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Marked by realism: Henrik Ibsen
Marked by realism: Henrik Ibsen


Though he wrote in Norwegian and his works are available only in translation, Henrik Ibsen’s themes make him relevant and popular even today.

Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), the Norwegian playwright, ranks almost close to William Shakespeare in the history of theatre, though he wrote in Norwegian and his works became available to the rest of the world only in translation.

Ibsen died 102 years ago, but is still popular today. His plays are still performed globally and his characters and drama still inspire playwrights (including Indians) to generate new plays and stories.

Not surprisingly, his plays have also been filmed in more than one language. His ‘Peer Gynt’ was made as a silent movie in 1915 with the dialogue conveyed through “inter-title cards.”

Ibsen’s most famous play, ‘A Doll’s House,’ was filmed twice in 1973 in England. In one version, Claire Bloom and Anthony Hopkins played the lead roles while in the other, Jane Fonda was Nora.

Satyajit Ray’s film

Ibsen’s ‘An Enemy of the People,’ (filmed in 1977 with Steve McQueen) inspired Satyajit Ray’s 1989 Indian version, ‘Ganashatru,’ which had Soumitra Chatterjee and Dhrithiman Chatterjee in major roles.

His ‘Pillars of Society’ was made in Telugu by filmmaker K. V. Reddi as ‘Pedda Manushulu’ (‘Big Shots’). The Telugu movie was hailed as a classic for its brilliant satire on the hypocritical society.

As noted writer Ashokamithran says, “Every Indian writer, whether he wrote plays or not, was certainly influenced by Ibsen.” Playwright Indra Parthasarathy says, “The three plays that impressed me most were ‘Pillars of Society,’ ‘A Doll’s House’ and ‘Hedda Gabler.’ The hypocrisy of the rich as portrayed in ‘The Pillars of Society’ may have its undercurrents in my play, ‘Porvai Porthiya Udalgal’. The ‘A Doll’s House’ is the first feminist play dealing with the theme of illusion and reality in the social sphere.... The neurotic trait of ‘Hedda Gabler’ may have reflections in the heroine of ‘Mazhai’ who suffers from the Electra complex.”

‘A Doll’s House’ was written, directed and produced as a Tamil TV play, ‘Bommai Veedu,’ for Madras Doordarshan Kendra by producer S. Gopalie. Ibsen remains popular as his themes are still relevant today. For example, the subject of ‘A Doll’s House’ is female emancipation, which anticipated the feminist movement by several decades. Nora (the play’s main character) is the first champion of female liberty and a role model for the movement.

Even Rabindranath Tagore’s short story, ‘Payla Number’ (1918) reveals the impact of Ibsen on Bengali Literature. The heroine Anila leaves her husband Advaita Babu because he is passionate about European literature (Ibsen in particular) and not her. A satirical parallel to Nora. ‘A Doll’s House,’ was staged in Calcutta in 1945-46, signalling Ibsen’s debut in India.

The psychological realism he brought to the stage is considered a breakthrough in modern theatre. Ibsen has been popular in some periods for his portrayal of women struggling with their independence, but he is also interpreted as a great humanist who sought liberation for both sexes.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was, thanks to his wide and varied reading of Western literature, familiar with the plays of Ibsen. ‘A Doll’s House’ had made an impact on him and, in its heroine, Nora, he saw a role model for women’s emancipation, which was also one of the issues on his mind during that period.

In his writings, he discusses Nora and her various facets and suggests that Indian women, who had hardly any rights during those days, emulate Ibsen’s heroine.

His political colleagues and party associates such as Sarojini Naidu, Aruna Asaf Ali and his sister, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, agreed with his views. Such was Ibsen’s influence.

Even in Bangladesh his plays (‘The Master Builder,’ ‘A Doll’s House’ and ‘An Enemy of the People’) were translated into Bengali and staged (in Dhaka, Chittagong and so on). Even the Bengali plays based on Ibsen, written by the noted Bengali playwright Shombu Mitra, were also frequently staged.

The Malayalam movie, ‘Akasha Gopuram,’ by K. P. Kumaran was also inspired by Ibsen.

First play

Henrik Ibsen was born in March 20 in Skien, Norway. His father, a merchant, went bankrupt in 1835, and the family was forced to relocate to a farm near the town of Gjerpen. As a teenager, Ibsen became an apprentice in a pharmacy. In 1849, he wrote his first play, ‘Catline,’ publishing it under the pseudonym, Brynjolf Bjarme.

In 1850, he settled down in Oslo, where the first play under his own name, ‘The Burial Mound,’ was staged in the same year.

Soon he moved to Bergen where he began directing plays. His plays had a good following, which enabled him to live by his writing.

In 50 years (1850-1899), Ibsen published 26 dramas and a collection of poems. His famous plays include ‘Brand,’ ‘Peer Gynt,’ ‘Ghosts,’ ‘The Wild Duck,’ and ‘The Master Builder’ to name a few. He suffered a stroke in 1900 and died in 1906. He was 78. The man has gone but his plays are immortal.



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