We all know who is #1--in theatre, in literature and almost everywhere else. William Shakespeare is way out in front, has been for some time, and will be for the foreseeable future. No one else is close. But the fellow running solidly in second place, the dramatist whose work is performed throughout the world more often than any one other than Shakespeare, is this guy.
He's not a man to cuddle up to. There are dozens of Ibsen portraits and photos and not one of them contains the ghost of a smile.
Henrik Ibsen's reputation in America is almost as forbidding as his portraits. He's not the first fellow who comes to mind when we think of a great night out. It's like partying on a cold foggy beach full of jagged rocks with something dying in the weeds. And yet. And yet he is the second most performed playwright in the the world! The Doll House is actually the most performed play, according to Pravda anyway. I went back to our records and found that Wild Duck is our fourth play by Henrik Ibsen, which actually makes him second with us too (previous productions include Hedda Gabler, Doll House and, memorably with the symphony, Peer Gynt).
So it turns out people actually do want to party with Ibsen, and for good reason too. He's actually great theatre--and by that I mean he's exciting, mysterious, and completely accessible. Ibsen arrived on the scene at the end of the 19th century. The high tide of melodrama was still running strong, but the new wave of realism was about to replace it. Ibsen has a reptutation as one of the fathers of realism, and also of modernism, and the reputation is deserved. But this should not obscure his melodramatic heritage and roots. Most Ibsen is melodrama! There are heroes, victims, innocents, corruptors of virtue, secrets, dark pasts coming to light, loaded letters in the mailbox, daring rescues and sudden knocks on the door. There is passion, excitement, discovery, pathos and excruciating tension. Now this is great stuff to begin with, but with Ibsen it gets better because he brilliantly gives melodrama new twists, turns and dimensions which had never been seen before, and which have never been bettered since.
The Wild Duck is rarely performed in America, even thought Ibsen considered it is masterpiece. In the middle of rehearsals now, I am finding out why. We have the rare luxury of being able rehearse days as well as nights,and we are finding we need all the time we can get: the the characters are rich and particular, the action is detailed and complex, and the power is cumulative and astonishing. This is a time when I feel I am the luckiest man in the world, and i don't even mind if i look a little more like the playwright every day. But I don't mind, because Ibsen is not just another pretty face: he's #2!