Henrik Ibsen Part 2
( Originally Published 1896 )
SIXTEEN years have passed away since the preceding study of the early works of Henrik Ibsen was originally published. At the time it appeared, the name of Ibsen was absolutely unrecognised in this country.; it is a pleasure to me to know that it was I who first introduced it to English readers a very poor and inadequate interpreter, but still the first. That name is now widely admired in England, and has long passed beyond any need of emphatic recommendation. All Europe admits that it is one of the greatest in contemporary literature, and by degrees, even here, its possessor is becoming studied and popularised. Among those who have sought to introduce Ibsen to the English public, it is but common justice to give the fore-most praise to the eminent dramatic critic, Mr. William Archer.
It is the more convenient to take for granted the work of Henrik Ibsen previous to 1874, because what he has published since that year has been exclusively of a peculiar class, and that a class in which he had scarcely made any previous essays. The political comedy of De Unges Forbund (" The Young Men's Union "), which appeared as long ago as 1869, has a little of the character of Ibsen's later social dramas, but not very much. All the rest of his early work his astounding tours de force in dramatic rhyme, his saga-tragedies, his historical dramas, his lyrics, although in all of thee the careful critic traces the elements of his later and more highly developed manner —is distinguished, to a startling degree, from his social prose dramas, by a total difference of form and tone. The work by which we judge him in this chapter is an unbroken series of seven plays, all dealing with contemporary life in Norway, all inspired by the same intensely modern spirit, all rigorously divested of everything ideal, lyrical, or conventional, whether in form or spirit. These seven dramas are, at present, Ibsen's claim to be considered as a European dramatic prose writer of the first class. By the side of their strenuous originality and actuality, the lovely creations of his youth have faded into comparative unimportance. These were in the tradition of poetry; those are either masterpieces of a new sort of writing or they are failures. It is, at the same time, well to point out that in his own country, where his exquisite rhythmical work can be appreciated, his lyrical dramas continue to have a much larger sale than his prose plays.
Ibsen, be it admitted, for the sake of the gentle reader, is not a poet to the taste of every one. The school of critics now flourishing amongst us, to whom what is serious in literature is eminently distasteful, and who claim of modern writing that it should be light, amusing, romantic, and unreal, will find Ibsen much too imposing. The critic who is bored with Tolstoï, who cannot understand what Howells is aiming at, and who sees nothing but what is "improper " in Guy de Maupassant, will not be able to put up with Ibsen. There is no doubt that he takes his literary analysis and his moral curiosity very " hard." He has no conception of literature as an anodyne, and like all converts, he is a more zealous enemy of aesthetic and formal beauty of literature than those who have never been adepts in touching " the tender stops of various quills." Ibsen's new departure was marked by the rejection of verse as a vehicle. The latest of his historical plays, his Kejser og Galilaeer (" Emperor and Galilean "), a vast ten-act tragedy as long as Dryden's Conquest of Granada, was written in prose, and marks the transition. Ibsen had "grown weary of his long-loved mistress, Rhyme," and from that day to this he has used it only in short copies of verses. The announcement of his complete divorce reached me in a letter from which I will here translate a few words. He had told me of the preparation he was making for a new play the same which afterwards appeared as Samfundets Stotter and I ventured, with plentiful lack of judgment, as the event proved, to beg that it might be in verse. Dr. Ibsen replied
" There is one point which I must discuss with you. You think my new drama ought to be written in verse, and that it will gain an advantage if it is. Here I must simply contradict you ; for the piece is, as you will find, developed in the most realistic way possible. The illusion I wish to produce is that of truth itself ; I want to produce upon the reader the impression that what he is reading is actually taking place before him. If I were to use verse, I should by so doing be stultifying my own intention and the object which I placed before me. The variety of everyday and unimportant characters, which I have: intentionally introduced into the piece, would be effaced (udviskede) and blended into one another, if I had allowed them all to converse in a rhythmic movement. We are no longer living in the time of Shakespeare, and among sculptors there is beginning to be a discussion whether statuary ought not to be painted with lively colours. Much can be said for and against such a practice. I myself would not have the Venus of Milos painted, but I would rather see a negro's head carved in black marble than in white. On the whole, my feeling is that literary form ought to be in relation to the amount of ideality which is spread over the representation. My new drama is not, indeed, a tragedy in the old-world signification of the word, but what I have tried to depict in it is human beings, and for that very reason I have not allowed them to talk `the language of the gods.' "
This severely realistic conception of what dramatic form should be, a conception which sounded oddly at first on the lips of a poet who had written impassioned five-act plays entirely in elaborate rhymed measures, was in strict harmony with the mental and moral tone of the author in this his new departure. Dr. Georg Brandes in his interesting volume, Det Moderne Gjennembruds Maend, has given us some valuable particulars regarding Ibsen's political and philosophical experiences at this crisis of his life. During the Franco-German war, it would seem that his sentiment with regard to life and history underwent a complete revolution. He woke up to see, or to think he saw, that we were living in the last scene of the last act of a long drama; that all which politics, morals, literature were giving us was but the last and driest crumbs swept up from under the table of eighteenth-century revolution ; that " Liberty, equality, and fraternity" was played out as a motto, and had come to mean the direct opposite of what it meant to " the late lamented Guillotine." He saw, or thought he saw, politicians wasting their energies on local and superficial revolutions, not perceiving that all things were making ready for a universal revolt of the spirit of men. A few months later, in the following sentences, he anticipated, with a very surprising exactitude, recent utterances of Tolstoï. Ibsen wrote thus to Georg Brandes; —
"The State is the curse of the individual. flow has the national strength of Prussia been purchased ? By the sinking of the individual in a political and geographical formula... . The State must go t That will be a revolution which will find me on its side. Undermine the idea of the State, set up in its place spontaneous action, and the idea that spiritual relation-ship is the only thing that makes for unity, and you will start the elements of a liberty which will be something worth possessing."
It was in such a mood as this that Ibsen received news of the Paris Commune with extreme disgust, regarding this caricature of his ideal as likely to delay the realisation of his genuine desire through at least a generation. To await the new revolution, as religious mystics await the solemn Second Advent, was now useless. The hope of the immediate future had sunk behind the Seine, and Ibsen turned from watching the horizon to diagnose the symptoms of that mortal moral disease of which, as it appeared to him, Europe was fast advancing towards social death. The hypocrisy of society and the brutality of personal egotism these were the principal outward signs of that inward but universal malady beneath which he saw the world sinking. It was with no thought of reforming society, with no zeal of the missionary or the philanthropist, that he started on his new series of studies. He would spend the few years left to him before the political agony of Europe in noting down, with an accuracy hitherto unparalleled, the symptoms of her disorder. But with him always, since 187o, there has remained, pre-eminent among his political convictions, this belief that the State is the natural enemy of the individual. Always an exile from his own country, he had settled in Dresden, rejoicing in the freedom of a small and uninfluential Government. But in 1875, when Saxony became more and more identified with the vaunting glory and greatness of the Empire, he fled again. In a letter to me at that time he says—" I must go. In April I shall flit to Munich, and see if I can settle there for two or three years. I fancy that all spiritual life breathes with greater fulness and comfort there than here in North Germany, where the State and politics have drafted all the strength of the people into their service, and have arrested all genuine interests." Always this bogey of the State, paralysing individual action, driving the poet through the cities of Europe to avoid the iron clangour of its colossal system of wheels.
Such was, briefly, the mood, as a literary artist and as a political moralist, in which Ibsen started upon the creation of his remarkable series of dramas. To enumerate them and this must now be done is to enumerate the entire published work of twelve years. Courted and flattered as he has been, tempted by the results of his immense prosperity to bend to slighter and less arduous work, Ibsen has never, during this long period of final maturity, resigned for a moment his idea of diagnosing, in a series of sternly realistic dramas, the disease of which this poor weary world of ours, according to his theory, is expiring. At present these plays are seven in number, issued in the winters of the years successively named. First came Samfundets Stouter (" The Pillars of Society "), in 1877 ; then Et Dukkehjem ("A Doll's House "), in 1879 ; Gengangere (" Ghosts "), in 1881 ; En Folkefiende (" An Enemy of the People"), in 1882; Vildanden ("The Wild Duck"), in 1884; Rosmersholm (the name of an old manor-house), in 1886; and lastly, Fruen fra Havet (" The Lady from the Sea"), in 1888. Some brief description of these seven dramas, all closely related to one another, will give a rough idea, to those who do not read Danish, of a very extra-ordinary group of literary products.
In The Pillars of Society Ibsen published a play which did not at once discover to critical readers the fact that he was making a new departure. In the first place it was a drama of today, the scene of which was laid in a little Norwegian sea-side town, and Ibsen had already once, in De Unges Forbund (" The Young Men's Union ") of 1869, written a modern political comedy of life in such a part of his native country. In the second place, the piece distinctly recalled, both in form and in substance, Björnson's exceedingly popular satiric drama En Fallit (" A Bankruptcy "), which had attracted a great deal of attention in 1875. Looking back at the two plays, it is now difficult to understand what relation it was we thought we saw between them. The interest in Björnson's play has faded, that in Ibsen's has increased; but undoubtedly, at the first production of The Pillars of Society, it seemed to be less original than it now seems. Björnson, with his fresh and vivid fancy, ill-regulated zeal for moral health, and uncertain powers of technical dramatic skill, has scarcely held his own with Ibsen of late years. But it is difficult not to believe that the rivalry between these two great poets has been beneficial to the greater of the two, and if I had ,space, or could hope to hold the interest of the reader in such a discussion, I should like to dwell upon the relation of Björnson's Leonora and The New System to A Doll's House, and the possible influence of Björnson's A Glove on The Wild Duck. As far as strenuousness of purpose, depth of psychological insight, and freedom from passion are concerned, however, Ibsen appears to me to be as indisputably superior to Björnson as in grace of touch and occasional felicity of expression he is inferior.
A certain local and peculiarly Norwegian species of hypocritical respectability is the main disease treated in The Pillars of Society. The pathognomonic sign which attends this special malady and distinguishes it from all others is the cautious lying silence which holds its tongue so carefully in small social circles, and wraps around its consciousness of guilt garment after garment of false propriety, spurious indignation, and prudent hypocrisy. The hero of the play is Consul Bernick, whose shipbuilding business is the wealthiest and longest-established industry in the town, who is the main "pillar," in fact, upon which society supports itself. He not only acts as a prop to the trade and the finance of the place, but by his studied morality he gives high tone to its social character. The town bristles with his charities and his improvements, and he is the very darling of its respectabilities. There are, however, two shadows, rather than spots, upon the luminous disc of this great moral sun. It is whispered that Dina Dorf, the agreeable young female to whom the consul has so condescendingly given a home in his family, is the daughter of a married woman, a strolling actress, by Johan Tönneson, Mrs. Bernick's younger brother, who was forced, in consequence of this intrigue, to leave for America, robbing the Bernicks of a large sum of money in the act of his departure. It is, moreover, known that Mrs. Bernick's half-sister, Lena Hessel, obstinately persisted in following her nephew to the United States, and has disgraced herself there by lecturing, and even by publishing a successful book. These misfortunes, however, are never mentioned, or mentioned only to call forth sympathy for the irreproachable Bernick.
When the curtain rises on The Pillars of Society we are introduced, in a brilliant succession of scenes, and in a spirit of pure comedy, to the bustle of social and industrial life in the little seaport town. An artisan, who is foreman of the Workmen's Society, is reminded : "You are, first and foremost, foreman in Consul Bernick's wharf Your first and foremost duty is towards the society which calls itself Consul Bernick's firm, for that is what we all live by." Ladies, the clergy, those townsfolk whose interest it is to get a railway opened to the town, every person, of whatever species, who exists in and on the municipality, are seen to be whirled in the current of Bernick's stupendous egotism, and the smallest critical objection to his authority is parried either by a threat or else by an appeal to do nothing to undermine so invaluable a pillar of the social edifice. Yet with the opening of the second act we learn that this splendid reputation for respectability is all based upon a structure of lies, and, strangely enough, we begin at this point to study Bernick with curiosity. What seemed an insupportable fatuity is seen to be a deep design of cunning hypocrisy, a magnificent chef-d'oeuvre of egotistical force of purpose. We are present at the development of a moral intrigue far more serious than any of the roseate imbroglios of eighteenth-century comedy. The Scapins and the Mascarilles, whose impudence has descended in forms always wholly conventional, to the common drama of our day, are swallowed up, are lost and buried in this gigantic figure of a knave, before whom the Church and the sex and the commune alike bow down as to a god.
Gradually the edifice of lies comes toppling down like a house of cards. In the episode of the mother of Dina Dorf it has been Consul Bernick himself, and not Johan Tönneson, who has been the actor, while Johan has really sacrificed himself to shield the consul. The story of the theft is a pure fiction, and on Johan Tönneson's reappearance in Norway the danger breaks out again. Bernick resolves to ship him away again in an untrustworthy vessel, and as he braces himself to the committing of this murder, a torchlight procession of the townsfolk is in the act of approaching his house to congratulate him on his support of public morality. Johan does not, as a matter of fact, start in the leaky ship, but the toils are gathering around the consul, and when the torchlight procession arrives, half in remorse, half in cynicism, he makes a clean breast of all his rogueries. The revelation comes like a thunderbolt on the deputation, and the townsfolk regard the confessions more as eccentricity than anything else. The firm of Bernick & Co. will rule the roast, we feel, as much as ever it did. The air has been cleared; that is all. There has been a moral thunderstorm. The play ends thus --
"Bernick. There is another thing which I have learned in these last days. It is that you women are the real pillars of society.
Miss Hessel. That's a poor lesson to have learned, brother. No ! the spirits of truth and liberty, those are the pillars of society."
The whitewashing of Bernick at the end gives a some-what conventional termination to this picturesque and powerful play, one of the most animated in action which the poet has produced. The Pillars of Society was still, in measure, a well-manufactured drama of the admired type familiar to managers. Ibsen does not recur again to this type. Henceforth he carries his realism to a much further extent, and aims at giving no more and no less than an accurate diagram of a section of life. During the two years which preceded his next public appearance, he gave great thought and attention to the question of form, and his second social tragi-comedy was a much more serious affair.
No work of Ibsen's, not even his beautiful Puritan opera of Brand, has excited so much controversy as A Doll's House. This was, no doubt, to a very great extent caused by its novel presentment of the mission of woman in modern society. In the dramas and romances of modern Scandinavia, and especially in those of Ibsen and Björnson, the function of woman had been clearly defined. She was to be the helper, the comforter, the inspirer, the guerdon of man in his struggle towards loftier forms of existence. When man fell on the upward path, woman's hand was to be stretched to raise him; when man went wandering away on ill and savage courses, woman was to wait patiently over her spinning-wheel, ready to welcome and to pardon the returning prodigal; when the eyes of man grew weary in watching for the morning-star, its rays were to flash through the crystal tears of woman.1 But in A Doll's House he confronted his audience with a new conception.
Woman was no longer to be the shadow following man, or if you will, a skin-leka attending man, but an independent entity, with purposes and moral functions of her own. Ibsen's favourite theory of the domination of the individual had hitherto been confined to one sex ; here he carries it over boldly to the other. The heroine of A Doll's House, the puppet in that establishment pour rire, is Nora Helmar, the wife of a Christiania barrister. The character is drawn upon childish lines, which often may remind the English reader of Dora in David Copperfield. She has, however, passed beyond the Dora stage when the play opens. She is the mother of children, she has been a wife for half-a-dozen years. But the spoiling of injudicious parents has been succeeded by the spoiling of a weak and silly husband. Nora remains childish, irrational, concentrated on tiny cares and empty interests, without self-control or self-respect. Her doctor and her husband have told her not to give way to her passion for " candy" in any of its seductive forms ; but she is introduced to us greedily eating macaroons on the sly, and denying that she has touched one when suspicion is aroused.
Here, then, in Nora Helmar, the poet starts with the figure of a woman in whom the results of the dominant will of man, stultifying the powers and gifts of womanhood, are seen in their extreme development. Environed by selfish kindness, petted and spoiled for thirty years of dwarfed existence, this pretty, playful, amiable, and apparently happy little wife is really a tragical victim of masculine egotism. A nature exorbitantly desirous of leaning on a stronger will has been seized, condemned, absorbed by the natures of her father and husband. She lives in them and by them, without moral instincts of her own, or any law but their pleasure. The result of this weakness this, as Ibsen conceives, criminal subordination of the individuality —is that when Nora is suddenly placed in a responsible position, when circumstances demand from her a moral judgment, she has none to give ; the safety, even the comfort, of the man she loves precede all other considerations, and with a light heart she forges a document to shield her father or to preserve her husband's name, She sacrifices honour for love, her conscience being still in too rudimentary a state to understand that there can be any honour that is distinguishable from love. Thus Dora would have acted, if we can conceive Dora as ever thrown into circumstances which would permit her to use the pens she was so patient in holding. But Nora Helmar has capacities of undeveloped character which make her far more interesting than the, to say the truth, slightly fabulous Dora. Her insipidity, her dollishness, come from the incessant repression of her family life. She is buried, as it were, in cotton-wool, swung into artificial sleep by the egotistical fondling of the men on whom she depends for emotional existence. But when once she tears the wrappings away, and leaps from the pillowed hammock of her indolence, she rapidly develops an energy of her own, and the genius of the dramatist is displayed in the rare skill with which he makes us witness the various stages of this awaking. At last, in an extraordinary scene, she declares that she can no longer live in her doll's house ; husband and wife sit down at opposite ends of a table, and argue out the situation in a dialogue which covers sixteen pages, and Nora dashes out into the city, into the night ; while the curtain falls as the front door bangs behind her.
The world is always ready to discuss the problem of marriage, and this very fresh and odd version of L'Ecole des Femmes excited the greatest possible interest throughout the north of Europe. The close of the play, in particular, was a riddle hard to be deciphered. Nora, it was said, might feel that the only way to develop her own individuality was to leave her husband, but why should she leave her children ? The poet evidently held the relation he had described to be such an immoral one, in the deepest and broadest sense, that the only way out of the difficulty was to cut the Gordian knot, children or no children. In almost the very last of Nora's replies, moreover, there is a glimmer of relenting. The most wonderful of wonders may happen, she confesses ; the reunion of a developed wife to a reformed husband is not, she hints, beyond the range of what is possible. We are left with the conviction that it rests with him, with Helmar, to allow himself to be led through the fires of affliction to the feet of a Nora who shall no longer be a doll.
Ibsen's dramas have a curious way of containing each the germ of the action of the next. As the relation of Bernick to his wife suggests to us the whole plot of A Doll's House, so the horrible incident of the diseased friend of the family, the dissipated and dying Dr. Rank, foreshadows the subject of Ghosts. This, or I am very much mistaken, is one of the most thrilling and amazing works in modern literature. I know nothing to compare with it for sheer moral horror except Crime et Châtiment. The ghosts, or revenants, who give their name to this piece, are the results of self-indulgent egotism, of sensual hypocrisy, stalking through the lives of the next generation of men. These are the spectres of the pleasures of the dead, the teeth of the children set on edge by those sour grapes that their fathers ate. The warping of individuality by hereditary weakness, caused by selfish indulgence, is the tragic central idea of the dreadful play of Ghosts. It opens with light comedy, but the plot instantly thickens. A wealthy widow, mother of one son, an interesting delicate youth who has chiefly resided in Paris, welcomes that son on his return to be present at the opening of an asylum which had been built in honour of her husband's memory. He, the late Captain Alving, has been a "pillar of society " and of the Church. His wife knows, and always has known, that he was a person of hopelessly dissolute conduct, but her life during their marriage was sacrificed to a skilful concealment of this fact, and since his death she has laboured no less to preserve his reputation unsullied. Some remarks of her son Oswald about the non-matrimonial but yet faithful connections entered into so often by artists and men of letters in France remarks made to the conventional and shallow Pastor Manders lead to a discussion in which, after her son has left the room, Mrs. Alving tears the mask from the hypocrisy of her husband's past life and the torture of her own. She relates a certain incident which finally opened her eyes to her husband's moral incapacity, and made her send her little son away, as a baby, out of such corrupting influences. She has scarcely finished telling this story, which frightens Pastor Manders half out of his wits, when through a door left ajar they hear Oswald repeating the particular offence, and, starting up, Mrs. Alving groans out the word "Ghosts!" Her care has been in vain; the spectre of hereditary vices has revisited her swept and garnished home.
So far, no doubt, Alexander Dumas fils or even Sardou would go. But Ibsen, in his daring realism, goes much farther still. The only confidant of Mrs. Alving, in the dreadful guard she kept over the outward respectability of her husband, had been his physician, and the poet, with unparalleled daring, pursues the phantoms into a still lower circle of hell. In her life of long-drawn moral anguish, in the sacrifice of her individuality to hypocritical shams of every kind, the only reality which has escaped the universal taint of falseness has been the mutual love of mother and son. She has separated herself all these years from Oswald, that his young life might be untouched by the moral miasma of his home, but she has kept up close intimacy with him by correspondence, and he loves her warmly. Now he has returned, ignorant of the truth about his father, and devoted to his mother, the latter hopes to enter at last upon a period of rest and happiness, in which she need pretend nothing and endure nothing, but lie at peace watching the growth of Oswald's character. But she notices that he drinks too freely, smokes too much, and seems always restless and listless. At last he confesses to her that he is never well, that his life is physically ruined, that his nerves and body are a wreck. The evil advances with the play. His brain rapidly softens ; in the long and almost intolerably affecting scene with which the play ends his reason flickers out, and the spectator, when the curtain falls, is left uncertain whether his mother will, or will not, indulge his last conscious wish, and cut his senseless second childhood short with a dose of morphia. It is hardly possible, in addressing the prudish English reader, to suggest the real meaning of the whole thing. Ghosts! ghosts ! the avenging deities born of the unclean blood that spurtled from the victim of Cronos ! How any human creature can see the play acted through without shrieking with mental anguish, I cannot tell. Perhaps the distraction of the scene makes it a little less terrible to witness than to read. As literature, at all events, if anything exists outside AEschylus and Shakspeare more direct in its appeal to the conscience, more solemn, more poignant, than the last act of Ghosts, I at least do not know where to look for it.
A storm of ill-will from the press was at first the only welcome which Ghosts received. It was not possible that it should be otherwise. Conventional readers were shocked by the theme, and the drastic treatment of the theme ; artistic readers could not reconcile themselves to such an outrage upon dramatic tradition. The tide soon turned; the amazing power and originality of the drama, and its place in its author's work, were presently perceived. In the meantime the wash-pot of journalism was poured over the poet. A year later he took his revenge in the interesting novelette in dialogue for it really cannot be called a play named An Enemy of the People. Björnson had been saying, with his careless vehemence, "The majority is always right ; " Ibsen sardonically answers, " Excuse me, the majority is never right I" The hero of An Enemy of the People is a sort of Henrik Ibsen in practical life, a critic who is execrated because he tells the unvarnished truth to unwilling ears. The poet is, if it be possible, less optimistic in this than even in his pre-ceding drama. The situation is this. A certain Dr. Tomas Stockmann has made the fortune of a little Norwegian seaside watering-place, by developing its natural resources, and by creating public baths, which are a centre of popular attraction. This little impoverished community has found, thanks to Dr. Stockmann, that its speculation in the baths has proved to be "a broken hill." Unhappily, Dr. Stockmann, who is physician and sanitary officer to the town as well as director of the baths, discovers that the drainage system of the place is defective, and that the water is full of impurities. He warns the municipality in vain. To make alterations would frighten away the public and affect, perhaps destroy, the popularity of the watering-place; and besides, there is no other outlet for the drainage of the tan-works of an influential citizen. The municipality determines nothing must be done. Dr. Stockmann then appeals to the newspapers on both sides; they are unanimous that nothing must be printed. He summons a public meeting : it hisses him down and will let nothing be said.
It is at this meeting that they whom he has for so many years sustained and benefited howl at him as "an enemy of the people." He is boycotted, stoned, and driven from the town, merely for saying aloud what every one privately knows to be the truth.
The allegory is transparent, and the play is really a piece of rather violent personal polemic. The story would make an interesting novel ; it hardly endures dramatic treatment. The work, however, remains so far dramatically true that Dr. Stockmann is in no personal degree Ibsen himself, or even a mere mouthpiece for his ideas, but represents a type, a temperament, of a very conceivable and consistent kind. He is a Radical so intense that the business of radicalism itself is as hateful to him as any other form of political jugglery. Absolute honesty, at whatever cost; absolute devotion to individuality, no matter who is offended; these are the only rules for conduct that he recognises. Accordingly, while Scandinavian criticism has been almost unanimous in holding that An Enemy of the People is below the level of its author's works, and has something provincial and temporary in its evolution, I cannot but hold Dr. Stockmann to be one of the most original, and to me most distinct, of Ibsen's creations. There is a great deal of Count Tolstoi in him, but whether Ibsen knew anything of the personal life and character of the great Russian so long ago as 1882 I cannot tell.
In An Enemy of the People the animal spirits of the poet seemed to support him on a high wave of indignant idealism. He declared the majority tame and cowardly and hypocritical, it is true, but vowed that the good man, even if quite solitary, may find his virtue his own reward, and exult like the sons of the morning. But all this physical glow of battle had faded out when he came to write The Wild Duck, a strange, melancholy, and pessimistic drama, almost without a ray of light from end to end. This is a very long play, by far the most extended of the series, and is, on the whole, the least interesting to read, although, like all its author's works, it possesses scenes of a thrilling vivacity. The wild duck which gives its name to the piece is an unhappy bird which is kept in captivity in a garret, and is supposed to be shot at last with a pistol by a morbid little girl. Unfortunately it is herself the little girl is found to have shot, and by no means accidentally. The hero is a most distressing Gregers Werle, a type of the new neurotic class : a weak and blood-less creature, full of half-formed aspirations and half-delirious hopes for the future of humanity. In The Wild Duck cynical selfishness is absolutely dominant; it has it all its own way to the end, and, if I comprehend the under-current of the plot at all, the ideal spirit of goodness is the untamed bird in its close and miserable garret, captive to circumstances, and with no hope of escape. There is really not a character in the book that inspires confidence or liking. I confess a preference for the merry cynic, Dr. Relling, with his monstrous set of immoral paradoxes. The photographer, Helling Ekdal, who bullies the wild duck and drives his relatives crazy with his hateful tricks and his manners, is almost beyond what a reader can bear. I read The Wild Duck on deck as I crossed the Atlantic in the winter of its publication, and I shall always identify its gloomy pages with the desolate environment of the dreadful ocean. The Wild Duck is not the kind of imaginative literature that Mr. Lang would appear to hanker after. It is not an anodyne by any means; and if it is a medicine, I do not quite understand how the dose is expected to act. There can be no doubt that it is by far the most difficult of Ibsen's dramas for a reader to comprehend. I am told, however, that it is effective enough on the stage.
In Rosmersholm Ibsen rose again to the height of his genius. This is no less sad a play than the most mournful of its predecessors, but it labours under no obscurity of motive or sluggishness of story. It is charged to an extra-ordinary degree with the explosive elements of modern thought and morals, and it is a chain of veritable ethical surprises. It closes, as we shall see, in utter darkness, but in the course of the piece so many flashing threads of hope and love have been introduced that the entire web cannot be pronounced dismal. It is a story of what the French call une fin de race. At the old manor-house of Rosmersholm, the family of Rosmer have lived for generation after generation, conservative, honourable, and reserved. The Rosmers have always been distinguished, they have never been amusing. No Rosmer has ever been known to laugh, and their prestige has spread a kind of anti-hilarious tradition around them. In the neighbourhood of Rosmersholm it has long been considered ungentleman like to be merry. The last of the Rosmers, Johannes, formerly priest of the parish remains in the house, its latest representative. His wife, Beate, who long had languished in a melancholy and distracted state, drowned herself just outside the door, in the mill-dam, a little more than a year before the play begins. Yet much earlier than that a poor but extremely clever girl from Finmark, Rebecca West, had entered the household, and gradually had obtained complete moral authority in it. Rebecca West is one of Ibsen's most admirable creations. She is an adventuress, as much as was bur other friend of the name, Miss Sharp. But there is a great distinction between the two Beckies. Rebecca West thirsts for power, for influence, for independence, and she is scarcely more scrupulous than Becky Sharp, but intellectually and spiritually she is a very much finer creature. In a certain sense she is beneficent; her instincts are certainly distinguished, and even splendid ; had she been completely successful she would have been an exceptionally admired member of society. She comes into the morbid and melancholy environment of the Rosmers with all her warmth of vitality. She is fired with a longing to save and to rehabilitate the family. She sees that. Beate is past helping, and she therefore sweeps her away into the mill-dam as fast as she can ; she sees that Johannes, with his beautiful mind and delicate, harmonious ideas, can be redeemed if only Beate is got rid of. But with Beate must go the old conservative religion, the old high and dry politics. Johannes Rosmer must free himself from prejudice, as Rebecca has freed herself. After Beate's suicide things gradually grow more hopeful in the sad old house. Rosmer and Rebecca, always on the footing of friends only, remain together and become more and more attached to one another. Rosmer takes the colour of Rebecca in all things; accepts the radicalism that she, a nameless daughter of the people, delights in; gradually drops the Christianity that she disdains. But meanwhile a strange psychological change has taken place in her own ideas. Passionately in love with Rosmer, it has been her constant disappointment that he, with his old-world honour and his Rosmer timidity, has never suggested any closer relation between them than that of friendship. But as months pass on she catches his sensitive distinction; Anteros takes the place of Eros in her breast, and in her new intensity of spiritualised affection she cannot think otherwise of herself than as Rosmer's friend. Her old work as an adventuress, however, revenges itself; their fair companionship is rudely broken into from without. To prevent the scandal which idle tongues have raised, Rosmer, deeply shocked, offers instant marriage to Rebecca. But in the meanwhile conscience has brought up before her the spectre of Beate, persecuted to her death, and she dares not accept. Rosmer finds that the last of a venerated race cannot with impunity break all the political, moral, and religious traditions of his family. He is solitary in his freedom of mind, and even between Rebecca and himself the demon of doubt has penetrated. At last, after Rebecca has, by a full confession, sacrificed all to recover Rosmer's love, and has not regained it fully, they arrive at the determination to, end their confused and hopeless relations by plunging together into the mill-dam where Beate drowned herself. Their suicide is observed, at the very close of the play, by an old woman from the windows of the manor-house ; and the house of Rosmer has fallen. The most obvious of many morals in this striking play is that new faith, modern ideas in ethics and religion, cannot with safety be put into old bottles. Opinions may perforce be altered, but the hereditary tendency remains, paralysing the will.
Ibsen's Christmas gift to his admirers, his new drama of The Lady from the Sea, is but a few days old as I write these pages, and my impression of it is still too fresh to be quite fixed. Perhaps the charm of novelty has biassed me, but I think not; I fancy this new work will be admitted to be one of the brightest jewels in the poet's crown. He has never been more daring in his analysis of character, never more brilliant in his evolution of it than here; and there is thrown over the whole play a glamour of romance, of mystery, of landscape-beauty, which has not appeared in Ibsen's work to anything like the same extent since Peer Gynt. And, more over, after so many tragedies, this is a comedy. The title can scarcely be translated, because a havfrue is a mermaid, a " sea-lady," and there is an under-meaning in this. It is the old story of the mortal who "left lonely for ever the kings of the sea." In a little coast town of Norway very possibly the poet's birthplace, Skien the district physician, Dr. Wangel, being left a widower with two daughters, thinks he will marry again. But at the mouth of the fjord, in a lighthouse on a desolate skerry, an exquisite girl lives with her father, the keeper. Wangel makes her acquaintance, falls in love with her, and persuades her to marry him. He frankly tells her of his own previous happy marriage, and she confesses it is not the first time she has been wooed. But the alliance is a fortunate one until she loses her firstborn and only child. From that time she becomes gloomy, wayward, and morbid, and though she loves her husband she seems divided from him. She is still to all the town "the lady from the sea," the sea-wife. She pines for the roaring tides, for the splendour and resonance of the unconquerable ocean, and nothing takes the place of the full salt breeze she has abandoned. She bathes every day in the harbour, but she disdains these tame and spiritless waters of the fjord, and declares that they do her no good. She has lived the very life of the sea; her blood has tides in it, is subject to ebb and flow. She has been transplanted too late from her ocean-rock; she pines like a sea-weed in a tank or a petrel in a cage.
But there is more than this to afflict her spirit. The old alliance she hinted at was a betrothal to a nameless man, a Finn, nursed, perhaps, by some storm-gathering witch, mate of a ship, who has exercised an absorbing influence over her. He is a creature of the sea, a sort of impersonation of the waves. She confesses all this to her husband, and tells him that she one day received a letter from this man, summoning her to a rendezvous on a desolate promontory.
When she got there he told her that he had murdered his captain (a godly slaughter, by his own account), and was now flying from justice. He took a ring from her, tied it to one of his own, and flung it out to sea. The result of this enforced betrothal, to which her own will was never a partner, is that she feels ever more and more the sea, embodied in this wild, seafaring Finn, coming between her and her husband. At last, in the play, the Finn returns to claim her, and it is not until her husband leaves her perfectly free to choose between the two men, and liberates her individual responsibility, that the morbid charm is broken, and she rapturously selects to remain with her husband, while the merman goes desperately down into his waters. It is impossible here to give the smallest idea of the imagination, subtlety, and wit concentrated in carrying out this curious story. The Lady from the Sea 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 quite unusually sunny, and without a tinge of pessimism. It is in some respects the reverse of Rosmersholm; the bitterness of restrained and baulked individuality, which ends in death, being contrasted with the sweetness of emancipated and gratified individuality, which leads to health and peace.
Here must be drawn to a close this brief and imperfect sketch of the great Norwegian poet's seven social dramas. I have spoken of them merely from the literary side ; much could and should be said of them from the theatrical. It is easy to be led away into extravagant praise of what is comparatively little known. Perhaps better-equipped critics than myself, if they read Danish, would say that they found Ibsen occasionally provincial, sometimes obscure, often fantastic and enigmatical. Those to whom the most modern spirit in literature is distasteful, who see nothing but the stitches of the canvas in the vast pictures of Tolstoï, would reject Ibsen, or would hark back to his old sweet, flute-like lyrics. But others, who believe that literature is alive, and must progress over untrodden ground with unfamiliar steps, will recognise a singular greatness in this series of social dramas, and will not grudge a place for Henrik Ibsen among the foremost European writers of the nineteenth century.