A Playwright Out Of My Past

Today is the birthday of playwright Henrik Ibsen.  I was mad on reading Ibsen’s plays in high school–Eugene O’Neill’s, too–but I read as many of Ibsen’s as I could find.  There was a Modern Library edition of six of the plays.  I can’t remember now which six were in the book, but I’m sure Hedda Gabler was there, and probably Peer Gynt, too.  But the play that fascinated me and tortured me intellectually was Rosmerholm.  I couldn’t get enough of it.  Like everybody else, I was drawn to the Norwegian mysticism in the drama, but there was more.  Ibsen was the first adult playwright I had ever encountered, even more so than Shakespeare, whose poetic code I was only then beginning to crack.  Ibsen wrote in a voice I recognized instantly, offering an exciting and often brilliant give-and-take in his dialogue, not only between men but also, wondrously, between men and women.

Even today, a little over a century since the first presentation of his plays, there isn’t a playwright working who’s done more to create excellent roles for women on the stage than Ibsen.  Only Shakespeare rivals him for the gallery of women’s roles available to play.  (And keep in mind that, until the eighteenth century, women’s roles in Shakespeare were played by men and boys, giving both actors and playwright the fullest opportunity for not only serious, straightforward drama but also a comic and seriocomic subtext in everything they said and did.)  Ibsen was among the first modern playwrights to present women as women on the stage:  beings thinking, feeling, and acting on their own, independently from men.  His women also suffered the consequences of independence, too, as Hedda Gabler did, and as Rebecca West does in Rosmerholm.  Some of those consequences might seem dated today:  we don’t view the threats of venereal disease or mental illness quite the way Ibsen did, but the datedness is inconsequential next to the ferocity with which Ibsen’s women and men fight for the lives which they wish to claim for themselves.  I loved Rebecca’s scheming in Rosmerholm; I understood exactly why she behaved as she did, and I also understood, young as I was, just how bold Ibsen was being in presenting to us such unconventional behavior.  I’d almost be willing to say that Ibsen was presenting to us marriage as it actually is, or was, beneath the veil; but I’m not that bold, and the sentiment may not be true.  What is true is that Ibsen had immense respect for women as persons.  He knew how hard it was for them to live fully and freely in a repressed, patriarchal world.

Ibsen also offers us, if we need it, yet another lesson useful for writers.  He had to get away from Norway in order to write effectively about life there.  In this, he is like James Joyce, who was steeped in Dublin, but did his best work about that place in Trieste and Zurich.  In Ibsen’s case, it was Rome that gave him the distance he needed to see his subjects whole, and the freedom he needed to speak his mind.  We need not worry:  the distance cost Ibsen nothing of the Scandinavian atmosphere that envelopes his plays–its coldness and brittleness, or the legacy of the ghosts that haunt the Norwegian past, whether from the folklore passed down through the generations or the even more ancient hardness of the Scandinavian warriors who swept down from the north over 1100 years ago to dominate Europe as it had never been dominated before.


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