Editions: Methuen, 1964; Oxford University Press, 1962
Translations:Michael Meyer (Methuen); Evelyn Ramsden & Glynne Wickham (OUP)
Updated: 11 February 2000
Review number: 20
The Pretenders is another early Ibsen play, the earliest included in the Methuen series of Ibsen plays translated by Michael Meyer. It is a historical play dealing with a thirteenth century civil war in Norway. (The fact that it deals with Norwegian history is an explanation for its much greater popularity in Norway than elsewhere, though no knowledge of Norwegian history is needed to understand the play.)
Basically, the plot concerns a young king of slightly dubious legitimacy and the powerful nobleman who has acted as his regent since his birth. After his coming of age ceremony (at which his mother dramatically submits to trial by ordeal to prove his legitimacy), the King Haakon and his ex-regent Earl Skule start to drift apart, aided by the political manoeuvrings of the head of the Norwegian church, Bishop Nicholas.
Haakon has a radical new idea - to unite the whole of Norway as a country, to inspire people to care for the country as a whole rather than only their local neighbourhood; up to this point, the king has been viewed as the head of a group of local chieftains. Skule is enthralled by the idea, and seeks to make it his own. He is frustrated to realise that just as Haakon is more politically advanced than he is - as the man who conceived the idea - so Earl Skule is more advanced than his associates, who are unable to comprehend the idea of a united Norway. (After all, haven't the men of one town always been enemies of those of another?)
One of the main themes of the play is the meaning of patriotism, and the eventual victory of Haakon shows the capacity of the national idea to inspire. As an early work, there is not much criticism of nationalism, as you would perhaps expect of Ibsen later on, though the parochialism of the various parts of Norway could be seen as a criticism of the parochialism of Norway as a whole in Ibsen's time. Ibsen is perhaps most critical of the church; the bishop is the only character with no real nobility.
In some ways, Michael Meyer's translation is beginning to seem rather dated, yet Evelyn Ramsden and Glynne Wickham's does not, despite its greater age. This is because the OUP translation is much more aimed at production. (Meyer's translation has been staged, but I would imagine that it would seem rather stilted without further adaptation.) Ramsden and Wickham use stronger, more melodramatic words to emphasise the character of Bishop Nicholas, and the pivotal scene is much more clearly seen to be the one in which his spirit returns from hell to tempt Earl Skule into an act which will destroy the kingdom. The scene is distinctly like that in Peer Gynt in which Peer meets the ominous figure of the button moulder, also representing death and judgment.