An Over Active Mind

This evening's Scene Study class was really useful in getting my mind going. We were discussing Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, and positioning it in the cannon of tragedy, specifically in comparison to The Oresteia as an example of Greek Tragedy and Hamlet as an example of Renaissance Tragedy. Ibsen's play is situated at another time of change, written in 1882, and seems to be re-emerging the idea of tragedy in this new world where the rational, thinking individual is at centre, and science (proof) is emerging as the new god.

I couldn't help but find the parallels between Stockman and Nietzsche's ubermensch in Thus Spake Zarathustra. He comes from the north (on high...a hill) down to the city as an outsider, with a mask to tell the people of the scientific truth of the poison...then once he has their trust, removes the mask to try to help them get beyond good and evil....and is ostracized because they are scared of this. The parallels are fascinating. I consulted with Aiofe (tutor) on thinkers who may have explored this and she pointed me to one....i may have just stumbled upon my "tragedy" essay topic.

image: Nietzsche portait - Basil Baroda

Henrik Ibsen - Ghosts

What a beautifully twisted story. The lives of these 5 people (and one deceased, but ever-present Captain) are intermingled far beyond their knowledge at the start of the play, with the exception of Mrs Alving. This woman's deception, to achieve control and maintain status, tears apart those around her intellectually and physically, until they have all reached a point of despair. Osvald is physically and mentally ill, but for reasons he does not understand. This echoed strongly of the curses on a family we see in Greek tragedy....however Ibsen's searing criticism is that these curses originate in someone who lies with all their power to maintain a veneer of propriety.

This would be a really interesting play to tear apart and re-imagine. The matriarch Mrs Alving, although we initially feel for her situation, eventually becomes villainous as the information unfolds. These characters cannot be fulfilled; they are devoid of all hope and joy of life.

This also called to memory Kierkegaard's night of infinte reservation....the orphanage burning through the night is a test of faith, which these characters ultimately fail.

image: Edvard Munch - Two Women On The Shore

Henrik Ibsen - An Enemy of the People

As with seemingly all Ibsen plays, this one begins with a fairly pedestrian, middle-class problem and situation. It then delves into a land of opposing ideologies, tearing away at that middle-class comfort and challenging the ideas that drove society in Ibsen's time. Reading this play, with its argument for doing the right thing, regardless of the personal impact, to ensure the greater good, really highlighted to me how unfortunately little has changed with respect to political and business dealings. People in power continue to be influenced by people with money, and vice versa...and Ibsen's greatest argument; that the "liberal majority" are comfortable and stuck in their ways, so will never actually give up their comforts for that which they state they feel is important....is still as resonant today as it was more than 100 years ago.

Ibsen's characters here are a colourful embodiment of the types they symbolize, and come across with full three-dimensional life despite coming across on paper as a mere archetype; the crooked self-interested politician, the liberal journalist, the gutsy young student.

The only thing that I don't feel was fully in line was the ending (a problem I have with many other of Ibsen's plays). I often feel like he rallies against society, but stops just shy of full refusal to comply. Clearly this was a sign of the times; as they stand, Ibsen's plays caused riots when they were first produced, so perhaps he didn't have much choice. Although certainly Ibsen's famous Hedda does take the final step to leave her captivity.

image: Ian McKellen and Charlotte Cornwell