Sunday, March 11, 2012

Ibsen Grows Up

Ibsen looks a lot different at 52 than he did at 20. I read Hedda Gabler in a literature class in college, and I simply couldn’t believe that anyone as familiar to me as Hedda would commit suicide or that any reader should receive benefit, instruction, entertainment, or comfort from the play. But three decades later, I’ve lived longer, and I’ve thought about life and thought about death, and I’ve gained some perspective, and . . . and now I have a Joni Mitchell song stuck in my head.

I didn’t revisit Hedda this year; I decided instead to become acquainted with some Ibsen plays I hadn’t read before. The struggle for and with truth that I found in Wild Duck comes up repeatedly in the other plays. The best example occurs in Enemy of the People, where again “truth” seems to mean something more like “full disclosure.” Except this time, two opposing sides both claim to wield truth (like a flail), and each accuses the other of withholding information. The town is looking forward to the business boom that will come when they open their new baths. But Dr. Stockmann has just discovered that the local industry’s refuse poisons the waters, and he thinks the public should know. The mayor responds to this news by telling the townsfolk that Dr. Stockmann has suppressed the truth of the cost of the clean-up. It seems like a vote on a bond issue could have settled the matter, but then we’d have about as much of a play as we would if Romeo and Juliet just decided to run away together.

A lot of the dialog in these plays of Ibsen’s seems to spring from a decayed Christian soil. Characters often quote the Bible or uses pieces of quotations out of context. No character does this more than Peer Gynt, who usually admits afterwards that he probably got the words wrong and can’t remember exactly where they come from. I’ve read that Ibsen admired Kierkegaard, and I can’t help wondering if the Norwegian took from the Dane the view that Christianity dies once it permeates a society.

A Doll’s House doesn’t stack up to Wild Duck and Enemy of the People in my view, but I can see why it enjoys popularity in our times, when the others remain mostly unknown. Nora’s decision to stop playing house and go to school resonates with our women’s movement. I don’t see why she has to leave her husband in order to engage the wider world. But the plays I’ve read lately make it sound as though Ibsen believed that a marriage not based on true love could be – or even should be – dissolved.

Yes, Ibsen looks a lot different at 52 than he did at 20. I judged the Father of Modern Drama quickly and harshly in my first encounter. Now I’m more ready just to listen and mull the issues over, respecting the characters’ nuances rather than seeing them as types for viewpoints, and letting Ibsen’s explorations catalyze my own thinking. And I find that I’m much more likely than before to let some issues conclude in paradox: the way the attitude toward marriage in A Doll’s House, for instance, seems simultaneously a romantic faith and a modern cynicism.

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