Forgotten Ibsen

Victorian melodrama—can any two words make a production sound more moribund? Yet Ibsen is the master of Victorian melodrama—or "domestic tragedy," as he preferred to call it—and he is the most produced playwright in the world besides Shakespeare. Like Shakespeare, most contemporary productions of Ibsen's masterpieces require a unique directorial concept to reinvigorate them for today's audience, or they act as a star vehicle for a Hollywood glamour-puss. For every Hamlet staged underwater or Denzel Washington in Julius Caesar, we have The Dollhouse staged as grand opera with bunraku puppets and little people (as directed by Lee Breuer) or Cate Blanchett in Hedda Gabler (as recently seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music).

Likewise, the best way to generate interest in an Ibsen or Shakespeare production that has been directed "straight" with little-known actors is to revive one of their more obscure plays. For Ibsen buffs, the Fresh Look Theater Company is offering a rare chance to see Little Eyolf, his nearly forgotten late work of 1894.

The problem with this production, however, is that the director, David Greenwood, insists on sentimental naturalism, period costumes, and a literal-minded fidelity to the script—in what, unfortunately, has become the quintessentially stuffy "Ibsen" manner. Unfortunately, this ill suits the play itself. Little Eyolf is a wild amalgam of nearly incommensurable styles. Perhaps more than any other Ibsen work, it manages to couch the banal if bitter domestic squabbles of Ibsen's familiar middle-period dramas in the aura of the mythopoetic motifs of such early triumphs as Peer Gynt and Brand, making something surprisingly new.

Alfred Allmers has recently returned home, where he lives with both his wife and sister, from somber mountain solitudes where he ventured to finish his book on human responsibility. While there, however, he realized his real responsibilities to his 9-year-old son, Eyolf, whom he has previously neglected. Eyolf is a cute, bookish boy who has been crippled by a childhood accident. This domestic scene is broken up by the intrusion of the Rat Wife, a Pied Piper-like creature from Norwegian folklore, who comes knocking on their door.

After the Rat Wife leaves almost as mysteriously as she enters, Alfred is left to explain his new revelation to his wife, Rita, who becomes jealous because he is dividing his attentions between her and Eyolf. We slowly learn the ironic double meaning of her jealousy: "Eyolf" is also the pet name Alfred called his sister, Asta, when they lived together, incestuously, and she dressed up as a boy.

When the real Eyolf drowns in an accident, Alfred and Rita argue bitterly over who is to blame. Rita confesses that she's happy Eyolf died—maybe now Alfred can experience passion for her. Alfred reveals that the only reason he married her was for her looks and money, not for strong feelings of love or lust.

Can one doubt that this is Ibsen's barely coded 19th-century way of telling us that Alfred's a closeted gay man? Yet few commentators or directors--and certainly not this one--have seized upon this as the key to Alfred's character, and perhaps to the tragedy as a whole.

Alfred meets with Asta, who reveals her discovery that they were never brother and sister. She then runs off with a poor match of a suitor to escape Alfred's advances and Rita's imprecations. Alfred and Rita are left alone: Alfred threatens to commit suicide, while Rita threatens to take in the poor village boys who did not rescue Eyolf from drowning. In the end, however, Alfred and Rita agree to raise the village waifs together as an act of great forgiveness.

The ending is problematic and deliberately ambiguous. While Henry James believed it marred the whole play, many interpret it to mean Ibsen had faith in his audience to see through the characters' stated resolves. Their happy compromise is all a sham; the final revelation of unredeemed misery—too horrifyingly tragic to stage?—is left for the audience's imagination. In fact, this is exactly the question the audience members discussed at this performance, even before their faint applause.

While the other actors often appeared as caricatures in a conventional Victorian melodrama, Christopher Michael Todd, playing Alfred, was astounding in the vulgarity of his expression. His eyes would gape and squint, his lips quiver, his brow scrunch at every turn. At the time, I thought his expressions were grossly under-felt and the product of overacting. In retrospect, perhaps such overacting is exactly what the role demands—I only hope it was a deliberate choice, not ironic serendipity, that produced it.

I also hope that some visionary director like Breuer or Robert Wilson, who recently directed Peer Gynt, chooses to stage this play, which, more than any other by the author, exemplifies critic Eric Bentley's shrewd remark that Ibsen's so-called "realistic" tragedy depends on retaining elements of the "trolls and devils of Peer Gynt...[and] of Ibsen's inner consciousness."

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