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Henrik Ibsen: The Courage of the Loss of One's Convictions

Cate Blanchett as Hedda Gabler

This collection of Ibsen's plays is something of an event -- one that is not likely to be repeated anytime soon -- worthy of our attention and, perhaps, even our gratitude.

"People want only special revolutions, in externals, in politics, and so on. But that’s just tinkering. What really is called for is a revolution of the human mind." -- Henrik Ibsen

Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), the Norwegian playwright whose scandalizing dramas ushered in the dawn of modern “realist” theater, continues to be a presence that looms large in our cultural imaginations and whose approach to drama remains an abiding inspiration for both stage and film dramas. It was largely Ibsen who unleashed a streaming prolixity upon the modern stage.

There is very little in the way of action in his plays. Few events occur; the characters, however, exhaust their eloquence in examining in minute detail their understanding of society and relationships, of religion and sin, of love and devotion, and of freedom and obligation. These plays do not merely allude to underlying social problems, they openly engage the audience in intellectual debate.

Although Ibsen often proclaimed his allegiance to social revolution (as evidenced in the epigram to this review), his greatest strength as a playwright was his ability to present strongly opposed moral positions without declaring either position unproblematically superior. Change was required, but Ibsen, at his best, refused to specify the direction that change should take (aside from a vague insistence on individual freedom -- but even that, Ibsen seems to assure us, could be taken too far). Perhaps more than any other aspect of his dramatic style, this tendency contributed to the controversial reception his plays earned. There are no easy answers. There is no denouement as such, only a Gordian knot of entanglements and the ubiquitous conversations they entail.

BBC Warner has released a DVD collection that brings together nearly the entirety of Ibsen’s output after The Pretenders of 1863; only The League of Youth (1869) is missing. The plays are presented either as filmed performances or as radio dramas. The Henrik Ibsen Collection is, as far as I am aware, a totally unprecedented monument to Ibsen’s creative achievements. It is thus something of an event -- one that is not likely to be repeated anytime soon -- worthy of our attention and, perhaps, even our gratitude. Of course, the performances vary with respect to quality, as all such collected performances of this kind will, but overall they are remarkably fine renditions of Ibsen’s work.

The verse play Brand (1866) presents the story of a priest with a stark vision of a demanding, inflexible god. Brand’s implacable insistence on moral rigor and his unwillingness to compromise his self-imposed standards of holiness lead him to refuse his sinful mother the last sacraments, to allow his child to die rather than abandon his desolate home, to callously chastise his wife for grieving until she too dies, and, finally, to become despised by his followers. Brand seeks salvation through an act of will and condemns talk of love as mere moral weakness.

The BBC production, starring Patrick McGoohan in the title role, presents the play on an austere stage, emphasizing the quasi-expressionist tone of the story. McGoohan’s perfervid fanaticism strongly opposes the laxity of the mayor and the rival priest while the remainder of the cast find themselves caught in the middle. The production wonderfully clarifies the impossibility of both extremes. The rival priest offers empty redemption without sacrifice while Brand preaches sacrifice without redemption.

Both visions of God are woefully hollow. Like so many of Ibsen’s characters, Brand seems to be heroic in his stalwart refusal to submit to the world, but his motto of “All or Nothing” betrays an inflexibility that signals an underlying lack of humanity. Too much conviction, without the freedom of mind to reconsider one’s beliefs in light of life’s contingencies, ultimately reveals itself to be not courage but rather pusillanimity wrapped in self-delusion. (Ibsen’s next, and most celebrated, verse play, Peer Gynt, appears here in a radio performance.)

Perhaps the most famous Ibsen play was his second “realist” play, A Doll’s House of 1879 (the first realist play, The Pillars of Society, is included as a radio play in this collection). The play scandalized Victorian audiences by portraying the marriage contract (deemed since the Enlightenment as the cornerstone of a well-functioning and moral society) as totally corrupt, founded upon deceit and illusion.

Nora is a seemingly flighty housewife who dotes upon her husband, Torvald, and cheerfully submits to (and perhaps depends upon) his patronizing attitude (which is mild and thoughtless or cruel and unrelenting, depending on the production and the predisposition of the audience). Her prized secret is that she borrowed some money without her husband’s knowledge so that they could afford a trip south that saved his health. In doing so, she forged her father’s signature, making her susceptible to blackmail -- an eventuality that would crush her rigidly moralistic husband’s sense of propriety and compromise his newly acquired position at the bank.

A Doll's House on Broadway in 1997

When Torvald fails to act as her savior in the crisis, she determines that her vision of herself and her marriage was predicated upon a lie. She abandons her husband and her children so that she may extricate herself from her position as someone else’s “doll” and “become an individual”. Amazed to discover that society would condemn her for attempting to save the life of her husband, she decides to find out whether it is she or society that is right. This ridiculously naïve idealism has consigned the play to the status of eternal fodder for high school term papers and it makes it devilishly difficult for any actress to bring out the realism within this “realist” play.

The BBC production of A Doll’s House, starring Juliet Stevenson as Nora and Trevor Eve as Torvald, is Ibsen purely by the numbers, exploiting all of the tired clichés thrust upon the long-suffering play through overexposure to forced, grade-school readings. Stevenson goes from childish and subordinate to fiercely independent (albeit still outrageously childish) in the mere blink of an eye. Even in Act I, Nora is far more capable and intelligent than Stevenson’s portrayal allows. Far worse, the production renders Torvald downright despicable until the latter half of the last act. He snaps his fingers at his wife, barks at her repeatedly, and comes frighteningly close to raping her just prior to the play’s climax -- none of these are the actions of the doting (if somewhat condescending) husband Torvald must be if we are to believe in his tearful pleas with Nora not to leave.

Trevor Eve is so convincing in the film’s last 15 or so minutes that we receive in essence two contradictory Torvalds. Of course, this makes it far easier for an audience uninterested in anything but the most obvious motivation to accept Nora’s departure, but for those who believe that Ibsen was delving deeper than the mere exploration of one unhappy marriage, the resulting schizophrenia of the two main characters is most disappointing.

This is not to say that the production is anything less than beautifully staged or that it does not include some truly striking performances. Indeed, the stand-out rendering of an Ibsen character can be found in David Calder’s pitch-perfect turn as the much-loathed Nils Krogstad, the man holding Nora’s IOU and the catalyst for her harrowing realization.

Calder navigates the subtleties of Krogstad with rare aplomb. Simultaneously wounded and menacing, Calder manages to reveal the strange mixture of self-interest and genuine concern that underlies his attempts to convince Nora that suicide would be a foolhardy solution to her dilemma. Furthermore, the actor succeeds in making Krogstad’s decision to release Nora and Torvald from his hold not only convincing but deeply moving -- something I previously thought an impossibility created by a lapse in Ibsen’s imagination. Calder (along with Geraldine James as Kristine Linde) reveals this scene to be the true moment of redemption through the acceptance of responsibility in stark contrast to Nora’s illusory vision of individual freedom through the eschewal of social obligation.

Patrick Malahide also delivers a fine performance as the pitiable Dr. Rank, the close confidante of the young married couple who is dying of a bone disease caused by the sexual excesses of his father. Malahide’s rendering of Rank’s confession of love to Nora is so touching that it makes her chastisement of him (in perfect accordance with Victorian mores, in which the woman may play the coquette just so long as everyone pretends it is all innocent) seem terribly cruel.

Rank embodies a favorite theme of Ibsen’s, one that would serve as the central focus of his next play, Ghosts of 1881: the sins of the father are visited upon the son. Mrs. Alving’s child, the painter Osvald, has returned home for the dedication of the orphanage built in honor of his father, Captain Alving. Over the course of the play, Mrs. Alving reveals the depraved life the captain led before his death. It soon becomes evident that Osvald inherited the effects of his father’s dissolution in the form of a debilitating condition that causes the young man to lose consciousness and self-control (“a worm” that eats at him from within).

Jonas Malmsjo and Pernilla August in Ghosts

In this manner, Ibsen attacks another thoughtless conviction bandied about by society: that the child ought to honor his / her parents. All such platitudes must give way in the face of real contingencies. As Mrs. Alving eloquently puts it, “Oh, don’t let’s talk abstractions! Why don’t we ask, should Osvald love and honor Captain Alving?” The play then becomes a disquisition on the proper uses of the truth and, more specifically, what that truth will come to mean for Osvald’s knowledge of himself.

Of course, this reading of the play implies that Osvald moves over the course of the drama toward some kind of inner understanding, and this is something that Kenneth Branagh’s performance expressly forbids. Branagh begins at a fevered pitch and therefore has nowhere to go. He has the obnoxious habit of calling attention to his acting (as though every line ought to be written in all capital letters). In this, he resembles the little girl who learned to do cartwheels months ago but persists in thinking you ought to look just as surprised when she does it as you were the first time you saw it. Gone are the early moments of seeming contentment and self-assurance for Osvald. In their stead we are presented with a small and bitter young man unworthy of Mrs. Alving’s affections and ours.

Judi Dench as Mrs. Alving, on the other hand, delivers herself of a richly layered performance that charts her character’s growing concern for the health (emotional and physical) of her son while maintaining her hard, intellectual edge. When Dench as Mrs. Alving finally reveals the truth to Osvald, we are quite aware that this “truth” has changed for her considerably. No longer does she see Captain Alving as a simple villain but rather as a man whose joy of life was curtailed by the society in which they lived; he too, it would seem, was haunted by ghosts. The truth, Dench and Ibsen inform us, is always developing, always becoming. And it is precisely its irremediable instability that makes it such a precious and dangerous possession. Indeed, its instability guarantees that it can never be anyone’s possession as such; rather, it possesses the one who attempts to hold it. The truth is yet another ghost haunting our social lives.

Ibsen takes a rather more simplistic view of our responsibility toward and capacity for the truth in his play of the following year, An Enemy of the People. Ibsen wrote the play, in part, as a response to the various detractors of Ghosts. Just as a small town gets ready to promote its curative waters (thereby increasing tourism and creating new wealth for its inhabitants), the pharmacist Dr. Stockmann discovers that the water contains traces of a slow-acting poison. Although he expects the inhabitants of the town to be grateful for being saved from making a dreadful mistake, the populace condemns his findings as mere opinion and an attempt to derail the town’s progress. Stockmann, appalled by such small-mindedness, rails against the stupidity that he sees as inexorably tied to the majority. Democracy, Stockmann insists, is always doomed to failure inasmuch as the majority is always deluded and makes foolish decisions. Alienated by his neighbors, Stockmann closes the play by announcing that he is one of the strongest men in the world because “the strongest man in the world is the one who stands most alone.”

Ibsen once wrote that he was uncertain as to whether An Enemy of the People was a comedy or a drama. The BBC production starring Robert Urquhart as Dr. Stockmann plumps here for comedy (albeit comedy with ideas at its core). The film is set in Scotland and makes broad use of the local dialect. Furthermore, the director did not hesitate to trim and even rewrite whole sections of Ibsen’s play. Far from being a desecration, I think in many ways this filmed version makes for better theater. The dialogue is crisp, the action clear, and the characters beautifully, if concisely, drawn. Urquhart is pure joy in the lead role. He maintains an apparent sense of humor even at his most enraged. One can certainly see a man of this vivacity taking on the crowd whereas Ibsen’s original script loads Stockmann down a bit with excess naïveté and self-righteous bluster.

However, the cuts do have one unfortunate effect upon the flow of the narrative. Because the director clarified the trajectory of the story by cutting some of the more verbose confrontations between Stockmann and his various opponents, the long speech against the insipid majority that constitutes the central action of Act IV seems rather unmotivated. Indeed, since, in the film, Stockmann has confronted only three “villains” and has had little to do with the larger majority, his attacks seem overly paranoid. Thus the crowd’s insistence that he is mad rings rather true. Nevertheless, this is a wonderful adaptation of the play in every other respect and Urquhart’s handling of the “I am the strongest man” speech makes for a most satisfying close.

The Wild Duck (1884) returns again to our capacity for the truth but here Ibsen’s analysis is so subtle and his handling of the theme so finely rendered that the play must be considered his masterpiece. Gregers Werle is the perfect Ibsenite idealist; he seems to pick up where Nora of A Doll’s House left off. He insists upon stripping life of all illusion and demands that one unflinchingly face the truth in all its severity.

Hjalmar (Ian McKellen) and Gregers

(Corin Redgrave) in The Wild Duck

But Werle is not the defiant hero one might have seen in Dr. Stockmann, Mrs. Alving, or even Nora. Rather he steps into a situation that has no real consequences for him (aside from the opportunity to test his notions about the ideal). He finds his champion in his old friend Hjalmar Ekdal, who has unwittingly married the mistress of Werle’s father. Furthermore, Ekdal’s daughter, Hedvig, is in actuality the illegitimate child of Werle’s father. Gregers foolishly reveals all of this to Hjalmar, fully expecting him to “embrace the ideal” and lead a better life in complete knowledge of the truth. Hjalmar, however, uses the ideal as an excuse for his inability to accept the truth and threatens to abandon his family. Hedvig, fearful of losing her father, commits suicide as an act of sacrifice to demonstrate her love for him.

Far from exposing the family to the wonders of the ideal, Gregers has effectively destroyed the family’s happiness by depriving it of the essential “life-lie” (in the words of one of the characters) that allows all people to survive. Thus Ibsen, the great idealist, carefully demonstrates the limits of the ideal. In the end, it would seem that Gregers remains the most deluded in his obsessive and pointless insistence that everyone else realize the ideal despite the tragic costs.

The BBC production is so remarkable that it beggars description. The dialogue (with only a few, rather wise, cuts) flows steadily. The director allows the actors to talk over each other in appropriate places while ensuring that the important lines are heard clearly; thus the actors imbue the production with a realism that buttresses one’s acceptance of the heavy symbolism of the play’s tragic conclusion. All of the characters are wonderfully realized.

More importantly, prior to the suicide, the performance ripples with comedic flair. The scene in which Hjalmar returns home, ostensibly just to collect his “important papers” before leaving his family for good, and then slowly succumbs to the comforts of domesticity is an astonishing feat of comedic understatement. When Gregers appears just as Hjalmar has stuffed his mouth full of buttered bread, the latter pathetically complains that the demands of the body sometimes rival those of the mind. It is a wonderfully humorous moment when handled this skillfully and it makes the tragic turn of the act’s conclusion all that more heartrending.

A play that betrays very little in the way of humor is Ibsen’s 1890 drama Hedda Gabler. Gabler prefigures many of the women who inhabit Ibsen’s late plays: spoiled women who incessantly demand impossible deeds, coquettes who seek admirers but petulantly insist upon an idealized sacrifice that destroys the admirer and the admired. In a post-Freudian age, it is difficult not to see Gabler as a neurotic succumbing to her own twisted desires and haunted by her dread for all ugliness, all things unclean.

This production stars Ingrid Bergman in the coveted eponymous role. She plays the part in a sufficiently savage manner and makes no effort to bridge the distance between our understanding of the world and Gabler’s bizarre view. Thus Bergman presents Gabler as a terrible enigma, a figure far more mythic than realistic. This reading firmly aligns Ibsen’s difficult play with his late “symbolic” period.

The Lady from the Sea (1888) reimagines the marriage crisis of A Doll’s House with a different outcome. In this play, the marriage contract is once again portrayed as a bargain entered into without consideration for personal choice. Rather the marriage contract is, fundamentally, an economic affair. However, in this play, the husband, Dr. Wangel, grants his wife a release from her vows so that she may, should she wish, choose to leave with the dashing “stranger” from the sea (a man with whom she had been engaged years before and who still exercises a peculiar hold on her). Given the freedom to choose, she decides to enter into a true marital relationship with her husband. That she does so of her own free will is what consecrates the marriage as authentic.

The BBC production provides a reverent reading of the play that is, overall, satisfying, but this is the only film that comes off as rather stilted and dated. Although one cannot help but rejoice in a happy ending in an Ibsen play, The Lady from the Sea, in spite of some lovely moments, feels like a period piece.

Lynn Redgrave (in background)

as Mrs. Alvine Solness with Earle Hyman

as Halvard Solness in The Master Builder

at the National Actors Theatre

- Photo/image by Joan Marcus

The collection boasts two filmed versions of Ibsen’s 1892 play The Master Builder: one produced in 1958 starring Donald Wolfit and Mai Zetterling and the other produced in 1988 featuring a superior cast led by Leo McKern and Miranda Richardson. The Master Builder is one of a quartet of Ibsen’s final dramas, often termed his “symbolic” plays.

Harvald Solness is the master builder of the title. Paranoid and obsessed with his prestige, he confounds the attempts of the “younger generation” to find jobs and establish reputations. Moreover, he believes that he has a “troll” within him that allows him to make “helpers and servers” of others without their conscious awareness of his power over them. It is this power that he believes is responsible for the destruction of his wife’s ancestral home, an event that provided him with the land and money to initiate his rise to preeminence but also cost him the lives of his twin sons. Thus his success was founded upon the destruction of the happiness of others (most prominently, that of his wife). A young woman named Hilde Wangel appears, reminding him of a promise he may or may not have made to her when she was a child and demanding that he build her a castle.

Both Zetterling and Richardson are appropriately bizarre as Helene although, as in every production I have seen of The Master Builder, these two could not safeguard against becoming tedious with their constant, petulant demands to receive their castle. This, more than any other Ibsen play, requires the firm hand of a director unafraid to slice out portions of the text in order to tighten the rather slack pace of the script. The directors of these productions are all too reverent.

Of course, part of the tedium arises from the self-indulgent nature of Ibsen’s writing here. The master builder is a thin veil behind which the author resides. Clearly, Ibsen was worried about that “next generation”, about the worth of his previous works in which “no one really wants to live”, and about the value of the life he was soon to bring to a close. Ibsen had even considered running off with a younger woman.

The later BBC production (with McKern as a wonderfully exhausted Solness) takes full advantage of this autobiographical aspect of the play by giving the actor enough time and moments of elongated silence to puncture the bluster of Ibsen’s dialogue and to reveal that, in the end, Solness is a mere bore. Obsessed with his phallic dreams of erecting a great tower, enraptured by the opportunity of seeing the apotheosis of himself in the eyes of a young (and obviously mentally unstable) woman, stalwart in his refusal to acknowledge his own mediocrity (he happily confesses his lack of technical knowledge), Solness (as McKern makes clear) has been erecting “castles in the air” long before Helene arrived; she merely reinvigorates his delusions.

University of Toledo's production of Little Eyolf

The final film of the set is Little Eyolf (1894), starring Diana Rigg and Anthony Hopkins. The play serves as a wonderful reflection on Ibsen’s creative development and his social-philosophical concerns. Alfred Allmers (Hopkins) has given up writing his book on human responsibility to devote himself completely to his child Eyolf (who was crippled when he fell off of a table while his parents made love). Thus Allmers would fulfill his obligation to responsibility not in print but rather in the workings of his own life.

In wholly embracing his son, however, Allmers neglects his responsibility to his wife Rita. His inability to reconcile himself to his son’s injury (and his own culpability) eats at the foundations of his marriage -- something that a local woman, known as the Rat Wife (because she leads rats out to drown in the sea), seems to sense when she comes to the house asking if anything “gnaws” in the house (a metaphor that quickly becomes wearisome in a play featuring such incisive writing). Rita wishes she had her husband all to himself; soon the Rat Wife leads Eyolf to drown in the sea and the couple must come to terms with their responsibility to each other after the child that bound them together has died. The cast navigates the dialogue expertly; it is a memorable performance.

Henrik Ibsen

This is a collection that contains very few disappointments given the scope of its achievement. The films are all very well done and (with a few exceptions) feature remarkable performances by gifted actors. The radio plays, included as extras, are also beautifully realized. For the most part, I think it is safe to say that the weaker plays, such as Emperor and Galilean of 1873 (inexplicably considered by Ibsen to be among his most important) and Rosmersholm (1886), appear as radio dramas while the films present the stronger plays.

The only exception here, much to my chagrin, is When We Dead Awaken (1899), which is, in my opinion, the finest of his late plays -- indeed the only truly great play of his final four. Here it receives a fine reading via a radio drama, but the lack of a filmed performance is lamentable. However, given the success of the overall product, this is a rather minor complaint. This is a truly engaging collection; it will not disappoint.


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