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Book Review: Henrik Ibsen: the Man and the Mask

by John Cobley

Tuesday Jul 21st, 2020


Book Review

Ivo de Figueiredo, Henrik Ibsen: the Man and the Mask. Yale University Press, 2019


Michael Meyer’s 1971 Ibsen has long been regarded as one of the finest literary biographies. It has taken a brave writer to write a new one. Thirty-five years’ distance was needed before Ivo de Figueiredo took up the challenge. And it has been another dozen years for this new biography (actually published as two books in 2006 and 2007) to be translated into English. Extending over 642 pages, de Figueiredo’s work is nothing short of magnificent.


Despite his Portuguese name, De Figueiredo is a Norwegian scholar. His father was born in Zanzibar and emigrated from Goa to Norway in the early 1960s. Soon afterwards, de Figueiredo was born in 1966. He earned a degree in history from the University of Oslo and published three books before he started this Ibsen biography. 


In his afterword de Figueiredo describes his intended audience: “I have tried to write a biography that meets academic standards and is also of interest to the intelligent general reader.” He writes in an entertaining style. For example, “[Ibsen] was a writer. Writing was what he wanted to devote himself to completely. But how to make that happen? Grants, of course. Government grants. He was beginning to get the hang of it now, the most important and most ambitious literary challenge facing any Norwegian writer: the difficult art of applying for money.” This conversational style has upset some reviewers, but it is clear and engaging. 


The biography is neatly divided into chapters of location. Ibsen moved around a lot in his life and lived abroad for 26 years (1864-1891). Thus the book begins with Skien, Grimstad, Christiania, Bergen and (again) Christiania; and then continues with Rome, Dresden, Munich, Rome-Munich-Rome and (again) Munich, before ending with Kristiania and Arbins Gate (Ibsen’s last home). These chapter titles are helpful in clarifying crucial changes in Ibsen’s long and varied life. 


The Grimstad chapter for example covers Ibsen’s crucial seven years as an apothecary assistant, during which time he developed his writing and drawing skills and worked towards qualifying for a university position. Likewise, the Rome chapter shows how Ibsen developed from a nationalistic playwright of historical dramas to an explorer of the human mind. De Figueiredo shows how Rome liberated Ibsen from all the demanding ties of his homeland and enabled him to write Brand and Peer Gynt as a “punitive, angry and truth-seeking prophet.”


This biography is notable for showing how Ibsen modernized dramaturgy. During his early years as a director and aspiring dramatist, he gradually moved away from the traditional drama techniques of verse, asides and monologues and from the practice of staging of static actors in a line near the front of the stage. 


De Figueiredo carefully follows Ibsen’s progress as a modernizing dramatist. However, he sees the innovations becoming a problem in performance: “The more he perfected his own dramatic techniques, the more inaccessible did he become to audiences.” Perhaps in order to help his audiences understand his plays, Ibsen insisted on publishing each of his final 12 plays before they were performed—though this practice was also financially advantageous.


As a historian by profession, de Figueiredo is able to provide valuable political and historical background. He covers thoroughly the effect of 1848 revolutions on the 20-year-old apothecary assistant and goes into great detail on the impact of the German invasion of Denmark, when Ibsen was livid that Norway didn’t go to Denmark’s aid. Ibsen’s love-hate attitude to his homeland is a theme throughout the biography. 


A lot of space is devoted to the reception of the plays. Two explanations are given for the controversy many of them occasioned. First, although Ibsen wrote literature, his audiences saw his as a polemicist. Second, “Ibsen’s dramas are fundamentally ambivalent. They do not preach, they investigate. Sympathies change, things are examined from different angles…. And the magic lies in the multiplicity of the ambiguities, in the absence of answers, and in the feeling that, ultimately, these plays are unfathomable.” Audiences wanted logical and moral plays that left them with something concrete. But the mature Ibsen wrote plays that investigated and explored. 


De Figueiredo does not avoid Ibsen’s elitist streak: “The authoritarian, anti-democratic and aristocratic tendencies in Ibsen have been partly overlooked, and partly toned down to avoid association with the fascist eras of the 20th century.” In his famous 1885 speech, Ibsen told the Trondheim workers that democracy in its present form would not be able to solve their problems.


Each of the plays is covered concisely, leaving plenty of room for the biographical material—his family, his critics (especially Petersen), his friends (especially Bjornsson), his financial troubles, his temperament, and of course the social and historical background.


This biography is a worthy successor to Meyer’s. 







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