Ibsen Theatre

(The following are my Director's Notes used in the production's playbill. -JHL)

by Jefferson Lindquist

In 1891, after a twenty seven year self-imposed exile, Ibsen returned to Norway to begin a new play, The Master Builder. This was to be the first of four plays which have since been christened as a "dramatic epilogue" of the life of the master playwright. Unlike A Doll's House, Ghosts, The Wild Duck, Hedda Gabler, and other works of his more immediate "middle" period (or, his "problem/social" period, as they, regrettably, are sometimes labeled), Ibsen was no longer interested in depicting the trials and tribulations of the individual and its society. Now, the question was that of the early period of Brand and Peer Gynt - how does the individual live with its past and future self? Undertaking this query, Ibsen incorporated a writing style which combined the style of his early period with that of his middle period, a style that has been termed by later writers, both positively and negatively, as "symbolic/realistic". Michael Meyer, in his definitive biography Ibsen, stated, "A writer who delves into the dark unconscious, as Ibsen [has] done in these last plays, cannot wholly suppress the poet within him, far less the symbolist." Ibsen himself said that every human being is symbolic, both in his life and in his relationship to history.

Little Eyolf, the second of the final four, was written in 1894 and first performed in 1895. Unlike many of Ibsen's plays, Little Eyolf was well received, both by the buying public and the critics. The play went into its second edition in ten days and its third edition less than a month later, faster than any other Ibsen play to date, and was subsequently produced more in its first season than any of his other immediate successes. (1) Almost unanimously, the Scandinavian critics, who had dismissed many of Ibsen's earlier plays, primarily due to their obscurity of purpose and plot, received the play favorably. "'A new triumph. He has conjured forth another of those monumental dramas the architectonic perfection and severely symmetrical beauty of which will be enough to ensure the continuing admiration of the world,' stated Nils Kjaer in Dagbladet on 12 December, though he conjectured that 'for the latest vintage of Ibsen's admirers the play may disappoint because it is less symbolic and more realistic.'" Krisofer Randers praised Ibsen in Aftenposten on 13 December: "'Has our old poet become young again? Does he wish to put our younger writers to shame, so youthful he is here, so fresh, immediate and powerful?'" An anonymous reviewer in Verdens Gang on 12 December wrote that "'. . . the view of life it expresses will arouse bitter opposition, but the play will live.'" One opponent was, "as usual", C. D. af Wirsen.

'As in The Master Builder,' he protested (Kritiker, p. 115-17), 'the symbolism over-reaches itself, the action is thin, we do not believe in the characters. . . A real decadence is revealed in these three plays, Hedda Gabler, The Master Builder, and Little Eyolf. Where is the [Romantic] author of The Pretenders and The Vikings at Helgeland?' (2)

Where was the Romantic epic writer of yesteryear? This question has lead to more condemnation than any other question concerning the famed Norwegian, both in his lifetime and afterward. Ibsen was writing on the tail of a period in dramatic literature whose purpose was to depict a tumultuous world that is able to quell the atrocity of life and start anew. It was a period in which the public wanted to see good triumph and evil destroyed. Where was the thirty-five year old writer? He had changed.

The production history of Little Eyolf in America has been slight; professional productions of the play since its writing numbers approximately six. One reason for the infrequency might be the play's translation. As Michael Meyer notes in his translation,

Little Eyolf [is] an exceptionally difficult play to translate. It abounds in the kind of weighted and evasive dialogue that is the hallmark of Ibsen's later plays. . . Apart from the usual problem of creating a style which will convey the changes from evasiveness to directness without losing homogeneity or dropping into obscurity or flatness, a particular difficulty which this play poses is that of following Ibsen's subtle change of pace. No one knew better than he the art of pacing his dialogue. . . (3)

Eva LaGalliene, who translated and championed Ibsen during the 1950's, also notes the difficulty in translating Little Eyolf and other Ibsen dramas. Why, then, do they attempt the struggle?

Anne Garborg in 1873 stated that Ibsen's ". . . lack of inner peace and harmony made him a true spokesman of his time - 'for a lack of peace and harmony is the essential characteristic of our age.'" (4) According to Michael Meyer, "Ibsen only asks, he gives no answers, he is but a seeker, and so people call him negative. . . [However], Ibsen's strength lay precisely in this power of arousing unease in people's consciences. . ." (5) Yet, the best reason for undertaking the endeavor, and the reason that maintains Ibsen's strength and validity today, is not what his subject is, but who his subject is. This is best expressed by the playwright himself.

I explore the characters, their conflicting plans, their story, and do not try to seek a moral. . . It is no conscious battle of ideas that enacts itself before us, any more than that ever happens in reality; what we see is human conflicts, behind which, yet interwoven with them, ideas conflict and conquer or are vanquished. And the play does not end at the fall of the curtain on the fifth act. The true end lies beyond; the poet indicates the direction in which we may seek; it is now up to each one of us to find his or her own way there. (6)

1 Little Eyolf was performed thirty-six times in Oslo in its first season, compared to Hedda Gabler (18) and The Master Builder (13) in their initial seasons.

2 Michael Meyer, Ibsen: A Biography (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1971), 722-23.

3 Michael Meyer, "Note on the Translations", The Plays Of Ibsen, Volume IV (New York: Washington Square Press, 1986), 511.

4 Anne Garborg, Henrik Ibsen's Keiser of Galilæer: en kritisk studie (Christiania, 1873), 17, in Meyer, 382.

5 Meyer, 382.

6 Meyer, 148.

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