Mind out of time: what Ibsen can tell us about today


The dining-room table at Venstøp, Henrik Ibsen’s childhood home, could easily seat at least a dozen; there are silver candlesticks, and ornate chandeliers hang from a white-painted ceiling. In the sitting room, oil paintings adorn the walls and a beautiful wooden armoire graces the well-proportioned space. This home – with a separate wing for servants – seems a picture of bourgeois opulence. Yet the standard line is that the Ibsens’ time here was defined by hardship. Their move to Venstøp from the nearby city of Skien, when Henrik was seven, was triggered by the bankruptcy of his father, Knud, and their descent into what Encyclopaedia Britannica calls “querulous penury”, echoing the widely held notion of poverty. Jørgen Haave, who runs Venstøp as a museum, is keen to contradict it.
“For people who have studied Ibsen, and read his biographies, this is the place where they landed when they lost their money,” he tells me, as we sit outside in the sunshine drinking good Norwegian coffee. “But you can see they had servants here when they were ‘poor’, they had parties and such. That is the most important thing for people to take away from a visit here, to break with the idea of extreme poverty.” In fact, the Ibsens had been the “absolute richest people in the region”, which was one of the richest in Norway. Skien, where Ibsen was born, was a thriving place, a centre for shipping and timber. Iron had been mined and smelted here since the 16th century. “It’s normal in biographies to say his family came from Bergen, but on his mother’s side his family came from this region and had been here since the 15th century; one of his ancestors made the first sawmill from the water power here, and that was the foundation of their wealth.” Ibsen’s fame comes from the nature of his social drama: social drama – the complexities of class and status – was what he knew from his earliest youth. The Ibsens had been rich; then they became not poor, but much less wealthy; and yet they were keen to keep up appearances. This conflict between reality and appearance is what still draws audiences to Ibsen’s work: it is a depiction of the beginning of the modern world.
It is hard to overstate the importance of Henrik Ibsen’s work to Norway’s cultural heritage; but then, as an Ibsen-filled autumn reminds us, his status is just as high on the world stage. His oeuvre, which ranges from early poetic and near-mythological verse dramas to the precise, closely observed plays such as A Doll’s HouseGhostsThe Wild Duck and Hedda Gabler into the more metaphysical late work, exemplified by his final play, When We Dead Awaken, seems to be at the foundation of modern sensibility. “Ibsen has been the greatest influence on the present generation; in fact you could say that he formed it to a great extent,” wrote (a very young) James Joyce in 1900.
Despite those humble (or not-quite-so-humble) beginnings, Ibsen the playwright found success early. He left Skien, never to return, at 15, to work as an apothecary’s apprentice; he had written his first play, Catilina, by the age of 21. At 23 he was running the new theatre in Bergen, for which he went on to write and produce one new play every year; in 1866, after he had left Norway for Rome – he would not return permanently to Norway until 1891 – the verse drama Brand was his big breakthrough, selling out three print runs by the end of that year. Edmund Gosse (now best known for his memoir, Father and Son) “discovered” him for English-speaking audiences after a trip to Trondheim in 1871, when he picked up a slim volume of Ibsen’s poems. The 12 volumes of William Archer’s translations began appearing in 1906, the year of Ibsen’s death; by the early 1920s Ibsen had assumed “the dignity of an ancient” – as Dr Johnson said of Shakespeare. And the literary and feminist scholar Toril Moi, who was born in Norway but now teaches at Duke University in North Carolina, says plainly in her wonderful book Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism that he is “the most important playwright writing after Shakespeare”.
Following recent acclaimed West End productions of Hedda GablerGhostsand A Doll’s House, an International Ibsen Season begins later this month at the Barbican in London. From the Schaubühne in Berlin comes An Enemy of the People, directed by Thomas Ostermeier, Ibsen’s 1882 play cast firmly as “a mirror for our times set against a world of environmental and financial crises”. From the Théâtre National de Nice comes a version of Peer Gynt, his early, picaresque dramatic poem, directed by Irina Brook (daughter of Peter Brook) – complete with music by Iggy Pop and poetry from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sam Shepard. Finally, Belvoir Sydney presents a reworking ofThe Wild Duck (1884).
At the same time Penguin Classics begins the publication of a new series of Ibsen translations: The Master Builder and Other Plays (the other plays being Little EyolfJohn Gabriel Borkman and When We Dead Awaken) will be the first volume, to be published on 2 October. This marks the start of a comprehensive revamp of the Penguin Classics translations of the Norwegian master, which have been the standard versions in English since the publisher admitted Ibsen into the canon as early as 1950 – just four years after Penguin Classics was launched with E V Rieu’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey. But unavoidably those first versions, by Una Ellis-Fermor, have dated: in her introduction to the volume containing Hedda Gabler, she writes that her work “attempts the impossible task of pretending that Ibsen wrote his plays in the English of 1950” – different from the English of 2014, with the best will in the world.
What is remarkable about Ibsen’s work is that it seems both to reflect the specific, Scandinavian bourgeois milieu that formed the author and to have a universal appeal that allows endless reinterpretation. In Oslo, I spend a couple of hours in the company of Tore Rem, professor of British literature at the University of Oslo and the general editor of the Penguin series. Ibsen’s great innovation was the contemporary middle-class tragedy: the families he creates, with their conflicts, silences and secrets, are perfectly recognisable to us today, as Rem notes, though they amazed some of his contemporary critics. Henry James called him “the provincial of provincials”; it was astonishing to the cosmopolitan American that such a vision had emerged from what he described as “the bareness and bleakness of his little northern democracy”.
That “little northern democracy” was, in Ibsen’s lifetime, in the process of liberating itself, finally becoming fully independent in 1905. Before that, Norway had been in a union with Sweden, essentially having been handed over to Sweden by the Danes in the Napoleonic wars; culturally, the Norwegians remained closer to Denmark than to Sweden and shared the same written language. “Ibsen fundamentally wrote in Danish with Norwegianisms,” Rem says – a reminder that, even for Norwegians, Ibsen in the modern day is never not mediated: his language for the stage is always modernised from his own usual Dano-Norwegian.
We in the 21st century flatter ourselves that the notion of standing up to a hypocritical, convention-bound society is terribly modern: but it’s a theme that runs through much of Ibsen’s work, which examines, as Rem notes, “the creation of the bourgeoisie, which is something George Bernard Shaw picks up on. Suddenly there is this international class, and that’s what Ibsen taps in to – and you can then leap into China today, where the individual is becoming more important. And so lots of academics are working on Ibsen.” Not long ago, Rem tells me, he was in Tromsø, at the International Ibsen Conference – where fully one-third of the participants were Chinese. And that’s not just thanks to the actress Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, having played Nora in A Doll’s House: the issues of social mobility raised by Ibsen clearly resonate with 21st-century Chinese men and women.
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