Annotated Ibsen Bibliography, 1983-2000, from Ibsen News and Comment
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ARTICLES ON IBSEN, 1992
In 1992 the number of short publications on Ibsenarticles
in journals, chapters in bookswas thirty-some, the same as in most
other recent years. As a group they may not have been any better, but
more of them, I thought, were arresting. That may have something to do
with the plays most written about: A Doll
The Wild Duck, and
plays that first made Ibsen famous outside of Scandinavia still seem to
be the most controversial ideologically and the most resistant to final
Nobody should write about drama who doesnt
respect the multiminded integrity of the genre. Some of the 1992 essays
were so sure of what Ibsen meant and why that they virtually demanded
to be disagreed with. Others were casual with plot facts and insensitive
to characterization: Haakon Werles prosperity was built on Old Ekdals
ruin. Mrs. Linde is financially totally independent and emotionally
sterile. Pastor Manders allows the orphanage to burn down.
Still others seemed a little uncertain of their purpose. The non-exigetical
essays didnt have those problems. I especially liked Lise-Lone and
Frederick Markers splendid description of Ingmar Bergmans
Ibsen productions (1) and Denis W. Salters no-nonsense chronicle
of Ibsen in Canada . . . 1910-1980 (2).
The debate over whether A
Doll House is or is not feminist continues,
arguably approaching the Otto Reinert point of diminishing return.(Is
it Ibsens greatness or some confusion of mind or craft in him that
causes qualified readers to find widely different meaning in the same
work?) In an essay in an anthology on family violence, Fredricka Howie
argues that to read Doll House
simply as Noras escape from her doll house is to deny the
essential reality of family dynamics (3). Nora at the end is neither
emancipated nor victimized but a wife who, like George in Whos
Afraid of Virginia Woolf changes the rules in
a game of mutual manipulation, in which neither spouse is
wholly responsible for the failed marriage. Recent statistics show that
most women who walk away from bad marriages ultimately return. Howie (sociology
closing what art leaves open) thinks that Nora may well be one of them.
Ahmad and Gawel, on the other hand, are
sure that Doll House
was meant to be a feminist play but failed because it presents an incomplete
version of feminism (4). Those critics (they say) are wrong who argue
that Ibsen here is championing everybodys,
and not just womens right to liberation. His mistake was that he
turned Nora into a pseudo-man. The cash nexis, the capitalist
alternative, arrest her progress toward full womanhood and make
of her the woman patriarchy and nineteenth-century capitalism had
conspired to construct. Her personality diminishes during the play.
Emotionally abundant, the frivolous macaroon-eater of Act
I is spontaneous, playful, affectionate, delightfully versatile in play
acting for her sexist husband. The Nora who exits has become rigid and
rational, a potential wage-earner, just like Torvald.
Significantly, she uses a term from finance when she summons him to their
first and last serious discussion: This is a settling of accounts
(Dette er et opgjör).
The authors all but explicit conclusion is that a play that endorses
the ideology of bourgeois capitalism, doesnt qualify the playwright
as a champion of women. This is heresy, but it isnt silly and it
Brian Johnstons article, Three Stages of A Doll House (5) is not, as one might think, about the plays genesis or its scenography. Nor is it about something as mundane as feminism. The stages refer to the three successive entities of Audiences image of the world, the Dramatic conventions representing that image, which is the true image that subverts the other two. Together, they allow us a view of the whole twelve-play series as a single evolving dialectic. In every play in the cycle
Ibsen is alerting us not merely
to inadequacies in our idea of the world but also to inadequacies in the
idea of . . . the way the world aesthetically is represented in the conventional
I doubt that this paradoxical formula
of bad form meaningfully fitting bad content and
thus becoming artistically good will turn out to be a useful
way of defining the coherent whole Ibsen said his plays were. One difficulty
is the assumption that there are things about Ibsens method
that need a justifying rationale. Among themthese are Johnstons
own examplesare Noras wonderful (det
vidunderlige) taking on a new meaning
each time she says the word, the symbolic Christmas tree, the ironic role
reversals, the counterpointed events, and the change in genre with each
new act (first melodrama, then a play about ethics and psychology, finally
tragedy). If the technical inadequacies can be justified only as appropriate
to a dramatic expose of an inadequate society, one must ask what Johnstons
criteria for dramatic inadequacy areespecially since his own comments
on what he calls, with derogatory meaning, histrionic features,
remind us what a finely shaped and textured play Doll
House is. Also, Johnston limits his examples
to Doll House and
does not illustrate his evolutionary process by instancing,
in successive plays, inadequate dramatic methods and the social inadequacies
they mirror. Finally, the Hegelian paradigm ought to imply a play sequence
that moves, in both dramaturgy and social diagnosis, from the simple and
obvious to the complex and subtle. Little
Eyolf and When We
Dead Awaken (say) ought to be more complex and
subtle (at least, less inadequate, less self-invalidating) than (say)
A Doll House and
they are, but it is not obvious that they are. Johnstons interpretive
scheme looks like a desperate attempt to find excuses for features in
Ibsens drama that he unhappily finds himself unable to admire.
A 1990 issue of a new Norwegian journal
was given over to the topic of Ibsen and psychoanalysis, in recognition,
perhaps, of the strong impact Freud has had in Norway since he first became
known there in the 1920s. One of the contributions (6) deals with a dream
Freud reported having in February, 1896, in which this sentence appeared:
Das ist em wahrschaft norekdaler Stil (That is truly
a norekdalish style).
The author, Per Anthi, a psychoanalyst himself, sees the sentence as a
condensation of Freuds ambivalent relationship with Wilhelm Fliess,
who on the day before Freud had his dream had sent him a scientific paper
that Freud found hyperbolic both in content and in expression. Anthi finds
similarities between Doll House
and Wild Duck to
account for the formation of the portmanteau word norekdaler
in Freuds dreaming mind. For all we know, he may be right.
Three rewarding analyses of Ghosts
appear in booklength studies that deal with other works besides Ibsens
play and share with it certain themes or motifs. That determines perspectives
and emphases in the critical treatment.
The basic premises of Oscar Brownsteins
phenomenological Strategies of
Drama (7) are that the goal of art is
the creation of experience and that the experience of drama is an
experience not of an idea or a theme or a story or a plot or of a character,
but of perception
of the moment-to-moment moment movement of the play. The best analysis
is a detailed report on the spectators perception shifts
during a performance.
one of thirteen plays analyzed by Brownstein on these premises. (Among
the other playwrights are Sophocles, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Brecht, Beckett,
Williams, and Pinter). Ghosts,
he says, is a play about penetrating beneath the surface of things
and overcoming the effect of deception. That defines the audiences
stake in the action, what Brownstein calls the plays
futuritythat is, our concern with something beyond the
outcome. At the end Ibsen catches us in what Shaw called a psychic
trap: the plays denial of Mrs. Alvings and our own commitment
to understanding. We see that she is not the liberated woman we
thought she was, just as we realize that we have no reason to feel superior
to her. Her final, excruciating dilemma breaks through
the . . . barrier of the proscenium and challenges us to make her
This is a wise book, not because imaginative
empathy is the best
way of experiencing drama or because its audience response approach is
new but because of its plausible descriptions of responses. In his Introduction,
Brownstein speaks of the mystery of the folk language
of the theater and its superior expressiveness over the language
of academic criticism. Yet his book deals with drama as literature, not
as performance art and has little about the erotics of theater.
If there was a mystery to begin with, Brownstein goes some
way toward demystifying it.
The subject of Leah Hadomis book
on The Homecoming Theme in Modern Drama
is the Prodigal Son story in six modern plays, including Ghosts
(8). (Her others are Long Day's Journey,
Death of a Salesman,
Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf,
Buried Child). The
story as told in Luke 15:11-32 is Hamodis archi-pattern
(including the Ur-scene,
the reunion of penitent son and welcoming father). She analyses analogies
and differences between versions of the archi-pattern... as influenced
by changes in literary, dramatic, and sociocultural codes. The result
is a spacious book, providing support from new areas for a reading of
Ghosts that deals
with its dynamics rather than its ideas.
Within this frame, Hadomis Ghosts
focuses on the problem of guilt as reflected in the characters
fidelity to ghosts of past people or attitudes. Her
analytical machineryProblems, Solutions,
Auxiliaries, and Movesis forbidding but
works. Oswalds homecoming is motivated by his physical and
mental state; every one of Regines moves by her
search for a home that will further her economic and social ambition.
Parents and substitute parents (Engstrand, Manders), different kinds of
ghosts, secrets which, when divulged, do not save or redeem,
and tension between generations are all parts of a dramatic movement that
ends in the irony of Oswald returned but doomed and Regine
acknowledged but leaving for a home as fraudulent as that
of her natural father.
Several general themes emerge from the
book as a whole. The basic story was secularized over time, with growing
emphasis on the psychology of the Prodigal. Ghosts
is an example of a non-religious allegory, with God the Father and homecoming
Son/Sinner superseded by Father/Bürger
and Son/Artist. Archetypal features less common in modern drama but present
in Ghosts, include
Ibsens agonistic dialogues; a plot that is double (Oswald
and Regine), retrospective, and ambiguous; the dissociation of sin and
return and return and forgiveness; the mother as nurturer who is also
co-responsible for the sons torment; and the family secret
being a misinterpretation of the past. Like other modernists,
Ibsen transformed myth into literature.
Ghosts and An Enemy of the People are the two Ibsen plays that figure in Barbara Fass Leavys oddly titled but substantial and absorbing study of plague as a literary motif, To Blight with Plague (9). Her general argument is that
Levy thinks that the uncertainties about Oswalds disease allowed
Ibsen to introduce thematic ambiguities ... without falsifying reality,
and to bring together the themes of physical and mental illness,
and personal identity. The folkloric echoes in the name Alving
(elves, Elfland, etc.) connect the family to an alternative world
different from the real world of restrictive social conventions. When
Oswald symbolically mixes up his Eves and his Marys in his mistaken
perception of Regine, his impasse is like his fathers,
who separated the pure and the impure woman, marrying
the former, going for sex to the latter.
A protagonists dilemma of selfishness
vs. selflessness becomes the audiences in Leavys comparison
of An Enemy of the People
with two contemporary American plays about AIDS, William Hoffmans
As Is and Larry
Kramers The Normal Heart.
All three deal with the tenuous line dividing the reformers
zeal on behalf of humanity from the necessity of preserving an ego that
must defend itself against hostile others. Or, in question form:
Does self-gratification contaminate the fight for the right cause?
Confronted with this conundrum, the audience of Enemy
can only find Dr. Stockmann an ambivalent character.
A. J. Machiraju finds a strong thematic
connection between Ghosts
and The Wild Duck (10):
both are about the disastrous influence of convention, particularly conventions
governing bourgeois marriage, and more particularly still their influence
on women as wives and mothers. Since this hardly needs proving in the
case of Ghosts,
Machirajus article is mainly about The
Wild Duck. The play does not retract anything
in Doll House and
Enemy and is not
about truth-and-illusion; Hjalmars character and not Gregerss
mania is what is amiss in the Ekdal household. Both Mrs. Alving
and Gina had conventional mothers, both use survival strategies
in their struggle to maintain the appearance of a respectable family,
both are capable of love, and each loses her only child. The main difference
between the plays is that the wild duck symbol mutes the earlier plays
explicit attack on false idealism. In Ghosts
Ibsen felt that he had gone as far in frank discussion of ugly facts about
family life as he could without losing his audience altogether. That is
probably true, but the article is vulnerable in refusing to see any value
at all in the Ekdal marriage and in failing to see Gregers as sharing
responsibility for Hedvigs death. The linkages Machijarul points
to are real, but her/his manner of argumentation is both simplistic and
In an article (11) more leftist than
Ahmads and Gawels, and long and abstruse, Wolfgang Sohlich
offers what he calls a materialist, not a theological or psychological,
reading of modern allegory, represented by The
Wild Duck. From Marxs Economic
and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844) comes the
idea that late capitalism alienated and commodified workers, from the
Frankfurt school the method of deconstructing sociopolitical phenomena
for their moral and cultural implications, and from Walter Benjamin perceptions
of imagery that bring together diverse activities in symbolic structures
expanding to allegory. Sohlich is everywhere politically polemical. His
villain is instrumental reason, by which peoples vital
connections within an older, natural, organic order are severed
in the interest of pragmatics and profit-making.
Photography in Wild
Duck is a metaphor for a random view of reality,
at the same time dismembering and static. The camera stands for market-directed
technology. Its reproduction of disconnected fragments of a surface
reality creates effects that are analogous to the distribution of isolated
and repeatable tasks of a complete activity under industrialism.
In the ecopolitical allegory photography represents the objectification
of the human subject. Collectors are like photographers; both preserve
bits and pieces rescued from the forgotten context of a distant
past. Hjalmar, a sham photographer but a real collector, joins his
father and daughter in the loft, where relations to non-human objects
substitute for the genuine human relationships of which they have only
an intuitive remembrance. The power Gregers has over Hjalmar
and Hedvig derives from the link between his idealism and a pre-capitalist
but now forgotten human sentience. His utopian vision possesses
(I read with some surprise) the grandeur of humanistic ideals
but is bound to fail. Hedvig dies when confronted with the double violence
of Hjalmars denial of the natural child, on behalf of
cultures marriage institution, and of Gregerss demand for
the blood sacrifice of the wild duck. She is the victim both of his allegorization
of sentient life, by which capitalist culture exploits defunct moral
imperatives, and of the viable but amoral imperatives
of instrumental reason. So where is the humanistic grandeur?
Sohlichs article is a product of
the intellectual fashion that implicitly assumes a positive correlation
between the worth/significance of a work of literature and the number
of extra-literary (preferably socioeconomic and political) paradigms a
deconstructed version of it can accommodate. That the author-paradigm
connection may be an anachronism is irrelevant. For all its historicist
bias, this is an ahistorical article. And the gravity of Sohlichs
polemic affects his style: this is not light reading. There are ingenious
insights and expansive outlooks in it and thoughtful dedication to Marxist
ideals, but the impression that lingers is of pretentiousness skewing
a play that is subtle but not about what it is not about.
The Ibsen-and-Psychoanalysis issue of
Nytt norsk tidsskrift
has, in addition to three articles on the general topic of Ibsen and psychoanalysis
(one is Per Anthis, reviewed above), a symposium of three scholars
on Freud on Rosmersholm.
Except for Anthi, all the contributors take if not a hostile then a coolly
reserved attitude to psychoanalysis. Five of the essays are in Norwegian;
one (Möllers) is in Danish. I deal first with the two general
According to Björn Killingmo (12),
the most important news in psychoanalysis since Freud is the theory that
the conflicted infant personality is not a natural given but the result
of a shift from a pre-oedipal to an oedipal phase in the childs
development. Freud sought the topography of the psyche, and post-Freudians
a process from simpler to more complex forms of psychic life. The pre-oedipal
child is dyadic: it seeks contact with the other. The oedipal
child is triadic: the classical prototype is Oedipus-Laius-Jocasta. As
the oedipal child is conflicted, so is the pre-oedipal desirous. Hjalmar
Ekdal is pre-oedipal, defining himself in the mirror of other peoples
praise and approval. Gregers Werle is oedipal: feeling aggressive toward
his father and guilty because he does.
The last sentence in Atle Kittangs
answer (13) to his own question, Can Psychoanalysis Contribute to
Our Understanding of Literature? is, Yes, but only insofar as it
reveals the tensions in literature between meaning and meaninglessness,
desire and suffering, which results in our delight in literature always
being a terrifying delight. Psychoanalytical readings of literature
(like all readings) are reductive. Thus, the ending of The
Lady from the Sea is neither the happy conclusion
of Dr. Wangels psychotherapy of his wife nor a reversal of the doctor-patient
relationship because of Wangels sexual obsession with her. All such
meanings are invalidated by the plays deeply ironic
ending. Our response is ambivalent because art mimics the tension between
our libido and our disciplined selfhood, transforming (according to Leo
Bersani) biological masochism into ironic self-reflection.
Lis Möller probes deeply but not
altogether clearly in her discussion (14) of the problem Freud found in
Einige Charaktertypen aus derpsychoanalytischer
Arbeit (Some Character Types in
Psychoanalytic Practice), Imago,
1916): how to account for Rebecca Wests rejection of Rosmers
marriage proposal in Act II. For here, apparently, effect precedes cause;
Rebecca turns Rosmer down before
she has learned from Kroll that her relationship with Dr. West was incestuous.
Möller thinks that relationship remains subterranean
till the end of the play and that Freud finally buried in a textual
problematic the challenge he at first had felt it posed to psychoanalytic
theory. The problematic is the relation of story
to discourse. If I understand Möller here, the relationship
between Rebecca and Dr. West is the story as Rebecca knows
it prior to Krolls supplementing it. Her and Rosmers talk
about their own relationship is the discourse. What
triggers Rebeccas guilt in the proposal scene is not the probable
incest with Dr. West (which she doesnt yet know about), or the sexual
relationship itself; it is the threat of the repetition
of the past. Because she once took another womans place in a mans
(Dr. Wests) life, she cannot bring herself to do so again. Möllers
reading thus confirms Freuds Rebecca-centered formula for Rosmersholm:
Defeat through success.
Fredrik Engelstad thinks the reason for
Rebeccas refusal is quite accessible (15). In the wording of Rosmers
proposal she hears not his love for her but only his need to put behind
him his feelings of guilt about his first wife. The methodological issues
Engelstad sees involved in Freuds difficulties with Rosmersholm
are the problems that arise at the interface of literary understanding
and psychoanalysis. Statements about literary characters are not falsifiable,
but that is no reason for not making them. Not empirical verification
but economy of means and enlarged understanding are the criteria for the
validity of literary analysis.
In a sane and eloquent essay (16) Vigdis
Ystad is sceptical of psychoanalysis as a means to understanding literature.
Like those who think of Ibsen as a reformer, satirist, prophet, ideologue,
etc., psychoanalysts read his texts as symptomatic and not as autotelic.
Refusing their reductionism, Ystad sees them as dialectics; beneath their
dramatic specifics are enacted universal, irreconcilable conflicts of
abstract ideas. Politics, religion, symbolism, and characterization
are . . . primary and essential expression of the dramatic
reality which is Ibsens real subject . . . We must distinguish between
psyche and psychology. The tragedy in Rosmersholm
is that we are so made that a perfect relationship of two people entails
interdependence and therefore constraint: ones self becoming a function
of the others. We are both free and shackled, innocent and
guilty, in our encounters with others . . . The I-Thou relation is at
once self-fulfillment and self-extermination. In the last scene,
just when Rosmer has come over to Rebeccas side, she has risen to
the Rosmer view of lifenoble, anemic, passive. She dies
for him in one last assertion of her will, as he resumes for both of them
for one last time his function as a minister of the Church. The scene
resolves the conflict
but is not a solution.
Three articles on plays outside the group
Rolf Fjelde lists features and qualities shared by Peer Gynt and ONeills Moon for the Misbegotten (17). The most important is the pietà at the end of both plays. (Both could be candidates for Hadomis book on homecoming.) The difference between them is that Ibsens may be consummated (since Peers salvation from the Button-Moulders ladle is at least a possibility), while ONeills magnificently enacts the futility of Josies proffered resources of forgiveness against Jim Tyrones self-damnation and consequent inability to be, like Peer, born again.
And in both cases the return is to a humble cabin from a wilderness: Jims Broadway and Peers Dantesque dark wood. The Dante allusions give the article scope.
Fjelde does not press the comparison
beyond what the texts can support. His point is not that ONeill
was influenced by Ibsen, or that his bleaker ending signifies
a shift in the conception of woman-as-redeemer, or that the difference
in genre between a poetic fantasy and a realistic play in prose accounts
for the different outcomes. All his juxtaposition does is give additional
resonance to Moon for the Misbegotten
by bringing together two major plays that build different structures
on the shared motif of forgivenessjust as the title
I have one small quibble. It is not quite
accurate to say that Solvejgs final song prefigures the title
of the other late Tyrone drama in her metaphor, thrice recurring, of the
long lifes day journey. The phrase that turns up three times
in Solvejgs song is all the livelong day (hele
livsdagen lang). No journey there.
Enjoyably, and, I think, not altogether
seriously, Mervyn Nicholson presents the case for considering Jögen
Tesman the villain in Hedda Gabler
(18). He is he tricksterusing Hedda for prestige and
envy from other males, just as she uses him for status and financial security.
Hedda, says Nicholson correctly, needs no defense; she is tragic in her
ambivalence. When she burns Lövborgs manuscript she shows herself
to Tesman as a dangerous liability, and his casual dismissal
of her to Brack just before the end could be his deliberate provocation
of her to kill herself. He doesnt forget Hedda in that
final scene, as Shaw thought; He gets rid of her. Tesman has
been underestimated by everyone (including critics) except his aunt, whose
product he is. Events prove him stronger and more intelligent than Lövborg.
He gets what he wants: a congenial for an impossible wife. Nicholson constructs
an intriguing play, but it is not Ibsens.
In an article with a tantalizing ending, Leonora Olivia
compares Euripides Alcestis
and When We Dead Awaken
in terms of their representation of gender, power, submission and
transcendence (19)an ambitious task she does not accomplish.
Her most interesting comparison concerns Admetus resentment of Alcestis
leaving him, even though it is he
who has asked her to die in his place, and Rubeks complaint to Maia
that when Irene left him his inspiration went too, even though it was
he who sent her
away. The women in both plays are signifiers for men. We
might ask: are Euripides and Ibsen exposing this male-centered construction
of woman so that it might be critiqued, or are they perpetuating
the claim that the projection of woman from the male imagination
is an accurate one? These important questions must be addressed in a future
study. One hopes they will be; here they only tease.
1. Lise-Lone and Frederick J. Marker, The Essence
of Ibsen, To Begin Again. In Ingmar
Bergman: A Life in the Theatre, Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1992, pp. 185-290.
2. Denis W. Salter, Ibsen in Canada: The Critical
Reception, 1910-1980. In Jörn Carlsen and Bengt Streijffert,
eds. Canada and the Nordic Countries. Lund,
Sweden: Lund University Press, 1988, pp. 285-97.
3. Fredricka Howie, Victorian Fun and Games in Ibsens
A Dolls House. In Sara Munson
Deats and Lagretta Tallent Lenker, eds., The Aching
Heart: Family Violence in Life and Literature. New York: Plenum,
1991, pp. 165-74.
4. Shaffiuddin Ahmad and Angela Gawel, The Politics
of Money: Incomplete Feminism in A Doll House,
Dalhousie Review 70 (1990): 170-90.
5. Brian Johnston, The Three Stages of A
Doll House, Comparative Drama 25
6. Per R. Anthi, Freuds dröm om Nora og
Ekdal: En analyse (Freuds Dream about Nora and Ekdal.
An Analysis), Nytt norsk tidsskrift
7 . Oscar Lee Brownstein, Strategies
of Drama: The Experience of Form.
8. Leah Hadomi, Double Plot of the Returning Son and
Daughter: Ghosts. In The
Homecoming Theme in Modern Drama: the Return of the Prodigal. Lewiston,
NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1992, pp. 21-33.
9. Barbara Fass Leavy, Ibsens Ghosts
and the Ghosts of Ibsen. In To Blight with
Plague. New York: New York University Press, 1992, pp. 83-125.
10. A. F. Machiraju, Ideals and Victims: Ibsens
Concerns in Ghosts and The
Wild Duck, Modern Language Review
11. Wolfgang, Sohlich, Allegory in the Technological
Age: a Case Study of Ibsens The Wild Duck,
Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 6
12. Björn Killingmo, Psykoanalysen igar og idag.
Livslögnmotivet i nytt lys (Psychoanalysis Yesterday
and Today. New Light on the Life-lie Motif), Nytt
norsk tidsskrift 7 (1990):4-13.
13. Atle Kittang, Kan psykoanalysen bidra til var
forstaing av Diktkunst? (Can Psychoanalysis Contribute to
Our Understanding of Literature?), Nytt norsk
tidssrift 7 (1990):14-21.
14. Lis Möller, Det analytiske teater: Freud
og Ibsen (The Analytical Theater: Freud and Ibsen),
Nytt norsk tidsskift 7 (1990):40-49.
15. Fredrik Engelstad, Freud som litteraturkritiker?
(Freud as Literary Critic?), Nytt norsk
tidsskrift 7 (1990):49-53.
16. Vigdis Ystad, Rosmersholm
og psykoanalysen (Rosmersholm
and Psychoanalysis), Nytt norsk tidsskrift
17. Rolf Fjelde, Structures of Forgiveness: the Endings
of A Moon for the Misbegotten and Ibsens
Peer Gynt in Haiping Liu and Lowell
Swortzell, eds., ONeill in China: An International
Centenary Celebration. New York: Greenwood, 1992, pp. 51-57.
18. Mervyn Nicholson, LHomme Fatal in Hedda
Gabler, Modern Drama 35 (1992):365-77.
19. Leonora Olivia, The Presence of the Absent, Pacific Coast Philology 26 (1991):1-58.
I begin with feminist essays. Their number stays high year
after year; the Ibsen they write about is mainly the man who got
it before his male contemporaries. A. Velissariou (1) attacks the
pseudo-medieval, male-specific judgment that Beata Rosmer,
Rebecca West, Ellida and Hilda Wangel, Hedda Gabler, and Aline Solness
are women in whom the social and psychological conflate with the morally
reprehensible, certifying them as abnormal by the norms
of male discourse on female biology-as-mental destiny. Velissariou
sees Ibsen using mental illness as a metaphor for female revolt
against the roles imposed upon women. Society and not biology creates
hysterical women. Beata is not oversexed; Rosmer is undersexed.
Rebeccas suicide enacts Brendels talk about her self-mutilation.
And so on. The general argument here is sound, but not all the details
of interpretation seem so. One passage comes close to implying that Aline
Solness really is mad, and nothing is said about the ironic
taming of Ellida into a proper Hausfrau, which would have supported Velissarious
main argument. And because the new specifics only confirm what by now
has become aging orthodoxy, the article, for all its coverage, seems longer
Ross Shideler (2) reads Hedda Gabler
and Strindbergs Dödsdansen as post-Darwinian
plays that challenge belief in divine and mortal fathers and exemplify
male playwrights efforts to stage the struggle of the patriarchal
family to come to terms with womens new roles. With her pistol icon,
Hedda is hardly a feminist heroine, but she does
personify the problematizing of femininity in a patriarchy.
The problem with the article is that in spite of the titleThe
Theatrical Prisonthere is no prison imagery in the play. Hedda
feels trapped in middle-class domesticity and sometimes expresses her
frustration in speech and gesture, but neither stage directions nor dialogue
includes explicit prison imagery. That leaves the essay with a title that
either is inaccurate or refers to a metaphor of Shidelers rather
than Ibsens. On the other hand, prison imagery is indeed prominent
in Dödsdansen, and Shideler deals with
The value of Robin Youngs study of Ibsens revisions
in Rosmersholm (3) lies as much in the light
it throws on Ibsens creative process as in its feminist thematic,
unassailable though the latter is. The play, writes Young, is particularly
well suited for genetic study because the draft material
. . . is [for Ibsen] unusually complete. The radical revision, resulting
in what was virtually a new play, shifted the focus
. . . from details of the political process to the unchanging drives which
underlie it. Young finds the change in Ibsens idea of his
play recorded in the note he wrote on a slip of paper: She is an
intriguer and she loves him. She wants to become his wife and unwaveringly
pursues that goal. Then he discovers what shes been doing, and she
openly admits it. Then there is no more happiness in life possible for
him. The demonic [Young adds in him] is aroused by pain and
bitterness. He wants to die, and she is to die with him. She does.
Ibsens new insight into Rebeccas character marks the first
appearance of womans sexual passion in Ibsen and in modern drama.
(Young recognizes that Hjørdis in The Vikings
at Helgeland and Helena in Emperor
and Galilean anticipate Rebecca). Solveig, Agnes, Nora, and
Gina are all in different ways victims, trapped within their roles, lacking
emotional and sexual autonomy. Rebecca is different. And in the scale
and intensity of that difference lay the seeds of the dramatic revolution
that was to follow. Rosmersholm identifies
the moment when the bourgeois woman came into the fulness of ethical,
psychological, and physiological being in modern drama. While this amounts
to less than a fact in the history of drama, it is a resonant suggestion,
supported by the use Young makes of Ibsens note. And the note is
With the three remaining articles I label feminist,
we move even farther away from polemics. John Lingards essay (4)
makes subtle distinctions in The Lady from the Sea
between overt/spoken and covert/unspoken language, between rational consciousness
and the irrational unconscious, between realistic downstage and symbolic
upstage, between a horizontal and progressive succession of conflicting
signs (tegn imot tegn), as in Emperor
and Galilean, and vertical, spatial layering of meanings, as in
The Lady from the Sea. (Lingard acknowledges
his debt to James McFarlanes discussion of the sign-against-sign
motif in an essay first published in Contemporary
Approaches to Ibsen, 1966.) The article gains interest by the accompanying
black-and-white reproductions of Norwegian naturalist-symbolist paintings
of the late nineteenth century, all of them of human figures in a landscape.
But Lingard weakens his analysis by concluding that the deepest uncanniness
(detfrufulle, das Unheimliche) in The
Lady from the Sea is the imagistic link between the sea, the Stranger,
Ellidas father (drowned, in the draft version, and thus of less
relevance to Lingards point in the final version), and death. It
makes sense to say that the incest motif explains Ellidas sexual
rejection of Wangel, a substitute father, but Lingards use of the
redundant reference to the town of Bergen, of the fact that
the Black Death reached Norway on an English ship in Bergen harbor in
1349, and of a modern Norwegian historians calling the plague a
blessing in disguise, a kind of deliverance of the country
from overpopulation (one third of the population died!), leaves his argument
finally hanging by a thin and fragile thread. But misplaced historicism
should not distract us from Lingards skillful demonstration of interlocking,
different kinds of tensions among signs in the play.
Evert Sprinchorn (5) establishes in Hedda
Gabler an elaborate scheme of significant stage space, adding meaning
to what can be articulated in speech (an extension of Northams well-known
analysis). For example, in act one, the windows at stage left flood the
Tesman living room with light; not so the dark-tiled stove at stage right.
In elaboration, Sprinchorn suggests that stage left represents hedonism,
the Viking ethos, freedom, courage, nature, and reality; while stage right
represents domestication, propriety, hypocrisy, convention, civilization,
and artifice. His dichotomous scheme takes him to the chair in which Hedda
sits in act four, with Brack behind her; it stands for middle-class
conventionality and comfort, and the stove is the home of the imps and
demons bred by thwarted instincts and desires. If you insist. But
the pretentious banality is a bore.
Errol Durbach (6) takes on recent women critics of A
Doll House: Sandra Saari (1988), who faults Ibsen for not realizing
his original intent of illustrating the operation in modern society of
the different moral laws for women and men; Joan Templeton (1989), who
sees Nora as defying masculine law in the name of love; and Elaine Hoffman
Baruch (1980), who warns feminists against the dangers of letting a celebration
of Noras triumphant individualism slide into celebrating the
ugly narcissism of the Me generation. Durbach sees the
plays ending as ambivalent and spells out its Hegelian implication:
A Doll House is a tragedy because no reconciliation
is possible between a husband and a wife who each is both right and wrong.
Like Antigone, Nora pays a dreadful price for her principles,
but because her choice is secular and not religious, and thus without
Antigones comfort of knowing she is right, she becomes an
Antigone manquée. Feminism believes that there are remedies
for gender-based inequities, while tragedy contemplates the
existentially irremediable in human experience. Therefore,
Durbach concludes, to call Nora feminist tragedienne
is to play with oxymoron and paradox. Nevertheless, until the miraculous
moment when state law becomes Gods law, he is willing to keep on
calling her that. As well he may.
The thesis of Sandra Hardy (7), which is not so much feminist as it is multiculturalist, is that Rebecca Wests ethnic identity as a Lapp (today considered an obsolete and politically suspect term for Sami) is crucial to understanding her and her dramatic function. Her independence, candor, emotional intensity, and susceptibility to superstition and magic are the products of her ethnic origin. As a Lapp, she is not subject to conventionally Christian moralistic censure. Much of Hardys essay is in the form of a directors notes to the actor playing Rebecca. The notes are often performance-wise, but they are not all relevant to ethnicity or to the larger economic and political issues we associate with the third world. Hardys comments on name symbolism are sometimes merely silly, e.g., Rosmer equals mer rose (more praise), Mortensgaard comes from mort, a fish, and her Sami ethnology sometimes carries overtones of majority stereotypes. Most damaging of all: there is no unequivocal evidence in the play that Rebecca is a Lapp. Not everyone from Finnmark is.
Next come two important articles on larger issues of history
Charles Lyons (8) relates Sam Shepards plays, primarily
Buried Child and The
Curse of the Starving Class, to the Ibsen tradition in modern drama,
which he defines as material realism embedding a retrospective
plot that dramatizes causation (a nineteenth-century obsession). Strindberg,
Chekhov, and ONeill have also left their distinctive traces on Shepard,
but Ibsen is the main model (presumably as the traditions father).
Lyonss point is Shepards ironic relation to this tradition;
Shepard fragments Ibsens narrative cohesiveness by significant
disjunctions, interstices, and inconsistencies, subverting Ibsens
structures in endings that are enigmatic, problematic, and unresolved.
He uses the familiar Ibsen motifs—the visitor from the past, Kindermord,
the absent or inadequate father, past sexual guilt, a problematic sonto
foreground their arbitrariness and artifice. Shepards
postmodernist use of this dramatic heritage makes his art
more conventional than archetypal, more self conscious than unconscious,
more public than private, more aesthetic than psychological, more theatrical
than autobiographical. The essay opens long and stimulating historical
perspectives. Much of what Lyons wrote about the mythic paradigms of Ibsens
actions in his Henrik Ibsen: The Divided Consciousness
(1972) usefully turns up in the appropriate places here.
Erik Østerud (9) applies Michael Frieds Diderot-inspired
distinction between absorption and theatricality
in painting to the difference between unselfconscious fascination and
belief (something like Einlebung, perfect
empathy, suspension of disbelief) on the part of an observer in the play,
and the attractive and impressive, but false, impersonation by a performer
conscious of being observed. The Wild Duck
is his example, and Hjalmar and Hedvig, respectively, are his observed
and observer. The self-conscious Hjalmar differs from the unselfconscious
observed figure in the eighteenth-century paintings Diderot wrote about,
in which the viewers absorption in the painting depended on the
unawareness of the observed figure that he/she was being observed. In
theatricalist plays, the playgoers sense of the dramatic lies in
his/her awareness of the distinction between what the absorbed
observer on stage (Hedvig) sees and what the theatricalist
observed (Hjalmar) wants her to see. The posturing theatricalist character
is theatricalist to the extent that he is conscious of his own spectacularity—of
being seen. Østeruds main example is the exchange early in
act two between father and daughter on Hjalmars hair; is it curly
or wavy? At the end of the little scene, Hjalmar is simultaneously in
front of and behind the camera, because he has replaced Hedvig, the photographer
at the beginning of the scene, for failing to see what he wants her to
see. Hjalmars conscious posing is like that of the photographed
person in the early age of photography, forced by primitive technology
to remain absolutely still during the long exposure time. Life in The
Wild Duck unfolds as a long succession of spectacular stagings
or tableaux, in which the characters visual confrontations and conflicts
may be described as an indeterminate number of clashes between the posers
exhibition of him/herself and the observing viewers interpretation
of the pose. Thus Gregers sees what Werle does not want
him to see. The resulting visual indeterminancy or ambiguity
on the part of both observer and observed has to do with the unconscious.
The conflict is between to see and to appear (the
pithier distinction in the Norwegian original is between å
se and å se ut). This double optics,
shuffling between the long views of tragedy and the myopia of comedy,
has moral significance. The late Ibsen protagonist is an escapist,
a play-actor, who poses a would-be reality that looks like real
life, but is actually an empty form. In being anti-theatricalist, Diderot,
writes Østerud, was on Ibsens road. His theory
furthered the development of bourgeois domesticity as a popular subject
both for painting and for the theatre. Ibsen the skeptic unmasked the
sham reality of the bourgeois home, which Hedvig could not penetrate.
And because she is trusting and naive, her death affects us as a harrowing
mishap (ulykke), and not as tragedy;
in The Wild Duck there is no anagnorisis
for anyone. The play initiates Ibsens later use of the Plato-Aristotle
dialectic between the theoria that sees Truth through appearances, and
the aletheia, in which hiddenness and covering (in English
in Østeruds original) are inseparable in a transit
(English in the original) relationship. Ibsen the moralist/reformer is
the Platonist, dialectically engaging his psychologist/artist Aristotelian
other self, to whom the veil and the mask are starting points for the
act of unveiling/unmasking that Ibsen wants us to see. The visually
ambiguous became his constant field of investigation. There are
details of interpretation that one may question in Østeruds
essay (the studio as a camera obscura, Ginas
role in the illusionist-photographers home), but they hardly matter.
The essay brings new angles of vision (literally) on the modality of Ibsens
dramatic art and sharpens our understanding of the inner workings of his
domestic moralities and of their relationship to theories of stage perception
and to cultural history. It is an original study that will last. In another
article on a related subject (10), Østerud presents Ibsen as an
early exemplar of the postmodernist commitment both to the fetishized
image and to distrust of its reality. Platos cave has become a labyrinth,
in which we search in vain for the reality behind the simulacra and contentedly
indulge ourselves in free surfing among illusionistic props.
Ibsen was a Freudian before Freud, a visualist modernist before
visuality had become quite modern.
Three readings of single plays follow.
There is not much that is new in Harold C. Knutsons
lively and sensible article (11), a variant on Thomas Van Laans
1986 demonstration (acknowledged by Knutson) that An
Enemy of the People is a generically complex play and Dr. Stockmann
an ambiguous character. The question Knutson asks is how Ibsen succeeds
in making such a reactionary, imprudent, hotheaded, unscientific, and
selfish man into an effective and likeable protagonist. The example of
Molières Alceste provides part of the answer. Like Molière,
Ibsen satirized his satirist, and there is something of Bergsons
mechanical man about both title characters that accounts for
their comic effect. There is no quarreling with Knutsons Stockmann
as a complex comic figure fitting perfectly into the consistent
ludic performance of the play, but he might have shared with us
the feeling that he is more likeable than Alceste.
John Astington has written a small but suggestive footnote
to The Wild Duck (12). In an early sixteenth-century
woodcut illustrating Gregor Reischs Margarita
Philosophica, Logic, with two dogs, Veritas and Falsitas, pursues
an equally allegorical hare, Problema. It is unlikely that Ibsen knew
the emblematic tradition directly, but its metaphorical descendants live
on in Gregerss words about himself as a clever dog and
in the force of Hedvigs reaction to his words. We may therefore
think of the action of The Wild Duck as Gregers-as-Falsitas,
playing his self chosen role as Veritas, pursuing a hare (the problem
of the Ekdal manage) that escapes him. Connected to this is the image
of Death and the Maiden. Gregerss visionary language fascinates
Hedvig, with fateful consequences. It is harder to follow Astington when
he writes, pace Mary McCarthy, that Ibsen
does not mock his characters for their symbolizing. Gregers, it seems
to me, is a perfect example of what McCarthy was talking about.
George Schoolfields essay (13) is a general exegesis
of a scene between Irene and Rubek in act two of When
We Dead Awaken, with particular attention to a passage in which
Rubek and Irene recall life on the Taunitzer See and talk about flamingoes
and swans, Lohengrin, and sunrise on the mountain peaks. Schoolfield is
knowledgeable and resourceful in his scrupulously detailed gloss on the
many different kinds of allusions in the passage (botanical, ornithological,
literary), but he is not very specific on the dramatic significance of
the textual minutiae he explicates. A slight sense of much ado and hardly
any sense of undue neglect of the passage attend his summing up: The
little lyric interlude . . . has been revelatory not only about Ibsens
skill at deploying familiar images of the fin de
siècle (and of his own work) but also of central problems
in the relationship between Rubek and Irene. The scene, anticipating
the final Liebestod (although Schoolfield
does not use that word) does indeed have an operatic quality.
Two essays fall outside groupings.
Gerda Erichsen Moter does belated justice to the first German
translator of Peer Gynt in a pleasant and
welcome article (14). Ludwig Passarge (1825-1912) had a respectable if
unremarkable career as a judge in Konigsberg. He was a passionate traveler
who loved Norway and the Norwegians. His writings were mainly travelogues,
autobiographies, and translations. He translated Bjørnson as well
as Ibsen. Erichsen maintains that her subject is the translator rather
than his translations, but she finds room for documenting convincingly
her contention that Passarges second translation of Peer
Gynt (1887) was an improvement over his first (1881).
Three associates of the Norwegian Computing
Centre for the Humanities (NCCH) report on their new lemmatized,
homograph-separated concordance that covers all of Ibsens major
works and has been edited according to very high standards
(15). Their technical description of what is obviously an instantly indispensable
new tool for Ibsen students has the reasserting ring of certified expertise.
The teams next project is a hypermedia edition of [Ibsens]
plays and poems, with text, still pictures, music, and video
sequences. We can hardly wait.
I add some unfashionable general reflections prompted
by some (but not all) recent Ibsen articles (not merely those reviewed
above). The playwright is important as thinker and miner of souls only
to the extent that his plays are art. To read them as ideology is to assume
that what the art polemically communicates is all that counts. Blinkered
by their own ideological commitments, such readers not only cannot but
will not claim disinterestedness. To them, ambiguity is status-quoism,
and reading amounts to an encounter with what they accept or reject. Their
Ibsen is a champion of causes, a writer of opinions, engaged in teaching
his people to think correct thoughts. They debate one another on who has
got Ibsens ideology right and how socially valuable the ideology
is. But Ibsens Nora isnt right or wrong; she is a woman making
a hard choice. There is a plague on both political houses in Rosmersholm.
Ellida and Hilda Wangel and Solness are believable without being diagnosed
psychological cases. The same incontrovertible text contains an indeterminate
number of significant configurations of elements, each configuration yielding
a different meaning-of-the-whole. The readers Ibsen needs are not those
who look for the one right meaning among all the wrong ones, but negatively
capable readers who enjoy being in doubt and uncertainty and who see different
ways of reading the play and different meanings in it, not all of them
possible, some of them incompatible or contradictory, none of them true,
but some of them revealing, exciting, and good to know about.
(1) A. Velissariou, Mental Illness and the Problem
of Female Identity in Ibsen, Madness in Drama
(in the series Themes in Drama), ed. James
Redmond (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993), 65-92.
(2) Ross Shideler, The Theatrical Prison in Hedda
Gabler and Dodsdansen, Fin(s)
de Siécle in Scandinavian Perspective, ed. Faith Ingwersen
et. al (Columbia, South Carolina: Camden House,
(3) Robin Young, Vision and Revision in the Making
of Ibsens Rosmersholm, Scandinavica
32 (May 1993), 47-68.
(4) John Lingard, The Conflict of Signs in Ibsens
The Lady from the Sea, Dalhousie
Review 72 (Fall 1992), 342-60.
(5) Evert Sprinchorn, The Unspoken Text in Hedda
Gabler, Modem Drama 36 (September
(6) Errol Durbach, Nora as Antigone: The Feminist
Tragedienne and Social Legality, Scandinavian-Canadian
Studies 5 (1992), 29-41.
(7) Sandra Hardy, The Third World and Ibsen: Production
Perspectives in Rosmersholm, Journal
of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 7 (Spring 1993), 47-62.
(8) Charles Lyons, Shepards Family Trilogy and
the Conventions of Modern Realism, Rereading
Shepard: Contemporary Critical Essays on the Plays of Sam Shepard,
ed. Leonard Wilcox (New York: St. Martins, 1993), 115-30.
(9) Erik Østerud, Henrik Ibsens teatermaske:
tablå, absorpsjon og teatralitet i Vildanden, Edda
(1993), 242-60. Frieds book is Absorption and
Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1980).
(10) Erik Østerud, Ibsen i Platons hule,
Samtiden (1993), 20-27.
(11) Harold C. Knutson, An Enemy
of the People: Ibsens Reluctant Comedy, Comparative
Drama 27 (1993), 159-75.
(12) John H. Astington, The Clever Dog and the Problematic
Hare, Modem Drama 36 (December 1993),
(13) George Schoolfield, A Neglected Passage in Når
vi døde vågner, in (2) above, 91-111.
(14) Gerda Erichsen Moter, Ludwig Passarge: der erste
Ubersetzer von Ibsens Peer Gynt, Zeitschriftffir
Germanistik 1 (1991), 544-54.
(15) Knut Hofland, Kjell Morland, Espen Smith, The
Ibsen Project: Ibsen Concordance and Peer Gynt
in Hypermedia, Literary and Linguistic Computing:
Journal of the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing
8 (1993), 47-51.
Most of the articles reviewed here fall into one of two
groups. The first relates Ibsens plays to what may be broadly called
postmodernism; the second deals with stagecraft, media comparisons, and
stage history. A few articles analyze plays apart from any single topical
or ideological context.
What Ibsen achieved in his twelve-play realistic cycle
(Brian Johnston tells us again) was a reconstruction of contemporary
bourgeois life that could express the numinous life of the
archetypal realm (1). Ibsens dramatic language in these plays
is a counter-discourse because it can alienate us (in something
like Brechts sense) from the monstrous strangeness of what
we have made of life. Ibsen was recreating modern Norway as
an occult or archetype-filled space. The inspiriting of the present
by the mythical past was his major triumph as a dramatist.
In a tribute to Johnstons Ibsen
Cycle on the occasion of its republication in a revised edition,
Gerald Dugan paraphrases Johnstons main ideas (2). The demonstration
of the Hegelian analogues in Ibsens last twelve plays, with the
human spirit moving through a dialectical conflict to higher
and freer phases of civilization is, says, Dugan, quite simply,
“the most audacious piece of dramatic criticism written in America
since Eric Bentleys The Playwright as Thinker,
and the most original piece of Ibsen criticism since Bernard Shaws
The Quintessence of Ibsenism. Indeed,
so audacious and original was Johnston that he turned Ibsen, as Dugan
sees it, into an evolutionary optimist. In my own renewed encounter with
The Ibsen Cycle under Dugans guidance,
I once again admired Johnstons learning and the critical imagination
evident in his allusions, analogues, and associations, but I was also
left wondering how deliberate Johnston takes Ibsens use of Hegel
to be, how conscious Ibsen was that his last twelve plays coherently tracked
(if they do) a single spiritual ascent, and how plausible is it that a
radical sceptic would shackle himself to a single system of philosophized
cultural history. And wondering, too, whether Johnston had to write in
a manner quite so rapturously insistent.
Paul Baxter has written a corrective to Johnston, arguing,
on evidence, that Ibsen learned from Hegel more about dramaturgy than
about Weltanschauung (3). For one thing, Ibsen
did not, like Hegel, give priority to the state over the individual, but
sought to expose societys false claims to truth against the individuals
thought and feeling.
Anatoly Lunacharsky (1875-1933) was a Bolshevik critic,
whose article on Ibsen (published in St. Petersburg in 1907) has been
very readably translated and edited by Edward Braun (4). Lunarcharsky
sees Ibsen as the last bourgeois because he gradually came
to lose faith in the social order of liberal-democratic capitalism
that he had earlier criticized in the expectation that it could be reformed
or reform itself. The ending of Brand, he
says, is typical of bourgeois-idealist pessimism, and that
of Peer Gynt reassures the petite
bourgeoisie that there is forgiveness even for someone as swinish
as Peer. By the time of The Wild Duck, Ibsen
had come to despair of the usefulness of telling hard truths to philistines
and had discovered its high cost to the most sensitive and vulnerable.
At the end, Ibsen left Ibsenism to the Ibsenites, endorsing, in John
Gabriel Borkman, Erharts and Mrs. Wiltons hedonistic
nihilism, and, in When We Dead Awaken, staging
a mystical and terrifying Epilogue. Ibsens tragedy as
man and as artist, Lunarcharsky concludes, was that he found it necessary
to give up on individualism without being able to believe in collectivism.
Lunacharskys ideological purity is disarming.
Charles R. Lyons questions post-modernists charge
that modernist realism produced texts that were complicit in the
ideology they attack and that they reproduce the very orthodoxy's
they interrogate(5). Whether it is neo-conservative
(Habermas), or whether it takes non-hegemonic and non-totalizing delight
in the concatenation of competing voices (Lyotard), postmodernism
has devalued Ibsens plays: to read [them] as social documents
consigns them to the failure of rationalism; to see them as manifestations
of the subjective relegates them to an irrelevant solipsism. To
rescue them, Lyons seeks to re-historicize them by showing
that the subjective sexual paradigm in Ibsen subsumes
their liberal-rational critique of capitalism. Only thus can we read and
stage Ibsen with a good, progressive, and theory-competent conscience.
The paradigm resembles that in James Hurts Catilines
Dream (1972): a man leaves an erotic woman for an idealistic project,
has a relationship with an asexual, i.e., non-threatening woman, fails
his project (or it fails him), returns to the erotic woman or her substitute,
and ends in a new renunciation that entails actual or virtual suicide.
Through all the changing modes and forms of his drama, Ibsen kept using
this same idiosyncratic, subjective, sexually based relational structure.
To Lyons, Ibsens late-play realism cannot be satisfactorily
contained either by old-fashioned liberalism (i.e., modernism), or by
the radical epistemological scepticism of todays fluid
post-modernisms. It is too bad that with all its sophisticated substance
Lyons prose so often comes between his meaning and his reader. Queued-up
prepositional phrases waiting their turn involute and retard the completion
of the sense. The result is far from being nonsense, but getting through
to the sense isnt much fun.
Michael Goldman, in a weighty and incisive essay, relates Hedvigs and Eyolfs deaths to current media obsession with child abuse (6). Our interest reflects a cultural urge to confront child abuse as an issue of poststructural philosophical undecidability. We no longer ask, what happened?, but rather did it happen?. The nineteenth century thought of the French Revolution as an event that, however complex, could be accounted for by secular historiography working with principles of rational causality. Ibsen and Yeats were pioneers in regarding such confidence with scepticism. Yeats How can we know the dancer from the dance? is a question about undecidability and is asked in a poem about schoolchildren. Seeing is central to both The Wild Duck and Little Eyolf. We see the attic but not the wild duck in the attic, and the child Hedvig sees more than her photographer parents. With Rita Allmers, we see the drowned childs eyes, at once his wound and his accusatory gaze at the grownup world. Like Gregers Werle, Alfred Allmers dedicates himself to a project whose achievement will make up for his crippling childhood and his uncertainty about his sexual identity. The Allmers decision at the end to dedicate themselves to a cause of social justice is a product of their guilt and rage, a response to abuse both suffered and inflicted. When we last see them, they do not look upward but stareas Eyolf stares, as we in the audience starestraight ahead. Goldman finds little hope in that final twilight tableau. Near the end of his essay, Goldman relates the abused children in Blake, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Rimbaud, Buchner; the questionable Charles Dodgson-Alice Liddell relationship; and Derridas always already (everything we experience has happened before) to Ibsens dramatized childhood traumas. Transcending the certainties of the age, they leap into modes of conscience and consciousness painfully familiar to us.
Philosophically compatible with Goldmans is William
Demarests essay (7) on Ibsens uncanny way of anticipating
in bourgeois realistic drama current notions about the unreliability of
empiricism and rationalismspecifically, on Ibsen as class theorist.
Demarest takes up where Robert Brustein left off in a 1978 article published
in Theatre; in The Master
Builder, Ibsen queries the premises of theatrical naturalism (plausibility,
rationality, causality, unambiguous outcome). The cracked chimney in Alines
old family home should have been the cause of the ire that started Solness
on his riseonly it wasnt. Like Ibsen in 1892, modern chaos
theorists believe in the butterfly effectthat a
butterfly fluttering in China affects the weather in Louisianaand,
also like Ibsen, quantum physicists work with the concept of unpredictable
determinism. Where events are random, the most we can do is assert
probabilities. What that kiss in Lysanger ten years ago has come to mean
to the adult Hilda cannot be posited as the inevitable
consequence of a possibly quite trivial social moment. Chaos drama
impinges on freedom of the will: No one in Ibsens drama, or
presumably in the real world, is either completely free/responsible or
completely determined/guiltless. The theory views reality as neither
neo-Newtonian orderly, knowable, predictablenor its opposite, but
as an experimental explanation in a scientific realm that the critical
and artistic communityat least in part responsible for inspiring
the new viewwould do well to embrace and pursue on its own.
Demarest could have taken his argument further and claimed that the cracked
chimney did more than contribute to the climate in which chaos theory
currently flourishesthat it proved the theory before its time.
Between Lunarcharsky and Demarest Ibsen did not leave us
moderns much to believe in: Lunarcharsky has him giving up on liberal
democratic capitalism; Demarest, on belief in a world of unalterable laws
accessible to rational predictions.
Vigdis Ystads argument about Ibsen as existentialist
is hardly postmodernist (8), although there are affinities. Her Ibsen
is a writer for whom the clash of ability and aspiration (from
Ibsens Preface to the Collected Works,
1898), was the tragic axiom of existence. Ibsens idea
that drama is synonymous with an abstract
. . . battle of ideas bound to the interactive, theatrical surface
is a paradox: Every drama and each performance is bound
in relation to an experience of liberty.
Ystad uses the mistaken identity motif as illustration of the way that
the appearance/reality theme is manifest in the plays from Catiline
to The Vikings at Helgeland. In her paraphrase, man may freely
choose his rolebut in such a way that the choice of role is really
a choice of idea and thereby a choice of identity. The
Burial Mound is the most striking example.
From a different direction, Frode Helland explores nearly
the same area (9). His exemplum of Ibsens
postmodernism is Hedda Gabler, which is a
play about the experience of the impossibility of experience.
The many offstage eventsthe honeymoon, the scene at the pier, Bracks
party, Løvborgs debauch, Aunt Rinas death, Heddas
suicidecontribute to that theme. The irony that attaches to all
the characters, including the good Aunt Julie, is incompatible
both with Daniel Haakonsens tragedy-of-fate interpretation and with
Walter Benjamins definition of plays within plays (here, the incident
of the hat on the chair, Heddas mocking mimicries of Tesman) as
expressing the indeterminacy of infinite reflexivity. Rather,
such scenes anticipate the modernist
emphasis on the autonomy and distance of art . . . and amounts to modernisms
demonstration against itself as art and illusion . . . .The theme of wholeness
can only be presented negatively. That is why the destruction of
Løvborgs manuscript and of Løvborg himself has to
be ironic: the society of the future goes up in flames. The plays
pervasive irony or ambiguity makes our reading of it as dubious
as Tesmans project of recreating the manuscript. Its ending is neither
redemptive nor an instance of tragic negativity,
but comic. Helland concludes, as we might have expected, by disclaiming
any intent on his part to prove anything about the play. Even
seeing the play as self-destructive self-reflexiveness marks an absurd
position. This means not that Hedda Gabler
is indeterminate of meaning, but that coming to terms with indeterminacy
of meaning is the modernist problem. Hellands intellectual nihilism
(alas, only near nihilism) moves knowledgeably, nimbly, and articulately
among current ideas.
In an essay of wide perspectives and much critical acumen
(10), Hedda Gabler serves Anca Vlasopolos,
too, as an exemplary play, a work that defies traditional generics and
allows Vlasopolos to make the point that the old genre distinctions reinforce
social hierarchies. The premise for the realistic bourgeois drama, that
all men are created equal, excluded women and the lower classes.
The same hidden biases underlie todays domestic violence, and our
popular drama is still divided by the old genre distinctions, all of them
reflecting male desire. In the ancient Greek
theatre, genres served as a means to ratify onstage violence as ritualized
sacrifice intended to keep the oppressed of the polis
quiet by presenting them with spectacles of their betters suffering
and dying. Viasopolos wants to supplant that model with plays that are
not pathological deviants and not necessarily feminist, but
will help us to put into question the stability of assumptions about
genre, which after all are assumptions about unanimity on issues such
as gender, class, and race. Brecht, who sought complex, ambivalent,
individualized audience responses, wrote such antigeneric
Coriolanus and Le
Misanthrope are, like Hedda Gabler,
antecedents to the twentieth-century anti-norm,
whose slipperiness of genre undercuts the ideology of classical
genre” (ideology here presumably being both
dramatic and sociopolitical). Unlike Shakespeare and Molière, who
play with but do not question gender distinctions, Ibsen in Hedda
Gabler does question them by problematizing victimage into genderlessness.
Coriolanus and Alceste are ambivalent as unlikable representatives of
indispensable virtues, Hedda because Ibsen uses her to evoke only to reject
the stereotype of the immoral aristocratic woman whose dismissal confirms
bourgeois propriety and denounces womans sexual emancipation and
instead reduces the bourgeoisie, regardless of their sex, age, and class,
to rivals and objects of desire. The interchangeable, constantly changing
triangular mobile of desire in Hedda
Gabler (Tesman and Brack, Brack and Løvborg, rivals for
Hedda; Hedda and Thea rivals first for Løvborg and then for Tesman;
Hedda and Aunt Julie rivals for Tesman) levels any claims to superiority
the middle class might make and subtly undermines the sex-role differentiation
imposed by the bourgeois division of public and private spheres.
Victimization is everywhere in the play, but its scene is no longer the
palace grounds or the market place or a salon,
but the inner space of the Tesman drawing room. Domesticated,
the ambivalent action confronts us with our own uncertainty of response.
This is the ultimate gift of antigeneric drama: destabilizing our
certainties. . . We get reflexivity without catharsis. Such drama
encourages our scepticism about victorious truths, not excluding
Vlasopolos own argument that theatre against the grain
can demolish the old classicist, sexist, racist, and imperialistic genre
divisions. In addition to its many other virtues, this is also a splendidly
researched article. Vlasopolos bibliography is indispensable for
any further study of feminism and drama.
More prosaically (but still skeptically) Bjørn Hemmer
juxtaposes the psychologies of Nora and Rebecca in order to voice his
notion of negative sides to Ibsens dramas about someone
struggling to take possession of and act on her individual freedom
(11). The lact act of A Doll House begins
with a duologue between two people about to enter a marriage more modest
in its expectations and less self-centered than the Helmers. Kristines
is a quiet voice in the drama, easily drowned out by Noras loud
call for freedom. The moment of recognition for Rebecca comes when
Kroll reveals the circumstances of her birth. What changes her is not
the realization that she has committed incest, but that her father sexually
used her, that emancipation of the self may entail selfish exploitation
of others. Under that new knowledge her trust in her lovers radical
thinking collapses, and she becomes the protagonist of a tragedy
of liberalism. For Nora, it would be immoral not to leave, but she
achieves liberation at the cost of losing her family. And the ending of
Rosmersholm is a constant accusatory
reminder that individual liberty can be abused.
There are ideological overtones also in Sandra Saaris
article on the male-constructed women in John Gabriel
Borkman (12). That act one leaves us with a sense of the yet unseen
Borkman as a construction of the twin sisters only means that both Gunhild
and Ella define themselves exclusively by their relation to him. The play
is about the ideal woman as a social construct, with the sisters
finding worth and purpose in their lives only in terms of a mans
status and needs. Ironically, they are not in contention for Borkman,
as they think, with each other, or with another woman, but with the male
entrepreneurs dream of becoming the Napoleon of Norwegian finance.
They can reconcile at the end only as shadows, all life gone
out of them. Borkmans and Foldals friendship founders on their
disagreement on woman: Foldals view is idealistic, Borkman’s
is cynical. The plays only subverter of the patriarchy is Fanny
Wilton, who mocks sexist societys behavioral cliches in openly choosing
the part of the older seductress of a younger man over that of the
ideal woman. Saari admirably correlates her feminist concerns and
Ibsens sceptical mode.
The non-ideological, antigeneric, and ambivalent
Ibsen of non-closure is the subject also of Göran Printz-Påhlssons
study of Rosmersholm (13). The play reflects
nothing ideological but the contract of realism.
Neither Kroll nor Mortensgaard is politically right or wrong, Brendel
is an intellectual bankrupt, Rebecca regards ancient sophrosne
(moderation, equilibrium of opposites) as a sickness (acrasia,
lack of will), passionless Rosmers idea of ennobling souls
is empty talk, and Madam Helseths famous curtain line is simpleminded
superstition. All the contract of realism does is to turn
the audience into interested but neutral and skeptical observers.
There is no proper moral dimension to the play. Debates on
whether Rosmersholm is drama or novel, Freudian
analyses of Rebecca, and finding clues to the plays meaning in folk-lore
raise side issues, not only because they omit crucial portions of the
play, but also because they fail to heed Kierkegaards reminder in
Fear and Trembling that aesthetics required
concealment and rewarded it, ethics required revelation and had to push
aesthetics out of the picture.
Printz-Påhlssons notion of Rosmersholm
as film is not whimsical; the plays spectators become voyeurs, like
Rebecca and Madame Helseth, or like film-goers watching the full
representation of trivia (Stanley Cavell), uninvolved in the film
though fearful of it, immersing themselves in the ambiguities and non-commitments
of the medium, which is under no other contract than that
of realism. Rosmersholm is neither tragic
nor comic, neither moral nor amoral, but merely filmic. It would be impertinent
to agree or disagree with such a sustained exercise in esthetic distancing.
I found it elegantly provocative.
Egil Törnqvist subjects A Doll
House to analysis by performance semiotics (14), a
formidable undertaking, in which he succeeds better than his initial abstract
scheme had seemed to forebode. At the end, he has convinced the reader
that his listing of categories of what he calls text, stage,
and film/television performance and his vertical (among the
categories) and horizontal (among the different media within
the same category) analyses are parts of a legitimate and meaningful
enterprise. Why performance texts differ, and differ in the ways that
they do, can have only speculative answers, but we should try to make
them less so by deducing signifiés
from careful observation of the signifiants.
The essay includes different directors detailed perceptions of Ibsens
playssome exquisite, some fascinating, some merely odd.
The general subject of Asbjørn Aarseths article
(15) is the same as Törnqvists, but his focus is narrower and
his findings are different, although not incompatible. Before discussing
the differences between film and theater productions that are inherent
in the media themselves, Aarseth offers the delightful observation that
in 1884, George Eastman did what Hjalmar Ekdal failed to do, i.e., he
made a technological invention in photography (that made moving pictures
possible). Like everyone else who compares theatre to film, Aarseth posits
as basic the fact that in the theatre the spectators viewpoint is
fixed, while the camera moves around. One corollary is that only film
and television can dissolve space. Thus the symbolic
resonance of the scenography of a play is more easily perceived
in the theatre than in front of a movie or television screen. For example,
the outdoor scenes in Loseys film version of A
Doll House lose for the viewer any sense of Noras entrapment
in her doll house. The catch 22 for the film-maker is that
if he faithfully follows Ibsens claustrophobic script and confines
himself to indoor scenes, the audience is likely to wonder why he doesnt
use the camera as the movable spectator it primarily is. Aarseth ends
by considering what is lost and what is gained by the filmmakers
use of teichoscopy, showing only what the
characters on stage see, and not what the spectators see. The director
who keeps the Ekdals wild duck out of camera range runs the risk
of producing filmed theatre.
The problem of the visibility of the wild duck both in the
theatre and on filmto be seen or not to be seen?occurs also
in Thomas Van Laans (shocking!) suggestion (16) that the legacy
of John Northams Ibsen Dramatic Method
(1953) may have done stage directors more harm than good by being text-bound
rather than performance-bound. If Ibsen had Gina and Hjalmar drag
(slæber) Hedvigs dead body off-stage at the end
of The Wild Duck, a director (or translator)
who out of respect for the dead child wants her body carried
rather than dragged falsifies Ibsens text. As does Ingmar
Bergman when he stages act five from inside the attic. Bergman lets us
see what we want to see and expect to see, but what Ibsen does not want
us to see. However imaginative, provocative, and interesting such directorial
inventions may seem, they result in a performance that is not the performance
Ibsen visualized as he wrote the play. Rosmersholm,
Hedda Gabler, and The
Master Builder are other plays in which the catastrophe is outside
the audiences view and should be left this way. Northams invitation
to scenographers to translate Ibsens stage directions into symbols
and suggestions has too often led to imposed and static
visual images. A performance should do more than make the playwrights
words visible; it should allow complete expression in stage action of
what the text calls for. Only thus can it become the true text
of the play. Sometimes Van Laan comes close to implying that none
of Northams comments on Ibsens stage directions are stageable
in the positive sense Van Laan has in mind, but once again he has come
up with challenging new angles on old views.
The problem Errol Durbach faced in acting as dramaturg for
a University of British Columbia production of A
Doll House in 1987 was how to reconcile authentic period decor
with timeless significance, how to let the universal shine through the
dated (or even the updated) scenographic particulars (17). Or, opting
for neither antiquarian realism nor contemporaneous slice-of-life
realism, how to deconstructively or expressionistically conceptualize
the play without turning it into a quaint vehicle for vast and vapid socio-psychological
symbolism. The dilemma is endemic (vide Asbjørn
Aarseth) and can only be solved pragmatically. What Durbach and Company
did was to devise a wall-less set, with a minimum of furniture and no
obvious period pieces, dress Nora in the fashion of the 1960s, and
then have her return, from the change of clothes in act three, in the
kind of dress an upper-middleclass woman might have worn in 1897. This
turned away the audiences otherwise obvious question why the modern
Nora could not take her children with her and count on child support as
provided by current law. And the period-neutral set for most of the play
supposedly helped to close the audiences temporal distance from
Nora and her problems. Thus, Durbach hopes, the production avoided both
mummifying Ibsens play and deconstructing it into something
other than itself. But, disappointingly, Durbach tells us that the discussion
of the play between cast/director and audience after the performance had
very little to do with Noras human rights, or the ethical
implications of leaving home. What the audience did was to question
the translating of a nineteenth-century play into the twentieth.
I think I know what the moral of that is.
Joan Templeton reports on the Noras of the American stage
who have succeeded in making Ibsens character believeable as a person,
intellectually, morally, and psychologically all of a piece (18). The
often expressed critical view that we cannot accept the frivolous skylark
of the first act becoming the serious, thoughtful, and eloquent woman
who leaves husband and children at the end is nonsense. A
Doll House is not about a doll who turns into a woman, but about
a woman who renounces being a doll. Nora is subtle and deep from
the beginning. In the past, Minnie Maddern Fiske (1894) and Alla Nazimova
(1908, 1917) succeeded in recreating that Nora on stage. In 1975, Liv
Ullman did it. (And now, in 1997, Janet McTeer has done it.)
In yet another of their helpful forays into stage history,
the Markers trace the style, the performance syntax, and the
artistic and ideological rationale for representing European stagings
of Ibsen over the last hundred years (19). It appears that for all the
determination of turn-of-the-century directors (Reinhardt, Craig, Meyerhold)
to shun the creation of facsimiles of the Victorian parlor
and to raise Ibsens realism to the heights of the universal by stage
sets of abstractionism, constructivism, and symbolism, the main tradition
has loyally transcribed Ibsens detailed stage directions into authentic
Victorian museum pieces. Nonrepresentational staginess have been, at best,
discontinuous. Ingmar Bergmans Hedda
Gabler in 1964 and his Doll House of
1989 are two of them. Recently, leftist directors in central Europe have
used the plays to satirize (sometimes to the point of travesty) the tradition
of bourgeois liberalism that they find in them, e.g., Peter Zadeks
1967 Doll House and Peter Steins 1971
Peer Gynt. Most of the time the Markers sound
like neutral observers of a varied scene, but a comment on Rudolf Noeltes
1979 The Wild Duck may reveal their own preference.
Noeltes production, they write, was a perfect example of a
performance enriched by a tradition without being reduced to conventionality
Åse Hiorth Lervik shows that critics have not accurately
described the verse/prose alternatives in The Feast
at Solhaug (20). In her close analysis, verse in the play signifies
candor about feelings in monologues and mutual confidentiality in duologues
and serves lovers as a secret code. The switches from verse to prose and
vice versa function as a predominantly psychological means of characterization.
Lervik here performs a small but intricate task in an exemplary manner,
reminding us again of what a fine reader she is: attentive, accurate,
ingenious, reasonable, persuasive.
Like hers, Van Laans essays always carry authority.
So also his description of Lady Inger (21)
as a Hettnerian tragedy in Scribean form, with the protagonist both the
innocent, passive victim of fate and at the same time a refuser of her
divine calling. The play marks an advance over The
Feast at Solhaug in tragic potential, in its consistent use of
prose, in its dramatic irony, and in fusing Hettners historical
and domestic drama; but a step backwards from Catiline
in its awkward handling of retrospection and catharsis, in its bewildering
plot, and in its failure to realize its tragic potential.
Errol Durbach does not so much offer a new reading of Brand
as find new and useful terms for expressing what by now has become something
like the standard reading (22). As Romantic hero, a believer in human
perfectibility, Brand is Ibsens antithesis
and the play is a descant on ambivalence: love of others versus love of
God. The dichotomy has an analogue in Dostoyevskys Grand Inquisitor,
who combines in a single figure the cruelly uncompromising Christ (Brand)
and the merciful and tolerant Christ (the doctor). The ending is an answerless
non-closure. For all Durbachs smallness of focus, there have been
many worse readings of Brand than this.
Edvard Beyer conveniently surveys and paraphrases critical
responses to Brand and Peer
Gynt on their first publication (23). Some of the issues raise
seem dated (is verse the proper medium for polemics and satire?), others
not (is Brand a character or an argument?).
The value of such a survey obviously depends on the surveyors knowledge,
competence, and fairness. With Beyer, these are not problems.
John Northams analysis of the movements
in John Gabriel Borkman and of Borkmans
claim to being considered a genius (24) builds to a pleasant conceit.
Northam finds the ending of the play properly ambiguous and the whole
play better than its forbidding reputation as a piece of utter chill and
gloom. Ibsens poem A Swan (ca. 1865) would be a fitting
epitaph for it; only when dying in song does the swan reveal itself as
a creature of noble beauty.
In no other recent single year have so many considerable Ibsen essays given us the questioning rather than the answering Ibsen. That is a welcome change.
to Ibsen, ed. Bjørn Hemmer and Vigdis
Ystad, is abbreviated as CAI.)
1. Brian Johnston, The Dangerous Seductions
of the Past: Ibsens Counter-Discourse to Modernity, Modern
Drama 37 (Winter 1994), 651-64.
2. Gerald Dugan, The Cycle Returns: Brian Johnstons
Modern Drama 37
(Winter 1994), 665-80.
3. Paul Baxter, The Heroic Age in
Ibsen and Hegel, Scandinavian-Canadian
Studies 7 (1994), 33-47.
4. Anatoly Lunacharsky, The Last Great
Bourgeois: On the Plays of Henrik Ibsen, trans. Edward Braun,
New Theatre Quarterly
10 (August 1994), 223-41.
5. Charles R. Lyons, Ibsens Realism and
the Predicates of Postmodernism, CAI
8 (1994), 185-204.
6. Michael Goldman, Eyolfs Eyes: Ibsen
and the Cultural Meanings of Child Abuse, American
Imago 51 (Fall 1994), 279-305.
7. William Demarest, Re-Inspecting the Crack
in the Chimney: Chaos Theory from Ibsen to Stoppard, New
Theatre Quarterly 10 (August 1994), 242-54.
8. Vigdis Ystad, The Young Ibsen Critic
and Theatre-Writer, CAI
7 (1991), 141-60.
9. Frode Helland, Irony and Experience in
Hedda Gabler, CAI
8 (1994), 141-60.
10. Anca Vlasopolos, Emotions Unpurged: Antigeneric
Theater and the Politics of Violence, Borderworks:
Feminist Engagements with Comparative Literature,
ed. Margaret R. Higonnet (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 120-43.
11. Bjørn Hemmer, Ibsen and the Crisis
of Individual Freedom: Nora Helmer versus Rebekka Gainvik, CAI
7 (1991), 171-83.
12. Sandra Saari, The Female Positions in John
Gabriel Borkman, CAI 8
13. Goran Printz-Påhlsson, Rosmersholm
as Novel, as Film: Passion and Action, CAI
7 (1991), 185-203.
15. Asbjørn Aarseth, Ibsen from Stage
to Screen: Structural Effects from a Change in Medium, CAI
8 (1994), 65-73.
16. Thomas Van Laan, Not Just Visual; Not Just
Illustrative; Performance and Meaning in Ibsen, CAI
7 (1991), 51-63.
17. Errol Durbach, Ibsens Stage Realism:
Theory, Problem, and Practice,
18. Joan Templeton, Nora on the American Stage,
1894-1975: Acting the Integral Text, CAI
7 (1991), 121-30.
19. Frederick J. and Lise-Lone Marker, Ibsen
and the Director: From Traditionalism to Travesty in Recent European Theatre,
CAI 8 (1994), 39-49.
20. Åse Hiorth Lervik, Verse and Prose
in The Feast at Solhaug, CAI
8 (1994), 3-24.
21. Thomas Van Laan, Lady
Inger as Tragedy, CAI
8 (1994), 25-46.
22. Errol Durbach, Brand:
A Romantic Exile from Paradise, CAI
23. Edvard Beyer, The Reception of Ibsens
Brand and Peer
Gynt in Scandinavia, 1866-1868, CAI
8 (1994), 47-69.
24. John Northam, John
Gabriel Borkman and the Swan Song, CAI
8 (1994), 131-40.
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