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The Influence of Ibsen

Here’s some thoughts I put down for the programme for Little Eyolf at Birmingham University – just putting them up here in case they’re useful to someone!

Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) is one of those classic authors who can, quite frankly, be terrifying to modern practitioners. Widely regarded as the founder of realism in theatre, Ibsen’s plays changed forever the way the Western world makes theatre. His influence is so pervasive that much of the time we don’t even notice it. But any play which takes as its theme the corruption underlying an apparently respectable life – for example, Laura Wade’s recent Royal Court hit Posh – can be seen as owing a huge debt to Ibsen. The scandals created in Norwegian and British newspapers after the openings of plays like Ghosts (1881) presage much more recent media reaction to plays like Sarah Kane’s Blasted, or the reaction of many in religious communities to Bhezti or Jerry Springer: The Opera. A proud believer in Norwegian independence, yet living most of his adult life in Italy and Germany, Ibsen was never afraid to risk criticising his own society – a path now followed by playwrights and theatre-makers throughout the world.

Although Ibsen was and is often seen as a political writer – perhaps most notably through A Doll’s House (1879) and An Enemy of the People (1882) – he saw himself more as a poet than a politician. As can be seen in the poems printed in this programme, Ibsen was obsessed with getting underneath the surface details of life to discovering the truths concealed underneath. A contemporary of Freud, Ibsen knew that human beings love to build illusions for ourselves. Ibsen’s protagonists often hide their deepest selves under a veneer of conventionality – until something happens which breaks through the surface and forces them to confront the truths buried underneath.

This is, inevitably, a painful process, but it contains its own kind of optimism. In A Doll’s House, Nora’s acknowledgement of the falsity of her marriage forces her into a journey towards self-realisation. In Little Eyolf, the cataclysm that hits the Allmers family gives devastating force to Allfred’s idea of a ‘law of change’ in human relationships. Although Ibsen didn’t see himself as a political writer, his plays present the living argument that human beings need truth and honesty in order to survive – an idea that, today as much as in his own time, demands radical change.