- Scare Tactics
“No Ibsen play can open in New York without some reviewer using the adjective ‘creaking’ to describe its dramaturgy,” Michael Goldman observes in his deft new book—a rare academic work that actually lives up to the provocative ping of its title. Seeking to overturn the standard description of a dramatic style that even the most sympathetic of critics can’t help understanding in part as the work of a novelist manqué, Goldman challenges the widely held critical assumption of Ibsen’s literal realism. His study focuses not so much on the Norwegian playwright’s innovative application of the Scribean dramatic logarithm or the penetrating sociological insights that result, but on the subtextual agons between characters—the all-out war of preconscious, half-conscious, and subconscious lives that for Goldman constitutes a kind of psychological expressionism. Central to his discussion are the innovative demands the plays place on their performers, particularly in requiring them continually to renegotiate the balance between what their characters can remember and what they temporarily cannot. In theorizing about the fearful emergence of alienated memories and desires that link the work from A Doll’s House to When We Dead Awaken, Goldman verges near to the source of what Henry James once called “Ibsen’s peculiar blessedness to actors.”
What is most startlingly modern about Ibsen’s characters, according to Goldman, is the way they appear to be haunted not by external ghosts like Hamlet’s father, but by internal shadows of their private pasts. The actor in his plays is “charged with manifesting buried, often contradictory drives,” which, no matter how close to the surface they may lie, remain at some remove from conscious understanding or control. As a case in point, Goldman looks at Nora, a woman “who stands in no clearly comprehending relation to her childhood, her father, the story of her marriage, the problems of the loan to which she has signed her father’s name, and the years of secret copying to pay it off.” She remains driven by fugitive anxieties and desires she can neither fully grasp nor repress. The result is a condition perfectly captured in the Dano-Norwegian word angst, a state of jangled nerves and ill foreboding that overtakes Ibsen’s later protagonists with all the existential fury and bafflement the term has accrued since Kierkegaard.
These destabilizing, inassimilable emotions are invariably linked to traumatic moments in the character’s life, which the actor must piece together into a story that is only partly accessible to voluntary memory. As Goldman explains, the performer cannot merely assemble the various psychological clues into a narrative whole, but must “draw on them for the energies that move the character through the play.” Ibsen’s men and women are caught in the gap of their self-knowledge. Their desperation stems in large part from their desire to make the leap from alienated darkness to consciousness— a journey to which the audience must be made [End Page 133] privy at the outset, and which amounts to a rash, often self-mutilating lunging toward what Goldman calls “authenticity.”
As for the criticism that Ibsen’s plays are too expositional, Goldman argues that it is best not to focus on the steadily unfolding narrative but on what he calls the “flow of contacts between performers.” The real story, in other words, is not the well-made one, with its plot points impressively synchronized like a Swiss railroad line, but the subterranean interplay taking place between characters. What often seems like background information or a banal setup for a later dramatic crescendo is, in fact, part of the ever intensifying struggle between psychic combatants.
“Ibsen’s characters are killers,” Goldman observes, and part of the pleasure is watching their “compact thrusts at the jugular strike home.” In scenes between Gregers and Hedvig, Rosmer and Rebecca, Hilda and Solness, Rubek and Irene, Goldman glimpses “forgotten traumas fitting each other, finding each other out, igniting each other, forcing characters to desperate acts.” The ensuing “savage, bracing destructiveness” is all the more frightening for taking place in such stuffy middle-class...