The four dramas Ibsen published in the years 1877-82, Pillars of Society, A Doll's House, Ghosts and An Enemy of the People are characterised as realistic contemporary dramas or problem dramas.
In the main there are four aspects of these plays that justify such a description:
- They make problems in society the subject of debate.
- They have a socio-critical perspective.
- The action is in a contemporary setting.
- They present everyday people and situations.
Problems under debate
The Danish literary critic Georg Brandes (1842-1927) was the great pioneer of the breakthrough of realism in the Nordic countries. In 1871 he gave a series of lectures at the University of Copenhagen under the title “Main Currents in the Literature of the 19th Century” (published in book form in six volumes 1872-90). In this work Brandes puts forward the following manifesto for a new form of literature that is to be socio-critical and realistic:
"That literature in our days is alive shows itself in the fact that it puts problems under debate. Thus for example George Sand puts under debate the relationship between the two sexes, Byron and Feuerbach religion, Proudhon and Stuart Mill property, and Turgenev, Spielhagen and Emile Augier conditions in society. That literature does not put anything under debate is equivalent to its being in the process of losing all significance."
The representatives of socio-critical realism in Norway, Ibsen, Bjørnson, Lie, Garborg, Kielland and Skram, were inspired by Brandes. In the four dramas by Ibsen mentioned above we encounter again several of the social problems that Brandes uses as examples in the quotation. The relationship between the sexes is the subject of debate in A Doll's House and Ghosts. Problematic features of prevailing conditions in society are debated in Pillars of Society and An Enemy of the People (social morality, tyranny of the majority, commercial considerations versus general social considerations, environmental considerations etc.).
In his realistic dramas Ibsen was merciless in his quest to uncover negative sides of society, hypocrisy and dissimulation, use of force, and manipulative behaviour, and he made untiring demands for truthfulness and freedom. Truth, emancipation, self-realisation and personal freedom are key terms. In Pillars of Society Lona Hessel has the last word and concludes by saying that “the spirit of truth and the spirit of freedom – they are the pillars of society” In Ghosts Ibsen shines a critical light on the pillars that support bourgeois society, marriage and Christianity, and he takes up typical taboos, incest, venereal disease and euthanasia. This made him and those who shared his ideas into controversial figures in their own time. Their works created violent controversies or absolute furore. With hindsight one can see what enormous importance some of these works have had for different social movements. There is hardly a literary work that has meant so much to women's liberation in practically all cultures all over the world as A Doll's House.
The action in all of the dramas that Ibsen wrote from and including Pillars of Society is set in contemporary society (hence the designation contemporary dramas). The representatives of realistic literature demanded of themselves that they should go into their own time and let themselves be marked by it. Historical dramas in the national-romantic style were passé. Classical gods and heroes, Roman emperors and kings of world powers were replaced by people “like you and me”. The course of the action in these dramas was to bear the stamp of the times.
The first notes Ibsen made for A Doll's House (dated 19 October 1878) bear the heading “Notes for the contemporary tragedy”. The term “contemporary tragedy” is illustrative. Ibsen's project in this play is to apply the classical form of tragedy to a modern body of material. On the formal level Ibsen does not engage in radical experimentation in A Doll's House. For example the three classical unities are maintained, the unities of time, space and action. What is new is the modern material of conflict, the topicality of what is taking place on the stage.
Everyday people and situations
In a letter to the Swedish theatre man August Lindberg, who was in the process of putting on Ghosts in August 1883 (his staging with its premiere in Helsingborg on 22 August 1883 was the first in the Nordic countries and Europe), Ibsen wrote:
"The language must sound natural and the form of expression must be characteristic of each individual person in the play; one person certainly does not express himself like another. In this respect a great deal can be put right during the rehearsals; that is when one easily hears what does not strike one as natural and unforced, and what must therefore be changed and changed again until the lines achieve full credibility and realistic form. The effect of the play depends in large measure on the audience's feeling that they are sitting listening to something that is going on in actual real life."
Ibsen was very greatly concerned that in his contemporary dramas the theatre audience (and readers) should be witness to trains of events that could just as easily have happened to them. This required that the characters in his dramas spoke and behaved naturally and that the situations had the stamp of being everyday life about them. The characters could no longer speak in verse like Brand and Peer Gynt. Monologues, asides and stilted ways of speaking (as in The Warriors at Helgeland) were ruled out. The realistic drama was to provide the illusion of recognisable reality.