Search Ibsen Voyages

johnston.jpg"Though Ibsen's plays challenge our notions of naturalist theater they have proved their success with the public. They are invitations to imaginative exploration, mysterious and exhilarating voyages to destinations our theater still has to discover."
- Brian Johnston
Ibsen, Vol. III: Four

Ibsen's dramatic art

"I have been more the poet and less the social philosopher than people generally seem inclined to think. My task has been the description of humanity" (Ibsen to the Norwegian League for Women's Rights, 1898)

“The individual must go through the evolutionary process of the race” (Ibsen; Note to Emperor and Galilean).

“You ought to make a thorough study of the history of civilization, of literature and of art…An extensive knowledge of history is indispensable to a modern author, for without it he is incapable of judging his age, his contemporaries and their motives except in the most incomplete and superficial manner.”  (Ibsen : Letter to John Paulsen while writing A Doll House, 1879)

Ibsen's career can be divided into three stages:

1. 1848-1863. the plays from Catiline up to Love’s Comedy and The Pretenders. These are plays mostly on Norwegian historical and literary sources.
21864 - 1875 the middle periodBrand, Peer Gynt, Emperor and Galilean, and the political comedy, The League of Youth.)
3. 1877-1899 the twelve-play Realist Cycle from Pillars of Society to When We Dead Awaken.

The Realist Cycle

    The twelve plays from Pillars of Society (Samfundets støtter) to When We Dead Awaken (Når vi døde vågner) constitute a Cycle – a unified sequence with, in Ibsen's words, "mutual connections between the plays," that should be "experienced in the order in which they were written".   Until Ibsen's claim is accepted and followed through, discussion of the plays, however interesting and informative, will overlook their real achievement.  On this website, essays on the 'middle period' plays, Brand, Peer Gynt and Emperor and Galilean, are followed by close readings of the Realist Cycle plays, focusing on their structures and artistry, showing how they relate to each other within the Cycle's total design.  This is what I argued for in The Ibsen Cycle (1975) and now follow through on this website*.  Ibsen's big project, "the description of humanity", was to make his art encompass the evolution of human consciousness from cultural origins up to his own time ("the evolutionary process of the race”).   The sequence of plays in the Cycle re-enacts, in modern dress, the historical/cultural process through which we became who we are in the world we created.  The real marvel of the Cycle is the artistic mastery with which Ibsen rises to this challenge in play after play.  Hegel's The Phenomenology of Spirit is the map he used for this journey; however, his dramatic landscape contains figures and events from Ibsen's own life and experience as well as from his study of "the history of civilization, of history and of art", transformed into convincingly modern drama.    

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 A major obstacle to appreciating Ibsen’s achievement is the ‘known Ibsen’, familiar to us through a century of commentary: a writer of ‘problem plays’, somewhat didactic but with mitigating ‘ambiguities’ and self-doubts; a moralist who presents for our deprecation individual specimens of human inadequacy; and who, later in his career, turns his 'unsparing gaze' upon himself; becoming an agonized narcissist using his art for cryptically confessional riddles for the public to unravel. Someone, in other words, perpetually and fretfully ill-at-ease with the world and himself: the opposite of the formidably detached and confident artist admired by Rainer Maria Rilke, Thomas Mann, James Joyce and others who responded to the distinctive nature of his difficult art. Once an author is taken up by the world it will use him or her for its own agendas.  Ibsen remade in the image of John Stuart Mill proved irresistible to those for whom art has to earn its keep by its usefulness to various causes and interests of the age.  In 1898, near the end of his career, Ibsen addressed the Norwegian League for Women's Rights, protesting,  "I have been more the poet and less the social philosopher than people generally seem inclined to think."  After disowning feminist intentions attributed to him he confessed,  "I am not even quite clear as to just what this women's rights movement really is..My task has been the description of humanity: 

To be sure, whenever such a description is felt to be reasonably true, the reader will read
his own feelings and sentiments into the work of the poet. These are then attributed to the
poet, but incorrectly so.  Every reader remolds the work beautifully and neatly, each
according to his own personality.  Not only those who write but also those who read are
poets.  They are collaborators.  They are often more poetical than the poet himself."

This website does not present Ibsen as a teacher, philosopher, social reformer or spiritual guide but as an artist, by closely looking at the plays, analyzing their structures, thematic content, metaphors, visual and verbal imagery and dialectical procedures.  These are the essential elements of his artistry and furthering appreciation of this is what the following essays set out do in the hope that we can recover what,  in 1906, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in Paris, saw at a production of the The Wild Duck:

There was something great, deep, essential.  Last Judgement.  A finality.  And suddenly the hour was there when Ibsen’s majesty deigned to look at me for the first time.  A new poet, whom we shall approach by many roads now that I know one of them.  And again someone who is misunderstood in the midst of fame.  Someone quite different from what one hears."

[An account of the reception of The Ibsen Cycle by academic Ibsenists is provided on this site by Helge Salemonsen ]


LOVE'S COMEDY

LOVE'S COMEDY

Mrs. Halm’s lodging house has launched a succession of marriages of her daughters with student lodgers. Two students and two daughters yet remain. The theological student Lind, early in Act One, reveals he has fallen in …

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Brand: Tragedy of Vocation

Brand: Tragedy of Vocation

"Universality inscribes itself into a particular identity as its inability to fully become itself: I am a universal subject insofar as I cannot realize myself in my particular identity – this is why the modern universal s…

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Peer Gynt -Troll Tragicomedy

Peer Gynt -Troll Tragicomedy

When Peer Gynt first appeared in 1867 Copenhagen's influential literary critic, Clemens Petersen, declared the play was "not truly poetry," but nothing more than a piece of polemic journalism. Ibsen, until recently in pove…

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IBSEN'S WORLD HISTORICAL DRAMA: EMPEROR AND GALILEAN

IBSEN'S WORLD HISTORICAL DRAMA: EMPEROR AND GALILEAN

A World Historical Drama by Henrik Ibsen, translated by Brian Johnston. (Lyme, New Hampshire: A Smith and Kraus Book 1999)

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Pillars of Society

Pillars of Society

Pillars of Society launches Ibsen’s project of the twelve-play Realist Cycle. Not coincidentally, the subject of the play is that of launching a great project: - Karsten Bernick’s secret plan, the railway line, that wi…

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Realism and A Doll House

Realism and A Doll House

A Doll House (Et dukkehjem) usually is acclaimed as a work of sturdy social realism for which a thorough study of the history of civilization, literature and art would be superfluous. How do these requirements help us fat…

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Ghosts' Greek Ghosts

Ghosts' Greek Ghosts

“The key note is to be: The prolific growth of our intellectual life; in literature, art, etc. – and in contrast to this: the whole of mankind gone astray. [Ibsen, Note to Ghosts.]

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An Enemy of the People

An Enemy of the People

The tetralogy that began with Pillars of Society now concludes with An Enemy of the People (En folkefiende), a political comedy; as a comedic satyr play followed the classical Athenian tragic trilogy. These four plays' st…

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The Realism of The Wild Duck

The Realism of The Wild Duck

The play's expanding circumferences of action encompass individual and family histories, social divisions, the surrounding natural world of retreating forests, lakes and marshes inhabited by the wild duck and its fellow cr…

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The Realism of Rosmersholm

The Realism of Rosmersholm

The extreme precision with which Ibsen shaped his plots reminds us that Ibsen’s plays are primarily works of art, artifacts. Rosmersholm tells a passionate human story, involving psychological, social, political and metap…

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The Lady from the Sea

The Lady from the Sea

Life is apparently a happy, easy and lively thing up there in the shadow of the mountains and in the monotony of this seclusion. Then the suggestion is thrown up that this kind of life is a life of shadows. No initiative…

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Art & Argument in Hedda Gabler

Art & Argument in Hedda Gabler

Hedda Gabler is the Hamlet of Ibsen criticism, encouraging a mass of commentary eager to explain, excoriate or exculpate the heroine. This agreeable hobby often is pursued with less attention to the nature of the play itse…

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The Master Builder

The Master Builder

The impression one gets from a précis of the play’s story is of its fundamental absurdity. A young woman of twenty three shows up, dressed in ‘mountain-climbing attire', at a middle-aged architect’s house with a preposte…

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Little Eyolf

Little Eyolf

Little Eyolf reveals parallels with the section, ‘Plants and animals as objects of religious consciousness' where Hegel revisited pantheist traditions within Hindu religion. The pantheist phase, Hegel declares, is the “Re…

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John Gabriel Borkman

John Gabriel Borkman

John Gabriel Borkman demonstrates the essential Ibsen method...It is a very intricate lattice of urgent interrelationships. The conflict itself stands for a collision of forces, of ideas of life.

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When We Dead Awaken

When We Dead Awaken

The Realist Cycle, beginning with Pillars of Society, followed the human spirit's odyssey though phases of the historical past recovered within present consciousness. It now concludes with the 'Epilogue' to the Cycle, Whe…

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Courses in Drama

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These articles follow a classroom lecture format, not of scholarly publications with footnotes and sources dutifully acknowledged. The site seeks to be friendly to students of drama interested in discussions of playwrights and dramatic texts. Naturally, I have drawn upon previous scholarship and interpretation but, for the most part, I substantiate my arguments with evidence from the  the plays themselves.   My main purpose is to present a selection of dramatists representative of what are seen as significant developments  in the art of drama, beginning with its origins in classical Athens. 

The course, therefore, is divided into four sections, based on the Survey format of classes  at Carnegie Mellon University from 1986 to 2006.

  1. Greek (Athenian) Drama
  2. European Drama (Medieval to Spanish Golden Age)
  3. European Drama (Neoclassical to Romantic)
  4. Modern Drama (Ibsen to 20th Century); - Modern Arab Drama.

Apart from the section on Modern Arab drama, this is a ‘traditional’ Western oriented course. There are other areas of world drama - such as African-American, Native American, Arab-American, African, Asian and Middle Eastern theatre and drama, etc., etc.; and such subjects as feminist, gay, and varioius minority theatres that infuse their vitality into the contemporary theatre. I am interested in all these;  but others are more competent to speak on them, have more interesting things to say, and with better authority than I can muster.  They would figure in any adequate Drama Course that includes much not outside interest but outside my range of expertise. Such an ideal course  requires a team effort.

This, therefore, does not claim to be an adequate course on drama:  it deals only with what I feel competent to speak about and believe I have something of interest to say. I hope this disclaimer forestalls objections that the offered course overlooks huge territories of rich and important work.  My dramatists are, I must confess, mostly dead and, perhaps more deplorably, various shades of white. The theatre of the modern world, for better or for worse, has evolved from mostly western forms and practices. Read more...