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At the core of Henrik Ibsen's art lay a bottomless talent for investigating the way people hurt one another. But reading his "Four Major Plays" is not painful at all; rather, they are thrilling and even delightful for the different ways the playwright captures and sustains our interest.
"A Doll's House" (1879) the first play here, presents the story of Nora Helmer, a seemingly childlike housewife with a weakness for macaroons whose actual level of devotion to her husband and family is kept hidden until the threat of scandal exposes her to a surprisingly judgmental spouse.
Shocking in its day for questioning then-traditional domestic roles, "A Doll's House" makes its best points in its handling of Nora's character and an abrupt conclusion that still startles. If there are touches of excessive melodrama, and I think there are, they are more than compensated for by Ibsen's deft touch in drawing out the suffocating hypocrisy of social norms.
Even more of an attack on society, "Ghosts" (1881) is that much more melodramatic, too much so for my tastes. Incest, social disease, people living together out of wedlock - it's like Ibsen wanted to cram every shocking thing he could think of into one play, and finish it off with something more shocking still. Convoluted but never boring, "Ghosts" makes its points, dares you to judge, and leaves a mark.
What makes this book indispensible for lovers of good drama are the last two plays, each brilliant in a totally different way. "Hedda Gabler" (1890) is the tale of a woman's moral and mental meltdown told in four gripping acts. Title character Hedda is newly married, but full of spite for the settled life, seeking to cause misery wherever she can.
"Oh, you know how it is...these things just suddenly come over me," she explains to an oily confidant. "And then I can't resist them." You can't, either. Her twisted path causes much heartache and pain, and some surprising moments of humor for those basing their impression of Ibsen on the previous, more dour plays. Hedda's a terrifically dark, unsettling character, like Richard III in a petticoat.
Though it's hard to call anything better than "Hedda Gabler" for pure rotten fun, "The Master Builder" (1892) works even better at teasing out a rather convoluted concept, that of will to power, in an accessibly dramatic way. To risk another Shakespeare comparison, it's like a twisted take on "The Tempest". The title character, Halvard Solness, is tortured by the guilt of his success, and the sense his accomplishment has been sped along by "devils" both good and bad. Add to the equation a longtime admirer of Solness who dares him to challenge fate more boldly.
It's hard to imagine a story like this working in anyone else's hands, but Ibsen does it with masterful subterfuge, teasing out the main story in the form of a seeming subplot while the story which begins the play recedes into the background. Nothing goes the way you expect it, except perhaps the ending, which Ibsen manages to make feel like destiny. Even the characters are a complex group, Solness alternately megalomaniacal and sympathetic.
Ibsen's great reputation is fully justified in this deep, complex, yet surprisingly accessible volume.
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Ibsen’s main focus in his plays is on the ills of society. He wrote: “What I wanted to do was to depict human beings, human emotions, and human destinies, upon groundwork of certain of the social conditions and principles of the present day.” This volume contains four of the many great plays by Ibsen: Ghosts, The Doll House, and The Master builder.
The Norwegian title of this famous and now highly extolled play could be translated “That which returns,” suggesting that the consequences of an evil deed is another evil deed. Written in 1881, Ibsen’s contemporaries considered it a terrible and offensive morality play that was indecent, scandalous, morbid, and filthy. It spoke of subjects – sex without marriage, adultery, syphilis, suicide, and marriage of siblings – that shouldn’t be mentioned publically. One figure in the play is a minister who takes the Christian moral position of the time and makes statements and performs acts that reflect this conservative belief, but the belief results in harm to others. He is certain, for example, that God protects good people and harms those who are evil. Since God is involved, for example, it is irreligious to protect a building with insurance. He insists upon the sanctity of marriage and that husband and wife should stay together even if a husband mistreats his wife and has repeated adulterous relationships. This story is about a widow who suffered from such an abusive husband. She needs to send her son from home so that he would not be affected by his father’s deeds.
The Doll House: This play is realistic and relevant and it shows how the society of Ibsen’s time mistreated women. The play presents a husband and a wife. The wife is a “doll,” beautiful, unsophisticated, childlike, well-meaning, but ignorant of the adult world and affairs because the women of Ibsen’s time were not educated. All of her friends see her as a doll. Her husband treats her as one, calling her childish names. He tries to control all of her behavior, not because he is mean, but because he loves her and he thinks she is unable to make decisions. He tells her what to eat so that her teeth will not be spoiled from sugar and how much she should spend because she does not understand much about money. And it is the latter, the money, that gets her into trouble. Her husband was sick some years back and needed to travel and stay in a warmer climate for some months, but the couple had no money. She, out of childish but ignorant love, borrowed money from an unscrupulous man who insisted that she have her father countersign the loan.
Hedda Gabler: Is Hedda Gabler selfish, bored, and tired of her marriage, and does she need to relieve her frustrations by interfering in other people’s lives and hurting them, as many readers contend? The portrait of Hedda Gabler is obscure, as it should be, leaving it to the reader and viewer to decide. Simply stated, 33 year old beautiful and vivacious Hedda Gabler has just returned from her long honeymoon to a large beautiful house that she talked her husband into purchasing. In fact, as she states in the play, it was this purchase, not love, for she does not love her husband that prompted her to marry him. Two men are infatuated with her besides her husband, perhaps even love her. She has no amorous feelings for them, but she clearly, and this is significant, enjoys their adoration.
The Master Builder: Halvard Solness is a well-respected master builder at the top of his profession. His success was due to a chance fire that destroyed his home and made it possible for him to build many new homes on the large land mass. However, the fire caused the death of his two children and left his wife unable to bear others. This mixture of good and bad luck gnaws at him. He is convinced that people have a demon inside them that can control them and force them to do evil. He also believes that certain people, such as he, can summon other demons outside themselves to do their will. He knows that he wanted his house, inherited from his in-laws, to burn down so that he could show his skill by using the land to build many houses. He thinks that the demons obeyed his will and he is therefore responsible for what happened to his children and his wife. As we read or see the play, we need to decide what Ibsen meant by the demons. Was he mocking a Christian belief, as he did in other plays?