Theater of Cruelty

The forgotten, global Ibsen

ANALYSIS: Henrik Ibsen claimed he did not have a drop of Norwegian blood over the years. After a full Ibsen year, his global background is still unknown.


[global-ibsen] "Life had made him more cosmopolitan in his mind. He spent his happiest years in Germany and Italy, and his international recognition of him made him bitter about the Fatherland's lack of understanding of him at the beginning of his career. "

This was the summary of Henrik Ibsen's life right after his death 23. May 1906. The words were recorded by none other than his private physician, Doctor Edvard Bull. He emphasized just how international Ibsen (1828-1906) had been throughout his life, as in the 27 years crucial year in the world from 1864 to 1891. Bull perceived that Ibsen, at his death, was opposed to Norway's new detachment from Sweden, that Ibsen would rather "have retained King Oscar and the Union".

100 years later Ibsen's global background seems to have gone into oblivion in favor of more nationally cultivating features. About 8000 various events have been held in 2006 in commemoration of the 100 anniversary of the poet genius death. But what has really been celebrated in the year of Ibsen? What did the Ministry of Culture have as a motive for the "National Committee for the Ibsen Initiative", not to reinforce the image of him as "Norwegian" dictator? To what extent has the public learned of Ibsen as a product of international currents, as he himself, Bull and his contemporaries saw it?

The paradoxes of Ibsen's life and work are manifold. Like even 10 ratings in the US Midwest have more Ibsen pieces on the syllabus than peers in Norway. College lecturer Finn Stenstad had 3. December a chronicle in the Aftenposten where he pointed out that Ibsen is no longer mentioned in the school's Norwegian plans. This is in contrast to Denmark and France, where Ibsen is a natural part of the curricula. In 2006, Ibsen has actually been listed as the curriculum in the "Danish canon" for pupils in Denmark's upper secondary schools, as the only non-Danish born.

Ibsen has thus been made Danish in Denmark. In a way not so unnatural: after all, Ibsen wrote his world-famous dramas on almost Danish pear. His dramas were first printed and published in Copenhagen. And his favorite place in the Nordic countries was Danish Øresund, where he wanted to spend his last years. And how was the great literary nestor of the Nordic countries, George Brandes, mentioned Ibsen in the obituary of Danish Politiken 24. May 1906? Yes, not as Norwegian, nor as Danish, but as "Nordic":

"His name was the greatest in the literature of the three Nordic kingdoms, the greatest they have ever produced. In him, the spiritual life of the three countries culminated over two hundred years… First with him and he alone, Nordic modern culture has interfered with the development of art. ”

Brand's transnational perspectives may seem foreign to 100 years later. Both the Ibsen year 2006 and the Norwegian media have had a more nationally growing project, where it has been about emphasizing his Norwegian background, not the international one. But this can be said to conflict with all of Ibsen's family background, his life and his poetry. As Michael Meyer points out in his leading biography, Henrik Ibsen (1971), the elder Ibsen "gladly stated that he did not have a drop of Norwegian blood in years".

This wasn't right, but it says something about his little national mindset. The Ibsen name is not Norwegian either, but a purely Danish name: Ib is the Old Danish form of Jacob. The poet's mother, Marichen Martine Altenburg, was from a family of both Danish and German origin. And on the father's side his ancestors had both Scottish, German and Danish backgrounds.

The birthplace of Skien was then also primarily an international coastal city, where immigration and emigration were natural. His father, Knud Ibsen, was a merchant. He imported wine from Bordeaux, cotton from London and anise from Altona. The grandfathers were sailors on the seven seas. Two of the younger brothers emigrated to the United States early. So there was nothing to wait but for Henrik to become a world citizen of temper.

Already Ibsen's first work Catilina (1849), which he wrote as a 21-year-old, was marked by contemporary dramatic events in Europe. The main character is the Roman consul Lucius Catilina. The piece was too European to strike a chord in the then national-centered Norway, he sold only 45 copies. Norway's reading classes did not care about Europe's revolutions – they were "blocked off from the world's oceans, hardly curled by the storms that raged outside", as Gerhard Gran has pointed out.

Ibsen's breakthrough came only when he left Norway 5. April 1864, so as not to return in 27 years. It was no coincidence that he left Christiania in favor of Rome, after visiting Copenhagen and Lübeck: His disappointment was enormous over the "Norwegian betrayal" against the Danes, who had to fight alone against Prussia in the battle for Schleswig-Holstein that winter.

Ibsen left Norway in agony. Not only because of his countrymen's indifference to the Danes, but also because he had repeatedly been denied poet support. Ibsen had to emigrate from Norway in poverty because neither people, literate nor politician liked him enough that he could live by his poetry in his home country. Sad, but true. If nothing else, Bjørnstärn Bjørnson made good money.

The meeting with the cultural country Italy in the summer of 1864 was a revelation. He abandoned the old Norwegian storytelling and quickly created Brand (1866) and Peer Gynt (1867). Both stingy settlements with Norwegian narrow-mindedness. In Rome he became "like another human being" at the sight of Michelangelo's art and the reading of Dante.

For what was it that created Ibsen's brilliant world poetry? Well, according to him, it was "the beauty of the South" that "characterized my entire later production". Brand and Peer Gynt became a "wine drinker". In order to understand how Ibsen's dramas came about, one should not go to Skien or Oslo, but to Rome, preferably at the bar. But who dares mention such in a Norwegian Ibsen year?

Peer Gynt is a rage with Norwegian self-indulgence, but the protagonist also shows some of Ibsen's own cosmopolitan perspective. Like when Peer sits in a steam yacht, with both Norwegian and American flags, on the west coast of Morocco. To his French and English friends, he summarizes himself as an international product:

For what I have of good fortune,

I can thank America,

The well-stocked bookshelves

I owe Germany's younger schools

From France I got my vests,

my attitude and my wisp of spirit

from England a laborious hand

and sharpened the sense of self

I learned from the Jew to wait.

Slightly hung for dolce father ninth

I from Italy got in the shipment

and once in a while

I increased my day's goals

with the assistance of the Swedish steel.

These words speak also to Ibsen's poetry. Peer Gynt's encounter with Bøygen in the mountains has a striking parallel to Ibsen's own hike on Ischia Island. Both A Doll's House (1879), Wild Duck (1884) and Hedda Gabler (1890) were created with similar European backgrounds, placed in a Norwegian frame. When he returned to Norway for good 16. July 1890, it was by chance, he wanted no further north than to Copenhagen.

Ibsen's life, poetry and broad outlook contrast with the Norwegian-nationalist presentation that has emerged after his death. As Ibsen's deathbed at the deathbed, Edvard Bull, concluded in 1906:

"It has never been a strong national trait with him."



■ Born in Skien 20.03. 1828, Deceased in Christiania 23. May 1906.

■ Emigrated to Italy in 1864. Lived in Rome, Munich and Dresden until 1891.

■ Published 26 dramas and one collection of poems.

■ Creates pride among Norwegians. Honored as a great poet worldwide.

Dag Herbjørnsrud
Dag Herbjørnsrud
Former editor of MODERN TIMES. Now head of the Center for Global and Comparative History of Ideas.

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