Three Plays, by Henrik Ibsenon August 15th, 2013
I read Ghosts, An Enemy of the People and When We Wake Dead (as gathered into one volume by Penguin Classics).
When We Wake Dead was Ibsen’s last play, and the introduction has this to say about it:
It is an intensely personal statement … and in it Ibsen, the “Great Realist”, became a symbolist.
This strikes Obooki as constructing a false dichotomy between realism and symbolism, of just that sort literary critics favour in order to distinguish between things which are in fact much the same. Realism – nineteenth-century realism, at least – is a world replete with symbolism. You certainly can’t walk very far in Zola’s works, for instance, without stumbling over a symbol or two – and then realising that everything you were taking for solid and smooth realism was in fact bits of symbols awkwardly stuck together.
Ibsen is very like Zola in lots of ways…
Ibsen: “No, I’m not! Zola descends to the gutter to bathe in it while I descend there to cleanse it!”
OK then, Ibsen is very like Zola, except he tends a bit more didactic and obviously politically-motivated.
(Ibsen: “That’s better!)
The last time I tried reading Ibsen, for instance, I had to stop when I got to the absurdly heavy-handed symbolism involved in The Wild Duck. I’m not a great person for symbols which are forced into narratives where they don’t belong.
So, to these works. Ghosts is an immensely Zola-esque play. It was banned, for a start, for its moral degeneracy; and considering its content (infidelity in marriage, illegitimate children, incest (I think there was incest, although maybe I’m making this up in retrospect)), I’m not exactly surprised. Ibsen portrays a society rotten to the core with hypocrisy; so it doesn’t take much to imagine such a society not wanting to put on his play. It starts off quite tame and ordinary, but I enjoyed how it became ever more extreme.
An Enemy of the People I thought the best of the three. Perhaps it’s a bit more contrived than Ghosts, a bit more obviously didactic, but there were other things strikingly good about it. The inevitability of the narrative – the man who tries to do good, but only suffers on that account – put me in mind of Greek tragedy – specifically Oedipus Tyrannos, which, one suspects, was in Ibsen’s mind – Thebes too was suffering a plague, which Oedipus sought to cure; the determination to achieve a solution was his downfall; he became outcast from his own people. There was also a nice dramatic tension in the central idea: of course, if the baths are diseased, something should be done; but on the other hand, what effect will this have on the town and its people. Yes, it has everything in it a play should.
When We Wake Dead was, frankly, a bore. Ibsen writes about his own artistic failure. Yawn. Yawn. A final play, it ain’t no Oedipus at Colonus.
Still, I’ve become a bit more of an Ibsen enthusiast than heretofore.