Three Plays, by Henrik Ibsen

I read Ghosts, An Enemy of the People and When We Wake Dead (as gathered into one volume by Penguin Classics).

When We Wake Dead was Ibsen’s last play, and the introduction has this to say about it:

It is an intensely personal statement … and in it Ibsen, the “Great Realist”, became a symbolist.

This strikes Obooki as constructing a false dichotomy between realism and symbolism, of just that sort literary critics favour in order to distinguish between things which are in fact much the same. Realism – nineteenth-century realism, at least – is a world replete with symbolism. You certainly can’t walk very far in Zola’s works, for instance, without stumbling over a symbol or two – and then realising that everything you were taking for solid and smooth realism was in fact bits of symbols awkwardly stuck together.

Ibsen is very like Zola in lots of ways…

Ibsen: “No, I’m not! Zola descends to the gutter to bathe in it while I descend there to cleanse it!”

OK then, Ibsen is very like Zola, except he tends a bit more didactic and obviously politically-motivated.

(Ibsen: “That’s better!)

The last time I tried reading Ibsen, for instance, I had to stop when I got to the absurdly heavy-handed symbolism involved in The Wild Duck. I’m not a great person for symbols which are forced into narratives where they don’t belong.

So, to these works. Ghosts is an immensely Zola-esque play. It was banned, for a start, for its moral degeneracy; and considering its content (infidelity in marriage, illegitimate children, incest (I think there was incest, although maybe I’m making this up in retrospect)), I’m not exactly surprised. Ibsen portrays a society rotten to the core with hypocrisy; so it doesn’t take much to imagine such a society not wanting to put on his play. It starts off quite tame and ordinary, but I enjoyed how it became ever more extreme.

An Enemy of the People I thought the best of the three. Perhaps it’s a bit more contrived than Ghosts, a bit more obviously didactic, but there were other things strikingly good about it. The inevitability of the narrative – the man who tries to do good, but only suffers on that account – put me in mind of Greek tragedy – specifically Oedipus Tyrannos, which, one suspects, was in Ibsen’s mind – Thebes too was suffering a plague, which Oedipus sought to cure; the determination to achieve a solution was his downfall; he became outcast from his own people. There was also a nice dramatic tension in the central idea: of course, if the baths are diseased, something should be done; but on the other hand, what effect will this have on the town and its people. Yes, it has everything in it a play should.

When We Wake Dead was, frankly, a bore. Ibsen writes about his own artistic failure. Yawn. Yawn. A final play, it ain’t no Oedipus at Colonus.

Still, I’ve become a bit more of an Ibsen enthusiast than heretofore.


5 thoughts on “Three Plays, by Henrik Ibsen

  1. Let me confess right away that Ibsen is among my literary heroes. I suppose I should confess beforehand that I am sufficiently starry-eyed to have heroes in the first place.

    He is a writer whose reputation precedes him, and does him no favours at all. He had no sooner pioneered realism on stage than he started moving away from it. I can’t really see his work, even in its most “realist” phase, as Zolaesque.

    Also, Ibsen was often fairly pompous as a man: as a writer, he wasn’t. That comment about “cleansing” is pompous, and merely contributes to the impression of dogged didacticism. Yes, there are didactic elements in a handful of his plays, but this is not why he was so great a writer: at least, this is not why I value his work.

    As a man, as I said, he was a pompous man with weird facial topiary: as a writer, he was a poet. He wrote arguably the last two great poetic dramas – Brand and Peer Gynt – and then moved to realist drama; but by the time he came to his final play, When We Dead Awaken, he was back in the world of Peer Gynt and Brand, albeit this time in prose. This last play splits opinion sharply: his first translator, William Archer, thought he was becoming senile; James Joyce thought it his masterpiece. I personally think it’s an unfinished work(he handed it to the publishers with a curiously truncated final act, and suffered a stroke only a few days afterwards: one may conjecture that he might have felt his health giving way and finished it as best he could under the circumstances). I do nonetheless find it a haunteing work: at least, it has haunted my imagination now for several decades.

    Ibsen’s imagery, for me at any rate, resonates on various different levels. Even, I find, in The Wild Duck, which I find mysterious rather than heavy-handed. Ghosts, too, I think is best regarded as a poetic drama rather than a slice of Zolaesque realism.

    There is too much to write about Ibsen than I have time for right now … I did write a post on Ibsen on my blog some time back, and have long been meaning to go through his major plays in chronological order, and write posts on each individually. Maybe I should get round to it now…

  2. Sorry, been thinking about what to reply, trying to decide what exactly I’m meaning by saying Ibsen is Zolaesque. Will get round to it. In the meantime, yes, write some posts on Ibsen. I’ve got another 7 plays to read.

  3. Zolaesque: I suppose it’s not so much realism I associate with Zola, as a specific choice of subject matter – what I would consider a non-c19th subject matter (a subject matter which I find unexpected in a c19th context, and which people in the c19th themselves found unexpected – and thus tried to ban it): subjects treated frankly and without moralising, like illegitimacy, sexuality, sexual abuse, prostitution.

    Perhaps, if anything’s different in their treatment, it’s that Ibsen seeks to draw out society’s hypocrisy in these subjects (Ghosts is very much about hypocrisy, Enemy of the People more equivocal), whereas I don’t think Zola was ever as concerned with hypocrisy (he thought this was what mankind was like, and everyone’s pretty much aware of it).

    Perhaps also I should have mentioned Ghosts in particular fits into that woman trapped in a marriage where her husband is unfaithful to her and she has to put up with it genre.

    Didacticism/Pomposity: I found, at least in Ghosts and Enemy of the People, that there were passages where I felt Ibsen was almost stepping out of the play and addressing me, pointing out – through one of his characters – what the point of the play was. Moments I found highly artificial (though they may of course work perfectly well on the stage).

    I also suspects from his plays that Ibsen certainly believed he knew best. In fact, I was wondering even from the first play I read, Ghosts, how much Ibsen might have been influenced by Nietzsche, so much did he seem to be putting forward a new superior kind of morality. The heroes of both Ghosts and Enemy of the People are people of a superior morality to those around them – a superior morality to your typical Norwegian townsfolk, that is (the same contempt for ordinary people also exists strongly in When We Awaken Dead, the hero more or less can’t bear society, his wife etc) – and, despite a few arguments to the contrary, I felt this was what we were being asked to identify with.

  4. I had meant to come back to reply to this, but other things got in the way, as other things had a habit of doing.

    It’s pretty hard to know what, and how much, Ibsen read. He did not have a formal schooling (his father was bankrupt when Ibsen was a teenager, and he was sent off as an apprentice to an apothecary), and he seemed to have a chip on the shoulder about this. When asked about other writers, he would generally say he never read them. Once, asked about the influence of Kierkegaard, he said he tried to read “Fear and Trembling” once, but didn’t understand it. How much of this was Ibsen putting up a front, it’s hard to say.

    (What he did read very carefully were the daily newspapers – even, apparently, the adverts!)

    Ibsen certainly did not subscribe to Pastor Manders’ values – this much is obvious. But I remain unconvinced that he subscribed fully to any of the alternatives either: Mrs Alving’s pronoucements, and even Stockman’s pronouncements, are by no means the final word. I really don’t think Ibsen ever made any character his own mouthpiece. His characters have ideas, and are often driven by ideas, yes, but we have to judge those ideas impartially, I think.

    Possibly I am over-reacting against the perception of Ibsen as primarily a didactic dramatist. It’s hard to say. All I can say, I suppose, is that it’s not the didactic elements that attract me: I find many other elements of far greater interest in his works, and feel these are too often overlooked.

    I think I really ought to have another wallow in these plays, and do a series of blog posts. Ibsen is, after all, an author who has meant much to me over the years.

  5. I think you should do an Ibsen season.

    Yes, maybe his characters are didactic then. Certainly though you get the impression that Ibsen supported the new coming progressive culture, rather than the ancien regime culture / the Victorian values – since this is in large part what all three plays I read were about (and the hypocrisy of the bourgeois).

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