A Doll’s House And Other Plays, by Henrik Ibsen
This particular collection of plays features one I am very familiar with, A Doll’s House, and two I have never read, The League Of Youth and The Lady From The Sea. Naturally, I read it for the two unfamiliar plays. Ibsen as a playwright has always had an ambivalent place for me, and the more I read about him the more ambivalent that place becomes. In many ways, Ibsen was more than a bit of a hypocrite, not least in the way that he sought a public stipend for some of his earlier works, which he received, and in the way that he used the freedom of want achieved by this stipend to attack the obligations that people owed to society as a whole. Ibsen’s behavior was a classic case of biting the hand that has fed you that serves as one of the more problematic aspects of tenure for contemporary leftist professors. All too often people whose basic wants and needs are taken care of by a secure income attack the basis of that society or culture or institution that has given them that security. That was certainly the case in Ibsen’s writing, where being free of want freed Ibsen of gratitude to the society that allowed him to be essentially parasitic, as these plays make plain. That the same is the case today should fill us with some foreboding.
This particular book is a bit more than 300 pages in length. It begins with an introduction that puts Ibsen’s life and writing in a context that allows the reader to see how Ibsen moved from a small and struggling small-town artist to a wealthy and influential Norwegian in exile and then back home again as an elder statesman of late Victorian social realism. After this come the three plays, none of which are all that good. They are interesting, at least, though, so that is something. The League Of Youth is a political drama that shows a naive social climber attempting (unsuccessfully) to get elected to the Norwegian parliament while various scheming and scandals and mercenary marriages are going on in the time before the election. After that, A Doll’s House shows a manipulative and deceptive housewife seeking to avoid paying the price for her crimes before realizing her marriage has been built on a lie and that she is not a fit moral example for her children. Finally, The Lady From The Sea forces a woman to realize that her abandonment of a previous lover for a marriage to a widower with two children has serious consequences that may threaten both her life and her marriage and that encourage her to behave in a wildly erratic manner.
Why are these plays not very good? For one, Ibsen succeeds wonderfully well at painting dysfunctional situations where no one looks particularly good from a moral standpoint. We have corrupt political orders, pushy and ambitious people, selfish folks who do not fulfill their personal responsibilities well, people content to marry for ease or revenge or fear of loneliness rather than for reasons of genuine love and commitment. Over and over again Ibsen provides us with situations where it is easy to blame everyone and where no one seems to want to take personal responsibility, blaming problems on parents or one’s environment or one’s economic circumstances. The plays are realistic in the sense that people often do behave in this sort of fashion, but they do not provide examples of noble heroes or worthwhile examples to follow. Ibsen’s theater is a theater of the banal, of the innumerable tragedies of our existence in a fallen world of false gods and corrosive selfishness and criticism, where it is easy to attack authority but not very good to be raised to become a good authority.