Ibsen: An avalanche of emotion

With Ibsen's titanic struggles of man against woman and both against nature, modern theatre was born in all its glorious complexity. In his centenary year, only Shakespeare rivals Ibsen's stature. Paul Binding celebrates his enduring appeal
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The Independent Culture

'You are Norwegian?" Peer Gynt is asked during his exile in North Africa. "Yes, by birth," he answers, "but a world citizen by nature." His creator too was Norwegian by birth - in Skien, southern Norway, on 20 March 1828. But for 27 years he lived away from his country, maintaining from Germany and Italy a deliberate distance while focusing in his writing on its people and drawing on its landscape, folklore, history and cultural debates. And also while receiving, from 1866 onwards, an annual grant from the Norwegian Parliament. In 1891, age brought him back, just as it had Peer Gynt himself, and an inner healing of wounds surely followed. "Any man who wishes to understand me fully must know Norway," he declared. As for world-citizenship, this centenary year - Ibsen died on 23 May 1906 - sees abundant vindication of his own claim to this.

"Ibsen 2006" in Oslo has established a website which, in March alone, had 1.3 million hits. It reports 6,000 different Ibsen events round the world this year: mostly theatre productions, but also festivals, conferences, library exhibitions, art-shows. The anniversary month finds seminars in Bangladesh, performances of The Master Builder in Beijing and Colombo, an Ibsen Day at the British Library, and a ceremony at the Library of Congress, Washington. Ibsen 2006 officially closes in October, in Egypt, with a Peer Gynt concert, Grieg's music played beside the Sphinx, who reminded Peer of legendary creatures from his own valley.

In any ordinary year, Ibsen, with about 150 new productions of plays world-wide, is outdone only by Shakespeare himself, with Peer Gynt and Hedda Gabler eclipsing all but the top Shakespearean handful. Ibsen studies thrive not just in western Europe, but in China, where he's admired for his assault on male hegemony, and India, with an Ibsen tradition of its own, Indian writers having turned to him for inspiration after Independence.

Would Ibsen be surprised at the vitality and extent of his present reputation? No! His self-belief and unflagging dedication to his work were as remarkable as the plays they brought into being. Would his contemporaries be surprised? Again, no. He had, of course, more than his share of detractors, even haters, often on so-called moral grounds, vociferous among them members of the British press. "The most dreary and purposeless drivel we have ever heard in an English theatre," said Evening News about The Master Builder; "unwholesome... simply blasphemous", said Morning Post. But Ibsen's challenging and feeling diagnoses of both society and the individual were hearkened to and absorbed. In 1890s Britain he won, through William Archer's translations, creative response from Hardy, James, Gosse, Shaw, Galsworthy and the young Forster - and, in Ireland, the even younger James Joyce.

Ibsen's consecration of himself to his creativity is shown in his strange relationship to his family. His father, an unsatisfactory, grandiloquent businessman, went bankrupt, causing his son deep resentment and shame; later he portrayed him as Jon Gynt and as Old Ekdal in The Wild Duck. Rumours, almost certainly mistaken, circulated about Henrik's true paternity, doubts about parentage stalk his work, most harrowingly the last-mentioned play. His mother and siblings got caught up in evangelical revivalism to which Ibsen was intractably hostile. He attacked "all or nothing" faith in Brand. A 10-day-visit to Skien in 1850 was the last time he saw any of his kin, except for his sister Hedvig, and her daughter, and he saw them only late in life. For some years his father wondered if he were dead. Effectively, Ibsen had severed himself from home at 15, when he'd gone to work as an apothecary's assistant in Grimstad, a little south-coast sea-port. Here, at 17, he made a servant-girl pregnant. He never saw this son afterwards, though for the next 15 years he contributed to his upkeep. But vanished or dead children haunt his oeuvre.

He went on to do notable work for theatres in both Bergen and Christiania (Oslo), and the historical plays he wrote as a young man still have a freshness in their animation of the distant past. But from the world-citizen point of view Ibsen's oeuvre begins with two long verse-dramas which he feared were unactable, Brand (1866) and Peer Gynt (1867) - written when he was living abroad with his wife, Suzannah, and their only child, Sigurd. Brand asks the question: what religious faith can be inclusive enough for us to live by? Peer Gynt takes on the Norwegian national character and the average male's alarming ability to make or destroy his life through fantasy. In both works, technical accomplishment and originality match adventurousness of theme, and with them Ibsen became the most distinguished Norwegian writer of his generation, Bjørnson apart.

Posterity has not remained faithful to Ibsen's rumpus-causing topical comedy, The League of Youth (1869), so very popular throughout his life-time, and even less so to his gigantic "world-drama" about Julian the Apostate, Emperor and Galilean (1873). But in 1877 he produced Pillars of the Community, the first of 12 prose-plays with contemporary settings, and with it serious modern drama, quite simply, began. In recognisable rooms, meticulously described in the stage-directions, recognisable representative members of society, speaking colloquially (and never at any unreal theatrical length) relate to each other, or strive to do so. We have not entered the theatre to leave behind questions of money, property, work, ethics, personal obligations, emotional needs, sexual drives. Ibsen never embarked on a play without knowing every "chink and cranny" of his characters' lives. As a result, his plays are crystallisations of an elaborate network of relationships and inter-dependencies in which his people, like all of us, have their being. The past continually presses against the present. A tycoon's scapegoating of his best friend, an eminent father's secret profligacy, a young woman's possibly incestuous relationship with an older man - these refuse to lie hidden but obtrude in ugly, unexpected guises. Then the present will demand decisions pitting rational considerations against deeper inner forces.

Often the resolutions these conflicts enforce are terrifying: Nora walking out on husband and children (A Doll's House, 1879), Mrs Alving about to carry out euthanasia on her only son whose mind has gone through syphilis (Ghosts, 1881). In Hedda Gabler (1890), only suicide can deliver the central character from the tightening of the mostly self-woven web. The social problems behind many of these predicaments were frequently, particularly in Britain, taken as Ibsen's principal concern. In fact, Ibsen is interested in the whole person, hence Freud's espousal of him. It is in this that his radicalism, of which he was proud, lies, not in any socio-political adherences (which were inconsistent). Yes, the truth demands to be pursued (An Enemy of the People, 1882) but we should respect illusions as a psychological necessity for some (the incomparably moving Wild Duck, 1884).

Ibsen's radicalism appears above all in his treatment of women. Each female protagonist is a universe in herself, and often connects to elements of the external universe in ways logos-driven man finds hard to understand. This is the subject of The Lady from the Sea (1888) where Ellida's kinship with the ocean only ceases to threaten familial peace when fully confronted. As his prose cycle moves forward, Ibsen's insistence on the role of the natural world in human life and on its innate interior correspondences becomes all-pervasive. This aspect of his work should be singularly sympathetic to the 21st century.

Ibsen's last four plays - The Master Builder (1892), Little Eyolf (1894), John Gabriel Borkman (1896), When We Dead Awaken (1899) - are works of intricate artistry and complexity of thought. Like Yeats's later poems, another appropriate comparison, they are obsessed by the (apparent) waning of creativity in those who have hitherto believed will-power to be life's key determinant. Yet, the plays persuade us, it is possible for us even when most agonised by our sense of loss to survey existence with a completeness of vision withheld from us earlier. Solness, the Master Builder, comes, fearfully, to realise the guilty foundations of his success, to see how his achievements rest on others' sufferings, of which he's been by no means unaware. But even in the midst of such painful comprehension he responds to the magic aura of the young woman, Hilde, and refuses to spurn his own most audacious building. In When We Dead Awaken, the world-famous sculptor Arnold Rubek acknowledges his failure to attain that level of insight he'd earlier approached. And he knows that this failure is intimately bound up with his betrayal of his first, and loving, model, Irene. Solness, after mounting the high tower of his new villa with a confidence he's lacked for a whole decade, falls to his death; Rubek and Irene, together again, ascend their mountain only to be killed by a hurtling avalanche. Yet, strangely, these appalling endings not only move us, they exhilarate and even comfort us. This is what human-kind can rise to - truly a case of Yeats's "gaiety transfiguring all that dread".

In March 1900, Ibsen suffered the first of the strokes that incapacitated him for further literary work. He had anyway already designated When We Dead Awaken a "dramatic epilogue" - to the last four plays, to his prose-dramas from A Doll's House on, perhaps to his entire oeuvre. Certainly he insisted that each play of his should be considered alongside its predecessors and successors. Frode Helland of the Ibsen Centre, Oslo, himself the author of a fine recent study of the last plays, notices a certain movement today away from these vanguard modernist classics, back to Brand and the perennially popular Peer Gynt as well as to such central achievements as A Doll's House. This is understandable, just as one can see why, after intensive post-structuralist scrutiny, Ibsen should now be receiving attention again for the cultural and political dimensions of his work. Myself, I continue to regard the final quartet of plays as the very summation of his unique art and one of literature's greatest glories. But I feel constant gratitude for so generous-sized a corpus that transcends time in its appeal to intellect, conscience and heart.

Paul Binding's 'With Vine-leaves in His Hair: Ibsen and the Artist' comes out from Norvik Press later this year