Theater archives

Imperfect Ibsenites


Next year marks the centennial of Henrik Ibsen’s death, and amid an explosion of revivals of his work worldwide, big plans are under way in Norway to commemorate the anniversary of the planet’s reputedly most produced dramatist after Shakespeare. For many of us, Ibsen is Norway, the cultural face of that Scandinavian nation, where the great prose plays from Pillars of Society to When We Dead Awaken are set. The playwright, who lived in a state of self-imposed exile for more than two decades and had what can be euphemistically described as a profoundly ambivalent relationship to his birthplace, might resent the close association.

Ibsen would probably shudder at the way his name is now being used for promotional purposes (national festivals in his honor are lucrative business, and any excuse to celebrate his work is duly exploited). Then again, he was shameless when it came to courting recognition, not only at home but throughout Scandinavia and Germany. (He had a fetish for medals, and wasn’t beyond writing beseeching letters to foreign officials requesting them.) Doubtless he would have enjoyed the pomp and circumstance, which isn’t to say he’d approve of how his plays are being done.

Clearly we’re still grappling with Ibsen’s legacy, restlessly trying to come to terms with what the work means to us today. The opening years of the 21st century have brought a cavalcade of Ibsen liberators, directors intent on freeing the plays from the shackles of 19th-century realism. In New York of late, it’s been hard to find one of his plays done straight. My own recent Ibsen-going has included Ingmar Bergman’s Ghosts, Mabou Mines’s dollHouse, Ivo van Hove’s Hedda Gabler, and Thomas Ostermeir’s Nora, all of which treated the texts as though they were expressionistic outpourings rather than carefully plotted dramatic paths traversing frozen realistic terrain on their way to a surreal heart of darkness.

Much as I admired aspects of each of these productions, not least for their sensitivity to the bruising strength of feeling coursing through the stuffy parlors, the most memorable interpretations have been bolder in their psychological insights than their conceptual stagecraft, the triumph reflecting more on the actors than the directors. Two actresses in particular—Fiona Shaw as Hedda in Deborah Warner’s Hedda Gabler (1990) and Janet McTeer as Nora in Anthony Page’s A Doll’s House (1997)—have been revelatory in exposing the radical nature of Ibsen’s art, which, creaky as it often seems, is still eons ahead of even our trendiest postmoderns.

At this year’s Peer Gynt Festival in Vinstra, Norway, the annual production of Ibsen’s 1867 dramatic poem (staged in a bouncy manner on the banks of Lake Gala with a live orchestra playing the Edvard Grieg score) goes a long way toward illuminating the dark Romantic qualities of the playwright’s imagination. (New Yorkers may get to see a concert version of the production in Central Park in October 2006, if current plans are realized.)

So often mistaken for a prosy proselytizer, Ibsen began as a poet and always identified himself as such, even after he disavowed writing drama in verse.
Peer Gynt has a special place in the hearts of Norwegians for its celebration of the country’s stupendous landscape of mountains, fjords, rolling hills, and water everywhere as well as its depiction of the spiritual journey of a lovable loser whose highs and lows reveal the vanity of human wishes and the possibility of transcendence through quotidian love. Rarely staged in America (the Grieg score is better known here than the play), the work is fundamental to understanding the far reaches of Ibsen’s metaphysical mind-set. Even in the most domestic of settings, his imagination is always plumbing the depths of human mystery.

Naturally Peer Gynt turns up in the Neo-futurists’ production of The Last Two Minutes of the Complete Works of Henrik Ibsen, which was “devised, directed, translated, and adapted” by company founder Greg Allen and performed at this year’s New York International Fringe Festival. Part SCTV skit, part loony tribute, the piece—like the group’s earlier Complete Lost Works of Samuel Beckett as Found in an Envelope (partially burned)—is as much an occasion for tomfoolery as for serious grappling with the entire (yes, entire!) Ibsen canon. The grandiose early works (folkloric bloodbaths in the snow, written in lyrical gusts) are basically an occasion for send-up, which is somewhat of a shame given that even the most scholarly playgoers don’t know anything before Brandt and Peer Gynt. As the canon transitions into prose and more realistic subject matter, the game actors grow more serious in their handling ( A Doll’s House is done without laughs, and the silliness is kept to a minimum in The Wild Duck and Hedda Gabler).

The intention behind the Neo-futurists’ ambition isn’t entirely clear, but any group of talented young performers with the courage to steep themselves in the vast Ibsen oeuvre can only be congratulated. A hundred years may separate us from the author, but as the undying interest in his work attests, he remains our trailblazing contemporary.