The Feast at Solhaug, by Henrik Ibsen

INTRODUCTION

Exactly a year after the production of Lady Inger of Ostrat — that is to say on the “Foundation Day” of the Bergen Theatre, January 2, 1866 — The Feast at Solhoug was produced. The poet himself has written its history in full in the Preface to the second edition. The only comment that need be made upon his rejoinder to his critics has been made, with perfect fairness as it seems to me, by George Brandes in the following passage:1 “No one who is unacquainted with the Scandinavian languages can fully understand the charm that the style and melody of the old ballads exercise upon the Scandinavian mind. The beautiful ballads and songs of Des Knaben Wunderhorn have perhaps had a similar power over German minds; but, as far as I am aware, no German poet has has ever succeeded in inventing a metre suitable for dramatic purposes, which yet retained the mediaeval ballad’s sonorous swing and rich aroma. The explanation of the powerful impression produced in its day by Henrik Hertz’s Svend Dyring’s House is to be found in the fact that in it, for the first time, the problem was solved of how to fashion a metre akin to that of the heroic ballads, a metre possessing as great mobility as the verse of the Niebelungenlied, along with a dramatic value not inferior to that of the pentameter. Henrik Ibsen, it is true, has justly pointed out that, as regards the mutual relations of the principal characters, Svend Dyring’s House owes more to Kleist’s Kathchen von Heubronn than The Feast at Solhoug owes to Svend Dyring’s House. But the fact remains that the versified parts of the dialogue of both The Feast at Solhoug and Olaf Liliekrans are written in that imitation of the tone and style of the heroic ballad, of which Hertz was the happily-inspired originator. There seems to me to be no depreciation whatever of Ibsen in the assertion of Hertz’s right to rank as his model. Even the greatest must have learnt from some one.”

But while the influence of Danish lyrical romanticism is apparent in the style of the play, the structure, as it seems to me, shows no less clearly that influence of the French plot-manipulators which we found so unmistakably at work in Lady Inger. Despite its lyrical dialogue, The Feast at Solhoug has that crispiness of dramatic action which marks the French plays of the period. It may indeed be called Scribe’s Bataille de Dames writ tragic. Here, as in the Bataille de Dames (one of the earliest plays produced under Ibsen’s supervision), we have the rivalry of an older and a younger woman for the love of a man who is proscribed on an unjust accusation, and pursued by the emissaries of the royal power. One might even, though this would be forcing the point, find an analogy in the fact that the elder woman (in both plays a strong and determined character) has in Scribe’s comedy a cowardly suitor, while in Ibsen’s tragedy, or melodrama, she has a cowardly husband. In every other respect the plays are as dissimilar as possible; yet it seems to me far from unlikely that an unconscious reminiscence of the Bataille de Dames may have contributed to the shaping of The Feast at Solhoug in Ibsen’s mind. But more significant than any resemblance of theme is the similarity of Ibsen’s whole method to that of the French school — the way, for instance, in which misunderstandings are kept up through a careful avoidance of the use of proper names, and the way in which a cup of poison, prepared for one person, comes into the hands of another person, is, as a matter of fact, drunk by no one but occasions the acutest agony to the would-be poisoner. All this ingenious dovetailing of incidents and working-up of misunderstandings, Ibsen unquestionably learned from the French. The French language, indeed, is the only one which has a word — quiproquo — to indicate the class of misunderstanding which, from Lady Inger down to the League of Youth, Ibsen employed without scruple.

Ibsen’s first visit to the home of his future wife took place after the production of The Feast at Solhoug. It seems doubtful whether this was actually his first meeting with her; but at any rate we can scarcely suppose that he knew her during the previous summer, when he was writing his play. It is a curious coincidence, then, that he should have found in Susanna Thoresen and her sister Marie very much the same contrast of characters which had occupied him in his first dramatic effort, Catilina, and which had formed the main subject of the play he had just produced. It is less wonderful that the same contrast should so often recur in his later works, even down to John Gabriel Borkman. Ibsen was greatly attached to his gentle and retiring sister-inlaw, who died unmarried in 1874.

The Feast at Solhoug has been translated by Miss Morison and myself, only because no one else could be found to undertake the task. We have done our best; but neither of us lays claim to any great metrical skill, and the light movement of Ibsen’s verse is often, if not always, rendered in a sadly halting fashion. It is, however, impossible to exaggerate the irregularity of the verse in the original, or its defiance of strict metrical law. The normal line is one of four accents: but when this is said, it is almost impossible to arrive at any further generalisation. There is a certain lilting melody in many passages, and the whole play has not unfairly been said to possess the charm of a northern summer night, in which the glimmer of twilight gives place only to the gleam of morning. But in the main (though much better than its successor, Olaf Liliekrans) it is the weakest thing that Ibsen admitted into the canon of his works. He wrote it in 1870 as “a study which I now disown”; and had he continued in that frame of mind, the world would scarcely have quarrelled with his judgment. At worst, then, my collaborator and I cannot be accused of marring a masterpiece; but for which assurance we should probably have shrunk from the attempt.

W. A.

1 Ibsen and Bjornson. London, Heinmann, 1899, p.88

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/i/ibsen/henrik/feast/introduction.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38