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.
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.”)
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” 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
 Elizabeth Robins, Staging a Life, by Angela John
 The Edwardian Turn of Mind by Samuel Hynes