Henrik Ibsen: Playwright and Realist
The most frequently performed dramatist in the world after Shakespeare.
I believe my earliest recollection of the name Henrik Ibsen must have been in school when we read an excerpt from Peer Gynt. What struck me at the time was that my father, who was into classical music, used to listen to Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suites, the musical accompaniment for the first performance of the play in Oslo, 1875.
I knew nothing of Ibsen previous to that school encounter, never connecting the music to a playwright or the character he created, Peer Gynt, who was “marvelously attractive to women, a kind of bogus poet, a narcissist, absurd self-idolator, a liar, seducer, bombastic self-deceiver.” (Harold Bloom) [Aside: Could Gynt have been the inspiration behind Goldstein in Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldstein?]
Of Ibsen himself I knew exceedingly little for most of my life, I am embarrassed to say. After my exposure to An Enemy of the People last year, I began seeking out more of his works. It was indeed surprising to discover how relevant Ibsen’s voice remains today. Here are some quotes from his various works beginning with a few notes from letters and elsewhere, by way of introduction, in the event you know as little as I once did.
“I believe that first and foremost I am an individual, just as you are.”
“I hold that man is in the right who is most closely in league with the future.” — Letter to Georg Brandes
“It is inexcusable for scientists to torture animals; let them make their experiments on journalists and politicians.”
“A thousand words can’t make the mark a single deed will leave.” — Brand
“To think it, wish it, even want it — but do it! No, that I cannot understand.”
— Peer Gynt, after he sees a boy cut off his finger to avoid serving in the army.
“The spirit of truth and the spirit of freedom — these are the pillars of society.” — The Pillars of Society
“If I’m ever to reach any understanding of myself and the things around me, I must learn to stand alone.” — Nora, Act III, A Doll’s House
“I have other duties equally sacred … Duties to myself.”
— Nora, A Doll’s House
“There must be ghosts all over the world. They must be as countless as the grains of the sands, it seems to me. And we are so miserably afraid of the light, all of us.” — Ghosts
“Oh courage…oh yes! If only one had that…Then life might be livable, in spite of everything.” — Hedda Gabler
“Castles in the air — they are so easy to take refuge in. And so easy to build, too.” — Hilda, The Master Builder
“When we dead awaken. … We see that we have never lived.”
— Irene, When We Dead Awaken