Saturday, May 28, 2016

The League of Youth

Henrik Ibsen wrote The League of Youth during his exile in Berlin during the early 1870's.  The play follows Ibsen's two great verse dramas, Brand and Peer Gynt, and, in contrast to those works, The League of Youth is determinedly prosaic and conventional -- a well-made play after the French manner with a circuitous plot and a complex denouement involving no fewer than three marriages.  The story involves an ambitious young lawyer, Stensgaard, who comes to a small village in the hinterlands, dabbles in a local election, and rattles the status quo both erotically and politically.  Although the play is said to be popular in Scandinavia, it is rarely performed elsewhere -- indeed, there is a possibility that the production mounted by the Commonweal Theater in Lanesboro, Minnesota between April and June 2016 is the premiere of this work in the United States.  That said, the play is so cunningly constructed with such a wealth of fascinatingly cynical characters that the work is fairly well-known in translation.  My big book of Ibsen plays, reprinted from the 1950's with an introductory essay by H. L. Mencken publishes a translation of the work and my guess is that the play is frequently read and studied -- it is after all an interesting transitional work between Ibsen's visionary verse plays (heavily influenced by Goethe) and his later realistic and, indeed, symbolist works. 

A word of caution is in order.  The version of The League of Youth presented at the Commonweal Theater is "an adaptation" by a Minnesota playwright, Jeffrey Hatcher.  The original play is lengthy and extraordinarily complex with a huge cast of characters.  Hatcher has substantially abridged the play and eliminated half of its cast -- he has switched genders with respect to some of the characters and the climactic roundelay of farcically botched wedding proposals involves, to some extent, entirely different characters than those who end up getting "hitched" in Ibsen's original work.  Hatcher has eliminated the drunken newspaperman, Aslaksen, the cynical doctor/commentator Fieldbo, and has changed Mons Monsen into Mrs. Monsen; some minor roles he elevates, other major parts he reduces or excises entirely.  Several of the erotic subplots are cut -- Stensgaard is an equal opportunity seducer; he makes passes at all of the women in the play regardless of their marital status or age.  As a result, The League of Youth only slightly resembles Ibsen's play -- the skeleton of the work is on display, but much of text's hyper-complex narrative is eliminated.  Things only suggested in the original are made overt and much of the play's elliptical and ironic dialogue is missing.  (In my translation, League of Youth has an eerie dream-like indeterminacy -- we know that Stensgaard is constantly conniving, but we get the sense that he doesn't really have any firm objective in mind.  When he gives a rabble-rousing Communist speech at a local election party, Stensgaard seems to astound himself and spends the rest of the play improvising different schemes based upon the splash that he has made with that oration -- no one knows what to make of Stensgaard including, I think, Ibsen himself.  League of Youth implies something quite unsettling -- for Stensgaard everything is provisional except his Nietzschean will-to-power and he acts by intuition as opposed to calculation.  He's like Donald Trump -- everyone knows he's in the game only for himself but no one can figure out his next move or why he will make that move.)  In some ways, Hatcher's version of The League of Youth feels like King Lear with the entire subplot involving Edgar and Gloucester eliminated -- it's like Hamlet without Ophelia. 

Hatcher's adaptation is probably all to the good.  It seems likely that League of Youth would be much too long, too clogged with speeches and too intrinsically local to be acceptable to American audiences.  (The play caused street-fighting in Oslo when it was first premiered -- the pragmatically vague political agenda espoused by Stensgaard led conservatives to think they were being ridiculed while the liberals were similarly outraged by what they were perceived to be mockery of their party.  This situation is echoed by a scene in the play in which Chamberlain Bratsberg, the local grandee, is not clear whether Stensgaard's maiden speech is denouncing or praising him -- although all the auditors of the speech know quite well that Stensgaard's intent is malicious.)   Hatcher's adaptation is a sprightly 2 hours and five minutes long -- probably less than half the running time of the play as written.  The show preserves the lineaments of Ibsen's complicated plot -- Stensgaard espouses a political position that he changes in every act depending upon who is trying to impress and seduce.  He proposes marriage to all of the women in the play in turn -- desperate to secure an advantageous match.  The proceedings are generally very funny and the script is sharply written -- it has something of the air of a fast-paced screwball comedy, a tone that is foreign, I think, to the original but that works effectively.  Stensgaard's wild egotism and self-serving antics are picturesque and he is amusing without being actually loathsome.  The battered and dilapidated local elector, Lundestad, is funny -- deemed to be a great orator, he is unable to say anything without slipping into tautology and malapropism.  Chamberlain Bratsberg is a wonderful combination of angry indignation and unctuous self-aggrandizement.  Everyone in the play is some species of business failure or crook and the show is wonderfully cynical.  Hatcher superimposes on the play a final speech by Stensgaard who has been rejected by all of the women, his political prospects dashed and his hopes for prosperity ruined -- in livid red light, Stensgaard cries out for revenge, suggesting, perhaps, that the Communist revolutions of the 20th century will be an outcome of the resentment that he feels at his failures in the small Norwegian town.  This is gratuitous but effective -- it's as if Malvolio were allowed the last word in Twelfth Night and permitted to prophecy the coming revolution of the Puritans.  The show is presented on a thrust stage with a couple pieces of furniture that cast members lugged on and off as required -- there was a hand-painted flat representing some birch trees that could be reversed to simulate, very crudely, the interior of a house or saloon.  Good theater doesn't require anything in the way of sets -- the Commonweal production made this eminently clear. 

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