Mark Sandberg on Ibsen’s architecture

When a house is not a home

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Mark Sandberg - Ibsen's Houses

Book cover: Ibsen’s Houses by Mark Sandberg

Theatre for a New Audience has been producing theatrical masterworks throughout New York City for over 30 years, and in 2013 the theater took root at its first home, settling in Brooklyn. Here the theater has been having a love affair with Ibsen. Last year, they paired Ibsen’s A Doll’s House with Strindberg’s The Father, as the latter was written in response to the former.

Last May, Theatre for a New Audience once again focused on Ibsen, this time in their Open Book series featuring author Mark Sandberg speaking about his book, Ibsen’s Houses: Architectural Metaphor and the Modern Uncanny. Sandberg is a professor of Film & Media and Scandinavian Studies at University of California, Berkeley, as well as the president of the Ibsen Society of America.

The moderator of the evening was Jonathan Kalb, a theater critic, author, and professor in the Department of Theatre at Hunter College, City University of New York. The seats were filled and the audience attentive as Kalb began. He explained Sandberg’s interest in the spectator’s experience and offered up the first question to the author, asking why there are so many rooms in Ibsen’s books.

“My book started with a single observation,” said Sandberg. “Ibsen seems so preoccupied with architecture and architectural symbolism. Ibsen is an architectural playwright.”

Sandberg went on to examine Ibsen’s idea of home, categorizing it into three points. The first point is that Ibsen was looking at his home of Norway from a distance as he lived abroad for 27 years in Italy and Germany. Secondly, Ibsen explores home in regard to tradition and living “beyond the confines of tradition.” And his third point was regarding the theatrical space and how to “connect the actors to these spaces.”

Sandberg described Ibsen as an architectural skeptic. He explored Ibsen’s plays to analyze how his use of architecture can be contextualized into a larger social structure. For example, he states, “Family is also thought of as a building … a shelter … Ibsen is skeptical about domesticity.”

As a result, Ibsen works as a destructor of the various architecture framing his works, rather than a builder or renovator. This destruction can be seen in some of Ibsen’s earliest works. In his poem “On the Heights,” written in 1859, he is with a hunter who, according to Sandberg, “leads him in the ways of autonomy and detachment.” While hunting on a plateau above his childhood home, where his mother is still living, the two watch the burning home. The hunter callously frames the flaming home with his fingers, describing it as a scene in a play. In many of Ibsen’s writings churches, buildings, homes, and family units implode and explode.

Jonathan Kalb: Ibsen is accused of demolition. Is this one of the things he gave us in modern drama? Is it partly a demolition project?

Mark Sandberg: Yes, definitely. This is a material stage, while intellectual projects are the opposite. He was looking for a more mobile, unattached model… But actually, a stage is substantial. It has weight, heaviness… In one way, Ibsen keeps rebuilding and demolishing. First in A Doll’s House and then he comes back and we get Ghosts. A substantial space weighs something; it carries tradition, inheritance. Until his last play, which is staged outside. Yet it is rarely done, because it is difficult to stage.

JK: Ibsen also avoids the public space.

MS: When we think about modern writers—they love the street, the crowd, anonymity… He is not modern in that sense. But in alienation of the individual, he is modern.

The Q&A then opened up to the audience. I had the chance to ask Sandberg why he chose to use the title Ibsen’s Houses, rather than Ibsen’s Homes. Earlier in the program, Sandberg had stated that Ibsen differentiated between the terms house and home; house is physical, while home is attachment.

MS: Ibsen had not wanted the idea of a dollhouse. He makes a big deal about it… And home has a positive feeling… Ibsen is trying to find a more neutral term. For him the word house is more strategic. On my book cover, the image is a home destroyed.

Question from audience: Do you find this architecture in his earlier works? If not, when does this change happen?

MS: His play Brand is around a church—couched around theological architecture. In The Master Builder, he goes from homes for people to a castle in the air. Brand is trying to have an absolute commitment to God. And once built, every structure is disappointing in some way to him.

Q: Early on, home is a prison in contrast to something protective. Instead, it is a model, a facade, a projection of a patriarchal life, a showpiece.

MS: Each play’s a show. They should be in a display case. Free men are part of the tyranny of the home, a sense of appearance. In A Doll’s House both men and women are trapped. It creates a sort of pity for Thorvald because he does not escape.

Q: What about the majestic nature of Norway? How does Ibsen use the indoors as opposed to the outdoors?

MS: You might expect that would be a place to go free from restrictions. In A Lady from the Sea, there is complete openness. The possibility of freedom. The female character tries to swim in the fjord. Yet here the open sea is something demonic.

Whether outside or inside, home for Ibsen is still Norway. Ibsen is responding to what he has left behind and what he is trying to escape. Home is a concept that he continued to explore in his plays, no matter how far he went from his.

As evidenced by the depth of the audience’s questions and the enthusiasm that Sandberg has maintained for this great author, Ibsen continues to challenge. His ability to cause folks to ponder their own relationship to home and house is still relevant in 2018. Thus Sandberg’s analysis of Ibsen’s use of architectural metaphors is well worth a read.

This article originally appeared in the July 27, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Victoria Hofmo

Victoria Hofmo was born, raised, and still lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the historical heart of Norwegian New York. She is 3/4 Scandinavian: 1/2 Norwegian and 1/4 Danish/Swedish. Self-employed, she runs an out-of-school-time program that articulates learning through the arts. Hofmo is an advocate for arts and culture, education, and the preservation of the built and natural environment of her hometown, with a love for most things Scandinavian.