Ibsen: A Collection Of Critical Essays, edited by Rolf Fjelde
I first became familiar with the noted Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen when I was in high school and our IB class was assigned to read his domestic tragedy A Doll’s House, about a woman who feels herself treated like a doll, deprived of the knowledge of how to raise her kids correctly, and filled with a curse coming from the sins of her father, along with her own sins, committed to help preserve the health of her husband. Although I found the play a bit contrived, I saw enough value in his work to make myself familiar with other works of Ibsen that I have found in translation, since lamentably I do not know enough Norwegian to appreciate Ibsen’s subtle and poetic writing in its original language, plays like The Master Builder, Enemy Of The People, Ghosts, and Hetta Gabbler, to name a few. All of them are spoken of in this book, and given thoughtful and critical treatment by the authors of the constituent essays of this book, which demonstrate Ibsen’s continuing importance as a dramatist who attempted to find tragic heroism in the unpromising material of modern society.
This particular volume is made up of sixteen essays that take up about 180 pages of serious material that presuppose a high degree of familiarity with late 19th and early 20th century drama, as well as the entire repertoire of Ibsen’s plays. Among the varied essayists in this volume, I was only familiar with the author of the last essay, the English novelist E.M. Forster, but as a whole the essays are substantial and persuasive in demonstrating Ibsen’s debt to Shakespeare, along with certain symbolic and thematic concerns in his various plays and dramatic poems. The essays take a chronological and thematic approach, beginning with an introductory essay by the editor, then looking at Ibsen as a person, as a seeker of truth, as a stage craftsman, and look at his debt to Shakespeare. Later essays explore Ibsen’s search for the tragic hero as well as Ibsen as a romantic intellectual, or the sort of romanticist that Goethe and C.S. Lewis, among others, happen to be . Most of the essays, though, quite sensibly focus on Ibsen’s plays, like Brand, Peer Gynt, Emperor and Galilean, Ghosts, The Wild Duck, Rosmersholm, The Lady From The Sea, Hedda Gabbler, and many others .
The essays, although written by different people, largely revolve around the same concerns. Ibsen was viewed in his own times as a liberal social critic, but his plays are often unsparing and grim when it came to the liberal and bourgeois culture of his time. Nor was he a communist or a socialist, but rather a somewhat radical individualist whose fierce internal passions were kept beneath his stiff and prim and reserved exterior through the fact that he wrote, often acerbically and bitingly, as a vent to those passions that he felt constrained from expressing openly. Ibsen’s last four plays, in particular, put the artist on trial and find that the passionate pursuit of artistic truth and self-expression end up doing great harm to others and fail to serve the practical aims of living well in our contemporary world. Over and over again, from different angles and perspectives, the essayists look at Ibsen’s writing through his frustrations and torments, his anxieties, his anger at the hypocrisy around him, at the inability of those around him to recognize and appreciate truth, and at his own weaknesses and failures, his lack of physical courage, and his own experience of forlorn wandering in exile, his own absence of a homeland despite his deep loyalty to his native Norway. Many of the essayists comment that art springs from torment and suffering, and that since the late 1800’s, at least, artists have felt themselves caught between their desire to be true to themselves, to be relevant to the world around them, to be committed to beauty and truth, and to be kind and loving to family, friends, and spouses. Since that terrible tension still exists for contemporary artists, it is still worthwhile to read Ibsen, at the very least to commiserate vicariously through a fellow tormented artist whose struggle with communication, intimacy, and authenticity led him to write plays and essays and give talks, in the hope of leaving the world better for his having lived.
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