HENRICK IBSEN AND THE BIRTH OF MODERNISM

ART, THEATER, PHILOSOPHY 

 

By Toril Moi

 

416 pp. Oxford University Press. $ 29.95.  With illustrations and color plates.

I wrote about contemporary theatre’s resistance to realism in a review of Ian Rickson’s Broadway production of The Seagull in December.  Since then I’ve discovered a passionate, academic defense of Henrik Ibsen, written by Toril Moi, a Norwegian herself and the James B. Duke Professor of Literature and Romance Studies at Duke University, which takes up this issue with teeth: “I object to the understanding of realism that emerges from the ideology of modernism,” Moi writes. “In particular, I object to the idea that realism is a period of aesthetic naivety preceding modernism.” 

Let’s think about theatre in the 1950s:  Moi reminds us it was “the decade of Brecht, Beckett, Ionesco, and the angry young men.  It was a decade when theater people on the whole were happy to dismiss Ibsen (Kenneth Tynan was a great exception).  Michael Billington, the distinguished theater critic of the British Guardian, captures the attitude when he writes of a ‘caricature idea of [Ibsen’s] plays’, all too accurately summed up by Tyrone Guthrie in A Life in the Theatre (1959): ‘High thinking takes place in a world of dark-crimson serge tablecloths with chenille bobbles, black horsehair sofas, wall brackets and huge intellectual women in raincoats and rubbers.’ ”

In the U.S., I, additionally, think there was a reaction against the American realists (Williams and Inge come immediately to mind) of the ‘50s as they edged into a new decade with their keen interest in Freudian psychology. Realism was also seen on TV on Playhouse 90, for example, with works by Horton Foote, Tad Mosel, and William Gibson, to name three).  The problem wasn’t that new types of plays had emerged; rather, it was that realism was demoted in status as a style (except, interestingly, in terms of acting)–Williams unsuccessfully tried new concepts for the stage (Slapstick Tragedy (1966), In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (1969) but continued in a realistic vein for Hollywood, where it was supported and still is.  Inge convinced himself that he could no longer write and, ultimately in 1973, commit suicide. 

To think of American theater without its realists, however, by labeling the genre as “kitchen sink” or “TV writing,” is deleterious to our cultural inheritance.  It, specifically, erodes the importance of masterpieces like Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Death of a Salesman, aside from works by the aforementioned playwrights—and by emphasizing Albee, Ionesco, Pinter, and Kushner, theatrical models for new artists are limited. Perhaps the ‘60s were the natural breaking point for a new crop of playwrights to emerge influenced by the new ‘50s styles (with an “any friend of Ibsen is no friend of mine” attitude)—but it didn’t really mean that realism needed to be bad mouthed or sidelined.  As Moi explains in Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism, realism is not the enemy.  “Modernism is built on the negation of idealism”—not realism!  “Realism—the representation of reality in writing and art—is neither modernism’s opposite nor its historically necessary predecessor.  If any one entity occupies that position, it is idealism.”

In fact, as literary critic Fredric Jameson has argued, and with whom Moi concurs on a decisive point in the debate, “There is no modernist work, that doesn’t at the very least, have a ‘realist core.’” 

Ibsen actually tried to take up the banner of idealism (which was society’s approved literary form in the 1800s, meant to “uplift us, to point the way to the Ideal.”), but it straight jacketed the dramatist in early plays such as St. John’s Night and Lady Inger.  The five-hour epic Emperor and Galilean, transitioned Ibsen into a modernist.  The work that followed—including Ghosts, The Wild Duck, The Lady from the Sea, Hedda Gabler, The Master Builder, and so on–are the towering plays we give lip service to today, with a perfunctory reading of A Doll’s House somewhere along the line.  Moi, of course, is livid—and rightly so: “I cannot count the number of times otherwise well-read people have told me that they have never read and never bothered to see any plays by Ibsen, or that they haven’t read any since they were students. . . . In the Anglophone world it is still shameful for a literary critic to reveal that he or she knows nothing about Baudelaire and Flaubert.  why, then, are so many critics convinced that ignorance of Ibsen is just fine?”

Of course, with Ibsen there is also the issue of language to contend with.  Moi admits, “English-language readers and directors have sometimes found Ibsen’s prose plays excruciatingly pedestrian.  Like Arthur Miller, they feel that ‘Ibsen’s language, lyrical as it may sound in Scandinavia, does not sing in translation.’  I can understand this reaction, for translations of Ibsen often do make him sound flat-footed and boring.  But this is not always the translator’s fault.  My own struggles with Ibsen’s texts have taught me to respect the difficulties of the Ibsen translator.”  Yet, Moi does make the Ibsen translations throughout her book riveting and accessible.  She directly states that Rosmersholm is a masterpiece (the last New York production of this that I can recall was an English production at La Mama during the’80s).  I know teaching at Duke must have its many obligations, but, isn’t a new translation called for?

Fortunately, Harold Bloom also came to Ibsen’s defense in The Western Canon, but who is to make the case for O’Neill if realism continues to be dismissed? Especially, as we find out that he is a brother. 

© 2009 by Bob Shuman

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