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February 22-28, 2006

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Ibsen Rules

Just in time for the centennial of his death, is Henrik Ibsen becoming cool again?

By David Templeton


Anyone who ever slept through a world literature class in high school or college probably has a few fleeting, subliminal memories of playwright Henrik Ibsen. The very mention of his name, the mere utterance of the phrase "The father of modern drama," can be enough to stupefy entire classrooms of students and to stun whole theaters of season subscription holders. A person could easily believe that the freaky-looking, mutton-chopped Norwegian playwright was responsible for (at least) a few thousand hours of unintentional worldwide catnaps since he wrote his last play in 1900.

Though Ibsen currently ranks as the third most frequently performed playwright in history (right after William Shakespeare and Neil Simon), his longevity does nothing to alter the fact that, for a lot of people, especially among the young, Ibsen seems about as vital and exciting as sorting fossils in a very cold basement.

It's a little ironic, too, because in his day, Ibsen's plays were considered shocking, invigorating, electric, and Ibsen himself was a rock star, a rebel, a dangerous man. He led the charge against the stilted, verse-bound literature of Victorian-era Norway, giving birth to iconoclastic masterpieces along the way.

Through his plays, he challenged the belief that the needs of the individual must be set aside for the good of the community. He suggested that marriage had turned women into prisoners in their own homes. He put forth the idea that the denial of personal love and happiness was a form of psychological torture inflicted by the government, the church and all the so-called pillars of society. He even wrote a satirical play called Pillars of Society. He dared to talk about subjects that were considered taboo, from divorce and freedom of speech to women's rights and venereal disease. As he did, he excited the giddy support and devoted audience attendance of a generation of—believe it or not—young people.

It was, to a large extent, the youth of Europe—and a small army of enlightened elders—who initially embraced Ibsen's realism, his cynicism and his belief in the beauty of individual freedom. It was the professors and the clergy, the politicians and the parents who denounced Ibsen as unpleasant and unnecessary, branding him a bad influence and a subverter of authority and tradition.

His first financial success, though modest, was with the 1866 verse-drama Brand, in which a heartless fundamentalist priest sacrifices his wife and children before dying in an avalanche, crying out in rage to the God who apparently abandoned him. The play made a lot of people nervous. In 1879's A Doll's House (a feminist play long before the word "feminism" was invented), a disillusioned wife gives up on marriage and walks out on her family to pursue a life of personal choice and freedom.

In Ghosts (1881), a miserable widow finally faces up to the fact that her well-respected late husband, the one her minister insisted she marry, was a cruel, immoral and unfaithful man, and that her long-suffering love—and even God's promises—had not been enough to transform him. There's even a subplot about venereal disease, a subject no one had dared bring up on stage before that time. The ghosts are in fact the dead conventions and beliefs that had prevented the widow from experiencing the joys of life.

In 1890, Ibsen unleashed Hedda Gabler, the story of a ruthless and neurotic housewife, bored out of her mind by the stultifying repetition of upper-class life, who messes with the lives of those around her and ultimately shoots herself in the head.

It was all too much for the powers that were.

Outraged, the moralists of Ibsen's day came gradually unglued. The playwright's work was denounced from the pulpit. It was debated in the parliament. Many of the largest theaters refused to produce his plays, even as audiences—hungry for works that spoke the truth in realistic terms—began to cry out for more.

By the time he died at the age of 78, Ibsen had become one of the most successful playwrights in the world, but also one of the most hated. His disdain for the hypocrisies of traditional society was unmistakable. If "Question Authority" bumper stickers had existed back then (and he'd had a bumper to stick it on), Ibsen would have bought one. Even at the moment of his death, on May 23, 1906, Ibsen couldn't resist one last opportunity to take a final swipe at polite society.

After a series of strokes beginning four years earlier, Ibsen lay in a coma. According to hospital records, his nurse agreed to escort a handful of visitors into his room, where she perkily informed them that her patient was feeling much better that day. Having not spoken in weeks, Ibsen opened his eyes and barked, "On the contrary!" before immediately dying.

After a century of watching Ibsen's reputation among the young and hip slip into moldy disrepair, it's time to set such accusations aside, because, miraculous as it sounds, the Ibsen tide may finally be turning. Just in time for the centennial of Ibsen's demise, a slew of creative Ibsen projects with several fresh translations rendered in sharp, contemporary dialogue, are suddenly cropping up in the Bay Area and, indeed, all over the world.

Last month in Southern California, boyish playwright Jeff Whitty (the Tony-winning author of Avenue Q) premiered his cheeky new comedy-satire, The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler at the South Coast Repertory, and the house was unable to keep up with demands for tickets. This month in New York, Heddatron, a new deconstruction of Hedda Gabler, opens featuring a cast of remote-controlled robots interacting with human actors in Ibsen's drawing-room tragedy.

In early January, Norway declared 2006 the Year of Ibsen, celebrating a massive Ibsen festival in Oslo with performances by theater groups, musicians and artists from around the world. Some of the performances might have shocked even Ibsen: Peer Gynt performed as a high-speed, Danish rap operetta; Ghosts brought to life by a British dance troupe as a slinky, sexy ballet.

The show kicked off a year that will include thousands of performances of Ibsen all over the world. Many of them appear to be taking on his canon with vigorous originality and passion, and quite a bit of hip, youthful pranksterism.

Is it possible that Ibsen, in 2006, is actually becoming cool again?

Locally, the year starts with smart new productions of three of Ibsen's most important plays. One is currently playing, one will open within the week, and the third opens in early March.

Ghosts, a sociological thriller directed by Mark Gregory with a streamlined new translation by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson, begins a four-week run this weekend at Monte Rio's gutsy Pegasus Theater, currently enjoying one of its strongest seasons since it opened its doors.

In March, as part of its Women's History Month observations, the Santa Rosa Junior College theater department stages A Doll's House, the scandalous pre-feminist drama that marked Ibsen's reputation as an up-and-coming enemy of the people. Directed by Laura Downing-Lee, the play will be offered along with a series of companion lectures and panel discussions.

Across the bridge, the playwright's late masterpiece The Master Builder is packing the house at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, partly due to a sharp new translation by the prolific theatrical translator Paul Walsh. Running through March 5, the play—starring Marin County actress Anne Darragh (of the original Angels in America)—was written in 1892, near the end of Ibsen's career. Reported to be Sigmund Freud's favorite play, The Master Builder shows Ibsen pulling together several elements that were grounded in reality—neuroses, marital unhappiness, debilitating grief over the loss of a child—boldly fusing them with hints of ghosts and muses and trolls.

Though there is no hint that any of these local productions contain robots or hip-hopping Vikings, they nevertheless all promise to offer a younger generation some crisp new approaches to three of Ibsen's best and most dangerous creations. These were plays that were once embraced by a generation grown tired of what they believed were the empty lies and empty rules of a corrupt, hypocritical, emotionally corseted society.

As Ibsen would surely agree, times haven't changed that much.


'Ghosts' runs Feb. 24-25 and March 2-4 and 9-11 at 8pm; Feb. 26 and March 5 at 2pm. Pegasus Theater Company, 20347 Hwy. 116, Monte Rio. $12-$15; March 2, pay what you can. 707.522.9043. 'A Doll's House' runs March 10-19 at the SRJC's Burbank Auditorium, 1501 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. 707.527.4343. For information about 'The Master Builder' at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, call 510.843.4822 or check www.auroratheatre.org.


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