Of all the new plays to open on Broadway in 2017, the one that has been taken up most frequently by theater companies elsewhere in America is Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2. It is a “sequel” to Henrik Ibsen’s classic 1879 drama about Nora Helmer, a frustrated mother of three who walks out on her children and her emotionally null marriage in order to fulfill “my duty to myself,” famously slamming the front door behind her as she leaves forever. In Hnath’s play, Nora returns home 15 years later, having subsequently written a bestselling memoir about the evils of middle-class wedlock that made her rich and famous. In due course, she decides that she did the right thing by leaving.
The favorable reception of A Doll’s House, Part 2 was as much a foregone conclusion as is its ending, which is a quintessential example of what I call the “theater of concurrence,” a genre whose practitioners take for granted that their liberal audiences already agree with them about everything. The success of such plays is contingent on the exactitude with which the author tells his audience what it wants to hear, and Hnath obliges in every particular. Above all, the viewer is never allowed to doubt that Nora was right to abandon her family for the sake of her own fulfillment.
The commercial success of A Doll’s House, Part 2 was bolstered by the fact that it is based on a classic of impeccably progressive lineage. The original A Doll’s House, which debuted in 1879, was the first issue-driven play of ideas to win international popularity. It led directly to Henrik Ibsen’s emergence as the most discussed playwright of his day. His admirers came to include Sigmund Freud, Somerset Maugham, H.L. Mencken, Rainer Maria Rilke, George Bernard Shaw, and James Joyce, the last of whom sent him a fan letter declaring that “your battles inspired me…those that were fought and won behind your forehead.”
Ibsen is still the best known of all 19th-century playwrights, and he continues to be regarded as a literary giant. In America, though, he is a shrinking giant, one whose plays are being staged less and less often than used to be the case. A Doll’s House was last mounted on Broadway 21 years ago, and for all its historic significance, I have never seen it professionally produced anywhere in America. It is more than likely that most of the many people who have seen Hnath’s sequel were either largely or completely unfamiliar with the original play on which it is based.
Ibsen’s decline in popularity is all the more surprising in light of the fact that he has never been more influential than he is today. Whenever you see a new play that purports to indict the spiritual emptiness of the bourgeoisie—and most latter-day British and American dramas do just that—you are seeing his influence at work. From Shaw to Arthur Miller to Tony Kushner, he is the great forerunner, the prophet of modern drama. Yet fewer directors and actors are showing any interest in his own plays, and those who do now tend to stage them in extensively altered “adaptations” like Miller’s 1950 version of An Enemy of the People that are meant to make them more palatable to today’s audiences.
For this reason, it is unlikely that the American publication of a major new Ibsen biography, even one as weighty and ambitious as Ivo de Figueiredo’s Ibsen: The Man and the Mask, will lead to a revival of interest in him.1 This would doubtless be true even if Figueiredo’s study, which is at once ponderous and extravagantly effusive, were better written than it is. In any case, there is little reason for anyone other than a specialist to read any biography of Ibsen, who led, like so many other writers, an uneventful private life.
Born in Norway in 1828, he was a child of the bourgeoisie whose father failed in business, a disaster that appears to have left a permanent mark on his son’s personality. Dour and disagreeable, he steered clear of personal intimacy, an unusual mode of living for a practitioner of so relentlessly social an art form as theater. To read about him is to learn little that illuminates any aspect of his plays, save for the frequency with which they portray men and women who believe devoutly, as did Ibsen, in their own genius. In his own characteristic words: “I broke with my own parents and my family for my entire life, because I could not remain in a relationship that was based on an understanding that was only partial.”
As for his plays, virtually all of the ones that continue to be staged were written after Ibsen’s middle-aged transformation into a specialist in the naturalistic prose dramas that made him world-famous. (He was 51 when A Doll’s House premiered.) Only Peer Gynt (1867) dates from his earlier incarnation as a writer of verse plays rooted in Norway’s national mythology, and of the later works, only A Doll’s House, Ghosts (1881), An Enemy of the People (1882), The Wild Duck (1884), Hedda Gabler (1890), and The Master Builder (1892) continue to be widely performed. Between them, though, they give a clear picture of what Ibsen had to say—and why his contemporaries responded so excitedly to it.
Prior to A Doll’s House, 19th-century drama throughout the West had degenerated into a species of light entertainment dominated by melodramas, frivolous farces, and the “well-made” plays of such commercial hacks as Eugène Scribe and Victorien Sardou. As Shaw wrote with annihilating contempt in an 1896 review of one of Ibsen’s later plays:
The active, germinating life in the households of today cannot be typified by an aristocratic hero, an ingenuous heroine, a gentleman-forger abetted by an Artful Dodger, and a parlormaid who takes half-sovereigns and kisses from the male visitors. Such interiors exist on the stage, and nowhere else.
It was Ibsen who showed the world that it was also possible to write realistic plays about contemporary life that dealt with serious matters in a serious way—and that these plays could attract paying customers in the way that the novels of Charles Dickens, Henry James, and Anthony Trollope appealed to mature minds who longed to see real life portrayed on the page.
Because Ibsen’s later plays give the impression of dramatizing the effects on their characters of such political concepts as feminism and capitalism, they came to be known as “plays of ideas,” just as Ibsen himself was seen as a spokesman for progressive thought. But to watch any of them is to realize that they are political in no more than the broadest of senses, and that their implicit “ideology” is far from consistent. On the one hand, A Doll’s House portrays Nora as a woman in need of a fulfillment that she cannot achieve while she is trapped by marriage, motherhood, and the ghosts of received ideas about truth and virtue that haunt all of his protagonists. “I believe that first and foremost I am an individual,” Nora says. “If I’m ever to reach any understanding of myself and the things around me, I must learn to stand alone.”
Conversely, the title character of Peer Gynt is a vain young adventurer who travels around the world in search of himself but in the end finds nothing but emptiness within. Kenneth Tynan summed it up well when he said that Peer Gynt “remains unrivaled as a study of the fallacy that is inherent in total dedication to self-fulfillment.”
It is fairer to say that Ibsen was not so much a feminist, much less a progressive, as he was an anti-populist. For him, the Victorian-era hypocrisy he decried was a manifestation of the power of the mob to stifle the imaginations of the handful of great men and women who were born to leaven the loaf. As he declares in An Enemy of the People: “The majority is never right….The strongest man in the world is the man who stands alone.” Within a few years of his death, it had become a critical commonplace that these ideas, far from being radical, were (in Mencken’s words) “simply what every reasonably intelligent man thought.”
Shaw felt the same way. As a critic, he championed Ibsen’s plays, and as a playwright he learned much from his predecessor’s willingness to skewer the hypocrisies of the 19th-century middle class. Yet in The Quintessence of Ibsenism, Shaw’s 1891 tribute to the man who cleared the way for his own plays of ideas, he described Ghosts as “such an uncompromising and outspoken attack on marriage as a useless sacrifice to an ideal, that his meaning was obscured by its very obviousness.”
Obvious though they now seem in retrospect, it is impossible to overstate the colossal impact that Ibsen’s plays had on their first audiences. “You don’t pass an hour of your present life that isn’t directly influenced by the devastating blast of light and air that came with Ibsen’s Doll’s House,” F. Scott Fitzgerald told his daughter in 1940. By then, the playwright’s very name was a symbol of enlightened thought. Whenever a character in a play or novel written in the first half of the 20th century is described as being an admirer of his work—as happens in Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1915), Seán O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock (1924), and Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! (1933)—we are meant to assume that he is a youthful idealist, perhaps naive but with his heart in the right place.
How to explain this seeming paradox? The answer is that many of Ibsen’s beliefs were in fact quite shockingly radical to the members of the bourgeoisie whom he portrayed, and would remain so well into the next century. When, in Of Human Bondage, a German professor who admires Goethe above all other writers calls A Doll’s House “nothing but filth…nonsense and obscene nonsense,” we are meant to understand he is speaking for the Babbitts of his day, both educated and uneducated and in Europe and America alike, who were horrified by Nora’s decision to turn her back on her family. They would have been no less horrified by Ghosts, the signature problem play of the Victorian era and a whirlwind of candor by the standards of its time, discussing as it does euthanasia, incest, and syphilis.
Therein, however, lies the source of our latter-day discontent with Ibsen, which is that the people who go to see serious plays today are no longer horrified by anything in A Doll’s House or Ghosts. To the contrary, they sympathize with Nora and her fellow transgressors, and this sympathy cannot help but diminish the impact of Ibsen’s work. Maugham himself, who later had a successful career as a playwright, pointed out in 1938 that
the disadvantage of ideas in the theatre is that if they are acceptable, they are accepted and so kill the play that helped to diffuse them. For nothing is so tiresome in the theatre as to be forced to listen to the exposition of ideas that you are willing to take for granted. Now that everyone admits the right of a woman to her own personality it is impossible to listen to A Doll’s House without impatience.
This also helps to explain why Ibsen’s plays, in addition to having lost their power to shock, now feel too long, spelling out at length what modern viewers can easily figure out for themselves. It is for this reason that on the increasingly rare occasions when they are produced in America, it is usually in heavily abridged “adaptations” whose language is updated in inappropriate ways (I once saw a staging of Ghosts in which a character uttered the ostentatiously anachronistic phrase “sentimental crap”) and in which the sexual kinks that Ibsen left to the viewer’s imagination are sometimes made coarsely explicit.
It is no coincidence that the one Ibsen play that continues to be staged fairly regularly in America is Hedda Gabler. While it, too, benefits from careful pruning, Ibsen’s sharply observed, tightly written portrayal of a hot-tempered small-town wife trapped in a loveless marriage requires no wholesale alteration to make its dramatic effect. All that is needed is a faithful rendering of the text in modern but not colloquial English (Christopher Shinn’s judiciously trimmed 2008 version is one of the best) that makes no attempt to turn Ibsen’s harrowing tale of marital discord into anything other than what it is—a portrait of a woman who longs to “stand and shoot at the big blue sky” but cannot make anything worth living for out of her life. “I only possess a talent for one thing,” Hedda says. “Feeling dead.”
To watch a well-staged, well-translated production of Hedda Gabler is to come away with a clear understanding of what Ibsen once meant to frustrated playgoers who longed to be offered stage characters more interesting than foppish heroes and foolish heroines. But none of his other plays seems to pack the same dramatic punch. To be sure, we live with their culture-changing consequences—we know them well—but the plays themselves too often come across as static, talky exercises in bourgeois-baiting, as smug as Shaw at his worst but without his compensating wit.
Could it be that Ibsen awaits the arrival of a new generation of interpreters who hold the key to bringing his plays back to life? Even the most settled negative opinions about the continuing viability of a playwright’s oeuvre can be turned upside down in a single evening by a great stage director, especially one who trusts his material instead of feeling obliged to bend and twist it beyond recognition. It is for this reason that I continue to seek out regional Ibsen revivals. So far, though, I continue to suspect that plays like A Doll’s House and Ghosts are anti-personnel bombs that have already exploded, crumbling landmarks of an age of innocence whose time has come and gone.
1 Yale, 704 pages