Grappling with Ibsen

It was in the late ’80s, when I was in my 20s, that I developed a fascination with Ibsen. I think (although, with the passage of time, I cannot be certain on this point) it was a couple of BBC broadcasts that set off my passion – Little Eyolf, with Diana Rigg and Antony Hopkins, and The Master Builder, with Leo McKern and Miranda Richardson. The plays puzzled me. I could sense a lot going on under the surface; I could sense powerful undercurrents, of the presence of mysterious, irresistible forces; but the precise nature of these undercurrents, of these forces, eluded me. Possibly they elude me still, even after all these years of reading and re-reading, of seeing various productions. For all Ibsen’s reputation as a depicter of the bourgeois and creator of firm solidities; as one who had his finger firmly on the pulse of society and who pointed out and excoriated its various hypocrisies; Ibsen seemed to me, and seems to me still, to be looking beyond all that: he seemed to me to be plumbing mysterious depths, and exploring hidden recesses, of the human mind. Not that the social themes did not exist, of course, but these were not what fascinated me so. But what did fascinate me I found hard to articulate. I think I still do.

It is perhaps for this reason that I have generally kept away from Ibsen on my blog, but if the point of my writing this blog is for me to talk about what interests me most, and what I love best, then I really have to tackle Ibsen here some time. If only so that I can say, as Hilary famously said after conquering Everest, that I’ve “knocked the bastard off”.

I doubt whether here is any other writer of comparable stature whose literary career had so slow a start. Ibsen’s first play, Catiline, was written in 1850, and nine more plays followed in the next fifteen or so years; but had he written nothing other than these plays, it is doubtful whether he would have been remembered at all. Not that some of them do not show flashes of what was to come: The Vikings at Helgeland, especially, clearly foreshadows the later Hedda Gabler. But it’s fair to say that stodgy historical melodramas, with such creaking plot devices as overheard conversations and intercepted letters and so on, are not really to modern taste.

Ibsen himself seemed to tire of all this. Love’s Comedy, written in 1862, seemed a very conscious departure: forsaking historic romance and melodrama, Ibsen set this play in contemporary times, and wrote the whole thing in rhymed verse, rich in poetic imagery; and its principal theme – which, predictably, scandalised contemporary audiences – was the barriers set in the way of human love when institutionalised as marriage. It’s a fascinating work in many respects, but, I must admit, not one I find particularly dramatic: how much I should blame translations for this I am not entirely sure, but I do get the feeling that Ibsen was branching out into new and unexplored territory, and it shouldn’t really be too surprising if there are some shortcomings.

Ibsen turned back to historic drama again with his next play, The Pretenders, an epic work that seems to me quite clearly a great advance on his earlier historic plays. Although, even here, it must be admitted that, compared to something such as, say, Danton’s Death, written by Georg Büchner some thirty years earlier, it can seem a bit leaden.

It was at this time something remarkable happened. A government grant, for which he had applied a year earlier, freed him from the responsibility of having to write specifically for the theatre; and Ibsen left Norway for Italy (he remained an exile from Norway for the next 27 years). And here, in the southern Mediterranean climes, he wrote a verse play set in the mountains and the fjords of the home country he had turned his back on. This play – the first of his two plays written specifically to be read rather than to be performed – was Brand, and I don’t think even the finest of his earlier works could have prepared anyone for the immense stature of this: it was as if the freedom not to write for the stage had freed his imagination also.

However, the verse, even in translation, is vividly dramatic. The whole work is far too long for a single evening’s performance, but the dramatic seemed to be such an inexorable feature of Ibsen’s imagination that, even when cut down for performance, and even in translation, it holds the stage triumphantly. Here, with bold dramatic strokes, Ibsen depicts a dramatic world that is perhaps best described as “mythic” – scenes, situations, and characters of immense power, resonating in our minds as insistently as the most potent of ancient myths.

Its title character, Brand, is a preacher whose stern, unbending search for truth, the absolute truth, and his refusal to accept compromise, inflicts cruelties not only upon his flock, but also upon those he loves most, and even upon himself. It is a theme that haunts Ibsen’s work: the truth. We may all acknowledge its importance: we always have done. Tell the truth and let all else go hang. But all else can’t go hang: Ibsen was fascinated by the extent to which humans can accept the truth – the extent to which they can acknowledge it, or even, perhaps, recognise it. In the magnificent final scene of Brand, Brand, rejected by his flock, is led into a mountain crevice covered above by ice – the “ice church”. The truth is indeed holy, but it is also cold. Can humans inhabit such an ice church?

Peer Gynt appeared the very next year, 1867. As far as I have read, this, and Brand, are – for me at any rate – the last great plays in verse (although, I suppose, a case can be made for the verse plays of T. S. Eliot). In many ways, Peer Gynt is the antithesis of Brand: if Brand is unbending, Peer is only too happy to bend in whichever direction the wind blows, evading his responsibilities, compromising his morals (which he possibly never had much of to begin with), until, by the end, he is no more than an onion – layer upon accumulated layer, with no real core. If in Brand Ibsen had invented his own mythology, here, in a troll-haunted world, he invents his own folklore; and such is the reach of this astounding work – again, not written specifically for the theatre, but which works splendidly on stage even in cut-down versions – that he seems to me to anticipate virtually all the dramatic innovations of twentieth century theatre: I once saw a production of Peer Gynt by the Berliner Ensemble, directed by Peter Zadek, and, true to their Brechtian roots, they presented it in the mould of Brechtian Epic Theatre: it worked beautifully. There are also elements in this play that seem to me also to anticipate Strindberg’s dream plays, or the Theatre of the Absurd. It is an audacious achievement.

After scaling these heights of poetic drama, Ibsen seemed to turn his back on poetry. But first came a curious anomaly – Emperor and Galilean, a two-part epic drama, filled with the bizarre and the opulent and the exotic. I have read this a few times, but have failed to make sense of it, and to see where exactly in Ibsen’s work it fits. It seems like nothing Ibsen had written before or after, either stylistically or thematically. It is tempting to think that Ibsen took a wrong turn with this one, but it shouldn’t really be dismissed so glibly: he collected material for this play for over four years, and spent another two years writing it; and what’s more, he averred it to be his finest work. It is all very mysterious. I sometimes think this is Ibsen’s equivalent of Flaubert’s Salammbôsomething he had to get out of his system as an outlet before he could focus on more everyday matters. But I may well be wrong. I re-read this recently, and I was, once again, very puzzled.

There was also a comedy – yes, Ibsen did write comedies – The League of Youth, which is, to be frank, an enjoyable but comparatively slight affair. And then followed the twelve prose plays that critic Brian Johnston refers to as “The Ibsen Cycle”- plays set not in the world of the mythic, or of folklore, but in the everyday world, with characters from ordinary walks of life, speaking, naturalistically, in prose. But appearances can be deceptive. While the earlier plays in this cycle certainly seem to focus on social issues, even here, it seems to me, the undercurrents run deep. And these undercurrents become more apparent on the surface as the cycle progresses, the poetic imagery becomes ever denser and ever more resonant, until, in the last play, When We Dead Reawaken, though written in prose, we seem to be back again in the poetic world of Brand and of Peer Gynt. The adjective “visionary” does not seem misapplied.


Perhaps it’s the literature of the mid- to late- 19th century that attracts me most. Not exclusively: I love my Shakespeare, of course, and the Romantic poets; I have a keen interest in Greek tragedies, am entranced by Don Quixote, and so on; and I love also a great many of the achievements of modernism – Ulysses, The Four Quartets, etc. And inevitably, given my Bengali background, Tagore is important to me – I don’t have a choice on that one. But it’s perhaps the mid- to late- 19th century that I keep going back to most, for reasons I haven’t frankly bothered to analyse. And the literary figures of that era who are most important to me, who are, as it were, permanent residents of my mind (such as it is), are, I think, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Hopkins, and, most certainly, Ibsen. But I have never really understood why Ibsen exerts so powerful a hold on my imagination. So I am planning, over the course of this year, to read Ibsen’s major works – by which I mean Brand and Peer Gynt, and the twelve prose plays beginning with The Pillars of Society and ending with When We Dead Awaken – and to write here some unstructured personal musings. (I’ll give Emperor and Galilean a miss: it may well be a major work, but if I try to write about something I really don’t understand, I’m afraid I’ll end up just making an arse of myself.)

As ever, these posts will not be analyses, and certainly not “reviews”, but merely some reflections on what these works mean to me. I shall, in short, be talking to myself. But I’ll be talking out loud, so do please drop in to listen, if you feel like it; and, as ever, feel free to add your own thoughts, and let me know if you disagree. It’ll all help me sort out my own thoughts on this most fascinating of writers.

25 responses to this post.

  1. educational and perceptive! tx…


  2. Have you ever seen the McGoohan Brand?


  3. As I struggled with teaching Ibsen to undergraduates — I being unsure of my own understanding — I look forward to your postings and discussions. FYI, my “favorite “ is The Master Builder. Why? Well, perhaps I’ll have to post about it one day soon.


    • The Master Builder is a wonderful play, but, like all late Ibsen, it is a deeply elusive work: I doubt there can be one single understanding that is definitive. Even a single person can have, simultaneously, a variety of different understandings, at different levels. But I shall certainly try to set down, as best I can, my own understanding of the play, and would be very interested to see the perspectives of others.


  4. I adore Ibsen and, having read the later plays, I have begun reading the prose plays. Of the former, “Ghosts”, “Hedda Gabler” and “The Lady of the Sea” were a challenge indeed although few Ibsen plays are straightforward.

    Of the latter, Brand – surely inspired by Kierkegaard’s “Knight of Faith” – is Herculean. You write,”Brand inflicts cruelties not only upon his flock, but also upon those he loves most.” And yet, how can you ignore that angelic Agnes, the closest to Brand, refutes this categorically!

    And yet your love is hard, they say ;
    And whom you would caress, you smite.

    You, Agnes?

    Me ? O, no ! Twas light,
    All that of me you ever sought ;
    But many a soul has fallen away
    Before your watchword, All or Naught!

    In the cataclysmic alpine ending, it is astonishing that Brand ultimately comes to join his so-called mad sister, Gerd, as they worship together in a church where “God is Love” unconditionally.

    “The Vikings at Helgeland” is a fierce critique of Christianity’s encroachment on Norway’s remote north, with a fabulous ending as pagan Hiordis defiantly suicides to no avail!

    The understated ending of “Love’s Comedy”, as shocking as that of “A Doll’s House”, is a fine critique of romantic love.

    I enjoyed reading “Emperor and Galilean”, a sophisticated and nuanced critique of Christianity and Christendom, in a beautifully bound, university library book, published in 1889.

    I trust my enthusiasm for Ibsen is coming across.


    • It’s good to have another Ibsen enthusiast on board! 🙂

      In Brand, Agnes certainly accepts Brand and all that he stands for. But what Brand stands for destroys Agnes. That fourth act I find utterly heartbreaking. And then, of course, there is the splendour of the final act…

      I take it that the Emperor and Galilean you read is in the translations by William Archer. Maybe some day I’ll come to an understanding of the play: currently, it continues to elude me.

      I look forward to further discussions!


      • You write, “what Brand stands for destroys Agnes.”

        If you read her last words carefully you realize this far from her view of the matter. Indeed, Agnes imperiously dares Brand to retain her.

      • Indeed, it may not be Agnes’ view. But it may legitimately be the reader’s view.

  5. Posted by Lindsay Mair on January 24, 2018 at 6:39 am

    Hi Himadri

    I look forward to your Ibsen posts. Two tips

    a) One of the real oddities about Ibsen is that, more than almost any other playwright, he had gained his experience as an actor, and so knew what worked. It’s why his works are so much better seen on the stage, compared to read in the hand. It’s sad that most of the stuff that is put on the stage as Ibsen nowadays is radically updated and reinterpreted, so that it’s twisted from what he intended. Oxford playhouse are doing “Hedda” (not Gabler) next month, I fear it will be in this category.

    b) The person who really helps on Ibsen is GBS, The Quintessence of Ibsenism (it’s in major critical esssays). He deals with each of the great plays as well as a general analysis. Mutatis mutandis, it’s very like Johnson on Shakespeare.

    Keep up the good work!



    • Hello Lindsay,
      Ibsen was certainly director of the theatre in Bergen, but I can’t remember now if he acted as well. Shakespeare, of course, did act in his theatre, as did Molière. And, nearer our time, Harold Pinter. There must be some others, I’m sure!

      There are still, I think, a great many “straight” interpretations of Ibsen, but I suppose it’s a testament to the success of Ibsen’s work that so many of his plays have now taken on a sort of mythic quality; and when that happens, then, inevitably, people will want to try out new variations on the myth, and find new meanings– in the same way that the dramatists of ancient Athens wrote variations on their myths. Hedda Gabler is one of those plays that have taken on a mythical dimension, so I suppose it is only to be expected that there will be reinterpretations. I have long been fascinated by the way certain works of art can act as a starting point for new works. This isn’t new: Shakespeare himself was happy to take existing material as starting points for his own work!

      Shaw’s Quintessence of Ibsenism is full of characteristic Shavian brilliance – and also, I think, of Shavian megalomania: for Shaw, Ibsen was a sort of forerunner to himself! 🙂 But it’s a brilliant book all the same. Equally interesting is a collection of Shaws’s writings on the theatre, collected under the title Our Theatre of the Nineties (I have no idea whether that’s still in print!)

      Anyway, I am looking forward to this little Ibsen project of mine. It’s high time this blog developed a purpose of sorts, rather than meandering in its usual haphazard fashion…


  6. Posted by Izzy on January 25, 2018 at 12:49 pm

    I’m looking forward to your “musings”. You’ve sent me off to buy the plays I don’t have yet (and there are quite a few) and I’m very much looking forward to reading The Lady From The Sea, which I’d never heard of. Sadly, The Vikings is out of print. I could only find an overpriced second-hand copy.
    Do you have a favourite edition of Ibsen’s plays ?


    • Ibsen’s plays earlier than Brand are really, I think, for specialists, or completists. There is some good stuff there, but nothing I’d consider essential.

      Methuen publish all the plays from The Pretenders onwards (except The League of Youth, a comparatively minor work) in six volumes, translated by Michael Meyer. These are usually my go-to versions.

      I don’t know that it is possible for me to comment on the quality of the translations, since I do not know the originals, and cannot tell how close any translation is to the originals. My first introduction to Ibsen was through the old Penguin Classics editions, with some of the plays translated by Una Ellis-Fermor, and others by Peter Watts. I think they still read very well, but they were first published in the 1950s and 60s, and have inevitably dated a bit. Penguin Classics are now in the process of issuing replacements, and the ones published so far are very fine:

      – Brand and Peer Gynt, tr. Geoffrey Hill (Note that Hill, a very noted poet, does not know Norwegian, and has worked from literal translations by others. However, the results are very impressive: Hill was a great poet, after all.)
      – A Doll’s House and Other Plays, tr. Deborah Dawkin & Erik Skuggevik (These contain The Pillars of Society, A Doll’s House, Ghosts, and An Enemy of the People)
      – The Master Builder and Other Plays, tr. Barbara Haveland & Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife (These contain The Master Builder, Little Eyolf, John Gabriel Borkman, and When We Dead Awaken)

      This means that the middle four plays of “The Ibsen Cycle” (The Wild Duck, Rosmersholm, The Lady From the Sea, and Hedda Gabler) are still missing. Presumably they will follow soon. I have certainly asked Penguin Classics a number of times, both on Twitter and on Facebook, but I haven’t had a reply yet. Fortunately, Penguin Classics’ editorial board seem to serve readers considerably better than their PR departments appear to do.

      Ther eare also some very fine translations by Kennet McLeish and Stephen Mulrine published by Nick Hern Books, but I think they have gone out of print now. Theatre director Stephen Unwin, an Ibsen specialist, and translated (and directed) Ghosts and The Lady From the Sea, and these are well worth pursuing of you can get your hands on them.

      But for all the major plays, the Methuen version (tr. Michael Meyer) or the new Penguin Classics editions (assuming the final volume of this set does eventually appear) are both worthwhile.


      • You write, “Ibsen’s plays earlier than Brand are really, I think, for specialists, or completists. There is some good stuff there, but nothing I’d consider essential.”

        As I see it, “The Vikings at Helgeland” is as good a play as any but less palatable today being written – like Brand, Peer Gynt and all predecessors – in verse. The play has as much contemporary relevance as Brand.

        I hope, eventually, to read all these early plays.

      • I don’t think there’s a single translation currently in print of any play by Ibsen earlier than “The Pretenders”. That may or may not be unfair, but I don’t think it’s contentious to say these early plays have lasted nowhere near as well as the later works. And I don’t think the reason is that they were written in verse: there is no shortage of verse plays that have lasted – and are, indeed, often performed – in translation: the Athenian tragedies, Goethe and Schiller and Pushkin, Racine and Corneille, several plays by Molière, and, indeed, Ibsen’s own Brand and Peer Gynt.

        But yes, I’d agree that The Vikings at Helgeland is certainly among the more notable of Ibsen’s earlier works.

      • Many of Ibsen’s early plays are available in epub format from Project Gutenburg, and some from University libraries.

  7. Posted by Izzy on January 29, 2018 at 11:56 am

    No sooner had I finished reading your post on Ibsen than I ordered the 3rd volume in the Methuen collection. But I think I’ll like the Penguin collection better so I’ll keep an eye out for future releases.
    P.S. Did you receive my thank you e-mail re Joseph’s blog ? I’m afraid it may not have been sent.


  8. A most worthwhile project. Unsurprisingly, Ibsen was a major influence on Russian writers and thinkers in the late 19th and especially early 20th century. This impact was not as direct or obvious as, say, Byron’s and Walter Scott’s on the Pushkin generation or Mallarmé’s on the Russian symbolists. It could be compared to Schiller’s influence on Dostoyevsky, perhaps. “Youth is retribution” (or “Youth means retribution,” a quip by Solness) is the epigraph to Blok’s long poem, Retribution (1910-21). Towards the end of Chapter 3, which is also the end of that unfinished epic, Ibsen re-enters: “You will bless everything, // Once you understand that life is much greater // Than the quantum satis of Brand’s will…” This is just the tip of the iceberg.


    • I have often wondered how Ibsen is regarded in Russia. I have read of a production of “An Enemy of the People” by Stanislavsky in the aftermath of the 1905 revolution that was greeted by wild applause throughout. But Chekhov seemingly didn’t think too highly of Ibsen he referred to Ghosts as a “rotten play”, and made some other very derogatory remarks. Towards the end of his life, when he was in Crimea, he wrote to a friend asking him to send him some Ibsen’s plays, adding “As you know, Ibsen is my favourite writer”, but it’s hard to say whether he had had a change of heart, or whether he was being merely sarcastic.


      • It’s hard to tell what Chekhov really thought. He had a peculiar sense of humor and his opinions weren’t set in stone. He was young enough to change his mind on many things, although he matured early. When Ibsen wrote his dozen prose plays, plus Emperor and Galilean, he was well past forty-four, Chekhov’s dying age. I’ve seen a PhD dissertation showing how Chekhov’s three sisters can be seen as partial copies of Hedda Gabler at different speculative stages of her life. It sounds contrived but you can’t rule out anything with Chekhov.

        The Moscow Art Theater staged six plays by Ibsen while he was alive. Five new stagings in the first five seasons, and a total of nine in 1898-1912. Stanislavsky first played Stockman in 1900. For some reason, only Brand and The Enemy of the People were popular with the theatergoers. Shortly after the revolution, Vakhtangov’s new production of Rosmersholm ended after only 19 runs, despite the tremendous effort that had gone into it, including more than 200 rehearsals.

        Under Soviet rule, Ibsen was recognized as a great master but not much performed. Growing up, I thought of him as the author of Peer Gynt above all (the play to which Grieg wrote that wonderful music). Now that the Russian theater is flourishing again, Ibsen is back on the playbill but it’s a rather limited list: PG, HG, The Enemy of the People, and The Doll’s House. Jon Fosse might soon overtake Ibsen as the Norwegian author most performed in Russia.

      • I have long thought Three Sisters was very closely related to Hedda Gabler. I can’t honestly see the resemblance between Hedda and Olga, or Hedda and Irina, but Hedda and Masha ar every close to each other. Both are general’s daughters (the general , in both cases, had dies before the start of the play); both had married nincompoops, whom they despise; and both hate themselves for their cowardice in having done so. There are differences as well, of course – Masha is adulterous where Hedda is frigid – but the resemblances are strong enough. But as you say, it’s hard to know what Chekhov actually thought. Even if Three Sisters is a conscious reaction to Hedda Gabler, it is hard to see whether Chekhov is paying tribute to Ibsen, or “correcting” Ibsen, as it were.

        (I’ve also felt, incidentally, that Chekhov’s symbolic use of the seagull parallels, either consciously or unconsciously, Ibsen’s symbolic use of the wild duck.)

        Interesting to see how Ibsen is regarded in Russia. I do wish that, wonderful though A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler are, the theatre-going public could consider a few of his other plays as well!

      • Legally, all the three sisters were daughters of General Prozorov. Biologically, Irina was probably the doctor’s daughter – at least he seemed to think so. (There are other uncertainties in the play: how far did Masha’s affair with Vershini go? Was Natasha’s second child conceived with Protopopov?) That PhD dissertation suggested that Irina was an avatar of Hedda contemplating marriage and Olga was Hedda in an alternative universe where she had chosen not to marry at all and devote herself to some worthwhile cause. Still, none of them is controlling or manipulative: that part is left to Natasha.

      • I haven’t of course, read the dissertation, but while I can see strong elements of Hedda in Masha, I can see none in Irina or in Olga. Hedda is, as you say, controlling and manipulative; and she also, I think, hates herself – she hates herself for her cowardice, for her inability to defy the conventions of society; she hates herself for lacking the courage that even Thea possesses. I cannot detect any of this either in Olga or in Irina. Neither do I see in either of them any element of the demonic. But as I say, I haven’t read the dissertation, and can’t therefore comment on the arguments presented.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: