Making a drama out of a crisis

John Campbell on the master builder's shaky foundations; Henrik Ibsen: A New Biography by Robert Ferguson, Richard Cohen Books, pounds 25

At the time of his death in 1906 Ibsen was second only to Tolstoy as an internationally-acclaimed writer. His 70th birthday was celebrated in Scandinavia like a royal jubilee, and marked respectfully around the world. His sombre dress, something between a priest and an undertaker, made his image recognisable from Peking to Buenos Aires. He shunned publicity, yet his unchanging habits, sitting always in the same seat in the same cafe, made him a tourist attraction. And every two years he delivered a new play - each more bleak, enigmatic and personal than the last - for his public to argue over.

Ninety years on the plays are still performed as regularly as ever. Ibsen has never gone out of fashion. He is a revolutionary who has not dated. It is no exaggeration to claim, as Robert Ferguson does, that Ibsen "created the modern theatre." When he switched in mid-career (around 1877) from rambling historical-poetic dramas to tightly plotted, small-cast plays treating contemporary domestic crises with unflinching psychological realism he invented a new genre which opened the way to Chekhov, Strindberg, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Albee and Pinter - as well as much cinema and television drama.

Ferguson's is the first new biography since Michael Meyer's triple-decker 25 years ago. It comes trailing rave reviews from Norway and boasts some new material on Ibsen's early struggles; but Ferguson's main difference from Meyer is in interpretation. He presents a less reverential, more personal portrait of the man and his demons. He is also good on Scandinavian cultural politics and Ibsen's ambivalent attitude to emerging Norwegian nationalism.

Ferguson has more time than most English critics for Ibsen's early plays - such as The Vikings at Helgeland, Love's Comedy and The League of Youth - which are rarely if ever performed here. He sees The Pretenders as a tragedy comparable to Macbeth; makes a good academic case for the huge unactable verse-drama about Julian the Apostate, The Emperor and The Galilean; and sees Brand and Peer Gynt as unchallengeable masterpieces.

By contrast, he is a stern critic of the "modern" plays, though not always a convincing one. For example, he thinks A Doll's House flawed by Ibsen's "contempt" for the character of Nora's husband, Torvald Helmer, whom he dismisses as a monstrous caricature. Yet a letter from Ibsen to Laura Kieler, the real-life model for Nora - who committed exactly the same crime as Nora for exactly the same reason and whose husband reacted in the same way as Torvald - shows that Ibsen believed that Laura/Nora should have thrown herself on her husband's mercy, and that it was his duty to protect her. Torvald is not a villain, but simply reacts properly by his - and Ibsen's - lights. What is extraordinary about Ibsen the artist is that he could put so much creative empathy into Nora's side of the argument as well.

Few writers display a starker dichotomy between art and life. Outwardly, he was the most respectable bourgeois who ever lived, obsessed with status and honours. Yet from somewhere inside himself he was able to conjure rebellious spirits like Nora, Hedda Gabler and Rebecca West. Ibsen always denied that A Doll's House was a feminist tract, although it still carries a feminist charge today. Yet it also bears a universal message, for Ibsen put a lot of himself - his other self - into Nora. So it is with all his characters. Ferguson's biography is at its best in teasing out these conflicts and tracing their recurrence in his plays.

Two traumas scarred his childhood and adolescence. First his father, a prosperous merchant, was ruined in unexplained circumstances when Ibsen was seven. The social humiliation in a status-conscious society drove young Henrik in on himself, but also drove him on: he grew up solitary but intensely ambitious. Social disgrace haunts his characters from Nils Krogstad to John Gabriel Borkman.

Second, he fathered an illegitimate child at 18. His early struggles were exacerbated by the obligation, enforced by the courts, to pay maintenance until the boy was 15. Ibsen buried the episode and had nothing to do with mother or child for the rest of their lives. But the secret haunted him and the ghost of illegitimacy stalks his plays.

After that one expensive aberration he largely suppressed his sexuality. He did marry, however, and was exceptionally fortunate in his wife, Susannah, a woman both strong and supportive. Later, they grew apart and Ibsen developed an old man's sentimental tendresse for a succession of younger women. His last four plays all explore the theme of a dying marriage; but in his very last, When We Dead Awaken, the sculptor Rubek returns to his first love and they die together in an avalanche.

The wonder is that Ibsen managed to mine so much from such a narrow seam of life. He once suggested that he deliberately closed off the sociable, anarchic side of his character as a way of concentrating his energies on his work, like damming a river to generate electric power. It is a telling image. Ferguson's excellent biography helps to illuminate the process. But it is still a miracle.

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