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Nordic Drama Vividly Re-evaluated

Theatre History

Robert Brustein “Theatre of Revolt” , Little, Brown & Company , August 10, 2009
Theatre History by Robert Brustein “Theatre of Revolt” The reading of Robert Brustein continues after “Seasons of Discontent” at Easter-time. “Theatre of Revolt” is not contemporary criticism but a look-back at drama of the last century. The same spirit, however, of freshness and acuity pertains. Brustein's writings on Ibsen and Strindberg were originally published in “Tulane Drama Review” in 1962. Critically it was another age. French influence was existentialist and no more. Brustein places the dramatists in their age of scientific, religious and political ferment. “The modern drama, in short, rides in on the second wave of Romanticism- not the cheerful optimism of Rousseau with his emphasis on institutional reform, but rather the dark fury of Nietzsche.”

Ibsen is now a mainstay of theatre stages with a reassuring security to him. Brustein finds a spirit of the age far from Biedermeier. Gautier wanted to be “the terror of the sleek, bald-headed bourgeois.” Ibsen raged against “fatted swine-snouts.” Even Chekhov is enrolled by Brustein citing “All I wanted to say was “Have a look at yourselves and see how bad and dreary your lives are.”

In 1869 the forty-one year old Ibsen in Dresden wrote a poem entitled “To My Friend, the Revolutionary Orator.” Previous revolutions had been incomplete. "Your changing pawns is a futile plan” ran a couplet “Make a sweep of the chessboard, and I'm your man.” His friend Georg Brandes called him the most radical man he had ever met. “He is an absolute anarchist” he wrote in 1883 “wants to make a tabula rasa, put a torpedo under the whole Ark...the great task of our age of our age is to blow up all existing institutions.” This was a year before “the Wild Duck” which sheds light on the origin of Gregers Werle.

Brustein lays into a generation of critics who “visualise Ibsen as a bemedalled journeyman-dramatist, equipped with side whiskers, a portly belly, and an impeccable family life, who becomes- after a somewhat unstable youth- one of the most respected and respected members of the Norwegian community.” Mencken in particular is called out for rebuttal.

In particular Brustein highlights the sheer mercurial quality of the persona behind the work. “In “Brand” Ibsen seems both to approve and disapprove the notion that the rebel must be absolutely true to his calling; in “Ghosts” he demonstrates both the importance and futility of advanced opinions; in “Rosmersholm” he expresses both hope and despair over the possibility of mankind's ennoblement from within. In “A Doll's House” he is radical, attacking the marriage built on a lie; in “the Wild Duck” he is conservative, showing that domestic falsehoods, under certain circumstances, are entirely necessary for survival.”

The ambivalence and dualism runs throughout. “If Ibsen is a systematic rebel, then he is particularly evasive one; and anyone seeking philosophical certainty or ideological consistency had better beware.”

Ibsen's output was considerable and productions tend to centre on a top six to eight. Brustein looks at the early “Emperor and Galilean”- “contains many stunning dramatic passages, as well as being an extraordinary anticipation of Nietzsche's later attitudes to Christianity, Dionysus, and the Superman.”

And of course a critic who lasts does so because he can write. “Brand” is constructed like a series of interlocking arches, each ascending higher than the last.” In a similar vein “the dramatic design of “Miss Julie” is like two intersecting lines going in opposite directions.” Digging into “Brand” “like Kierkegaard before him” Ibsen's protagonist “is disposed toward the great saint or the great sinner...he cannot abide the will-less mediocrities who fail to be anything fully.”

“Theatre of Revolt” is consistent, arresting, exhilarating reading.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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