Out of Norway

Ibsen Attuned to Our Age of Populist Anger and Political Theater

Poul Houe, University of Minnesota

CSS Conference 2019, published in July 2020


I. Introduction

“Out of” (Norway) can mean both “grounded in” and “departing from” and dramatic adaptations draw on both meanings. The degree to which – and the manner in which – they navigate between the two in dealing with an original text and its context depends on the timing and the site of execution. Ibsen scholars have, especially since the 2006 centennial, cast a wide net over Ibsen performances and receptions: witness such an anthology title as Global Ibsen: Performing Multiple Modernities and the bookending sections of the Conference Proceedings, The Living Ibsen: “1. Ibsen as World Literature. Sources, Translation, Comparison,” and “5. Ibsen on Stage” (in a number of countries).1 Global Ibsen: Performing Multiple Modernities, eds. Erika Fischer-Lichte, Barbara Gronau, and Christel Weiler, New York: Routledge, 2011; and The Living Ibsen: Proceedings – The 11th International Ibsen Conference, 21-27 August 2006, eds. Frode Helland, Kaja S. Mollerin, Jon Nygaard, Astrid Sæther, Oslo: Center for Ibsen Studies, University of Oslo, 2006. Yet even here adaptations are getting somewhat shortchanged.

My focus on recent adaptations of Ibsen in the American Midwest obviously falls within this global framework, but mainly to the extent these treatments of his plays can be considered radical ways of “translating” for the stage in general. For the following take on time-bound and culturally attuned traits of this “timeless” procedure – still viewed through a global lens – my specific cases in point are these Ibsen adaptations in Minnesota: The League of Youth, adapted in 2016 by American Jeffrey Hatcher for The Commonweal Theater in Lanesboro – a respected if small regional theater, for two decades specifically devoted to Ibsen; and An Enemy of the People, adapted in 2018 by European Brad Birch for the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis – one of America’s most prominent regional theaters. Characteristic of both plays as Ibsen crafted them is a socio-political lingo of precisely the kind that 21st-century adapters would deem suitable for recasting in the current era of populist culture and political theater, tellingly labeled The Age of Anger (in a new book by Pankaj Mishra).2 Pankaj Mishra, Age of Anger: A History of the Present, New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2017.

Yet, as the benefits in each case prove somewhat weighed down by the cost, I extend my cost-benefit analysis of both performances into musings about the conditions of possibility for adaptation overall. Since dramatic texts never operate in splendid isolation but are usually performed before an audience (i.e., beyond the experience of being read), adaptations in particular, when taking an original impulse beyond a certain critical point or red line, can be assumed to offer up unexpected opportunities as well as identity crises for the text at issue. In the case of the Commonweal’s League of Youth and the Guthrie’s Enemy of the People, what makes the theatergoer’s takeaway worthwhile is basically that each play’s portrayal of our current cultural crisis – perhaps inadvertently, perhaps inevitably – deepens this crisis by trading in its very currency. May the ultimate gain of an adaptation as a cultural “translation” thus be (to be) lost in translation?

My answer proves to be a double-edged sword and reads that both of these Ibsen adaptations reclaim a serious progressiveness of bygone times, but do so by managing the political schisms involved more subtly than was typical in the past. As a result, we are led into a cul-de-sac of aesthetic correctness rather than into an open-ended field of promising socio-cultural disruptions.

II. The League of Youth, Commonweal Theatre, Lanesboro, MN, April 8-June 11, 2016

At first glance, Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of The League of Youth seems a far cry from Ibsen’s text. It shows in many ways, but most tellingly by comparing the way the two versions conclude. Ibsen ends his play with a final encounter between illusions and hypocrisy. Chamberlain Brattsberg reminisces about our better angels in a lukewarm breath of relief, while Mr. Lundestad, as worn a figure as the nobleman, at least takes the delusion down a peg by labeling the angels mediocre. Finally, the drunken printer Aslaksen skips the delusional chord entirely: It’s the local reality, stupid!

None of this is in Hatcher’s script,3 The League of Youth by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, April 5, 2016; subsequent quotes from this document are referenced in my text proper. but not because he eschews it. When he has Stensgaard, the play’s “tricky, fortune-hunting striver” (16, 38), leap from one train-wrecked marital scheme to another as he approaches the final curtain call, called blackout, to deliver his ultimate blow of hot air about the Revolution of the Youth, the effect reaffirms Ibsen’s conclusion. Stensgaard is a capital loser with a real political future ahead of him in this locale! Hatcher doesn’t say it outright, but it’s Trump time, stupid!