Beckett or Balderdash? (revisited)

The trouble with Ibsen

I was reading an old blog post of 2016 about a play I had just seen and not understood. Was it, I wondered, my stupidity? Or was it a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes? (The original is here.)

I came up against this conundrum time and again in my days as a script assessor. When confronted with what seemed like a cleverly-written play that made no sense I had to ask myself, Is it Beckett or is it Balderdash?

It’s not just plays. All creators – writers, painters, composers, architects – who genuinely break new ground are likely to have an uphill battle winning over the general public. Beckett himself – whose Waiting for Godot was received enthusiastically at its premier in France but got a definite thumbs-down in London – might not have become the icon he is had it not been for the critics Harold Hobson and Kenneth Tynan. The same applies to Harold Pinter’s Birthday Party and John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. It takes a far-sighted person to recognise genius, and the rest of us have to run to catch up.


These thoughts were running through my mind while researching for my current novel, which is set in the theatre world in the early 20th century. The Norwegian playwright Ibsen, who is familiar to all of us now, was considered at best subversive and at worst obscene when Bernard Shaw first championed him to British audiences. A Doll’s House, about a cossetted and patronised wife and mother who walks out on her husband and children in order to be able to live the life she wants to live, was originally banned, and could only be performed with a changed ending.

Janet Achurch, the original British Nora in A Doll’s House

Hedda Gabler was likewise considered beyond the pale for featuring a disenchanted married woman who (spoiler alert) kills herself. It originally saw the light of day thanks to an actress called Elizabeth Robins, who hired the Vaudeville Theatre in the Strand in order to mount the play herself along with an actress colleague called Marion Lea, where it was a great success particularly with the Pit and Gallery audiences. (The Examiner of Plays, aka the Censor, eventually granted the play a license saying “all the characters looked as though they had escaped from a lunatic asylum.”)[1]

Elizabeth Robins, the original West End Hedda Gabler

Ghosts, which featured a young illegitimate man suffering from syphilis, could only be presented as a one-off performance by the private theatre company The Independent Theatre.

Censorship is not the same as Fear of the New of course, although they were definitely interconnected in the days of Edwardian theatre. The Examiner of Plays at that time was a former bank manager – “a man of strong convictions and limited intelligence”[2] apparently – who admitted he could or would not explain the principles behind his decisions except to say they generally followed “the code of a gentleman’s club”.

Which brings me back to my original topic: since theatre has by and large progressed in leaps rather than gentle steps, how is the humble script assessor, who is probably quite a lowly individual in the hierarchy of a theatre, to recognise the world’s new Ibsen, or Beckett or Pinter or Kane or Ravenhill, all of whom in different ways set out to challenge the status quo?

Would you recognise such a person? Would I?

© Patsy Trench
London June 2022


[1] Elizabeth Robins, Staging a Life, by Angela John

[2] The Edwardian Turn of Mind by Samuel Hynes

Public Enemy

Last year the Young Vic produced a new version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, adapted by Simon Stephens and directed by Carrie Cracknell. With its breakneck speed, aided quite a bit by the whirling set (Ian MacNeil) it managed to be both faithful to the original and utterly accessible to the 21st century viewer.

Now the Young Vic have done something similar with An Enemy of the People, which in its latest version by David Harrower has changed its name to Public Enemy and runs, again at speed, non-stop for 90 odd minutes without a break. The difference is that whereas A Doll’s House remained rooted in its original 1880s setting Public Enemy has been updated to what I took – bearing in mind the orange wallpaper and electric typewriter – to be the seventies.

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The story of a doctor in a small Norwegian spa town who – curious to know why a handful of holidaymakers contracted diseases such as typhoid after taking the water decides to have it tested and discovers it is contaminated, even poisonous, due partly to a tannery owned by his father in law; only to find himself then ostracised and vilified by the entire town – should make  good sense to modern perceptions. But the problem with this adaptation (as I saw it) is that it doesn’t really sit comfortably in its new period. Perhaps it’s the adaptation itself that’s too faithful to the original. There is a good deal of speechifying, and people behave to one another in an almost formal way that in no way reflects my memory of the seventies. The clothes are indeterminate, and there’s a moment when the Stockmans’ elder boy sits rapt for a rather long time listening to a family friend playing the harmonica (in the seventies??). There’s no sign of a radio or TV nor of the two boys demanding to plonk themselves in front of it. In fact there is very little direct reference to the seventies  anywhere (other than the wallpaper and the electric typewriter), such as a burgeoning public awareness of the effect of man-made climate change.

That said the play zips along at a cracking pace and keeps a firm hold of our attention (or mine at any rate). It even implicates the audience at one point when Stockman, addressing us directly, challenges us to disagree with his premise that democracy doesn’t work because the majority of the people are stupid and incapable of making the ‘right’ decision, at which point we (I) realise he is actually bonkers. Whether or not this is faithful to the original – which I don’t have to hand – it’s a remarkable, and temporary, switch in the doctor’s character which rather distracts from and undermines the sympathy we’ve been led to feel towards him.

It’s still a cracking play though, with good performances all round, especially from Nick Fletcher as the doctor (Krogstad in Doll’s House) and Darrell D’Silva as his brother and enemy, the mayor. I just wondered if this adaptation might have worked better if, as with Doll’s House, it had kept to its original 1882 setting.

Patsy Trench