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Mind out of time: what Ibsen can tell us about today

On the eve of a major season of adaptations at the Barbican, Erica Wagner goes to Norway to discover how the playwright captured the beginning of the modern world.

Social dramatist: Ibsen's portrayal of the conflicted middle-class family is perfectly recognisable to us today. Photo: Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

The dining-room table at Venstøp, Henrik Ibsen’s childhood home, could easily seat at least a dozen; there are silver candlesticks, and ornate chandeliers hang from a white-painted ceiling. In the sitting room, oil paintings adorn the walls and a beautiful wooden armoire graces the well-proportioned space. This home – with a separate wing for servants – seems a picture of bourgeois opulence. Yet the standard line is that the Ibsens’ time here was defined by hardship. Their move to Venstøp from the nearby city of Skien, when Henrik was seven, was triggered by the bankruptcy of his father, Knud, and their descent into what Encyclopaedia Britannica calls “querulous penury”, echoing the widely held notion of poverty. Jørgen Haave, who runs Venstøp as a museum, is keen to contradict it.

“For people who have studied Ibsen, and read his biographies, this is the place where they landed when they lost their money,” he tells me, as we sit outside in the sunshine drinking good Norwegian coffee. “But you can see they had servants here when they were ‘poor’, they had parties and such. That is the most important thing for people to take away from a visit here, to break with the idea of extreme poverty.” In fact, the Ibsens had been the “absolute richest people in the region”, which was one of the richest in Norway. Skien, where Ibsen was born, was a thriving place, a centre for shipping and timber. Iron had been mined and smelted here since the 16th century. “It’s normal in biographies to say his family came from Bergen, but on his mother’s side his family came from this region and had been here since the 15th century; one of his ancestors made the first sawmill from the water power here, and that was the foundation of their wealth.” Ibsen’s fame comes from the nature of his social drama: social drama – the complexities of class and status – was what he knew from his earliest youth. The Ibsens had been rich; then they became not poor, but much less wealthy; and yet they were keen to keep up appearances. This conflict between reality and appearance is what still draws audiences to Ibsen’s work: it is a depiction of the beginning of the modern world.

It is hard to overstate the importance of Henrik Ibsen’s work to Norway’s cultural heritage; but then, as an Ibsen-filled autumn reminds us, his status is just as high on the world stage. His oeuvre, which ranges from early poetic and near-mythological verse dramas to the precise, closely observed plays such as A Doll’s House, Ghosts, The Wild Duck and Hedda Gabler into the more metaphysical late work, exemplified by his final play, When We Dead Awaken, seems to be at the foundation of modern sensibility. “Ibsen has been the greatest influence on the present generation; in fact you could say that he formed it to a great extent,” wrote (a very young) James Joyce in 1900.

Despite those humble (or not-quite-so-humble) beginnings, Ibsen the playwright found success early. He left Skien, never to return, at 15, to work as an apothecary’s apprentice; he had written his first play, Catilina, by the age of 21. At 23 he was running the new theatre in Bergen, for which he went on to write and produce one new play every year; in 1866, after he had left Norway for Rome – he would not return permanently to Norway until 1891 – the verse drama Brand was his big breakthrough, selling out three print runs by the end of that year. Edmund Gosse (now best known for his memoir, Father and Son) “discovered” him for English-speaking audiences after a trip to Trondheim in 1871, when he picked up a slim volume of Ibsen’s poems. The 12 volumes of William Archer’s translations began appearing in 1906, the year of Ibsen’s death; by the early 1920s Ibsen had assumed “the dignity of an ancient” – as Dr Johnson said of Shakespeare. And the literary and feminist scholar Toril Moi, who was born in Norway but now teaches at Duke University in North Carolina, says plainly in her wonderful book Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism that he is “the most important playwright writing after Shakespeare”.

Following recent acclaimed West End productions of Hedda Gabler, Ghosts and A Doll’s House, an International Ibsen Season begins later this month at the Barbican in London. From the Schaubühne in Berlin comes An Enemy of the People, directed by Thomas Ostermeier, Ibsen’s 1882 play cast firmly as “a mirror for our times set against a world of environmental and financial crises”. From the Théâtre National de Nice comes a version of Peer Gynt, his early, picaresque dramatic poem, directed by Irina Brook (daughter of Peter Brook) – complete with music by Iggy Pop and poetry from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sam Shepard. Finally, Belvoir Sydney presents a reworking of The Wild Duck (1884).

At the same time Penguin Classics begins the publication of a new series of Ibsen translations: The Master Builder and Other Plays (the other plays being Little Eyolf, John Gabriel Borkman and When We Dead Awaken) will be the first volume, to be published on 2 October. This marks the start of a comprehensive revamp of the Penguin Classics translations of the Norwegian master, which have been the standard versions in English since the publisher admitted Ibsen into the canon as early as 1950 – just four years after Penguin Classics was launched with E V Rieu’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey. But unavoidably those first versions, by Una Ellis-Fermor, have dated: in her introduction to the volume containing Hedda Gabler, she writes that her work “attempts the impossible task of pretending that Ibsen wrote his plays in the English of 1950” – different from the English of 2014, with the best will in the world.

What is remarkable about Ibsen’s work is that it seems both to reflect the specific, Scandinavian bourgeois milieu that formed the author and to have a universal appeal that allows endless reinterpretation. In Oslo, I spend a couple of hours in the company of Tore Rem, professor of British literature at the University of Oslo and the general editor of the Penguin series. Ibsen’s great innovation was the contemporary middle-class tragedy: the families he creates, with their conflicts, silences and secrets, are perfectly recognisable to us today, as Rem notes, though they amazed some of his contemporary critics. Henry James called him “the provincial of provincials”; it was astonishing to the cosmopolitan American that such a vision had emerged from what he described as “the bareness and bleakness of his little northern democracy”.

That “little northern democracy” was, in Ibsen’s lifetime, in the process of liberating itself, finally becoming fully independent in 1905. Before that, Norway had been in a union with Sweden, essentially having been handed over to Sweden by the Danes in the Napoleonic wars; culturally, the Norwegians remained closer to Denmark than to Sweden and shared the same written language. “Ibsen fundamentally wrote in Danish with Norwegianisms,” Rem says – a reminder that, even for Norwegians, Ibsen in the modern day is never not mediated: his language for the stage is always modernised from his own usual Dano-Norwegian.

We in the 21st century flatter ourselves that the notion of standing up to a hypocritical, convention-bound society is terribly modern: but it’s a theme that runs through much of Ibsen’s work, which examines, as Rem notes, “the creation of the bourgeoisie, which is something George Bernard Shaw picks up on. Suddenly there is this international class, and that’s what Ibsen taps in to – and you can then leap into China today, where the individual is becoming more important. And so lots of academics are working on Ibsen.” Not long ago, Rem tells me, he was in Tromsø, at the International Ibsen Conference – where fully one-third of the participants were Chinese. And that’s not just thanks to the actress Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, having played Nora in A Doll’s House: the issues of social mobility raised by Ibsen clearly resonate with 21st-century Chinese men and women.

At the Ibsen Museum in Oslo – the centrepiece of which is the apartment where Ibsen spent the last years of his life with his wife, Suzannah – the director, Erik Henning Edvardsen, talks of productions he has seen from India, from China, from Africa. (Tore Rem notes that in 2006, the centenary year of Ibsen’s death, he knew of at least 250 productions of Ibsen’s plays being staged around the world.) As we walk through the elegant rooms of the apartment, which is just steps from the National Theatre – Ibsen would rise punctually from his desk at 11.30am every day for a coffee at the nearby Grand Café, even if he was in the middle of writing a sentence – Edvardsen speaks, too, of Suzannah’s powerful role in the playwright’s life; their partnership was not always easy, but it was an essential one for Ibsen. She had been raised in a house full of books, with a stepmother who was passionate about the theatre; although she was not educated as her brothers were, Henrik Ibsen married a cultured young woman in 1858. His interest in strong female characters goes back to his earliest writings. The very first dramas he wrote, such as Lady Inger of Östråt (1857), put women at the centre of the action; Edvardsen remarks that there are two sisters trying to get the same man in The Vikings at Helgeland (first performed in 1858) “and you could argue that if you modernise that you have something equal to Hedda Gabler”.

And those links move forward into the future – in a way that can surprise even Ibsen scholars. Edvardsen’s other passion is the work of the Beatles; he tells me he is planning an exhibition next year that sets Ibsen’s work against the work of John Lennon – both of them boundary-breakers, in Edvardsen’s view – and he describes showing both Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon around the museum just a few years ago.

When I tell Toril Moi of this notion she is startled – and delighted. “But then I just heard from the Miami Theatre Centre, who wanted me to come down there because next year they’re doing Hedda Gabler alongside a theatrical production of The Seven Year Itch – they see all these parallels that I never would have thought of.”

Ibsen’s prescience can be startling. On 25 September, Simon McBurney, the founder and artistic director of Complicite, will host a talk with Thomas Ostermeier and members of the Schaubühne company after their performance of An Enemy of the People at the Barbican. The play, seen in its plot and setting, deals with what seems like a very contemporary issue: a man, Dr Stockmann, speaks up when he knows that a town’s water supply, on which its prosperity depends, is contaminated.

McBurney describes watching this production at the Avignon Festival in the south of France not long ago: “At the moment in the play when Dr Stockmann makes his address about the water, and the townspeople react, they brought microphones out in the audience.” The audience reaction had more than just an ecological resonance. “Suddenly someone stood up and said, ‘Who are you, the Germans, who occupied us, to come here and lecture us about social and moral issues?’ It became absolutely electric; and then the audience began to shout at each other. It became a live debate.”

As McBurney says, the issues that Ibsen deals with, of class, of status, of who may speak and who may not, “are timeless, especially as we are now moving back to the conditions of the 19th century, with a very, very small, wealthy and powerful elite, and everyone else sinking down further and further behind them. We have a government that would seem to like to recall the 19th century, and people in it, such as Boris Johnson, who say we should be more for the upper per cent who are really privileged, and who have no shame about saying that.” The idea of translation – across languages, borders, eras – applies not just to the text, but “to the whole conceit of the play”.

Tore Rem reminds me of the remark made by Ibsen’s first major translator into English, William Archer, that: “In respect of language, Ibsen stands at a unique disadvantage. Never before has a poet of worldwide fame appealed to his worldwide audience so exclusively in translations.”

And yet it is this need for translation – the literal translation of language, and the metamorphosis that takes place on the stage – which has always served Ibsen well, and has allowed him to be transformed and reborn over and over again. 

The International Ibsen Season begins at the Barbican, London EC2, on 24 September

“The Master Builder and Other Plays” will be published on 2 October by Penguin Classics (£11.99)

With thanks to the Norwegian embassy in London for travel to Norway

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.