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John S. Chamberlain. Ibsen: The Open Vision. London: Athlone Press, 1982. Pp. x + 223. $31.50. “A man shouldn’t swallow all he reads/ but rather choose what is useful to him.” On the one hand, this uncontexted comment by Ibsen’s Peer Gynt might serve to define Chamberlain’s complaint, lodged in his introduction, with the majority of modem critical readings of Ibsen’s later plays which find useful only one-dimensional, authoritarian struc­ tures with traditionally positive or negative heroes, simple solutions, and happy or sad endings. On the other hand, it contains an often-sounded warning about the plays’ multilateral interplay of surface and latent meaning that results from a portentous ambiguity of character utterance and action to which the title of Chamberlain’s book refers. Chamberlain does not condemn, however, any one critical approach or its particular conclusions (surely, theatrical productions, for example, attest to the variety of contradictory but revealing interpretations) but rather the limitation in accepting any one over another. Readers wishing a brief but solid introduction to recent critical appraisal of the ironies in Ibsen’s oeuvre would benefit from the book’s first chapter, “Some Fundamentals of Vision and Form in Ibsen.” Here, utilizing James McFarlane’s prescription for understanding Ibsen’s delib­ erate ambivalence or open-mindedness, Chamberlain takes a middle-ofthe -road view of Ibsen as a tragicomedian, positioning himself between Hermann Weigand or Alan Thompson, whose emphasis on Ibsen’s sar­ donic ironies he finds too nihilistic and unalterably cynical, and John Northam, whose definition of Ibsen’s finally convinced faith in the midst of such sustained ironic negation he finds too optimistic and textually circumspect. For the isolation of a distinct tragicomic or ironic form for Ibsen’s complex method of expressing possibilities or an open-ended­ ness, Chamberlain borrows essentially from Jens Krause and Karl Guthke, detailing the genre as part of his central aim: “to show that in Ibsen’s work as a whole there exist tragic and comic elements which are capable of being distinct at one level and integrated at another” (10)— elements which are, one might add, equally intense. There is, one should allow, a concentration of critical attention on The Wild Duck as tragicomedy. And while it is “noticeable that only a fraction of Ibsen’s other work has been more than marginally considered as tragicomedy” (15), several works should be clearly added. Errol Durbach’s 'Ibsen the Romantic’: Analogues of Paradise in the Later Plays (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1982), is based upon “Ibsen’s habitually ironic attitude towards the elements of Romanticism” in the plays starting with Brand. Richard Hornby (Patterns in Ibsen’s Middle Plays, Lewisburg: Bucknell Univ. Press, 1981) likewise states that in the social plays there is an “openness to a multiplicity of interpretations,” that “criticism has generally been too polarized,” that “ambiguity . . . along with variations like ‘paradox,’ ‘complexity,’ and ‘irony’ . . . the idea that a play might mean two (or more) things at once, or even two opposing things, is generally greeted with amazement,” but that “Ibsen wrote his social plays to be externally continuous (i.e. unbroken, flowing, beguiling) but internally discontinu­ ous (i.e. undetermined, allegorical, idealized).” As perhaps the “most comprehensively contradictory of Ibsen’s tragi­ 182 Comparative Drama Reviews 183 comic figures,” Peer Gynt, whom Chamberlain chooses to begin with in Chapter 2, is throughout confronted with “an evocation of a tragicomic enigma: what values does life have once traditional beliefs have become questionable and attempts to find alternatives seem at least as likely to increase as remove confusion?” (22) Chamberlain courageously dis­ cusses the pathos and ludicrousness of what Peer says and does, so that he may be seen to move by turns or simultaneously as a hero and/or mock-hero in several different dimensions, present also by turns or simul­ taneously, depending upon how one perceives that the “psychological realities, folklore, myth, ancient history, and contemporary social and political events are related” (30) or juxtaposed. To show that Peer’s struggle for some self-satisfying value in the midst of his and the world’s hypocrisies is never once irredeemably lost or unequivocally successful, Chamberlain chronologically examines Peer’s...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 182-184
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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