Henrik Ibsen left Norway in June 1864 and headed south, to live in Rome. Suffering from exhaustion, he’d spent 13 years as director of first the Norwegian Theatre of Bergen and then of Christiania (Oslo), where he’d been ground down by having to produce poor productions of bad plays and contend with all the problems of running theatres under difficult conditions. He had written 10 plays up to then and seen most of them produced. The Pretenders, which he staged himself in the months prior to his departure was the latest and most successful of them and was also the last play he was ever to direct.
Ibsen was an inveterate innovator, forever seeking the new, and it’s fair to say he never wrote the same play twice. As a result, there are a number of his works that can be considered, for different reasons, as turning points in his career. Among them are The League of Youth (1869), the first of his plays to attempt the social realism of later years and for which he boasted he’d managed to dispense completely with soliloquies and asides. Emperor and Galilean was also a transitional work in that it was the last of his historical plays and saw him turning his back on verse and ushering in the great rush of social reality for which he’s best known. The Pretenders may not quite count stylistically as a crossroads but, as the play he wrote before leaving for Rome, it is the last of the forgotten works of his “galley years.” Like Giuseppe Verdi, he’d stacked up a series of workmanlike oeuvres during which he’d learned his craft but, unlike the Italian composer’s immature operas some of which do get performed these days, most of Ibsen’s early plays are not easily revivable.
The Pretenders is the most sophisticated of these works and is a rattling good read, tightly constructed and with interesting characters and situations. It is also the last of Ibsen’s plays to deal with national historical identity and the break represented by the move to Rome freed up his mind to work on his first endurable masterpieces, Brand and Peer Gynt, before settling in to the most fruitful period of his career. The influence of the Scribean well-made play, something that Ibsen perhaps never completely threw off, is evident in the writing. Eugene Scribe dominated early 19th Century European drama and coincidence, predominance of plot over character, reversals of fortune and well-constructed twists typified his style. Ibsen had to produce many of Scribe’s plays during his time as a theatre director and, although it is often thought he looked to the French playwright for inspiration, he actually despised his theatrical naivety and artificiality. Even as late as A Doll’s House, though, Ibsen was using the unopened letter to drive plot, and this device appears in a number of his earlier plays (including The League of Youth where it’s used for comic effect). It crops up at a key moment in The Pretenders.