“I read Ibsen and to me it’s nothing but people in black clothes, sitting around in a black mood, dredging up a black past—but in your hands, it’s profound,” says Helga, a character in the new David Grimm play Ibsen in Chicago.
Bleakness and profundity. That’s the double lens through which many American audiences and theatre artists have viewed Henrik Ibsen’s canon of late 19th-century dramas.
Of course, it’s not as if his plays have languished in obscurity in our theatres for the past century. In fact, Ibsen is one of the most produced playwrights in the world. Ever since they were internationally disseminated—and stopped being censored for shocking Victorian sensibilities with direct allusions to syphilis, incest, sexism, political malfeasance, and female emancipation—a half-dozen of the Norwegian author’s best known works have become staples of our theatrical repertoire. And Ibsen’s stern, heavily bewhiskered visage is as recognizable in photo portraits as the face of any other stage scribe of his generation of fin-de-siecle theatre pioneers (an exclusive club that also includes G.B. Shaw and Anton Chekhov).
Europe has always been loyal to Ibsen, including in a boomlet of high-profile U.K. productions over the past decade. But lately more American theatre artists and companies have also been tackling Ibsen texts with a flush of new enthusiasm, even urgency, and sometimes unexpected twists and levity. They have also been counterpointing and arguing with the famed dramatist in original plays catalyzed by his.
In the winter and spring of 2018 alone, fresh productions of An Enemy of the People are opening at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis (April 28-June 3) and Goodman Theatre in Chicago (March 10-April 15). They follow on the heels of settings of the politically charged tale earlier this season at Connecticut’s Yale Repertory Theatre, Houston’s Classical Theatre Company, and the Actors Ensemble of Berkeley, not to mention numerous student productions at colleges and universities. In addition, Chicago’s A Red Orchid Theatre recently premiered Brett Neveu’s Traitor, a new work inspired by the Ibsen play. (There’s also been talk of a Broadway run of Enemy, in a new English-language adaptation by playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, but no dates have been announced.)
Ibsen’s proto-feminist classic A Doll’s House is also on a roll. Along with 2018 mountings at Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre and Florida’s Alliance for the Arts Theatre, the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., introduced Heather Raffo’s Noura, in part a response to A Doll’s House. And Lucas Hnath’s Tony-nominated sequel, A Doll’s House, Part 2, had a critically hailed six-month stand on Broadway in 2017 (and a simultaneous run at California’s South Coast Repertory), and will next appear at Barrington Stage in Massachusetts in July and at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in October, with more productions almost sure to follow.
Other Ibsen on tap: Quintessence Theatre Group in Philadelphia is presenting The Wild Duck through April. And Stray Dog Theatre of St. Louis plans a summer stand of Jon Robin Baitz’s adaptation of Hedda Gabler.
Meanwhile, David Grimm had his seriocomic romp about the Chicago world premiere of Ghosts in Ibsen in Chicago, which was commissioned by and ran in February at Seattle Repertory Theatre.
So why the extra big love for Ibsen? Why now? What does this 19th-century playwright who commands historical respect as well as a reputation for musty, bummed-out Nordic naturalism have to say the U.S. in 2018?
“One of the things that makes Ibsen so relevant now, one of his hallmarks,” suggested Grimm, “is the search for a moral compass in this universe, whether that entails fighting against corrupt social organizations or just dealing with the difficult question of what morality means to each of us individually.”
Another factor, in the view of Goodman Theatre artistic head and Enemy of the People director Robert Falls, is distance. “People are freer now to adapt and explore Ibsen in a different way,” Falls explained. “I certainly am taking liberties with the text, but they’re all within illuminating the play in a fresh way.” It’s a distance in service of closeness, he added: “What may happen with interesting new adaptations is that you have this merging of Ibsen with a contemporary perspective to launch a more specific investigation of [our own] society.”
Minneapolis playwright Jeffrey Hatcher thinks Ibsen’s main attraction is his vivid, contoured characters, especially the women. Hatcher crafted English versions of seven Ibsen plays during the 20-year run of Commonweal Theatre’s annual Ibsen Festival in rural Minnesota. (The final festival, held in 2017, featured his adaptation of Ibsen’s last, rarely performed play, When We Dead Awaken.)
“People like playing characters who tell the truth, who are transgressive, who have power, and who are in trouble,” said Hatcher. “Not until Ibsen did you find women onstage in such trouble trying to have authority over their own lives. These women fought like hell to either retain power or get out.”
Welsh playwright Brad Birch, who fashioned the Guthrie’s upcoming adaptation of An Enemy of the People, ventured another reason for the plays’ durability. “I have wondered what it is about Ibsen that has led to such interesting modern work, and I think it’s that what he offers you is a really solid foundation. He finds characters and picks the perfect moment and the perfect problem for them, and lets it play out.”
“Problem” may be the key word here. In a nation which, since the 2016 election of Donald Trump, has spiking levels of political awareness, fear, frictions, and activism, it’s probably no coincidence that the two Ibsen plays getting the most traction are realistic ones confronting topical issues: of female identity and gender equity, environmental crisis, and the perils of revealing the truth in a society that doesn’t want to hear it or absorb its costs.
When President Trump branded the mainstream U.S. press an “enemy of the people” in a 2017 tweet, he left little doubt that Ibsen’s same-titled play remains relevant. (The phrase, which dates back to Roman times, was also hurled during the French Revolution and in Stalinist Russia.)
Even before Trump’s chilling denunciations of a free press, the British company Fieldwork and Detroit Public Theatre grasped a stark parallel between the Ibsen play and the devastating water pollution crisis in nearby Flint, Mich. With actors recruited from collaborating companies around the country, they presented their unique vision of An Enemy of the People in June of 2017.
The play, said co-producing artistic director Sarah Winkler, “is very, very close to home for us in Michigan. I believe Ibsen wrote great plays with great moral and ethical questions at their center. They are plays about corporate responsibility and individual rights and responsibilities in society. And they are about society and government’s responsibilities to its citizens.”
Ibsen’s play resonated in Flint, she added, because “it asked big questions about who is responsible and how we move toward a better world, and the answers are not clear or easy in his plays just as they are not in our times.”
In Ibsen’s original, Dr. Thomas Stockmann is first met with gratitude, then with derision and censure after he sounds the alarm that the water in the baths of his Norwegian town’s main attraction, a new health spa, are dangerously contaminated. Stockmann’s disgust and the gullibility and backlash of the populace lead him to denounce democratic rule in favor of a kind of Nietzschean elitism.
In Flint, however, the play didn’t end on that bleak note. It was performed for free in the gym of a former school, and the final act was a participatory town hall. Flint residents were encouraged to speak out on their state’s callous role in poisoning the water system, and its failure to quickly ameliorate a public health emergency endangering the health of its citizens.
It is a sign of the theatrical times, and the professional doors women have kicked open since Ibsen was writing, that the Flint production changed the gender of the whistle blower Stockmann from male to female.
Birch’s adaptation has also gone through a few gender switches, each of which enriched the roles played by women. For an Edinburgh staging, his Stockmann was a female doctor-crusader. For the Guthrie, he explained, “We’ve reverted to the original gender of that character, but we have vastly rewritten the relationships between the characters in the play.” For instance, Birch believes that Katherine Stockmann, the doctor’s loyal wife, “has one of the most interesting perspectives in the play, and so we’ve drawn her more into focus. I changed the gender of Hovstad [the editor of the local newspaper] to a woman first time around and we’ve kept her as a woman in this one too.”
As far back at least as Arthur Miller’s 1950 adaptation of Enemy—a pre-Crucible exercise considered, like that later Miller play, an allegory for the 1940s anti-Communist witch hunts—adapters have felt free to alter this durable drama for more contemporary resonance. In Adam Chanzit’s 2012 play The Great Divide, for instance, a female doctor blows the whistle on the dangers of fracking in her Colorado town.
Falls is staying “loosely” in period and place, but adding other twists. “I’m doing my own adaptation, and one thing I felt was interesting was for Katherine to be pregnant,” he said. “You need to have the theme of a future generation being poisoned.”
He said he’s also “honoring” what he feels are neglected notes of absurdist comedy and even farce in Ibsen’s original script. Falls noted that Act 3 has “so many exits and entrances, so many people coming and going, that at times it feels like Hellzapoppin’.”
As Hatcher sees it, An Enemy of the People has served well as a dramatic blueprint for stories about modern eco-political scandals and official obfuscations, including those cropping up with alarming frequency in Trump’s first term. As Hatcher put it, “The play asks, are you going to lie because it keeps you alive, or in power, or in money? The Ibsen characters are talking about poison from a cannery getting into a spa, but you know they’re really talking about any kind of poison, any kind of lie, any kind of threat to the public.”
Ibsen’s personal politics, and the political calculus in his plays, were not cut-and-dried, and certainly not romantic or dogmatic. As a prescient anti-romantic, he can be as hard on “heroes” like Stockmann as on would-be villains. In his famous essay “The Quintessence of Ibsenism,” Ibsen admirer G.B. Shaw wrote that the crux of Ibsen’s plays is that there “is no formula for positive social change,” just painful trial and error.
Olivia Gunn, University of Washington associate professor of Scandinavian studies and current president of the Ibsen Society of America, sees in Ibsen’s work an excitingly complex thinker, neither a naturalistic or surrealistic writer “but both/and.” Nor is it surprising, Gunn added, that power is the theme of the 2018 International Ibsen Conference in Oslo. “Ibsen really understood power,” she said.
Power—be it legal, psychological, familial, governmental—is also a central theme in A Doll’s House, which dared to question a wife and mother’s circumscribed role in 1876. At the time it appalled many critics who castigated the lead character’s decision to leave her husband and children and strike out on her own as (according to one contemporaneous review) “indescribably unnatural.”
“Whether Ibsen was technically a feminist or not, I don’t give a crap,” said Gunn, who is working on a book titled Empty Nurseries, Queer Occupants: Reproduction and the Future in Ibsen’s Late Plays. “His work is part of the feminist canon.”
Still, Gunn considers it healthy that contemporary American artists have been moved to extend, expand, and question Ibsen’s analysis of marriage and motherhood in relation to present-day society. One is Heather Raffo, whose Noura premiered at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in February as part of the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival.
“I am committed to the classics as representative of human history,” said Raffo. “We learn so much from them; they should be studied and remembered. But in this time of crisis and watershed movements, A Doll’s House, in my opinion, is not a play we can keep forcing to represent modern female awakening. We need to ask more of our audiences or we will continually find ourselves in a country incapable of having a national conversation about the actual crises of our time.”
With that in mind Raffo, an Iraqi-American writer and performer, focuses on Noura, an Iraqi immigrant wife who is celebrating with her husband their first Christmas as American citizens. When they take in a young Iraqi refugee, it forces the title character to examine her own role and notion of “home,” and to wrestle with what Raffo believes is “a fundamental question of our times: Do we live for each other or for ourselves?”
The play drew on workshops conducted by Raffo and Epic Theatre Ensemble in which Middle Eastern women living in the U.S. wrote narrative monologues “about a pilgrimage, a journey—a journey they’re on.” Raffo was struck by how much these narratives, which often dealt with women’s changing roles in conservative yet evolving Arab-American families, resonated with A Doll’s House.
Using Epic’s “remix” method, she conflated Ibsen’s basic plot design with material catalyzed by the workshop. “Because Noura allows for Middle Eastern culture to live in contrast to American culture,” explained Raffo, “in this play we get to see how the pursuits of a community and pursuits of a culture come into contact with the individual. In my workshops and in my own life, I struggle for a balance of both. In my opinion, this is also our national struggle at this moment.”
In other cases, playwrights are planting a bomb in the parlor of the protagonist Nora. In Lucas Hnath’s celebrated sequel A Doll’s House, Part 2, for instance, Nora returns to her former home 15 years after slamming the door on the way out. Now a successful and confident feminist author, she returns with a request for her husband: She can’t be fully emancipated, legally and financially, without securing a divorce from him, which according to Norwegian law he must initiate.
This Nora, in her bearing and language, is like a 21st-century radical imprisoned in constrained Victorian dress. And though the play roots for her, it also reveals the psychological damage her estrangement from her family has caused her daughter, her ex-husband, and her loyal maid. The debates that arise from the ashes of this marriage reverberate with the effects of modern marriage on women who “lean in” so they can allegedly “have it all.”
An even starker old/new contrast was provided in the 2017 piece Cherdonna’s Doll House, Seattle’s Washington Ensemble Theatre (WET) discombobulated a traditional performance of Ibsen’s play with a running commentary, disco dance routines, and a rude, sometimes poignant invasion of the theatrical space by a loud, freaky, garishly dressed woman in exaggerated clown makeup.
That exotic, audaciously embarrassing creature was Cherdonna, the bio-drag (that is, a woman playing a female as a drag character) alter ego of performance artist Jody Kuehner, who conceived the show with WET. By crashing Ibsen and roaming freely around the audience, Cherdonna virtually tore apart the theatrical fourth wall the playwright so painstakingly constructed. And by raising inherent questions about gender identity, theatrical realism, and drag culture, she essentially functioned as a postmodern provocateur.
Grimm’s Ibsen in Chicago enfolds a gentler send-up of 19th-century theatre into its colorful fabric. Part romance, part farce, part reflection on immigrant urban life, the play was spun from a surprising bit of trivia: The first public performance of Ghosts was by an amateur troupe of Scandinavian immigrants on a makeshift Chicago stage.
“At the heart of my play is the immigrant experience, which is also very relevant to today’s political climate,” said Grimm. His plot imagines the valiant attempts of a (fictional) Danish laborer and his lover, an older Norwegian actress with an inflated resume and a penchant for grand gestures and Delsartian poses, to transform a motley crew into a company worthy of one of Ibsen’s darkest, deepest dramas.
Under Braden Abraham’s direction, Ibsen in Chicago served as an affectionate homage to Ibsen’s artistic daring. From his self-imposed exile in Italy, the playwright actually agreed to the under-the-radar 1882 Chicago premiere (in Danish) because no European theatre would touch the scandalous Ghosts with a barge pole. Grimm also pays tribute to the pluck of humble folk in a new land drawn to the contentious, grubby glamour of the stage while reinventing themselves to elude their own “ghosts.”
“Ibsen focused a lot on the question of identity,” Grimm said. “I’m fascinated by how immigrants reinvent themselves when they come to another country, which is also a nice way of saying lying. But is it a lie or is it self-discovery? If we have an image of who we want to be, how do we make that happen? Is that revealing who you really are or putting on a costume?”
Ibsen would perhaps be intrigued by those same questions. For much of his life he too was a foreigner, having bitterly departed conservative, provincial Norway in 1864 to live mostly in Italy and Germany before returning to his homeland in 1891.
But lest we forget, Ibsen was prolific and eclectic. He penned a couple dozen plays, some of them far more surreal and/or mythic than the more familiar titles.
“People who only know Ibsen as the architect of the well-made play don’t really know his canon,” said Doug Wright, whose 2015 play Posterity is a bio-drama about Ibsen. “It’s true he pioneered naturalistic drama,” Wright conceded, but early on he wrote “big, bold poetic dramas” (Peer Gynt, The Vikings at Helgeland) with all the “fervor and sumptuous language of the Elizabethans.” And his later plays (Lady From the Sea, When We Dead Awaken ) are “fragmented, almost surrealist works that presage every writer from Beckett to Sam Shepard. So it’s fair to say that in Ibsen’s work, we find the evolution of modern drama in the 20th century.”
It’s an evolution that continues in the 21st.
Seattle-based critic and author Misha Berson writes frequently for this magazine.
*A previous version of this piece erroneously claimed that the character Hovstad in An Enemy of the People is the town mayor. He is actually the editor of the local newspaper. In addition, we claimed that Ibsen returned to Norway in 1901; it was actually 1891.