Henrik Ibsen, by Edmund Gosse

Chapter IV


While Ibsen was sitting at Munich, in this climacteric stage of his career, dreaming of wonderful things and doing nothing, there came to him, in the early months of 1875, two new plays by his chief rival. These were The Editor and A Bankruptcy, in which Björnson suddenly swooped from his sagas and his romances down into the middle of sordid modern life. This was his first attempt at that “photography by comedy” which he had urged on Ibsen in 1868. It is not, I think, recorded what was Ibsen’s comment on these two plays, and particularly on A Bankruptcy, but it is written broadly over the surface of his own next work. It is obvious that he perceived that Björnson had carried a very spirited raid into his own particular province, and he was determined to drive this audacious enemy back by means of greater audacities.

Not at once, however; for an extraordinary languor seemed to have fallen upon Ibsen. His isolation from society became extreme; for nearly a year he gave no sign of life. In September, 1875, indeed, if not earlier, he was at work on a five-act play, but what this was is unknown. It seems to have been in the winter of 1876, after an unprecedented period of inanimation, that he started a new comedy, The Pillars of Society, which was finished in Munich in July, 1877, that summer being unique in the fact that the Ibsens do not seem to have left town at all.

Ibsen was now a good deal altered in the exteriors of character. With his fiftieth year he presents himself as no more the Poet, but the Man of Business. Molbech told me that at this time the velveteen jacket, symbol of the dear delays of art, was discarded in favor of a frock- coat, too tight across the chest. Ibsen was now beginning, rather shyly, very craftily, to invest money; he even found himself in frequent straits for ready coin from his acute impatience to set every rix-dollar breeding. He cast the suspicion of poetry from him, and with his gold spectacles, his Dundreary whiskers, his broadcloth bosom and his quick staccato step, he adopted the pose of a gentleman of affairs, very positive and with no nonsense about him.

He had long determined on the wilful abandonment of poetic form, and the famous statement made in a letter to myself (January 15, 1874) must be quoted, although it is well known, since it contains the clearest of all the explanations by which Ibsen justified his new departure:—

You are of opinion that the drama [Emperor and Galilean] ought to have been written in verse, and that it would have gained by this. Here I must differ from you. The play is, as you will have observed, conceived in the most realistic style: the illusion I wished to produce is that of reality. I wished to produce the impression on the reader that what he was reading was something that had really happened. If I had employed verse, I should have counteracted my own intention and prevented the accomplishment of the task I had set myself. The many ordinary insignificant characters whom I have intentionally introduced into the play would have become indistinct, and indistinguishable from one another, if I had allowed all of them to speak in one and the same rhythmical measure. We are no longer living in the days of Shakespeare. Among sculptors there is already talk of painting statues in the natural colors. Much can be said both for and against this. I have no desire to see the Venus of Milo painted, but I would rather see the head of a negro executed in black than in white marble. Speaking generally, the style must conform to the degree of ideality which pervades the representation. My new drama is no tragedy in the ancient acceptation; what I desired to depict were human beings, and therefore I would not let them talk “the language of the Gods.”

This revolt against dramatic verse was a feature of the epoch. In 1877 Alphonse Daudet was to write of a comedy, “Mais, hélas! cette pièce est en vers, et l’ennui s’y promène librement entre les rimes.”

No poet, however, sacrificed so much, or held so rigidly to his intention of reproducing the exact language of real life, as did Ibsen in the series of plays which opens with The Pillars of Society. This drama was published in Copenhagen in October, 1877, and was acted almost immediately in Denmark, Sweden and Norway; it had the good fortune to be taken up warmly in Germany. What Ibsen’s idea was, in the new sort of realistic drama which he was inventing, was, in fact, perceived at once by German audiences, although it was not always approved of. He was the guest of the theatromaniac Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, and The Pillars of Society was played in many parts of Germany. In Scandinavia the book of the play sold well, and the piece had some success on the boards, but it did not create anything like so much excitement as the author had hoped that it would. Danish taste pronounced it “too German.”

For the fact that The Pillars of Society, except in Scandinavia and Germany, did not then, and never has since, taken a permanent hold upon the theatre, Mr. William Archer gives a reason which cannot be controverted, namely, that by the time the other foreign publics had fully awakened to the existence of Ibsen, he himself had so far outgrown the phase of his development marked by Pillars of Society, that the play already seemed commonplace and old-fashioned. It exactly suited the German public of the eighties; it was exactly on a level with their theatrical intelligence. But it was above the theatrical intelligence of the Anglo-American public, and . . . below that of the French public. This is of course an exaggeration. What I mean is that there was no possible reason why the countrymen of Augier and Dumas should take any special interest in Pillars of Society. It was not obviously in advance of these masters in technical skill, and the vein of Teutonic sentiment running through it could not greatly appeal to the Parisian public of that period.

The subject of The Pillars of Society was the hollowness and rottenness of those supports, and the severe and unornamented prose which Ibsen now adopted was very favorable to its discussion. He was accused, however, of having lived so long away from home as to have fallen out of touch with real Norwegian life, which he studied in the convex mirror of the newspapers. It is more serious objection to The Pillars of Society that in it, as little as in The League of Youth, had Ibsen cut himself off from the traditions of the well-made play. Gloomy and homely as are the earlier acts, Ibsen sees as yet no way out of the imbroglio but that known to Scribe and the masters of the “well- made” play. The social hypocrisy of Consul Bernick is condoned by a sort of death-bed repentance at the close, which is very much of the usual “bless-ye-my-children” order. The loss of the Indian Girl is miraculously prevented, and at the end the characters are solemnized and warned, yet are left essentially none the worse for their alarm. This, unfortunately, is not the mode in which the sins of scheming people find them out in real life. But to the historical critic it is very interesting to see Björnson and Ibsen nearer one another in A Bankruptcy and The Pillars of Society than they had ever been before. They now started on a course of eager, though benevolent, rivalry which was eminently to the advantage of each of them.

No feature of Ibsen’s personal career is more interesting than his relation to Björnson. Great as the genius of Ibsen was, yet, rating it as ungrudgingly as possible, we have to admit that Björnson’s character was the more magnetic and more radiant of the two. Ibsen was a citizen of the world; he belonged, in a very remarkable degree, to the small class of men whose intelligence lifts them above the narrowness of local conditions, who belong to civilization at large, not to the system of one particular nation. He was, in consequence, endowed, almost automatically, with the instinct of regarding ideas from a central point; if he was to be limited at all, he might be styled European, although, perhaps, few Western citizens would have had less difficulty than he in making themselves comprehended by a Chinese, Japanese or Indian mind of unusual breadth and cultivation. On the other hand, in accepting the advantages of this large mental outlook, he was forced to abandon those of nationality. No one can say that Ibsen was, until near the end of his life, a good Norwegian, and he failed, by his utterances, to vibrate the local mind. But Björnson, with less originality, was the typical patriot in literature, and what he said, and thought, and wrote was calculated to stir the local conscience to the depths of its being.

When, therefore, in 1867, Ibsen, who was bound by all natural obligations and tendencies to remain on the best terms with Björnson, allowed the old friendship between them to lapse into positive antagonism, he was following the irresistible evolution of his fate, as Björnson was following his. It was as inevitable that Ibsen should grow to his full height in solitude as it was that Björnson should pine unless he was fed by the dew and sunlight of popular meetings, torchlight processions of students and passionate appeals to local sentiment. Trivial causes, such as those which we have chronicled earlier, might seem to lead up to a division, but that division was really inherent in the growth of the two men.

Ibsen, however, was not wholly a gainer at first even in genius, by the separation. It cut him off from Norway too entirely, and it threw him into the arms of Germany. There were thirteen years in which Ibsen and Björnson were nothing to one another, and these were not years of unmingled mental happiness for either of them. But during this long period each of these very remarkable men “came into his kingdom,” and when there was no longer any chance that either of there could warp the nature of the other, fate brought them once more together.

The reconciliation began, of course, with a gracious movement from Björnson. At the end of 1880, writing for American readers, Björnson had the generous candor to say: “I think I have a pretty thorough acquaintance with the dramatic literature of the world, and I have not the slightest hesitation in saying that Henrik Ibsen possesses more dramatic power than any other play-writer of our day.” When we remember that, in France alone, Augier and Dumas fils and Hugo, Halévy and Meilhac and Labiche, were all of them alive, the compliment, though a sound, was a vivid one. Sooner or later, everything that was said about Ibsen, though it were whispered in Choctaw behind the altar of a Burmese temple, came round to Ibsen’s ears, and this handsome tribute from the rival produced its effect. And when, shortly afterwards, still in America, Björnson was nearly killed in a railway accident, Ibsen broke the long silence by writing to him a most cordial letter of congratulation.

The next incident was the publication of Ghosts, when Björnson, now thoroughly roused, stood out almost alone, throwing the vast prestige of his judgment into the empty scale against the otherwise unanimous black- balling. Then the reconcilement was full and fraternal, and Ibsen wrote from Rome (January 24, 1882), with an emotion rare indeed for him: “The only man in Norway who has frankly, boldly and generously taken my part is Björnson. It is just like him; he has, in truth, a great, a kingly soul; and I shall never forget what he has done now.” Six months later, on occasion of Björnson’s jubilee, Ibsen telegraphed: “My thanks for the work done side by side with me in the service of freedom these twenty- five years.” These words wiped away all unhappy memories of the past; they gave public recognition to the fact that, though the two great poets had been divided for half a generation by the forces of circumstance, they had both been fighting at wings of the same army against the common enemy.

This, however, takes us for the moment a little too far ahead. After the publication of The Pillars of Society, Ibsen remained quiet for some time; indeed, from this date we find him adopting the practice which was to be regular with him henceforth, namely, that of letting his mind lie fallow for one year after the issue of each of his works, and then spending another year in the formation of the new play. Munich gradually became tedious to him, and he justly observed that the pressure of German surroundings was unfavorable to the healthy evolution of his genius. In 1878 he went back to Rome, which, although it was no longer the quiet and aristocratic Rome of Papal days, was still immensely attractive to his temperament. He was now, in some measure, “a person of means,” and he made the habit of connoisseurship his hobby. He formed a small collection of pictures, selecting works with, as he believed, great care. The result could be seen long afterwards by those who visited him in his final affluence, for they hung round the rooms of the sumptuous flat in which he spent his old age and in which he died. His taste, as far as one remembers, was for the Italian masters of the decline, and whether he selected pictures with a good judgment must be left for others to decide. Probably he shared with Shelley a fondness for the Guercinos and the Guido Renis, whom we can now admire only in defiance of Ruskin.

In April, 1879, it is understood, a story was told him of an incident in the Danish courts, the adventure of a young married woman in one of the small towns of Zealand, which set his thoughts running on a new dramatic enterprise. He was still curiously irritated by contemplating, in his mind’s eye, the “respectable, estimable narrowmindedness and worldliness” of social conditions in Norway, where there was no aristocracy, and where a lower middle-class took the place of a nobility, with, as he thought, sordid results. But he was no longer suffering from what he himself had called “the feeling of an insane man staring at one single, hopelessly black spot.” He went to Amalfi for the summer, and in that delightful spot, so curiously out of keeping with his present rigidly prosaic mood, he set himself to write what is probably the most widely famous of all his works, A Doll’s House. The day before he started he wrote to me from Rome (in an unpublished letter of July 4, 1879): “I have been living here with my family since September last, and most of that time I have been occupied with the idea of a new dramatic work, which I shall now soon finish, and which will be published in October. It is a serious drama, really a family drama, dealing with modern conditions and in particular with the problems which complicate marriage.” This play he finished, lingering at Amalfi, in September, 1879. It was an engineer’s experiment at turning up and draining a corner of the moral swamp which Norwegian society seemed to be to his violent and ironic spirit.

A Doll’s House was Ibsen’s first unqualified success. Not merely was it the earliest of his plays which excited universal discussion, but in its construction and execution it carried out much further than its immediate precursors Ibsen’s new ideal as an unwavering realist. Mr. Arthur Symons has well said [Note: The Quarterly Review for October, 1906.] that ”A Doll’s House is the first of Ibsen’s plays in which the puppets have no visible wires.” It may even be said that it was the first modern drama in which no wires had been employed. Not that even here the execution is perfect, as Ibsen afterwards made it. The arm of coincidence is terribly shortened, and the early acts, clever and entertaining as they are, are still far from the inevitability of real life. But when, in the wonderful last act, Nora issues from her bedroom, dressed to go out, to Helmer’s and the audience’s stupefaction, and when the agitated pair sit down to “have it out,” face to face across the table, then indeed the spectator feels that a new thing has been born in drama, and, incidentally, that the “well-made play” has suddenly become as dead as Queen Anne. The grimness, the intensity of life, are amazing in this final scene, where the old happy ending is completely abandoned for the first time, and where the paradox of life is presented without the least shuffling or evasion.

It was extraordinary how suddenly it was realized that A Doll’s House was a prodigious performance. All Scandinavia rang with Nora’s “declaration of independence.” People left the theatre, night after night, pale with excitement, arguing, quarrelling, challenging. The inner being had been unveiled for a moment, and new catchwords were repeated from mouth to mouth. The great statement and reply —“No man sacrifices his honor, even for one he loves,” “Hundreds of thousands of women have done so!"— roused interminable discussion in countless family circles. The disputes were at one time so violent as to threaten the peace of households; a school of imitators at once sprang up to treat the situation, from slightly different points of view, in novel, poem and drama. [Note: The reader who desires to obtain further light on the technical quality of A Doll’s House can do no better than refer to Mr. William Archer’s elaborate analysis of it (Fortnightly Review, July, 1906.)]

The universal excitement which Ibsen had vainly hoped would be awakened by The Pillars of Society came, when he was not expecting it, to greet A Doll’s House. Ibsen was stirred by the reception of his latest play into a mood rather different from that which he expressed at any other period. As has often been said, he did not pose as a prophet or as a reformer, but it did occur to him now that he might exercise a strong moral influence, and in writing to his German translator, Ludwig Passarge, he said (June 16, 1880):

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 I 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.

It was in this spirit of unusual gravity that he sat down to the composition of Ghosts. There is little or no record of how he occupied himself at Munich and Berchtesgaden in 1880, except that in March he began to sketch, and then abandoned, what afterwards became The Lady from the Sea. In the autumn of that year, indulging once more his curious restlessness, he took all his household gods and goods again to Rome. His thoughts turned away from dramatic art for a moment, and he planned an autobiography, which was to deal with the gradual development of his mind, and to be called From Skien to Rome. Whether he actually wrote any of this seems uncertain; that he should have planned it shows a certain sense of maturity, a suspicion that, now in his fifty-third year, he might be nearly at the end of his resources. As a matter of fact, he was just entering upon a new inheritance. In the summer of 1881 he went, as usual now, to Sorrento, and there [Note: So the authorities state: but in an unpublished letter to myself, dated Rome, November 26, 1880, I find Ibsen saying, “Just now I am beginning to exercise my thoughts over a new drama; I hope I shall finish it in the course of next summer.” It seems to have been already his habit to meditate long about a subject before it took any definite literary form in his mind.] the plot of Ghosts revealed itself to him. This work was composed with more than Ibsen’s customary care, and was published at the beginning of December, in an edition of ten thousand copies.

Before the end of 1881 Ibsen was aware of the terrific turmoil which Ghosts had begun to occasion. He wrote to Passarge: “My new play has now appeared, and has occasioned a terrible uproar in the Scandinavian press. Every day I receive letters and newspaper articles decrying or praising it. I consider it absolutely impossible that any German theatre will accept the play at present. I hardly believe that they will dare to play it in any Scandinavian country for some time to come.” It was, in fact, not acted publicly anywhere until 1883, when the Swedes ventured to try it, and the Germans followed in 1887. The Danes resisted it much longer.

Ibsen declared that he was quite prepared for the hubbub; he would doubtless have been much disappointed if it had not taken place; nevertheless, he was disconcerted at the volume and the violence of the attacks. Yet he must have known that in the existing condition of society, and the limited range of what was then thought a defensible criticism of that condition, Ghosts must cause a virulent scandal. There has been, especially in Germany, a great deal of medico- philosophical exposure of the under-side of life since 1880. It is hardly possible that, there, or in any really civilized country, an analysis of the causes of what is, after all, one of the simplest and most conventional forms of hereditary disease could again excite such a startling revulsion of feeling. Krafft-Ebing and a crew of investigators, Strindberg, Brieux, Hauptmann, and a score of probing playwrights all over the Continent, have gone further and often fared much worse than Ibsen did when he dived into the family history of Kammerherre Alving. When we read Ghosts to-day we cannot recapture the “new shudder” which it gave us a quarter of a century ago. Yet it must not be forgotten that the publication of it, in that hide-bound time, was an act of extraordinary courage. Georg Brandes, always clearsighted, was alone in being able to perceive at once that Ghosts was no attack on society, but an effort to place the responsibilities of men and women on a wholesomer and surer footing, by direct reference to the relation of both to the child.

When the same eminent critic, however, went on to say that Ghosts was “a poetic treatment of the question of heredity,” it was more difficult to follow him. Now that the flash and shock of the playwright’s audacity are discounted, it is natural to ask ourselves whether, as a work of pure art, Ghosts stands high among Ibsen’s writings. I confess, for my own part, that it seems to me deprived of “poetic” treatment, that is to say, of grace, charm and suppleness, to an almost fatal extent. It is extremely original, extremely vivid and stimulating, but, so far as a foreigner may judge, the dialogue seems stilted and uniform, the characters, with certain obvious exceptions, rather types than persons. In the old fighting days it was necessary to praise Ghosts with extravagance, because the vituperation of the enemy was so stupid and offensive, but now that there are no serious adversaries left, cooler judgment admits — not one word that the idiot-adversary said, but — that there are more convincing plays than Ghosts in Ibsen’s repertory.

Up to this time, Ibsen had been looked upon as the mainstay of the Conservative party in Norway, in opposition to Björnson, who led the Radicals. But the author of Ghosts, who was accused of disseminating anarchism and nihilism, was now smartly drummed out of the Tory camp without being welcomed among the Liberals. Each party was eager to disown him. He was like Coriolanus, when he was deserted by nobles and people alike, and

suffer’d by the voice of slaves to be Whoop’d out of Rome.

The situation gave Ibsen occasion, from the perspective of his exile, to form some impressions of political life which were at once pungent and dignified:

“I am more and more confirmed” [he said, Jan, 3, 1882] “in my belief that there is something demoralizing in politics and parties. I, at any rate, shall never be able to join a party which has the majority on its side. Björnson says, ‘The majority is always right’; and as a practical politician he is bound, I suppose, to say so. I, on the contrary, of necessity say, ‘The minority is always right.’”

In order to place this view clearly before his countrymen, he set about composing the extremely vivid and successful play, perhaps the most successful pamphlet-play that ever was written, which was to put forward in the clearest light the claim of the minority. He was very busy with preparations for it all through the summer of 1882, which he spent at what was now to be for many years his favorite summer resort, Gossensass in the Tyrol, a place which is consecrated to the memory of Ibsen in the way that Pornic belongs to Robert Browning and the Bel Alp to Tyndall, holiday homes in foreign countries, dedicated to blissful work without disturbance. Here, at a spot now officially named the “Ibsenplatz,” he composed The Enemy of the People, engrossed in his invention as was his wont, reading nothing and thinking of nothing but of the persons whose history he was weaving. Oddly enough, he thought that this, too, was to be a “placable” play, written to amuse and stimulate, but calculated to wound nobody’s feelings. The fact was that Ibsen, like some ocelot or panther of the rocks, had a paw much heavier than he himself realized, and his “play,” in both senses, was a very serious affair, when he descended to sport with common humanity.

Another quotation, this time from a letter to Brandes, must be given to show what Ibsen’s attitude was at this moment to his fatherland and to his art:

“When I think how slow and heavy and dull the general intelligence is at home, when I notice the low standard by which everything is judged, a deep despondency comes over me, and it often seems to me that I might just as well end my literary activity at once. They really do not need poetry at home; they get along so well with the party newspapers and the Lutheran Weekly.”

If Ibsen thought that he was offering them “poetry” in The Enemy of the People, he spoke in a Scandinavian sense. Our criticism has never opened its arms wide enough to embrace all imaginative literature as poetry, and in the English sense nothing in the world’s drama is denser or more unqualified prose than The Enemy of the People, without a tinge of romance or rhetoric, as “unideal” as a blue-book. It is, nevertheless, one of the most certainly successful of its author’s writings; as a stage-play it rivets the attention; as a pamphlet it awakens irresistible sympathy; as a specimen of dramatic art, its construction and evolution are almost faultless. Under a transparent allegory, it describes the treatment which Ibsen himself had received at the hands of the Norwegian public for venturing to tell them that their spa should be drained before visitors were invited to flock to it. Nevertheless, the playwright has not made the mistake of identifying his own figure with that of Dr. Stockmann, who is an entirely independent creation. Mr. Archer has compared the hero with Colonel Newcome, whose loquacious amicability he does share, but Stockmann’s character has much more energy and initiative than Colonel Newcome’s, whom we could never fancy rousing himself “to purge society.”

Ibsen’s practical wisdom in taking the bull by the horns in his reply to the national reception of Ghosts was proved by the instant success of The Enemy of the People. Presented to the public in this new and audacious form, the problem of a “moral water-supply” struck sensible Norwegians as less absurd and less dangerous than they had conceived it to be. The reproof was mordant, and the worst offenders crouched under the lash. Ghosts itself was still, for some time, tabooed, but The Enemy of the People received a cordial welcome, and has remained ever since one of the most popular of Ibsen’s writings. It is still extremely effective on the stage, and as it is lightened by more humor than the author is commonly willing to employ, it attracts even those who are hostile to the intrusion of anything solemn behind the footlights.

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