Historical archive

Three-Dimensional Ibsen: Politics, Feminism and the Stage

Historical archive

Published under: Stoltenberg's 2nd Government

Publisher Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Welcoming address at Instituto Italiano di Studi Germanici

Frankly, the Norwegian government does not actually need to “promote” Henrik Ibsen. It is rather we who need to look to our great dramatist’s works for support, strength and inspiration. And these works are our common cultural heritage, Jonas Gahr Støre said in a welcoming address at Instituto Italiano di Studi Germanici. (11.10.06)

Minister of Foreign Affairs Jonas Gahr Støre

Three-Dimensional Ibsen: Politics, Feminism and the Stage

Rome, 11 October 2006

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[Oh] how greatly I long
For light and sun and gentleness
For the churchly silence of peace
For life’s lovely summers!

It could be me saying this - a Scandinavian living in “the High North” - longing for the long, gentle summer in the Mediterranean sun.

But it is Brand, the main character of Henrik Ibsen’s play of the same name, who says this at the very end of the play.

Brand wants life to be good. He himself wants to be good. For Brand – what is good is what is right. – To live and to be true to oneself.

Dear friends, scholars, students,

Henrik Ibsen touches on some of the most essential, most basic issues in our lives:

How can we live in accord with ourselves?

What is that is right?

How can we live a life where what we do is right - and at the same time good?

How can we be good?


Light, sun and gentleness – I cannot imagine a more fitting venue for this conference than Rome – the eternal city, the cultural and spiritual metropolis where Henrik Ibsen himself spent so many of his years - his most creative years.

As I walked from the Aventino over Gianicolo Hill to this beautiful park this morning, it was obvious to me why Ibsen felt so inspired here: the light and sun and gentleness.

Returning to the 1860s, Henrik Ibsen didn’t want to keep on writing for the theatre, but he wanted to write about the priest Brand in the same form he used for Terje Vigen – a long epic poem. The Ibsen family spent the summer of 1865 in Aricca, a village in the Albani Mountains (not far from Rome). One day Ibsen – wearing his big hat – he was just called Il Capelone! - went to Rome on an errand. In a letter to his countryman Bjørnson, he writes: ”One day I went into St. Peter’s Church […] and it was suddenly clear to me what I had to say. Now I have abandoned what I have been torturing myself with for a whole year without getting anywhere, and in the middle of July I started something new that is progressing like never before. […] I am working all day and into the evening, which I’ve never been able to do before. It is blessedly peaceful out here, no one I know; I read nothing but the Bible – a powerful and moving book.”

The result was Brand – published the following year. A powerful and moving play.

Ibsen lived more than 10 years in Italy. Here he found the inspiration for some of his most well known, most deeply cherished plays.

Here he experienced his first literary success, with the plays Brand – as I mentioned - and Peer Gynt. “A taste for the good things of life came my way from Italy,” says the “world citizen”Peer Gynt to Monsieur Ballon when he is asked whether he happened to be Norwegian.

I can well imagine how the physical distance - the cultural distance – made Peer Gynt, well I mean Ibsen, see Norway more clearly and judge Norwegians more “harshly” (which may still be the case for the many students and scholars from Norway living and working in Italy today). As some of you know, the dramatist commented while he was working on the play Peer Gynt that he had a particular type of Norwegian in mind: a happy-go-lucky fellow, a cheerful, boastful dreamer.


So, why are we arranging an Ibsen Year when it is Ibsen year every year?

The main aim of the international Ibsen Year 2006 is to highlight the importance of the dramatist’s legacy and provide opportunities for fresh interpretations of his works. It is an open invitation – to you - to reflect more deeply on his message.

As Foreign Minister, I find the Ibsen Year especially stimulating because it is not only examining the artistic aspects of Ibsen’s work, but also the many political dimensions of his writing - which is one of the main themes of this conference.

Frankly, the Norwegian government does not actually need to “promote” Henrik Ibsen. It is rather we who need to look to our great dramatist’s works for support, strength and inspiration. And these works are our common cultural heritage.

Although the scenes Ibsen creates are set in the small towns and deep fjords of the Norway of his day - and are typical of their time - the issues he addresses are high on today’s international agenda.


So, what lessons can we learn – if I can put it this way - from his plays that can be applied to politics, even to foreign policy?

With the playwright in mind, I have occasionally thought that there are two lines in foreign policy that should not be played out to the full on the real stage of world politics and diplomacy:

One is “the Peer Gynt line”: going round about, dodging the issue, demanding exceptions and special measures, being sufficient unto yourself, free-riding on the efforts of others, shifting the blame.

If Peer Gynt had been a foreign policy maker dealing with today’s challenges, he would have embraced globalisation and would have been quite content to be the only pro-EU person in his village, while when in another frame of mind, he would presumably have voted a defiant no to Norwegian EU membership – depending on the circumstances. Peer would probably have supported the regulation of trade under the WTO – as long as he didn’t lose out, and the rules could be broken, to borrow some insights from an article by social anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen.

The other questionable foreign policy path is “the Brand line”: the policy of an isolated and uncompromising zealot, whom many fear but few listen to, preaching to all the world without many followers, being put to the test and digging in his heels to the very last.

But I have to admit that there is something fascinating about Brand – which is the reason why I began my address by quoting him – a man with lofty, demanding ideals that are worth making a sacrifice for in difficult times.

The art of foreign policy, however, involves finding a line somewhere between the two, somewhere between Peer Gynt and Brand: with strong will, principles and ideals, but with flexibility, the ability to stop and find creative solutions that are inclusive - and that do not make the divisions and gaps deeper.

However, Ibsen has also shown – take his play An Enemy of the People – that seeking to compromise and to find “the middle way” can at times also be an inappropriate and ineffectual approach – and even a rather toothless exercise.

Perhaps the most difficult, and the most important task of all – both in Ibsen’s times and in our own – is to keep our focus on dialogue and bridge-building, on finding joint political solutions and common platforms:

Focusing on dialogue means that everybody has to sacrifice something and nobody will entirely get their way.

Focusing on dialogue means that we must avoid dividing the world into “we and they”, “us and them”, that you are either “with us or against us”.

Focusing on dialogue means that the extremist views must not dominate the agenda and the discussions.

Focusing on dialogue means a foreign policy that is not about taking the path of least resistance, but about attaining high ideals. A foreign policy about paving the way for freedom, democracy and justice – both in our own countries, Norway and Italy – and in our world, where there is so much subjection and suppression, also for others. A foreign policy about following a course that is clear, recognisable and based on sound values.

Focusing on dialogue in our world today requires, therefore, the greatest courage.


The universal human rights are one such set of basic values.

Henrik Ibsen proclaims the freedom of the individual in his work. More than any other writer, he forces us to reflect on our fundamental rights and values.

Sometimes it is easy to forget how controversial Ibsen’s works were. Let me tell you a story that illustrates this.

On 13 March 1891, London’s Independent Theatre gave the play Ghosts its British premiere. The ensuing scandal exceeded all expectations. The leading critic of the paper The Daily Telegraph, Clement Scott, called the performance “an open sewer, a hideous untreated wound, a filthy act performed in public, a lepers’ hospital with all its windows and doors wide open”. And in conclusion he appealed to public opinion, assisted if necessary by law, to ensure that honest and decent citizens be properly shielded from exposure to such things.

A horde of critics competed with similarly abusive reviews, and for some time afterwards Ibsen was the most talked-about dramatist in Great Britain. In 1891 alone, hundreds of articles and reviews were devoted to him in the British press.

Ghosts even became an issue of domestic political concern. The theatre censor liaised closely with the Home Secretary, and for a while the matter threatened to become a subject of debate in the House of Commons. So offensive was this Scandinavian import deemed to be that it was not until 1914, 33 years after publication, that the censor granted a licence for the play to be performed freely on British stages, according to professor Tore Rem’s book published recently on Henry Gibson - as the playwright was first known in Great Britain.

“Books that are banned attract more attention as ghosts than they would have done living,” writes the South African writer and Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee.

The social conflicts Ibsen portrays are still relevant. Even today some of his texts are censored and some of his plays banned because they are considered too controversial.

Apropos feminism, which you will be discussing tomorrow, Ibsen also wrote A Doll’s House while he was living in Italy. Ibsen’s views on the issue are reflected in his own words: “Der er kvinderne, som skal løse menneskespørsmålet” – “it is the women who shall solve the human problem.” Ibsen depicted complex – and thereby very human – characters. This was especially true of his women - which was extraordinary in those days.

Ibsen’s plays still move audiences all over the world every day.


Thus, the Ibsen Year 2006 is a celebration of an internationally renowned playwright – our common cultural heritage – who found inspiration and company – to say nothing of good food and wine – here in Italy. - In the light and sun and gentleness, the churchly silence of peace.

I would like to close by thanking the Norwegian Institute in Rome and the Italian Institute for Germanic Studies for arranging this conference together with our Embassy.

I am confident that your discussions will provide stimulating perspectives on Ibsen’s work. And that they will strengthen existing contacts and networks, establish new ones, and further develop cooperation between academia and the theatre in the Ibsen field.

Like Ibsen, we must dare to ask the important, the most essential questions.

In terms of foreign policy, if we fail to ask them early enough we may be forced to answer them when it is too late and an international conflict has become irresolvable.

Returning to the messages and depths of the play Brand, we see that at the very end of the play, Brand weeps. And the tears he weeps are like a crack, an opening through which something might just reach him. A way inside where something might move him, where something might change, where something might be released (to borrow some insights from an article by author Hanne Ørstavik on Brand).

“Living is a war with the trolls in the depths of the mind and the heart,” as Ibsen once wrote to a friend.

I wish you a successful and rewarding conference.

Thank you.

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