Ibsen, II

2001-11-09

The other night I read the last of Ibsen's plays, completing a chronological exploration of his twelve modern prose dramas -- from The Pillars of Society (completed in 1877) to When We Dead Awaken (1899). Over the last few weeks I have read the second half-dozen of his prose plays: The Lady from the Sea, Hedda Gabler, The Master Builder, Little Eyolf, John Gabriel Borkman, and When We Dead Awaken. As I discussed in a previous entry, I strongly appreciate the principles that Ibsen continually champions in his plays, foremost among them individualism, honest living, and personal integrity. By no means did Ibsen abandon those principles in his later plays, yet it's true that after a while his plays begin to seem like variations on a theme. And I would say that his major themes are most powerfully protrayed in some of his earlier plays, especially A Doll's House and Ghosts.

That said, some of his later plays are quite strong. I especially liked The Lady from the Sea -- in its optimism perhaps the last of his early plays (if one must have a chronology!) -- and The Master Builder. The latter contains some semi-magical elements that I found intriguing and a puckish quality in the character of Hilde Wangel. Even though things end badly for the builder, he does at least break free towards the end. Indeed, often a character's triumph in a play by Ibsen is spiritual or intellectual only, since the character perishes soon after coming to a key realization or breaking free of the restrictions of society, family, wrongheaded ideas, or an unhealthy relationship. In this sense Ibsen's plays are not happy affairs, and one can understand why Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac (which I recently saw on stage) was hailed as staving off the cold north wind of Scandanavian drama and as making the world once again safe for Romanticism.

Although I like Cyrano a great deal, I prefer Ibsen to most all Romantic drama I've read. Certainly I'd rather read anything by Ibsen than slog through one of the melodramatic plays of Victor Hugo -- much as I respect, admire, and cherish Hugo's novels and essays (I've not yet begun to explore Hugo's poems). I suppose Ibsen would be considered a realist or naturalist, yet there is a quiet strength in his characters and an underlying respect for joy in living to be found in his stories, despite their often gloomy atmosphere. (For the record, I would say I liked the following Ibsen plays best: The Pillars of Society, A Doll's House, Ghosts, An Enemy of the People, The Lady from the Sea, The Master Builder, and When We Dead Awaken.)

It was about twenty years ago that I first read the plays of Ibsen. Perhaps I'll revisit them again in another twenty years and see how I like them then. In the meantime I plan to read all the plays of Shakespeare -- I'm already looking forward to that project... :-)


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