ARTS / Show People: Coming in from the cold: Henrik Ibsen

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The Independent Culture
WHEN Henrik Ibsen's plays were first performed people said they were drivel. Gibberish. Detestable. He was a playwright of gigantic insignificance. Now he's up there with Chekhov: one of the two playwrights from the 19th century who have had most impact on the 20th.

He's everywhere. The Royal Shakespeare Company has two plays running by Ibsen (a republican) - Ghosts (1881) and Peer Gynt (1867). Next week, The Lady from the Sea (1888) opens at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. This week, A Doll's House (1879) opens at Chichester. Theatr Clywd's production of A Doll's House is also on tour (the cast do Ibsen one night, Abigail's Party the next).

His influence is everywhere too. In Ibsen, characters no longer whisper asides, intercept letters or eavesdrop on private conversations. (All devices employed by Shakespeare.) Scenes can take place in middle-class homes. It's still not real life, but it's closer. For that reason, some critics, notably Walter Kerr in How Not to Write a Play, say many theatre-goers prefer to stay at home where they can get real life and watch TV.

It's not his success now that is awe-inspiring, but his lack of it then. It's hard to imagine the 33-year-old Ibsen discovering that the Christiania Theatre, where he worked, preferred to go bust (which it did) than to stage Love's Comedy (1862). His first play for five years, it suggested that love did not equal marriage. 'The only person who approved of my play,' he wrote, 'was my wife.'

His views made him loathed on a scale today's controversialists can only envy. Marriage was 'slavery', Christianity 'demoralising' and modern society 'merely the society of males'. His plays weren't just topical, they were news in themselves. When Ghosts reached London in 1891, it sparked 500 articles. Who needs a modern public-relations outfit?

Living in Munich in the 1880s, he went every day to the Cafe Maximilian, and sat facing the mirror so that he could watch people going in and out. He drank cognac and seltzer and read, with forensic interest, a stack of newspapers, from the masthead on the front to the printer's name on the back. He studied the advertisements too.

His daughter-in-law said you could see him physically absorbing information. 'I note the tiniest detail,' he told her. He wore gold-rimmed glasses, carried a walnut stick and took slow steps. He was spruce, withdrawn, penetrating: if anyone is writing a play with Ibsen in it, they will want to give Alec McCowen a call.

In the first draft his characters were people he had met on a train journey ('One has chattered about this and that'). In the second draft he had spent a month at a spa with them ('I have discovered the fundamentals'). By the third draft they were intimate friends ('as I see them now, I shall always see them').

Profound topicality, characters you never doubt, and, then, rage: when he was writing Brand, a scorpion fell into an empty beer glass on the table. Ibsen kept it alive while he was writing. 'I would throw a piece of ripe fruit in to it,' he wrote, illuminatingly, 'on which it would cast itself in a rage and eject its poison into it; then it was well again.'

He was born in Skien in south-east Norway in 1828, and said that to understand his character you had to know the severe landscape, the dark winters, the way people lived so far apart. His father ran a store, then went bust. Ibsen was rumoured, probably wrongly, to be illegitimate. (Bankruptcy and illegitimacy run through the work.) He became an apothecary's apprentice, went to university in Christiania (now Oslo), and, almost by chance, got a theatre job in Bergen. Conditions were appalling: candlelight, painted backdrops, amateur actors, and three days' rehearsals. There he learnt to construct plays, describing himself, later, as an architect.

His work took off with Brand (1865), a play to be read. If the central character of the priest was 'myself in my best moments', the reverse came two years later in the vacillating, feckless Peer Gynt. Throughout his 23 plays Ibsen was to put both society and himself on the couch (Freud was a fan). A late developer, Ibsen wrote five of his major plays (including Hedda Gabler) in his sixties, and one in his seventies. It took two strokes to stop his output. He died in 1906.

You can follow the self-analysis through to the old man, Solness, in The Master Builder (1892), longing for his youth; or Rubek, in When We Dead Awaken (1899), measuring the price the artist pays in terms of personal happiness. Ibsen once inscribed a flyleaf: 'To write is to sit in judgement on oneself.'

'Ghosts': The Pit (071-638 8891). 'Peer Gynt': Swan, Stratford (0789 295623). 'A Doll's House': Theatr Hafren, Newtown (0686 625007), Fri; Sherman, Cardiff (0222 230451), 10 & 11 Jun. 'A Doll's House': Minerva, Chichester (0243 781312), opens Fri. 'The Lady from the Sea': W Yorks Playhouse (0532 442111).

(Photograph omitted)