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Plays for Today
Column by Lindsey German, June 2006
Playwright Henrik Ibsen was more than a pioneer of modern theatre: he carried a torch for all those who fight for women's liberation.
I was once told by one of my school teachers that he loved Shakespeare's King Lear because "everything is in there". By which he meant murder, adultery, pride, jealousy... you get the idea. I feel much the same about Henrik Ibsen. The Norwegian playwright, who died 100 years ago, wrote a body of plays which can rightly claim to have heralded modern theatre. They continue to have a profound social impact.
While his plays are about the narrow stultification of bourgeois society in his native Norway, Ibsen wrote most of them in southern Europe, far away from the dark mountains and forests. He has a peculiar detachment from Norwegian society and an almost painful insight into it.
The society is portrayed through the eyes of women, and for me, Ibsen's plays will always be identified with women's oppression. In his greatest play, Hedda Gabler, you constantly feel that the general's daughter is like a caged lion, struggling to break free of the narrow world into which she is forced. Finally she falls, destroying those around her — and ultimately herself — because she refuses to submit.
A Doll's House portrays a heroine, Nora, who is constrained by the Victorian family and is forced to fight against it. Unlike Hedda Gabler, at the end of the play she stands on the threshold of a new life which involves rejecting husband and family — so shocking a conclusion for a play in the 19th century that there was an attempt to have the ending rewritten. At the heart of this respectable society is a poison which affects all its members. This central view is carried in other plays such as Ghosts and An Enemy of the People.
You can see why these plays appealed to socialists from when they were first performed in Britain. The opening night of Hedda Gabler in London in 1891 was attended by "a large and intelligent contingent of Fabians", including George Bernard Shaw. The gas workers' union leader John Burns and Karl Marx's daughter Eleanor were also there.
Eleanor Marx, who took part in readings of some of Ibsen's plays, was so fired by enthusiasm for Ibsen that she learnt Norwegian in order to translate An Enemy of the People. But Ibsen's plays were greeted by theatre critics in London with horror. The Evening Standard called the audience of Ghosts, which dealt with venereal disease and the sins of the fathers being visited on their sons, "lovers of prurience and dabblers in impropriety who are eager to gratify their illicit tastes under the pretence of art".
While Ibsen was not a socialist, in a letter written in 1890 he said, "I was surprised that I, who principally had made it the object of my life to delineate the characters and fortunes of men, on certain points, without consciously or directly having intended to impute anything of the kind, had come to the same conclusion as the Social Democratic [socialist] moral philosophers had come to through scientific research."
The early socialists enthused about Ibsen. His influence on that generation of writers was profound, but he has much to say to people questioning society today. After the flowering of the women's liberation movement in the late 1960s, Ibsen's identification with oppressed women led to a renewed interest. Two film versions of A Doll's House came out in the early 1970s. One starred Jane Fonda, who was fine as the rebellious Nora at the end, but didn't really convince as the oppressed Nora of most of the play.
I've seen many versions of Ibsen's plays on the stage — performed by actors such as Vanessa Redgrave, Juliet Stevenson and Fiona Shaw — and they are a great theatrical experience in themselves. But for me the greatest feat is that Ibsen, although a man, gives a voice to the anguish of women through the generations. In my opinion, the only other male playwright who does this is Bertolt Brecht. In a way that Shakespeare, as a product of his time, could not and did not, both Ibsen and Brecht show what is wrong with capitalism by highlighting its injustices to women, and so help us understand the world in order to change it.
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