International (and parochial) Ibsen
By MICHAEL CAINES
It's the launch for the new Penguin Ibsen tonight, at the Barbican, where the "reimagined" Belvoir Sydney production of The Wild Duck has just opened. What does that tell us? Well, only that the stars were in an impish mood when they lined this one up . . .
The Barbican's International Ibsen season, which The Wild Duck brings to a close, has presented a trio of radical reworkings of Ibsen plays (the other two being An Enemy of the People and Peer Gynt) from abroad. The implicit contrast is with the tradition of Hedda Gabler and A Doll's House in crinolines, which endures in Britain at the expense of the kind of innovative, if not always successful, approach adopted when it comes to staging, say, Shakespeare.
As Andrew Dickson puts it, we seem to have a "harder time" here than elsewhere making Ibsen "talk our language". Dickson puts the blame on the "lingering effects of Stanislavskian realism" and "a Downton-like taste for period detail", and contrasts that with Thomas Ostermeier's brand of Ibsenism, which has provoked "walk-outs and outraged condemnation" but therefore seems true to the "divisiveness" that was part of Ibsen's point. I think that might be a large part of it, but, I hope, not the only reason. I don't think I've ever gone to the theatre in the hope of seeing some tasty period detail.
Whatever the answer, contrast that emergent experimental phase in the performance of Ibsen's plays (which some will have already seen in English venues such as the Birmingham Rep, the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Young Vic) with the admirable aims of the new Penguin Ibsen project: to provide English readers with the best account yet of the original Dano-Norwegian Ibsen, with its complicated, shifting textures and nuances.
The basis for these new translations is the Henrik Ibsens Skrifter (the recently published, definitive edition of Ibsen's works). Its thoroughness in turning over every last verbal stone is certainly apparent in this Penguin volume of the four last plays – The Master Builder, Little Eyolf, John Gabriel Borkman and When We Dead Awaken. The notes draw attention to compound coinages ("Bergmand", literally "mountain man", idiomatically and in context "miner's son"), historical meanings, biblical allusions – with or without crinoline, of course, no modern production could hope to communicate all of this exactly and in full.
So we have the reading experience, on the one hand, striving to be iota-faithful; and on the other, the theatrical trend towards seemingly radical adaptation, with the old style of interpersonal relationships mapped onto the new, and the late nineteenth-century outcries of Nora Helmer et al updated for the era of the Occupy movement.
I'm happy to have both, and suppose tonight I'll find out if others feel the same. (Apparently, my almost total ignorance of Dano-Norwegian is no bar to my speaking at the event; strictly, I hope to discuss English productions of Ibsen and Ibsen in contrast to Shakespeare in the theatre . . . .) For now, though, I'll just note a further contrast:
As Toril Moi points out in her introduction to those four last plays, international Ibsen-mania is nothing new. The Master Builder appeared in Danish and "almost simultaneously", it was claimed at the time, in English, German and French, with Russian, Dutch, Hungarian, Czech and Polish to follow. Published in December 1892, it had its premiere in Berlin the following month, and Moi lists nine further productions by the end of May 1893 (including in London). Comparable demand surrounded the other plays.
I recently came across a later view of Ibsen, in Arnold Bennett's Journals, from August 1929:
"Only when you see the provincialism of Oslo do you appreciate the wonderfulness of Ibsen. It was as manager of the theatre at Bergen that Ibsen learnt for himself more about the stage than any other dramatist in nineteenth-century Europe. Now Oslo is a capital; it has three times the population of Bergen; it is much nearer the cosmopolitanism of Sweden. If Oslo is provincial – and you may even call it parochial – to-day, what must Bergen have been like in those early years when Ibsen, directing its theatre, formed his ideas and planned his schemes for the rejuvenation of the drama? Whence came the inspiration which enabled him to make all the plays of the continent seem petty, parochial, and ingenuous in comparison with his own? This is a mystery which cannot be explained, and certainly Ibsen himself could not explain it. I doubt whether any creative artist ever can satisfactorily explain his causation.
(A reminder that the international Ibsen was also the parochial Ibsen – in the same way, perhaps, that that other international phenomenon Shakespeare was also Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon.)
"I remember the time when Clement Scott in the Daily Telegraph used to attack Ibsen violently, to shoot him to pieces with epithets. (Ibsen never seemed to notice that he had been shot to pieces by the most influential dramatic critic in the biggest city in the world.) The mildest of the charges brought by the angered Scott against Ibsen was that he was parochial. In those days, thirty or forty years ago, I was indignantly anti-Scott. Ibsen parochial! The notion was grotesque. But to-day I do have a glimmering of what Scott was driving at. In a way Ibsen is parochial. (So were Aeschylus and Thucydides.) It was like Ibsen's immense cheek to assume that the élite of Europe could be interested in the back-chat and the municipal and connubial goings-on in a twopenny town of a sort that nobody had ever heard of. Ibsen's assumption nevertheless proved to be correct.
Yes. Ibsen was parochial, even in his finest plays of contemporary life; but he lifted parochialism to the mundane and the universal. Read or see Ibsen's social dramas without prejudice, and the still small voice within you will say: 'But I know that town and its inhabitants. I have lived in it, and among them. I am living in it.' Fundamentally, we are all living in Bergen."