The Institutionalization of Ibsen

Theater is local, but its stories are often global. Playwright Henrik Ibsen spent the final years of his extraordinary career inventing a new modern theater: one that fused precise dramatic construction with current, often controversial, social issues. When housewife Nora leaves her husband at the end of A Doll’s House (1879), it is far more than an exit offstage of a single character. The sound of that door closing was heard around the world, a sharp crack trumpeting the beginning of a new life. Symbolically, Nora is a hero not just for women, but also for all individuals oppressed by convention, rules, and regulations.

While applauded by Europeans and Americans, Ibsen’s contemporaries in Norway were more mute and shocked. After a period of intense nationalism expressed in his work during the mid-nineteenth century, Ibsen began to paint darker colors in his portraits of Norwegian life. If we agree with Shakespeare’s Hamlet that plays are ‘a mirror held up to nature,’ then Ibsen’s modern drama replaced the trolls of Peer Gynt with a gaze more penetrating than the medusa.

Ibsen incorporated this controversy into his work, and responded to his critics with Ghosts two years later. If Nora had stayed, she would be Mrs. Alving. The play’s Alving home is haunted by the past, trapped in secrets that include incest and disease. The mood is literally cold and damp: rain falls for most of its three acts, and the sun only begins breaking through the clouds in the drama’s final moments. Of course, by this point, the young painter Oswald has gone blind, the Orphanage has burned down, and Mrs. Alving remains herself—that is, never to be Nora.

While published in Norway in 1881, it took Ghosts many years to be performed in Norway (it’s worldpremiere was actually in Chicago). Audiences were still recuperating from the social-surgery of A Doll’s House, and did not know that more was yet to come (An Enemy of the People was published in 1883). Archetypically, Ibsen’s plays became the Shadow of the Norwegian psyche, exposing all of the skeletons in his audience’s closet.

How things change. Today, Ibsen’s statue stands outside the National Theater equidistant from the Castle and the Parliament. No longer in creative exile, writing plays critical of Norway from continental Europe, Ibsen—both biographically and artistically—has become an institution. Once the fiery advocate of the individual, the drama of Ibsen today is imprisoned by tradition and the State.

Perhaps traces of this revolutionary spirit yet remain embedded in his plays like some phantom limb. I am sure he would have appreciated the irony that the recipient of last year’s Henrik Ibsen Award was Peter Brook, a British director who has challenged our notion of theater for half a century. What’s more, Liv Ullman presented the Award—a brilliant actor intimately familiar with carving a niche outside of traditions and (Norway’s) expectations.

It seems that the revolutionary ideas contained in his drama remain potent weaponry largely outside of Norway. None of the students currently enrolled at the University of Oslo’s Ibsen Studies graduate department are Norwegian. However, many use Ibsen in the context of Applied Theater, with performances of his plays acting as a catalyst to generate social change in places like the Middle East or Africa.

Contemporary Norwegian productions of Ibsen, on the other hand, tend to be synonymous with convention and ennui. The rich fire of his drama has been snuffed out. Despite the fact that theater is one of the most intimate and rewarding of communal activities, his plays today tend to leave its audiences cold. Instead of a visit to the Alving home, audiences watching Ghosts sit frozen within the Alving Museum.

Celebrated American director Mark Lamos once remarked that new British actors have the deck stacked against them, when it comes to doing Shakespeare. How does one perform Prospero in the shadow of fellow Englishmen Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Kenneth Brannagh? But for Lamos and his actors in the United States, they have the opportunity to be bolder in interpreting Shakespeare, precisely because they are ‘not British,’ and thus not burdened by their tradition. For the outsiders, The Tempest is just a play, rather than a Crowning Achievement by the Bard.

On 4-7 June at Grusomhetens Teater, audiences will see Ghostmachine. Performed in Norwegian and largely retaining the original text of Gengangere, this performance contains 12 actors playing 5 characters, live music by Freeshine, and a strong emphasis on theatrical composition and movement. Its rehearsal process has done to Ibsen what Heiner Muller did to Shakespeare with Hamletmachine.

It is fitting that Ghostmachine’s performances are housed within a theater honoring the vision of Antonin Artaud, who cried for ‘no more museum pieces’. Advocating the destruction of conventional modes of theatrical form through what he called a ‘theater of cruelty,’ Artaud shares some of the same principles as the author of Ghosts and A Doll’s House. And of Ghostmachine.

Perhaps with this performance we as a community can leave Norway’s conventional and institutionalized Ibsen burning down along with Captain Alving’s Orphanage.

Brendan McCall is a stage director, choreographer, and actor, who moved to Norway in 2008. He is the Director of The International Theatre Academy Norway (TITAN) in Oslo.

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