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The Ibsen We Hardly Know

Date: Dec 06, 2010


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Question: How is Ibsen's play Rosmersholm like Halley's Comet?

Answer: It may be seventy-six years before you get another chance to see it.

That's why fans of classic theatre should head to City Center, where the Pearl Theatre Company is presenting Ibsen's darkly political drama through December 19. It's worth the trip: Though Rosmersholm may not be as famous as A Doll House or Hedda Gabler, it's just as engrossing.

From one perspective, the play is a straightforward drama about Johannes Rosmer, a town leader torn between the conservative politics of his brother-in-law and the progressive beliefs of his young confidante, Rebecca West. Eventually, Rosmer learns he's being manipulated on every side, and the result is a chilling statement about the cost of integrity.

As with Hedda Gabler and  The Master Builder, however, Ibsen uses supernatural details to suggest there are cosmic forces churning beneath the realistic drawing room. Outside the window, characters catch glimpses of a ghostly white horse, and in the final scene, a terrible power emanates from a murky stream, tempting everyone to destroy themselves. These flourishes imply the play is not only about a specific group of people, but also about the dangerous, universal need for moral certainty.

Of course, when it's time to stage the show, artists must focus on a few of these layers and trust their audience to sense the rest. At the Pearl, director Elinor Renfield highlights the visceral moments between characters. She says, "When I stripped away all obligation to 19th century European politics—the right wing, the left wing---I looked at this as the story of two orphans, [Rosmer and Rebecca], each of them coming from two very different childhoods, but both of them motherless and fatherless."

Renfield's approach shines light on Rebecca, whose hope for society collides with her feelings for Rosmer. "I think that opens up the morality of the play to anybody who has ever been so passionate and ambitious about a goal that they've lost their way," she says.

The director is ultimately less interested in spinning the play than in making sure audiences follow it. She says, "If there is any clarity, then that is the success of the production."


Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor.