Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

Aug 3, 2006

Six Plays by Henrik Ibsen

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.

Rating: 4.5


softwareNerd said...

Some of his plays were produced for TV and NPR shows them now and then.
Blockbuster-Online and NetFlix also stock "Dolls House" and "Master Builder".

Adrian Hester said...

"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..."

I think Ibsen's usually called a realist partly because his earlier plays like Brand and Peer Gynt are legendary verse dramas that received so much criticism in the press for being unrealistic that Ibsen declared, "If they want realism, I'll give them photographs!" (or words to that effect) and turned to dramas full of social criticism.

Two other very good plays by Ibsen are The Lady from the Sea and When We Dead Awaken. (In fact, there's not one of his plays I don't like, but the play about Vikings and Love's Comedy, both earlier ones, I don't recommend so highly.)

Myrhaf said...

I'm glad you discovered Ibsen, my second favorite playwright behind Shakespeare. If that book you bought is the B&N book, I think it uses the William Archer translation, which I find dull. Rolf Fjelde or Michael Meyer are better; they bring out a more poetic quality in the dialogue. All his mature plays are great. I'm trying to convince a local theatre company to do The Lady From the Sea, which is something of an anti-Doll's House and undeservedly obscure. It is one of the greatest plays ever written on the theme of free will. I think a good production would not leave a dry eye in the audience at the end.

Mike said...

Crossing media usually takes the punch right out of an original story, but on your voucher for these adaptations, I'll give them a look.

Jennifer Snow said...

Sometimes I despair of ever achieving some semblance of education--I wish I'd read Ibsen long ago--but it does enable me to discover these diamonds with pure, unclouded, childlike glee.

I would love to see one of these plays performed some time: I haven't been to see a play in AGES. I don't think I even own any CLOTHING I could wear to a theater any more.

Myrhaf said...

Ibsen was not a naturalist, as Puchner said in a comment above. In his prose plays he was a romantic realist. Chekhov, a naturalist, did not like Ibsen; he commented at a rehearsal of an Ibsen play by the Moscow Art Theatre something like, "people don't act like that."

Ibsen reminds me of Dostoyevsky in that the emphasis is on the negative, although Ibsen has a better philosophy and sense of life than the Russian novelist. He could not create a John Galt or Howard Roark, but he created many Gail Wynands and Dominique Francons.

"John Gabriel Borkman" is a great portrait of a bitter industrialist persecuted by society. The scene at the end, when he talks about his factories is quite moving. At one point he says of his "kingdom," "And now it lies there -- defenseless, leaderless -- exposed to the rape and plunder of thieves --!" It is almost something out of Atlas Shrugged. "Brand," "John Gabriel Borkman," "The Master Builder" and "When We Dead Awaken" are all about giants who struggle against mediocrity.

Jennifer Snow said...

Really? When I read "The Master Builder", I thought: here is a mediocrity that is broken by attempting greatness.

Solness spent the entire play looking for a refuge from his inability to deal with his problems: building a grand house his wife didn't want rather than sit down and talk with her about their lost children and their future; stifling Ragnar's career so he wouldn't have to worry about threats to his business; and giving into Hilda's fantastic whims.

The reason it destroyed him was that, each time, he kept seeking an illusory greatness because the real thing would have required tremendous, painful effort.

Or did I read that completely wrong? I don't always absorb the things I read completely the first time through.

Myrhaf said...

I'll have to read it again in light of your insights. I thought he was a man who had been a great architect, but compromised his greatness because of guilt about the faulty flue he designed that led to a tragic fire. His last act is a quixotic attempt to recapture the idealism of his youth.

Jennifer Snow said...

Been a while, has it? Solness was a mediocre builder that had great success because after his family home burned down--because he didn't fix a crack in a chimney--he was able to parcel out the enormous grounds of the house into lots and build houses on them.

I'm sure you'll be able to tell me all about it after you read it again.