Henrik Ibsen and the National Theatre
For years, Henrik Ibsen advocated zealously for building a National Theatre in Norway. Now, 150 years later, he is by far the theatre’s most performed playwright.
If Henrik Ibsen had had his way, Norway’s national stage would have opened long before 1899. On 14 September 1871 he visited Norway and Christiania Theatre, where he was fêted for the theatre’s tremendous success with The League of Youth. At the subsequent banquet at Tivoli, Ibsen thanked his hosts in a speech where he also lamented Norwegian procrastination in building a national theatre. According to the report in Aftenposten,
"The speaker declared that if he had been in the building committee’s shoes, if he had their power and authority, he would have pledged to put a million Reichsmark on the table within a month’s time … and build [the theatre] within two years. The speaker concluded by hoping to see the guests again at the inauguration of the new theatre exactly two years from the present date!"
That is not how it turned out, however. In 1899, the year the National Theatre opened – by which time Ibsen had long since settled in Norway after his many years abroad – he wrote his final play, When We Dead Awaken. Following its world premiere in Stuttgart in January 1900, it had its Norwegian premiere at the National Theatre on 6 February. As such, the play shared the same fate as many of his other plays, which often had to wait quite a while before being performed at Norwegian theatres.
Because Ibsen was at the end of his theatrical career when the National Theatre opened, he has meant more to the National Theatre than the National Theatre meant to him. His work was represented at the opening of the theatre, where An Enemy of the People was one of three inaugural performances alongside plays by Ludvig Holberg (1684¬–1754) and Ibsen’s friend and rival Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832–1910). Ever since, he has been on the bill virtually every single year, often with several different productions per year.
Ibsen is without compare the theatre’s most performed playwright, tallying 278 productions up through 2018. Throughout the National Theatre’s Golden Age – usually considered to be the decades after 1911, under the leadership of the actor and director Halfdan Christensen – several of Norway’s foremost actors gave magnificent interpretations of Ibsen characters. Egil Eide’s performance of Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People was the stuff of legend, while Johanne Dybwad’s interpretation of Rebekka West in Rosmersholm prompted a critic to enthuse that “she practically exuded genius”.
In 1928, the centennial of Henrik Ibsen’s birth was commemorated by the theatre and the country. Six of his plays were on the bill, and the premier actors of the Golden Age were on stage to please both the Norwegian audience and guests from twenty or so countries. The event was an important manifestation for a young nation that, following Norwegian independence in 1905, was striving to establish its own national identity for domestic consumption, and that was also anxious to show the international community its cultural distinctiveness.
During the first few years, there was no rhyme or reason behind which of Ibsen’s plays became part of the repertoire. Then as now, Peer Gynt and A Doll’s House were popular choices, but an ever changing set of directors led to a jumbled assortment of which plays were performed. In the 1930s the director Halfdan Christensen, the former head of the theatre, suggested that Ibsen productions be renewed on a more systematic basis. This led for example to the actress Gerd Egede Nissen (later Grieg) playing Hedda Gabler, as directed by Ingolf Schanke, in a manner that was free from all the melodrama that previous interpretations were noted for.
Before Axel Otto Normann resigned as the director of the theatre in 1941, Ibsen became his saviour. For after invading Norway on 9 April 1940, the German occupiers enforced censorship strictly. By selecting our internationally renowned playwright Henrik Ibsen for the theatre’s spring 1940 programme, however, Normann avoided being censored by the German authorities, even as the Norwegian public interpreted the repertoire as a statement of national defiance.
Following the war, the efforts to renew the Ibsen interpretations continued. Several new directors approached Ibsen from the vantage point of depth psychology. The texts were treated more freely, and the scenography was often liberated from the playwright’s stage directions. In 1971, the director Edith Roger’s historic production of A Doll’s House represented a clear recognition that Nora had never been acknowledged as an equal human being before. The production also led the ensemble to tour Japan.
“An Ibsen theatre”
Of the theatre’s 278 Ibsen productions from 1899 through 2018, no less than 164 hail from the period 1990–2018. 1990 was the year that the theatre’s director Stein Winge opened the theatre’s inaugural Ibsen Festival by declaring that he would turn the National Theatre into an Ibsen theatre, with the festival to serve as a motor that would get the theatre going every autumn. After three years, however, the festival changed format and became a biennial event.
The Ibsen Festival consists of the theatre’s own productions and guest productions, in addition to a wide-ranging side programme that includes events such as discussions, artist encounters, debates, children’s activities, and a festival bar.
From being a manifestation of how differently Ibsen’s plays are performed and interpreted all over the world, the festival has gradually oriented itself towards re-interpreting his work – in other words, the focus has turned from the exotic and towards current relevancy. At the same time, the festival’s international position has been strengthened, both through collaboration with international companies and through increased participation from foreign visitors.
During his own era, Henrik Ibsen’s plays were highly innovative, and he became an important trailblazer for modern theatre. As our foremost venue for his work, the National Theatre strives to take care of his legacy – not least through the Ibsen Festival.