Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian playwright, spent his career picking apart stodgy Victorian values to examine the seedy underbelly, actual relationships, and human behaviors that flourished as real-life counter-points to the hyper-moral, Christian, patriarchy-based social facade. He writes about feminism, the degradation of women, the differences between religion and morality, the benefits and drawbacks of a nationally mandated version of Christianity; he writes about sex and STDs, incest, marriage and adultery, and almost all of his works have suicide and/or madness in them. Most plays written during Ibsen’s lifetime (he published from 1849-1899) followed a fairly standard story arc involving a (male) hero-protagonist faced with insurmountable odds and a tidy, happy ending with a moral lesson and true love’s kiss. Ibsen challenged this format and introduced complex characters fighting with a lot of sticky moral questions that fall squarely into a large gray area where nothing is so easy as black or white. He delves into the realities that lurk behind the Victorian veneer, and while many of his plays are over 150 years old, there is so much of his content that feels completely fresh and current to modern sensibilities. Basically, Ibsen is a Norwegian-speaking Shakespeare. Dah, he’s such a fantastic writer with a tremendous grasp of human nature!
I know reading plays can be an acquired taste, it is not the same as reading a novel (something almost every review of J.K. Rowling’s A Cursed Child mentions). In reading a play you, the reader, have to imagine far more than you would in a book as you only have dialogue to work with (and a few minimal stage directions or visual descriptions). Reading a play and being fully immersed in the world of the playwright, understanding the emotions behind dialogue without much (if any) omniscient narration is a learned skill. If you’ve ever watched a (well designed/performed) play you probably completely understood the story and characters and their motivations, right? Playwrights intend their work to be heard, not read, and it makes a huge difference in understanding for most people. If you can find an audio version to listen to while you read, that may help (I listened to a few through Librivox, but the actors are kind of a crap shoot). If you haven’t read an Ibsen play before–or any play before–I’d recommend starting with one of these first two: A Doll’s House, or Hedda Gabler.
A Doll’s House: Probably Ibsen’s most famous play, first published in 1879 it portrays the tragedy of a Victorian (patriarchal) marriage and the ridiculous role it leaves for women who are fully capable in the outside “man’s” world. Nora has good business sense; her husband does not. Nora has strong opinions on relationships and money and marriage that mirror feminists several generations later; her husband does not. The options that are open for her and super limited and in order for her to help her husband at all she must be super subversive and secretive and possibly even veer into illegal-for-Victorians territory, you know, so her incompetent husband doesn’t lose face in public. This is perhaps the first play in the western theatrical canon that addresses gender roles and how they can be damaging for men AND women.
Hedda Gabler: Hedda is in an unhappy marriage with a man she doesn’t love and feels trapped and thwarted in the rest of her aspirations.Hedda doesn’t want to be a mother–the obvious/only next step for someone in her position–and she doesn’t particularly want to be a wife, quiet and docile and domestic is not her jam. She tries to explain this to her husband, to a friend, to her ex-lover, to a doctor, to the household staff, but no one seems to grasp that she cannot and will not shoe-horn herself into the mold that is expected of her. Hedda is often called the female Hamlet, she has such a complex and meaty role!
Ghosts: This is a psychological thriller that boldly discusses marriage infidelity, venereal disease, and assisted suicide. Yes, and it was published in 1881 when NONE of those things were openly discussed. Helen Alving is tortured by the memories of her late husband’s many infidelities, yet as a Good Victorian Woman she feels she must honor him in every way possible, to help him save face in their community. She wants her son to return home from his travels to help her establish a new family order, one without ties to her dead husband, one where she hopes she will be free. What she does not expect is that her son, Oswald, has his own horrifying legacy from his father: his syphilis is not a result of his Parisian free love, but was inherited directly from his philandering father, and it is quickly killing him. Fun fact: Once upon a time I took home a state theater medal for a scene from Ghosts; I was Helen Alving, my bff was Oswald in the scene is where Oswald asks for his mother to administer enough drugs to kill him if the syphilis eats too much of his brain and he becomes a syphilis vegetable. Not an easy scene for a couple of 18 year olds!
Enemy of the People: This! Published in 1882 this play is still so relevant. We’re talking water in Flint, Michigan, and the GOP and current Presidential election brouhaha, and environmental damage being covered up by a ruling (but stupid) majority; this play has all of that. A popular tourist attraction in a small town, the baths, is actually poisoning people, the concerned doctor-scientist who discovers this wants to rally the town to his cause, close down the baths and correct the issue. He takes to the media (newspaper) to argue his case, and is completely shut down by his brother, the Mayor, and the rest of the “concerned” town citizens who do not want the baths closed because they will all lose revenue in their respective businesses if the tourists stay away. Does ANY of this sound remotely current? Yes. Yes it does. Ibsen is brilliant, and there are so many quotes that are spot-on in our current political and environmental landscape.
Rosmerscholm: Not my favorite Ibsen, it explores similar themes of his other plays: the role of women, morality vs Christianity, and–as always–there is a lot of talk of suicide.
Master Builder: Somewhat autobiographical, Ibsen writes about an architect who believes he has sort-of magical powers, if he dreams something up, it comes to pass. He has built his career on the destruction of his wife’s family/ancestral home, something she has never gotten over. And then this teenage vixen comes along to try and destroy the architect, and she does good work. Not my favorite, and it didn’t have great reviews when it was first performed, but it is interesting how much of Ibsen’s life is in this particular play.
Emperor and Galilean: Huge, sweeping epic on the fight between Christianity and paganism in ancient Rome (AD 351). The Roman Emperor, Julian, is trying to rule his vast land holdings; the followers of Christ (the Galilean of the title) are trying to maintain Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire. The clash between church and state, Christian and other, intellectuals and faith, it’s all there. A recent re-translation by Ben Powers cuts this 7-hour play down to 3.5 hours (both performance time) and modernizes the language a bit, it is easier to understand than the original behemoth.
More info on Henrik Ibsen.