Henrik Ibsen as a Modern Dramatist
Table of Contents
Henrik Ibsen’s contribution to the theatre, says a critic, was threefold, and in each respect the drama owes more to him than to any other dramatist since Shakespeare. Firstly, he broke down the social barriers which had previously bounded it. He was the first man to show that high tragedy could be written about ordinary people and in ordinary everyday prose, and the importance of that seemingly simple achievement can hardly be exaggerated. Before Ibsen, tragedy had concerned itself with kings and queens, princes or princesses or, at the lowest, Montagues and Capulets. Ibsen showed that high tragedy did take place at least as frequently in back parlours as in castles and palaces. He was, of course, not the first dramatist to attempt this, but he was the first to write a tragedy about ordinary people that proved a tremendous success. Ghosts is almost the first tragedy about back-parlour people that gets off the ground.
Ibsen and Historical Drama
In 1873, Ibsen published the drama- Emperor and Galilean, which he called his masterpiece. It was a wide, historical portrait, far better than his earlier dramas. He laboured endlessly for years, studied the historical sources closely; and entered into the trace of characters and happenings from a distant past. The symbolist function occupies a place of importance for Ibsen. He always believed that historical drama serves a didactic purpose too Ibsen had started writing when the tradition of Romanticism existed, wherein historical drama enjoyed a status of its own. Shakespeare, Schiller and the like were the important literary models in this type. His Lady Inger which came in 1854, was where he supported himself on real history. He accepted openly that he took substantial liberties with the historical facts.
Ibsen believed that the literature of the past was the best proof of people’s thoughts and feelings. So, most of these dramas were constructed from literary sources instead of historical sources. The Vikings at Helgeland which appeared in 1858 is based on saga literature.
The Pretenders (1863) is a nationalistic drama, based on historical source material and also on real historical characters. History performs the symbolic as well as the didactic function in this play. This drama not only acts as a mirror to the time and the society; but also reflects the writer himself to a certain extent. The background has a deep personal crisis. The Pretenders belongs to that category of historical drama where the main characters are from the topmost levels of the society. The fate of the destiny of the country and its people is clearly visible behind the human conflicts. While talking about his masterpiece, Emperor and Galilean again, we see that there is, in it, a struggle (strife) between the beliefs of the Greeks and the Christians-one believed in an earth-oriented while the other in a paradise-oriented perspective of existence. After this play, Ibsen deserted the aloof perceptions of history and entered the battle-ridden truth of his time.
Dramatic and Non-Dramatic Verse
In 1865, Ibsen produced Brand which has remained the most powerful drama in the Scandinavian writings. Brand has been observed not only as a justification of Romanticism but also as its condemnation. Brand is a ‘dramatic poem’-neither a poem nor a drama, but an amalgam of two varied strands of Ibsen’s production.
Brand is merely a human being and is not privy to God’s will. Brand beseeches, narrowing down from a wide mission to focus upon the fate of one individual and its significance universally. On the other hand, Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (1867) blows up from a small farm to a wide world; from fact to fantasy. Just like Brand, Peer Gynt deals sharply with the matters related to morality. Peer Gynt may be regarded as more than one man’s journey to discover the self.
Comedy of Ibsen
Only three of Ibsen’s plays are categorized as comedies- St. John’s Night (Eve)-1852, Love’s Comedy-1862; The League of Youth-1869. Each play has a strand of romantic, intellectual and social comedy.
St. John’s Eve is not an excellent play. Its atmosphere is plagiaristic, its structure is uninteresting and its character-portrayal is feeble. The significance of the lovers change of partners is lost in the complicated plot.
Love’s Comedy is Ibsen’s first grave investigation of the themes of bourgeous adoration and marriage. It displays the governing, educated privileged in the noon of its power and status.
The league of youth deals directly with the matters related to money, class and influence. This play shows a different kind of truth of life. The clashes between form and subject-matter is transformed into a conflict of character and the outlook of the world. Thus, the play is full of excitement and is straightforward in manner. Love’s Comedy and The League of Youth are similar in their effect in skeptical and ironic terms.
The Reality Drama and Henrik Ibsen
Ibsen observed that ‘truth’ alone could achieve liberation. There could be no radical change, no authentic ‘freedom’ without truth. On this basis, Ibsen brought out his social plays between 1877 and 1882 like: The Pillars of Society (1877); A Doll’s House (1879); Ghosts (1881); and An Enemy of the People (1882).
The Pillars of Society and An Enemy of the People-both these plays have used ‘truth and freedom’ as a conventional cry and as a definition of what was lacking in the society at that time. The society maintained double standards then Ibsen and Brandes were aware that such a society could not satisfy the natural need of any individual for freedom. The society had to do only with status, influence and with the position of the sexes. Both these writers wanted to make the individual the supporting constituent in society and thereby depose the bourgeois family as the central institution of society. But the way, the writings of Ibsen won a large acclaim, proved that even the bourgeois society was ready to accept that contemporary reality might have its own problems due to industrialization, liberalism and the like. Ibsen had been a resident of the wider European cultural scene; and still he wrote about the provincial life of Norway. He had lived in a small community in Grimstad in the 1840s-and had begun his career as a writer there. Social, economic and psychological tensions exhibit themselves very clearly and elaborately in a small community rather than a large society. A society of this kind functions as a social laboratory for a dramatist.
Ibsen played the role of a critical interpreter of reality in Ghosts. He actually got ‘reality’ itself to speak through artistic illusion. A deeply tragic world, without any ray of hope, is brought to life by Ghosts. In Ghosts, we find that there is only the sun to indicate those dimensions of life which are refused, and also symbolize a natural way of living.
A Doll’s House is the story of a very immature woman who suddenly wakes up and analyses the lie of life, whereupon she has based her life. She quits her earlier world as she feels she should go out into the authentic world to discover herself. A Doll’s House and Ghosts give an indication that Ibsen had seen the status of women as a major social problem. In Ghosts, conscience acts as an instrument of authoritarian social forces, a control mechanism which is in conflict with the new insights of the individual. Through Ghosts, Ibsen criticises not only at society and its forces; but also targets the most pleasant representative of that society. In these works, Ibsen defends the natural life and the individual. It is society that prevents humanity from developing. Truth and freedom also had another important task to do for Ibsen. Though it represented a moral demand on the individual as a member of society, it gave recognition to Ibsen as a dramatist as well as a realist.
Feminism in Ibsen’s Novel
An important element of Ibsen’s relationship to feminism is the role played by the feminists in his life. This influence began with his own family, with his wife Suzannah and with her stepmother Magdalene Thoresen, who is a writer of Danish novels and dramas. Suzannah left her impression on Ibsen’s strong-headed heroines.
Camilla Collett, who is regarded as Norway’s first significant feminist has also affected Ibsen’s attitudes towards women. An example is that her realist novel The District Governor’s Daughter finds reverberations in Ibsen’s Love’s Comedy. The topic of Ibsen and feminism also needs the mention of the reception of his novels. A Doll’s House was welcomed warmly by feminist thinkers not only in Norway but also throughout Europe.
Feminism in Ibsen’s plays deal with the double standard and marriage; as well as the liberated woman and motherhood. We find an example of double standard in Ghosts, where Pastor Manders, expresses ethical criticism for Mrs. Alving’s former servant as a fallen woman; but at the very next moment, he mocks at Mrs. Alving’s description of her dead husband as a degraded man. Due to sensitivity towards the feminist issues, Ibsen has often been praised for the creation of the female characters in his drama. According to James Joyce,
“Ibsen’s knowledge of humanity is nowhere more obvious than in his portrayal of women. He amazes one by his painful introspection; he seems to know them better than they know themselves. Indeed, if one may say so of an eminently virile man, there is a curious admixture of the woman in his nature’. Many of Ibsen’s memorable characters are female such as Nora Helmer, Helene Alving, Hedda Gabler and the like”.
Regarding marriage, we can say that Ibsen has portrayed a relatively healthy marriage in only one of his twelve major prose plays that in An Enemy of the People (1882). The other two issues-the emancipated woman and motherhood are of central concern in illuminating Ibsen’s connection with feminism. The female characters of Ibsen are known due to their rejection of a dissection between conservative masculine and feminine behaviour, their scorn for public judgement, and their freedom from the hypocrisy. Their status appears in their appearance, language and behaviour. The female characters’ aggression is revealed by their lack of concern for what people think. Moreover, all these women characters are known due to their level of education, which is very high. They also have liberated tendencies and they uncover the lies which shade the lives of other characters.
The female characters of Ibsen typically value self-fulfilment and independence instead of the traditional feminine ideal of self-sacrifice; believe in equality-legally and sexually; remain single due to problems of amalgamation of such equality with marriage; are more frank about their sexuality; are educated well and read a lot; work to earn money; are physically vibrant and wear comfortable clothes.
When we take a closer view of the mother figures in Ibsen’s works, a similar message is exposed-maternity is viewed positively by those who are not organic mothers’ and on the other hand, his actual mothers either deny their pregnancy, discard their children, raise them in an atmosphere of dishonesty or neglect them totally. Most of Ibsen’s women characters attain self-realization by turning away from their husbands and children. Concurrently, Ghosts centres on the mother-child bond, and finally sheds maternity in a tragic light.