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The Past in the Present Tense

Updated: Feb 12, 2023

By - Dr Arne Kruser - 14th November 2018

Dr Arne Kruse from University of Edinburgh gave a talk about Henrik Ibsen’s Retrospective Technique.The November talk was given by Dr Arne Kruse who has been employed at the University of Edinburgh since 1989, having previously worked at Volda University College, the University of Lund, and the University of Wisconsin. Dr Kruse took his degree at the University of Trondheim, researching in Place Name Studies, and followed up with a PhD at Edinburgh University. He currently lectures in Scandinavian Studies at the School of Languages & Literature there.

Dr Kruse gave us a brief history of Ibsen’s early years, described his writing technique to us, then gave us examples from several of his works. We were able to see how Ibsen’s own background is reflected in his work –themes of falls in social standing, illegitimacy, family secrets, personality change and manipulation of personal history.

Henrik Ibsen was born in 1828 in Skien, a little provincial town in Norway, to Marichen Altenburg and Knud Ibsen. Marichen came from a rich merchant family, and Henrik in his early years was used to the good life, being introduced by his mother to the arts, painting and the theatre. The family fortune declined when Knut took over the business - he became troubled and depressed and Marichen became a changed, very quiet woman.

Because the family were now in financial dire straights, Henrik had to become apprenticed at 15, to a pharmacy just south of Skien in Grimstad. Whilst there he had an illegitimate son with one of the maids and, although he paid towards his son’s upbringing he never met him and never recognised him later in life.

He left Grimstad at 22, went to Oslo to study theatre, then took a job in Bergen, where he wrote and produced a number of plays, finally returning to Oslo to develop his artistic skills. Following the failure of his early plays in Norway, in 1864 he went abroad, first to Italy and then Germany. Shortly after going abroad he developed a completely new persona – he changed his appearance, dressed differently, and even changed his handwriting.

Dr Kruse went on to describe Ibsen’s writing technique to us: in phase one he writes historical drama; in phase two he turns to social realism (A Doll’s House); in phase three his focus is on personal psychology (Hedda Gabler). Ibsen’s ‘well made play’ would have a very tight plot and be condensed into a very short time. Most of the story will already have taken place before the start of the play itself, exposition coming through the play’s dialogue. Ibsen doesn’t give us any answers. He leaves us with a big question, what happens now? - the play becomes open ended.

He wrote realistic plays placed in contemporary times. He wanted to address social issues that were relevant to real people.

Dr Kruse went on to give us a brief look at some of Ibsen’s best known works: A Dolls House, Ghosts, The Wild Duck , Hedda Gabler, When We Dead Awaken

Although he stayed away for 27 years, and the only person he kept in touch with was his sister Hedvig, Ibsen was a keen follower of what went on in Norway, subscribing to newspapers, going to Scandinavian clubs and trying to follow what went on in political life.

Anny gave a vote of thanks to Dr Kruse for an extremely interesting and informative talk, which I am sure inspired us to acquaint, or reacquaint, ourselves with Ibsen’s works.

Ken Kristoffersen

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