Escape Artist

Henrik Ibsen
Henrik Ibsen; drawing by David Levine

Henrik Ibsen’s last play, When We Dead Awaken (1899), opens on a late summer morning at a seaside hotel. The famous sculptor Arnold Rubek and his young wife, Maja, newly returned to Norway after many years abroad, are sitting on the lawn in a pair of wicker chairs, drinking champagne and seltzer and reading the newspaper. After some lighthearted conversation about the surroundings, Maja asks Rubek if he is happy to be home again. He’s not sure. “Perhaps I’ve been away too long,” he says. He grows irritable, they begin to argue, and soon Maja is complaining about Rubek’s restlessness. “You can’t find peace anywhere,” she says. “Not at home, not abroad. You’ve become a total recluse of late.”

As many critics have noted, there’s more than a little of Ibsen in Rubek. In 1891 he too returned to Norway, having spent nearly three decades living abroad. And like Rubek, he was by then world famous; his plays sold hundreds of thousands of copies and were performed in theaters all over Europe and the United States, provoking scandal and acclaim in equal measure. Yet unlike Rubek, Ibsen was no recluse. He settled in the middle of Kristiania (now Oslo), appearing twice a day at the same café, a habit he’d picked up when he lived in Munich. There he was, his stately head resting on its august pedestal of beard, his lapel affixed with the blinding number of orders and medals showered on him by various monarchs and heads of state. Tourists, many of them young women, would clamor to catch a glimpse of the famous writer, prompting the Norwegian novelist Arne Garborg to quip “To be in Munich and not see Ibsen is like being in Rome and not seeing the pope.”

Yet rather than simply repose in his literary fame, Ibsen remained restlessly prolific. Between 1877 and 1899, he averaged a new play every two years, each one more controversial than the last. In the final years of his life, despite having suffered a heart attack and three strokes that left him paralyzed on the right side of his body, he thought of writing more. “I do not see how I will be able to stay away from those old battlefields for long,” he wrote in 1900. The year before his death in 1906, he cried out in his sleep, “I’m writing! It’s going really well!”

The Norwegian historian Ivo de Figueiredo’s biography Henrik Ibsen: The Man and the Mask is a document of determination, a record of Ibsen’s tireless energy and discipline, and the transformation of a poor Norwegian merchant’s son into an international literary phenomenon who revolutionized modern drama. But it is also, more penetratingly, an account of the transformation of man into mask. “Henrik Ibsen’s life is like a long, gradually drying plaster cast,” de Figueiredo writes. “He became his own statue, an icon, a tourist attraction.” So…

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