With the publication of Hedda Gabler Ibsen passed into what we may call his final glory. Almost insensibly, and to an accompaniment of his own growls of indignation, he had taken his place, not merely as the most eminent imaginative writer of the three Scandinavian countries, but as the type there of what literature should be and the prophet of what it would become. In 1880, Norway, the youngest and long the rawest of the three civilizations, was now the foremost in activity, and though the influence of Björnson and Jonas Lie was significant, yet it was not to be compared for breadth and complexity with that of Ibsen. The nature of the revolution, exercised by the subject of this memoir between 1880 and 1890, that is to say from Ghosts to Hedda Gabler, was destructive before it was constructive. The poetry, fiction and drama of the three Northern nations had become stagnant with commonplace and conventional matter, lumbered with the recognized, inevitable and sacrosanct forms of composition. This was particularly the case in Sweden, where the influence of Ibsen now proved more violent and catastrophic than anywhere else. Ibsen destroyed the attraction of the old banal poetry; his spirit breathed upon it in fire, and in all its faded elegance it withered up and vanished.
The next event was that the new generation in the three Northern countries, deprived of its traditional authorities, looked about for a prophet and a father, and they found what they wanted in the exceedingly uncompromising elderly gentleman who remained so silent in the cafes of Rome and of Munich. The zeal of the young for this unseen and unsympathetic personage was extraordinary, and took forms of amazing extravagance. Ibsen’s impassivity merely heightened the enthusiasm of his countless admirers, who were found, it should be stated, almost entirely among persons who were born after his exile from Norway. His writings supplied a challenge to character and intelligence which appealed to those who disliked the earlier system of morals and aesthetics against which he had so long fought single-handed.
Among writers in the North Ibsen began to hold very much the position that Whistler was taking among painters and etchers in this country, that is to say the abuse and ridicule of his works by a dwindling group of elderly conventional critics merely stung into more frenzied laudation an ever-widening circle of youthful admirers. Ibsen repented, for a time almost exclusively, “serious” aims in literature, and with those of Herbert Spencer, and in less measure of Zola, and a little later of Nietzsche, his books were the spiritual food of all youthful minds of any vigor or elasticity.
In Sweden, at this time, the admiration for Ibsen took forms of almost preposterous violence. The great Swedish novelist, Gustaf af Geijerstam, has given a curious and amusing account of the rage for Ibsen which came to its height about 1880. The question which every student asked his friend, every lover his mistress, was “What do you think of Ibsen?” Not to be a believer in the Norwegian master was a reef upon which love or friendship might easily be shipwrecked. It was quoted gravely as an insufferable incompatibility for the state of marriage. There was a curious and secret symbolism running through the whole of youthful Swedish society, from which their elders were cunningly excluded, by which the volumes of Ibsen, passed from hand to hand, presented on solemn occasions, became the emblems of the problems interesting to generous youth, flags carried in the moral fight for liberty and truth. The three Northern countries, in their long stagnation, had become clogged and deadened with spiritual humbug, which had sealed the sources of emotion. It seemed though, after the long frost of the seventies, spring had come and literature had budded a at last, and that it was Ibsen who had blown the clarion of the West Wind and heralded the emancipation.
The enthusiasm for the Norwegian dramatist was not always according to knowledge, and sometimes it took grotesque forms. Much of the abuse showered in England and France upon Ibsen at the time we are now describing was due to echoes of the extravagance of his Scandinavian and German idolaters. A Swedish satirist [Note: “Stella Kleve” (Mathilda Malling, in Framat 1886)] said that if Ibsen could have foreseen how many “misunderstood” women would leave their homes in imitation of Nora, and how many lovesick housekeepers drink poison on account of Rebecca, he would have thrown ashes on his head and have retreated into the deserts of Tartary. The suicide of the novelist, Ernst Ahlgren, was the tragic circumstance where much was so purely comic. But if there were elements of tragicomedy in the Ibsen idolatry, there were far more important elements of vigorous and wholesome intellectual independence; and it was during this period of Ibsen’s almost hectic popularity that the foundations of a new fiction and a new drama were laid in Sweden, Denmark and Norway. A whole generation sucked strength and energy from his early writings, since it is to be remarked that, from 1880 to 1890, the great prestige of Ibsen did not depend so much on the dramas he was then producing, as on the earlier works of his poetic youth, now reread with an unexampled fervor. So, with us, the tardy popularity of Robert Browning, which faintly resembles that of Ibsen, did not attract the younger generation to the volumes which succeed The Ring and the Book, but sent them back to the books which their fathers had despised, to Pippa Passes and Men and Women. To the generation of 1880, Ibsen was not so much the author of the realistic social dramas as of those old but now rediscovered miracles of poetry and wit, The Pretenders, Brand and Peer Gynt.
In 1889 Ibsen had been made very pleasantly conscious of this strong personal feeling in his favor among young men and women. Nor did he find it confined to Scandinavia. He had travelled about in Germany, and everywhere his plays were being acted. Berlin was wild about him; at Weimar he was fêted like a conqueror. He did not settle down at Munich until May, and here, as we have seen, he stayed all the summer, hard at work. After the success of Hedda Gabler, which overpowered all adverse comment, Ibsen began to long to be in Norway again, and this feeling was combined, in a curious way, with a very powerful emotion which now entered into his life. He had lived a retired and peaceful existence, mainly a spectator at the feast, as little occupied in helping himself to the dishes which he saw others enjoy as is an eremite in the desert in plucking the grape-clusters of his dreams. No adventure, of any prominent kind, had ever been seen to diversify Ibsen’s perfectly decorous and domestic career. And now he was more than sixty, and the gray tones were gathering round him more thickly than ever, when a real ray of vermilion descended out of the sky and filled his horizon with color.
In the season of 1889, among the summer boarders at Gossensass, there appeared a young Viennese lady of eighteen, Miss Emilie Bardach. She used to sit on a certain bench in the Pferchthal, and when the poet, whom she adored from afar, passed by, she had the courage to smile at him. Strange to say, her smile was returned, and soon Ibsen was on the bench at her side. He readily discovered where she lived; no less readily he gained an introduction to the family with whom she boarded. There was a window-seat in the salle à manger; it was deep and shaded by odorous flowering shrubs; it lent itself to endless conversation. The episode was strange, the passion improbable, incomprehensible, profoundly natural and true. Perhaps, until they parted in the last days of September, neither the old man nor the young girl realized what their relations had meant to each. Youth secured its revenge, however; Miss Bardach soon wrote from Vienna that she was now more tranquil, more independent, happy at last. Ibsen, on the other hand, was heart-broken, quivering with ecstasy, overwhelmed with joy and despair.
It was the enigma in his “princess,” as he called her; that completed Miss Bardach’s sorcery over the old poet. She seems to have been no coquette; she flung her dangerous fascinations at his feet; she broke the thread which bound the charms of her spirit and poured them over him. He, for his part, remaining discreet and respectful, was shattered with happiness. To a friend of mine, a young Norwegian man of letters, Ibsen said about this time: “Oh, you can always love, but I am happier than the happiest, for I am beloved.” Long afterwards, on his seventieth birthday, when his own natural force was failing, he wrote to Miss Bardach, “That summer at Gossensass was the most beautiful and the most harmonious portion of my whole existence. I scarcely venture to think of it, and yet I think of nothing else. Ah! forever!” He did not dare to send her The Master-Builder, since her presence interpenetrated every line of it like a perfume, and when, we are told, she sent him her photograph, signed “Princess of Orangia,” her too-bold identification of herself with Hilda Wangel hurt him as a rough touch, that finer tact would have avoided. There can be no doubt at all that while she was now largely absorbed by the compliment to her own vanity, he was still absolutely enthralled and bewitched, and that what was fun to her made life and death to him.
This very curious episode [Note: It was quite unknown until the correspondence — which has not been translated into English — was published by Georg Brandes at the desire of the lady herself (September, 1906).], which modifies in several important respects our conception of the dramatist’s character, is analogous with the apparent change of disposition which made Renan surprise his unthinking admirers so suddenly at the epoch of L’Eau de Jouvence and L’Abbesse de Jouarre. It was founded, of course, on that dangerous susceptibility to which an elderly man of genius, whose life had been spent in labor and reflection, may be inclined to resign himself, as he sees the sands running out of the hour-glass, and realizes that in analyzing and dissecting emotion he has never had time to enjoy it. Time is so short, the nerves so fragile and so finite, the dreadful illusion, the maia, so irresistible, that the old man gives way to it, and would sooner die at once than not make one grasp at happiness.
It will have been remarked that Ibsen’s habit was to store up an impression, but not to use it immediately on creative work. We need, therefore, feel no surprise that there is not a trace of the Bardach episode in Hedda Gabler, although the composition of that play immediately followed the hohes, schmerzliches Glück at Gossensass. He was, too, no moonlight serenader, and his intense emotion is perfectly compatible with the outline of some of the gossip which was repeated at the time of his death; Ibsen being reported to have said of the Viennese girl: “She did not get hold of me, but I got hold of her — for my play.” These things are very complex, and not to be hastily dismissed, especially on the rough and ready English system. There would be give and take in such a complicated situation, when the object was, as Ibsen himself says, out of reach unversichtbar. There is no question that for every pang which Hilda made her ancient lover suffer, he would enrich his imagination with a dozen points of experience. There is no paradox in saying that the poet was overwhelmed with a passion and yet consciously made it serve as material for his plays. From this time onwards every dramatic work of his bears the stamp of those hours among the roses at Gossensass.
To the spring of 1891 belongs Ibsen’s somewhat momentous visit to Vienna, where he was invited by Dr. Max Burckhard, the director of the Burg Theatre, to superintend the performance of his Pretenders. Ibsen had already, in strict privacy, visited Vienna, where his plays enjoyed an increasing success, but this was his first public entrance into a city which he admired on the whole more than any other city of Europe. “Mein schöner Wien!” he used to murmur, with quite a clan of affection. In April, 1891, after the triumph of his tragedy on the stage, Ibsen was the guest at a public banquet at Vienna, when the ovations were overwhelming and were extended until four o’clock next morning. A performance of The Wild Duck produced, what was almost as dear to Ibsen as praise, a violent polemic, and he passed on out of a world of storm and passion to Buda-Pesth, where he saw A Doll’s House acted in Hungarian, amid thunders of applause, and where he was the guest of Count Albert Apponyi. These were the happy and fruitful years which consoled the heart of the poet for the bitter time when
Dwelt in his thoughts intolerable.”
In the ensuing summer, in July, 1891, Ibsen left Munich with every intention of returning to it, but with the plan of a long summer trip in Norway, where the triumphant success of Hedda Gabler had been very agreeable to his feelings. Once more he pushed up through the country to Trondhjem, a city which had always attracted him and pleased him. Here he presently embarked on one of the summer coasting-steamers, and saw the shores of Nordland and Finmark for the first time, visiting the North Cape itself. He came back to Christiania for the rest of the season, with no prospect of staying. But he enjoyed a most flattering reception; he was begged to resume his practical citizenship, and he was assured that life in Norway would be made very pleasant to him. In the autumn, therefore, in his abrupt way, he took an apartment in Viktoria Terrasse, and sent to Munich for his furniture. He said to a friend who expressed surprise at this settlement: “I may just as well make Christiania my headquarters as Munich. The railway takes me in a very short time wherever I want to go; and when I am bored with Norway I can travel elsewhere.” But he never felt the fatigue he anticipated, and, but for brief visits to Copenhagen or Stockholm, he left his native country no more after 1891, although he changed his abode in Christiania itself.
For the first twelve months Ibsen enjoyed the pleasures of the prodigal returned, and fed with gusto on the fatted calf. Then, when three years separated him from the illuminating soul-adventures of Gossensass, he began to turn them into a play. It proved to be The Master-Builder, and was published before the close of December, 1892, with the date 1893 on the title-page. This play was running for some time in Germany and England before it was played in Scandinavia. But on the evening of March 8, 1893, it was simultaneously given at the National Theatre in Christiania and at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. It was a work which greatly puzzled the critics, and its meaning was scarcely apparent until it had been seen on the stage, for which the oddity of its arrangements are singularly well adapted. It was, however, almost immediately noticed that it marked a new departure in Ibsen’s writings. Here was an end of the purely realistic and prosaic social dramas, which had reigned from The League of Youth to Hedda Gabler, and here was a return to the strange and haunting beauty of the old imaginative pieces. Mr. Archer was happily inspired when he spoke of “the pure melody” of the piece, and the best scenes of The Master-Builder were heroically and almost recklessly poetical.
This remarkable composition is full of what, for want of a better word, we must call “symbolism.” In the conversations between Solness and Hilda much is introduced which is really almost unintelligible unless we take it to be autobiographical. The Master-Builder is one who constructs, not houses, but poems and plays. It is the poet himself who gives expression, in the pathetic and erratic confessions of Solness, to his doubts, his craven timidities, his selfish secrets, and his terror at the uniformity of his “luck.” It is less easy to see exactly what Ibsen believed himself to be presenting to us in the enigmatical figure of Hilda, so attractive and genial, so exquisitely refreshing, and yet radically so cruel and superficial. She is perhaps conceived as a symbol of Youth, arriving too late within the circle which Age has trodden for its steps to walk in, and luring it too rashly, by the mirage of happiness, into paths no longer within its physical and moral capacity. “Hypnotism,” Mr. Archer tells us, “is the first and last word of the dramatic action”; perhaps thought-transference more exactly expresses the idea, but I should not have stated even this quite so strongly. The ground of the dramatic action seems to me to be the balance of Nemesis, the fatal necessity that those who enjoy exceptional advantages in life shall pay for them by not less exceptional, but perhaps less obvious, disadvantages. The motto of the piece — at least of the first two of its acts — might be the couplet of the French tragedian:—
C’est un ordre des dieux qui jamais ne se rompt
De nous vendre bien cher les grands biens qu’ils nous font.
Beneath this, which we may call the transcendental aspect of the play, we find a solid and objective study of the self-made man, the headstrong amateur, who has never submitted to the wholesome discipline of professional training, but who has trusted to the help of those trolls or mascots, his native talent and his unfailing “luck.” Upon such a man descends Hilda, the disorganizer, who pierces the armor of his conceit by a direct appeal to his passions. Solness has been the irresistible sorcerer, through his good fortune, but he is not protected in his climacteric against this unexpected attack upon the senses. Samson philanders with Delila, and discovers that his strength is shorn from him. There is no doubt that Ibsen intended in The Master-Builder a searching examination of “luck” and the tyranny of it, the terrible effects of it on the Broviks and the Kajas whom nobody remembers, but whose bodies lie under the wheels of its car. The dramatic situation is here extremely interesting; it consists in the fact that Solness, who breaks every one else, is broken by Hilda. The inherent hardness of youth, which makes no allowances, which demands its kingdom here and now upon the table, was never more powerfully depicted. Solness is smashed by his impact with Hilda, as china is against a stone. In all this it would be a mistake to see anything directly autobiographical, although so much in the character and position of Solness may remind us, legitimately enough, of Ibsen himself, and his adventures.
The personal record of Ibsen in these years is almost silent. He was growing old and set in his habits. He was growing rich, too, and he surrounded himself with sedentary comforts. His wealth, it may here be said, was founded entirely upon the success of his works, but was fostered by his extreme adroitness as a man of business. Those who are so fond of saying that any man of genius might have excelled in some other capacity are fully justified if they like to imagine Ibsen as the model financier. He certainly possessed a remarkable aptitude for affairs, and we learn that his speculations were at once daring and crafty. People who are weary of commiserating the poverty of poets may be pleased to learn that when Ibsen died he was one of the wealthiest private citizens of Christiania, and this was wholly in consequence of the care he had taken in protecting his copyrights and administering his receipts. If the melancholy couplet is correct which tells us that
Aux petits des oiseaux Dieu donne la pature,
Mais sa bonte s’arrkete a la litterature,
we must believe, with Ibsen’s enemies, that his fortunes were not under the divine protection.
The actual numbers of each of his works printed since he first published with Hegel in Copenhagen — a connection which he preserved without a breach until the end — have been stated since his death. They contain some points of interest. After 1876 Hegel ventured on large editions of each new play, but they went off at first slowly. The Lady from the Sea was the earliest to appear, at once, in an issue of 10,000 copies, which was soon exhausted. So great, however, had the public interest in Ibsen become in 1894 that the edition of 10,000 copies of Little Eyolf was found quite inadequate to meet the first order, and it was enlarged to 15,000, all of which were gone in a fortnight. This circulation in so small a reading public as that of Denmark and Norway was unprecedented, and it must be remembered that the simultaneous translations into most of the languages of Europe are not included.
Little Eyolf, which was written in Christiania during the spring and summer of 1894, was issued, according to Ibsen’s cometary custom, as the second week of December rolled round. The reception of it was stormy, even in Scandinavia, and led to violent outbursts of controversy. No work from the master’s pen had roused more difference of opinion among the critics since the bluster over Ghosts fourteen years before. Those who prefer to absolute success in the creation of a work of art the personal flavor or perfume of the artist himself were predisposed to place Little Eyolf very high among his writings. Nowhere is he more independent of all other influences, nowhere more intensely, it may even be said more distressingly, himself. From many points of view this play may fairly be considered in the light of a tour de force. Ibsen — one would conjecture — is trying to see to what extremities of agile independence he can force his genius. The word “force” has escaped me; but it may be retained as reproducing that sense of a difficulty not quite easily or completely overcome which Little Eyolf produces. To mention but one technical matter; there are but four characters, properly speaking, in the play — since Eyolf himself and the Rat-Wife are but illustrations or symbolic properties — and of these four, one (Borgheim) is wholly subsidiary. Ibsen, then, may be said to have challenged imitation by composing a drama of passion with only three characters in it. By a process of elimination this has been done by Aeschylus (in the Agamemnon), by Racine (in Phédre and Andromaque), and in our own day by Maeterlinck (in Pelléas et Mélisande). But Ibsen was accustomed to a wider field, and his experiment seems not wholly successful. Little Eyolf, at least, is, from all points of view, an exercise on the tight-rope. We may hazard the conjecture that no drama gave Ibsen more satisfaction to write, but for enjoyment the reader may prefer less prodigious agility on the trapeze.
If we turn from the technical virtuosity of Little Eyolf to its moral aspects, we find it a very dreadful play, set in darkness which nothing illuminates but the twinkling sweetness of Asta. The mysterious symbol of the Rat-Wife breaks in upon the pair whose love is turning to hate, the man waxing cold as the wife grows hot. The Angel of God, in the guise of an old beggar-woman, descends into their garden, and she drags away, by an invisible chain, “the little gnawing thing,” the pathetic lame child. The effect on the pair of Eyolf’s death by drowning is the subject of the subsequent acts. In Rita jealousy is incarnate, and she seems the most vigorous, and, it must be added, the most repulsive, of Ibsen’s feminine creations. The reckless violence of Rita’s energy, indeed, interpreted by a competent actress — played, for instance, as it was in London most admirably by Miss Achurch — is almost too painful for a public exhibition, and to the old criticism, “nec pueros coram populo Medea trucidet,” if a pedant chooses to press it, there teems no reply. The sex question, as treated in Little Eyolf, recalls The Kreutzer Sonata (1889) of Tolstoi. When, however, I ventured to ask Ibsen whether there was anything in this, he was displeased, and stoutly denied it. What, an author denies, however, is not always evidence.
Nothing further of general interest happened to Ibsen until 1896, when he sat down to compose another drama, John Gabriel Borkman. This was a study of the mental adventures of a man of high commercial imagination, who is artificially parted from all that contact with real affairs which keeps such energy on the track, and who goes mad with dreams of incalculable power, a study, in fact, of financial megalomania. It was said, at the time, that Ibsen was originally led to make this analysis of character from reading in the Christiania newspapers a report of the failure and trial of a notorious speculator convicted of fraud in 1895, and sentenced to a long period of penal servitude.
Whether this be so or not, we have in the person of John Gabriel Borkman a prominent example of the ninteenth century type of criminous speculator, in whom the vastness of view and the splendidly altruistic audacity present themselves as elements which render it exceedingly difficult to say how far the malefactor is morally responsible for his crime. He has imagined, and to a certain point has carried out, a monster metal “trust,” for the success of which he lacks neither courage nor knowledge nor practical administrative capacity, but only that trifling concomitant, sufficiency of capital. To keep the fires blazing until his vast model is molten into the mould, he helps himself to money here, there, and everywhere, scarcely giving a thought to his responsibilities, so certain is he of ultimate and beneficent triumph. He will make rich beyond the dreams of avarice all these his involuntary supporters. Unhappily, just before his scheme is ready and the metal runs, he is stopped by the stupidity of the law, and finds himself in prison.
Side by side with this study of commercial madness runs a thread of that new sense of the preciousness of vital joy which had occupied Ibsen so much ever since the last of the summers at Gossensass. The figure of Erhart Borkman is a very interesting one to the theatrical student. In the ruin of the family, all hopes concentre in him. Every one claims him, and in the bosoms of each of his shattered parents a secret hope is born, Mrs. Borkman believing that by a brilliant career of commercial rectitude her son will wipe out the memory of his father’s crime; Borkman, who has never given up the ambition of returning to business, reposing his own hopes on the co-operation of his son.
But Erhart Borkman disappoints them all. He will be himself, he will enjoy his life, he will throw off all the burdens both of responsibility and of restitution. He has no ambition and little natural feeling; he simply must be happy, and he suddenly elopes, leaving all their anticipations bankrupt, with a certain joyous Mrs. Wilton, who has nothing but her beauty to recommend her. Deserted thus by the ignis fatuus of youth, the collapse of the three old people is complete. Under the shock the brain of Borkman gives way, and he wanders out into the winter’s night, full of vague dreams of what he can still do in the world, if he can only break from his bondage and shatter his dream. He dies there in the snow, and the two old sisters, who have followed him in an anxiety which overcomes their mutual hatred, arrive in time to see him pass away. We leave them in the wood, “a dead man and two shadows”— so Ella Rentheim puts it —“for that is what the cold has made of us”; the central moral of the piece being that all the errors of humanity spring from cold-heartedness and neglect of the natural heat of love. That Borkman embezzled money, and reduced hundreds of innocent people to beggary, might be condoned; but there is no pardon for his cruel bargaining for wealth with the soul of Ella Rentheim, since that is the unpardonable sin against the Holy Spirit. There are points of obscurity, and one or two of positive and even regrettable whimsicality, about John Gabriel Borkman, but on the whole it is a work of lofty originality and of poignant human interest.
The veteran was now beginning to be conscious of the approaches of old age, but they were made agreeable to him by many tokens of national homage.
On his seventieth birthday, March 20, 1898, Ibsen received the felicitations of the world. It is pleasing to relate that a group of admirers in England, a group which included Mr. Asquith, Mr. J. M. Barrie, Mr. Thomas Hardy, Mr. Henry Arthur Jones, Mr. Pinero and Mr. Bernard Shaw took part in these congratulations and sent Ibsen a handsome set of silver plate, this being an act which, it had been discovered, he particularly appreciated. The bearer of this gift was the earliest of the long stream of visitors to arrive on the morning of the poet’s birthday, and he found Ibsen in company with his wife, his son, his son’s wife (Björnson’s daughter), and his little grandson, Tankred. The poet’s surprise and pleasure were emphatic. A deputation from the Storthing, headed by the Leader of the House, deputations representing the University, the various Christiania Theatres, and other official or academic bodies arrived at intervals during the course of the day; and all the afternoon Ibsen was occupied in taking these hundreds of visitors, in parties, up to the case containing the English tribute, in showing the objects and in explaining their origin. There could be no question that the gift gave genuine pleasure to the recipient; it was the first, as it was to be the last, occasion on which any public testimony to English appreciation of his genius found its way to Ibsen’s door.
Immediately after the birthday festivities, which it was observed had fatigued him, Ibsen started on a visit to Copenhagen, where he was received by the aged King of Denmark, and to Stockholm, where he was overpowered with ovations from all classes. There can be no doubt that this triumphal progress, though deeply grateful to the aged poet’s susceptibilities, made a heavy drain upon his nervous resources. When he returned to Norway, indeed, he was concealed from all visitors at his physician’s orders, and it is understood that he had some kind of seizure. It was whispered that he would write no more, and the biennial drama, due in December, 1898, did not make its appearance. His stores of health, however, were not easily exhausted; he rested for several months, and then he was seen once more in Carl Johans Gade, smiling; in his usual way, and entirely recovered. It was announced that winter that he was writing his reminiscences, but nothing more was heard of any such book.
He was able to take a vivid interest in the preparations for the National Norwegian Theatre in Christiania, which was finally opened by the King of Sweden and Norway on September 1, 1899. Early in the morning, colossal bronze statues of Ibsen and Björnson were unveiled in front of the theatre, and the poets, now, unfortunately, again not on the best of terms, were seen making vast détours for the purpose of satisfying their curiosity, and yet not meeting one another in flesh or in metal. The first night, to prevent rivalry, was devoted to antiquarianism, and to the performance of extracts from the plays of Holberg. Ibsen and Björnson occupied the centre of the dress circle, sitting uplifted in two gilded fauteuils and segregated by a vast garland of red and white roses. They were the objects of universal attention, and the King seemed never to have done smiling and bowing to the two most famous of his Norwegian subjects.
The next night was Ibsen’s féte, and he occupied, alone, the manager’s box. A poem in his honor, by Niels Collet Vogt, was recited by the leading actor, who retired, and then rushed down the empty stage, with his arms extended, shouting “Long live Henrik Ibsen.” The immense audience started to its feet and repeated the words over and over again with deafening fervor. The poet appeared to be almost overwhelmed with emotion and pleasure; at length, with a gesture which was quite pathetic, smiling through his tears, he seemed to beg his friends to spare him, and the plaudits slowly ceased. An Enemy of the People was then admirably performed. At the close of every act Ibsen was called to the front of his box, and when the performance was over, and the actors had been thanked, the audience turned to him again with a sort of affectionate ferocity. Ibsen was found to have stolen from his box, but he was waylaid and forcibly carried back to it. On his reappearance, the whole theatre rose in a roar of welcome, and it was with difficulty that the aged poet, now painfully exhausted from the strain of an evening of such prolonged excitement, could persuade the public to allow him to withdraw. At length he left the theatre, walking slowly, bowing and smiling, down a lane cleared for him, far into the street, through the dense crowd of his admirers. This astonishing night, September 2, 1899, was the climax of Ibsen’s career.
During all this time Ibsen was secretly at work on another drama, which he intended as the epilogue to his earlier dramatic work, or at least to all that he had written since The Pillars of Society. This play, which was his latest, appeared, under the title of When We Dead Awaken, in December, 1899 (with 1900 on the title-page). It was simultaneously published, in very large editions, in all the principal languages of Europe, and it was acted also, but it is impossible to deny that, whether in the study or on the boards, it proved a disappointment. It displayed, especially in its later acts, many obvious signs of the weakness incident on old age.
When it is said that When We Dead Awaken was not worthy of its predecessors, it should be explained that no falling off was visible in the technical cleverness with which the dialogue was built up, nor in the wording of particular sentences. Nothing more natural or amusing, nothing showing greater, command of the resources of the theatre, had ever been published by Ibsen himself than the opening act of When We Dead Awaken. But there was certainly in the whole conception a cloudiness, an ineffectuality, which was very little like anything that Ibsen had displayed before. The moral of the piece was vague, the evolution of it incoherent, and indeed in many places it seemed a parody of his earlier manner. Not Mr. Anstey Guthrie’s inimitable scenes in Mr. Punch’s Ibsen were more preposterous than almost all the appearances of Irene after the first act of When We Dead Awaken.
It is Irene who describes herself as dead, but awakening in the society of Rubek, whilst Maia, the little gay soulless creature whom the great sculptor has married, and has got heartily tired of, goes up to the mountains with Ulpheim the hunter, in pursuit of the free joy of life. At the close, the assorted couples are caught on the summit of an exceeding high mountain by a snowstorm, which opens to show Rubek and Irene “whirled along with the masses of snow, and buried in them,” while Maia and her bear-hunter escape in safety to the plains. Interminable, and often very sage and penetrating, but always essentially rather maniacal, conversation fills up the texture of the play, which is certainly the least successful of Ibsen’s mature compositions. The boredom of Rubek in the midst of his eminence and wealth, and his conviction that by working in such concentration for the purity of art he merely wasted his physical life, inspire the portions of the play which bring most conviction and can be read with fullest satisfaction. It is obvious that such thoughts, such faint and unavailing regrets, pursued the old age of Ibsen; and the profound wound that his heart had received so long before at Gossensass was unhealed to his last moments of consciousness. An excellent French critic, M. P. G. La Chesnais, has ingeniously considered the finale of this play as a confession that Ibsen, at this end of his career, was convinced of the error of his earlier rigor, and, having ceased to believe in his mission, regretted the complete sacrifice of his life to his work. But perhaps it is not necessary to go into such subtleties. When We Dead Awaken is the production of a very tired old man, whose physical powers were declining.
In the year 1900, during our South African War, sentiment in the Scandinavian countries was very generally ranged on the side of the Boers. Ibsen, however, expressed himself strongly and publicly in favor of the English position. In an interview (November 24, 1900), which produced a considerable sensation, he remarked that the Boers were but half-cultivated, and had neither the will nor the power to advance the cause of civilization. Their sole object had come to be a jealous exclusion of all the higher forms of culture. The English were merely taking what the Boers themselves had stolen from an earlier race; the Boers had pitilessly hunted their precursors out of house and home, and now they were tasting the same cup themselves. These were considerations which had not occurred to generous sentimentalists in Norway, and Ibsen’s defence of England, which he supported in further communications with irony and courage, made a great sensation, and threw cold water on the pro-Boer sentimentalists. In Holland, where Ibsen had a wide public, this want of sympathy for Dutch prejudice raised a good deal of resentment, and Ibsen’s statements were replied to by the fiery young journalist, Cornelius Karel Elout, who even published a book on the subject. Ibsen took dignified notice of Elout’s attacks (December 9, 1900), repeating his defence of English policy, and this was the latest of his public appearances.
He took an interest, however, in the preparation of the great edition of his Collected Works, which appeared in Copenhagen in 1901 and 1902, in ten volumes. Before the publication of the latest of these, however, Ibsen had suffered from an apoplectic stroke, from which he never wholly recovered. It was believed that any form of mental fatigue might now be fatal to him, and his life was prolonged by extreme medical care. He was contented in spirit and even cheerful, but from this time forth he was more and more completely withdrawn from consecutive interest in what was going on in the world without. The publication, in succession, of his juvenile works (Kaempehöjen, Olaf Liljekrans, both edited by Halvdan Koht, in 1902), of his Correspondence, edited by Koht and Julius Elias, in 1904, of the bibliographical edition of his collected works by Carl Naerup, in 1902, left him indifferent and scarcely conscious. The gathering darkness was broken, it is said, by a gleam of light in 1905; when the freedom of Norway and the accession of King Håkon were explained to him, he was able to express his joyful approval before the cloud finally sank upon his intelligence.
During his long illness Ibsen was troubled by aphasia, and he expressed himself painfully, now in broken Norwegian, now in still more broken German. His unhappy hero, Oswald Alving, in Ghosts, had thrilled the world by his cry, “Give me the sun, Mother!” and now Ibsen, with glassy eyes, gazed at the dim windows, murmuring “Keine Sonne, keine Sonne, keine Sonne!” At the table where all the works of his maturity had been written the old man sat, persistently learning and forgetting the alphabet. “Look!” he said to Julius Elias, pointing to his mournful pothooks, “See what I am doing! I am sitting here and learning my letters — my letters! I who was once a Writer!” Over this shattered image of what Ibsen had been, over this dying lion, who could not die, Mrs. Ibsen watched with the devotion of wife, mother and nurse in one, through six pathetic years. She was rewarded, in his happier moments, by the affection and tender gratitude of her invalid, whose latest articulate words were addressed to her —”min söde, kjaere, snille frue“ (my sweet, dear, good wife); and she taught to adore their grandfather the three children of a new generation, Tankred, Irene, Eleonora.
Ibsen preserved the habit of walking about his room, or standing for hours staring out of window, until the beginning of May, 1906. Then a more complete decay confined him to his bed. After several days of unconsciousness, he died very peacefully in his house on Drammensvej, opposite the Royal Gardens of Christiania, at half-past two in the afternoon of May 23, 1906, being in his seventy-ninth year. By a unanimous vote of the he was awarded a public funeral, which the King of Norway attended in person, while King Edward VII was represented there by the British Minister. The event was regarded through out Norway as a national ceremony of the highest solemnity and importance, and the poet who had suffered such bitter humiliation and neglect in his youth was carried to his grave in solemn splendor, to the sound of a people’s lamentation.
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