Henrik Ibsen: His Life Abroad and Later Dramas
DURING the last two years of his life in Norway Ibsen felt as though he were standing on the verge of his grave. The atmosphere of Christiania oppressed him like the air of a charnel-house. This city, although the political capital of the realm, is not and never has been a centre of artistic and literary culture. At the beginning of the present century it numbered less than ten thousand inhabitants ; now it has a population of considerably over one hundred thousand. But this rapid growth has not improved its intellectual character, nor rendered it a whit less provincial than it was ninety years ago.
It is a significant fact that no Norwegian poet, except Henrik Wergeland, has ever sung the praises of Christiania; and even he only expresses a certain pleasure in its material prosperity. His sister, the well-known authoress, Camilla Collett, in her novel The Bailiff’s Daughters (Amtmandens Döttre), denounces in the bitterest terms the mean and petty spirit prevailing there. The city is large enough, she says, to peck slowly to death, with its thousands of malicious beaks, all at whom it takes offense, but not large enough to afford one such unfortunate person a nook in which he can hide himself from calumny.
Whoever takes the trouble to examine the files of the Kristianiapost of 1858, and the Morgenbladet and Aftenbladet of 1863, may see what absurd strictures, mingled with personal abuse, appeared in the columns of those journals under the guise of criticism, and will appreciate fully the feelings of disgust and the immense sense of relief with which Ibsen shook off the dust of Christiania from his feet, and bade what he hoped would be a final farewell to his fatherland.
No man can ever forget his mother country, although he may cease to remember it with pleasure. As Ibsen states in his poem Brændte Skibe, the column of smoke rising from his burnt ships blew northward, and formed a bridge over which a rider swiftly sped every night
From the sunny strand.”
In another poem he compares himself to an eider which
To feather its nest ”
on a wild Norwegian fiord. Thrice it makes the attempt, but each time the nest is despoiled of its soft down by greedy fishermen, until, in despair, the injured bird spreads its wings, and
To the south with its brighter and kinder skies.”
The manner in which the memory of Norway excites him to literary activity reminds him of the bear which is trained to dance by being made to stand in a large kettle heated by a slow fire ; as the tortured beast leaps up and down a merry melody is played. Ever afterwards, when Bruin hears this tune, he associates it with scorched paws, and begins to dance. It was by painful reminiscences that Ibsen’s imagination was stimulated to creative productivity during the first few years of his life abroad.
To the Norse poet, emerging from the mist and gloom of his native Niflheim, Italy was a new and marvelous revelation. It seemed to him that he had never before seen the sun. Nature, who had hitherto appeared to him with sombre visage and clad in sober gray, now wore a bright and joyous face, and arrayed herself in gorgeous colors far surpassing the limitations of her melancholy and monotonous Scandinavian wardrobe. This feeling is very clearly reflected in Brand, his first drama written on foreign soil and under the influence of foreign impressions. The Norwegian landscape, as described in this play, is rude, inhospitable, and utterly unattractive. Drifting snow, raging storms, inaccessible glaciers, threatening avalanches, and narrow valleys inclosed by rocky walls, and seldom visited by a ray of sunlight, fill the scene. The soft, summery air of the highlands, resplendent with “the lustre of gold and amber,”which he celebrated in his earlier poems, finds no mention here.
In Rome, too, the remains of classical antiquity, the ruins of a past civilization, excited in him the same lively interest and admiration that they had before awakened in the minds of Gibbon and Goethe. The emotions of wonder and insatiable curiosity, says Vasenius, with which the northerner at first regards the new and the unknown in this southern land, grew upon him from day to day, and soon developed into sentiments of warm sympathy and love. Unlike the majority of his countrymen and companions, he now thought of the Eternal City as a permanent abode, and there were moments when he spoke with bitterness of his determination never again to see his fatherland. The hot summer months he passed in the Alban Mountains or on the coast of Naples. His hours of work extended from early morning till far into the afternoon ; the rest of the day and evening he gave to walks and social recreation. He was a frequent and always welcome guest of the Scandinavian Club in the Via dei Pontefici, whose members, consisting chiefly of artists, were disposed to lionize him. “ A lion among ladies,” says Bottom, “ is a most dreadful thing ; ” but not more so, perhaps, than among youthful and enthusiastic wielders of the mahl-stick. Indeed, under any circumstances, as the same honest weaver remarks, “there is not a more fearful wild-fowl than your lion living.” In this case the lion positively refused to roar, and said by modest reserve as plainly as Snug the joiner could have done by words, “ If you think I come hither as a lion, it were pity of my life. No, I am no such thing. I am a man as other men are.” He very rarely referred to any of his published works, and evidently disliked to make them a topic of conversation. Still less could he be induced to discourse about any projected and unfinished play. This sort of author’s coyness has increased with the lapse of years, and he never permits even his most intimate friends to take a peep into the laboratory of his brain, where the half-formed creations of his imagination are being gradually turned into shape and endowed with life and individuality.
Three dramatic poems. Brand (1866), Peer Gynt (1867), and Emperor and Galilean (planned probably before leaving Norway, but not completed till 1873), belong to the transition period of Ibsen’s intellectual and poetic development chronologically coincident with his sojourn in Rome. The first two of these plays are distinctively dramas with a purpose, and portray two different phases of the Norwegian national character. Indeed, they are, strictly speaking, like Goethe’s Faust, not so much dramas as dramatic poems ; more suitable to be read than to be represented on the stage.
Brand is what has been called “ the tragedy of the categorical imperative.” The protagonist of the play is the stern personification of the uncompromising spirit, which demands “all or nought,” and refuses to admit half measures of any kind, or to make the slightest concession to the foibles and infirmities of human nature. He leaves his old mother to die alone without spiritual consolation, “ unhousel’d, disappointed, unanel’d,” because she is unwilling to renounce, before her death, all the earthly possessions which she had accumulated as his inheritance. He sacrifices his wife and child to an exalted idea of his mission. Even the sad and tender affection which the mother cherishes for the garments of her dead boy he censures as idolatry, and is not content until she gives these sacred souvenirs of her sorrow to a wandering gypsy. The sublime and sterile mountain peaks and glaciers among which he first appears, and finally disappears, symbolize the unattainable and unfruitful heights of his almost superhuman ideals and aspirations. He is the embodiment of an iron will, hard and inflexible, bruising whatever it comes in contact with, and stands in striking contrast to the weak and wishy-washy Norwegian liberals who had excited Ibsen’s contempt, and provoked his satire in the melodrama Norma.
Peer Gynt, on the other hand, represents the opposite element of weakness in the Norwegian character, namely, the injurious influence of an exuberant and undisciplined fantasy upon the normal growth and proper exercise of the moral faculties. The very first line of the play, in which his angry mother exclaims, “ Peer, du lyver ! ” is the sharp and succinct expression of the qualities of this inveterate liar, and assigns the piece a place in literature by the side of Corneille’s Menteur, Goldoni’s Bugiardo, and LaVerdad Sospechosa of Alarcon y Mendoza. In no other work has Ibsen given such free rein to his merciless sarcasm and caustic humor, and exemplified so fully the Horatian maxim concerning the force and fruitfulness of indignation as a source of poetic inspiration.
Peer is well up in Jügerlatein, and the descriptions of his hunting exploits and his ride on the reindeer are worthy of the immortal Münchhausen. He is a sturdy youth, and has a strong arm for drawing a long-bow.” He makes himself the hero of every strange adventure he has ever heard of or read about in fairy tales. This kind of illusion, which converts figments of the imagination into realities, is by no means a rare 'psychological phenomenon ; it is a sort of chronic calenture, which, so far from being confined to mariners exposed to the heat of the tropics, finds its victims among seamen and landsmen alike in every zone.
The action in Peer Gynt comprises the whole lifetime of the hero from the beginning of the century to the present day, and the scenes shift with kaleidoscopic facility and variety from the highlands of Norway to the coast of Morocco, the desert of Sahara, the streets of Cairo, the plantations of South Carolina, and back again to the seaports of the Baltic and the German Ocean. These constant changes bring us in contact with all classes and conditions of men, boors, patches and rude mechanicals,” sailors and shippers, wedding guests, old hags and youthful maidens, fairies and trolls, the weird sisters in the guise of herdswomen (sœterjenter), Bedouins, fellahin, slave-traders, lunatics, thieves, robbers, wandering minstrels; and numerous allegorical persons, such as the English, French, and German types, Master Cotton, Monsieur Ballon, and Herr von Eberkopf. Huhn from Malabar, who advocates a return to the primitive tongue of the orang-outangs, is a caricature of Norwegian purists and linguistic reformers (maalstrœverne) ; and the wretched fellah, who carries on his back the mummified corpse of an old Egyptian monarch, is a satire on the Swedes, who are always praising, but never imitating, the heroic achievements of Charles XII.
In 1867, Ibsen’s feelings of resentment towards the Swedes for their passive attitude during the Dano-German war were still fresh, and he presents them to us personified in Herr Trumpeterstraale, who limits his activity to wordy protests, and is ever ready to drain his goblet in a skaal to the Swedish sword, which he has not the courage to wield.
When Monsieur Ballon asks Peer Gynt whether he is a Norseman, he replies, “ Yes, by birth, but a cosmopolite in spirit.” He then goes on to specify of what elements this cosmopolitanism consists. He made his money in America. and attained the position of a “ Crœsus among Charleston’s ship-owners ” by importing slaves to South Carolina and carrying cargoes of idols to China, with an occasional consignment of missionaries to Asiatic stations ; for his well-filled bookshelves he is indebted to “ Germany’s younger schools ; ” France provides him with wardrobe and wit ; from England he acquired a will to work and a keen sense of his own advantage ; from the Jews he learned patience ; and Italy taught him the pleasures of idleness and made him an expert in dolce far niente.
Peer Gynt, like Dante’s Divine Comedy and Goethe’s Faust, is a poem which stimulates the commentatorial spirit and opens a field of endless conjecture to expositors, who doubtless discover in it profound philosophical ideas and hidden meanings never dreamed of by the author himself. That its symbolical characters and incidents are often quite obscure, and may sometimes baffle all attempts of the average reader to understand them, even the most enthusiastic admirer of Ibsen must admit. Notwithstanding these serious difficulties and the undeniable technical defects of the play, every page is so pregnant with thought and suggestiveness, every scene turning upon us, as it were, some new facet of the many-faced mirror of modern life, and the whole showing so fully " the very age and the body of the time,” that it seems hardly credible that any person of literary taste and ordinary intelligence should find it either dull or wholly unintelligible. Nevertheless, it will probably be a long while before even the most ardent Ibsenite will venture to put this poem into English verse, or a translator will appear possessing the necessary skill and courage for the successful achievement of such a task. Passarge’s German version, published in 1881, and now in a second revised edition, although very creditable to that enthusiastic and indefatigable interpreter of the Norse poet, fails to do justice to the marvelous compactness and vigor of the original. Whether Borch, Herrmann, Strodtmann, Lange, Brausewetter, Caroline von Klingenfeld, or any other of the many German translators of Ibsen’s dramas would have done the work better is questionable.
It may be proper to state in connection with this that all the German versions of Ibsen’s plays are fairly good, and the renderings of the later prose dramas for the most part excellent. The only fault to be found with them is that the translators have taken the liberty of changing the names of many of the dramatis personœ, and have thus created unnecessary confusion. There is no reason, for example, why, in The Young Men’s League, Lundestad should be transformed into Dransfelt and Lundenburg, or Bratsberg into Malsberg and Steilberg, or Stensgård into Steinhof and Windhof, or Fjeldbo into Felder and Feldmann. There is also nothing gained by calling Torvard Helmer, in A Doll’s House, Robert, or Krogstaad, Gunther. In a stage adaptation of The Pillars of Society for a German theatre, Rörlund, the curate, appears as a “ school-master,” and thus the cloth is saved from a stain in the eyes of the religious public. Years ago, Meyerbeer’s Huguenots could be represented in Munich only by transferring the scene of the massacre to Scotland, and making Covenanters the wicked persecutors of Catholics. But one would imagine that the day had gone by when these thin disguises and weak concessions could deceive any one, or serve any other purpose than to render the authors of such pitiable shifts ridiculous. Also in Passarge’s translation of Ibsen’s miscellaneous poems (Digte) the celebrated Balloon Epistle to a Swedish Lady, written at, Dresden in December, 1870, is included; but all the keenest thrusts at Bismarck, Fritz. Blumenthal, Moltke, and Prussia are either carefully omitted, or so completely blunted as not to wound the tenderest susceptibilities of the German people. The poem has all the pith taken out of it, and is thus deprived of whatever literary worth or historical interest it may possess.
Emperor and Galilean is a drama in two parts, entitled Cæsar’s Apostasy and Emperor Julian. It is by far the longest of Ibsen’s works, and some ten or more years elapsed between its inception and completion. Distinct traces of this gradual and often - interrupted process of composition are perceptible in a certain inequality of artistic execution, and can hardly fail to escape the eye of the critical reader. During his four years’ sojourn in Rome the poet had this play constantly in mind, and made many historical studies with direct reference to it, but confesses that his point of view was at that time too strictly Scandinavian to enable him to do justice to such a subject. In 1868, he brought his notes and a few fragmentary sketches of scenes with him to Dresden. Then came the Franco-German war of 1870, and the rapid political development and consolidation of Germany. These sudden and startling events exerted in many respects a transforming influence upon him. Heretofore, as he admits, he had looked at human history and human life from a narrow national standpoint. His horizon was now immensely widened and his historical perspective cleared and deepened. The great changes which took place under his eyes in the latter half of the nineteenth century dispersed the northern mist, that had obscured his view of the struggles which agitated the Roman world during the latter half of the fourth century. Under the intellectual impulse produced by this movement he went to work again on Emperor and Galilean, and finished it in 1873.
The extraordinary character and career of the brilliant but somewhat exalted and eccentric Cæsar, whom the Church has unjustly branded as apostate, has always had a peculiar fascination for dramatic poets, especially for those who are fond of studying complicated and conflicting social conditions and spiritual crises in the history of mankind, and solving the puzzling psychological problems which they involve. It is well known that Schiller took, as he says, a “ terrible interest ” in this imperial personage, whose Misopogon and Epistles he requested Goethe to procure for him from the Weimar Library; and one of the best tragedies by the Danish poet Carsten Hauch, a Norwegian by birth, is his Julian den Frafaldne, which was published at Copenhagen in 1866. Ibsen’s “ world-historical play,” as he calls it, is written in prose, and contains many scenes of singularly tragic intensity and power, which would be exceedingly effective on the stage; but, as a whole, it is hardly suitable for representation, and, like Brand and Peer Gynt, was not intended for this purpose. Both from an artistic and dramaturgical point of view, it is, nevertheless, decidedly superior to the work of his countryman and older contemporary. This is especially true of the first part, in which the process of Julian’s intellectual growth and evolution is unfolded and traced to its origin in the environment of a corrupt Christian court.
The action in Peer Gynt, as we have already seen, embraces the events and experiences of an individual life, and exhibits in succession the follies and vices of an entire generation of men and women. It is an arraignment of modern civilization, in which the poet dumps his general indignation into the vehicle of vigorous dialogue, and thus produces a congeries of vivid scenes and striking situations, which, however forcible as satire, lacks the dramatic cohesion and consistency essential to a perfect work of art. Indeed, there is in it something akin to the vast ness and vagueness of a musical symphony ; and one of the finest of recent compositions is Grieg’s suite, Peer Gynt, Op. 46, containing the themes Daybreak, Aase’s Death, Anitra’s Dance, and in the Halls of the King of the Dovre Mountains.
It is only when properly pruned that the poetic imagination keeps its strength and vitality, and bears its finest fruits. “In der Beschränkung,” says Goethe, “ zeigt sich erst der Meister ; ” and in no dramatic creations of the present time is this maxim more admirably illustrated and artistic mastery through limitation more completely attained than in Ibsen’s later productions.
In a poetic epistle (et rimbrev) addressed to a “ dear friend,” who asked why it is that every one nowadays seems so full of unrest and despondency and dark forebodings, Ibsen replies in parable by describing a richly laden ship setting sail for a distant shore. A fresh breeze bears the stout vessel on her course through the sparkling waves ; compass, sextant, and telescope are in perfect order; the freight has been safely slowed by approved stevedores ; captain, cook, and steward are each at his post, providing for the security and comfort of the passengers, who have every reason to be cheerful and confident and free from care. But no sooner is the ship at sea than a vague feeling of apprehension begins to prevail ; a nameless dread oppresses them all; the slightest. incident excites alarm; a flaw of wind, a flapping sail, a wave breaking over the deck, a leaping dolphin, or an albatross suffices to spread consternation. What is the matter ? What has happened ? Has the ship sprung a leak ? Have the provisions failed? Not at all. We are going on as usual, but without hope, or courage, or burst of song : —
Men uden håb og mod, og uden sang.”
The suspicion has arisen among the crew, and has spread from the forecastle to the cabin, that there is a corpse, on board.
The poet then applies this seaman’s superstition to Europe’s ship of state, in which every passenger has his ticket and his bunk and his place at table, all duly regulated and registered. The engine is good, the steam is up, the well-oiled piston works without a jar, the tireless screw beats the billowy brine, a nicely adjusted sail keeps the vessel from rolling, a strong-armed steersman holds her in her course, a vigilant captain walks the bridge and sweeps the horizon with his spyglass: what more is needed for a prosperous voyage ? But notwithstanding this apparently fair sailing, there is no lightness or joy in any face, and every soul is weighed down by some heavy burden of anxiety : —
i forlugarer og i pragt-kahytter.”
One sultry night, as the poet stood on deck alone “ with the stars and the stillness,” and looked down through the half-open skylight on the passengers below, statesmen, theologians, learned professors, artists, and authors, each the victim of some form of brooding melancholy and dark presentiment, a voice as of a man in a nightmare came from beneath, and broke upon the ear with the despairing cry, “ There ’s a corpse on board : ” —
In this poem Ibsen strikes with a clear and ringing stroke the fundamental tone of the chord which vibrates in various modulations through all his later dramas, each of which is devoted to the analysis of some single morbid feature of our social and domestic life, and unravels some mesh in the vast web of falsities and hypocrisies, out of which is woven the conventional vesture of what Paolo Mantegazza calls our " Tartuffian age.” From the cradle to the grave, says the Italian professor, we live in an atmosphere of lies, that feed and clothe and flatter us, amuse us when annoyed, soothe us in sorrow, smooth the ruggedness of our pathway through life, and glorify us in funeral orations and necrologies after death.
The first of the remarkable series of realistic plays, upon which Ibsen’s reputation chiefly rests, was The Young Men’s League (De Unges Forbund), begun in Rome, and finished during the winter of 1868-69 in Dresden. The scene of the action is the chamberlain Bratsberg’s foundry, near an industrial town in southern Norway, and the time the 17th of May, the anniversary of the Norwegian Constitution of 1814. One of the principal characters is the lawyer Stensgård, a political adventurer and agitator of the worst sort, a brazen-faced egotist, shameless and sycophantic, and ever ready to sell the services of his glib tongue to any party that seems for the moment best adapted to further his ambition for office. Low fellows of this type played a prominent part in Norwegian public affairs a quarter of a century ago, and Ibsen performed a patriotic duty by putting them in the pillory. The piece was represented for the first time at Christiania, October 18, 1869, and as vigorously clapped by one faction as it was violently hissed by the other. At a second representation, two days after, the friendly and hostile demonstrations became so vehement that the manager was obliged to appear before the curtain and state that unless quiet were restored the performance would be stopped. There was no further interruption till the middle of the fourth act, where Bastian Monsen exclaims to Stensgård, “ Don’t you know what the nation is ? The nation is the people,— the common people; those who have no thing and are nothing; those who are bound in servitude ; ” and Stensgård replies, “ What, the deuce! is that for tomfoolery?” Thereupon the storm of partisan feeling broke out anew, and continued to vent itself in mingled applause and cat-calls until the curtain dropped ; and long after the gas was extinguished and the doors of the theatre were closed, the streets echoed with the voices of angry and excited disputants.
Ibsen visited Stockholm in the summer of 1869, and passed a few weeks at Copenhagen in the following year; but while this controversy was waging in the theatre and the press at Christiania, he was on the banks of the Nile, as the honored guest of the Khedive at the opening of the Suez Canal. In some verses entitled At Port Said, he expresses his indignation at the manner in which the poetic mirror he had pol ished should have been smutched in his native land : —
for mandlige tøjter,
var hjemme smudset
af stænk fra fløjter.”
His play was criticised not as a work of art, but as a political pamphlet, and bandied about in the dusty arena of party strife. In the summer of 1874, however, when he paid a first visit to Norway after a ten years’ absence, he not only received the warmest welcome from all classes and factions, but The Young Men’s League was also given in his honor, and enthusiastically applauded, without a single dissenting hiss, from the rising of the curtain to the going down of the same. It was on this occasion that the students of the University brought him an ovation in the form of a “banner-procession,” in response to which he made a short but exceedingly interesting autobiographical speech, setting forth his personal relations to his countrymen, his intellectual relations to his dramas, and his general conception of the functions and mission of the poet. “ It was a long time,” he said, “ before my eyes were opened to the fact that poetizing is essentially seeing.” The office of the poet is therefore identical with that of the seer, and does not expend itself in mere singing; although simply as a master of rhythm and rhyme, Ibsen has few equals among his contemporaries. His lyrics and early dramas show a marvelous facility in the purely mechanical part of poetical composition ; but he never attached much value to this faculty, and, to the regret of some of his admirers, has in late years let it fall into abeyance. “ Life,” he says elsewhere,“ is war with the trolls that haunt the heart and the brain, and poetizing is holding doomsday over one’s self.” He would agree with Emerson, that the exercise of this sort of seership is
No tinkling of piano-strings,”
but demands an earnest and exalted purpose, and
As with hammer or with mace.”
“ Liberty, equality, and fraternity,” says Ibsen, " are no longer what they were in the days of the beatified guillotine. This is something which the politicians fail to comprehend, and therefore I hate them. Men wish only to effect partial external and political revolutions ; but this is sheer nonsense. What is needed is a revolution of the spirit of man. ... I would gladly take part in a revolution to abolish the state, but feel no interest and have no faith in revolutions which aim merely to reform it.” In his lines addressed To my Friend the Revolutionary Orator, he comes to the conclusion that it would be better to lay a torpedo under the ark than to attempt to steer the clumsy and leaky craft away from its shoaly moorings into the deep waters of the ocean. Not only is “ the state the curse of the individual,” as in Prussia, where “ the servingman makes the best soldier,” and is therefore the most valuable citizen, but all social and domestic institutions which hamper the free growth and proper development of the personality are evil, and should be set aside.
Hitherto in the world’s history women have suffered most from this tyranny of the community and the family, and it is their revolt against it, in some of its manifold and most illusive forms, that is portrayed in Ibsen’s plays. In Brand the artist Einar treats Agnes as a pretty little butterfly, which he has caught in a net; and she hovers about him, perfectly happy in this relation, and only anxious lest her dainty wings may be too roughly touched, until she meets a man of heroic spirit in the protagonist of the drama, and perceives by contrast the real contemptibleness of her cravenhearted lover. This conception of woman as a soulless toy and amusing automaton is most drastically expressed by Peer Gynt in the scene in which he makes love after his fashion to the Bedouin maiden Anitra, who is not to have any will or thoughts or purposes of her own, but is to live and move and have her being in him : —
uden vilje, ja, og nej,
vil jeg vide fyldt af mig.”
Stensgård, in The Young Men’s League, regards marriage .solely as a means of social advantage and political preferment; and it is otherwise a matter of indifference to him whether he forms a matrimonial alliance with the honorable and aristocratic Bratsberg or with the rich and rascally upstart Monsen, or leads the grocer’s widow, Madame Rundholm, to the altar. In the third act of the same play, the episodic outburst of indignation with which Selma, the wife of Erik Bratsberg, astonishes her husband and his family is a sudden thunderclap, prophetic of the storm that is gathering on the horizon, and is destined to beat upon A Doll’s House and bring it to its fall. “ Oh, how you have maltreated me! ” she exclaims, — " shamefully maltreated me, all of you together ! You have always compelled me to receive, and never per mitted me to give. You have never required the least sacrifice of me, nor laid upon me the slightest weight of care. When I asked to share your burdens, you put me off with a flattering jest. How I hate and detest you ! You have brought me up to be dandled like a doll, and to be played with as one plays with a child.”
It is in this wise that Ibsen, while solving one social or psychological problem, often suggests another, and touches, as it were, in passing, upon some topic which he makes the theme of a subsequent drama. As Selma foreshadows Nora, so, in A Doll’s House, the halfjesting allusion of Dr. Rank to his “ poor, innocent spine, which has to pay the penalty of the dissipations of his father when he was a gay lieutenant,” forebodes the dreadful fate of Oswald Alving, in Ghosts. The little cloud, no bigger than a man’s hand, reappears, and, overspreading the sky and shutting out the sun, fills the whole scene with darkness and impenetrable gloom.
Helen Alving, following the advice of Pastor Manders, with his narrow, pharisaic sense of duty, does not dare to obey the dictates of her better womanly instincts, and do what a commonplace, conventional standard of morality censures Nora for having done ; and the consequences of such an act of treachery and apostasy to her nobler and purer self are traced in this fearful tragedy. Her return to her dissolute husband not only involves a life of hypocrisy and deceit, but also transmits a taint of insanity to her only son. who was the “ worm-eaten ” fruit of this reunion. Never was the doctrine of the vicarious expiation of sin and the predestination of the guiltless to damnation, through heredity, brought home to the hearts and consciences of men more powerfully than in this play. It is Calvinism, with the implacable law of descent substituted for the arbitrary will of God. The ghosts ” which are here encountered are not the vulgar spooks of superstition nor the visioned spectres of the imagination, but the foul goblins which are bred in the blood, and haunt a man’s posterity as inherited tendencies and ineradicable taints, and drive his children’s children, generation after generation, to suicide or the madhouse. They are no mere phantoms, but dread realities, as distinctly recognized by science as the microbes of cholera or the bacilli of rabies, but far more insidiously destructive in their devastations, and beyond the reach of any prophylactic.
As the mother detects in her son the first symptoms of his father’s vicious propensities, “Ghosts!” she exclaims. Oswald now stands before her the incarnation of the deceased Captain Alving, from whose corrupting companionship she had so carefully shielded him. Subsequently. in her conversation with Pastor Manders, she adds: “I am inclined to think we are all ghosts. It is not only what we have inherited from our fathers and mothers that walks with us: it is all sorts of dead ideas and old beliefs and the like, which have lost all their vitality for us, but which cling to us nevertheless, so that we cannot get rid of them. If I take up a newspaper, I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines as I read it. There must be ghosts all over the country, as thick as the sands of the sea. And then we are, one and all, so pitifully afraid of the light.” Pastor Manders is horrified at such sentiments, and attributes them to the detestable, incendiary, freethinking books ” she has been reading. “ You are mistaken, my dear pastor,” she replies. “ It was you yourself who set me thinking, and I thank you for it.” “ I ” cries the astonished clergyman. “ Yes,” retorts the lady; “ when you forced me into the bonds of what you called duty and obligation, and praised as right and proper what my whole soul rebelled against and looked upon with loathing. Then it was that I wished to test your teaching on my own seam. I meant to undo only a single stitch, but when I had loosened that the whole thing raveled out, and I saw that it. was all mere machine-sewing ! ”
Thus we clothe ourselves in a web of conventional and traditional opinions, and fondly imagine we are clad in mail; but at the first rip or rent produced by rough contact with the realities of life the shoddy texture goes to pieces, and leaves us with hardly a shred to hide our nakedness.
It is the utterance of such sentiments on the part of Mrs. Alving that has caused Ibsen to be denounced as a nihilist, and has contributed not a little to put Ghosts under the ban of the police in Germany. The poet, in a private letter, emphatically protests against this attempt to hold him responsible for the views expressed by the persons of his dramas, and especially by the characters in this play. The introduction of the author’s private opinions into the dialogue, he says, is forbidden by the essential nature and technical structure of such a work, and would defeat his purpose by preventing the reader or spectator from receiving the strong impression of actuality which it is his aim to produce. “ My poem,”he adds, “does not preach nihilism nor any other ism. Indeed, it does not undertake to preach at all. It indicates that with us, as everywhere, nihilistic ideas are working and worming under the surface. If true to modern life, it could not be otherwise.”
The popular conception of a poet as a person on a par with a lunatic, subject to ecstatic fits, and productive only in rare exalted moods, when his
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,”
does not find its realization in Ibsen. There is nothing spasmodic in the manifestations of his genius, and no posing, as one possessed, on the Pythian tripod. Not only are all his habits of life, his outgoings and his incomings, remarkably regular, but also his methods of work are as strict and systematic, as those of any man of science. A vigorous and well-preserved natural constitution prevents any loss of time from bodily ailments, and a certain sternness of reserve effectually wards off all intrusions of lionism and vulgar tuft-hunting. His plans, therefore, seldom suffer interruption, and are carried to completion without hasting and without resting. The casual reader would scarcely suspect what an amount of careful study and conscientious use of the critical file the compact structure of his dramas and the admirable simplicity of his dialogue imply. He moves slowly, but with a firm step which never sinks into a slouch.
Each play goes through three stages of elaboration, or rather of evolution, before it is finished. In the first draught, which is rapidly outlined, his characters are chance acquaintances, such as one might fall in with on a railway train. He does not know them well, but the conversation, although only touching the surface of things, interests him, and he jots down any little remarks they may make. Day after day, however, he walks and talks with them and thinks about them, at each interview getting a clearer and deeper insight into their qualities, until they are, to use his own comparison, like persons whom he has associated with for a month or six weeks at a watering-place. Then comes the second draught of the play, in which the traits of the several persons appear more distinctly marked ; they are no longer mere shadows of names, but real men and women, each with an individuality of his or her own. He is now on such an intimate footing with them that they begin to reveal themselves to him without reserve, and have no longer any surprises for him. He reads them like a book ; they are open volumes to him ; he looks into the innermost recesses of their hearts and knows their most secret thoughts ; they can do nothing which he does not foresee, nor deceive him as to the motives of their actions. At this stage the third and final draught is made. The finished manuscript is a model of neatness and legibility, not a single blot or erasure marring the beauty of the page. His chirography is a fair index of Ids intellectual character, clean, upright and downright, and a little rigid withal. His process of thinking is as direct and straightforward and free from all obliquity and slovenliness as his penmanship.
Ibsen is biennial in his poetic productivity, but, unlike his botanical prototypes, does not exhaust his fruitfulness in a single bearing. The Pillars of Society (Sanfundets Stötter) appeared in 1877, A Doll’s House (Et. Dukkehjem 1) in 1879, Ghosts (Genganere) in 1881, An Enemy of the People (En Folkefiende) in 1882, The Wild Duck (Vildanden) in 1884, Rosmersholm in 1886, and The Lady of the Sea (Fruen fra Havet) in 1888. Another drama is due in 1890, and will appear with the punctuality of a planet just before the Christmas holidays. The only break in this regular chronological sequence is the publication of An Enemy of the People in 1882; but the shorter interval in this case was due to the extreme provocation excited by the manner in which Ghosts had been received.
In this drama Ibsen had shown how our physical and spiritual life may be poisoned at its sources, which are none the less pestilential because they are concealed by a fair hymeneal altar, erected by the state, consecrated by the church, and adorned and adored by society. Woe to the man who dares to lay a sacrilegious hand upon this shrine, or to suggest that a filthy mantled pool of corruption may be hidden beneath it, exhaling noxious vapors, whose virus the odor of burning incense may disguise, but cannot disinfect! Such was the position in which Ibsen was placed by the publication of Ghosts ; the dramatic allegory of the pestiferous aqueduct in An Enemy of the People was his self-defense and vindication.
Dr. Stockmann discovers that the springs of the baths of which he is the medical director are badly contaminated, and that this corruption has its origin chiefly in the tanneries of his father-inlaw, Morten Kiil. His brother Peter is also burgomaster of the town. Like an honest man, whom no personal, pecuniary, or family considerations can bribe, he at once makes his discovery known, and expects, as a matter of course, that his fellow-citizens will all approve of his conduct, and aid him in removing the evil at any cost. At a public meeting, which he had called for the purpose of making a full statement of the case, he is refused a hearing, and by a formal resolution, unanimously adopted, is branded as “ an enemy of the people.” His indignation at such unworthy treatment finally breaks forth in fierce denunciations of society in general, of which the filth under the bath-rooms is only a fitting symbol. “ I have made a discovery,” he declares, “of infinitely greater moment than the trivial fact that our water-works are poisoned, and that our hygienic establishment is built upon a pestiferous soil.” It is “the discovery that all the spiritual wellsprings of our life are poisoned, and that our whole civic society rests upon a soil infected with the pestilence of lies.” Furthermore, the channel by which these lies are conveyed and the contagion spread is “ the compact majority, this cursed compact liberal majority, — the most dangerous foe of truth and freedom.” “ The majority has unfortunately the might, but not the right. The minority is always right.”
Thus, in the progress of the play, a little watering-place on the southern coast of Norway becomes typical of modern society and civilization. This transition, in the fourth act, from the symbol to the thing signified adds immensely to the psychological scope and moral purpose of the drama, however much it may disturb its artistic unity by the introduction of what appears to be another theme. In An Enemy of the People, we again meet two of the most contemptible characters of The Young Men’s League. The unscrupulous demagogue Stensgård has fulfilled Lundestad’s prediction and risen to the highest position in the state, and the wretched Aslaksen has become a wealthy and worthy householder, and figures as an enterprising publicist and influential citizen. The success of these rascals is a striking illustration of the truth of Dr. Stockmann’s statements, and lends additional force to his denunciations.
Interesting, too, is the manner in which Ibsen often touches upon some topic or settles some theory, incidentally, in a single paragraph. Thus the remark of Petra’s younger brother, that she must have many sins on her conscience, because she is always so industrious, since the preacher says that work is imposed upon us as a penalty for sin, is the reductio ad absurdum of a whole system of theology, so far as it is based upon the doctrine that labor is a curse.
Dr. Stockmann is the embodiment of perfect truthfulness and plain-speaking, and the fearlessness with which he performs his painful duty excites our sincere sympathy and admiration ; but that such a line of conduct has its limitations is shown in The Wild Duck. The tragic consequences of extreme candor are exhibited in Gregers Werle, who, from the best of motives, makes it his mission in the world to set up an ideal standard of right doing and right living, to which every one must conform at all hazards. In his endeavors to emancipate and ennoble his friends by freeing them from all self-deceptions and beneficent illusions, he destroys their domestic happiness, and plunges them still deeper into the slough out of which he would fain lift them.
The antipodes of Gregers Werle is Dr. Relling, who holds the world to be such a wretched place and men such contemptible creatures that they can live and thrive only in an atmosphere of lies. Illusions are absolutely essential to human happiness, and the unfortunate persons who are so poor as to have none should be provided with them by their friends. If Molvig and Hjalmar Ekdal are fair specimens of average humanity, Relling’s cynical pessimism is fully justified, and the greatest charity to one’s fellow-men is to prevent them from coming to a thorough knowledge of themselves.
When Ibsen visited Norway in the summer of 1885, it seemed to him as though the land were inhabited. “ not by two million human beings, but by two million cats and dogs.” Political antitheses had degenerated into personal antipathies, and calumny was the favorite weapon of controversy. Mere differences of opinion concerning matters of church or state sufficed to sever the closest bonds of kinship, and to convert the most intimate friends into the bitterest foes. This rupture of the most sacred domestic and social relations by the fanatical spirit of partisanship is admirably set forth in Rosmersholm, in which Rector Kroll, who asperses the moral character of Parson Rosmer on account of the latter’s change of views, is the type of conservatism and orthodoxy, and the time-serving Peter Mortensgård and the brilliant but dissolute Ulric Brendel, who is in the last stages of financial, intellectual, and moral seediness, and ready to accept alms of all sorts, from a pair of old boots to a bundle of “ cast-off ideals,” represent the triumphant radicalism of that period. But the chief dramatic and psychological interest of the play centres in the nobleminded and naive ex-pastor Rosmer and the energetic and unscrupulous intrigante Rebecca West, the moral of whose expiatory death is the elevating and transforming power of a love which has become gradually purged from every taint of selfishness and sensuality, and, when put to the test, gladly proves its worthiness by supreme self-sacrifice.
In The Lady of the Sea we have the solution of the puzzling problem that ruffled for a moment the placid spirit of Selma in The Young Men’s League, and so sternly confronted Nora in A Doll’s House and Helen Alving in Ghosts. Had Dr. Wrangel been an egotistic prig like Torvald Helmer, Ellida, too, would have abandoned her home and followed the mysterious mariner, who returned to claim her as his bride. But in her case the “miracle” of manly love, which Nora had so confidently and vainly expected to see revealed in the character and conduct of her husband, is wrought. Instead of rudely asserting his marital authority, and bidding her remember that she is first of all his wife and the mother of his children, he gently lifts the galling conjugal yoke from her neck and gives her back her liberty. 'The perfect freedom of choice awakens a lively sense of responsibility such as no mere matrimonial thrall could ever feel, and brings with it a clearness of perception and strength of will which enable her to perceive and to pursue the right course without the slightest vacillation. The hypnotic spell, which could not be broken at another’s behest, dissolves like the mists of the fiord in the presence of a self-reliant personality. Peculiar, too, is the part which nature plays in Ibsen’s dramas. As in Brand the mountains symbolize the aspirations of the emancipated and enlightened intellect, so here the sea is the mystic emblem of the soul’s striving to free itself from the fetters of common conventional life.
The charge of immorality which some good people have urged against these works is due either to a false conception of morality, or to an utter misapprehension of the nature and purpose of the works themselves. The accusation is as absurd as the Neapolitan’s denunciation of doctors as the originators and disseminators of cholera, thus branding them as the authors of the ills which they only detect and would fain prevent. According to the doctrine of evolution, the greatest sin one can commit is the neglect of one’s own highest culture and development. It is this ethical corollary to modern science that Ibsen accepts as the only firm foundation of morals, and illustrates and inculcates in his dramas. What he insists upon is the sacredness of the individual. It is at this shrine, which the state, the church, and society have hitherto so recklessly and ruthlessly desecrated, that he pays his devout homage. Here, too. he recognizes no distinction of sex. In this respect, he is the most radical living apostle of “ the emancipation of woman ” in the truest sense of the much-abused phrase.
F. P. Evans.
- Et Dukkehjem should be translated A Doll Home, or perhaps a still better rendering would be A Puppet Home. It might even be admissible to use the homely equivalent, A Baby House. For the sake of convenience and to avoid confusion, however, the play is referred to in the present paper by the title of the English version, A Doll’s House.↩