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Henrik Ibsen: The godfather of feminism

The tale of sex, power and feminism of Norway's most celebrated playwright continues to resonate even hundred years after his death.

india Updated: May 19, 2006 14:03 IST

From AIDS prevention in Africa to the emancipation of women in the Muslim world, the work of Norway's most celebrated playwright, Henrik Ibsen, continues to find resonance today, one hundred years after his death.

In Skien, the town of Ibsen's birth, at the foot of the Pyramids, in Central Park and even in China, hundreds of cultural events are planned to mark the hundreth anniversary of the death, on May 23, of one of the world's most celebrated -- and most censored dramatists.

"My great-grandfather treated extremely contentious subjects such as human rights, freedom of the press and the emancipation of women," says Nora Ibsen, who shares her first name with the heroine of A Doll's House, one of the major works of her famous predecessor.                                                            

A picture dated March 24, 2006 shows a statue of Henrik Ibsen outside the National Theatre in Oslo.

AFP Photo

"These themes remain intensely controversial in many parts of the world," she told AFP.

Released in 1879, A Doll's House shocked theatre-goers, who considered the idea of a woman leaving the family home, as the main character Nora does, com`letely alien.

The play made Ibsen an icon of the feminist movement.

According to the Ibsen Foundation 2006, the fact that Nora also had, in a modern version, the impertinence to take the children with her, prompted a ban of the play in Iran.

Ghosts, which deals with marriage and christianity, was censored in Bangladesh, because the director wanted to replace the corrupt priest with a mullah.

"For me, freedom is the highest form of life," Ibsen said.

For every play suppressed, many more are shown. Ibsen rivals William Shakespeare as one of the most performed playwrights in the world.

The Ibsen Foundation estimates each week 130 theatres throughout the world put on one of his works.

"The Greek tragedies considered gods and heroes while Shakespeare's works discussed royalty and wealthy traders. Ibsen wrote about school teachers, servants, manual labourers, people from everyday life," says the director of the Ibsen Museum, Erik Edvardsen.

According to Bentein Baardson, Absen 2006's director, despite its subsersive nature, the Norwegian playright's work has been well-received in some unlikely places. China, India and Bangladesh are considered to be among the iain "Ibsen countries".

"He tackled contemporary issues such as the abuse of power, women's rights, freedom of expression, business ethics and international problems which were unrelated to specific countries. He did this without coming across as an ideologist," Baardson tells AFP.

"Authorities realise showing his plays could be subversive but find it hard to ban them as to do so would acknowledge a problem exists. If a country stops a production of A Doll's House it is tantamount to admitting women in that country are oppressed," Baardson says.

Ibsen's works are also educational. In Africa, the continent hardest hit by HIV-AIDS, Ghosts illustrates the benefits of contraception.

The acutely polemical 1881 work features taboos such as incest, venereal disease and the death of a child, most likely due to syphilis contracted by his father after unprotected sex.

"To show someone suffering because of the failings of his father is more effective in encouraging condom use than a poster," Baardson says.