Theater of Cruelty

Henry Gibson conquers the empire

Henrik Ibsen is different in the UK than in Norway, states Tore Rem.


[ibsen] On 23 May 2006, the day 100 years after Henrik Ibsen's death, literary critic Tore Rem participates in the BBC Radio Today Program. The host leans forward, charged with the first question, and says, "Ibsen… he's rather gloomy, isn't he?"

- This is the English Ibsen, says Rem, and he should know what he is talking about.

He has just published the book Henry Gibson / Henrik Ibsen, a selection of reviews, articles and parodies from the British press in the years when Ibsen scandaled in London.

- The book is a settlement with what I perceive as a somewhat dull, Norwegian idea of ​​the universal Ibsen; that our version of him is the same as they have in other countries. This is not the case. In the transfer of literature, things happen that make him, in part, radically different.

Ibsen was launched later in the UK than in many other countries. It was not until June 7, 1889, that the breakthrough came with the production A Doll's House. The dismay was great. Conservative critics asked why the theater sensor had not intervened. This was both immoral and unartistic.

- Ibsen had been a name among socialists and women activists, and this colored the conservative critics' perception of him, says Rem.

- Thus, the debate in England was polarized early. Ibsen is obviously touching on something in English self-understanding. What is literature? Should the theater give us ideals, as the Victorian theater did, or should it show us reality? Should there be room for this with us?

Not everyone thought: "It's an open sewer, a hideous, unscathed wound, a dirty act in public, or like a hospital with all doors and windows open," The Daily Telegraph wrote in its editorial after the first set of Ghosts in 1891. It became the most disputed and talked about theater set in all of 1800th century Britain.

Understood as propaganda

Rem thinks it is an important point that Ibsen was introduced in London with his most socially critical pieces.

- The British had not read the more poetic Brand and Peer Gynt. When his defenders tried to say that he was a great poet, they were laughed at. Where was the evidence? It must be allowed to say that A Doll's Home is Ibsen's most didactic piece, and thus he was tried to be defined as a simple propagandist, says Rem.

In addition, Ibsen was seen as provincial.

- London was the center of the British Empire. Ibsen was a northerner from a country that was not even independent. It goes without saying that there is a difference between Ibsen in the young, Norwegian nation, and Ibsen in the old, powerful Britain. Even his defenders had to admit that there was something rough, raw and uneducated about the Norwegian families. This constant melancholy was also seen as something involuntarily comic, and eventually typically Norwegian, Rem smiles.

Ibsen changed the British view of Norway. Roughly sketched, Rem thinks, we went from being a romantic, exotic and civilized naturalist, to a nation populated by radicals, pessimists and immoral thinkers.

- I allow myself to launch this as the funniest Ibsen book of the year, says Rem.

- At times, the word "Norwegian" may have been enough to produce a roar of laughter in London. In a parody of A Doll's House, Dr. Rank says: "Excuse my Norwegian cheerfulness – but – hm – is there something disgusting going on?" Many in the audience laughed in the wrong places, and when the line "For some nonsense" falls in "Builder Solness", the audience shouted that they agreed. Ibsen created some confusion. The actors were also unsure how much of the comedy was voluntary.

The canonization came

Despite this, Ibsen appealed to the broad strata of the population.

- The British had not read contemporary drama for a long time. A single-edition edition of The Pillars of Society sensationally became a bestseller. It probably reached out to a forward-thinking working class, says Rem.

Nor did it take long for Ibsen to be canonized in the UK as well.

- From the middle of the 1890s, it became difficult to say that he was not a relevant author. The lyrics proved to be durable. Critics may still think they were reprehensible, but not uninteresting or bad theater. From Hedda Gabler's, Britain also came into sync with Ibsen's releases, and they also got the news' interest when the new pieces came out, Rem says.

In 1906, Ibsen's collected works were published in English – no small honor.

- It is impossible to imagine the English-language literary history without Ibsen. He renewed British drama both in form and content, and inspired Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, James Joyce and many others. But the stereotypes live on. He can still be recommended if you want "a gloomy night out" in London, Rem concludes.

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