duck, Ibsen didn’t completely dismiss his idealists, several of whom are also artists. The best example is Hedda Gabler, whose alternative to suicide is life with a dreary husband-scholar who, rather like Casaubon in Middlemarch, uses their honeymoon to do some research into the handicrafts of Brabant during the Middle Ages. Moi shows that Ibsen wanted to expose idealism as the retrograde ideology it had become, but could not quite bring himself to complete the task. He remained too attached to his heroic protagonists, even or especially when he staged their deaths, almost compulsively, in play after play. Moi’s striking archaeology of Modernism might not prove to Ibsen’s detractors that he was a Modernist after all; instead it will convince them that he never quite got idealism out of his system.

The true reason for Ibsen’s unparalleled success in the 20th century is probably to be found in theatre history. From the late 19th century, he was championed by every European director and actor of note. The Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, for example, used Ibsen to demonstrate his new method of presenting vivid crowd scenes on stage, which became the rage across Europe. What the duke did for crowds, Stanislavsky did for individual characters, bringing new techniques of psychological realism to the staging of Ibsen’s plays. To help his actors merge with their roles, Stanislavsky even imported Norwegian furniture at considerable cost. André Antoine, founder of the first naturalist theatre in Paris, put on Ibsen’s most notorious play Ghosts, and starred in it himself. The play’s emphasis on inherited disease, on the ways in which the environment and the past shape individuals despite their best intentions, made it a perfect example of naturalist tragedy. Ibsen’s great female roles helped a new generation of actors to emerge, including Elizabeth Robins in England, Eleanora Duse in Italy and Eva Le Gallienne in the United States. Even the ageing superstar Sarah Bernhardt appeared in Lady from the Sea in 1906.

Meanwhile another set of directors and actors turned to Ibsen for quite different reasons. The young Aurélien Lugné-Poe hated naturalism and devised a new theatrical idealism that revelled in high poetic meaning and rarefied expressions. But, like his naturalist enemies, he chose Ibsen to showcase his movement. Vsevolod Meyerhold opposed Stanislavsky, but he too used Ibsen as a conduit for his radical Modernism. Max Reinhardt had nothing good to say about the German naturalists who had championed Ibsen, but nevertheless created an eerie production of Ghosts with designs by Edvard Munch. The British director Edward Gordon Craig dreamed up stylised productions of several Ibsen plays.

It was Ibsen’s ambivalence that made his plays so adaptable. He was an autodidact who remained wary of abstract debates and positions; he was divided and uncertain about most of the aesthetic and moral issues of his day. Even though he was the author of one of the great feminist plays of the 19th century, he did not want to identify himself with feminism. A ruthless denouncer of bourgeois respectability, he coveted prizes and medals. He wanted to be a thorn in the flesh of corrupt politicians, but he remained an enemy of democracy. And although he attacked sanctimonious idealism, he was attached to his protagonists’ desire for transcendence.

His openness has sometimes encouraged directors and adapters to take liberties with his plays. Ingmar Bergman chose to direct Ghosts as his final theatrical production. In the last scene, the naked Oswald curled up in the foetal position hallucinating the sun; but Bergman cut the play’s clunky subplot involving a fire insurance policy, and even inserted bits of Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata. A Doll’s House has always been tinkered with, at least since a 19th-century German actress requested an alternative ending in which Nora never leaves her husband. Fearing some hack would oblige her, Ibsen grudgingly wrote the bowdlerised ending himself. Recently, the German director Thomas Ostermeier toured Europe and the US with his own new ending, in which Nora takes out a gun and gleefully empties it into the body of her husband.

Such pranks notwithstanding, it is on the stage, in the hands of directors and actors, that we can see most clearly what is modern in Ibsen and what seems hopelessly antiquarian. Today, Ibsen’s earnest discussions, melodramatic plots and romantic suicides tend to cause consternation if not laughter. Recently, a group called the ‘Neo-Futurists’ presented The Last Two Minutes of the Complete Works of Henrik Ibsen. The result was revelatory. Once you see, in rapid succession, the son given an overdose by his mother, the melodramatic double suicide, the old man expiring in the snow and the boy following the ‘rat lady’ into the ocean, a pattern emerges that doesn’t quite square with the image of Ibsen the fearless Modernist. And this list leaves out the early plays, which have their own gruesome suicides and revenge plots, all accompanied by high-flown speeches. In capturing the depth of Ibsen’s dependence on the forms and formulas of mid-19th-century drama, the Neo-Futurists have identified one part of the truth – that he was a product of the 19th century. Toril Moi’s book shows us that he was also a herald of its demise.