Have you ever been browsing at a bookstore when a book just leapt off the shelf, tackled you to the ground, and dragged you over to the checkout counter, all the while shouting: "Buy me! Buy me! Buy me!"?
Yeah, me neither. Anyway, when I go browse for books, I normally head straight for the Science Fiction/Fantasy section. Occasionally I will make brief, furtive sorties into other parts of the store, and sometimes I will even try something I find there. Well, last week I got a little turned around carrying my fantasy novel to the checkout line and ended up in the Drama section. I didn't even know there was a Drama section. I'm not your Intrepid Bookstore Explorer, here.
Just as I was about to bolt, I espied the name "Ibsen" on this collection of plays, and I thought, "Wasn't he in The Fountainhead?" Until that moment, I truly didn't know that there was an actual playwright named Ibsen. I had never encountered one of his plays before. Some cultural education I have!
If you, like me, have never encountered Ibsen's plays in your own cultural explorations, then read them immediately! They are fantastic. I usually find even good plays to be dull reading at best; they aren't really meant for the format, after all. Even reading Ibsen, however, I gained a sharp sense of his keen observational powers and dazzling ability to put together a complex, many-layered plot. I understand why he is given credit for revolutionizing the drama and reinventing the tragedy.
The six plays in this particular collection spanned his career: "Peer Gynt", "A Doll's House", "Ghosts", "The Wild Duck", "Hedda Gabler", and "The Master Builder".
Edvard Grieg created a musical accompanyment (now very famous) for "Peer Gynt" that I have listened to many times and enjoyed, but this was the first time I'd ever heard of the play that inspired it. The story follows the adventures of the title character through his long life, travels, and existential conflicts as he looks everywhere to find himself and never succeeds. All this is told in excellent epic verse, a pleasure to read.
"A Doll's House", "Ghosts", and "The Wild Duck", are all family dramas of apparently small scope that probe deep issues underlying the artificial constructs the families build out of their lives. The book is annotated by Martin Puchner, who describes these constructs as the "bourgeoise lies" that Ibsen always seeks to expose--it made his plays shocking and controversial in the 1890's, and also renders them enduring works of art despite the narrowness of their events.
"Hedda Gabler" is another play, like Peer Gynt, about a single woman who, finding her life to be empty, shallow, and without meaning, seeks always to inject some sort of conflict or excitement into her surroundings; she reminds me of Dominique Francon from The Fountainhead, to be honest.
"The Master Builder" is yet another tragedy, this one about the demands of conscience on a man whose ultimate success stems from a terrible disaster. In seeking to rationalize and hide from the disaster, he only seeks in wrecking his wife's happiness, which in its turn only adds to the burden of unearned guilt he visits upon himself. The two forces lead him unerringly to final destruction.
Puchner describes Ibsen as both a realist and a naturalist; I don't know enough about drama to really categorize him, but he doesn't seem like much of a naturalist to me; he illustrates only too sharply the consequences of poorly-considered choices upon his characters, even as they blame their fates on powers outside their control.
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