The Quintessence of Ibsenism: Little Eyolf at the Almeida Theatre
I like literary lineages. The analogy of a family relationship feels like an appropriate one: we can see in successive generations of writers the debt that children owe their parents, their respect for them, but also the discomfort that exists somewhere deep within this filial love, a Bloomian anxiety of influence. I don’t mind commenting with Terry Eagleton on the “mighty lineage of European literary realism from Balzac and Scott to Tolstoy and Thomas Mann”. And I enjoyed listening to Armistead Maupin trace his literary heritage through Wilde, Forster and Isherwood at a talk I went to a fortnight ago. It is my interest in this idea of literary parenthood that explains why Richard Eyre’s treatment of Ibsen’s Little Eyolf at the Almeida Theatre appealed to me. Ibsen is often referred to as the father of modern drama, but Eyre draws our attention to a particular line of Ibsen’s legacy. In an essay printed in the programme accompanying the Almeida Theatre’s current production, Eyre – its adaptor and director – describes the play as “the godparent of many plays about marriage: Strindberg’s Dance of Death…, O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Whitehead’s Alpha Beta, as well as countless TV dramas”, thus highlighting its continuing significance.
Relevance is key in this production: Peter Mumford’s lighting design perpetuates the play’s feeling of modernity, with vivid weather sequences and the giant, harrowing eyes of the drowned child Eyolf projected across the back wall. Lydia Leonard’s Rita Allmers feels very contemporary; she is assertive, passionate, fearlessly honest. There is a clear emphasis on heightening the play’s appeal for today’s audiences, reiterated in Eyre’s list of the many works it has given birth to, the twentieth century’s most celebrated dramas among them. His idea of Ibsen as “godparent” to later generations of playwrights makes me consider how curious it is that the marriage portrayed in Little Eyolf – destroyed by jealousies, death and hints of incest – should have spawned so many other marriages. It is hardly the dysfunctional union Ibsen depicts it to be.
The conception of Ibsen as a father figure – that putative parent of modern theatre, of a new breed of realistic drama – is particularly interesting when we consider the significance of the family in his work. His plays repeatedly deal with the idea of parenthood, and the uncomfortable, often extremely ugly, reality of parent/child relationships. It is an ugliness that has been the source of much disquiet among his audiences. Ibsen’s German agent famously asked him to rewrite the close of A Doll’s House so that Nora remains with her family (“this is a sin against myself, but I cannot leave them,” Nora exclaims in this alternative ending). In his essay on Ibsen, “The Quintessence of Ibsenism”, George Bernard Shaw relates the response of Clement Scott, the Daily Telegraph’s theatre critic at the time, to the first performance of Ghosts in 1891. He “accuses Ibsen of dramatic impotence, ludicrous amateurishness, nastiness, vulgarity, egotism, coarseness, absurdity, uninteresting verbosity, and suburbanity, declaring that he has taken ideas that would have inspired a great tragic poet, and vulgarized and debased them in dull, hateful, loathsome, horrible plays,” Bernard Shaw writes. This so-called “vulgarity” and “egotism” unsettles even today’s supposedly unshockable audiences. Rita, the unhappy mother of Eyolf in Little Eyolf, admits that she wishes her son “had never been born”: a confession which continues to rankle.
Paradoxically, it is in the absence of the child at the centre of its narrative that Little Eyolf becomes a parent once more. Ibsen’s scrutiny of the Allmers’ grief at the death of their son has set a precedent for a number of other narratives of loss – among them, Elizabeth Robins’ The Silver Lotus (Robins, an actress as well as a playwright, played many Ibsenian characters on the London stage – including Rita Allmers), Robert Frost’s Home Burial, written twenty years after Little Eyolf, and Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time. The deterioration of marital relations is evident in all of these works, and in each we see a striking similarity in the unspeakableness of parental grief. “There is something you shrink from saying,” Allmers tells his wife. “And you too,” she responds. The absence of the child Kate in The Child in Time “was a fact they could neither mention or ignore”. In Home Burial, the narrator – frustrated with his mourning wife – cries, “God, what a woman! And it’s come to this,/ A man can’t speak of his own child that’s dead.”
But is this type of comparison reductive? If we fix our gaze too firmly on Ibsen’s legacy, we lose sight of the striking originality of his voice – a voice which remains shocking and pertinent today, with or without the weight of its influence (I’m reminded of the gardener’s words about “yon dangling apricocks” in Richard II, “which, like unruly children, make their sire/ Stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight”). I have admitted that I’m happy to draw thematic parallels through the decades, to create a kind of literary heritage wherever I can. And yet, I am mocked for doing so by Ibsen himself. The relationships between family members in his plays are constantly uneasy. For all their sorrow at his death, Eyolf remains a ‘little stranger’ to his parents. In Ibsen’s universe, what seems unquestionable is always questioned – long-supposed sisters become would-be lovers, sons feel like strangers, spouses are unfaithful. Ibsen teaches us to interrogate family relationships, and, in doing so, we start to find problems in his seemingly indisputable role as “father”.
His dramas undoubtedly made way for the theatre of realism we enjoy today, but should we admire them only for the work they inspired? Ibsen is idiosyncratic: who else would have placed the sinister, near-folkloric character of the “Rat-Wife” in an otherwise realist play? And while his depictions of families and of loss share much in common with the narratives that followed, the relationship is troubled. There is a danger of oversimplification to align the collapse of the Allmers’ marriage with that of, say, Albee’s Martha and George. Tolstoy has never been truer: “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
This conclusion is not, of course, my own (Bloom’s anxiety of influence coming into play again). Bernard Shaw closes his essay on Ibsen by “reminding those who may think that I have forgotten to reduce Ibsenism to a formula for them, that its quintessence is that there is no formula”. Ibsen’s writing is, to borrow his own phrase in Little Eyolf, “a thing apart”. The example he shows us in the families in his plays is one we should apply to our analysis of his role in shaping twentieth century drama, for in these turbulent families we see that notions of parenthood and lineage are not as straightforward as Eagleton and Eyre would have us believe. I’ll repeat Bernard Shaw’s conclusion: that the unformulaic nature of Ibsen’s writing (lost, I think, in his canonisation as “father” and “godparent” of certain genres of literature) is its quintessence, and thus it stands apart from the work that followed. It is typical and contradictory that it requires Ibsen’s own example – like some sort of parent-guide – to prove that to us.
Little Eyolf continues at the Almeida Theatre until January 9 2016. Tickets £10-£38.