Dissin’ Ibsen

The first thing that you will read online about Henrik Ibsen (b.1828) is that he is the second-most performed playwright after William Shakespeare. The next thing you are likely to hear is one of any number of historical and contemporary observations dismissing Ibsen, the man, as little more than a preposterous little twerp. This is the state of the internet, where the information pie is always quarter-filled and half-baked.

I don’t mind Ibsen at all. His work neither offends me, nor affirms my particular worldview. He’s not like Shakespeare, who moulded the ambiguities of everyday speech into incontrovertible home truths. Neither can Ibsen be accused of the acerbic obfuscations beloved of modern playwrights such as Pinter and Osborne. Henrik Ibsen had a sharp tongue, and an even sharper pen, and his very direct words were always delivered with a straight bat.

Perhaps, it was his penchant for stubborn honesty that initially encouraged opprobrium amongst the self-appointed, literary intelligentsia, but the old lad seems now to be fair game for anyone armed with a library card and standard grade English. What’s more, much of the criticism crosses a thickly blurred line between assessing Ibsen’s legacy and shredding his reputation.

Ibsen is best known for plays that anticipated and led a debate about the aspirations of the individual versus his or her responsibilities to society as a whole. Clearly, Ibsen acknowledged the validity of self-determination, regardless of gender, in Hedda Gabbler and A Doll’s House. He didn’t back down in the face of criticism either, perhaps because in his plays were designed to court a degree of controversy.

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I find it remarkable, however, that the confrontational elements in Ibsen’s writing should be appropriated in order to define his character. As a playwright, he is celebrated for being discursive and argumentative. As a man, he is all too often considered single-minded, confrontational and cantankerous. The recurring themes in his work, such as the disaffected outsider in a hostile environment or restrictive circumstances, are constant, almost fixed features of his writing. Ibsen, therefore, is lazily remembered as single-minded, immovable, and set in his ways.

Ibsen was a Norwegian who wrote in Danish, and he became successful largely because his first substantial plays had broad appeal and were translated into German, and later into Italian. It also helped considerably that Gyldendal, the largest and richest Forlag in Scandanavia elected to become sole publisher of all Ibsen’s works. One significant quasi-truth about Ibsen then, is that he seems to have been the Stanley Kubrick of his day. Both men had big backers who allowed their artists extensive creative licence.

Despite the magnet of his obvious successes elsewhere, it’s often said that Ibsen left Norway, and stayed away for over thirty years mainly because the artistic climate there had become too conservative and constrictive. It seems to me rather reasonable of Ibsen to follow the money, and his decisions were perhaps vindicated by his ability to live and work inexpensively abroad.

Although Ibsen had enjoyed patronage, support and gainful employment, first as a poet and then as a dramatist, his fortunes in Norway were certainly mixed and, by the time he was in his thirties, his future had become clouded by uncertainty. He had married Susannah Thoresen, an intelligent and resourceful woman whom history tells us was as much an intellectual consort as a dutiful wife. Together, they had only one child, a son named Sigurd who enjoyed fame of a kind, but not, we are led to believe the unconditional affection of his father.

A walk through the pages of virtually any online Ibsen biography alludes to a strange marriage, informed by Susannah’s independent mind and assertive views. The notion of Henrik and Susannah as a literary couple grows with each repetition of suggestion, until we start hearing, muttered darkly under the breath, that Susannah had a considerable hand in the development of Ibsen’s writing.

There is no record of any such thing beyond the received wisdom that Susannah was the only person ‘allowed’ to read drafts of works in progress, and was, therefore in a position to offer her critique. There are numerous instances of nineteenth century women ghosting through art, literature and science, but their contributions are rarely unobserved or denied. Rather, the arrogance of the men who stole authorship from them was so great that they thought nothing of failing to give accreditation.

It’s not as if there is a comprehensive biography based on a deep search and evaluation of letters and documents. The plays, as you might reasonably expect, have been subject to constant re-reading, reappraisal and reinterpretation. Surprisingly, this is not the case where Ibsen’s life is concerned, a circumstance that is always going to provoke speculation.

In all the years he was abroad, Ibsen rarely spoke publicly about his work, and did not contribute literary criticism to peer reviewed academic journals. He was not an interminable diarist and didn’t write to the newspapers. Neither was he famous for dashing off correspondence to other literary figures. All of this is little wonder, given a relatively hand-to-mouth existence between royalty payments and commissions, which demanded priortisation of playwrighting over posterity.

Upon his return to Norway in 1891, Ibsen lived quietly in Christiana, as Oslo was then named, and he didn’t communicate much with the outside world. The fact that Henrik Ibsen, now aged sixty-three and enjoying indifferent health, kept himself to himself, doesn’t support the oft-repeated contention that he led a hermit-like existence. For one thing, he was still writing. What’s more, he continued to produce significant works until, following several strokes, it became impossible for him to do so.

Ibsen died in 1906 and it should be acknowlededged that the mythologising had begun long before that. Following his death, however, he somehow became subject to caricature as a small man with big ideas, who lacked personality and depth of character. In the present century, it seems permissible to elevate the squat, high-heeled, top-hatted, cartoon cut-out Ibsen to the status of Clever Fool, an especially millennial form of faint praise.

He doesn’t deserve such ridicule, of course, but even the Ibsen Museum in Oslo dwells rather inappropriately on his human failings, rather than his considerable contribution to drama. It’s pretty disrespectful too, given that the exhibition is an adjunct to Ibsen’s famous apartment near Oslo’s Royal Palace. It was there, to my astonishment that I heard (spoken out loud, if you please) the conjecture that perhaps Ibsen wasn’t the sole author of some of his most performed plays.

There are stories, we were told, that suggest Susannah was more than a literary confidante and that she worked closely with Ibsen. There are also conflicting stories to suggest that she didn’t. After pressing home the point for a couple of minutes, the guide leading us through the playwright’s former home closed this spurious narrative with a cryptic remark. ‘Maybe, it’s just a story, who knows?’ She might well have said, ‘Maybe Ibsen was a real person, who knows?’

One thing is for certain; speculation does not equal fact. I find myself offended that the trashing of Ibsen as a small, comical-looking man; self-conscious about his height; vain, contrarian, and rude, should threaten to overshadow his achievements as an influential writer. We certainly shouldn’t be dissing Ibsen in his own home, much less on the web, at least not before we’ve tried to better understand his virtues.

© Michael Stephen Clark 2018