I came across a tome in a bookstore’s performing arts section called Ibsen’s Forsaken Merman: Folklore in the Late Plays, by Per Schelde Jacobsen and Barbara Fass Leavy (NY: NYU Press, 1988) and knew I’d found a valuable source. In addition to meticulous examinations of correspondences and references in Ibsen to Scandinavian folkore and myth, the book includes careful analysis of the sources that inspired Ibsen – the poetry, songs, sagas, ballads, and epics of medieval skalds. It contains an absolutely invaluable resource not easy to find elsewhere: “On The Folk Ballad and Its Significance for the Literary Arts,” in which Ibsen analyzes the recurring patterns in poetic structure between medieval poets and contemporary forms (including drama). In a sweeping theoretical discussion, he argues (at one point) that Scandinavian audiences seek to participate in the work rather than simply perceive it passively. Describing “poets of the south” as concentrating their form such that audiences remain passive in contemplation of it – e.g., “the sculptor and the painter give almost a total, a manifest expression of the thought they had.” With a volk-ish nationalism that would later mellow, Ibsen argued that Scandinavians had never felt satisfied by such relationships.
“None of these art forms have, then, really become national property with us. The Scandinavian is not quite at home within these confines where he cannot, according to his own desires, add on to what is already there. He does not want to see the products of his own imagination, his concepts and beliefs, rendered in finished form from the hand of someone else. All he demands is an outline of the drawing – he will finish the work according to his own demands. He does not … want the artist to point to his work and show where the core is, he wants to look for the core himself …” (Jacobsen & Leavy, 299).
Ibsen’s essay, however early in his career he wrote it, supports the notion that he was as interested in how art functions as what it’s about, and that audiences (specifically, the audiences he wished to serve and chose to address) craved incompleteness, or to put it another way, sufficient openings and ambiguities in a work to invite their cooperation in making sense of the whole. While this relates to several larger arguments to be made about Ibsen and his work, it also supports an approach to Hedda Gabler, for instance, that emphasizes potential interpretations rather than definitive ones; it also supports a methodology that seeks to provide opportunities for audience reaction without declaring or defining what form those reactions should take. This essay might be used to make the case that in Ibsen, there is no “should” in staging, just the competing “shoulds” deployed by the characters themselves.
What have you found that works for you – perhaps something that has shaped your view, or confirmed that you are not alone in taking it? What material have you located that provides support for a central thesis? What sources have you located that you would use to defend your views? What texts have you found that you could use to illuminate your research question directly, providing examples that are central to your work?
In a comment below, or an edit below this line (with your name attached), identify one such source and what you anticipate will be most useful about it.