One of the big problems with modern politics is the rise of style over substance. The fact that we seem to care more about how a politician says something than what they’re actually saying. The League of Youth was written in 1869 and shows that this is an issue that has been around for a lot longer than people think.
Far too often when you think of Henrik Ibsen the first thing that comes to mind is dramas about tortured lawyers in the grip of some terrible ethical dilemma. Basically he isn’t renowned for his comedies. This is what makes The League of Youth such a refreshing change. It’s a political satire written about an ambitious young man named Stensgard, hoping to make a name for himself in a small provincial Norwegian town.
Stensgard’s great skill lies in his public speaking and his ability to whip crowds up into a frenzy. He’s probably best described as a cheerful opportunist, willing to say almost anything that will help him climb the ladder of success. So successful is he, he manages to convince himself as much as the public that he is working in their best interests. He founds the ‘League of Youth’ at the start of the play in order to attack the forces of conservatism in the town. They’re represented by the ruling Chamberlain and his pet MP. However after meeting with them Stensgard quickly decides that he actually wants to join forces so he can enjoy their high standard of living.
The Chamberlain is a man who is very aware of his own place in the world and is frightened by the fact that society is changing around him. He spends a lot of the play complaining that others should know their place and questions why the established order has to change. He also has to contend with a scandal plagued son and a daughter who wants to marry the local Doctor. Other characters include a banker representing the interests of finance and the growing middle classes, and the local newspaper editor who has several axes to grind.
Stensgard would be dangerous if he wasn’t also an idiot, lacking the intelligence and foresight of those around him. Complicating matters is his need to find a rich wife in order to meet the property qualifications of an MP. This proves trickier than he first thought and he ends up pursuing three separate women to marry. The play quickly spirals into farce at this point as Stensgard attempts to find a suitable bride, win an election and make and un-make deals with all of his rivals as their circumstances change. His ability to do all of these things at once is truly awe-inspiring.
The genius of the play lies in the fact that Ibsen manages to get the audience to switch their sympathies several times between the characters. Sometimes you root for Stensgard as he attempts to overthrow the Chamberlain, but just as often you’re repelled by him and what he represents. This is a play where everyone is constantly scheming against everybody else as they lie, cheat and double-cross.
Despite being 150 years old the play is concerned with many themes that are still relevant today. The forces of radicalism vs conservatism, the danger of media friendly demagogues, the effect power has on people. Most of all though it examines the question of what do we expect from our democracy and those representing us? Do we really get the leaders we deserve?
Here is footage from the recent Nottingham Playhouse production and a political broadcast by Stensgard: