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Reflections from Norway: Ibsen, literature and society
Work on the translation and adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” in Indonesia
Reflections from Norway: Ibsen, literature and society
By Faiza Mardzoeki
“What wisdom was I walking upon?”, I thought, as strings of Norwegian words felt the impact of my feet along the footpath between the Ibsen Museum in Oslo to the famous Grand Café. Embedded artistically in the footpath were 60 quotations from the works of Norway’s great dramatist, Henrik Ibsen. I was curious to know which quotes had been chosen. I was preparing to produce my translation and adaptation of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” for performance in Jakarta and other Indonesian cities, and had been invited to Norway for a week, with director Wawan Sofwan, at the invitation of Norwegian government to meet people working on Ibsen there.. “Which quotes had they chosen from A Doll’s House?” I asked myself. Perhaps those Norwegian words that I was looking down upon were that fundamental exchange between Helmer and Nora:
HELMER: First and foremost, you are a wife and mother.
NORA: That I don't believe any more. I believe that first and foremost I am an individual, just as you are.
This striking piece of street artwork - Ibsen Sitat – stretches to the Grand Café, a grand building indeed in the middle of Oslo. Here too Ibsen’s presence was strongly felt. “Henrik used to sit there,” said a waiter, “every day, as he worked on his plays.” Photos of Ibsen were strategically placed in several places.
The sense of Norway’s pride in Ibsen was further reinforced by the impressive character of the Ibsen Museum and, of course, there too we had to pass along the Henrik Ibsen Gate. It was also possible to try to glimpse Ibsen’s daily life by touring through his home, which was also incorporated as part of the museum. The concern to make available all the manifestations of the impact of Ibsen’s works was shown in the lively decoration of the toilet walls; wallpaper made up of various reviews of his works.
The program that brought me to Norway was is another example of Norwegian society’s emphasis of making maximum cultural use of Ibsen’s contribution, as were the activities of all the institutions we met, funded by public taxes.
This effort to make Ibsen’s work a genuine treasure for the society has been an important inspiration regarding the link between literature and society. The idea that literature can play a major role in social and cultural change is one of the things that motivates the Institut Ungu, which will be producing A Doll’s House in Jakarta this year as well as organizing a public seminar around Ibsen, with Indonesian and Norwegian speakers.
Indonesia also has international level writers. There is Pramoedya Ananta Toer, whose works have been published in many, many languages as well as dramatists like Rendra and poets like Chairil Anwar. The characters of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s many novels, for example, would provide easily also 60 quotations for a footpath art work like Ibsen Sitat. Rendra’s and Anwar’s poems would also be such rich treasure troves.
“We fought back, Ma, as honorably and as well as we could.”
Yes, I could see these words by Minke to Nyai Ontsoroh, among many other words, embedded in art works that would make Indonesian literature also a treasure for Indonesians.
Unfortunately, there are no Pramoedya, Rendra or Anwar museums; no international promotion of their works and so on. Actually, there is also no significant funding for modern theatre at all in Indonesia. In fact, Indonesian children are not even taught to read an appreciate Pramoedya or Rendra or anybody else for that matter in the country’s high schools. Even after just a few days in Norway, however, the possibility of making a country’s literature a true treasure was underlined.
Inspiration for producing Ibsen
The visit also provided inspiration in relation to the process of producing and adapting Ibsen’s work. Clearly, the programs run in Norway help concentrate and foster many approaches. At the Centre for Ibsen Studies at Oslo University, we were able to have a very lively discussion with a range of people, including from other countries, such as Bangaldesh, about how to adapt and produce Ibsen’s plays. The discussion also included Professor Frode Helland, Head of the research project “Ibsen Between Cultures” and the Bangladeshi theatre director Kamaluddin Nilu. A part of the discussion, about the need in Bangladesh to be sensitive about how to portray the position of children, emphasized the impact of context on the process of adaptation. It was another pointer to the need to have a critical attitude in reflecting on the impact of context – in our case of semi-developed 21st century urban Jakarta.
This adaptation, interpretive aspect also came out in our meeting with Dr. Anne Helgesen from the Institute of Theater Science, University of Oslo. Her interpretation was emphasizing the position of children as just play-things for the parents. I could see that she was presenting a very sharp and vivid picture of the play-unrealness of the Nora Helmer relationship. The contradiction between a woman who starts to act as a child because she is treated as a child plaything, while at the same time being an astute and hardworking provider for the family was well drawn. In a particularly vivid method, she used puppets to represent the children, emphasizing even more the whole issue of “play-thing”ness.
In our discussions, she emphasized that many male directors of A Doll’s House have a very negative interpretation of Nora as hopeless, willing to abandon her husband and even the children. They are unable to capture the contradictions of Nora’s situation. Her approach is similar to the one I have used in my translation and adaptation. The exchange with her was very useful and watching the rehearsal inspiring and useful for our efforts in Jakarta.
Watching Hedda Gabler at the Saterhytten Bygdoy was also interesting and thought provoking. The performance I saw, with actors Juni Dhar and four others, was enjoyable to observe, despite out lack of Norwegian language. We had, of course, read the play already. What was interesting was its brevity. It was a one hour performance of a play, as with many of Ibsen’s, that could be for three hours. It clearly worked, aided through the artistic, innovative use of a house as the “stage”. The audience watched from inside the house, located in a forest, from very intimate quarters, able to see and respond to a blink or a wink of the actor’s eye. In Indonesia, we will also not be aiming for a three hour plus performance. The challenge will be how to shorten, adapt and creatively present our adaptation. As Juni Dahr emphasized in the discussions, it is very appropriate “to shorten the story as long as you capture the spirit of the story and its characters.” We are sure that Indonesians who come to watch “A Doll’s House” next November and December at the Gedung Kesenian Jakarta will get an inspiring dose of the spirit of rebellion and progress that is embodied in Ibsen.
NORA: "I have existed merely to perform tricks for you, Torvald. But you wanted it like that. You and father have committed a great sin against me. It is your fault that I have made nothing of my life. Our home has been nothing but a playroom. I have been your doll-wife, just as at home I was father's doll-child; and here the children have been my dolls." Nora, Act Three
(Faiza Mardzoeki is Director of Institut Ungu, Producer, Translator, and Playwright of a new Indonesian adaptation of Ibsen’s Doll’s House)