The Ibsen Harvest

UNTIL after the death of Henrik Ibsen, the literature concerned with his life and work dealt almost solely with a traditionary figure. This legendary being was a little crabbed old man, taciturn, uncommunicative, even bearish, who occasionally broke the silence only to lash out with envenomed rage at his enemies or else to offend gratuitously the friends and admirers who sought to do him public honor. Now that we are left alone with memories, and reminiscences, both kindly and malicious, the spiritual lineaments of the Norwegian seer tend to define themselves to popular vision. For the first time, it is becoming possible to discover the man in his works, and to trace a few of the many vital threads in the close-meshed fabric of his dramatic art. While such biographies as those of Vasenius, Henrik Jaeger, and Fassonge are mediately accurate in recounting the leading events of Ibsen’s exterior life, while such studies as those of Brandes, Ebrhard, Shaw, and others are brilliant biographies of Ibsen’s mind, so far no effort has been made to relate the man to his work. It would be more accurate to say that there has been no systematic attempt to discover the real human being who lurks behind the cartoons of Yallotton, Laerum,and Scotson-Clark, the real human heart beating beneath the formidable frock-coat of the “ little buttoned-up man.”

The first biography of Ibsen written by Englishman or American is the work of Haldane MacFall,1 who confesses with becoming modesty that he attempts “ but to give an impressionistic picture of the man, a record of the accidents of his living that we call life, and a rough estimate of his genius and his significance.” The narrow range of Mr. MacFall’s intercourse with the Ibsen literature is compensated for neither by signal critical perception nor by personal acquaintance with the subject of his biography; and in using the new material furnished by the Letters, he has quoted them as so many records of fact, without imagination or interpretation. Supported by the initial declaration that “ to understand Ibsen’s full significance in art, it is necessary to read Ibsen’s plays,” he blithely proceeds to propound Ibsen’s “ full significance ” after the mere perusal of the plays; and devotes twenty-eight pages to An Enemy of the People, cutting off The Master Builder with a paltry twelve. The Ibsen riddle is complacently ignored; another truism is shattered, and at last we have an Ibsen which is “ spoon-meat for babes.”

In critical studies of Ibsen, treating constructively of his dramatic art from a chosen point of view, America has been singularly deficient. To Ibsen, the countries which have concerned themselves with his life and art have given a defining title or character: Norway thought of him first as a Conservative and later as a Radical; Germany was divided between those who classed him, respectively, as naturalist, individualist, and socialist; and France abhorred his anarchy while celebrating his symbolism. In England, Ibsen has been classed as a literary muckraker, as a thinker of abnormally astute intellect, or simply as a dramatist quite innocent of polemical, ethical, or redemptive intent. In America, Ibsen as champion of individual emancipation came too late, one might almost say with truth ; although the literature of exposure is never mat à propos in a civilization whose protection rests upon perpetual publicity.

America surpasses the civilizations of the Ibsen social dramas in the production of self-assertive individualists; thelbsenic iconoclasm made no noise in America, for with us Ibsen was hammering at an open door. It is quite natural and logical to find the interest in Ibsen in America confined almost exclusively to the minor public of intellectual and literary affiliations, and to American scholars. The recent American studies upon Ibsen are concerned, as might be expected, with specialized phases of his art as a dramatist, rather than with disquisitions on his life, politics, religion, or philosophy.

It is cause for gratification that The Ibsen Secret2 is sub-entitled, not The, but A Key to the Prose Dramas of Henrik Ibsen. The grim, sardonic smile with which Ibsen greeted interpretations of, or inquiries as to the purport of, his art works might well deter one from complacently claiming to have discovered the Ibsen secret. Bernard Shaw once said that if people knew all that a dramatist thought, they would kill him; and Ibsen, like Sargent, always means far more than he says. Ibsen is doubtless in the confessional mood when he puts into the mouth of Professor Rubek the words concerning his own sculptures: “ All the same, they are no mere portrait busts. . . . There is something equivocal, cryptic, lurking in and behind these busts — a secret something that the people themselves cannot see.” In Ibsen’s plays, Professor Lee has found something cryptic, lurking in and behind the mechanical framework — the symbol. Her theory is novel, not for the assertion of Ibsen’s utilization of symbol, but for the insistence upon the invariability of its employment. The ingenuity she displays in demonstrating her thesis is equaled only by her success in draining the plays of red blood and humanly vital signification.

I find it as destructive of the life of Ibsen’s plays and of his characters to identify A Doll’s House with a tarantella, Hedda Gabler with a pistol, or Oswald Alving with a burning orphanage, as to identify (after Erich Holm) Solness with the Bourgeoisie, Ragnor with Socialism, the burning of the old home with the French Revolution, and Hilda with Freedom. Ibsen’s art is universal enough to embrace symbol as one of its attributes; and the latest and most reputable light on Ibsen illuminates the intimate bond allying his art with actual experience. Life contains no symbols save those we read into it; and the secret of an art, purporting to be an exact replica of contemporary life, is something far more human and universal than the symbol.

However opinions may differ in regard to Ibsen as symbolist, poet, philosopher, polemist, or man, critics as a rule are agreed that Ibsen was a great master of stagecraft. The world now awaits the elaborate critical study, of which Professor Brander Matthews has given the popular outline.3 The author of such a study, when it appears, will treat exhaustively of Ibsen as technician. While Ibsen’s early plays were faulty in technique, modeled chiefly upon French plays which Ibsen himself produced or saw produced, certain it is that he developed, comparatively early in his career, that indifference to rules and categories of which he speaks in one of his letters; and even if Lady Inger of Ostraat, with its entangling intrigues, and The League of Youth, with its artificial arrangement, do follow the model set by Scribe, the first betrays great dramatic power and the second is the harbinger of a series of masterpieces in the new manner. Before A Doll’s House (1879), Ibsen accommodated himself to the best prevailing standards of dramatic art, gradually freeing himself of such unreal theatric devices as the soliloquy and the aside. And it must be borne in mind that Ibsen was a great constructive thinker and creator, not a mere disciple of Scribe; and it should also be remembered that Ibsen vehemently repudiated the suggestion of the slightest indebtedness to Dumas fils, who, it must be confessed, heartily returned Ibsen’s detestation. In spite of Professor Matthews’s ripe scholarship, which he barely succeeds in concealing, his essay betrays so strong a lack of sympathy with Ibsen and so manifest a predilection for French standards and models, that one is forced to conclude that he regards Ibsen as anti-social, “ really the most extreme of reactionaries.” And this study of Ibsen, in respect to his capacity as playwright, leaves something to be desired, in the lack of elaboration of the technical faults and virtues of the social dramas, and in its betrayal of the author’s unfamiliarity with important data and studies bearing upon the evolution of Ibsen’s art as playwright.

In England, Ibsen has been interpreted principally by three men. In vigorous controversy, in the Fabian Society, and on the lecture platform, Bernard Shaw pronounced Ibsen the superior of Shakespeare, and through the columns of the Saturday Review poured a torrent of devastating satire upon Ibsen’s detractors (who had gallantly dubbed Shaw, Archer, and the other Ibsen adherents “ muck-ferreting dogs ”). Shaw’s book on Ibsen, The Quintessence of Ibsenism, is a brilliant distillation of the Ibsenic philosophy from the standpoint of the anti-idealist, concerning itself with Ibsen neither as poet nor dramatist. Edmund Gosse, whose Northern Studies first made Ibsen known to English readers, appeared to be interested in Ibsen chiefly as poet and dramatic path-breaker; this is likewise indicated by his other interpretative essays which appeared in leading reviews. His eagerly awaited biography of Ibsen 4 has recently appeared, serving as a companion volume to the Archer edition of Ibsen’s plays. “ What has been written about Ibsen in England and France,” Mr. Gosse observes in the preface, “has often missed something of its historical value by not taking into consideration that movement of intellectual life in Norway which has surrounded him and which he has stimulated. Perhaps I may be allowed to say of my little book that this side of the subject has been particularly borne in mind in the course of its composition.” In this respect, his book is admirable and unique among books about Ibsen written in English.

There is, however, a curious aloofness about Gosse’s interpretation of Ibsen, which causes one to wonder how two writers so fundamentally dissimilar — one so conservative, the other so startlingly daring — could ever have discovered the bond of mutual admiration and personal acquaintance. An air of curious insecurity is given to Gosse’s judgment by the fact that, in any attempt to relate Ibsen to his century by comparison with writers not Scandinavian, he sets him in juxtaposition to writers quite alien to him in spirit. One has the feeling that, to Mr. Gosse, the nineteenth century represents less the epoch of the evolution of contemporary civilization than a rather pleasant literary age in which flourished a group of writers with whose works he is conversant. There is, moreover, an unpleasant, rather repelling, impression produced upon one — especially upon one who long ago recognized the genuine humanity in Ibsen’s soul — by Gosse’s interpretation of Ibsen as a personality.

The lay reader puts down the book with the distressing conviction that Clement Scott was right after all: that Ibsen was at bottom suburban and provincial, at worst venomous and egotistic, at best shy, secretive, undemonstrative, ignorant of literature, kindly disposed to those who paid him homage, a reflective doubter who allowed his dubiety to extend even to the value of his own work. Many incidents recently narrated, tending to show the charm of Ibsen’s personality when he felt himself in the presence of a truly congenial spirit, —his genuine love for his wife, despite his amusing affectation of independence, his power to make warm personal friends of his admirers, — these and like incidents either do not appear in Gosse’s book, or, at least, are not given the stress pertinent to them in view of Ibsen’s “ popular ” character. Mr. Gosse has drawn an admirable portrait of Ibsen — from a definite point of view; and it goes without saying that this point of view is entirely Mr. Gosse’s own. But there are many humanizing details which are not in the picture; Ibsen in toto is not a perfect fit in the Gossian frame of mind.

Mr. Gosse and Mr. Archer, utilizing the latter’s collection of Ibseniana and all the important material up to the date of publication, have produced a set of books revelatory of the life, art, and significance of Henrik Ibsen, which bid fair to remain the definitive works in English for many years to come. In the introduction to his Henrik Ibsen Mr. Gosse says of Mr. Archer’s edition of the plays; “If we may judge of the whole work by those volumes of it which have already appeared, I have little hesitation in saying that no other foreign author of the second half of the nineteenth century has been so ably and exhaustively edited in English as Ibsen has been in this instance.” 5

The Archer edition concerns itself solely with Ibsen’s dramatic works; and even in this respect, it lacks the completeness of the German and Scandinavian editions in regard to the omission of Ibsen’s earliest tragedy, Catilina. It is to be regretted that this play, immature as it is, should have been omitted, in view of Ibsen’s own confession that it was full of self-revelation. In every other respect, the Archer edition is notable, alike for the richness of the brief introductions, in which so much information and valuable criticism is packed into such small compass, and for the accuracy of the translations. It is also to be regretted that the introductions contain less of Mr. Archer’s own personal reminiscences of Ibsen than one would wish; but Mr. Archer has been rigorous in his exclusion of all material not precisely conforming to the conditions set for the introductions. The translations of the plays, revised and worked over most thoroughly from former translations by himself and others, are admirable for precision and straightforwardness; and, save for occasional awkwardness or bookishness of expression, are models of their kind. If we have the feeling that, in Peer Gynt for example, the pristine sheen of native expression is rubbed off in translation, let us at least recall that we have much the same feeling in comparing Peer Gynt as produced by Mr. Mansfield with the same play as produced by Norwegian players.

Some years ago, in an article entitled “The Real Ibsen,” Mr. Archer declared that Ibsen is “ not pessimist or optimist or primarily a moralist, though he keeps thinking about morals. He is simply a dramatist, looking with piercing eyes at the world of men and women, and translating into poetry this episode and that from the inexhaustible pageant.” To such a broad conception as is here displayed is due the excellence of Mr. Archer’s treatment of Ibsen; and in his general introduction he takes occasion to express a similar view: “ It was not Ibsen the man of ideas or doctrines that meant so much to me; it was Ibsen the pure poet, the creator of men and women, the searcher of hearts, the weaver of strange webs of destiny.” There are passages in the Letters, there are recent reminiscences, which tend to validate the sanity of Mr. Archer’s view, and to prove that Ibsen’s prose ideal was, above all things, to produce the illusion of reality. Take, for example, that paragraph in the letter replying to Passonge’s inquiry about Peer Gynt, in which Ibsen says: “ Everything that I have written has the closest possible connection with what I have lived through, even if it has not been my own personal experience; in every new poem or play 1 have aimed at my own spiritual emancipation and purification — for a man shares the responsibility and the guilt of the society to which he belongs. Hence I wrote the following dedicatory lines in a copy of one of my books: —

“ To live — is to war with fiends
That infest the brain and the heart;
To write — is to summon one’s self,
And play the judge’s part.”

The significance of the expression “ lived through ” is not to be over-estimated for its importance as an actual statement of the form Ibsen’s imaginative contemplation was accustomed to take. Incidents, personal traits, characters in real life were all pondered over, sometimes for several years, with the utmost deliberation; if the idea did come first, it was fully incarnated in the chosen characters and incidents; and in the utilization of material Ibsen employed the strictest economy. He once acknowledged one of Herman Bang’s stories, Am Wege, with the statement: “I see all these people; I once met your station-agent at Vendsyssel.” 1

The same trait is printed by Brandes in an incident he relates of a certain dinner once given to Ibsen. One of the banqueters, who had taken in the beautiful actress, Fraulein Constance Brunn, arose at the banquet and said, “My partner requests me to present to you, Dr. Ibsen, the thanks of the actresses of the Christiania Theatre and to tell you that there are no roles which she would rather play, or from which she can learn more, than yours.” To which Ibsen immediately replied, “ I must state, at the outset, that I do not write roles, but represent human beings; and that never in my life during the creation of a play have I had before my eyes an actor or actress.” 2

From the early days when Ibsen realized himself as Catiline, and incarnated Henrikke Holst in Eline, to the later days of Emilie Bardach and her resurrection in the figure of Hilda Wangel, Ibsen always managed somehow to “ get hold of ” people for his dramatic works.

The future biographer of Ibsen must work out the hints given by Brandes and others, and discover the real names, true history, and actual connection with Ibsen of many now nameless people who served as models for Ibsen’s leading characters. Perhaps this will be a very difficult task, in view of the suspicion that Ibsen probably learned many traits of human character through the numerous letters, often from women, that he received, and of the fact that he was a relentless destroyer of letters. If those little figures that stood on his desk could suddenly be endowed with the power of speech, what strange stories they might have to tell! On the table beside Ibsen’s inkstand, we are told, was a small tray. In this tray were extraordinary little toys — “ some little carved wooden Swiss bears, a diminutive black devil, small eats, dogs and rabbits made of copper, one of which was playing a violin.”

What did Ibsen do with these little figures — identify each one with a human being, talk with them in the solitude of his room, shift them hither and thither, to take their parts and places in the new drama then preparing? “I never write a single line of any of my dramas unless that tray and its occupants are before me on the table,” Ibsen once remarked. “ I could not write without them. It may seem strange — perhaps it is — but I cannot write without them.”And, with a quiet laugh, he mysteriously added, “ Why I use them is my own secret.”

  1. Ibsen. New York and San Francisco: Morgan Shepard Company. 1907.
  2. The Ibsen Secret, By JENNETTE LEE. New York and London : G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1907.
  3. Inquiries and Opinions; article, “ Ibsen the Playwright.” New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1907.
  4. Henrik Ibsen. By EDMUND GOSSE. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1908.
  5. The New Edition of the Works of Henrik Ibsen. Edited, with Introductions, biographical and critical, by WILLIAM ARCHER. New York; Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1907. In eleven volumes.
  6. Erinnerungen an Henrik Ibsen. Von HERMAN BANG.Die Neue Rundschau. December, 1906. This “ Ibsen Number ” contains much valuable information about Ibsen.
  7. Henrik Ibsen. By GEORG BRANDES. Die Literatur, vol. xxiii, Berlin : Bord, Marquardt & Co. 1906.