Intense Inditement by Ibsen and Inge
Let us accept the often stated opinions that Henrik Ibsen and William Inge are great dramatists as facts. Let us also accept the validity of defining drama as "Literature plus Theatre." Let us then extrapolate from these two truths that Ibsen and Inge were masterful at adding theatre to literature, and demonstrate what made their respective formulas successful.(1)
We shall now begin our search within the pages of Ibsen's The Doll's House and Inge's Bus Stop. At the very beginning of both these plays, we immediately find instance of the two arts fused in the detailed setting descriptions ". . . A whatnot with china objects and various bric-a-brac. A small bookcase with books in fancy bindings. . . ."(2) (Ibsen, p. 3) and ". . . It is a dingy establishment with few modern improvements: scenic calendars and pretty-girl posters decorate the soiled walls, and illumination comes from two badly shaded light bulbs that hang on dangling cords from the ceiling . . . " (Inge, p. 153). For in the early days of theatre, stages were scantily furnished, but literature has long lavished on bringing scenes to life with minute details of locations. For example, all we are told of the setting of Shakespeare's Hamlet is "scene: Denmark." These well thought out placements are not only described in much richer detail than the places in more vague preceding plays, but also in much richer language, which is certainly as much for a reader's pleasure as for a director's instruction. Thus we see immediately that these authors are writing for both the page and the stage, neither just one audience nor the other.
Not only do both authors immediately set the place for their respective works, but they also immediately give the audience a sense of time. Nora says "Be sure and hide the Christmas tree carefully . . ." (Ibsen, p. 3) and Elma says ". . . March is coming in like a lion," (Inge, p. 154).
As these works are meant to appeal to both a reading and a viewing audience, both authors specify many actions for the actors, instead of leaving the director and actors free to interpret the verbal text as they may and the readers with naught to see but that which their own imaginations may supply. In Ibsen, for examples, Nora "[t]akes a bag of macaroons out of her pocket and eats a couple, then she goes cautiously to the door of her husband's study and listens" (Ibsen, p. 3) and Helmer "goes to [Nora] and pulls her ear playfully" (Ibsen, p. 4). In Inge, "Grace jiggles the receiver on the telephone with no results." (Inge, p. 154) and Elma is seen "[s]till looking out the window." (ibid.). This is, again, very different from earlier plays, which tended to be minimalistic with stage instructions to the actors (such as Shakespeare's Hamlet which hardly lists an action other than "Enter . . ." or "Exit . . .").
Ibsen and Inge are perhaps at their most theatrical when they present more flamboyant actions. Ibsen has "[Nora] and the children play, laughing and shouting, all over the room and in the adjacent room to the left. Finally Nora hides under the table; the children come rushing in, look for her, but cannot find her, hear her half-suppressed laughter, rush to the table, lift up the cover and see her. Loud shouts of delight. She creeps out, as though to frighten them. More shouts. Meanwhile there has been a knock at the door leading into the hall. No one has heard it. Now the door is half-opened and Krogstad appears. . . ." (Ibsen, p. 22) and later "Rank sits down at the piano and plays; Nora dances more and more wildly. Helmer stands by the stove and addresses frequent corrections to her; she seems not to hear. Her hair breaks loose, and falls over her shoulders. She does not notice it, but goes on dancing . . . ." (Ibsen, p. 53).
Inge, for example wrote "The door swings open, some of the snow flying inside, and Cherie, a young bond girl of about twenty, enters as though driven. She wears no hat, and her hair, despite one brilliant bobby pin, blows wild about her face. She is pretty in a fragile, girlish way. She runs immediately to the counter to solicit the attention of Grace and Elma. She lugs along an enormous straw suitcase that is worn and battered . . ." (Inge, p. 157) and later "Dr. Lyman takes a quick reassuring drink from his bottle, then tucks it in his pocket, and comes forward in the great Romantic tradition. He is enjoying himself tremendously. The performance proves to be pure ham, but there is pathos in the fact that he does not seem to be aware of how bad he is. He is a thoroughly selfish performer, too, who reads all his speeches as though they were grand soliloquies, regarding his Julie [Elma] as a prop" (Inge, p. 194).
These are instances of pure spectacle that not only grasp a reader's imagination but also grab a theatre audience's attention.
However, while these dramas certainly give more detailed information to readers and performers than early stageplays, this added information is always as much theatrical as literary: the information is always succinct and visually presentable. There are no unspoken philosophical passages for the reader, such as "First you fall in love with Antarctica, then it breaks your heart" (Robinson, p. 1).
Thus we see that the literary aspects of these plays enhance and are never at the expense of theatre; instead they are always an addition to the theatre, and vice versa. Therefore, both Ibsen and Inge demonstrate the formula for successful drama: that which truly makes the most of both arts, literature and theatre. Neither is neglected and both work together. The text does not exist where it does not lend to the performance and action does not exist where it does not lend to the plot.
Brian Matthew Kessler
XXXX Carol Road
Union, New Jersey 07083
1. See Appendix A for definitions of "literature" and "theatre"
2. All italics, unless otherwise indicated, are as published in the original texts.
Appendix A: Definitions
In order to best accomplish these ends, we should first define both "theatre" and "literature" such that we are working within a common understanding of these two arts. For this we turn to the well worn pages of my friend Noah Webster:
literature, n. [Ofr. literature; L. litteratura, or literatura, a writing, grammar, philology, learning, from littera or litera, a letter, pl. learning.]
1. The profession of an author; production of writings, especially of imaginative prose, verse, etc.
2. (a) all writings in prose or verse, especially those of an imaginative or critical character, without regard to their excellence: often distinguished from scientific writing, news reporting, etc.; (b) all the writings o a particular time, country, region, etc.; as, American literature; (c) all of such writings considered as having permanent value, excellence of form, great emotional effect, etc.; (d) all the writings dealing with a particular subject.
3. all the compositions fora specific musical instrument or ensemble.
4. printed matter of any kind, as advertising, campaign leaflets, etc. [Colloq.]
5. learning; acquaintance with letters or books. [Rare.]
theater, theatre, n. [Fr. Theatre, from L. theatrum, from Gr. theatron, theatre, from thea, a view, sight.]
1. a place where plays, operas, motion pictures, etc. are presented; especially, a building expressly designed for such presentations. The Greek and Roman theaters very closely resembled each other. The building was of an oblong, semicircular form, resembling the half of an amphitheater, and was not covered by a roof. The seats were all concentric with the orchestra and arranged in ascending rows. Scenery, in the modern sense of the word, was not used. In the early days of the modern theater the buildings were only partially roofed, and the stage but scantily if at all provided with scenery. The interior of the theaters of the present day are usually constructed in a more rectangular manner. The stage is usually furnished with movable scenes.
2. any place resembling a theater, especially one having ascending rows of seats, as a lecture hall, surgical clinic, etc.
3. any place where events take place; scene of operations; as, the Pacific theater of war.
4. (a) the dramatic art; drama; (b) the theatrical world; people engaged in theatrical activity.
5. theatrical technique, production, etc. with reference to its effectiveness; as, the play was good theater.
theatrical, a. [LL. theatricus; Gr. theatrikos.]
1. having to do with the theater, the drama, a play, actors, etc.
2. characteristic of the theater; dramatic; histrionic; especially (in disparagement), melodramatic; pompous; affected.
Syn-dramatic, scenic, showy, melodramatic, pompous.
Halline, Allan G., Six Modern American Plays, (The Modern Library, New York 1963).
Ibsen, Henrik, Eight Plays by Henrik Ibsen: A Doll's House, Ghosts, The Wild Duck, Rosmersholm, An Enemy of the People, The Lady from the Sea, Hedda Gabler, The Master Builder, (The Modern Library: New York, 1982).
Inge, William, Four Plays by William Inge: Come Back, Little Sheba, Picnic, Bus Stop, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, (Grove Press: New York, 1990).
Robinson, Kim Stanley, Antarctica, (Bantam Books: New York, 1998).
Shakespeare, William, Hamlet, (W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 1992).
Webster, Noah, Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged, (The Publishers Guild, Inc.: New York, 1959).