CULTURE

Ibsen, tragedy and the tragic

« What theater always seeks to do is to record upheavals in the human conscience,» says playwright Iakovos Kambanellis. «Consequently it is an exploration of human destiny, a destiny connected with the temporal, social and religious conditions of each age.» The Greek dramatist was addressing Ibsen scholars from around the world at a conference on «Ibsen, Tragedy and the Tragic,» held November 30 to December 3 by the Ibsen Center of Oslo University at the Norwegian Institute in Athens. Kambanellis gave a moving account of how he had come to be a playwright. Just months after his release from the Mauthausen concentration camp in 1945, he saw some performances by the Karolos Koun Theater which had a profound effect on him. «I came from a place where we had been surrounded by the dead. We almost didn’t notice them anymore. And I was struck by the fact that I was so moved by what I saw at the theater.» Kambanellis became «consumed by an obsessive passion to be an actor,» but his technical school certificate did not entitle him to enter the School of Dramatic Arts. Luckily he joined an amateur theater group for rehearsals of Ibsen’s «Wild Duck.» The company disbanded before the play was ever performed, yet, as Kambanellis recalls: «The experience helped me understand exactly what a play is – how few words the characters speak, and how much a good interpretation can reveal, I also came to realize that the language of the stage is primarily suggestive and that characters do not reveal their thoughts and feelings; they exchange signs, not full descriptions of their emotional and psychological states.» It was this experience that made Kambanellis describe Ibsen as his first teacher: «I still consider that the knowledge acquired during these first lessons was of monumental importance.» He went on to read and see as much Ibsen as he could. One of his plays, «Ibsenland,» even uses two characters borrowed from Ibsen’s «Ghosts.» Ibsen and Greece Several speakers at the conference focused on the Greek connection. Greeting the participants, Norwegian Institute Director Synnove des Bouvrie emphasized the fact that tragedy was born just a few hundred meters away. Guiding the conferees on a tour of the ancient theater of Epidaurus, des Bouvrie expounded her view on the nature of classical tragedy. Panos Karagiorgos related how George Vizyinos was responsible for the first Greek appraisal of Ibsen in an article he wrote in Eikonografimeni Estia in 1892. Vizyinos studied in Leipzig, says Karagiorgos, and may have seen Ibsen’s work performed in Germany. Astrid Saether used Ibsen’s prose works, letters and articles to trace the playwright’s awareness of classical culture and his use of classical myths in his drama. Yiorgis Yiatromanolakis focused on the response to Ibsen in Greece, noting that since Ibsen’s plays were translated into demotic Greek, his work was championed by demoticists and scorned by the supporters of katharevousa or purist Greek. Ibsen was seen as an enemy of the excessive reverence for the past enshrined in the conservative neoclassical theater of that period in Greece. Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife argued that Ibsen’s tragedies became increasingly Aristotelian as he approached his realist phase. Helge Ronning revisited and updated Raymond Williams’s view of how tragedy developed from ancient Greek drama, through Renaissance, bourgeois and Romantic drama to modern liberal tragedy. Thomas van Laan, presenting a paper based on a larger work in progress, looked at Nietszchean ideas in Ibsen, arguing that, in some cases, the playwright employed the concepts before Nietszche himself did. Vigdis Ystad took the work of Walter Benjamin as a starting point in her examination of the relationship between aesthetics and ethics in Ibsen’s work. Live Hov contrasted women characters in classical Greek tragedy and Ibsen. Knut Brynhildsvoll adopted a Hegelian approach to compare historical plays by Ibsen and Schiller. Jorgen Dines Johansen examined «The Wild Duck» from the viewpoints of Wittgenstein, Freud and Levi Strauss. Abjorn Aarseth argued that «Ghosts» and «Rosmersholm» were Ibsen’s two most tragic dramas, while Atle Kittang adopted a Heideggerean view of guilt in «Rosmersholm,» and Roland Lysell discussed Ibsen’s last play. Two speakers from the field of theater studies discussed particular performances: Pirrko Koski spoke about the first and the most recent performances of «Hedda Gabler» in Finland, and Sven Ake Heed discussed comedy in Ibsen’s contemporary plays with reference to specific productions. The Norwegian ambassador, who congratulated the Ibsen Center on taking the initiative of holding the conference, offered a reception at the National Theater, where conference participants saw a performance of «Peer Gynt» in Greek, complete with the original score by Grieg. An appropriate end to a perfectly organized event. The Ibsen Center, which conducted the recent conference on «Ibsen, Tragedy and the Tragic» in Athens, is part of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Oslo. Founded in 1992, the center facilitates research on, and disseminates information about, Henrik Ibsen and his work in Norway and abroad. In addition to a vast collection of books and other material, the center has an extensive database relating to Ibsen, and also runs activities and an education service promoting Ibsen studies. Research in progress includes compilation of the International Ibsen Bibliography and a manuscript project recording Ibsen’s manuscripts and letters in digital form. Iakovos Kambanellis Born on Naxos, Iakovos Kambanellis grew up in Athens. He originally trained as a draftsman, but World War II interrupted his youthful plans. From early 1943 to May 1945 he was imprisoned in a German concentration camp in Austria, an experience he later recorded in his prose work «Mauthausen.» On his return to Greece, he dedicated himself to the theater after seeing some performances by the acclaimed Karolos Koun Theater in Athens during the winter season of 1945-46. Speaking at the conference on «Ibsen, Tragedy and the Tragic» in Athens last week, Kambanellis recounted the powerful effect of this experience, and how his desire to act led to his career as a playwright. Among the best known of his works are «The Courtyard of Miracles,» «Fairy Tale Without a Name,» «Viva Aspasia,» and «Odysseus, Come Home.» His play «Ibsenland» is based on Ibsen’s «Ghosts,» borrowing the characters of Pastor Manders and Mrs Alving. In recent years Kambanellis has reworked some of the myths that inspired ancient Greek drama. «Letter to Orestes,» «The Dinner,» «Parodos of Thebes» and «Nobody and the Cyclopes» are some of the plays in which he deals with the archetypal myths of tragedy.