Henrik Ibsen’s volume of poetry, Digte, was published in 1871; Ibsen: Letters and Speeches appeared in English translation in 1964, and The Collected Works of Henrik Ibsen appeared between 1906 and 1912 and in 1928.
Henrik Ibsen is widely acknowledged as the father of modern drama, but his significance in literature and history overshadows the influence of his revolutionary stage techniques and his iconoclastic concept of the theater. James Joyce observed of Ibsen, his youthful idol, “It may be questioned whether any man has held so firm an empire over the thinking world in modern times.” Despite early disappointments, which led to twenty-seven years of self-imposed exile from Norway, Ibsen at last received the acclaim there that he had been accorded previously throughout Europe, and by the end of his long and immensely productive career, the Norwegian government granted him a state funeral as one of its most illustrious, if controversial, citizens. Ibsen’s plays continue to be revived throughout the world, and a steady stream of scholarly books and articles testifies to his popularity among critics and readers who appreciate the therapeutic Northern blasts of Ibsen’s message.
The unvarying setting of Ibsen’s quest as a creative artist was the human mind. At first, he concentrated, with little success, on Norwegian nationalistic themes and historical subjects, in opposition to the Danish domination of Scandinavian theater. As he probed increasingly profound psychological themes involving the individual and society, his analytic dramas seemed threateningly radical, largely incomprehensible, or simply obscene to European audiences then content with frothy farce or Scribean melodrama. His first plays written from exile in Italy won for him fame, but their critical reception was mixed. Later, his social problem plays found their greatest contemporary acceptance in England through William Archer’s devoted translations and George Bernard Shaw’s espousal of Ibsen’s work as support for his own Socialist theories. In his next stage, Ibsen concentrated on the individual’s psychological condition; his last plays, written after his return to Norway, which deal with the conflict between art and life, exhibited his shift to Symbolism and were greeted with enthusiasm by James Joyce and Thomas Mann, who both learned Norwegian solely to read Ibsen’s works. Another lonely thinker, Sigmund Freud, wrote a perceptive essay on the Oedipus complex as motivation in Ibsen’s Rosmersholm. Much of Europe, especially czarist Russia, saw Ibsen’s plays as potentially explosive, but by 1935, the prominent critic Johanna Kröner commented, “Through Ibsen’s influence, European drama has experienced a powerful renewal and progress.”
Ibsen’s technical innovations in the theater have become so widely accepted that it is difficult to grasp the intense novelty that they represented to their contemporary audiences. The strongly realistic and even naturalistic stage settings of his mature plays contain a wealth of closely observed detail that requires a corresponding intensity of attention by actors to the individualized behavior of his characters. His tense, crackling interchanges of dialogue, a dramatic shorthand, often seem to omit more words than they include, conveying highly complex states of mind and passions through implication and demanding a high degree of emotional stamina from his actors. As his American translator Rolf Fjelde has observed, the language of Ibsen’s finest plays resembles poetry in its compaction and resonance. Above all, as Henry James noted, Ibsen has a “peculiar blessedness to actors . . . the inspiration of dealing with material so solid and so fresh,” an attraction that seems as valid for the careful reader as it is for Ibsen’s stage interpreter....
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- Critical Essays