Three Ibsen Translations


translated for the Royal Shakespeare Company 

                (Peer Gynt kryper i holtet og sanker jordlœk.)

Dette her er et standpunkt. Hvor er det neste?

                [Peer Gynt crawls through the copse gathering wild onions.]  

Here’s a way of looking at it. What comes next?

Peer’s ‘onion’ speech: he takes up a wild onion, skin by skin he peels it away, each skin for a self that he has been - and at its core, nothing.  ‘Nature is witty' indeed.’ 

Peer Gynt, boastful fantasist broth of a boy from the Norwegian valleys, is loved by one girl but makes another one pregnant. He turns his back on them both, and on Norway. Out in the world, he makes and loses a fortune several times over. He always thinks he’s becoming his true self, but he never does. His essential emptiness leads to a breakdown of his sanity; but again he bounces back. Returning in old age to his native Norway, wandering the landscape homeward by night, encounter by encounter he comes to recognize the appalling truth that he has thrown his life away. There’s nothing in him authentic enough even for an old buttonmoulder to re-cycle.

Done from the original.  I had a modest working knowledge of Swedish, closely related to Norwegian, and I had asked the RSC to allow me a preliminary week in which to study Ibsen's text, to decide if I was up to the challenge or not.  If I felt not, I would not do it.  So that I could work at speed and undisturbed, the RSC loaned me the use of the top flat in their actors' main accommodation-house just down-river below the theatre;  the house would be empty for the next five weeks, till the season began.  When I went in to that old Victorian house on the first morning of my 'trial week', I found the hallway stacked with publicity leaflets awaiting distribution, announcing the dates and titles of the new season  -- among them Peer Gynt 'in an new translation' by yours truly...  So much for 'was I up to the challenge or not':  the choice had been made for me.

Critics have complained about my version that, among other peeves, it is not in verse.   Ibsen's original, fully rendered so, in performance would last (most of it in Hiawatha rhyhm) for some six hours. With translations in verse, what we traditionally see onstage is a text cut to incoherence and meaninglessness. (Even Ibsen himself cut Act IV in toto when at long last this text first reached the stage. He had written it as a ‘dramatic poem’ - to be read.)   I decided to present the play in its entirety, by dint of reducing each scene to a minimum number not of words but of syllables. This translation thus represents the original in maximum compression. Excisions as such are few, and minimal. The play’s moral progression is unimpaired and in performance perceivable throughout.

Controversial too was the sort of English into which I did it. As I started tuning in to Ibsen’s opening scene - Peer’s long-suffering and credulous old mother berating him as a wastrel and a liar - I began to hear my own grandmother’s voice and idiom: ‘God take care of us...!’ ‘Och, son...’ More and more her rural Ulster idioms and tune came beating through, minting the Norwegian expressions perfectly. My decision soon formed, bold and rather lonely as it felt to me, to base the whole text in rural Ulster speech. One British critic who took me to task for this (a Welshman, he should have known better) pronounced it inappropriate to render a European classic in a regional vernacular that 'we (who are ‘we’?) associate with terrorism and tragedy’. I am reminded how Ibsen himself had been sneered at by ‘mainland’ Danish critics, for presuming to write poetry in a ‘dialect’ (Norwegian) better suited to trolls and fishermen. Not much changes. Poor Peer is traditionally voiced in our theatre in a slumming academic English that never lived on any lips. 

I believe too that, on the space, Peer’s community need about them an informing landscape, hard to work, and with intractable mountains above them peopled with mythic powers. South Armagh, whose is the idiom I heard, is such a landscape, though on a smaller scale. Another vindicating factor is that the Vikings bequeathed many of their words and idioms to Ulster speech. Overall, the cultural associations chime well with the play’s Protestant ethic.  And what we lose in verse, we gain in poetry.

A fuller discussion of this, and of other lessons that I learned about this marvellous poem as I worked upon it, can be found in a foreword to the published text.

RSC Playtexts, Methuen London Ltd., 1983. ISBN 0 413 52250 4

Now re-published by Oberon Books, subsequently Bloomsbury, in Ibsen:  Three Major Plays with my translations of Rosmersholm and When We Dead Waken.


translated for BBC Radio 3


A copy of the first edition, found for me by the director John Tydeman in a Bergen second-hand bookshop. 

In Pastor Rosmer’s family home, with its ancestral portraits of Rosmer generals and clergymen and judges, and swirled about by its mill-race, the Pastor is in grief.  His wife has drowned - the suicide, it seems, of an unbalanced woman.  Yet, from the sinister hints of a local newspaper-editor, and the probings of the woman’s brother, it becomes apparent that she who has drowned has done so under some dark pressure from someone else.   trusted companion, the much-admired Rebecca, becomes the focus of suspicions.  Remorselessly, the dead woman’s baleful brother uncovers this Rebecca’s lies and self-deceptions.  Rebecca, who has seemed so compassionate and principled, and whom the Pastor husband also has trusted absolutely, is revealed as devious and unscrupulous. She has, as she self-righteously sees it, eliminated an unworthy wife to set a captive husband free.  Exposed, unable to stay, unable to go anywhere, she decides to follow her victim into the mill-race.  The Pastor, his truthless world destroyed, goes with her.

A translation strict in the academic sense. Unlike Peer, which Ibsen wrote and published as a ‘dramatic poem’ to be read, not staged, Rosmersholm is a play written for performance, and in ‘prose’ - why I put that word in quotes will become apparent. Another major consideration here is that the play is not well-known in the English-language theatre. With Peer there’s a performance tradition against which any new treatment or version can be measured.  Rosmersholm is barely known.  I was commissioned to translate it for a production in Canada, where it had not yet ever been staged at all.

I think this startling play has suffered partly from its title. The English, who are linguistically lazy, can’t visually analyze the name too easily, and tend to trouble no further with the play.  (In France and Germany, I have seen it called simply Rosmer.)  Rosmer is the family name, their holm is an island amid flowing water, in this case the lethal millrace.  Ibsen, very canny in the matter of choosing simpler Norwegian names for his foreign interpreters and public, might have been wiser to stay with his working title White Horses.  There’s an uncompleted first draft so named.  It’s a revelation of Ibsen’s critical-creative process: at once intuitive and rigorous.

Title or not, there’s no denying that the play itself is difficult. Certainly its leading characters are not likeable.  Yet they are of urgent significance to us;  indeed, they uncomfortably resemble us. For all their talk of liberation, they are in terror of freedom and its chaos, and - again like us - they can make only tepid and incomplete gestures of being free.  In their pathological flight from freedom, Ibsen locates the death-wish that mortifies our culture. 

In performance, two tempting paths especially must not be taken.  John Rosmer is not to be played as feeble and negative.  Within his limitations, this pathetic man does show courage; and the actor must build his character from that.  The complementary error is to make a feminist heroine of Rebecca West.  One can see why blue-stockings made an icon of her;  one distinguished writer even adopted her name.  (One fears she hardly perceived the character...)  But this Rebecca, however bold her progressive attitudes in the provincial Norway of 1886, is yet devious, manipulative, high-handed - and above all a murderess, who has systematically procured the death of a vulnerable loving wife.  (‘Poor Beäta,’ as they keep calling her:  the one healthy person in the whole sick configuration.) 

We are smug, if we feel superior to Rosmer in his fear of sex. The text, and the back-story, furnish all the clues we need as to why this man is so inhibited and frigid.  He genuinely does have, in his own despairing words, ‘a great capacity for love’.  If that line strikes us as laughable when it comes, we’re not alone;  better Ibsen scholars than I am have argued that Ibsen could satirize 'progressives' too.  There’s certainly some very bitter and painful comedy in this piece.  But I don’t hear a laugh-line in those words of John Rosmer.  I hear the desolate cry of a man who senses at a distance the great release of love, and the true freedom of spirit, that are in our human nature to experience and to achieve, but of which he knows he himself is pitifully uncapable.

And we need to look honestly at Rebecca too in this question of sex, struggling as she has done to burn her own sexuality out of her, and calling that a setting free. (Her beautiful image, of her new-won peace as ‘like that hush that stills a crag of seabirds at the midnight sun’, is one example why, in discussing Ibsen’s ‘prose’ plays, one must put the ‘prose’ in quotes.)  Rebecca may claim - and believe - that she unsexes herself as a sacrifice for love, because sexless love is the only love that Rosmer dare.  But what then of that terrible moment in the blackly brilliant Act III, where she is brought face to face with the appalling realisation that the step-father figure who has (by implication) sexually used her was her real father? 

An astonishing play, rebarbative and compelling - and urgent for our own times.  A remorseless journey inward, pitiless in its unmasking of evasion and denial, a dramatic mechanism tight as a trap -- .and in that dramaturgy too is poetry.

Originally commissioned by the Mirvish brothers for Kate Nelligan, who was to introduce the play to Canada. The plan was to work the production in London, and open it at the Old Vic. It would appear that, hearing of this project, the National Theatre precipitately announced a Rosmersholm of its own, and swiftly scheduled it in a translation that, circumstances suggest, was rather hastily achieved. This scotched our hopes of a London opening, and our whole project came undone. That National production seems to have ill served the play, and set back its cause by some (to date) 35 years.

Thus inevitably delayed, my translation’s first airing was on Radio 3 in 1990, with Lindsay Duncan as Rebecca and Michael Gough as the sepulchral deadly honest Kroll, in a production by John Tydeman - my last collaboration with that most authoritative radio director of his generation. Its first staging, years later, was a modest and un-trumpeted affair: in 1997 by the Attic Theatre Company at Wimbledon Theatre Studio, directed by Jenny Lee - a production, scrupulous and morally intelligent, that totally vindicated Ibsen’s play.

Translation published originally by Absolute Classics, now re-published by Oberon Books (subsequently Bloomsbury) in Ibsen:  Three Major Plays with my Peer Gynt and When We Dead Waken.


translated for the Almeida Theatre



The catastrophic ending of the play, on the page.  From the volume in the Ibsen Collected Edition that I used.  And the double-page spread makes a drastic image, too:  the closing text of Ibsen's last play, followed by simply ''Poems'.

The aging sculptor Rubek, a national figure, journeys home to Norway after a lifetime abroad.  With him is his young wife Maja, frustrated and bored.  Suddenly Irena returns into his life - the woman whom he had once loved, used as model for his greatest work, and then abandoned.  He had abandoned his artistic vision too, settling for a safe and lucrative career of bourgeois 'success'.  Now it is as though Irena comes to reclaim him, and re-awaken in him his potentials unfulfilled.  Meanwhile the young wife becomes sexually intoxicated with a younger, more earthy and physical man.  After an absence together, these younger two descend the mountain toward the living world below.  The older couple cross them on their way upward to the summit above - and the annihilating avalanche.

The last lines of the play, and the ending of Ibsen's life as a dramatist. Pax vobiscum! spoken by Irena's companion the Deaconness, a silent character till now, breaking her silence in benediction to Rubek and Irena, fallen in the avalanche. The last stage-note reads: Maja's rejoicing and song are heard from even further down the mountainside.

Ibsen's last play, and of disputed status. Some have felt that it betrays Ibsen's failing energies – the onset of senility, indeed.  Others suspect that Ibsen would have worked the text further, but health did not permit him.  Schematic and bald, it does have more the quality of a draft,– albeit a very advanced one, for each dramaturgical step is there.  The writing is brutally bare and minimal - especially at its climaxes, which seem under-written, more as a libretto has to be; the cataclysmic ending seems to cry out for Wagner indeed.  But we should remember that the 'big' double-suicide ending of Rosmersholm has a similar under-written quality.  The fact is that Ibsen wrote in terms of a bigger, more rhetorical style of acting.  The problem here lies rather in our English tradition of the light touch and the understated.  Which means that whoever presumes to translate this text for the British stage will be hard put to it to mediate its melodramatics effectively.  It is not an option here to over-translate or in some other way 'enhance' the text. 

What I aimed for was an inner musicality in my language, so that key words and climax-words came rhythmically where they would most effectively have done in melody. As for Wagner - well, Ibsen left it to his friend Grieg to worship at that shrine; he himself did not enjoy music.  In his own right, Ibsen is a poet whose dramaturgical procedures work to an ancient law that also Wagner knew - an Aeschylean law, in which a text's internal elements and motifs are things alive, charged with meaning, and in constant evolution.  Bald though it may seem, When We Dead Waken is a rich and complex organism, fearsomely compressed, whose texture on closer examination reveals itself as dense with motivic life.  Everywhere in it, images are in development and in reciprocation.  A typical example:  the aging sculptor, sleepless, sees two silent statue-like women cross the moonlit park;  conversely, his young wife, in her sleep, hears two men unseen in the dark, murmuring in a strange tongue.   Another:  the distant water, dead sea painted on the Act I backcloth, becomes for Act II a painted lake much closer, and a true flowing stream onstage. Finally, it explodes as an engulfing avalanche at the climax of Act III.  Other examples abound...  Just as in Wagner's music-drama the real action is not on the stage but in the music, in Ibsen's 'prose' plays the poetry is not in the metre but in the organic process. 

Why not the familiar title 'When we dead a-waken?'  One tampers with tradition at one's peril.  In this instance, the title is a line that's spoken in the play.  In its dialogue context, the traditional 'a-waken' has a rhetorical, inherited sound;  it strikes a false note:  the moral urgency of the moment onstage requires the harder and more immediate 'waken'.  And the title of course must be the line itself. 

When We Dead Waken was staged in this translation at the Almeida Theatre, London, in 1990, with the leading Norwegian actor Sven Sjønberg as Rubek, Claire Bloom as Irena.  Director: Jonathan Kent.

Translation originally published by Absolute Classics, now re-published by Oberon Books (subsequently Bloomsbury), in a volume  Ibsen: Three Major Plays together with Peer Gynt and Rosmersholm.

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