Happy Birthday, Henrik Ibsen

Famous acting teacher Stella Adler in a transcribed lecture to her acting class on playing Ibsen.

Adler BEGGED her students to stop thinking about themselves, about their emotions. She wanted them to be curious about the world, about context, about surroundings. She BEGGED them to try to “think bigger.”

Here she is, talking off the cuff, on playing Ibsen.

You have to learn the size of Ibsen. The size of the conflict. The size of the land and how it stuck out into the sea. The size of the darkness. The snowfalls and the sparkling glaciers. The mountains. Surrounded by water, oceans, the largest ice floes in the world. The sea is so deep you could take the tallest building and sink it without leaving a ripple on the surface. The rocks, the sea, the crags, the waterfalls. Do not play it small. You play too local, too little. Stretch it, because that is what is in the mind of the playwright… In most of Norway, there are only two real months of daylight. People live without the sun – seventeen hours of night. This affects their temperaments, how their houses are lit. How do you light your house when it’s dark outside all day? That is up to you to find out. Ibsen says the lines should sound different depending on whether they are said in the morning or evening. You must know whether your scene is taking place in day or night. Otherwise you will just walk in, out of – and into – nowhere. An actor who gets up to act without knowing when and where he is is insane. Everybody is somewhere. Except an actor, often. He’s the only one who can be somewhere and not know where.

Navigation in Norway is very dangerous. It is continuously stormy. The nervousness of the weather affects the personality of the people, dating back to the Vikings. They are dominated by darkness and blackness. There are very few musical comedies that come out of Norway. What does “twenty miles south of Oslo” mean? I could say, get fifteen books on Oslo, on the Vikings, on the history of the royalty there. I’ll give you this free of charge. But for Christ’s sake, learn where you are going to do your acting. Be interested in the fact that Norway has the largest ice fields in the world and that it’s very difficult to travel except by sleigh. I like that. I like knowing that Nora comes home by sleigh. People pass each other on the narrow road. I know that a sleigh has bells and that sleigh bells have a kind of gaiety in them. If it is dark eight months of the year, they must give themselves something to make them happy. They recognize each other’s sleigh bells. Twilight is at noon. That affects you, if night lasts seenteen hours. If you know this, it will affect your acting. It will make you understand certain things you need to understand. They have hailstones of a size we can’t imagine. These hailstones will be used in the last act of Enemy of the People. People throw them at Dr. Stockmann’s house. You have to know such things. You must not be so much with you. Whatever is left of my me, you can have. I do not give a goddamn about my me, only what I can give you. That is what is important. That is why my life has been important. I am interested in acting, not ‘being a professional’.

When you look out your stage window, you must see water – fjords and water running along the streets. It’s 1880, but it’s not an 1880 street. It’s a 1780 street with planks. The water runs along these planked streets. You can only cross them a certain way. It is not easy going. You can go by horse or maybe by stagecoach. You come home late because you had to catch the coach. If you’re late just because the words say so, you are in trouble. But not if you know that it’s because there was too much baggage to put on the coach. Don’t act from the words. Act from knowing whether you arrive by coach or whether you have money enough to hire a sleigh.

The fjords are very threatening. They are black and contain bodies that have been disintegrating slowly for years because the water is so cold. It is a country with a great many psychological problems. Everybody is in trouble. The churches date from the twelfth century. The twelfth century in this crazy Scandinavia produced a very special kind of architecture. It’s a big thing about the churches there. Look them up. They have great gargoyles. Do not think of your own pretty little church in East Hampton. You have to see that church people go to with the gargoyles and the frightening things inside it.

Their unique landscape is unduplicated anywhere on earth. What made Ibsen so great is that he used this unusual place to give him such great truths. So when you think of this space, think of it not as your space. Think of the mountains, the water. It must inspire awe in you, so when you get to a difficult scene you will have the help of the landscape. So that if you get to a scene where someone has to flee, you will see the waterfalls, the difficulties.

All of a sudden, now, I want to cry … Why should I tell you everything? When you are a teacher, you have to give everything away. When you are not a teacher, keep it all secret. Give nothing away. Keep it for yourself. It is not your job to share it; it is to keep it. I have a right to tell you because I am a teacher. You have a right to tell nobody because you are not a teacher: The landscape has to inspire you with awe!

The fingers of water reach seventy miles into the land from the sea. That makes quite an obstacle if you are thinking of leaving Norway. To cross the sea from the north and come south means that you have risked death to get there, and when you arrive you must arrive with death in you. In Mrs. Linde’s entrance, when she says, ‘I have just arrived from the North,’ and somebody says, ‘How did you do it?’ – it does not mean by what conveyance. It means, ‘How did you survive?’

— Transcription of one of the many lectures actress and acting teacher Stella Adler gave to her class on the plays of Ibsen
Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov. Adler is known and remembered for a lot of things (The Group Theatre), but as a teacher it is her script analysis class that everyone who studied with her still mentions. Robert DeNiro still brings it up as having had a huge effect on his process. Reading this excerpt, I can certainly understand why.

Lee Strasberg on “the blight of Ibsen”: taken from Clifford Odets’ 1940 journal The Time Is Ripe

April 17, 1940

In the early evening went to Lee Strasberg’s house for dinner. Paula’s mother was there, preparing the dinner, and I understood a great deal about Paula from seeing her mother’s weak face. For the first time in ten years the tensions are down between Lee and myself — so we were both able to relax.

He spoke of what he called “the blight of Ibsen”, saying that Ibsen had taught most writers after him how to think undramatically. He illustrated this by an example. A man has been used to living in luxury finds he is broke and unable to face life — he goes home and puts a bullet in his head. That, Lee said, any fair theatre person can lay out into a play. But it is not essentially a dramatic view of life. Chekhov is dramatic, he said, for this is how he treats related material: a man earns a million rubles and goes home and lies down on them and puts a bullet in his head.

James Joyce and Ibsen

James Joyce, as a young man, was an enormous fan of Henrik Ibsen – who, as everyone agrees, was doing something very radical and very new with his plays. Here’s an excerpt from Richard Ellmann’s biography in regards to Joyce and Ibsen:

To read Ibsen in the original, Joyce began to study Dano-Norwegian. He quoted Ibsen’s lyric from Brand, “Agnes, my lovely butterfly”, to his friends in that language. When they praised Ibsen’s better-known works, he dismissed those by saying, “A postcard written by Ibsen will be regarded as important, and so will A Doll’s House.” When they evinced an interest in Ibsen’s thought, he responded by discoursing instead on the technique, especially of lesser known plays like Love’s Comedy. Yet the theme of that play, the artist’s compulsion to renounce love and marriage for the sake of life on the mountain peaks, must have also been congenial.

When Joyce was 18 years old, in 1900, he wrote a review of Ibsen in a small literary magazine called The Fortnightly Review – and somehow – Ibsen got a copy of it. Ibsen did not know English, so he painstakingly spelled out for himself what Joyce had written, so that he could get a feel for it.

And then – and this was one of those moments which changes a person’s life forever – Ibsen wrote a note to the editor of The Fortnightly Review. In his own language. The unexpected note was then passed on to the teenage prodigy, Jim Joyce.

Ibsen’s note read:

Jeg har ogso laest — eller stavet mig igennem en anmeldelse af Mr. James Joyce i ‘Fortnightly Review’ som er meget velvillig og som jeg vel skulde have lyst til at takke forfatteren for dersom jeg blot var sproget maegtig.

Joyce translated it as:

I have read or rather spelt out, a review by Mr. James Joyce in the Fortnightly Review which is very benevolent and for which I should greatly like to thank the author if only I had sufficient knowledge of the language.

Richard Ellmann, in his biography of Joyce, describes the impact as: “…He had entered the world of literature under the best auspices in that world.”

Joyce wrote a short note back to Ibsen, his idol:

Dear Sir

I wish to thank you for your kindness in writing to me. I am a young Irishman, eighteen years old, and the words of Ibsen I shall keep in my heart all my life.

Faithfully yours,
Jas. A. Joyce

Richard Ellmann writes:

Before Ibsen’s letter Joyce was an Irishman; after it he was a European.

In 1901, James Joyce again wrote to Ibsen, to wish him a happy birthday. Joyce had been studying Dano-Norwegian, so that he could read Ibsen in the original. He wrote the note in Dano-Norwegian. Important to remember that Ibsen was enormously controversial at the time. People walked out of his plays, people could not face the social revolution he suggested. Audiences rioted after Doll’s House when Nora chose to walk out that door. Joyce became a champion of Ibsen in a time when it was wildly unpopular to do so. His friends and family were scandalized by his taste in literature. Interestingly enough: the first time I saw Doll’s House was when I was a kid, at the Abbey Theatre, in Dublin.

A couple of years later, James Joyce would meet on the streets of Dublin a wild Galway girl named Nora Barnacle. She, of course, would become his life partner. They ran away to Europe a mere three months after meeting and were never apart ever again. When she first told him her name, he murmured, “Ibsen …” It seemed to him a sign, the best possible of all signs. She was to be his.

Here’s a translation of Joyce’s 1901 letter to Ibsen:

Honoured Sir,

I write to you to give you greeting on your seventy-third birthday and to join my voice to those of your well-wishers in all lands. You may remember that shortly after the publication of your latest play ‘When We Dead Awaken’, an appreciation of it appeared in one of the English reviews — The Fortnightly Review — over my name. I know that you have seen it because some short time afterwards Mr. William Archer wrote to me and told me that in a letter he had from you some days before, you had written, ‘I have read or rather spelled out a review in the Fortnightly Review by Mr. James Joyce which is very benevolent and for which I should greatly like to thank the author if only I had sufficient knowledge of the language.’ (My own knowledge of your language is not, as you see, great but I trust you will be able to decipher my meaning.) I can hardly tell you how moved I was by your message. I am a young, a very young man, and perhaps the telling of such tricks of the nerves will make you smile. But I am sure if you go back along your own life to the time when you were an undergraduate at the University as I am, and if you think what it would have meant to you to have earned a word from one who held so high a place in your esteem as you hold in mine, you will understand my feeling. One thing only I regret, namely, that an immature and hasty article should have met your eye, rather than something better and worthier of your praise. There may not have been any wilful stupidity in it, but truly I can say no more. It may annoy you to have your work at the mercy of striplings but I am sure you would prefer even hotheadedness to nerveless and ‘cultured’ paradoxes.

What shall I say more? I have sounded your name defiantly through a college where it was either unknown or known faintly and darkly. I have claimed for you your rightful place in the history of the drama. [Ed: Ha! What an ego!] I have shown what, as it seemed to me, was your highest excellence — your lofty impersonal power. You rminor claims — your satire, your technique and orchestral harmony — these, too, I advanced. Do not think me a hero-worshipper. I am not so. And when I spoke of you, in debating-societies, and so forth, I enforced attention by no futile ranting.

But we always keep the dearest things to ourselves. I did not tell them what bound me closest to you. I did not say how what I could discern dimly of your life was my pride to see, how your battles inspired me — not the obvious material battles but those that were fought and won behind your forehead — how your wilful resolution to wrest the secret from life gave me heart, and how in your absolute indifference to public canons of art, friends and shibboleths you walked in the light of inward heroism. And this is what I write to you of now.

Your work on earth draws to a close and you are near the silence. It is growing drak for you. Many write of such things, but they do not know. You have only opened the way — though you have gone as far as you could upon it — to the end of ‘John Gabriel Borkman’ and its spiritual truth — for your last play stands, I take it, apart. But I am sure that higher and holier enlighenment lies — onward.

As one of the young generation for whom you have spoken I give you greeting — not humbly, because I am obscure and you in the glare, not sadly because you are an old man and I a young man, not presumptuously, nor sentimentally — but joyfully, with hope and with love, I give you greeting.

Faithfully yours,
James A. Joyce

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2 Responses to Happy Birthday, Henrik Ibsen

  1. Lyrie says:

    Joyce and Ibsen, wow! What it must have felt like to receive that letter from Ibsen! Amazing story.

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