Ibsen on the American stage


Ibsen on the American stage
   The social problem plays of Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) are fundamental to drama in the modern era, but from the beginning his works met with resistance from American critics and audiences. There are few parallels for a playwright whose work has inspired such impassioned debate or has been as influential over the long term as Ibsen, much of it generated by his depiction of women resisting traditional social roles.
   A Scandinavian troupe presented Ibsen's Ghosts on tour in some Midwestern cities, including Chicago, in 1882. The first known American production of one of Ibsen's plays was an amateur staging of A Doll's House in Milwaukee that same year, with a happy ending tacked on and a new title, The Child Bride. The following year Helena Modjeska staged her own adaptation of the same play, this time titled Thora, in Louisville, Kentucky, but it met with controversy and was withdrawn after a single performance. Beatrice Cameron's 1889 New York appearance in A Doll's House also met with resistance. Throughout the remainder of the 19th century, Ibsen's plays were rarely produced and, as in European cities, were occasionally banned. A few American stars were willing to appear in Ibsen's plays during the 1890s, especially Minnie Maddern Fiske, who played Nora Helmer in A Doll's House in 1894, 1895, and 1902. Mrs. Fiske also appeared in a 1903 New York production of Hedda Gabler, the same year that Mary Shaw presented Ghosts. In the first decade of the 20th century, Ethel Barrymore in A Doll's House (1905) and Nance O'Neil in Hedda Gabler (1905) braved critical hostility in Ibsen productions. Florence Kahn played Hilda Wangel in the first American staging of The Master Builder (1900). Thereafter, actors were increasingly drawn to Ibsen's plays.
   Dramatists were also inspired by Ibsen, beginning with James A. Herne, whose 1890 play Margaret Fleming won him the epithet "The American Ibsen." From the 1920s, playwrights including Eugene O'Neill, Thornton Wilder,* and later Arthur Miller* were influenced by Ibsen's dramatic formula.
   Alla Nazimova, a Russian actress who spent most of her career on American stages, scored successes with several Ibsen plays, first in her 1906 debut in Hedda Gabler and continuing with A Doll's House and The Master Builder the following year. In 1910, Na-zimova also appeared in Little Eyolf while Mrs. Fiske offered The Pillars of Society. This increase in Ibsen productions was only temporary. By the early 1910s, Ibsen, who was viewed as profeminist, met with a new resistance from American audiences as the battle over female suffrage became increasingly divisive. Ghosts and Peer Gynt were produced in 1915, Hedda Gabler in 1917, and A Doll's House in 1917 and 1918, but these were among the few Ibsen productions before 1920.
   Changing values in the post-World War I era led to a significant increase in Ibsen productions. This was furthered by critics like Joseph Wood Krutch, who advocated for modernist theatre in general, and Herman Wiegand, whose critical study The Modern Ibsen (1925) applied Sigmund Freud's psychological theories to the plays, influencing contemporary interpretations. In 1923, Joseph Schildkraut headed a cast including Louise Closser Hale and a young Edward G. Robinson in a Theatre Guild production of Peer Gynt, which ran for a remarkable 240 performances. Significant excitement was generated in 1923 during a rare American tour by Italian actress Eleonora Duse, a longtime proponent of Ibsen's plays. She included The Lady from the Sea and Ghosts in the repertory.
   The Actors' Theatre presented Hedda Gabler (1924, 1926), The Wild Duck (1925), and Ghosts (1927), while various productions of Ros-mersholm (1925), Little Eyolf (1926), and An Enemy of the People (1928) starring Walter Hampden were also presented in New York. During the 1928-1929 Broadway season, Blanche Yurka appeared in three Ibsen works, The Wild Duck, Hedda Gabler, and The Lady from the Sea, and in 1930 Yurka also starred in and directed the first American production of The Vikings, Ibsen's early play of Icelandic history.
   Eva Le Gallienne's Civic Repertory Theatre (CRT) presented several Ibsen works during its tenure, including The Master Builder and John Gabriel Borkman, both in 1925. The CRT also produced Hedda Gabler in 1928 at the same time as Yurka's production was running. At the beginning of the Great Depression, there was a precipitous fall-off in Ibsen productions, with only Le Gallienne regularly offering his plays as part of her repertoire. Broadway productions of Ibsen were comparatively rare between 1930 and the 1960s, but with the rise of professional regional theatre companies* Ibsen became a central part of the repertory of the American stage.
   See also censorship.

The Historical Dictionary of the American Theater. .

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