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Pól Ó Lorcáin
Paul Larkin

Chroniclers are privileged to enter where they list, to come and go through keyholes, to ride upon the wind, to overcome in their soarings up and down, all obstacles of distance, time and place.
Charles Dickens - Barnaby Rudge, Chapter The Ninth

Ibsen the incendiary, unrepentant, insurgent humanist

This essay was first published (and beautifully edited) by Greg Baxter at Some Blind Alleys


During the summer, I completed a new literary translation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House for Dublin’s Secondage Theatre Company. As far as I am aware, the last Irish person to translate Ibsen into English was James Joyce. Thus I stand on hallowed ground and bow my head in deference to these two giants.

Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House signalled a seismic artistic shift, not only in the history of theatre, but also in the world of literary and political discourse. The first ever production of A Doll’s House was staged in Copenhagen’s Royal Theatre in December 1879, and when, at the end of the play, Nora Helmer quietly closed the gate on her old life as an apparently solidly bourgeois and respectable housewife, nothing would ever be the same again.
The uproar that followed was comparable to the Abbey’s first staging of Playboy of the Western World, except that it was more geographically widespread.

I was recently at a dinner party in a posh part of Dublin, and I raised the issue of Ibsen being an out-and-out rebel. “Do you,” asked a woman who set her fork with emphasis down on her plate, “believe in the due process of law?” “No,” I replied flatly. Of course I believed in the need for law, but laws were invariably used by a ruling class to suppress all the classes beneath them. This was lost in the howl of outrage coming at me from across the pasta. When things calmed down, I explained further. I cited three writers in my defence: Euripides, Henrik Ibsen and Stieg Larsson.

Stieg Larsson, who died at the age of 50 in 2004, was not only a stalwart anti fascist investigator but also a brilliant writer of a new kind of crime fiction; a crime fiction coming from the left and consciously exposing the dysfunctional principles of unbridled capitalism. Larsson was neither soft nor cynical. He believed in revolution.

I finished the final draft of my translation of A Doll’s House while on a month’s holiday with my family in Taormina, Sicily, this summer – not far from Syracuse, where Euripides had lived for a short time (Sicily at that time being a Greek colony).

At the same time as I was completing my translation, and for a kind of diversion, I read Stieg Larsson’s crime trilogy series Millennium featuring Lisbeth Salander as the woman “who hates men who hate women” and Mikael Blomkvist as a kind of new age outlaw journalist, an anti-globalist Bladerunner.

One day, I went to the the awe-inspiring Teatro Greco, which is overlooked by Mount Etna and clouds of volcanic smoke. This theatre has staged classic Greek tragedies like Euripides’s Medea since 300 BC. Odysseus and his crew met the Cyclops on a beach just down the road. In a quiet café afterwards, which overlooked a much smaller ancient amphitheatre, the Roman Odeon from 21 BC, which was also used for political discussions and debates, I realized coincidence and geographical chance had connected three very different authors – Euripides, Ibsen, and Larsson – within my own desire to assert a new relevance in revolutionary literature.

The connection is not as remote as one might first assume. All three authors were iconoclasts seeking to shake society and its citizens out of their mental torpor, foment debate and dissent from the prevailing political, moral and religious climate of their times.

They were also feminists. Euripides broke with classical Greek form and wrote, at least to some extent, from the woman’s point of view (Medea). A Doll’s House is centred on the question of a woman’s right to autonomy, and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series deals at length with the way the male dominated state oppresses women.

Ibsen’s assertion of female autonomy was just as shocking to nineteenth-century audiences as Euripides’s portrayal of Medea as a person who has a context for her, albeit, extreme actions. When A Doll’s House was first played in Germany, the leading lady refused to act out the end of the last scene where Nora Helmer leaves her children and husband, insisting instead that the ending be changed to one of reconciliation. Henrik Ibsen was to regret for the rest of his life that he yielded to this demand.

Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander is not particularly warm, rarely smiles, and has very few friends. She exists in a world that refuses to accept difference. Particularly female difference. We discover Salander was a victim of state-sponsored abuse.

All three authors argue that the state, or Polis, is not necessarily the best arbiter of moral right. And they do so in basic, everyday language, writing about everyday life.

George Steiner wrote:

“In Rosmersholm, The Lady from The Sea and Hedda Gabler, Ibsen succeeded in doing what every major playwright had attempted after the 17th century and what even Goethe and Wagner had not wholly accomplished: he created a new mythology and the theatrical conventions with which to express it. This is the foremost achievement of Ibsen’s genius, and it is, as yet, not fully understood.”

The above quote comes from Steiner’s classic study on the death of tragedy, first written in 1961. This work ought to have been a crucial source of inspiration for subsequent works on Ibsen, but Modernist literary critics have resisted him.

The most recent and successful book on Ibsen by the Norwegian academic Toril Moi (Henrik Ibsen and The Birth of Modernism, 2006) completely ignores Steiner.

Toril Moi focuses on Ibsen the Modernist and feminist, when the crucial thing about Ibsen was that he was an incendiary, unrepentant, insurgent humanist. Should anyone doubt that Ibsen saw himself this way, they need simply turn to his own correspondence with his colleagues and friends in Scandinavia:

“I myself am responsible for what I write, I and no one else. I cannot possibly embarrass any party, for to no party do I belong. I stand like a solitary franc-tireur at the outposts, and fight for my own hand.” 1

Ibsen’s franc-tireur here is a reference to irregular units of the French Army in the Franco Prussian War. The Spanish word for sniper, and indeed metaphor for “freelance” or “free agent,” stems from this word - francotirador.

Toril Moi started the book because she was annoyed with critics and academics who have tried to ignore Ibsen to death, despite the huge popularity of his plays. She does a good job of upbraiding allegedly Modernist literary critics and writers for their refusal to acknowledge Ibsen.

Moi is at her best when she abandons an academic approach that includes endlessly telling us what she is going to tell us next and embraces her passion. The use, for example, of Scottish painter William Quiller Orchardson’s The First Cloud (1887) on the dust cover, and Moi’s extended explanation as to why this work is such a fitting reflection of Ibsen’s Modernism, is brilliant:

“The more we look at this painting, at the aggressive stance of the man, the sweeping hauteur of the woman, the less it tells a moral tale. Whose fault is this rift? What could be done to save this marriage? Where do we place moral blame? The painting does not say.”

The question of freedom within relationships and the raising of sexual and social taboos is critical to understanding Ibsen, as is his often experimental use of theatre space, which Moi explains very well. The author is also mostly excellent in describing Ibsen’s life as an artist – his passionate but failed attempts at painting; his awkwardness with literary aesthetes; and, not least, the bleak realism of having his house repossessed and his belongings flogged off to debtors while still a young man. However, in almost obsessively worrying at the question as to whether Ibsen was a true Modernist and trying to disprove the notion that Ibsen was a closet idealist (a question first raised on a global scale by George Bernard Shaw in the early 1900s), the author leaves both herself and her readership dizzy with conflicting arguments.

When Moi allows her true feelings and expertise on Ibsen to shine through, we get near the book she should have been writing:

“Because of his commitment to the ordinary, Ibsen is neither an idealist nor a straightforward anti-idealist… he clearly regretted the passing of the utopian vision of human perfectibility that was such a seductive part of idealism. Ibsen’s turn to the ordinary and the everyday was an attempt to maintain a balance between utopia and critique, between a positive and negative view of the world.”

A perfect example of the negative effect of this see saw approach comes in Moi’s analysis of one of Ibsen’s greatest and most controversial plays – Ghosts. She states that it challenged “idealists” more than any other Ibsen play and also refers to public outrage at the filth and sexual depravity – in Ghosts there is philandering, adultery and incest. Ibsen places himself alongside Flaubert with the play, and even more so with James Joyce.

But Ghosts is more than Modernist controversy. Ghosts is about the inescapable past. A father’s son who wants to marry a woman who turns out to be his sister is closer to Sophocles than Ulysses. Also, Oswald’s mother is more Jocasta than Molly Bloom. This is Ibsen’s genius; his ability to combine elements of classic tragedy with ultra modern themes. But the author is so keen to make Ibsen a modern that she shuns all talk of classical “tragic” drama where Ibsen is concerned. This is a great pity. It seems to me that all great author’s have a sense of the inevitability of certain disastrous events.

Ibsen’s greatest, world altering achievement was not to be an influential but unacknowledged early Modernist, but rather to achieve the superhuman feat of marrying modernist art with the utterly prosaic; idealist values with social commentary; the timeless with the immediately political; the rhythm of classical verse with everyday speech.

A definitive book on Ibsen is still badly needed.

The pasta had gone cold by the time I had finished speaking but I have the compensation of obtaining a promise from the lady with the assertive fork that not only would she go and see my play (or more accurately Alan Stanford’s stage version of it) she would also go to Hodges Figgis that weekend and begin reading Ibsen once again.

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Title: Ibsen the incendiary, unrepentant, insurgent humanist
Date posted: 10 Nov '09 - 14:29
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