Politics and Ibsen in small-town Minnesota

Lanesboro’s Ibsen Festival becomes an unlikely stage for American political discourse

Photo: Thomas White / Commonweal Theatre In Ibsen’s The League of Youth, a young man speechifies and galvanizes the youth of a town, to the dismay of the older establishment.

Photo: Thomas White / Commonweal Theatre
In Ibsen’s The League of Youth, a young man speechifies and galvanizes the youth of a town, to the dismay of the older establishment.

Kari Heistad
Edina, Minn.

In Norway in 1869, after the second performance of Henrik Ibsen’s political comedy, The League of Youth, the theater turned out the gas lamps to force an unruly crowd onto the streets. Conservatives and liberals alike were in uproar over the play, as they both concluded that their party was the butt of the joke. You can imagine the scene: red-faced men and women, shouting furious rebuttals at one another before they could even comprehend the previous insult. Back then they called it a riot. Today, in the U.S., we call it a national debate.

It was with our current politically charged climate in mind that the Commonweal Theatre in Lanesboro, Minn., decided to take on Ibsen’s least-performed play for their 2016 season. Though it is rarely done outside of Scandinavia—this being only its fifth production in the U.S.—it may be surprising to learn that The League of Youth was Ibsen’s most popular play during his lifetime. After attending the production, it is clear why: in this work, Ibsen masterfully captures both the hilarity and the danger of political personalities.

The play is set in a small town in Norway. The two major forces in the town’s social hierarchy are Mrs. Monsen, a wealthy businesswoman with rather suspect practices, and her rival Mr. Brattsburg, a man of high political and economic power. When Stensgaard, a young lawyer, arrives on the scene, the game really begins. While Monsen and Brattsburg both attempt to use the newcomer as their pawn, Stensgaard has his own plans to speechify his way to the top. Observing the power-hungry characters Ibsen invented nearly 150 years ago, it is uncanny how similar they appear to the faces of our current politics.

According to director Hal Cropp, the alignment with the 2016 presidential election was no coincidence. Jeffrey Hatcher, the play’s adaptor, had a feeling that The League of Youth would resonate with the politically disillusioned and reached out to the Commonweal to make this show happen. Cropp praises Hatcher for his “tremendous sense of irony” and “dry wit,” which allowed him to adapt the play to accommodate a smaller cast, while staying true to Ibsen’s message.

This is a high compliment coming from Cropp, who is no stranger to Ibsen’s work. In fact, the Commonweal Theatre has performed at Lanesboro’s annual Ibsen Festival for the past 19 years. A weekend packed with Scandinavian culture and history, this year’s attractions included an exhibit of Norwegian decorative painting, a traditional Norwegian Kaffepause, and lectures on the political themes of Ibsen’s work.

Although this year’s festival has ended, The League of Youth runs through June 11, and the rich Norwegian history of Lanesboro is never hard to find. On the corner of Coffee Street, for example, you can enjoy a Norwegian meatball and lingonberry “Viking Sandwich” at the Pedal Pushers Café or visit the Lanesboro Historical Museum.

It is, perhaps, the commitment to the community of Lanesboro that most impresses about the Commonweal Theatre. Host to weekly Sunday Salons, the theater is not just a place of entertainment but a space for thoughtful conversation. It is Cropp’s hope that their work will bring about critical thinking and conversations. “Much like Ibsen himself, I hope that people refuse to accept things at face value,” he explains. The League of Youth, in all of its hilarity, provides us with an opportunity to assess our values and decide what will truly enrich a community.

This article originally appeared in the May 6, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.