The Academy: session abstract and readings

Literature, Lecture 3: Realism on stage: the individual vs society

Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, arguably not his strongest play, could have been written to explore this year’s Academy theme of the public – the public as an irrational mob and public opinion and democracy as thwarting truth. He is enthusiastically embraced by Ayn Randian libertarians and associated with Nietzschian ‘Superman’ elitism as the champion of the individual against the herd. However, he is also lauded by leftish environmentalists. Recent productions have compared Dr Stockmann to Edward Snowden and in his day, the play was embraced by Fabian socialists, collectivists and social reformers. Indeed, in his lifetime, Ibsen was turned into a figurehead of a subversive, counter-culture of critics, admirers, and followers, led by George Bernard Shaw who formulated the doctrines of Ibsenism in The Quintessence of Ibsenism

But while the theme of the individual versus society, selfish individualism, exceptional individuals – men and women - posited as ‘supermen’ are present in all four plays we’ll look at in the lecture, the reason for choosing Ibsen and Shaw is to explore their influence on the changing nature of drama’s relationship with its public, the theatre-going audience.  Ibsen is often described as the father of modern drama. His significance (and that of Shaw and those who followed him) is in putting realism, even naturalism, on stage, as a way of bringing into the open the main serious social and political issues of the age.

From a twenty-first-century perspective, it can be hard to appreciate just how revolutionary realism in the theatre was in its time. Nineteenth-century plays had become trivial, formulaic, melodramatic amusements; a popular parade of maudlin, shallow, sentimental entertainments, unapologetic about their artifice. In contrast, realism often strove for photographic verisimilitude: the fourth wall between actors and the audience was removed. Ibsen’s dramatic method and technique overthrew the traditional conventions of playwriting in which not only was every character clearly a villain or a hero, but also - through soliloquies, asides, or confessions to a confidant - constantly informing the audience of characters’ motivations. Ibsen’s dramatic technique made the audience work harder to deduce for themselves the motivations of the characters: from their actions or from their realistic, everyday dialogue and small talk to each other (which rarely discloses of hidden desires or deep motivations). 


- Is Ibsen anti-democratic in An Enemy of the People? See especially Act 3 in the editorial office of the People’s Herald and Act 4 at the public meeting. 

- Is the master builder’s fate because he is too individualistic or too idealistic? Does Ibsen abandon realism in The Master Builder, with its trolls, symbols and dream-like air of mysticism?

- What is the attitude to the masses portrayed in George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara? For Shaw, the Realist himself was Superman: ‘out of a thousand persons…there are 700 Philistines, 299 idealists, and only one lone realist’. (The Quintessence of Ibsenism) Who is the realist in Major Barbara

- The subtitle of Shaw’s Man and Superman is ‘A Comedy and a Philosophy’. What philosophy does this ‘play of ideas’ explore? Look particularly at the epistle to Arthur Bigham Walkley in the beginning, the Revolutionist’s Handbook at the end (neither of which are performed) and the Don Juan dream scene in Hell in Act 4.


See the Academy 2015 readings page for attendees.

what's happening next

Battle of Ideas Festival 2019

Saturday 2 & Sunday 3 November 2019, Barbican, Silk Street, London