[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



Henrik Ibsen (1890)

Oxford University Press, The Franklin library, 1983; translated by Eva Le Gallienne; illustrated by Tony Eubanks; fully bound in black leather, worked and embossed in gold, with humped spine moiré pearl endpapers and ribbon; gold edged pages.

Play-time is over now.

Henrik Ibsen left Norway because he was stifled by it.  He said he wanted to put a torpedo under the ark.  He went to Rome and was captivated by Michelangelo and Bernini because, he said, ‘they had the courage to commit a little madness now and then.’  That is a very revealing remark.  He was a member of the Scandinavian Club, that was doubtless as conservative as ex-pat groups tend to be.  The torpedo launched in Rome was a proposal to give women at the Club the vote.  This was 1879.  The motion was narrowly lost.  Members were uneasy about how Ibsen might react.

No one would have guessed it – but Ibsen came.  He looked magnificent, in full panoply, with medals to boot.  He ran his hand ceaselessly through his rich, grizzled hair, greeting no one in particular, but everyone in general.  There was a deep peace in his face, but his eyes were watchful, so watchful.  He sat alone.  We all thought that he had forgiven his fellow mortals, and some even supposed him penitent…Then he began, softly, but with a terrifying earnestness.  He had recently wished to do the Club a service, he might almost say a great favour, by bringing its members abreast with contemporary ideas.  No one could escape these mighty developments.  Not even here – in this community – in this duckpond!….Now he was no longer speaking calmly, no longer thoughtfully stroking his hair.  He shook his head with its grey mane.  He folded his arms across his chest.  His eyes shone.  His voice shook, his mouth trembled…He resembled a lion; nay, more – he resembled that future enemy of the people, Dr Stockmann….He repeated, and repeated: what kind of women are these….?

Thump!  A lady, Countess B, fell to the floor.  She, like the rest of us, flinched from the unspeakable.  So she took time by the forelock and swooned.  She was carried out.  Ibsen continued.  Perhaps slightly more calmly.  But eloquently and lucidly, never searching for a word.  …He looked remote and ecstatic….And when he was done, he went out unto the hall, took his overcoat and walked home.  Calm and silent.

(Could all Scandinavian people write like that back then?)

This volume has four of the plays – A Doll’s House, Ghosts, The Wild Duck, and Hedda Gabler.  With The Master Builder, they are the plays most put on now.  After these, the going gets tough.  For example, Romersholm ends on a double suicide and in Little Eyeolf a child is crippled while his parents are making love and becomes subject to the whiles of the Rat-woman leaving his parents to make Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf sound like a nursery rhyme.

It is hard for us now to recapture just how shocking A Doll’s House was.  Nora is treated like a doll by her husband until she can take it no longer and she just walks out.  The last words before the curtain are: From below is heard the reverberation of a heavy door closing.  That sound must have echoed round Stockholm and Berlin like a rifle shot.  Women just did not do that – walking out was not an option.

Helmer, the husband, is insufferably patronising.  ‘When a man forgives his wife wholeheartedly – as I have you – it fills him with such tenderness, such peace.  She seems to belong to him in a double sense.’  But it is not long before he is staring into the abyss.

It doesn’t occur to you, does it, that though we’ve been married for eight years, this is the first time that we two, man and wife, have sat down for a serious talk…..You never loved me.  You just thought it was fun to be in love with me….I’ve been your doll wife, just as at home I was Papa’s doll-child.  And the children in turn have been my dolls.  I thought it fun when you played games with me….I have another duty just as sacred…my duty toward myself…..But don’t you see – I don’t really know what religion is.

Then the husband says that he could not sacrifice honor for the sake of love, and he walks straight into this bell-ringer.

Millions of women do it every day.

This would have been all Mandarin in the south, but it electrified the nations of the north.  People sent dinner invitations endorsed ‘We will not discuss THAT play.’  One traditionalist complained that ‘one does not leave this play in the mood of exaltation which, ever since the days of the Greeks, has been regarded as the sine qua non for every work of art and literature.’  You can therefore see Ibsen’s contribution to modernism.  As with King Lear, some demanded a happy ending.  But as Michael Meyer observes in his wonderful biography: ‘So explosive was the message of A Doll’s House –that a marriage was not sacrosanct, that a man’s authority in his home should not go unchallenged, and that the prime duty of every person was to find out who he or she really was and become that person – that the technical originality of the play is often forgotten.  It achieved the most powerful and moving effect by the highly untraditional methods of extreme simplicity and economy of language….’

Hedda Gabler is another snap of heathens living in a world that calls itself Christian.  It must be the most lacerating role known to the stage.  The ‘trolls’ have stalked mankind right into civilized society.  Hedda is caught between a twerp of a husband and a sleazy judicial pants man.  She is left to face the roles of mother and mistress and she rejects both of them.  She is like a caged animal, and she becomes both vicious and lethal.  She is revolted by any kind of intimacy and cannot bring herself to use ‘du’ with her husband’s aunt.  Her only release is in inflicting pain.

I sometimes think there’s only one thing in this world I’m really fitted for….Boring myself to death…..I say there is beauty in this.  [Suicide of a former lover.]  Ejlert Lovborg has made up his own account with life.  He had the courage to do – the one right thing…..It gives me a sense of freedom to know that an act of deliberate courage is still possible in this world – an act of spontaneous beauty.

We are near the realm of Ayn Rand or something worse.  This play could just be a study in fascism.

For once in my life I want the power to shape a human destiny.

There is something demonic about Hedda.  Ibsen said ‘She really wants to live the whole life of a man.’  In the result her exit comes with a different sort of bang, and she might just be the most terrifying creature ever put on the stage.  The last way anyone would want to go to God would be with Hedda’s vine leaves in their hair.  Fascists are empty incomplete people who live on front and insignia.  They see their heroes – themselves – as champions wreathed in laurels.  They are also fascinated by guns.  Guns are a source of power to shape human destiny.  The external insignia of fascists betoken their internal emptiness.  They are an uncomely husk of humanity, a sad, pale mockery.  Hedda Gabler is indeed a very dark and evil invention.  This is a chick who kills for kicks.

On film, you can choose between Juliet Stephenson and Claire Bloom for Nora and between Ingrid Bergman and Diana Rigg for Hedda.  If the plays have a structural problem, it is that the men are door-mats.  Michael Redgrave is as wet a wimp as you could find for Hedda’s husband and Ralph Richardson is just nauseating as the revolting Judge Brack – he reminds you of the whining, insinuating Iago of Cyril Cusack.

Ibsen may be the only playwright who can hold a candle to Shakespeare.  One difference is that there is hardly any comedy.  But they both have one important thing in common.  They were both devoted to theatre and they both spent their professional lives writing plays for profit with the view to giving the public a good night out at the theatre.  The rest, I suspect, may be little more than moonshine.

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