Review & interview: The League of Youth

Photo: Thomas White / Commonweal Theatre
Last year The League of Youth was performed at Lanesboro’s Ibsen Festival. The “19th-century political buffoonery” is shockingly relevant today.

Linda Warren
Washington, D.C.

Ibsen’s The League of Youth, written in 1869 and first performed at the Christiania Theatre in Norway, was given a staged reading by the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., on March 6.

American writer Jeffrey Hatcher adapted Ibsen’s play into two acts, shortening it from the original five. Hatcher, whose work includes the screenplay Mr. Holmes (2015) and the play Picasso (2006), called The League of Youth Ibsen’s only “intentional comedy.”

In the post-performance discussion, Hatcher described his creative process for this adaptation, which was commissioned by the Commonweal Theatre in Lanesboro, Minnesota, and performed at their Ibsen Festival in 2016.

Hatcher said he cut characters and irrelevant historical events. Gone from his version are references to the Danish War for Independence and a Russian banking scandal. Hatcher whimsically described The League of Youth as a piece of “19th-century political buffoonery.”

Hatcher’s adaptation is sharp and fast moving. While comic, it maintains the important themes in Ibsen’s original version.

At a usually uneventful picnic, idealistic newcomer Stensgaard upends the status quo with a drunken speech announcing his intention to form a new political party called “The League of Youth.” He boasts that only he can stop corruption and hand power to a new generation.

Stensgaard quickly gains supporters. One young man, feeling a surge of hope for perhaps for the first time in his life, says, “I’ve got to do something. I am going down to the salon and start a fight.”

The older politicians in the town struggle to comprehend the threat to their comfortable life. Stunned by the fast-talking Stensgaard, they express shock and indecision. Even their condemnation of him as an interloper lacks conviction.

Unfazed by the chaos he creates, Stensgaard vigorously pursues his next goal, finding a rich wife before the day is over. In Norway in 1869, only men who owned property could run for office.

If caught in a lie, the charming Stensgaard has a speedy pushback. He convinces everyone that the problem is not what he said but that the listener didn’t hear what he meant. “Don’t think about my words,” he says, “they are not me.”

The comedy comes from watching Stensgaard abandon his principles, without any struggle, as he gets closer to wealth and power. The plot advances with traditional elements. There are misdirected proposals of marriage, letters getting into the wrong hands, and perplexed statesmen exposed as buffoons by political jokes.

There was much to laugh at in this witty adaptation, but these lines got applause:

“A politician only resigns when he is under indictment” and “some things turned out to be more difficult than we realized.”

“The mechanics of politics squeezed into one day,” Jeffrey Hatcher said, is what turns this play “into a farce.”

Photo courtesy of Craig Baldwin
Craig Baldwin, Artistic Associate of the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. and director of the recent reading of The League of Youth.

Craig Baldwin, Artistic Associate of the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., directed this reading of The League of Youth. A graduate of Julliard, Baldwin has acted and directed in theatres in New York and throughout the United States. In 2012, he received the Regional Theatre Tony Award.

In an email exchange with Linda Warren, Baldwin answered questions about his work.

Linda Warren: What themes do you find compelling in Ibsen’s play The League of Youth, first performed in Norway in 1869?

Craig Baldwin: I think hypocrisy and corruption in politics is really a timeless theme. It has provided fodder for comedy since the earliest days of civilization, when people were writing funny graffiti on the walls of the Ancient Roman Republic. And it still makes us laugh (and despair) every night as we flip from CNN to SNL—perhaps more than ever right now! Power, wealth, and politics are inextricably tied together, and the great writers like Ibsen exploit that tangle of corruption to great comic effect.

LW: How will these themes resonate with a modern audience?

CB: In The League of Youth, the particular story of an outsider—a political upstart—manipulating and cheating his way into the political realm in order to wreak havoc on the old guard, with his own personal financial gain high on his agenda… well I won’t name names, but it certainly seems searingly relevant today.

Even though there is a dark underbelly to the play—the rise of a leader who turns out to have some fascist tendencies—the play is first and foremost a comedy. It is quite refreshing to take a moment to laugh at the follies of politics, given our current climate.

LW: How does The League of Youth relate to Ibsen’s later plays?

CB: The most obvious influence I can see is Ibsen’s later play, An Enemy of the People. It is another exploration of small town bureaucracy, but it treats the subject matter much more gravely. By An Enemy of the People, it is as if Ibsen was more able to deal directly with the dark complexities at the heart of politics. Its intent is tragic, rather than satirical. They would make a fascinating double bill—like reverse images of each other.

LW: What skills from your directing and acting background did you find most useful in staging this reading?

CB: As a director, I always draw on everything I learned as an actor. One of the most difficult things for a director is to work out how to communicate with the actors in a way that will help them. A director is looking at the performance from the outside, trying to shift the results in a certain direction to tell the story better, while an actor is experiencing that performance from the inside. It is a different set of vocabulary to discuss the crafting of a performance from the inside, rather than the outside, and I feel very fortunate as a director to have had a lot of experience with that vocabulary. Especially in a reading, where the rehearsal time is so short. There is a need to connect with the actor immediately—to speak their language right from the start.

LW: What do you admire about this adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher?

CB: This may seem like a simple thing to say—but it is no mean feat in translation or adaptation. I admire Jeffrey’s wit immensely. Humor is one of the things that often gets “lost in translation” when adapting from one language to the other.

Humor is so specific to the phrasing of the original language and the culture from which it came. As your readers have probably experienced, I’m sure there are Norwegian jokes that you could never tell in English—they just wouldn’t be funny! Jeffrey is able to maintain faithfulness to Ibsen’s world but write with great wit for a contemporary American audience. This adaptation never feels like it slips out of the play’s time period or location, but the humor is relatable enough that it is filled with belly laughs.

This article originally appeared in the April 21, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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