Henrik Ibsen, by Edmund Gosse

Chapter VII


With the appearance of An Enemy of the People, which was published in November, 1882, Ibsen entered upon a new stage in his career. He had completely broken with the Conservative party in Norway, without having gratified or won the confidence of the Liberals. He was now in personal relations of friendliness with Björnson, whose generous approval of his work as a dramatist sustained his spirits, but his own individualism had been intensified by the hostile reception of Ghosts. His life was now divided between Rome in the winter and Gossensass in the summer, and in the Italian city, as in the Tyrolese village, he wandered solitary, taciturn, absorbed in his own thoughts. His meditations led him more and more into a lonely state. He floated, as on a prophet’s carpet, between the political heavens and earth, capriciously refusing to ascend or to alight. He had come to a sceptical stage in his mental evolution, a stage in which he was to remain for a considerable time, gradually modifying it in a conservative direction. One wonders what the simple- minded and stalwart Björnson thought of being quietly told (March 28, 1884) that the lower classes are nowhere liberal-minded or self- sacrificing, and that “in the views expressed by our [Norwegian] peasants there is not an atom more of real Liberalism than is to be found among the ultramontane peasantry of the Tyrol.” In politics Ibsen had now become a pagan; “I do not believe,” he said, “in the emancipatory power of political measures, nor have I much confidence in the altruism and good will of those in power.” This sense of the uselessness of effort is strongly marked in the course of the next work on which he was engaged, the very brilliant, but saturnine and sardonic tragi-comedy of The Wild Duck. The first sketch of it was made during the spring of 1884 in Rome, but the dramatist took it to Gossensass with him for the finishing touches, and did not perfect it until the autumn. It is remarkable that Ibsen invariably speaks of The Wild Duck, when he mentions it in his correspondence, in terms of irony. He calls it a collection of crazy tricks or tomfooleries, galskaber, an expression which carries with it, in this sense, a confession of wilful paradox. In something of the same spirit, Robert Browning, in the old days before he was comprehended, used to speak of “the entirely unintelligible Sordello,” as if, sarcastically, to meet criticism half-way.

When The Wild Duck was first circulated among Ibsen’s admirers, it was received with some bewilderment. Quite slowly the idea received acceptance that the hitherto so serious and even angry satirist was, to put it plainly, laughing at himself. The faithful were reluctant to concede it. But one sees now, clearly enough, that in a sense it was so. I have tried to show, we imagine Ibsen saying, that your hypocritical sentimentality needs correction — you live in “A Doll’s House.” I have dared to point out to you that your society is physically and morally rotten and full of “Ghosts.” You have repudiated my honest efforts as a reformer, and called me “An Enemy of the People.” Very well, then, have it so if you please. What a fool am I to trouble about you at all. Go down a steep place in Gadara and drown yourselves. If it amuses you, it can amuse me also to be looked upon as Gregers Werle. Vogue la galère. “But as the play is neither to deal with the Supreme Court, nor the right of absolute veto, nor even with the removal of the sign of the union from the flag,” burning questions then and afterwards in Norwegian politics, “it can hardly count upon arousing much interest in Norway”; it will, however, amuse me immensely to point out the absurdity of my caring. It is in reading The Wild Duck that for the first time the really astonishing resemblance which Ibsen bears to Euripedes becomes apparent to us. This is partly because the Norwegian dramatist now relinquishes any other central object than the presentation to his audience of the clash of temperament, and partly because here at last, and for the future always, he separates himself from everything that is not catastrophe. More than any earlier play, more even than Ghosts, The Wild Duck is an avalanche which has begun to move, and with a movement unaffected by the incidents of the plot, long before the curtain rises. The later plays of Ibsen, unlike almost all other modern dramas, depend upon nothing that happens while they are being exhibited, but rush downwards to their inevitable close in obedience to a series of long-precedent impulses. In order to gain this effect, the dramatist has to be acquainted with everything that has ever happened to his personages, and we are informed that Ibsen used to build up in his own mind, for months at a time, the past history of his puppets. He was now master of this practice. We are not surprised, therefore, to find one of the most penetrating of dramatic critics remarking of The Wild Duck that “never before had the poet displayed such an amazing power of fascinating and absorbing us by the gradual withdrawal of veil after veil from the past.”

The result of a searching determination to deal with personal and not typical forms of temperament is seen in the firmness of the portraiture in The Wild Duck, where, I think, less than ever before, is to be found a trace of that incoherency which is to be met with occasionally in all the earlier works of Ibsen, and which seems like the effect of a sudden caprice or change of the point of view. There is, so far as I can judge, no trace of this in The Wild Duck, where the continuity of aspect is extraordinary. Confucius assures us that if we tell him our past, he will tell us our future, and although several of the characters in The Wild Duck are the most sordid of Ibsen’s creations, the author has made himself so deeply familiar with them that they are absolutely lifelike. The detestable Hialmar, in whom, by the looking-glass of a disordered liver, any man may see a picture of himself; the pitiable Gregers Werle, perpetually thirteenth at table, with his genius for making an utter mess of other people’s lives; the vulgar Gina; the beautiful girlish figure of the little martyred Hedvig — all are wholly real and living persons.

The subject of the play, of course, is one which we do not expect, or had not hitherto expected, from Ibsen. It is the danger of “a sick conscience” and the value of illusion. Society may be full of poisonous vapors and be built on a framework of lies; it is nevertheless prudent to consider whether the ideal advantages of disturbing it overweigh the practical disadvantages, and above all to bear in mind that if you rob the average man of his illusions, you are almost sure to rob him of his happiness. The topsy-turvy nature of a this theme made Ibsen as nearly “rollicking” as he ever became in his life. We can imagine than as he wrote the third act of The Wild Duck, where so horrible a luncheon party —“we’ll all keep a corner”— gloats over the herring salad, he indulged again and again in those puffs of soundless and formidable mirth which Mr. Johan Paulsen describes as so surprising an element of conversation with Ibsen.

To the gossip of that amiable Boswell, too, we must turn for a valuable impression of the solidification of Ibsen’s habits which began about this time, and which marked then even before he left Munich. He had now successfully separated himself from all society, and even his family saw him only at meals. Visitors could not penetrate to him, but, if sufficiently courageous, must hang about on the staircase, hoping to catch him for a moment as he hurried out to the cafe. Within his study, into which the daring Paulsen occasionally ventured, Ibsen, we are to believe, did nothing at all, but “sat bent over the pacific ocean of his own mind, which mirrored for him a world far more fascinating, vast and rich than that which lay spread around him.” [Note: Samliv med Ibsen, 1906, p. 30.]

And now the celebrated afternoons at the cafes had begun. In Rome Ibsen had his favorite table, and he would sit obliquely facing a mirror in which, half hidden by a newspaper and by the glitter of his gold spectacles, he could command a sight of the whole restaurant, and especially of the door into the street. Every one who entered, every couple that conversed, every movement of the scene, gave something to those untiring eyes. The newspaper and the cafe mirror — these were the books which, for the future, Ibsen was almost exclusively to study; and out of the gestures of a pair of friends at a table, out of a paragraph in a newspaper, even out of the terms of an advertisement, he could build up a drama. Incessant observation of real life, incessant capture of unaffected, unconsidered phrases, actual living experience leaping in his hands like a captive wild animal, this was now the substance from which all Ibsen’s dreams and dramas were woven. Concentration of attention on the vital play of character, this was his one interest.

Out of this he was roused by a sudden determination to go at last and see for himself what life in Norway was really like. A New England wit once denied that a certain brilliant and Europe-loving American author was a cosmopolitan. “No,” he said, “a cosmopolitan is at home even in his own country.” Ibsen began to doubt whether he was not too far off to follow events in Norway — and these were now beginning to be very exciting — well enough to form an independent judgment about them; and after twenty years of exile there is no doubt that the question was fairly put. The Wild Duck had been published in November, 1884, and had been acted everywhere in Scandinavia with great success. The critics and the public were agreed for the first time that Ibsen was a very great national genius, and that if Norway was not proud of him it would make a fool of itself in the eyes of Europe.

Ibsen had said that Norway was a barbarous country, inhabited by two millions of cats and dogs, but so many agreeable and highly-civilized compliments found their way to him in Rome that he began to fancy that the human element was beginning to be introduced. At all events, he would see for himself, and in June, 1885, instead of stopping at Gossensass, he pushed bravely on and landed in Christiania.

At first all went well, but from the very beginning of the visit he observed, or thought he observed, awkward phenomena. The country was thrilled with political excitement, and it vibrated with rhetorical resolutions which seemed to Ibsen very empty. He had a constitutional horror of purely theoretical questions, and these were occupying Norway from one end to the other. The King’s veto, the consular difficulty, the Swedish emblem in the national flag, these were the subjects of frenzied discussion, and in none of these did Ibsen take any sort of pleasure. He was not politically far-sighted, it must be confessed, nor did he guess what practical proportions these “theoretical questions” were to assume in the immediate future.

That great writer and delightful associate, the Swedish poet, Count Snoilsky, one of the few whose company never wearied or irritated Ibsen, joined him in the far north. They spent a pleasant, quiet time together at Molde, that enchanting little sub-arctic town, where it looks southward over the shining fjord, with the Romsdalhorn forever guarding the mountainous horizon. Here no politics intruded, and Ibsen, when Snoilsky had left him, already thinking of a new drama, lingered on at Molde, spending hours on hours at the end of the jetty, gazing into the clear, cold sea. His passion for the sea had never betrayed him, and at Rome, where he had long given up going to any galleries or studios, he still haunted the house of a Norwegian marine painter, Nils Hansteen, whose sketches reminded him of old days and recollected waters.

But the autumn comes on apace in these high latitudes, and Ibsen had to return to Christiania with its torchlight processions, and late noisy feasts, and triumphant revolutionary oratory. He disliked it extremely, and he made up his mind to go back to the indifferent South, where people did not worry about such things. Unfortunately, the inhabitants of Christiania did not leave him alone. They were not content to have him among them as a retired observer, they wanted to make him stand out definitely on one political side or the other. He was urged, at the end of September, to receive the inevitable torchlight procession planned in his honor by the Union of Norwegian Students. He was astute enough to see that this might compromise his independence, but he was probably too self-conscious in believing that a trap was being laid for him. He said that, not having observed that his presence gave the Union any great pleasure, he did not care to have its expression of great joy at t his departure. This was not polite, for it does not appear that the students had any idea that he intended to depart. He would not address a reply to the Union as a body, but to “my friends among the students.”

A committee called upon him to beg him to reconsider his resolution, but he roundly told them that he knew that they were reactionaries, and wanted to annex him to their party, and that he was not blind to their tricks. They withdrew in confusion, and Ibsen, in an agony of nervous ness, determined to put the sea between himself and their machinations. Early in October he retreated, or rather fled, to Copenhagen, and thence to Munich, where he breathed again. Meanwhile, the extreme liberal faction among the students claimed that his action had meant that he was heart and soul with them, as against the reactionaries. A young Mr. Ove Rode, who had interviewed him, took upon himself to say that these were Ibsen’s real sentiments. Ibsen fairly stamped with rage, and declared, in furious communications, that all these things were done on purpose. “It was an opportunity to insult a poet which it would have been a sad pity to lose,” he remarked, with quivering pen. A reverberant controversy sprang up in the Norwegian newspapers, and Ibsen, in his Bavarian harbor of refuge, continued to vibrate all through the winter of 1885. The exile’s return to his native country had proved to be far from a success.

Already his new play was taking shape, and the success of his great personal ambition, namely that his son, Sigurd, should be taken with honor into the diplomatic service of his country, did such to calm his spirits. Ibsen was growing rich now, as well as famous, and if only the Norwegians would let him alone, he might well be happy. The new play was Rosmersholm, and it took its impulse from a speech which Ibsen had made during his journey, at Trondhjem, where he expounded the gospel of individualism to a respectful audience of workingmen, and had laid down the necessity of introducing an aristocratic strain, et adeligt element, into the life of a truly democratic state, a strain which woman and labor were to unite in developing. He said: “I am thinking, of course, not of birth, nor of money, nor even of intellect, but of the nobility which grows out of character. It is character alone which can make us free.” This nobility of character must be fostered, mainly, by the united efforts of motherhood and labor. This was quite a new creed in Norway, and it bewildered his hearers, but it is remarkable to notice how the best public feeling in Scandinavia has responded to the appeal, and how little surprise the present generation would express at a repetition of such sentiments. And out of this idea of “nobility” of public character Rosmersholm directly sprang.

We are not left to conjecture in this respect. In a letter to Björn Kristensen (February 13, 1887), Ibsen deliberately explained, while correcting a misconception of the purpose of Rosmersholm, that “the play deals with the struggle which all serious-minded human beings have to wage with themselves in order to bring their lives into harmony with their convictions. . . . Conscience is very conservative. It has its deep roots in tradition and the past generally, and hence the conflict.” When we come to read Rosmersholm it is not difficult to see how this order of ideas dominated Ibsen’s mind when he wrote it. The mansion called by that name is typical of the ancient traditions of Norwegian bourgeois aristocracy, which are not to be subservient to such modern and timid conservatism as is represented by Rector Kroll, with his horror of all things new because they are new. The Rosmer strain, in its inherent nobility, is to be superior to a craven horror of the democracy, and is to show, by the courage with which it fulfils its personal destiny, that it looks above and beyond all these momentary prejudices, and accepts, from all hands, whatever is wise and of good report.

The misfortune is that Ibsen, in unconscious bondage to his ideas, did not construct his drama sturdily enough on realistic lines. While not one of his works is more suggestive than Rosmersholm, there is not one which gives the unbeliever more opportunity to blaspheme. This ancestral house of a great rich race, which is kept up by the ministrations of a single aged female servant, stands in pure Cloud-Cuckoo Land. The absence of practical amenities in the Rosmer family might be set down to eccentricity, if all the other personages were not equally ill-provided. Rebecca, glorious heroine according to some admirers, “criminal, thief and murderess,” as another admirer pleonastically describes her, is a sort of troll; nobody can explain — and yet an explanation seems requisite — what she does in the house of Rosmer. In his eagerness to work out a certain sequence of philosophical ideas, the playwright for once neglected to be plausible. It is a very remarkable feature of Rosmersholm that in it, for the first time, and almost for the last, Ibsen, in the act of theorizing, loses his hold upon reality. He places his ingenious, elaborate and — given the premises — inevitable dénouement in a scene scarcely more credible than that of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, and not one-tenth as amusing. Following, as it does, immediately on the heels of The Wild Duck, which was as remarkable a slice of real life as was ever brought before a theatrical audience, the artificiality of Rosmersholm shows Ibsen as an artist clearly stepping backward that he may leap the further forward.

In other words, Rosmersholm is the proof of Ibsen’s desire to conquer another field of drama. He had now for some years rejected with great severity all temptations from the poetic spirit, which was nevertheless ineradicable in him. He had wished to produce on the mind of the spectator no other impression than that he was observing something which had actually happened, exactly in the way and the words in which it would happen. He had formulated to the actress, Lucie Wolf, the principle that ideal dramatic poetry should be considered extinct, “like some preposterous animal form of prehistoric times.” But the soul of man cannot be fed with a stone, and Ibsen had now discovered that perfectly prosaic “slices of life” may be salutary and valuable on occasion, but that sooner or later a poet asks for more. He, therefore, a poet if ever there was one, had grown weary of the self-made law by which he had shut himself out from Paradise. He determined, grudgingly, and hardly knowing how to set about it, that he would once more give the spiritual and the imaginative qualities their place in his work. These had now been excluded for nearly twenty years, since the publication of Peer Gynt, and he would not resume them so far as to write his dramas again in verse. Verse in drama was doomed; or if not, it was at least a juvenile and fugitive skill not to be rashly picked up again by a business-like bard of sixty. But he would reopen the door to allegory and symbol, and especially to fantastic beauty of landscape.

The landscape of Rosmersholm has all, or at least much, of the old enchantment. The scene at the mill-dam links us once more with the woods and the waters which we had lost sight of since Peer Gynt. But this element was still more evident in The Lady from the Sea, which was. published in 1888. We have seen that Ibsen spent long hours, in the summer of 1885, at the end of the pier at Molde, gazing down into the waters, or watching the steamers arriving and departing, coming from the great sea beyond the fjord or going towards it. As was his wont, he stored up these impressions, making no immediate use of them. He actually prepared The Lady from the Sea in very different, although still marine surroundings. He went to Jutland, and settled for the summer at the pretty and ancient, but very mild little town of Saeby, with the sands in front of him and rolling woods behind. From Saeby it was a short journey to Frederikshavn, “which he liked very much — he could knock about all day among the shipping, talking to the sailors, and so forth. Besides, he found the neighborhood of the sea favorable to contemplation and constructive thought.” So Mr. Archer, who visited him at Saeby; and I myself, a year or two later, picked up at Frederikshavn an oral tradition of Ibsen, with his hands behind his back, and the frock-coat tightly buttoned, stalking, stalking alone for hours on the interminable promenade between the great harbor moles of Frederikshaven, no one daring to break in upon his formidable contemplation.

In several respects, though perhaps not in concentration of effect, The Lady from the Sea shows a distinct advance on Rosmersholm. It is never dull, never didactic, as its predecessor too often was, and there is thrown over the whole texture of it a glamour of romance, of mystery, of beauty, which had not appeared in Ibsen’s work since the completion of Peer Gynt. Again, after the appearance of so many strenuous tragedies, it was pleasant to welcome a pure comedy. The Lady from the Sea [Note: In the Neue Rundschau for December, 1906, there was published a first draft of The Lady from the Sea, dating as far back as 1800.] is connected with the previous plays by its emphatic defence of individuality and its statement of the imperative necessity of developing it; but the tone is sunny, and without a tinge of pessimism. It is in some respects the reverse of Rosmersholm; the bitterness of restrained and balked individuality, which ends in death, being contrasted with the sweetness of emancipated and gratified individuality, which leads to health and peace. To the remarkable estimate of The Lady from the Sea formed by some critics, and in particular by M. Jules de Gaultier, we shall return in a general consideration of the symbolic plays, of which it is the earliest. Enough to say here that even those who did not plunge so deeply into its mysteries found it a remarkably agreeable spectacle, and that it has continued to be, in Scandinavia and Germany, one of the most popular of its author’s works.

Ibsen left his little tavern at Saeby towards the end of September, 1887, in consequence of an invitation to proceed directly to Stockholm, where his Swedish admirers, now very numerous and enthusiastic, would no longer be deprived of the pleasure of entertaining him publicly. He appeared before them, the breast of his coat sparkling with foreign stars and crosses, the Urim and Thummim of general European recognition. He was now in his sixtieth year, and he had out lived all the obscurity of his youth. In the three Scandinavian countries — even in recalcitrant Norway — he was universally hailed as the greatest dramatist of the age. In Germany his fame was greater than that of any native writer of the sang class. In Italy and Russia he was entering on a career of high and settled popularity. Even in France and England his work was now discussed with that passionate interest which shows the vitality of what is even, for the moment, misinterpreted and disliked. His admirers at Stockholm told him that he had taken a foremost place in re-creating their sense of life, that he was a fashioner and a builder of new social forms, that he was, indeed, to thousands of them, the Master-Builder. The reply he made to their enthusiasm was dignified and reserved, but it revealed a sense of high gratification. Skule’s long doubt was over; he believed at last in his own kingdom, and that the world would be ultimately the better for the stamp of his masterful soul upon its surface.

It was in an unusually happy mood that he sat dreaming through the early part of the uneventful year 1889. But it gradually sank into melancholy when, in the following year, he settled down to the composition of a new play which was to treat of sad thoughts and tragic passions. He told Snoilsky that for several reasons this work made very slow progress, “and it robbed him of his summer holidays.” From May to November, 1890, he was uninterruptedly in Munich writing what is known to us now as Hedda Gabler. He finished it at last, saying as he did so, “It has not been my desire to deal in this play with so-called problems. What I principally wanted to do was to depict human beings, human emotions and human destinies, upon a groundwork of certain of the social conditions and principles of the present day.” It was a proof of the immense growth of Ibsen’s celebrity that editions of Hedda Gabler were called for almost simultaneously, in the winter of 1890, in London, New York, St. Petersburg, Leipzig, Berlin and Moscow, as well as in Copenhagen, Stockholm and Christiania. There was no other living author in the world at that moment who excited so much curiosity among the intellectual classes, and none who exercised so much influence on the younger generation of authors and thinkers.

In Hedda Gabler Ibsen returned, for the last time, but with concentrated vigor, to the prosaic ideal of his central period. He never succeeded in being more objective in drama, he never kept more closely to the bare facts of nature nor rejected more vigorously the ornaments of romance and rhetoric than in this amazing play. There is no poetic suggestion here, no species of symbol, white horse, or gnawing thing, or monster from the sea. I am wholly in agreement with Mr. Archer when he says that he finds it impossible to extract any sort of general idea from Hedda Gabler, or to accept it as a satire of any condition of society. Hedda is an individual, not a type, and it was as an individual that she interested Ibsen. We have been told, since the poet’s death, that he was greatly struck by the case, which came under his notice at Munich, of a German lady who poisoned herself because she was bored with life, and had strayed into a false position. Hedda Gabler is the realization of such an individual case. At first sight, it seemed as though Ibsen had been influenced by Dumas fils, which might have been true, in spite of the marked dislike which each expressed for the other; [Note: It is said that La Route de Thebes, which Dumas had begun when he died, was to have been a deliberate attack on the methods and influence of Ibsen. Ibsen, on his part, loathed Dumas.] but closer examination showed that Hedda Gabler had no sort of relation with the pamphlets of the master of Parisian problem-tragedy.

The attempt to show that Hedda Gabler “proved” anything was annoying to Ibsen, who said, with more than his customary firmness, “It was not my purpose to deal with what people call problems in this play. What I chiefly tried to do was to paint human beings, human emotions and human fate, against a background of some of the conditions and laws of society as it exists to-day.” The German critics, a little puzzled to find a longitude and latitude for Tesman’s “tastefully decorated” villa, declared that this time Ibsen had written an “international,” not a locally Norwegian, play. Nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, Hedda Gabler is perhaps the most fatally local and Norwegian of all Ibsen’s plays, and it presents, not of course the highly civilized Christiania of to-day, but the half-suburban, half-rural little straggling town of forty years ago. When I visited Norway as a lad, I received kind but sometimes rather stiff and raw hospitality in several tastefully decorated villas, which were as like that of the Tesmans as pea is like pea. Why Ibsen chose to paint a “west end of Christiania” of 1860 rather than of 1890 I cannot guess, unless it was that to so persistent an exile the former was far more familiar than the latter.

A Russian actress of extreme talent, Madame Alla Nazimova, who has had special opportunities of studying the part of Hedda Gabler, has lately (1907) depicted her as “aristocratic and ill-mated, ambitious and doomed to a repulsive alliance with a man beneath her station, whom she had mistakenly hoped would give her position and wealth. In other circumstances, Hedda would have been a power for beauty and good.” If this ingenious theory be correct, Hedda Gabler must be considered as the leading example of Ibsen’s often-repeated demonstration, that evil is produced by circumstances and not by character. The portrait becomes thrillingly vital if we realize that the stains upon it are the impact of accidental conditions on a nature which might otherwise have been useful and fleckless. Hedda Gabler is painted as Mr. Sargent might paint a lady of the London fashionable world; his brush would divine and emphasize, as Ibsen’s pen does, the disorder of her nerves, and the ravaging concentration of her will in a sort of barren and impotent egotism, while doing justice to the superficial attractiveness of her cultivated physical beauty. He would show, as Ibsen shows, and with an equal lack of malice prepense, various detestable features which the mask of good manners had concealed. Each artist would be called a caricaturist because his instinctive penetration had taken him into regions where the powder-puff and the rouge-pot lose their power.

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