Ibsen revival: Why the playwright can still change our lives

Henrik Ibsen was one of the giants of the 19th-century stage. But his plays are not locked in their time, as two new revivals demonstrate. Paul Taylor reveals how the Norwegian's dramas illuminate our own age
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One of his secret habits speaks volumes about the scale and insecurity of the ego of Henrik Ibsen, the second-greatest dramatist of the 19th century. Glued to the inner crown of his top hat there was a little mirror in which he could surreptitiously check his appearance from time to time in all its unprepossessing gravitas. He was on the small side and strove to disguise, in a fierce bristling of whiskers, what he lacked in natural attractiveness.

It is impossible to imagine the self-effacingly handsome Chekhov, the man whose power as a playwright arguably exceeds that of Ibsen, ever succumbing to such a stratagem – although you could certainly envisage one of his characters resorting to it as a tragicomic tic of the personality. But then Chekhov, like Shakespeare and God, withdraws from the dramatic worlds that he creates. We infer him from the evidence; he's not present, to any notable degree, within his drama. Where Ibsen is concerned, by contrast, there is a strong sense that each play represents the latest chapter in the struggle of a soul that was in contention both with itself and with his fellow Norwegians. One of the ironies of Ibsen's life is that he was a native of a small country, politically dominated by its neighbours, and yet achieved massive success, although he persisted in writing in Norwegian and he succeeded in raising what could have seemed parochial local problems to the status of the exemplary.

This is the man who rocked and scandalised Europe with such socially liberating plays as A Doll's House, in which a woman finally escapes the confines of her suffocating, infantilising marriage. The sound of the door she slams behind her resonates not just as a token of her emancipation but as a true sign of the love she feels for the man she leaves behind. For she has perceived that he was a prisoner, too, of the pernicious 19th-century values that trapped the sexes in licensed mutual diminishment. It's for his sake as well as her own that she departs, with her return not ruled out, we gather, if he can allow himself to develop in the right direction.

Ibsen was not comfortable, however, with the reputation of mere social crusader. He was aware that his imagination pined for the mountain-tops of myth. In the earlier part of his career, he had created two complementary mythic archetypes. The self-chastising principle of religious absolutism is represented by the pastor Brand in the play that bears his name. His antithesis is the scapegrace title character of Peer Gynt, who is globe-trotting capitalist irresponsibility incarnate. The fact that they succeed one another in the canon as inverted images is typical of the habits of Ibsen's art. And again his contrast with Chekhov is telling. The latter refined and enriched the techniques of one kind of drama, the country-estate play, as his theatrical career progressed. But Chekhov's plays do not argue with each other and are curiously free (if that's the word) of mythological underpinning. Ibsen's works enact an ongoing struggle within the personality of the author. For example, after A Doll's House, he wrote The Wild Duck in an attempt to tear off the label of social reformer with which he had got stuck. Yet, as we shall see, despite his conscious efforts, the play has profoundly political implications that speak with particular pertinence to our own era.

The notion that Ibsen's plays were often composed on the creative rebound, so to speak, is demonstrated now in two high-profile revivals that are just about to open. In London, there is Iain Glen's production of Ghosts, using a version by Frank McGuinness, and starring Glen and Lesley Sharp. Up in Sheffield, Antony Sher is launching Daniel Evans's new regime at the refurbished Crucible by starring in An Enemy of the People as Dr Stockman, the medical officer who pits himself against the self-serving townsfolk, corrupt local politics and craven media when he insists that sewage is contaminating the spa waters. Ibsen wrote the play in the wake of being all but lynched as the author of Ghosts, a play that broke the taboo against mentioning syphilis, a disease that the drama employs as a metaphor for the sins of the father.

The coincidence of these openings helps highlight an intriguing aspect of Ibsen's art, which is that it looks to the past and earlier drama at the same as it peers pioneeringly into the future. Greek tragedies are often predicated on an insurance policy that backfires. It's precisely by trying to safeguard against what the oracle has predicted for Oedipus, that his parents, in Sophocles's great play, set in train the catastrophic reverse of what they desire. Mrs Alving in Ghosts is desperate to protect her son, Oswald, and the way she has attempted to do so has counterproductive consequences. By the 19th century, though, there were companies which could insure you against disasters befalling property and this fact allows Ibsen to add a further excruciatingly ironic twist to Mrs Alving's misguided designs.

An Enemy of the People illustrates the ways in which Ibsen's plays tend to retain a vibrant topicality and how you have to be careful in highlighting how up-to-date they are. In the 1950s, Arthur Miller adapted the play as a straightforward championing of the individual conscience against the forces of sleazy conformity. Given that this was during the McCarthy era, you can see why he did so. But no one is ever going to revive the Miller version today because it simplifies Ibsen's drama, which seethes with moral ambiguities and ethical contradictions. The crusading zeal of Stockman warps into a dangerous, crazed absolutism. In his quest to eradicate the deeper moral corruption of the town, he comes to think it would be better exterminated than be allowed to continue with a life based on a lie.

Miller was sure that Ibsen, if he had been resurrected in the 1950s, would have repudiated the passages which offend Miller. He argues that, "the man who wrote A Doll's House, the clarion call for the equality of women, can be equated with a fascist". This seems to me, for several reasons, to be a strangely naive position about the relation between a creative writer and his works. For a start, it is phrased tendentiously. To be sure, one would not coarsely "equate" Ibsen with fascism. But nor can one give him a completely clean bill of health. Much of his art retains its compulsive power because, precisely, it attempts to master compulsions at the mercy of which Ibsen must occasionally have felt.

Miller cites a speech Ibsen made to a working men's club after a performance of An Enemy of the People in which he reassures them that, when speaking of an aristocracy, he meant an aristocracy of the intellect, character and will, rather than one of birth. But there are many recorded instances of remarks that indicate he was no friend to what Miller would, rightly, have insisted were the necessary conditions of democracy. He told his friend, Brandes, that "under no circumstances will I ever link myself with any party which has the majority behind it". Another of his recorded obiter dicta runs: "What is the majority? The ignorant mass. Intelligence always belongs to the minority". Arthur Miller's stance in relation to this involves forgetting that, while great artists often put their best selves into their creations, the greatness of the work depends upon a continued contention with their less-than-best – or even worst – selves. Ibsen would have been horrified by what happened politically in the 20th century and also honest enough to acknowledge where his own feelings had tended.

It's intriguing to note that the fathers of both Ibsen and Chekhov went bankrupt. But Chekhov, although he was not the first-born male, took on, as if from a natural instinct for dutifulness, the role of the eldest son in the family. With Ibsen, there was the awful difference that bankruptcies continued to bedevil his contrastingly lonely, resentful, self-fashioning post-crash progress. The apothecary to whom he was apprenticed went bust. After six years employed as a house author (aka dogsbody) at the first Norwegian-language theatre in Bergen, he had a further five years of craft-honing at the new Christiania theatre. Then it collapsed financially and he was sacked. No wonder he grew touchy and correspondingly vain and tuft-hunting. The suppressed, shaming past can become an ever-more lethal time-bomb for people with such a CV. And, on the sins-of-the-father principle, established patterns can be recycled and come to victimise wife and (in Ibsen's case) one son. But Ibsen, by dint of heroic application, turned temperamental defects into massive assets in the creation of his art.

After all, one man's thin-skinned touchiness is another's clairvoyant sensitivity. His friend and critic Brandes maintained that the dramatist was positioned "in a sort of mysterious correspondence with the fermenting, germinating ideas of the day... he had the ear for the low rumbling that tells of ideas undermining the ground". And it's because that correspondence refuses to be fully explained that Ibsen's work remains incorrigibly alive and kicking against the latter-day pricks.

It follows that relocating Ibsen's plays in the present day does not necessarily help to bring home their persistently mordant relevance. The hip German director Thomas Ostermeier has brought sleek, rather soulless high-tech modern versions of A Doll's House (re-titled Nora) and Hedda Gabler to bite (Barbican International Theatre Events), but – despite some outré twists (Nora shot her husband point-blank; Hedda took an axe to the laptop computer on which Lovborg's manuscript was stored), neither of these shows convinced you that there is anything specifically female about being a trapped discontent in the digital age. Flaubert famously said, "Madame Bovary, c'est moi". To emphasise Ibsen's astonishing inwardness with his heroine, Richard Eyre quotes this remark in the illuminating introduction to his own excellent adaptation of Hedda Gabler which he staged in an award-winning production that saw Eve Best seize the audience by the throat with this heroine's unappeasable thwartedness and restless languor.

Eyre also confesses how his attention had been drawn back to the play by comic serendipity. "I was sitting in a dentist's waiting room reading an interview in Hello! magazine with a posh rich young woman who was celebrated for being celebrated. She craved attention and yet had no talent for anything but self-advertisement and was quoted, without irony (never the strong suit of Hello!) as saying, 'I'm afraid that I have a great talent for boredom'." The point is that his recognition of the kinship between this starlet and Ibsen's heroine did not tempt Eyre down the Ostermeier route of updating. He realised that it's often by leaving things in-period that you demonstrate how most sociologically searching art is – in Ezra Pound's formulation, the news that stays news.

Indeed, it could be argued that, in these days of beleaguered masculinity and kept house-husbands, you would get more moral mileage out of reverse-gender adaptations of plays such as A Doll's House and, despite the problem of her pregnancy, Hedda Gabler. And, while I admire the script of Samuel Adamson's Mrs Affleck (I was ill and did not see the show at the National Theatre) in its dissection of the 1950s, it makes too many distracting departures from the Ibsen play, Little Eyolf, on which it is based, to be in enough creative tension with it.

The original examines the marital aftermath of the death of a child who had previously been crippled from a fall sustained when his parents were making love. While respectfully registering all the acute differences in the two scenarios, I feel it fair to say that a modern Ibsen would be interested, as a subject, in the trials of the McCann family after the disappearance of their daughter Madeleine.

You can bet, too, that were he to return to life now, Ibsen would be hard at work on a play entitled Tony Blair. He would have a field-day with the kind of self-serving, sanctimonious, hypocrisy that is arguably the stock-in-trade of the former prime minister. He would also nail the ways in which religiose sincerity is no criterion of truth, because – to duck moral responsibility – you can always claim to have sincerely believed something that you did not sufficiently check out. All of this would have been absolutely grist to the Ibsen-ite mill.

In Samuel Adamson's fine adaptation of Pillars of the Community at the National, the actor Damien Lewis even looked and sounded consciously Blair-like when he delivered the final speeches of Bernick, a hero who, potentially fingered for corruption, disingenuously confesses to some of his crimes before the community in a manner so tactically righteous-seeming that it amounts to a sales pitch to become the controller of the new public railway.

Ibsen's capacity to anticipate our current preoccupations was illustrated in richly entertaining and biting style in a rehearsed reading of the first scene of The Stock Da'wa, a new play by David Eldridge. This formed the centrepiece of an evening with the 36-year old dramatist that I chaired recently at the Young Vic. In preparation for the interview I was to conduct with him, (he let me read the whole work). Eldridge was chosen by Michael Grandage to adapt his two Ibsen productions at the Donmar: John Gabriel Borkman and The Wild Duck. He evidently found this task inspiring.

In the latter play, though he wanted it to be about the private rather than the public life, Ibsen created in Gregers Werle a visitor from hell who can easily seem the counterpart of a one-man political plague. Gregers is an emotional totalitarian who descends on the family of an old friend determined to rid him of his illusions. Result: dreadful disruption and the suicide of an innocent young girl. Without losing any of his own distinctive playwriting personality, Eldridge has fashioned a situation that speaks to our time. His equivalent of Gregers is Paul, a thirtysomething English guy who fetches up, after years of estrangement, at the home of the woman who, in his schooldays, had been an alternative mother to him. With her is the gay male teacher who had always had a soft spot for him. The twist is Paul is now a born-again Muslim and there is something suspicious about his bag.

It's a blackly comic piece of which you feel Ibsen would have approved – both for the Ibsen-ite skill with which it makes recollections of the past impinge on the present like quietly momentous deeds, and for the way it exposes the puritan hypocrisies of fundamentalism and how easily the truth can be used as a very dubious weapon. This is the way to honour the Ibsen spirit. Christopher Ricks once said, when discussing Bob Dylan, that, "I didn't discover Dylan; Dylan discovered me". It's a nice way of saying that we discover ourselves in great and enduring art. More than the rather empty updated Euro-productions of his works, Eldridge's The Stock Da'wa reminds us of why it is fair to say that Ibsen is our contemporary.

'Ghosts' is at the Duchess Theatre, London, to 15 May (nimaxtheatres. com). 'An Enemy of the People' is at The Crucible, Sheffield, to 20 March (sheffieldtheatres.co.uk)

Ibsen and me, by actor Harry Treadway

This is my first time doing Ibsen: I'm playing Oswald in Ghosts. He's suffering from tertiary syphilis, so his personality shifts and where he can go in the course of one page is really extreme. One minute he can be incredibly fearful, the next very sexual or terribly aggressive. Objectively, the character has a massive range to play and that's really exciting, a great challenge. At times, though, it can be quite terrifying, having all of Oswald's jagged thoughts in my head.

I love the way that Ibsen really gets to the hidden secrets that can exist within a family, that are carried by people for years and years and years. He's a genius at unfolding information, at bringing it all out. It always feels really natural, how humans would behave. He's incredibly in tune with human emotion and why people do things. His characters try and they fail and that's what we do. There's no flouncy dialogue and it never feels showy with Ibsen. The language is pure and simple. It never feels like the writer has thought: 'Oh, isn't this clever? I've got an alliteration." It feels like he's really driving through something deeper.

I've been surprised by how modern and relevant it feels. Everyone can identify with secrets they wish they could get off their chest to their closest ones – that's universal. In Ghosts, there are other themes, too. Oswald has been living a bohemian life in Rome and Paris and, when he comes back, he talks about how men and women can live together with their children. The fact that they're not married – because marriage costs a lot of money – is neither here nor there. For the pastor, that's absolute filth. That was in 1890 and it's still something people talk about.

So was Ibsen ahead of his time? I think he was ahead of it and behind it and beyond it, all at the same time. He simply wrote about things that will always have an impact. There will always be a young person at complete odds with the generation above. Whatever era you're in, there are always going to be clashes of ideas and that's what Ibsen gets. Down to a "T".