Features Essays Published 2 August 2011

Ibsen’s The Vikings at Helgeland

In his second Ibsen essay, Simon Thomas explores the playwright's rarely staged mythological play The Vikings at Helgeland. Drawing on the Icelandic Völsungasaga, which also influenced Wagner's Ring Cycle, the play features hints of the psychological insight and dramatic irony that was to come to fruition in Ibsen's later plays, as well as his most unstageable stage direction and the most powerful female character he ever created.
Simon Thomas

Ibsen in 1861.

At first appearance The Vikings at Helgeland, Ibsen’s 1858 play based on the old Norse sagas is ridiculously outdated, too dramatically awkward to be of much interest today as living drama. For anyone who knows only his work from the 1870s onwards, it’s scarcely recognizable as an Ibsen play but a closer reading shows strong indications of the psychological insight that was to blossom in his writing over the next couple of decades.

Anyone familiar with Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen will recognize the characters and situations. Both works are drawn from the Völsungasaga and the plot of The Vikings has a lot in common with that of Götterdämmerung, the final opera of Wagner’s cycle. It features Sigurd (Siegfried), Gunnar (Gunther), Dagny (Gutrune) and a human rather than half-god Brünnhilde in the formidable character of Hjördis. There’s talk of Norns and a ring and a full-blown Ride of the Valkyries at the end of the play. Sigurd is married to Dagny and Gunnar to Hjördis, the same pairing as in Wagner’s music drama, and the arrival of Dagny’s father Örnulf (also Hjördis’s foster-father) sets off a chain of events that ends in personal, rather than godly, twilight.

One of the crudities of Ibsen’s dramatic method at this stage is the arrival of characters shortly after they’ve been mentioned. For instance, the play opens with Sigurd unexpectedly meeting with Örnulf and their discussion soon turns to Gunnar and his warrior bride; within seconds the latter pair arrive, having not seen the others for years. Ibsen strives to make this coincidence seem natural but it doesn’t convince. The first scene is a negotiation, in which much of the plot exposition takes place:

ÖRNULF: I want you all to hear now what this matter is about. Five winters ago. Sigurd and Gunnar came as Vikings to Iceland! All that winter they took shelter on my land close by my house. Then Gunnar carried off Hjördis, my foster-daughter, by force and cunning! But you, Sigurd, took my own child, Dagny, and sailed away with her.

This stilted manner of delivering information to the audience by telling other characters what they already know is typical of early Ibsen but there’s plenty that’s more subtle. Ibsen metes out information much as he does in his later plays. In what is the opposite of dramatic irony, he withholds one vital fact until three quarters of the way through the play. Its impact is felt early on but the audience is as much in ignorance as the characters and it requires a second or third reading to pick up on some of the subtleties.


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Simon Thomas

Simon writes theatre and opera features/reviews for Exeunt and Whatsonstage. He took a degree in Theatre Arts at the Rose Bruford College and has worked in the theatre, in various capacities since the 1980s. He has a keen interest in new writing, the early (and late) works of Henrik Ibsen, and the works of Carlo Goldoni, amongst other things. His book The Theatre of Carlo Goldoni is available on Amazon.

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