Ibsen is still often regarded as primarily a “social writer” – i.e. as a writer whose principal concerns were social themes, and whose principal interests were ideologies advocating social reform. And while some have praised him for this reason, many others see this as a weakness: for if one’s principal concern is the righting of specific social wrongs, one’s work can be of little other than merely historic interest once those wrongs have been righted. Here, for instance, is Erich Auerbach in his classic study Mimesis:
Through the complete transformation of the bourgeoisie since 1914 and in general through the upheavals brought about by the current world crisis, his problems have lost their timeliness …
One may spend much time digging out similar views of Ibsen – views which even now seem widely held. But since this is a casual post in a blog rather than a scholarly dissertation, I’ll not litter this page with more references: the interested reader may easily find expressions of such views for his or her own self. But the basic idea behind this criticism remains … well, basic: it is still believed by many that while Ibsen’s superior stagecraft ensures his continuing popularity on the stage, his plays don’t really have much to offer nowadays other than allowing us an opportunity to pat ourselves on the back for being so much more advanced and enlightened than we used to be. And those of us who love Ibsen as a literary artist rather than as a social reformer are left wondering whether there is any other writer of comparable stature who is so continually, and, it sometimes seems, so wilfully, misunderstood.
Of course, it is true that Ibsen did address social issues; and, in those three plays that are possibly his best known (though not necessarily his finest) – A Doll’s House, An Enemy of the People and Hedda Gabler – these social themes are very much to the fore. But even here, I don’t think these plays are primarily about social issues. A Doll’s House certainly addresses the suppression of women within the institution of marriage, but in more general terms, it’s about the masks we, all of us, are forced to wear so we can take our place within a structured society; and it’s about the consequences of the mask refusing to fit. The masks we wear now may be different from the mask Nora had to wear (or, for that matter, the mask her husband Torvald had to wear), but masks haven’t gone away: we must all, to a lesser or greater extent, suppress something of our individual selves to be part of a greater whole, and Ibsen’s examination of the nature of this suppression, and of its consequences, seems to me to be a theme of continued significance. An Enemy of the People may deal with the hypocrisy of a society which, out of self-interest, refuses to acknowledge the truth; but on a somewhat deeper level, it is also about the inherent difficulty all humans have in accepting uncomfortable truths. And it is also, I think, about the fanaticism of those who refuse to recognise human limitations and frailties, and who insist upon the truth at all costs. This may not be the most profound of Ibsen’s plays, but its scope does, for all that, extend beyond that of merely “social issues”.
And by the time we come to Hedda Gabler, we find ourselves in waters so deep that interpretation merely in terms of social issues seems utterly inadequate. Hedda is trapped, partly by the conventions of society, but, to a much greater extent, by her own cowardice: she despises the doll’s house that she has, of her own volition, entered, but fails to find the courage required to break out. The reasons for this failure are purely internal, not external: they are nothing to do with “society”. And furthermore, the consequences, not merely of Hedda’s cowardice, but also of her awareness of her cowardice, are terrifying: all her energies turn inwards, and become wantonly destructive. To see all this merely in terms of “social issues” is, it seems to me, to do the play a great disservice.
These works belong to a sequence of twelve plays in prose written between 1875 and 1899: near the turn of the new century, a debilitating stroke put an end to Ibsen’s literary career. A convincing case can be made to see these twelve plays as, essentially, a cycle, as one large work. Ibsen himself had referred to these plays as a cycle, although it is highly doubtful that he had planned them as such when embarking on the first one (The Pillars of Society). But however one regards them, with these plays, drama changed for ever: there was no going back. Drama, from now on, had to be in prose: while attempts have been made to revive verse drama (most notably, perhaps, by T. S. Eliot), they haven’t really convinced. And from now on, there were no more kings and queens or bishops and nobles, no more finely crafted poetic soliloquies revealing the characters’ innermost thoughts. Of course, new generations of dramatists from Pirandello to Brecht to Beckett to Pinter have sought out even newer paths, but the path back was now closed for ever. It is hard to over-estimate the significance of the revolution brought about in drama by these twelve plays.
Yet, rather ironically, it was Ibsen himself, the great pioneer of realistic drama (although the adjective “realistic” does, I think, need to be qualified), who wrote the last great plays in verse: the austere Brand, and the exuberant, demonic Peer Gynt. If we follow the line of Ibsen’s artistic development, we can see these two plays not as aberrations (however remarkable), but as essential to Ibsen’s dramatic art: indeed, these two plays seem to loom behind everything Ibsen subsequently wrote. Ibsen’s probing into the nature of our identity and of the masks we wear is prefigured in Peer Gynt, in which the protagonist, Peer, is happy to allow his face to grow into whatever mask he finds most convenient at any given time, and whose personal identity becomes like the onion he peels – merely layer after accumulated layer, with no real core. Ibsen’s questioning of our ability to apprehend the truth, and his study of inflexibility in the face of human weakness, are both apparent in Brand: here, the protagonist is a preacher whose intolerance of human weakness, of the human desire for comfort, leads him eventually high into the mountains, where he finds a crevice roofed above by ice – his cold, perfect “ice church”. Even in the most realistic of his later plays, we may find the themes and motifs that haunt these great poetic dramas; and we may find also the same extraordinary ability to create powerful symbols and images that resonate in the mind.
Brand and Peer Gynt, monumental achievements both, had not been written for the theatre: they had been written to be read. And it was almost as if freedom from the demands of the theatre had liberated Ibsen’s imagination. But even so, these poetic dramas, intended for the study rather than for the stage, are irresistibly theatrical, and cut-down versions of them (full versions are infeasibly long for a single night’s performance) still hold the stage. Theatre was in Ibsen’s blood, and he had, he knew, to return to it. But how? He could not go on writing the same kind of stodgy melodrama that he had mainly been writing before Brand and Peer Gynt. Yes, he had to move on – but where? And in which direction?
It is perhaps impossible for us now to try to work out how Ibsen reached his decision, but there it was: drama must now be in prose; and it must deal, in a realistic manner, with people from ordinary walks of life. As a literary medium, drama had been overtaken by the novel, and tragic protagonists in novels weren’t Clytemnestras or Hamlets, nor even Romeos and Juliets: they were Clarissa Harlowe, Emma Bovary, Julien Sorel, Yevgeny Bazarov. Can the achievement of the novel be replicated on stage? The difficulties were obvious. In a novel, one could enter characters’ minds; on stage, one is restricted merely to what characters say and do. In drama of a past age, one could be as stylised as one wanted: people could speak the most exquisite blank verse or the most sonorous alexandrines, and reveal their innermost minds. But realism forbids that: to be realistic, people must speak in much the same manner as the audience watching them; and far from letting these characters depict the innermost selves as an Othello or a Phèdre had done, they must be allowed to be as inarticulate and as self-unaware and as self-deluded as the rest of us. The technical problems posed were immense.
These problems were not surmounted immediately. The first play in this new style was a comedy – The League of Youth: it is an effective play in many ways, but this was not the vision Ibsen wanted to communicate. And in any case, prose had been used often enough for comedy – from Molière to Sheridan to Gogol: nothing particularly new there. And then, for some nine years, Ibsen worked on the epic two-part historic drama, Emperor and Galilean, about Julian, the apostate Byzantine emperor: it’s a fascinating work in many respects, but it hasn’t really proved of much interest to any but the most diehard of Ibsenites. The breakthrough, when it did come, was far more modest in scale and in scope: indeed, it scarcely seems like a breakthrough at all. It is The Pillars of Society – a serious drama about corruption in high places. The characters here are everyday people, and speak in everyday language; there was no soliloquy directed at the audience, no creaking mechanics of convoluted plots; no eavesdropping, no outrageous coincidence moving the storyline along; and yet, although tragedy is averted at the very end, the tragic potential is clearly there. It is a fairly modest play in terms of artistic ambition, and, in retrospect, this play may even seem somewhat dated; but for all that, it was a breakthrough.
It must be admitted that it did take Ibsen some time to find his feet with this new type of drama. His next play was A Doll’s House, which became a succès de scandale, and, thanks to a great extent to the opportunities it presents to showcase the talents of a star actress, it has retained its popularity on the stage. But compared to his later plays, the technique is not yet quite there: Ibsen is still relying on creaky plot devices such as intercepted letters; the principal plot and subplot aren’t ideally integrated; and Ibsen later went on to say more with less. But for all that, it remains a masterpiece. In the play, we see a husband and wife both playing roles: the wife is clearly the more intelligent of the two, and yet she acts the scatterbrain, the ingenue who needs to be looked after and cared for by a good, strong man: that is the role expected of her. And her husband too acts the role expected of him, and to which, he, too, is not suited – that of the strong man, the provider, the decision-maker of the family. In that astonishing final scene, the masks come off, and neither is entirely sure who they really are. As in Peer Gynt, once all the accumulated layers have been peeled off the onion, there seems to be no real core underneath. The final slam of the door as Nora walks out seems emphatic enough, but the overall tonality of that ending is one of uncertainty: what we see is but the first step of a long and painful journey towards the truth. But many questions remain unanswered: What is the truth? To what extent are we capable of apprehending it?
In the plays that followed – Ghosts, An Enemy of the People, The Wild Duck – Ibsen addressed these questions. He perfected the realist drama, but even as he was doing so, his restless artistic imagination seemed to be moving on to other things. I get the impression that he wasn’t too happy with strict realism: it didn’t allow sufficient scope to depict the internal lives of his characters. And so, although he continued to write about people in everyday walks of life, conversing in everyday language, his plays were increasingly characterised by a poetic sensibility, and a use of symbolism to express those aspects of the human mind that are too deep, too elusive, to be stated explicitly.
Even as early as Ghosts – which is still regarded by many as primarily an attack on social institutions – we see the development of symbols and of imagery that probe at matters much deeper. On the surface, it is a play attacking the hypocrisy of society, and the institution of marriage, which is seen as oppressive. And it is a play that seems quite clearly intended to shock: after all, one didn’t talk on the public stage about matters such as inherited syphilis! But now that we are no longer shocked by it, we may see it somewhat differently: we may see it as a picture of the ghosts of the past that we cannot rid ourselves of, ghosts that continue to live with us. The past is all-important: to understand the present, we must understand the past. But the past is elusive: all we have are narrations, which are all necessarily subjective, and therefore all unreliable. Mrs Alving reveals that her happy marriage has been a sham: her late husband, whose memory is now being honoured, was in fact a dissipated lecher. But there is more to it than this: Mrs Alving’s story – as she herself half-realises – is not the whole story. As we, the audience, try to piece together the past from the fragments of it that remain in the present, we begin to see Captain Alving as a man who – like the protagonists of A Doll’s House – had been forced to live a lie. And what had once been joy had decayed into mere depravity. And Mrs Alving, too, has lived a lie ever since, pretending to honour the memory of a man she continues to despise. All that, she thinks, is now over, but in that almost unbearably intense tragic finale, the past returns with a vengeance: the ghosts of the past cannot be laid to rest. To find another play of comparable tragic intensity, we have to go back to Shakespeare, to the Greeks.
Predictably, the critical response to Ghosts was vituperative, and it is difficult to see the next play, An Enemy of the People, as anything other than a response to that vituperation: it is a play about the moral pusillanimity that prevents us from facing the truth. It is a superbly theatrical work, but it lacks the deep resonances we normally find in Ibsen: the surface is splendid, but there isn’t, perhaps, too much beyond it. It seems to me to come close to being the sort of play detractors of Ibsen claim to be characteristic of him.
But perhaps even here, we may see more than is usually reckoned to exist. To what extent should we accept Stockman’s heroism at face value? Are his motives entirely altruistic, and devoid of self-regard? Is it, indeed, reasonable to expect humanity to face the truth fearlessly, no matter how unpleasant that truth may be?
It is in the next play, The Wild Duck, that Ibsen addresses these issues more explicitly. Here, Gregers Werle, who insists on the truth, the truth at all costs, is seen as a fanatic, and possibly mentally unbalanced. Indeed, we may see in him the inflexible preacher Brand, who had only found perfection in the ice-church high in the mountains, far from humanity. The setting of The Wild Duck is realistic, the speech is everyday, but the poetic sensibility that that informs it is quite clearly that which had created Brand. And the poetic imagery of the work – the wild duck that had dived into the deep blue sea, and had been brought back to the surface; the mysterious attic that fires the imagination of the young Hedvig; blindness in all its forms – takes us to a world far more mysterious and elusive than that of mere social drama.
If, to put it crudely, An Enemy of the People was about the importance of accepting the truth, and The Wild Duck about the impossibility of doing so, then the next play, Rosmersholm, takes us further into regions unknown, and examines the elusive nature of truth itself. As in Ghosts, most of the principal action has already taken place when the curtain rises: the action we see on stage consists of the characters trying to understand the true nature of what has happened, and trying to come to terms with it. This is, perhaps, not as novel as it may seem: one may argue that Sophocles’ Oedipus is constructed along similar lines. But nothing quite like this had been attempted in modern drama – not even in Ghosts. And no play had focussed quite so insistently on the inner landscape of the characters’ minds, on those aspects of our minds that are hidden even from our own selves. It is no accident that Freud was particularly fascinated by this play: he wrote an illuminating study of the character Rebecca West, psycho-analysing her as if she were a real person.
Ibsen by now was in complete control of his technique, and masterpiece followed masterpiece. Daringly, he used the drama, the most public of all art forms, to explore the most private of worlds – the elusive and enigmatic depths of the human psyche. Even now, even after Freud and Jung and the reams of theory about the unconscious and the subconscious, it is often difficult to follow Ibsen into these mysterious worlds he presents. As with many other writers who have attempted to depict these areas of human existence, Ibsen made increasing use of symbolism: the wild horses of Rosmersholm, the mysterious ghostly stranger of The Lady From the Sea, the towers of The Master Builder, those water lilies in Little Eyolf that shoot up from the depths and bloom suddenly upon the surface – these all point tantalisingly to areas of human experience too vaguely understood to be put explicitly into words.
The next play, The Lady From the Sea is still surprisingly little known: while star actresses queue up to play Hedda Gabler, or Nora in A Doll’s House, they tend to bypass the role of Ellida, which is surely among the finest and most challenging of any leading role. Perhaps, if The Lady From the Sea were better known, more people would question the stereotypical image of Ibsen as a mere social dramatist. This play is full of mysterious elements that hint at the supernatural, and which cannot be taken at face value: we are far from social realism here. And, while, once again, we have a dissection of a marriage, the view of the marriage that emerges from the dissection is not in the least condemnatory: Ibsen was no mere dogmatic critic of the institutions of society. And, instead of the doom and gloom with which he is normally associated, the play, despite its potential for tragedy, ends with a burst of sunlight: the final scene is radiant.
But the very next play, Hedda Gabler, takes us into a very different world. Far from the cold, bracing, open air of The Lady From the Sea, we are now trapped, as Hedda is, in a claustrophobic drawing room; and her marriage is so obviously doomed from the start, that there is no point even attempting to dissect it. In many ways, this is a return to the more socially realistic plays such as A Doll’s House, and may seem a step back from the poetic sensibility apparent in the immediately preceding works; but a comparison with A Doll’s House shows us clearly how far Ibsen had advanced in terms of technique, and how much deeper his artistic vision now was. Ibsen could now convey far more with far less; the themes are fully integrated with each other; and while the poetic imagery here does not carry us into the mysterious, vaguely glimpsed regions of the human mind, they are more subtly embedded into the texture of the drama.
The drama itself, from beginning to end, is grim: we are as far as can be imagined from the sunlight that had flooded the stage at the end of The Lady From the Sea. This is not to say, of course, that Ibsen is here repudiating the earlier play: as ever, he is exploring similar themes, but from different perspectives.
After Hedda Gabler, in 1891, Ibsen returned to Norway from self-imposed exile. He had left his homeland some twenty-seven years earlier, a little-known writer: he returned now a Grand Old Man of Letters with an international reputation. When he had left, his mind had been seething with new ideas, and he had not been entirely sure how to give them shape: but now, his artistic vision was clear, and he was moving into new areas of expression. The new terrain isn’t easy, even now.
The Master Builder remains a mysterious play. Once again, the setting is realistic, the characters are from everyday walks of life, and they speak in everyday language: and yet, it is impossible to take anything at face value. The more solidly Ibsen represents this world, the more mysterious it seems to become. Halvard Solness is a successful master builder, but he is ruthless. His wife seems but a pallid, phantom presence. We can sense that there are ghosts from the past haunting their lives, but we cannot quite put our finger exactly on the nature of these ghosts, not even when the events of the past are revealed. Into this world comes the young Hilde Wangel, whom we had already seen as a minor character in The Lady From the Sea. She makes certain claims about the past, which Master Builder Solness denies vehemently. And yet, for all that, she has a curious effect on him. In a series of the most extraordinary scenes, brimming with intricate and the most powerfully resonant of symbols and images, Solness begins to take stock of his life – his marriage, his past, his tragedies. He is a man on the threshold of old age, and yet still vigorous, both mentally and physically; he longs for a freedom, for a joy, that he knows he cannot have. His wife Aline we merely glimpse through most of the play, but near the start of the third and final act, Ibsen gives us a scene between Aline and Hilde that is amongst the most chilling in all drama: Aline is a woman whose existence is that of a ghost; her spirit is already dead. After this scene, Hilde says that she feels as if she has come out of the grave. Solness himself describes his marriage as being chained to a corpse. And yet, if Aline is dead, it is he who had killed her, and he knows it; the chains that bind him to the corpse are of his own conscience, his own guilt.
No summary could hope to do justice to this astonishing drama: the deeper we look into it, the greater the depths we discern. When Ibsen had started his literary career, the novel had far superseded the play as a literary form: the novel could take a realistic milieu, familiar to readers, and yet explore to as great a depth as the author was capable of exploring the internal landscape of the characters’ hearts and minds: drama, as a form seemed ill-equipped to do this. But Ibsen had, as it were, now turned the tables: he was exploring in drama areas of the human experience that now seemed beyond the scope of the novel. And novelists seemed to acknowledge this: London performances of Ibsen’s plays (in translations by William Archer) attracted the major British literary figures of the day, including possibly the two finest novelists of the time writing in English – Henry James and Thomas Hardy. (James was sufficiently taken by Ibsen to want to write plays himself: the result, as is well known, was spectacularly unsuccessful.) And Ibsen’s last play, When We Dead Awaken, inspired a certain young man named James Joyce to learn Norwegian so he could write a letter to his literary idol: Ibsen remained one of Joyce’s favourite writers, and one of his major influences.
Another Irish writer who took Ibsen very much to heart was, of course, Bernard Shaw, whose own career as a dramatist would have been unthinkable without the influence of Ibsen. In The Quintessence of Ibsenism, Shaw, rather unaccountably but with characteristic megalomania, tried to present Ibsen as a sort of forerunner of himself – a dramatist of social concerns: but in his dramatic criticism, he was far more perceptive. Though not a man given to flights of fancy, he said of Ibsen’s characters: “There is not one … who is not, in the old phrase, the temple of the Holy Ghost, and who does not move you at moments by the sense of that mystery.”
Two years after The Master Builder saw the first performance of Little Eyolf, possibly Ibsen’s most harrowing work. Sometimes, one wonders what could have possessed anyone to write something so very raw and intense for what was, after all, a public entertainment: the answer is that, by this stage, Ibsen was writing primarily for himself. A good performance of this play can still leave the audience shell-shocked: the laying bare of the human soul is, perhaps, still a bit too much to take.
In describing his next play, John Gabriel Borkman, translator Una Ellis-Fermor asks us to imagine Macbeth and Lady Macbeth not dead at the end of the play, but exiled. This disquieting thought sets the scene for what artist Munch described as the greatest of all winter landscapes. It is a measure of the tragic intensity of this drama that it’s the most terrifying of Shakespeare’s tragedies that it calls to mind. The play starts, as many of Ibsen’s plays do, in the drawing room, but by the end, we have broken out of those four walls: we are in the chill of the high mountains. On the height of the mountains, by the depths of the sea: the very settings of these late plays seem to reflect a breaking free from the conventions of bourgeois middle-class drama – conventions that Ibsen himself had developed.
In the last play, When We Dead Awaken, all the scenes are set outdoors. It starts at the foot of the mountains, and ends on the top; and, like the poetic drama Brand, it ends with the protagonists overwhelmed by an avalanche. The characters are drawn from real life, and they speak in prose, but we are back once again in the world of the earlier poetic dramas: translator Michael Meyer once opined that the play should ideally have been written in verse, and that he would have preferred to have translated it as a verse play. It seems as if Ibsen had turned back full circle.
Not everyone, however, is convinced by this play: Joyce thought it Ibsen’s greatest, but many, including even the first translator, William Archer, thought Ibsen’s powers were in decline. He may not have been far wrong there: soon after Ibsen sent the manuscript to the publishers, he suffered a severe stroke. Given how surprisingly short the final act is, it is reasonable to infer that Ibsen, possibly in some physical distress, did not have the energy to finish the play as he would ideally have liked. In effect, this is an unfinished play, which gives us a glimpse, but no more, of Ibsen’s final artistic vision.
Ibsen’s literary career was now at an end: after the stroke, he could barely recognise the alphabet. The last seven years of his life, this supremely great author became, effectively, illiterate. When on his death-bed, a nurse took his pulse and declared that he was a bit better. “On the contrary,” replied Ibsen, and died, a stern and unflinching seeker of truth to the very end. The body of work he left behind remains forbidding for a number of reasons, but it is monumental. Sadly, the picture of Ibsen merely as a social reformer has stuck, but for those prepared to look further into the works of Master Builder Ibsen will find riches beyond compare.