Ibsen's Soulcraft

The Norwegian master Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906) is and will remain the most important modern playwright—which is not to say there are no flaws in his work. Of all artists, playwrights are the most beholden to the moralism of their time; they must love and hate what their audiences love and hate. Few people go to the theater to learn. They are there to have their prejudices confirmed, in the company of strangers who share those prejudices, and who show it by laughing, sighing, tearing up, and applauding at the appointed times. Modern theater habitually serves its patrons a stew of liberal platitudes. Dramatic spectacle is what the more or less cultivated secular public enjoys instead of church on Sundays. This audience does not wish to be startled awake or intellectually challenged. It does wish to have its compassion massaged and its indignation roused. These are the privileged sentiments of democratic times, and they are stimulated by the wan resignation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, the philosophizing schoolboy monkeyshines of Shaw’s Man and Superman, the grimacing brutality of Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, the plangent heartbreak of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, and the icy sorrow of David ­Mamet’s American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross—to speak of some of the most esteemed works by some of the most popular modern playwrights.

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