Shakespeare and Isben
( Originally Published 1912 )
THOUGH, as we have already noted, the writing of plays does not always follow the chronological sequence of events, in discussing the process of their evolution we are bound to assume that the playwright begins at the beginning, and proceeds in orderly fashion, by way of the middle, to the end. It was one of Aristotle's requirements that a play should have a beginning, middle and end; and though it may seem that it scarcely needed an Aristotle to lay down so self-evident a proposition, the fact is that playwrights are more than sufficiently apt to ignore or despise the rule.' Especially is there a tendency to rebel against the requirement that a play should have an end. We have seen a good many plays of late which do not end, but simply leave off : at their head we might perhaps place Ibsen's Ghosts. But let us not anticipate. For the moment, what we have to in-quire is where, and how, a play ought to begin.
In life there are no such things as beginnings. Even a man's birth is a quite arbitrary point at which to launch his biography; for the determining factors in his career are to be found in persons, events, and conditions that existed before he was ever thought of. For the biographer, how-ever, and for the novelist as a writer of fictitious biography, birth forms a good conventional starting-point. He can give a chapter or so to " Ancestry," and then relate the adventures of his hero from the cradle onwards. But the dramatist, as we have seen, deals, not with protracted sequences of events, but with short, sharp crises. The question for him, therefore, is: at what moment of the crisis, or of its antecedents, he had better ring up his curtain? At this point he is like the photographer studying his " finder " in order to determine how much of a given prospect he can " get in."
The answer to the question depends on many things, but chiefly on the nature of the crisis and the nature of the impression which the playwright desires to make upon his audience. If his play be a comedy, and if his object be gently and quietly to interest and entertain, the chances are that he begins by showing us his personages in their normal state, concisely indicates their characters, circumstances and relations, and then lets the crisis develop from the outset before our eyes. If, on the other hand, his play be of a more stirring description, and he wants to seize the spectator's attention firmly from the start, he will probably go straight at his crisis, plunging, perhaps, into the very middle of it, even at the cost of having after-wards to go back in order to put the audience in possession of the antecedent circumstances. In a third type of play, common of late years, and especially affected by Ibsen, the curtain rises on a surface aspect of profound peace, which is presently found to be but a thin crust over an absolutely volcanic condition of affairs, the origin of which has to be traced backwards, it may be for many years.
Let us glance at a few of Shakespeare's openings, and consider at what points he attacks his various themes. Of his comedies, all except one, begin with a simple conversation, showing a state or affairs from which the crisis develops with more or less rapidity, but in which it is as yet imperceptibly latent. In no case does he plunge into the middle of his subject, leaving its antecedents to be stated in what is technically called an " exposition." Neither in tragedy nor in comedy, indeed, was this Shakespeare's method. In his historical plays he relied to some extent on his hearers' knowledge of history, whether gathered from books or from previous plays of the historical series; and where such knowledge was not to be looked for, he would expound the situation in good set terms, like those of a Euripidean Prologue.
But the chronicle-play is a species apart, and practically an extinct species : we need not pause to study its methods. In his fictitious plays, with two notable exceptions, it was Shakespeare's constant practice to bring the whole action within the frame of the picture, opening at such a point that no retrospect should be necessary, beyond what could be conveyed in a few casual words. The exceptions are The Tempest and Hamlet, to which we shall return in due course.
How does The Merchant of Venice open? With a long conversation exhibiting the character of Antonio, the friendship between him and Bassanio, the latter's financial straits, and his purpose of wooing Portia. The second scene displays the character of Portia, and informs us of her father's device with regard to her marriage; but this in-formation is conveyed in three or four lines. Not till the third scene do we see or hear of Shylock, and not until very near the end of the act is there any foreshadowing of what is to be the main crisis of the play. Not a single antecedent event has to be narrated to us; for the mere fact that Antonio has been uncivil to Shylock, and shown disapproval of his business methods, can scarcely be regarded as a preliminary outside the frame of the picture.
In As You Like It there are no preliminaries to be stated beyond the facts that Orlando is at enmity with his elder brother, and that Duke Frederick has usurped the coronet and dukedom of Rosalind's father. These facts being made apparent without any sort of formal exposition, the crisis of the play rapidly announces itself in the wrestling-match and its sequels. In Much Ado About Nothing there is even less of antecedent circumstance to be imparted. We learn in the first scene, indeed, that Beatrice and Benedick have already met and crossed swords ; but this is not in the least essential to the action; the play might have been to all intents and purposes the same had they never heard of each other until after the rise of the curtain. In Twelfth Night there is a semblance of a retrospective exposition in the scene between Viola and the Captain; but it is of the simplest nature, and conveys no information beyond what, at a later period, would have been imparted on the playbill, thus —
" ORSINO, Duke of Elyria, in love with Olivia. OLIVIA, an heiress, in mourning for her brother,"
and so forth. In The Taming of the Shrew there are no antecedents whatever to be stated. It is true that Lucentio, in the opening speech, is good enough to inform Tranio who he is and what he is doing there — facts with which Tranio is already perfectly acquainted. But this was merely a conventional opening, excused by the fashion of the time ; it was in no sense a necessary exposition. For the rest, the crisis of the play — the battle between Katherine and Petruchio — begins, develops, and ends before our very eyes. In The Winter's Tale, a brief conversation between Camillo and Archidamus informs us that the King of Bohemia is paying a visit to the King of Sicilia; and that is absolutely all we need to know. It was not even necessary that it should be conveyed to us in this way. The situation would be entirely comprehensible if the scene between Camillo and Archidamus were omitted.
It is needless to go through the whole list of comedies. The broad fact is that in all the plays commonly so described, excepting only The Tempest, the whole action comes within the frame of the picture. In The Tempest the poet employs a form of opening which otherwise he reserves for tragedies. The first scene is simply an animated tableau, calculated to arrest the spectator's attention, without conveying to him any knowledge either of situation or character. Such gleams of character as do, in fact, appear in the dialogue, are scarcely perceived in the hurly-burly of the storm. Then, in the calm which ensues, Prospero expounds to Miranda in great detail the antecedents of the crisis now developing. It might almost seem, indeed, that the poet, in this, his poetic last-will-and-testament, intended to warn his successors against the dangers of a long narrative exposition ; for Prospero's story sends Miranda to sleep. Be this as it may, we have here a case in which Shakespeare deliberately adopted the plan of placing on the stage, not the whole crisis, but only its culmination, leaving its earlier stages to be conveyed in narrative.' It would have been very easy for him to have begun at the beginning and shown us in action the events narrated by Prospero. This course would have involved no greater leap, either in time or space, than he had perpetrated in the almost contemporary Winter's Tale; and it cannot be said that there would have been any difficulty in compressing into three acts, or even two, the essentials of the action of the play as we know it. His reasons for departing from his usual practice were probably connected with the particular occasion for which the play was written. He wanted to produce a masque rather than a drama. We must not, therefore, attach too much significance to the fact that in almost the only play in which Shakespeare seems to have built entirely out of his own head, with no previous play or novel to influence him, he adopted the plan of going straight to the catastrophe, in which he had been anticipated by Sophocles (Oedipus Rex), and was to be followed by Ibsen (Ghosts, Rosmersholm, etc.).
Coming now to the five great tragedies, we find that in four of them Shakespeare began, as in The Tempest, with a picturesque and stirring episode calculated to arrest the spectator's attention and awaken his interest, while conveying to him little or no information. The opening scene of Romeo and Juliet is simply a brawl, bringing home to us vividly the family feud which is the root of the tragedy, but informing us of nothing beyond the fact that such a feud exists. This is, indeed, absolutely all that we require to know. There is not a single preliminary circumstance, outside the limits of the play, that has to be explained to us. The whole tragedy germinates and culminates within what the prologue calls " the two hours' traffick of the stage." The opening colloquy of the Witches in Macbeth, strikes the eerie keynote, but does nothing more. Then, in the second scene, we learn that there has been a great battle and that a nobleman named Macbeth has won a victory which covers him with laurels. This can in no sense be called an exposition. It is the account of a single event, not of a sequence; and that event is contemporary, not antecedent. In the third scene, the meeting of Macbeth and Banquo with the Witches, we have what may be called an exposition reversed; not a narrative of the past, but a foreshadowing of the future. Here we touch on one of the subtlest of the playwright's problems — the art of arousing anticipation in just the right measure. But that is not the matter at present in hand.'
In the opening scene of Othello it is true that some talk passes between Iago and Roderigo before they raise the alarm and awaken Brabantio; but it is carefully non-expository talk; it expounds nothing but Iago's character. Far from being a real exception to the rule that Shakespeare liked to open his tragedies with a very crisply dramatic episode, Othello may rather be called its most conspicuous example. The rousing of Brabantio is immediately followed by the encounter between his men and Othello's, which so finely brings out the lofty character of the Moor; and only in the third scene, that of the Doge's Council, do we pass from shouts and swords to quiet discussion and, in a sense, exposition. Othello's great speech, while a vital portion of the drama, is in so far an exposition that it refers to events which do not come absolutely within the frame of the picture. But they are very recent, very simple, events. If Othello's speech were omitted, or cut down to half a dozen lines, we should know much less of his character and Desdemona's, but the mere action of the play would remain perfectly comprehensible.
King Lear necessarily opens with a great act of state, the partition of the kingdom. A few words between Kent and Gloucester show us what is afoot, and then, at one plunge, we are in the thick of the drama. There was no opportunity here for one of those picturesque tableaux, exciting rather than informative, which initiate the other tragedies. It would have had to be artificially dragged in; and it was the less necessary, as the partition scene took on, in a very few lines, just that arresting, stimulating quality which the poet seems to have desired in the opening of a play of this class.
Finally, when we turn to Hamlet, we find a con-summate example of the crisply-touched opening tableau, making a nervous rather than an intellectual appeal, informing us of nothing, but ex-citing a vivid, though quite vague, anticipation. The silent transit of the Ghost, desiring to speak, yet tongue-tied, is certainly one of Shakespeare's unrivalled masterpieces of dramatic craftsmanship. One could pretty safely wager that if the Ur-Hamlet, on which Shakespeare worked, were to come to light to-morrow, this particular trait would not be found in it. But, oddly enough, into the middle of this admirable opening tableau, Shakespeare inserts a formal exposition, introduced in the most conventional way. Marcellus, for some un-explained reason, is ignorant of what is evidently common knowledge as to the affairs of the realm, and asks to be informed; whereupon Horatio, in a speech of some twenty-five lines, sets forth the past relations between Norway and Denmark, and prepares us for the appearance of Fortinbras in the fourth act. In modern stage versions all this falls away, and nobody who has not studied the printed text is conscious of its absence. The commentators, indeed, have proved that Fortinbras is an immensely valuable element in the moral scheme of the play; but from the point of view of pure drama, there is not the slightest necessity for this Norwegian-Danish embroilment or its consequences. The real exposition — for Hamlet differs from the other tragedies in requiring an exposition — comes in the great speech of the Ghost in Scene V. The contrast between this speech and Horatio's lecture in the first scene, exemplifies the difference between a dramatized and an undramatized exposition. The crisis, as we now learn, began months or years before the rise of the curtain. It began when Claudius inveigled the affections of Gertrude; and it would have been possible for the poet to have started from this point, and shown us in action all that he in fact conveys to us by way of narration. His reason for choosing the latter course is abundantly obvious. Hamlet the Younger was to be the protagonist : the interest of the play was to centre in his mental processes. To have awakened our interest in Hamlet the Elder would, therefore, have been a superfluity and an irrelevance. Moreover (to say nothing of the fact that the Ghost was doubtless a popular figure in the old play, and demanded by the public) it was highly desirable that Hamlet's knowledge of the usurper's crime should ome to him from a supernatural witness, who could not be cross-questioned or called upon to give material proof. This was the readiest as well as the most picturesque method of begetting in him that condition of doubt, real or affected, which was necessary to account for his behaviour. But to have shown us in action the matter of the Ghost's revelation would have been hopelessly to ruin its effect. A repetition in narrative of matters already seen in action is the grossest of technical blunders.' Hamlet senior, in other words, being indispensable in the spirit, was superfluous in the flesh. But there was another and equally cogent reason for beginning the play after the commission of the initial crime or crimes. To have done otherwise would have been to discount, not only the Ghost, but the play-scene. By a piece of consummate ingenuity, which may, of course, have been conceived by the earlier playwright, the initial incidents of the story are in fact presented to us, in the guise of a play within the play, and as a means to the achievement of one of the greatest dramatic effects in all literature. The moment the idea of the play-scene presented itself to the author's mind, it became absolutely unthinkable that he should, to put it vulgarly, " queer the pitch " for the Players by showing us the real facts of which their performance was to be the counterfeit presentment. The dramatic effect of the incidents was incalculably heightened when they were presented, as in a looking-glass, before the guilty pair, with the eye of the avenger boring into their souls. And have we not here, perhaps, a clue to one of the most frequent and essential meanings of the word " dramatic "? May we not say that the dramatic quality of an incident is proportionate to the variety and intensity of the emotions involved in it?
All this may appear too obvious to be worth setting forth at such length. Very likely it never occurred to Shakespeare that it was possible to open the play at an earlier point ; so that he can hardly be said to have exercised a deliberate choice in the matter. Nevertheless, the very obviousness of the considerations involved makes this a good example of the importance of discovering just the right point at which to raise the curtain. In the case of The Tempest, Shakespeare plunged into the middle of the crisis because his object was to produce a philosophico-dramatic entertainment rather than a play in the strict sense of the word. He wanted room for the enchantments of Ariel, the brutishnesses of Caliban, the humours of Stephano and Trinculo — all elements extrinsic to the actual story. But in Hamlet he adopted a similar course for purely dramatic reasons — in order to concentrate his effects and present the dramatic elements of his theme at their highest potency.
In sum, then, it was Shakespeare's usual practice, histories apart, to bring the whole action of his plays within the frame of the picture, leaving little or nothing to narrative exposition. The two notable exceptions to this rule are those we have just examined — Hamlet and The Tempest. Furthermore, he usually opened his comedies with quiet conversational passages, presenting the antecedents of the crisis with great deliberation. In his tragedies, on the other hand, he was apt to lead off with a crisp, somewhat startling passage of more or less vehement action, appealing rather to the nerves than to the intelligence - such a passage as Gustav Freytag, in his Technik des Dramas, happily entitles an einleitende Akkord, an introductory chord. It may be added that this rule holds good both for Coriolanus and for Julius Caesar, in which the keynote is briskly struck in highly animated scenes of commotion among the Roman populace.
Let us now look at the practice of Ibsen, which offers a sharp contrast to that of Shakespeare. To put it briefly, the plays in which Ibsen gets his whole action within the frame of the picture are as exceptional as those in which Shakespeare does not do so.
Ibsen's practice in this matter has been compared with that of the Greek dramatists, who also were apt to attack their crisis in the middle, or even towards the end, rather than at the beginning. It must not be forgotten, however, that there is one great difference between his position and theirs. They could almost always rely upon a general knowledge, on the part of the audience, of the theme with which they were dealing. The purpose even of the Euripidean prologue is not so much to state unknown facts, as to recall facts vaguely remembered, to state the particular version of a legend which the poet proposes to adopt, and to define the point in the development of the legend at which he is about to set his figures in motion. Ibsen, on the other hand, drew upon no store-house of tradition. He had to convey to his audience everything that he wanted them to know; and this was often a long and complex series of facts.
The earliest play in which Ibsen can be said to show maturity of craftsmanship is The Vikings at Helgeland. It is curious to note that both in The Vikings and in The Pretenders, two plays which are in some measure comparable with Shakespearean tragedies, he opens with a firmly-touched einleitende Akkord. In The Vikings, Ornulf and his sons encounter and fight with Sigurd and his men, very much after the fashion of the Montagnes and Capulets in Romeo and Juliet. In The Pretenders the rival factions of Haakon and Skule stand out-side the cathedral of Bergen, intently awaiting the result of the ordeal which is proceeding within; and though they do not there and then come to blows, the air is electrical with their conflicting ambitions and passions. His modern plays, on the other hand, Ibsen opens quietly enough, though usually with some more or less arresting little incident, calculated to arouse immediate curiosity. One may cite as characteristic examples the hurried colloquy between Engstrand and Regina in Ghosts; Rebecca and Madam Helseth in Rosmersholm, watching to see whether Rosmer will cross the mill-race; and in The Master Builder, old Brovik's querulous outburst, immediately followed by the entrance of Solness and his mysterious behaviour towards Kaia. The opening of Hedda Gabler, with its long conversation between Miss Tesman and the servant Bertha, comes as near as Ibsen ever did to the conventional exposition of the French stage, conducted by a footman and a parlour-maid engaged in dusting the furniture. On the other hand, there never was a more masterly opening, in its sheer simplicity, than Nora's en-trance in A Doll's House, and the little silent scene that precedes the appearance of Helmer.
Regarding The Vikings as Ibsen's first mature production, and surveying the whole series of his subsequent works in which he had stage presentation directly in view, we find that in only two out of the fifteen plays does the whole action come within the frame of the picture. These two are The League of Youth and An Enemy of the People. In neither of these have any antecedents to be stated; neither turns upon any disclosure of bygone events or emotions. We are, indeed, afforded brief glimpses into the past both of Stensgaard and of Stockmann; but the glimpses are incidental and inessential. It is certainly no mere coincidence that if one were asked to pick out the pieces of thinnest texture in all Ibsen's mature work, one would certainly select these two plays. Far be it from me to disparage An Enemy of the People; as a work of art it is incomparably greater than such a piece as Pillars of Society; but it is not so richly woven, not, as it were, so deep in pile. Written in half the time Ibsen usually de-voted to a play, it is an outburst of humorous indignation, a jeu d'esprit, one might almost say, though the jeu of a giant esprit. Observing the effect of comparative tenuity in these two plays, we cannot but surmise that the secret of the depth and richness of texture so characteristic of Ibsen's work, lay in his art of closely interweaving a drama of the present with a drama of the past. An Enemy of the People is a straightforward, spirited melody; The Wild Duck and Rosmersholm are subtly and intricately harmonized.
Going a little more into detail, we find in Ibsen's work an extraordinary progress in the art of so unfolding the drama of the past as to make the gradual revelation no mere preface or prologue to the drama of the present, but an integral part of its action. It is true that in The Vikings he already showed himself a master in this art. The great revelation—the disclosure of the fact that Sigurd, not Gunnar, did the deed of prowess which Hiördis demanded of the man who should be her mate—this crucial revelation is brought about in a scene of the utmost dramatic intensity. The whole drama of the past, indeed—both its facts and its emotions—may be said to be dragged to light in the very stress and pressure of the drama of the present. Not a single detail of it is narrated in cold blood, as, for example, Prospero relates to Miranda the story of their marooning, or Horatio expounds the Norwegian-Danish political situation. I am not holding up The Vikings as a great masterpiece; it has many weaknesses both of substance and of method; but in this particular art of indistinguishably blending the drama of the present with the drama of the past, it is already consummate. The Pretenders scarcely comes into the comparison. It is Ibsen's one chronicle-play; and, like Shakespeare, he did not shrink from employing a good deal of narrative, though his narratives, it must be said, are always introduced under such circumstances as to make them a vital part of the drama. It is when we come to the modern plays that we find the poet falling back upon conventional and somewhat clumsy methods of exposition, which he only by degrees, though by rapid degrees, unlearns.
The League of Youth, as we have seen, requires no exposition. All we have to learn is the existing relations of the characters, which appear quite naturally as the action proceeds. But let us look at Pillars of Society. Here we have to be placed in possession of a whole antecedent drama : the intrigue of Karsten Bernick with Dina Dorf's mother, the threatened scandal, Johan Tônnesen's vicarious acceptance of Bernick's responsibility, the subsidiary scandal of Lona Hessel's outburst on learning of Bernick's engagement to her half-sister, the report of an embezzlement committed by Johan before his departure for America. All this has to be conveyed to us in retrospect; or, rather, in the first place, we have to be informed of the false version of these incidents which is current in the little town, and on which Bernick's moral and commercial prestige is built up. What device, then, does Ibsen adopt to this end? He introduces a " sewing-bee" of tattling women, one of whom happens to be a stranger to the town, and unfamiliar with its gossip. Into her willing ear the others pour the popular version of the Bernick story; and, this impartment effected, the group of gossips disappears, to be heard of no more. These ladies perform the function, in fact, of the First, Second, and Third Gentlemen, so common in Elizabethan and pseudo-Elizabethan plays. They are not quite so artless in their conventionality, for they bring with them the social atmosphere of the tattling little town, which is an essential factor in the drama. Moreover, their exposition is not a simple narrative of facts. It is to some extent subtilized by the circumstance that the facts are not facts, and that the gist of the drama is to lie in the gradual triumph of the truth over this tissue of falsehoods. Still, explain it as we may, the fact remains that in no later play does Ibsen initiate us into the preliminaries of his action by so hackneyed and unwieldy a device. It is no conventional canon, but a maxim of mere common sense, that the dramatist should be chary of introducing characters who have no personal share in the drama, and are mere mouthpieces for the conveyance of information. Nowhere else does Ibsen so flagrantly disregard so obvious a principle of dramatic economy.'
When we turn to his next play, A Doll's House, we find that he has already made a great step in advance. He has progressed from the First, Second, and Third Gentlemen of the Elizabethans to the confidant 1 of the French classic drama. He even attempts, not very successfully, to disguise the confidant by giving her a personal interest, an effective share, in the drama. Nothing can really dissemble the fact that the long scene between Nora and Mrs. Linden, which occupies almost one-third of the first act, is simply a formal exposition, outside the action of the play. Just as it was providential that one of the housewives of the sewing-bee in Pillars of Society should have been a stranger to the town, so was it the luckiest of chances (for the dramatist's convenience) that an old school-friend should have dropped in from the clouds precisely half-an-hour before the entrance of Krogstad brings to a sudden head the great crisis of Nora's life. This happy conjuncture of events is manifestly artificial: a trick of the dramatist's trade : a point at which his art does not conceal his art. Mrs. Linden does not, like the dames of the sewing-bee, fade out of the saga ; she even, through her influence on Krogstad, plays a determining part in the development of the action. But to all intents and purposes she remains a mere confidant, a pretext for Nora's re-view of the history of her married life. There are two other specimens of the genus confidant in Ibsen's later plays. Arnholm, in The Lady from the Sea, is little more; Dr. Herdal, in The Master Builder, is that and nothing else. It may be alleged in his defence that the family physician is the professional confidant of real life.
In Ghosts, Ibsen makes a sudden leap to the extreme of his retrospective method. I am not one of those who consider this play Ibsen's master-piece : I do not even place it, technically, in the first rank among his works. And why? Because there is here no reasonable equilibrium between the drama of the past and the drama of the present. The drama of the past is almost everything, the drama of the present next to nothing. As soon as we have probed to the depths the Alving marriage and its consequences, the play is over, and there is nothing left but for Regina to set off in pursuit of the joy of life, and for Oswald to collapse into imbecility. It is scarcely an exaggeration to call the play all exposition and no drama. Here for the first time, however, Ibsen perfected his peculiar gift of imparting tense dramatic interest to the unveiling of the past. While in one sense the play is all exposition, in another sense it may quite as truly be said to contain no exposition; for it contains no narrative delivered in cold blood, in mere calm retrospection, as a necessary preliminary to the drama which is in the meantime waiting at the door. In other words, the exposition is all drama, it is the drama. The per-sons who are tearing the veils from the past, and for whom the veils are being torn, are intensely concerned in the process, which actually constitutes the dramatic crisis. The discovery of this method, or its rediscovery in modern drama,' was Ibsen's great technical achievement. In his best work, the progress of the unveiling occasions a marked development, or series of changes, in the actual and present relations of the characters. The drama of the past and the drama of the present proceed, so to speak, in interlacing rhythms, or, as I said before, in a rich, complex harmony. In Ghosts this harmony is not so rich as in some later plays, because the drama of the present is disproportionately meagre. None the less, or all the more, is it a conspicuous example of Ibsen's method of raising his curtain, not at the beginning of the crisis, but rather at the beginning of the catastrophe.
In An Enemy of the People, as already stated, he momentarily deserted that method, and gave us an action which begins, develops, and ends entirely within the frame of the picture. But in the two following plays, The Wild Duck and Rosmersholm, he touched the highest point of technical mastery in his interweaving of the past with the present. I shall not attempt any analysis of the fabric of these plays. The process would be long, tedious, and unhelpful; for no one could hope to employ a method of such complexity without something of Ibsen's genius ; and genius will evolve its methods for itself. Let me only ask the reader to compare the scene between old Werle and Gregers in the first act of The Wild Duck with the scene between Nora and Mrs. Linden in the first act of A Doll's House, and mark the technical advance. Both scenes are, in a sense, scenes of exposition. Both are mainly designed to place us in possession of a sequence of bygone facts. But while the Doll's House scene is a piece of quiet gossip, brought about (as we have noted) by rather artificial means, and with no dramatic tension in it, the Wild Duck scene is a piece of tense, one might almost say fierce, drama, fulfilling the Brunetière definition in that it shows us two characters, a father and son, at open war with each other. The one scene is outside the real action, the other is an integral part of it. The one belongs to Ibsen's tentative period, the other ushers in, one might almost say, his period of consummate mastery.
Rosmersholm is so obviously nothing but the cata strophe of an antecedent drama that an attempt has actually been made to rectify Ibsen's supposed mistake, and to write the tragedy of the deceased Beata. It was made by an unskilful hand; but even a skilful hand would scarcely have done more than prove how rightly Ibsen judged that the re-coil of Rebecca's crime upon herself and Rosmer would prove more interesting, and in a very real sense more dramatic, than the somewhat vulgar process of the crime itself. The play is not so profound in its humanity as The Wild Duck, but it is Ibsen's masterpiece in the art of withdrawing veil after veil. From the technical point of view, it will repay the closest study.
We need not look closely at the remaining plays. Hedda Gabler is perhaps that in which a sound proportion between the past and the present is most successfully preserved. The interest of the present action is throughout very vivid; but it is all rooted in facts and relations of the past, which are elicited under circumstances of high dramatic tension. Here again it is instructive to compare the scene between Hedda and Thea, in the first act, with the scene between Nora and Mrs. Linden. Both are scenes of exposition : and each is, in its way, character-revealing; but the earlier scene is a passage of quite unemotional narrative; the later is a passage of palpitating drama. In the plays subsequent to Hedda Gabler, it cannot be denied that the past took the upper hand of the present 'to a degree which could only be justified by the genius of an Ibsen. Three-fourths of the action of The Master Builder, Little Eyolf, John Gabriel Borkman, and When We Dead Awaken, consists of what may be called a passionate analysis of the past. Ibsen had the art of making such an analysis absorbingly interesting; but it is not a formula to be commended for the practical purposes of the everyday stage.