Scholar on “Norway’s Shakespeare”
Christine Foster Meloni
George Mason University professor Rick Davis this spring presented a stimulating talk to the members of the Sons of Norway D.C. lodge on Norway’s great playwright Henrik Ibsen, who launched the modern drama movement.
Not only his eager voice but also his bright smile revealed Davis’s deep passion for his subject. With remarkable clarity he outlined Ibsen’s writing career from his early poetry through his plays.
Ibsen was apprenticed to an apothecary in his youth and was on the path to becoming a doctor. Davis said that it was very fortunate for us, however, that Ibsen failed some of his medical exams and, therefore, decided to devote himself to writing, first poetry and then plays.
As an aside, Davis mentioned that another great playwright, Anton Chekhov, had passed his medical exams and become both a doctor and a playwright. However, Chekhov wrote only six plays. Ibsen, on the other hand, was much more prolific, writing a total of twenty-eight.
Ibsen’s early plays were patriotic sagas, as Ibsen was a patriot and wanted independence for Norway. However, these plays were, according to Davis, “clunky.”
In 1850 Ibsen published his first play, Catiline, set in ancient Rome. He took the villain Catiline and made him a hero. (For those of you who took Second Year Latin, you will remember that Catiline was the nemesis of Cicero.)
This play and all of those that followed showed that Ibsen was influenced by the German philosopher Georg Hegel. Hegel would begin with an intellectual proposition (the thesis), then negate this proposition (the antithesis), and then end up with a synthesis that would reconcile the conflict between the thesis and the antithesis. This dialectic is evident both within and between Ibsen’s plays.
Catiline did not meet with much success nor did the seven plays that followed it. But Love’s Comedy was published in 1862 and Davis calls it Ibsen’s first masterpiece.
Ibsen left Norway in 1864 and lived primarily in Italy and Germany until he finally returned home in 1891. Disappointed in his native country’s lack of culture, he wanted to experience culture elsewhere. The Norwegian government generously gave him a stipend to do so.
At this time, Europeans were diverting their energy away from drama toward great realistic novels and romantic poetry. Ibsen, however, decided to focus on drama. He started writing great plays and became the most famous playwright of his time.
Ibsen was catapulted to fame in 1866 with the publication of Brand, which was soon followed by Peer Gynt in 1867. These two works were diametrically opposed. Brand was about a deeply spiritual and idealistic priest, while Peer Gynt was about a lost man without a soul. Both plays, according to Davis, were “completely unproducible,” but they were widely read.
In 1873 Ibsen wrote the tragedy Emperor and the Galilean. It consisted of ten acts (too many) and was based on the ultimate dialectic, pagan vs. Christian.
His final works, often referred to as “Ibsen’s 12-Play Cycle,” consist of his best and most popular works. They firmly established his international reputation and he became known as the dramatist who initiated realistic modern drama. The plays in the cycle are Pillars of Society (1877), A Doll’s House (1879), Ghosts (1881), An Enemy of the People (1882), Wild Duck (1884), Rosmersholm (1886), The Lady from the Sea (1888), Hedda Gabler (1890), The Master Builder (1892), Little Eyolf (1894), John Gabriel Borkman (1896), and When We Dead Awaken (1899).
Davis emphasized the tremendous importance of A Doll’s House, in particular. It was the play, in his words, that “put drama onto the modern path.” It contained the most revolutionary line ever spoken on the stage, when Nora says to her husband, “Sit down. We have a lot to talk about.”
After explaining to her husband that she is leaving him because he doesn’t understand her and doesn’t really love her, she leaves. She slams the door on their marriage. George Bernard Shaw (who was devoted to Ibsen) said that it was “the door slam heard round the world.”
The idea of a wife leaving her husband was revolutionary. In fact, this play was mainly performed in Germany because it was, according to Davis, “too hot to handle in Norway.” But even in Germany it was a shocker. When the curtain came down after Nora’s departure, the audience could not believe that the play was over. They remained in their seats and waited for Nora to return to her husband. But she did not return.
Davis concluded his presentation by calling Ibsen “Norway’s Shakespeare,” but he emphasized that Ibsen was not only Norwegian but also universal. He wrote about real people with real problems; anyone from any culture could relate to his works.
This article originally appeared in the July 10, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.