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REVIEWS Brian Johnston. Text and Supertext in Ibsen's Drama. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989. Pp. viii + 299. $28.50. Now that Ibsen is no longer frantically abused, and is safe in the Pantheon , his message is in worse danger of being forgotten or ignored than when he was in the pillory. Nobody now dreams of calling me a "muck ferreting dog" because I think Ibsen a great teacher. I will not go so far as to say I wish they did; but I do say that the most effective way of shutting our minds against a great man's ideas is to take them for granted and admit he was great and have done with him. (Shaw, 1913 "Preface" to The Quintessence of ¬°bsenlsm) As Shaw noted earlier this century, Ibsen's transformation from pariah to master was much too abrupt. A critical schizophrenia about Ibsen lingers in academic circles: he is either reviled or revered. He is reviled for being old-fashioned, talky, melodramatic, and sometimes hopelessly confused or obscure. Unfortunately, he has been so applauded for the wrong reasons that the praise is often worse than the attacks. If anyone needed to be saved from his disciples, it was Ibsen. Because so many second-rate dramatists and critics proclaimed him their patron, he has been blamed for everything from the emptiness of modern realism to the lack of imagination in contemporary production. We stand at a crucial juncture in Ibsen studies and criticism. Ibsen will soon have had his "century" before us. Will twenty-first-century audiences and readers turn to him as the central figure of the modernist movement (when that movement has finally received a proper name), or will he be seen as a curiosity of nineteenth- and twentieth-century bourgeois culture? Will he become a Shakespeare or a Kotzebue? I think Brian Johnston's third book on Ibsen makes it clear that both he and Ibsen are here "for the long haul." When Johnston's first book, the startling The Ibsen Cycle (1975), appeared, most viewed him as a demonic renegade crank. The work itself had circulated for several years in critical and academic circles in manuscript form since no publisher wanted it. Johnston was accorded the same sort of reception that Ibsen had initially received. He was shunned and hissed at symposia and heckled while reading papers at conferences. Johnston's second book on Ibsen, To the Third Empire (1980), cast the audaciously wide net of his critical mind over the early plays. It was named Choice's academic book of the year, received wide acclaim, and won over many former enemies. Johnston was at an advantage on the early plays since, except for Brand and Peer Gynt, few had read carefully or taken them seriously to begin with. With Text and Supertext Johnston has emerged as a formidable contemporary critic of the first order. His work is now the barometer for standards in Ibsen criticism. In the less than two decades since The Ibsen Cycle, Johnston's impact has been so profound that there has been an almost complete turnaround 188 Reviews189 in Ibsen criticism and Ibsen production. Fewer and fewer critics or directors any longer see Ibsen as the stiff, humorless social problem playwright spicing up his stuffy drawing rooms with "big themes." a master of photographic realism and psychology with a knack for quaint poetic touches. No one writes about Ibsen like Brian Johnston. Boldly heralding Ibsen the Poet, he takes him at his word when he declared that his plays could be understood "Only by grasping and comprehending my entire production as a continuous and coherent whole." He put forward the notion that Ibsen was not the realist or naturalist that all assumed him to be but a modernist looking forward to such figures as Joyce, Eliot, and Mann and back to the likes of Homer, Virgil, and Dante. It was Ibsen who first called the prose plays "a cycle," but no one took him seriously before Brian Johnston. Actually, almost no one, for Johnston has helped to unearth a counter-tradition of critics like Jeanette Lee and Lou Salome. Even George Bernard Shaw's programmatic if...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 188-193
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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