Ibsen’s Secrets

Ibsen, the Norwegian, the surly and stubborn inflamer of the sensibilities of Europe in the last half of the nineteenth century. The explosion of his arrival was in every way louder and more impressive than that of Strindberg and Chekhov, who were roughly his coevals. In a state of despair and disaffection, he moved away from Norway, moved to Dresden and to Rome, there to live in hotels, to receive honors, and to write his plays in the language of his poor country of fishing fleets and timber, the language of the sparsely populated little democracy that anxiously swayed between liberating ideas and the backward tug of local pieties.

A century has passed over the work and it is still “modern drama,” if a drama with a good many burdens that defy, in their peculiarity, fresh and “modernizing” interpretations. There is nothing new to be done with the Nordic embarrassments of a too handy and proclaiming symbolic gesture. Ibsen’s language, in English translation at least, seems often determined upon an explicitness without pause for the incongruities and tensions of speech. In the prose plays, the poetic insertions incline to attach themselves to spectacles of landscape, often the unfortunately available mountaintop. Some characters, especially those given to the steady drumming out of a single idea, are difficult to nudge from their perch by analysis or performance inspirations. Most of the monotones are men: Pastor Manders, Gregers Werle, Rosmer and his clerical innocence. Hedda Gabler is the one absolute masterpiece, a stunning concentration of tone and intention, free of the intrusiveness of instruction and windswept resolution.

How often the prose plays float above a subtemperate zone of resentment and grievance, those defining, cunning emotions, patient perhaps, but never idle. They are, you might say, the trap set by the ensnared. The source or occasion of the grievance has, most often, occurred before the play begins. The occasion is a secret to be revealed by the plot, by the one bearing the rancor, bearing it in a hidden but nevertheless lively manner animated by strategy and plans for a final accounting. Resentment is a left-handed instrument of power—and a role of some variousness, a path rich with alleyways and corners that can obstruct forward-moving intentions.

Ibsen was not interested in the resentment of disgruntled classes. He appears from his biography rather too self-reliant for the large abstractions of the reforming spirit. What he is drawn to is issues, localized and particular. Even in the plays about civic corruption, about “floating coffins” and poisoned spa waters, he individualizes the conflict as hypocrisy and cravenness. Nora in A Doll House is the most general of his social statements.

A secret is most impugning and threatening when it concerns someone, usually a man, who has position and esteem. Ibsen found the phrase “pillars of society” early in his shift from poetic to prose drama and there is no doubt he understood the temptation to default among the ambitious and privileged provincials. He saw it as…

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