Not at once, however; for an extraordinary languor seemed to have fallen upon Ibsen. His isolation from society became extreme; for nearly a year he gave no sign of life. In September, 1875, indeed, if not earlier, he was at work on a five-act play, but what this was is unknown. It seems to have been in the winter of 1876, after an unprecedented period of inanimation, that he started a new comedy, The Pillars of Society, which was finished in Munich in July, 1877, that summer being unique in the fact that the Ibsens do not seem to have left town at all.
Ibsen was now a good deal altered in the exteriors of character. With his fiftieth year he presents himself as no more the Poet, but the Man of Business. Molbech told me that at this time the velveteen jacket, symbol of the dear delays of art, was discarded in favor of a frock-coat, too tight across the chest. Ibsen was now beginning, rather shyly, very craftily, to invest money; he even found himself in frequent straits for ready coin from his acute impatience to set every rix-dollar breeding. He cast the suspicion of poetry from him, and with his gold spectacles, his Dundreary whiskers, his broadcloth bosom and his quick staccato step, he adopted the pose of a gentleman of affairs, very positive and with no nonsense about him.
He had long determined on the wilful abandonment of poetic form, and the famous statement made in a letter to myself (January 15, 1874) must be quoted, although it is well known, since it contains the clearest of all the explanations by which Ibsen justified his new departure:—
You are of opinion that the drama [Emperor and Galilean] ought to have been written in verse, and that it would have gained by this. Here I must differ from you. The play is, as you will have observed, conceived in the most realistic style: the illusion I wished to produce is that of reality. I wished to produce the impression on the reader that what he was reading was something that had really happened. If I had employed verse, I should have counteracted my own intention and prevented the accomplishment of the task I had set myself. The many ordinary insignificant characters whom I have intentionally introduced into the play would have become indistinct, and indistinguishable from one another, if I had allowed all of them to speak in one and the same rhythmical measure. We are no longer living in the days of Shakespeare. Among sculptors there is already talk of painting statues in the natural colors. Much can be said both for and against this. I have no desire to see the Venus of Milo painted, but I would rather see the head of a negro executed in black than in white marble. Speaking generally, the style must conform to the degree of ideality which pervades the representation. My new drama is no tragedy in the ancient acceptation; what I desired to depict were human beings, and therefore I would not let them talk "the language of the Gods."
This revolt against dramatic verse was a feature of the epoch. In 1877 Alphonse Daudet was to write of a comedy, "Mais, helas! cette piece est en vers, et l'ennui s'y promene librement entre les rimes."
No poet, however, sacrificed so much, or held so rigidly to his intention of reproducing the exact language of real life, as did Ibsen in the series of plays which opens with The Pillars of Society. This drama was published in Copenhagen in October, 1877, and was acted almost immediately in Denmark, Sweden and Norway; it had the good fortune to be taken up warmly in Germany. What Ibsen's idea was, in the new sort of realistic drama which he was inventing, was, in fact, perceived at once by German audiences, although it was not always approved of. He was the guest of the theatromaniac Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, and The Pillars of Society was played in many parts of Germany. In Scandinavia the book of the play sold well, and the piece had some success on the boards, but it did not create anything like so much excitement as the author had hoped that it would. Danish taste pronounced it "too German."
For the fact that The Pillars of Society, except in Scandinavia and Germany, did not then, and never has since, taken a permanent hold upon the theatre, Mr. William Archer gives a reason which cannot be controverted, namely, that by the time the other foreign publics had fully awakened to the existence of Ibsen, he himself had so far outgrown the phase of his development marked by Pillars of Society, that the play already seemed commonplace and old-fashioned. It exactly suited the German public of the eighties; it was exactly on a level with their theatrical intelligence. But it was above the theatrical intelligence of the Anglo-American public, and... below that of the French public. This is of course an exaggeration. What I mean is that there was no possible reason why the countrymen of Augier and Dumas should take any special interest in Pillars of Society. It was not obviously in advance of these masters in technical skill, and the vein of Teutonic sentiment running through it could not greatly appeal to the Parisian public of that period.
The subject of The Pillars of Society was the hollowness and rottenness of those supports, and the severe and unornamented prose which Ibsen now adopted was very favorable to its discussion. He was accused, however, of having lived so long away from home as to have fallen out of touch with real Norwegian life, which he studied in the convex mirror of the newspapers. It is more serious objection to The Pillars of Society that in it, as little as in The League of Youth, had Ibsen cut himself off from the traditions of the well-made play. Gloomy and homely as are the earlier acts, Ibsen sees as yet no way out of the imbroglio but that known to Scribe and the masters of the "well-made" play. The social hypocrisy of Consul Bernick is condoned by a sort of death-bed repentance at the close, which is very much of the usual "bless-ye-my-children" order. The loss of the Indian Girl is miraculously prevented, and at the end the characters are solemnized and warned, yet are left essentially none the worse for their alarm. This, unfortunately, is not the mode in which the sins of scheming people find them out in real life. But to the historical critic it is very interesting to see Bjoernson and Ibsen nearer one another in A Bankruptcy and The Pillars of Society than they had ever been before. They now started on a course of eager, though benevolent, rivalry which was eminently to the advantage of each of them.
No feature of Ibsen's personal career is more interesting than his relation to Bjoernson. Great as the genius of Ibsen was, yet, rating it as ungrudgingly as possible, we have to admit that Bjoernson's character was the more magnetic and more radiant of the two. Ibsen was a citizen of the world; he belonged, in a very remarkable degree, to the small class of men whose intelligence lifts them above the narrowness of local conditions, who belong to civilization at large, not to the system of one particular nation. He was, in consequence, endowed, almost automatically, with the instinct of regarding ideas from a central point; if he was to be limited at all, he might be styled European, although, perhaps, few Western citizens would have had less difficulty than he in making themselves comprehended by a Chinese, Japanese or Indian mind of unusual breadth and cultivation. On the other hand, in accepting the advantages of this large mental outlook, he was forced to abandon those of nationality. No one can say that Ibsen was, until near the end of his life, a good Norwegian, and he failed, by his utterances, to vibrate the local mind. But Bjoernson, with less originality, was the typical patriot in literature, and what he said, and thought, and wrote was calculated to stir the local conscience to the depths of its being.
When, therefore, in 1867, Ibsen, who was bound by all natural obligations and tendencies to remain on the best terms with Bjoernson, allowed the old friendship between them to lapse into positive antagonism, he was following the irresistible evolution of his fate, as Bjoernson was following his. It was as inevitable that Ibsen should grow to his full height in solitude as it was that Bjoernson should pine unless he was fed by the dew and sunlight of popular meetings, torchlight processions of students and passionate appeals to local sentiment. Trivial causes, such as those which we have chronicled earlier, might seem to lead up to a division, but that division was really inherent in the growth of the two men.
Ibsen, however, was not wholly a gainer at first even in genius, by the separation. It cut him off from Norway too entirely, and it threw him into the arms of Germany. There were thirteen years in which Ibsen and Bjoernson were nothing to one another, and these were not years of unmingled mental happiness for either of them. But during this long period each of these very remarkable men "came into his kingdom," and when there was no longer any chance that either of there could warp the nature of the other, fate brought them once more together.
The reconciliation began, of course, with a gracious movement from Bjoernson. At the end of 1880, writing for American readers, Bjoernson had the generous candor to say: "I think I have a pretty thorough acquaintance with the dramatic literature of the world, and I have not the slightest hesitation in saying that Henrik Ibsen possesses more dramatic power than any other play-writer of our day." When we remember that, in France alone, Augier and Dumas fils and Hugo, Halevy and Meilhac and Labiche, were all of them alive, the compliment, though a sound, was a vivid one. Sooner or later, everything that was said about Ibsen, though it were whispered in Choctaw behind the altar of a Burmese temple, came round to Ibsen's ears, and this handsome tribute from the rival produced its effect. And when, shortly afterwards, still in America, Bjoernson was nearly killed in a railway accident, Ibsen broke the long silence by writing to him a most cordial letter of congratulation.
The next incident was the publication of Ghosts, when Bjoernson, now thoroughly roused, stood out almost alone, throwing the vast prestige of his judgment into the empty scale against the otherwise unanimous black-balling. Then the reconcilement was full and fraternal, and Ibsen wrote from Rome (January 24, 1882), with an emotion rare indeed for him: "The only man in Norway who has frankly, boldly and generously taken my part is Bjoernson. It is just like him; he has, in truth, a great, a kingly soul; and I shall never forget what he has done now." Six months later, on occasion of Bjoernson's jubilee, Ibsen telegraphed: "My thanks for the work done side by side with me in the service of freedom these twenty-five years." These words wiped away all unhappy memories of the past; they gave public recognition to the fact that, though the two great poets had been divided for half a generation by the forces of circumstance, they had both been fighting at wings of the same army against the common enemy.
This, however, takes us for the moment a little too far ahead. After the publication of The Pillars of Society, Ibsen remained quiet for some time; indeed, from this date we find him adopting the practice which was to be regular with him henceforth, namely, that of letting his mind lie fallow for one year after the issue of each of his works, and then spending another year in the formation of the new play. Munich gradually became tedious to him, and he justly observed that the pressure of German surroundings was unfavorable to the healthy evolution of his genius. In 1878 he went back to Rome, which, although it was no longer the quiet and aristocratic Rome of Papal days, was still immensely attractive to his temperament. He was now, in some measure, "a person of means," and he made the habit of connoisseurship his hobby. He formed a small collection of pictures, selecting works with, as he believed, great care. The result could be seen long afterwards by those who visited him in his final affluence, for they hung round the rooms of the sumptuous flat in which he spent his old age and in which he died. His taste, as far as one remembers, was for the Italian masters of the decline, and whether he selected pictures with a good judgment must be left for others to decide. Probably he shared with Shelley a fondness for the Guercinos and the Guido Renis, whom we can now admire only in defiance of Ruskin.
In April, 1879, it is understood, a story was told him of an incident in the Danish courts, the adventure of a young married woman in one of the small towns of Zealand, which set his thoughts running on a new dramatic enterprise. He was still curiously irritated by contemplating, in his mind's eye, the "respectable, estimable narrowmindedness and worldliness" of social conditions in Norway, where there was no aristocracy, and where a lower middle-class took the place of a nobility, with, as he thought, sordid results. But he was no longer suffering from what he himself had called "the feeling of an insane man staring at one single, hopelessly black spot." He went to Amalfi for the summer, and in that delightful spot, so curiously out of keeping with his present rigidly prosaic mood, he set himself to write what is probably the most widely famous of all his works, A Doll's House. The day before he started he wrote to me from Rome (in an unpublished letter of July 4, 1879): "I have been living here with my family since September last, and most of that time I have been occupied with the idea of a new dramatic work, which I shall now soon finish, and which will be published in October. It is a serious drama, really a family drama, dealing with modern conditions and in particular with the problems which complicate marriage." This play he finished, lingering at Amalfi, in September, 1879. It was an engineer's experiment at turning up and draining a corner of the moral swamp which Norwegian society seemed to be to his violent and ironic spirit.
A Doll's House was Ibsen's first unqualified success. Not merely was it the earliest of his plays which excited universal discussion, but in its construction and execution it carried out much further than its immediate precursors Ibsen's new ideal as an unwavering realist. Mr. Arthur Symons has well said [Note: The Quarterly Review for October, 1906.] that "A Doll's House is the first of Ibsen's plays in which the puppets have no visible wires." It may even be said that it was the first modern drama in which no wires had been employed. Not that even here the execution is perfect, as Ibsen afterwards made it. The arm of coincidence is terribly shortened, and the early acts, clever and entertaining as they are, are still far from the inevitability of real life. But when, in the wonderful last act, Nora issues from her bedroom, dressed to go out, to Helmer's and the audience's stupefaction, and when the agitated pair sit down to "have it out," face to face across the table, then indeed the spectator feels that a new thing has been born in drama, and, incidentally, that the "well-made play" has suddenly become as dead as Queen Anne. The grimness, the intensity of life, are amazing in this final scene, where the old happy ending is completely abandoned for the first time, and where the paradox of life is presented without the least shuffling or evasion.
It was extraordinary how suddenly it was realized that A Doll's House was a prodigious performance. All Scandinavia rang with Nora's "declaration of independence." People left the theatre, night after night, pale with excitement, arguing, quarrelling, challenging. The inner being had been unveiled for a moment, and new catchwords were repeated from mouth to mouth. The great statement and reply—"No man sacrifices his honor, even for one he loves," "Hundreds of thousands of women have done so!"—roused interminable discussion in countless family circles. The disputes were at one time so violent as to threaten the peace of households; a school of imitators at once sprang up to treat the situation, from slightly different points of view, in novel, poem and drama. [Note: The reader who desires to obtain further light on the technical quality of A Doll's House can do no better than refer to Mr. William Archer's elaborate analysis of it (Fortnightly Review, July, 1906.)]
The universal excitement which Ibsen had vainly hoped would be awakened by The Pillars of Society came, when he was not expecting it, to greet A Doll's House. Ibsen was stirred by the reception of his latest play into a mood rather different from that which he expressed at any other period. As has often been said, he did not pose as a prophet or as a reformer, but it did occur to him now that he might exercise a strong moral influence, and in writing to his German translator, Ludwig Passarge, he said (June 16, 1880):
Everything that I have written has the closest possible connection with what I have lived through, even if it has not been my own personal experience; in every new poem or play I have aimed at my own spiritual emancipation and purification—for a man shares the responsibility and the guilt of the society to which he belongs.
It was in this spirit of unusual gravity that he sat down to the composition of Ghosts. There is little or no record of how he occupied himself at Munich and Berchtesgaden in 1880, except that in March he began to sketch, and then abandoned, what afterwards became The Lady from the Sea. In the autumn of that year, indulging once more his curious restlessness, he took all his household gods and goods again to Rome. His thoughts turned away from dramatic art for a moment, and he planned an autobiography, which was to deal with the gradual development of his mind, and to be called From Skien to Rome. Whether he actually wrote any of this seems uncertain; that he should have planned it shows a certain sense of maturity, a suspicion that, now in his fifty-third year, he might be nearly at the end of his resources. As a matter of fact, he was just entering upon a new inheritance. In the summer of 1881 he went, as usual now, to Sorrento, and there [Note: So the authorities state: but in an unpublished letter to myself, dated Rome, November 26, 1880, I find Ibsen saying, "Just now I am beginning to exercise my thoughts over a new drama; I hope I shall finish it in the course of next summer." It seems to have been already his habit to meditate long about a subject before it took any definite literary form in his mind.] the plot of Ghosts revealed itself to him. This work was composed with more than Ibsen's customary care, and was published at the beginning of December, in an edition of ten thousand copies.
Before the end of 1881 Ibsen was aware of the terrific turmoil which Ghosts had begun to occasion. He wrote to Passarge: "My new play has now appeared, and has occasioned a terrible uproar in the Scandinavian press. Every day I receive letters and newspaper articles decrying or praising it. I consider it absolutely impossible that any German theatre will accept the play at present. I hardly believe that they will dare to play it in any Scandinavian country for some time to come." It was, in fact, not acted publicly anywhere until 1883, when the Swedes ventured to try it, and the Germans followed in 1887. The Danes resisted it much longer.
Ibsen declared that he was quite prepared for the hubbub; he would doubtless have been much disappointed if it had not taken place; nevertheless, he was disconcerted at the volume and the violence of the attacks. Yet he must have known that in the existing condition of society, and the limited range of what was then thought a defensible criticism of that condition, Ghosts must cause a virulent scandal. There has been, especially in Germany, a great deal of medico-philosophical exposure of the under-side of life since 1880. It is hardly possible that, there, or in any really civilized country, an analysis of the causes of what is, after all, one of the simplest and most conventional forms of hereditary disease could again excite such a startling revulsion of feeling. Krafft-Ebing and a crew of investigators, Strindberg, Brieux, Hauptmann, and a score of probing playwrights all over the Continent, have gone further and often fared much worse than Ibsen did when he dived into the family history of Kammerherre Alving. When we read Ghosts to-day we cannot recapture the "new shudder" which it gave us a quarter of a century ago. Yet it must not be forgotten that the publication of it, in that hide-bound time, was an act of extraordinary courage. Georg Brandes, always clearsighted, was alone in being able to perceive at once that Ghosts was no attack on society, but an effort to place the responsibilities of men and women on a wholesomer and surer footing, by direct reference to the relation of both to the child.
When the same eminent critic, however, went on to say that Ghosts was "a poetic treatment of the question of heredity," it was more difficult to follow him. Now that the flash and shock of the playwright's audacity are discounted, it is natural to ask ourselves whether, as a work of pure art, Ghosts stands high among Ibsen's writings. I confess, for my own part, that it seems to me deprived of "poetic" treatment, that is to say, of grace, charm and suppleness, to an almost fatal extent. It is extremely original, extremely vivid and stimulating, but, so far as a foreigner may judge, the dialogue seems stilted and uniform, the characters, with certain obvious exceptions, rather types than persons. In the old fighting days it was necessary to praise Ghosts with extravagance, because the vituperation of the enemy was so stupid and offensive, but now that there are no serious adversaries left, cooler judgment admits—not one word that the idiot-adversary said, but—that there are more convincing plays than Ghosts in Ibsen's repertory.
Up to this time, Ibsen had been looked upon as the mainstay of the Conservative party in Norway, in opposition to Bjoernson, who led the Radicals. But the author of Ghosts, who was accused of disseminating anarchism and nihilism, was now smartly drummed out of the Tory camp without being welcomed among the Liberals. Each party was eager to disown him. He was like Coriolanus, when he was deserted by nobles and people alike, and
suffer'd by the voice of slaves to be Whoop'd out of Rome.
The situation gave Ibsen occasion, from the perspective of his exile, to form some impressions of political life which were at once pungent and dignified:
"I am more and more confirmed" [he said, Jan, 3, 1882] "in my belief that there is something demoralizing in politics and parties. I, at any rate, shall never be able to join a party which has the majority on its side. Bjoernson says, 'The majority is always right'; and as a practical politician he is bound, I suppose, to say so. I, on the contrary, of necessity say, 'The minority is always right.'"
In order to place this view clearly before his countrymen, he set about composing the extremely vivid and successful play, perhaps the most successful pamphlet-play that ever was written, which was to put forward in the clearest light the claim of the minority. He was very busy with preparations for it all through the summer of 1882, which he spent at what was now to be for many years his favorite summer resort, Gossensass in the Tyrol, a place which is consecrated to the memory of Ibsen in the way that Pornic belongs to Robert Browning and the Bel Alp to Tyndall, holiday homes in foreign countries, dedicated to blissful work without disturbance. Here, at a spot now officially named the "Ibsenplatz," he composed The Enemy of the People, engrossed in his invention as was his wont, reading nothing and thinking of nothing but of the persons whose history he was weaving. Oddly enough, he thought that this, too, was to be a "placable" play, written to amuse and stimulate, but calculated to wound nobody's feelings. The fact was that Ibsen, like some ocelot or panther of the rocks, had a paw much heavier than he himself realized, and his "play," in both senses, was a very serious affair, when he descended to sport with common humanity.
Another quotation, this time from a letter to Brandes, must be given to show what Ibsen's attitude was at this moment to his fatherland and to his art:
"When I think how slow and heavy and dull the general intelligence is at home, when I notice the low standard by which everything is judged, a deep despondency comes over me, and it often seems to me that I might just as well end my literary activity at once. They really do not need poetry at home; they get along so well with the party newspapers and the Lutheran Weekly."
If Ibsen thought that he was offering them "poetry" in The Enemy of the People, he spoke in a Scandinavian sense. Our criticism has never opened its arms wide enough to embrace all imaginative literature as poetry, and in the English sense nothing in the world's drama is denser or more unqualified prose than The Enemy of the People, without a tinge of romance or rhetoric, as "unideal" as a blue-book. It is, nevertheless, one of the most certainly successful of its author's writings; as a stage-play it rivets the attention; as a pamphlet it awakens irresistible sympathy; as a specimen of dramatic art, its construction and evolution are almost faultless. Under a transparent allegory, it describes the treatment which Ibsen himself had received at the hands of the Norwegian public for venturing to tell them that their spa should be drained before visitors were invited to flock to it. Nevertheless, the playwright has not made the mistake of identifying his own figure with that of Dr. Stockmann, who is an entirely independent creation. Mr. Archer has compared the hero with Colonel Newcome, whose loquacious amicability he does share, but Stockmann's character has much more energy and initiative than Colonel Newcome's, whom we could never fancy rousing himself "to purge society."
Ibsen's practical wisdom in taking the bull by the horns in his reply to the national reception of Ghosts was proved by the instant success of The Enemy of the People. Presented to the public in this new and audacious form, the problem of a "moral water-supply" struck sensible Norwegians as less absurd and less dangerous than they had conceived it to be. The reproof was mordant, and the worst offenders crouched under the lash. Ghosts itself was still, for some time, tabooed, but The Enemy of the People received a cordial welcome, and has remained ever since one of the most popular of Ibsen's writings. It is still extremely effective on the stage, and as it is lightened by more humor than the author is commonly willing to employ, it attracts even those who are hostile to the intrusion of anything solemn behind the footlights. CHAPTER VII
With the appearance of An Enemy of the People, which was published in November, 1882, Ibsen entered upon a new stage in his career. He had completely broken with the Conservative party in Norway, without having gratified or won the confidence of the Liberals. He was now in personal relations of friendliness with Bjoernson, whose generous approval of his work as a dramatist sustained his spirits, but his own individualism had been intensified by the hostile reception of Ghosts. His life was now divided between Rome in the winter and Gossensass in the summer, and in the Italian city, as in the Tyrolese village, he wandered solitary, taciturn, absorbed in his own thoughts. His meditations led him more and more into a lonely state. He floated, as on a prophet's carpet, between the political heavens and earth, capriciously refusing to ascend or to alight. He had come to a sceptical stage in his mental evolution, a stage in which he was to remain for a considerable time, gradually modifying it in a conservative direction. One wonders what the simple-minded and stalwart Bjoernson thought of being quietly told (March 28, 1884) that the lower classes are nowhere liberal-minded or self-sacrificing, and that "in the views expressed by our [Norwegian] peasants there is not an atom more of real Liberalism than is to be found among the ultramontane peasantry of the Tyrol." In politics Ibsen had now become a pagan; "I do not believe," he said, "in the emancipatory power of political measures, nor have I much confidence in the altruism and good will of those in power." This sense of the uselessness of effort is strongly marked in the course of the next work on which he was engaged, the very brilliant, but saturnine and sardonic tragi-comedy of The Wild Duck. The first sketch of it was made during the spring of 1884 in Rome, but the dramatist took it to Gossensass with him for the finishing touches, and did not perfect it until the autumn. It is remarkable that Ibsen invariably speaks of The Wild Duck, when he mentions it in his correspondence, in terms of irony. He calls it a collection of crazy tricks or tomfooleries, galskaber, an expression which carries with it, in this sense, a confession of wilful paradox. In something of the same spirit, Robert Browning, in the old days before he was comprehended, used to speak of "the entirely unintelligible Sordello," as if, sarcastically, to meet criticism half-way.
When The Wild Duck was first circulated among Ibsen's admirers, it was received with some bewilderment. Quite slowly the idea received acceptance that the hitherto so serious and even angry satirist was, to put it plainly, laughing at himself. The faithful were reluctant to concede it. But one sees now, clearly enough, that in a sense it was so. I have tried to show, we imagine Ibsen saying, that your hypocritical sentimentality needs correction—you live in "A Doll's House." I have dared to point out to you that your society is physically and morally rotten and full of "Ghosts." You have repudiated my honest efforts as a reformer, and called me "An Enemy of the People." Very well, then, have it so if you please. What a fool am I to trouble about you at all. Go down a steep place in Gadara and drown yourselves. If it amuses you, it can amuse me also to be looked upon as Gregers Werle. Vogue la galere. "But as the play is neither to deal with the Supreme Court, nor the right of absolute veto, nor even with the removal of the sign of the union from the flag," burning questions then and afterwards in Norwegian politics, "it can hardly count upon arousing much interest in Norway"; it will, however, amuse me immensely to point out the absurdity of my caring. It is in reading The Wild Duck that for the first time the really astonishing resemblance which Ibsen bears to Euripedes becomes apparent to us. This is partly because the Norwegian dramatist now relinquishes any other central object than the presentation to his audience of the clash of temperament, and partly because here at last, and for the future always, he separates himself from everything that is not catastrophe. More than any earlier play, more even than Ghosts, The Wild Duck is an avalanche which has begun to move, and with a movement unaffected by the incidents of the plot, long before the curtain rises. The later plays of Ibsen, unlike almost all other modern dramas, depend upon nothing that happens while they are being exhibited, but rush downwards to their inevitable close in obedience to a series of long-precedent impulses. In order to gain this effect, the dramatist has to be acquainted with everything that has ever happened to his personages, and we are informed that Ibsen used to build up in his own mind, for months at a time, the past history of his puppets. He was now master of this practice. We are not surprised, therefore, to find one of the most penetrating of dramatic critics remarking of The Wild Duck that "never before had the poet displayed such an amazing power of fascinating and absorbing us by the gradual withdrawal of veil after veil from the past."
The result of a searching determination to deal with personal and not typical forms of temperament is seen in the firmness of the portraiture in The Wild Duck, where, I think, less than ever before, is to be found a trace of that incoherency which is to be met with occasionally in all the earlier works of Ibsen, and which seems like the effect of a sudden caprice or change of the point of view. There is, so far as I can judge, no trace of this in The Wild Duck, where the continuity of aspect is extraordinary. Confucius assures us that if we tell him our past, he will tell us our future, and although several of the characters in The Wild Duck are the most sordid of Ibsen's creations, the author has made himself so deeply familiar with them that they are absolutely lifelike. The detestable Hialmar, in whom, by the looking-glass of a disordered liver, any man may see a picture of himself; the pitiable Gregers Werle, perpetually thirteenth at table, with his genius for making an utter mess of other people's lives; the vulgar Gina; the beautiful girlish figure of the little martyred Hedvig—all are wholly real and living persons.
The subject of the play, of course, is one which we do not expect, or had not hitherto expected, from Ibsen. It is the danger of "a sick conscience" and the value of illusion. Society may be full of poisonous vapors and be built on a framework of lies; it is nevertheless prudent to consider whether the ideal advantages of disturbing it overweigh the practical disadvantages, and above all to bear in mind that if you rob the average man of his illusions, you are almost sure to rob him of his happiness. The topsy-turvy nature of a this theme made Ibsen as nearly "rollicking" as he ever became in his life. We can imagine than as he wrote the third act of The Wild Duck, where so horrible a luncheon party—"we'll all keep a corner"—gloats over the herring salad, he indulged again and again in those puffs of soundless and formidable mirth which Mr. Johan Paulsen describes as so surprising an element of conversation with Ibsen.
To the gossip of that amiable Boswell, too, we must turn for a valuable impression of the solidification of Ibsen's habits which began about this time, and which marked then even before he left Munich. He had now successfully separated himself from all society, and even his family saw him only at meals. Visitors could not penetrate to him, but, if sufficiently courageous, must hang about on the staircase, hoping to catch him for a moment as he hurried out to the cafe. Within his study, into which the daring Paulsen occasionally ventured, Ibsen, we are to believe, did nothing at all, but "sat bent over the pacific ocean of his own mind, which mirrored for him a world far more fascinating, vast and rich than that which lay spread around him." [Note: Samliv med Ibsen, 1906, p. 30.]
And now the celebrated afternoons at the cafes had begun. In Rome Ibsen had his favorite table, and he would sit obliquely facing a mirror in which, half hidden by a newspaper and by the glitter of his gold spectacles, he could command a sight of the whole restaurant, and especially of the door into the street. Every one who entered, every couple that conversed, every movement of the scene, gave something to those untiring eyes. The newspaper and the cafe mirror—these were the books which, for the future, Ibsen was almost exclusively to study; and out of the gestures of a pair of friends at a table, out of a paragraph in a newspaper, even out of the terms of an advertisement, he could build up a drama. Incessant observation of real life, incessant capture of unaffected, unconsidered phrases, actual living experience leaping in his hands like a captive wild animal, this was now the substance from which all Ibsen's dreams and dramas were woven. Concentration of attention on the vital play of character, this was his one interest.
Out of this he was roused by a sudden determination to go at last and see for himself what life in Norway was really like. A New England wit once denied that a certain brilliant and Europe-loving American author was a cosmopolitan. "No," he said, "a cosmopolitan is at home even in his own country." Ibsen began to doubt whether he was not too far off to follow events in Norway—and these were now beginning to be very exciting—well enough to form an independent judgment about them; and after twenty years of exile there is no doubt that the question was fairly put. The Wild Duck had been published in November, 1884, and had been acted everywhere in Scandinavia with great success. The critics and the public were agreed for the first time that Ibsen was a very great national genius, and that if Norway was not proud of him it would make a fool of itself in the eyes of Europe.
Ibsen had said that Norway was a barbarous country, inhabited by two millions of cats and dogs, but so many agreeable and highly-civilized compliments found their way to him in Rome that he began to fancy that the human element was beginning to be introduced. At all events, he would see for himself, and in June, 1885, instead of stopping at Gossensass, he pushed bravely on and landed in Christiania.
At first all went well, but from the very beginning of the visit he observed, or thought he observed, awkward phenomena. The country was thrilled with political excitement, and it vibrated with rhetorical resolutions which seemed to Ibsen very empty. He had a constitutional horror of purely theoretical questions, and these were occupying Norway from one end to the other. The King's veto, the consular difficulty, the Swedish emblem in the national flag, these were the subjects of frenzied discussion, and in none of these did Ibsen take any sort of pleasure. He was not politically far-sighted, it must be confessed, nor did he guess what practical proportions these "theoretical questions" were to assume in the immediate future.
That great writer and delightful associate, the Swedish poet, Count Snoilsky, one of the few whose company never wearied or irritated Ibsen, joined him in the far north. They spent a pleasant, quiet time together at Molde, that enchanting little sub-arctic town, where it looks southward over the shining fjord, with the Romsdalhorn forever guarding the mountainous horizon. Here no politics intruded, and Ibsen, when Snoilsky had left him, already thinking of a new drama, lingered on at Molde, spending hours on hours at the end of the jetty, gazing into the clear, cold sea. His passion for the sea had never betrayed him, and at Rome, where he had long given up going to any galleries or studios, he still haunted the house of a Norwegian marine painter, Nils Hansteen, whose sketches reminded him of old days and recollected waters.
But the autumn comes on apace in these high latitudes, and Ibsen had to return to Christiania with its torchlight processions, and late noisy feasts, and triumphant revolutionary oratory. He disliked it extremely, and he made up his mind to go back to the indifferent South, where people did not worry about such things. Unfortunately, the inhabitants of Christiania did not leave him alone. They were not content to have him among them as a retired observer, they wanted to make him stand out definitely on one political side or the other. He was urged, at the end of September, to receive the inevitable torchlight procession planned in his honor by the Union of Norwegian Students. He was astute enough to see that this might compromise his independence, but he was probably too self-conscious in believing that a trap was being laid for him. He said that, not having observed that his presence gave the Union any great pleasure, he did not care to have its expression of great joy at t his departure. This was not polite, for it does not appear that the students had any idea that he intended to depart. He would not address a reply to the Union as a body, but to "my friends among the students."
A committee called upon him to beg him to reconsider his resolution, but he roundly told them that he knew that they were reactionaries, and wanted to annex him to their party, and that he was not blind to their tricks. They withdrew in confusion, and Ibsen, in an agony of nervous ness, determined to put the sea between himself and their machinations. Early in October he retreated, or rather fled, to Copenhagen, and thence to Munich, where he breathed again. Meanwhile, the extreme liberal faction among the students claimed that his action had meant that he was heart and soul with them, as against the reactionaries. A young Mr. Ove Rode, who had interviewed him, took upon himself to say that these were Ibsen's real sentiments. Ibsen fairly stamped with rage, and declared, in furious communications, that all these things were done on purpose. "It was an opportunity to insult a poet which it would have been a sad pity to lose," he remarked, with quivering pen. A reverberant controversy sprang up in the Norwegian newspapers, and Ibsen, in his Bavarian harbor of refuge, continued to vibrate all through the winter of 1885. The exile's return to his native country had proved to be far from a success.
Already his new play was taking shape, and the success of his great personal ambition, namely that his son, Sigurd, should be taken with honor into the diplomatic service of his country, did such to calm his spirits. Ibsen was growing rich now, as well as famous, and if only the Norwegians would let him alone, he might well be happy. The new play was Rosmersholm, and it took its impulse from a speech which Ibsen had made during his journey, at Trondhjem, where he expounded the gospel of individualism to a respectful audience of workingmen, and had laid down the necessity of introducing an aristocratic strain, et adeligt element, into the life of a truly democratic state, a strain which woman and labor were to unite in developing. He said: "I am thinking, of course, not of birth, nor of money, nor even of intellect, but of the nobility which grows out of character. It is character alone which can make us free." This nobility of character must be fostered, mainly, by the united efforts of motherhood and labor. This was quite a new creed in Norway, and it bewildered his hearers, but it is remarkable to notice how the best public feeling in Scandinavia has responded to the appeal, and how little surprise the present generation would express at a repetition of such sentiments. And out of this idea of "nobility" of public character Rosmersholm directly sprang.
We are not left to conjecture in this respect. In a letter to Bjoern Kristensen (February 13, 1887), Ibsen deliberately explained, while correcting a misconception of the purpose of Rosmersholm, that "the play deals with the struggle which all serious-minded human beings have to wage with themselves in order to bring their lives into harmony with their convictions.... Conscience is very conservative. It has its deep roots in tradition and the past generally, and hence the conflict." When we come to read Rosmersholm it is not difficult to see how this order of ideas dominated Ibsen's mind when he wrote it. The mansion called by that name is typical of the ancient traditions of Norwegian bourgeois aristocracy, which are not to be subservient to such modern and timid conservatism as is represented by Rector Kroll, with his horror of all things new because they are new. The Rosmer strain, in its inherent nobility, is to be superior to a craven horror of the democracy, and is to show, by the courage with which it fulfils its personal destiny, that it looks above and beyond all these momentary prejudices, and accepts, from all hands, whatever is wise and of good report.
The misfortune is that Ibsen, in unconscious bondage to his ideas, did not construct his drama sturdily enough on realistic lines. While not one of his works is more suggestive than Rosmersholm, there is not one which gives the unbeliever more opportunity to blaspheme. This ancestral house of a great rich race, which is kept up by the ministrations of a single aged female servant, stands in pure Cloud-Cuckoo Land. The absence of practical amenities in the Rosmer family might be set down to eccentricity, if all the other personages were not equally ill-provided. Rebecca, glorious heroine according to some admirers, "criminal, thief and murderess," as another admirer pleonastically describes her, is a sort of troll; nobody can explain—and yet an explanation seems requisite—what she does in the house of Rosmer. In his eagerness to work out a certain sequence of philosophical ideas, the playwright for once neglected to be plausible. It is a very remarkable feature of Rosmersholm that in it, for the first time, and almost for the last, Ibsen, in the act of theorizing, loses his hold upon reality. He places his ingenious, elaborate and—given the premises—inevitable denouement in a scene scarcely more credible than that of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, and not one-tenth as amusing. Following, as it does, immediately on the heels of The Wild Duck, which was as remarkable a slice of real life as was ever brought before a theatrical audience, the artificiality of Rosmersholm shows Ibsen as an artist clearly stepping backward that he may leap the further forward.
In other words, Rosmersholm is the proof of Ibsen's desire to conquer another field of drama. He had now for some years rejected with great severity all temptations from the poetic spirit, which was nevertheless ineradicable in him. He had wished to produce on the mind of the spectator no other impression than that he was observing something which had actually happened, exactly in the way and the words in which it would happen. He had formulated to the actress, Lucie Wolf, the principle that ideal dramatic poetry should be considered extinct, "like some preposterous animal form of prehistoric times." But the soul of man cannot be fed with a stone, and Ibsen had now discovered that perfectly prosaic "slices of life" may be salutary and valuable on occasion, but that sooner or later a poet asks for more. He, therefore, a poet if ever there was one, had grown weary of the self-made law by which he had shut himself out from Paradise. He determined, grudgingly, and hardly knowing how to set about it, that he would once more give the spiritual and the imaginative qualities their place in his work. These had now been excluded for nearly twenty years, since the publication of Peer Gynt, and he would not resume them so far as to write his dramas again in verse. Verse in drama was doomed; or if not, it was at least a juvenile and fugitive skill not to be rashly picked up again by a business-like bard of sixty. But he would reopen the door to allegory and symbol, and especially to fantastic beauty of landscape.
The landscape of Rosmersholm has all, or at least much, of the old enchantment. The scene at the mill-dam links us once more with the woods and the waters which we had lost sight of since Peer Gynt. But this element was still more evident in The Lady from the Sea, which was. published in 1888. We have seen that Ibsen spent long hours, in the summer of 1885, at the end of the pier at Molde, gazing down into the waters, or watching the steamers arriving and departing, coming from the great sea beyond the fjord or going towards it. As was his wont, he stored up these impressions, making no immediate use of them. He actually prepared The Lady from the Sea in very different, although still marine surroundings. He went to Jutland, and settled for the summer at the pretty and ancient, but very mild little town of Saeby, with the sands in front of him and rolling woods behind. From Saeby it was a short journey to Frederikshavn, "which he liked very much—he could knock about all day among the shipping, talking to the sailors, and so forth. Besides, he found the neighborhood of the sea favorable to contemplation and constructive thought." So Mr. Archer, who visited him at Saeby; and I myself, a year or two later, picked up at Frederikshavn an oral tradition of Ibsen, with his hands behind his back, and the frock-coat tightly buttoned, stalking, stalking alone for hours on the interminable promenade between the great harbor moles of Frederikshaven, no one daring to break in upon his formidable contemplation.
In several respects, though perhaps not in concentration of effect, The Lady from the Sea shows a distinct advance on Rosmersholm. It is never dull, never didactic, as its predecessor too often was, and there is thrown over the whole texture of it a glamour of romance, of mystery, of beauty, which had not appeared in Ibsen's work since the completion of Peer Gynt. Again, after the appearance of so many strenuous tragedies, it was pleasant to welcome a pure comedy. The Lady from the Sea [Note: In the Neue Rundschau for December, 1906, there was published a first draft of The Lady from the Sea, dating as far back as 1800.] is connected with the previous plays by its emphatic defence of individuality and its statement of the imperative necessity of developing it; but the tone is sunny, and without a tinge of pessimism. It is in some respects the reverse of Rosmersholm; the bitterness of restrained and balked individuality, which ends in death, being contrasted with the sweetness of emancipated and gratified individuality, which leads to health and peace. To the remarkable estimate of The Lady from the Sea formed by some critics, and in particular by M. Jules de Gaultier, we shall return in a general consideration of the symbolic plays, of which it is the earliest. Enough to say here that even those who did not plunge so deeply into its mysteries found it a remarkably agreeable spectacle, and that it has continued to be, in Scandinavia and Germany, one of the most popular of its author's works.
Ibsen left his little tavern at Saeby towards the end of September, 1887, in consequence of an invitation to proceed directly to Stockholm, where his Swedish admirers, now very numerous and enthusiastic, would no longer be deprived of the pleasure of entertaining him publicly. He appeared before them, the breast of his coat sparkling with foreign stars and crosses, the Urim and Thummim of general European recognition. He was now in his sixtieth year, and he had out lived all the obscurity of his youth. In the three Scandinavian countries—even in recalcitrant Norway—he was universally hailed as the greatest dramatist of the age. In Germany his fame was greater than that of any native writer of the sang class. In Italy and Russia he was entering on a career of high and settled popularity. Even in France and England his work was now discussed with that passionate interest which shows the vitality of what is even, for the moment, misinterpreted and disliked. His admirers at Stockholm told him that he had taken a foremost place in re-creating their sense of life, that he was a fashioner and a builder of new social forms, that he was, indeed, to thousands of them, the Master-Builder. The reply he made to their enthusiasm was dignified and reserved, but it revealed a sense of high gratification. Skule's long doubt was over; he believed at last in his own kingdom, and that the world would be ultimately the better for the stamp of his masterful soul upon its surface.
It was in an unusually happy mood that he sat dreaming through the early part of the uneventful year 1889. But it gradually sank into melancholy when, in the following year, he settled down to the composition of a new play which was to treat of sad thoughts and tragic passions. He told Snoilsky that for several reasons this work made very slow progress, "and it robbed him of his summer holidays." From May to November, 1890, he was uninterruptedly in Munich writing what is known to us now as Hedda Gabler. He finished it at last, saying as he did so, "It has not been my desire to deal in this play with so-called problems. What I principally wanted to do was to depict human beings, human emotions and human destinies, upon a groundwork of certain of the social conditions and principles of the present day." It was a proof of the immense growth of Ibsen's celebrity that editions of Hedda Gabler were called for almost simultaneously, in the winter of 1890, in London, New York, St. Petersburg, Leipzig, Berlin and Moscow, as well as in Copenhagen, Stockholm and Christiania. There was no other living author in the world at that moment who excited so much curiosity among the intellectual classes, and none who exercised so much influence on the younger generation of authors and thinkers.
In Hedda Gabler Ibsen returned, for the last time, but with concentrated vigor, to the prosaic ideal of his central period. He never succeeded in being more objective in drama, he never kept more closely to the bare facts of nature nor rejected more vigorously the ornaments of romance and rhetoric than in this amazing play. There is no poetic suggestion here, no species of symbol, white horse, or gnawing thing, or monster from the sea. I am wholly in agreement with Mr. Archer when he says that he finds it impossible to extract any sort of general idea from Hedda Gabler, or to accept it as a satire of any condition of society. Hedda is an individual, not a type, and it was as an individual that she interested Ibsen. We have been told, since the poet's death, that he was greatly struck by the case, which came under his notice at Munich, of a German lady who poisoned herself because she was bored with life, and had strayed into a false position. Hedda Gabler is the realization of such an individual case. At first sight, it seemed as though Ibsen had been influenced by Dumas fils, which might have been true, in spite of the marked dislike which each expressed for the other; [Note: It is said that La Route de Thebes, which Dumas had begun when he died, was to have been a deliberate attack on the methods and influence of Ibsen. Ibsen, on his part, loathed Dumas.] but closer examination showed that Hedda Gabler had no sort of relation with the pamphlets of the master of Parisian problem-tragedy.
The attempt to show that Hedda Gabler "proved" anything was annoying to Ibsen, who said, with more than his customary firmness, "It was not my purpose to deal with what people call problems in this play. What I chiefly tried to do was to paint human beings, human emotions and human fate, against a background of some of the conditions and laws of society as it exists to-day." The German critics, a little puzzled to find a longitude and latitude for Tesman's "tastefully decorated" villa, declared that this time Ibsen had written an "international," not a locally Norwegian, play. Nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, Hedda Gabler is perhaps the most fatally local and Norwegian of all Ibsen's plays, and it presents, not of course the highly civilized Christiania of to-day, but the half-suburban, half-rural little straggling town of forty years ago. When I visited Norway as a lad, I received kind but sometimes rather stiff and raw hospitality in several tastefully decorated villas, which were as like that of the Tesmans as pea is like pea. Why Ibsen chose to paint a "west end of Christiania" of 1860 rather than of 1890 I cannot guess, unless it was that to so persistent an exile the former was far more familiar than the latter.
A Russian actress of extreme talent, Madame Alla Nazimova, who has had special opportunities of studying the part of Hedda Gabler, has lately (1907) depicted her as "aristocratic and ill-mated, ambitious and doomed to a repulsive alliance with a man beneath her station, whom she had mistakenly hoped would give her position and wealth. In other circumstances, Hedda would have been a power for beauty and good." If this ingenious theory be correct, Hedda Gabler must be considered as the leading example of Ibsen's often-repeated demonstration, that evil is produced by circumstances and not by character. The portrait becomes thrillingly vital if we realize that the stains upon it are the impact of accidental conditions on a nature which might otherwise have been useful and fleckless. Hedda Gabler is painted as Mr. Sargent might paint a lady of the London fashionable world; his brush would divine and emphasize, as Ibsen's pen does, the disorder of her nerves, and the ravaging concentration of her will in a sort of barren and impotent egotism, while doing justice to the superficial attractiveness of her cultivated physical beauty. He would show, as Ibsen shows, and with an equal lack of malice prepense, various detestable features which the mask of good manners had concealed. Each artist would be called a caricaturist because his instinctive penetration had taken him into regions where the powder-puff and the rouge-pot lose their power.
With the publication of Hedda Gabler Ibsen passed into what we may call his final glory. Almost insensibly, and to an accompaniment of his own growls of indignation, he had taken his place, not merely as the most eminent imaginative writer of the three Scandinavian countries, but as the type there of what literature should be and the prophet of what it would become. In 1880, Norway, the youngest and long the rawest of the three civilizations, was now the foremost in activity, and though the influence of Bjoernson and Jonas Lie was significant, yet it was not to be compared for breadth and complexity with that of Ibsen. The nature of the revolution, exercised by the subject of this memoir between 1880 and 1890, that is to say from Ghosts to Hedda Gabler, was destructive before it was constructive. The poetry, fiction and drama of the three Northern nations had become stagnant with commonplace and conventional matter, lumbered with the recognized, inevitable and sacrosanct forms of composition. This was particularly the case in Sweden, where the influence of Ibsen now proved more violent and catastrophic than anywhere else. Ibsen destroyed the attraction of the old banal poetry; his spirit breathed upon it in fire, and in all its faded elegance it withered up and vanished.
The next event was that the new generation in the three Northern countries, deprived of its traditional authorities, looked about for a prophet and a father, and they found what they wanted in the exceedingly uncompromising elderly gentleman who remained so silent in the cafes of Rome and of Munich. The zeal of the young for this unseen and unsympathetic personage was extraordinary, and took forms of amazing extravagance. Ibsen's impassivity merely heightened the enthusiasm of his countless admirers, who were found, it should be stated, almost entirely among persons who were born after his exile from Norway. His writings supplied a challenge to character and intelligence which appealed to those who disliked the earlier system of morals and aesthetics against which he had so long fought single-handed.
Among writers in the North Ibsen began to hold very much the position that Whistler was taking among painters and etchers in this country, that is to say the abuse and ridicule of his works by a dwindling group of elderly conventional critics merely stung into more frenzied laudation an ever-widening circle of youthful admirers. Ibsen repented, for a time almost exclusively, "serious" aims in literature, and with those of Herbert Spencer, and in less measure of Zola, and a little later of Nietzsche, his books were the spiritual food of all youthful minds of any vigor or elasticity.
In Sweden, at this time, the admiration for Ibsen took forms of almost preposterous violence. The great Swedish novelist, Gustaf af Geijerstam, has given a curious and amusing account of the rage for Ibsen which came to its height about 1880. The question which every student asked his friend, every lover his mistress, was "What do you think of Ibsen?" Not to be a believer in the Norwegian master was a reef upon which love or friendship might easily be shipwrecked. It was quoted gravely as an insufferable incompatibility for the state of marriage. There was a curious and secret symbolism running through the whole of youthful Swedish society, from which their elders were cunningly excluded, by which the volumes of Ibsen, passed from hand to hand, presented on solemn occasions, became the emblems of the problems interesting to generous youth, flags carried in the moral fight for liberty and truth. The three Northern countries, in their long stagnation, had become clogged and deadened with spiritual humbug, which had sealed the sources of emotion. It seemed though, after the long frost of the seventies, spring had come and literature had budded a at last, and that it was Ibsen who had blown the clarion of the West Wind and heralded the emancipation.
The enthusiasm for the Norwegian dramatist was not always according to knowledge, and sometimes it took grotesque forms. Much of the abuse showered in England and France upon Ibsen at the time we are now describing was due to echoes of the extravagance of his Scandinavian and German idolaters. A Swedish satirist [Note: "Stella Kleve" (Mathilda Malling, in Framat 1886)] said that if Ibsen could have foreseen how many "misunderstood" women would leave their homes in imitation of Nora, and how many lovesick housekeepers drink poison on account of Rebecca, he would have thrown ashes on his head and have retreated into the deserts of Tartary. The suicide of the novelist, Ernst Ahlgren, was the tragic circumstance where much was so purely comic. But if there were elements of tragicomedy in the Ibsen idolatry, there were far more important elements of vigorous and wholesome intellectual independence; and it was during this period of Ibsen's almost hectic popularity that the foundations of a new fiction and a new drama were laid in Sweden, Denmark and Norway. A whole generation sucked strength and energy from his early writings, since it is to be remarked that, from 1880 to 1890, the great prestige of Ibsen did not depend so much on the dramas he was then producing, as on the earlier works of his poetic youth, now reread with an unexampled fervor. So, with us, the tardy popularity of Robert Browning, which faintly resembles that of Ibsen, did not attract the younger generation to the volumes which succeed The Ring and the Book, but sent them back to the books which their fathers had despised, to Pippa Passes and Men and Women. To the generation of 1880, Ibsen was not so much the author of the realistic social dramas as of those old but now rediscovered miracles of poetry and wit, The Pretenders, Brand and Peer Gynt.
In 1889 Ibsen had been made very pleasantly conscious of this strong personal feeling in his favor among young men and women. Nor did he find it confined to Scandinavia. He had travelled about in Germany, and everywhere his plays were being acted. Berlin was wild about him; at Weimar he was feted like a conqueror. He did not settle down at Munich until May, and here, as we have seen, he stayed all the summer, hard at work. After the success of Hedda Gabler, which overpowered all adverse comment, Ibsen began to long to be in Norway again, and this feeling was combined, in a curious way, with a very powerful emotion which now entered into his life. He had lived a retired and peaceful existence, mainly a spectator at the feast, as little occupied in helping himself to the dishes which he saw others enjoy as is an eremite in the desert in plucking the grape-clusters of his dreams. No adventure, of any prominent kind, had ever been seen to diversify Ibsen's perfectly decorous and domestic career. And now he was more than sixty, and the gray tones were gathering round him more thickly than ever, when a real ray of vermilion descended out of the sky and filled his horizon with color.
In the season of 1889, among the summer boarders at Gossensass, there appeared a young Viennese lady of eighteen, Miss Emilie Bardach. She used to sit on a certain bench in the Pferchthal, and when the poet, whom she adored from afar, passed by, she had the courage to smile at him. Strange to say, her smile was returned, and soon Ibsen was on the bench at her side. He readily discovered where she lived; no less readily he gained an introduction to the family with whom she boarded. There was a window-seat in the salle a manger; it was deep and shaded by odorous flowering shrubs; it lent itself to endless conversation. The episode was strange, the passion improbable, incomprehensible, profoundly natural and true. Perhaps, until they parted in the last days of September, neither the old man nor the young girl realized what their relations had meant to each. Youth secured its revenge, however; Miss Bardach soon wrote from Vienna that she was now more tranquil, more independent, happy at last. Ibsen, on the other hand, was heart-broken, quivering with ecstasy, overwhelmed with joy and despair.
It was the enigma in his "princess," as he called her; that completed Miss Bardach's sorcery over the old poet. She seems to have been no coquette; she flung her dangerous fascinations at his feet; she broke the thread which bound the charms of her spirit and poured them over him. He, for his part, remaining discreet and respectful, was shattered with happiness. To a friend of mine, a young Norwegian man of letters, Ibsen said about this time: "Oh, you can always love, but I am happier than the happiest, for I am beloved." Long afterwards, on his seventieth birthday, when his own natural force was failing, he wrote to Miss Bardach, "That summer at Gossensass was the most beautiful and the most harmonious portion of my whole existence. I scarcely venture to think of it, and yet I think of nothing else. Ah! forever!" He did not dare to send her The Master-Builder, since her presence interpenetrated every line of it like a perfume, and when, we are told, she sent him her photograph, signed "Princess of Orangia," her too-bold identification of herself with Hilda Wangel hurt him as a rough touch, that finer tact would have avoided. There can be no doubt at all that while she was now largely absorbed by the compliment to her own vanity, he was still absolutely enthralled and bewitched, and that what was fun to her made life and death to him.
This very curious episode [Note: It was quite unknown until the correspondence—which has not been translated into English—was published by Georg Brandes at the desire of the lady herself (September, 1906).], which modifies in several important respects our conception of the dramatist's character, is analogous with the apparent change of disposition which made Renan surprise his unthinking admirers so suddenly at the epoch of L'Eau de Jouvence and L'Abbesse de Jouarre. It was founded, of course, on that dangerous susceptibility to which an elderly man of genius, whose life had been spent in labor and reflection, may be inclined to resign himself, as he sees the sands running out of the hour-glass, and realizes that in analyzing and dissecting emotion he has never had time to enjoy it. Time is so short, the nerves so fragile and so finite, the dreadful illusion, the maia, so irresistible, that the old man gives way to it, and would sooner die at once than not make one grasp at happiness.
It will have been remarked that Ibsen's habit was to store up an impression, but not to use it immediately on creative work. We need, therefore, feel no surprise that there is not a trace of the Bardach episode in Hedda Gabler, although the composition of that play immediately followed the hohes, schmerzliches Glueck at Gossensass. He was, too, no moonlight serenader, and his intense emotion is perfectly compatible with the outline of some of the gossip which was repeated at the time of his death; Ibsen being reported to have said of the Viennese girl: "She did not get hold of me, but I got hold of her—for my play." These things are very complex, and not to be hastily dismissed, especially on the rough and ready English system. There would be give and take in such a complicated situation, when the object was, as Ibsen himself says, out of reach unversichtbar. There is no question that for every pang which Hilda made her ancient lover suffer, he would enrich his imagination with a dozen points of experience. There is no paradox in saying that the poet was overwhelmed with a passion and yet consciously made it serve as material for his plays. From this time onwards every dramatic work of his bears the stamp of those hours among the roses at Gossensass.
To the spring of 1891 belongs Ibsen's somewhat momentous visit to Vienna, where he was invited by Dr. Max Burckhard, the director of the Burg Theatre, to superintend the performance of his Pretenders. Ibsen had already, in strict privacy, visited Vienna, where his plays enjoyed an increasing success, but this was his first public entrance into a city which he admired on the whole more than any other city of Europe. "Mein schoener Wien!" he used to murmur, with quite a clan of affection. In April, 1891, after the triumph of his tragedy on the stage, Ibsen was the guest at a public banquet at Vienna, when the ovations were overwhelming and were extended until four o'clock next morning. A performance of The Wild Duck produced, what was almost as dear to Ibsen as praise, a violent polemic, and he passed on out of a world of storm and passion to Buda-Pesth, where he saw A Doll's House acted in Hungarian, amid thunders of applause, and where he was the guest of Count Albert Apponyi. These were the happy and fruitful years which consoled the heart of the poet for the bitter time when
"Hate's decree Dwelt in his thoughts intolerable."
In the ensuing summer, in July, 1891, Ibsen left Munich with every intention of returning to it, but with the plan of a long summer trip in Norway, where the triumphant success of Hedda Gabler had been very agreeable to his feelings. Once more he pushed up through the country to Trondhjem, a city which had always attracted him and pleased him. Here he presently embarked on one of the summer coasting-steamers, and saw the shores of Nordland and Finmark for the first time, visiting the North Cape itself. He came back to Christiania for the rest of the season, with no prospect of staying. But he enjoyed a most flattering reception; he was begged to resume his practical citizenship, and he was assured that life in Norway would be made very pleasant to him. In the autumn, therefore, in his abrupt way, he took an apartment in Viktoria Terrasse, and sent to Munich for his furniture. He said to a friend who expressed surprise at this settlement: "I may just as well make Christiania my headquarters as Munich. The railway takes me in a very short time wherever I want to go; and when I am bored with Norway I can travel elsewhere." But he never felt the fatigue he anticipated, and, but for brief visits to Copenhagen or Stockholm, he left his native country no more after 1891, although he changed his abode in Christiania itself.
For the first twelve months Ibsen enjoyed the pleasures of the prodigal returned, and fed with gusto on the fatted calf. Then, when three years separated him from the illuminating soul-adventures of Gossensass, he began to turn them into a play. It proved to be The Master-Builder, and was published before the close of December, 1892, with the date 1893 on the title-page. This play was running for some time in Germany and England before it was played in Scandinavia. But on the evening of March 8, 1893, it was simultaneously given at the National Theatre in Christiania and at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. It was a work which greatly puzzled the critics, and its meaning was scarcely apparent until it had been seen on the stage, for which the oddity of its arrangements are singularly well adapted. It was, however, almost immediately noticed that it marked a new departure in Ibsen's writings. Here was an end of the purely realistic and prosaic social dramas, which had reigned from The League of Youth to Hedda Gabler, and here was a return to the strange and haunting beauty of the old imaginative pieces. Mr. Archer was happily inspired when he spoke of "the pure melody" of the piece, and the best scenes of The Master-Builder were heroically and almost recklessly poetical.
This remarkable composition is full of what, for want of a better word, we must call "symbolism." In the conversations between Solness and Hilda much is introduced which is really almost unintelligible unless we take it to be autobiographical. The Master-Builder is one who constructs, not houses, but poems and plays. It is the poet himself who gives expression, in the pathetic and erratic confessions of Solness, to his doubts, his craven timidities, his selfish secrets, and his terror at the uniformity of his "luck." It is less easy to see exactly what Ibsen believed himself to be presenting to us in the enigmatical figure of Hilda, so attractive and genial, so exquisitely refreshing, and yet radically so cruel and superficial. She is perhaps conceived as a symbol of Youth, arriving too late within the circle which Age has trodden for its steps to walk in, and luring it too rashly, by the mirage of happiness, into paths no longer within its physical and moral capacity. "Hypnotism," Mr. Archer tells us, "is the first and last word of the dramatic action"; perhaps thought-transference more exactly expresses the idea, but I should not have stated even this quite so strongly. The ground of the dramatic action seems to me to be the balance of Nemesis, the fatal necessity that those who enjoy exceptional advantages in life shall pay for them by not less exceptional, but perhaps less obvious, disadvantages. The motto of the piece—at least of the first two of its acts—might be the couplet of the French tragedian:—
C'est un ordre des dieux qui jamais ne se rompt De nous vendre bien cher les grands biens qu'ils nous font.
Beneath this, which we may call the transcendental aspect of the play, we find a solid and objective study of the self-made man, the headstrong amateur, who has never submitted to the wholesome discipline of professional training, but who has trusted to the help of those trolls or mascots, his native talent and his unfailing "luck." Upon such a man descends Hilda, the disorganizer, who pierces the armor of his conceit by a direct appeal to his passions. Solness has been the irresistible sorcerer, through his good fortune, but he is not protected in his climacteric against this unexpected attack upon the senses. Samson philanders with Delila, and discovers that his strength is shorn from him. There is no doubt that Ibsen intended in The Master-Builder a searching examination of "luck" and the tyranny of it, the terrible effects of it on the Broviks and the Kajas whom nobody remembers, but whose bodies lie under the wheels of its car. The dramatic situation is here extremely interesting; it consists in the fact that Solness, who breaks every one else, is broken by Hilda. The inherent hardness of youth, which makes no allowances, which demands its kingdom here and now upon the table, was never more powerfully depicted. Solness is smashed by his impact with Hilda, as china is against a stone. In all this it would be a mistake to see anything directly autobiographical, although so much in the character and position of Solness may remind us, legitimately enough, of Ibsen himself, and his adventures.
The personal record of Ibsen in these years is almost silent. He was growing old and set in his habits. He was growing rich, too, and he surrounded himself with sedentary comforts. His wealth, it may here be said, was founded entirely upon the success of his works, but was fostered by his extreme adroitness as a man of business. Those who are so fond of saying that any man of genius might have excelled in some other capacity are fully justified if they like to imagine Ibsen as the model financier. He certainly possessed a remarkable aptitude for affairs, and we learn that his speculations were at once daring and crafty. People who are weary of commiserating the poverty of poets may be pleased to learn that when Ibsen died he was one of the wealthiest private citizens of Christiania, and this was wholly in consequence of the care he had taken in protecting his copyrights and administering his receipts. If the melancholy couplet is correct which tells us that
Aux petits des oiseaux Dieu donne la pature, Mais sa bonte s'arrkete a la litterature,
we must believe, with Ibsen's enemies, that his fortunes were not under the divine protection.
The actual numbers of each of his works printed since he first published with Hegel in Copenhagen—a connection which he preserved without a breach until the end—have been stated since his death. They contain some points of interest. After 1876 Hegel ventured on large editions of each new play, but they went off at first slowly. The Lady from the Sea was the earliest to appear, at once, in an issue of 10,000 copies, which was soon exhausted. So great, however, had the public interest in Ibsen become in 1894 that the edition of 10,000 copies of Little Eyolf was found quite inadequate to meet the first order, and it was enlarged to 15,000, all of which were gone in a fortnight. This circulation in so small a reading public as that of Denmark and Norway was unprecedented, and it must be remembered that the simultaneous translations into most of the languages of Europe are not included.
Little Eyolf, which was written in Christiania during the spring and summer of 1894, was issued, according to Ibsen's cometary custom, as the second week of December rolled round. The reception of it was stormy, even in Scandinavia, and led to violent outbursts of controversy. No work from the master's pen had roused more difference of opinion among the critics since the bluster over Ghosts fourteen years before. Those who prefer to absolute success in the creation of a work of art the personal flavor or perfume of the artist himself were predisposed to place Little Eyolf very high among his writings. Nowhere is he more independent of all other influences, nowhere more intensely, it may even be said more distressingly, himself. From many points of view this play may fairly be considered in the light of a tour de force. Ibsen—one would conjecture—is trying to see to what extremities of agile independence he can force his genius. The word "force" has escaped me; but it may be retained as reproducing that sense of a difficulty not quite easily or completely overcome which Little Eyolf produces. To mention but one technical matter; there are but four characters, properly speaking, in the play—since Eyolf himself and the Rat-Wife are but illustrations or symbolic properties—and of these four, one (Borgheim) is wholly subsidiary. Ibsen, then, may be said to have challenged imitation by composing a drama of passion with only three characters in it. By a process of elimination this has been done by Aeschylus (in the Agamemnon), by Racine (in Phe*dre and Andromaque), and in our own day by Maeterlinck (in Pelle*as et Me*lisande). But Ibsen was accustomed to a wider field, and his experiment seems not wholly successful. Little Eyolf, at least, is, from all points of view, an exercise on the tight-rope. We may hazard the conjecture that no drama gave Ibsen more satisfaction to write, but for enjoyment the reader may prefer less prodigious agility on the trapeze.
If we turn from the technical virtuosity of Little Eyolf to its moral aspects, we find it a very dreadful play, set in darkness which nothing illuminates but the twinkling sweetness of Asta. The mysterious symbol of the Rat-Wife breaks in upon the pair whose love is turning to hate, the man waxing cold as the wife grows hot. The Angel of God, in the guise of an old beggar-woman, descends into their garden, and she drags away, by an invisible chain, "the little gnawing thing," the pathetic lame child. The effect on the pair of Eyolf's death by drowning is the subject of the subsequent acts. In Rita jealousy is incarnate, and she seems the most vigorous, and, it must be added, the most repulsive, of Ibsen's feminine creations. The reckless violence of Rita's energy, indeed, interpreted by a competent actress—played, for instance, as it was in London most admirably by Miss Achurch—is almost too painful for a public exhibition, and to the old criticism, "nec pueros coram populo Medea trucidet," if a pedant chooses to press it, there teems no reply. The sex question, as treated in Little Eyolf, recalls The Kreutzer Sonata (1889) of Tolstoi. When, however, I ventured to ask Ibsen whether there was anything in this, he was displeased, and stoutly denied it. What, an author denies, however, is not always evidence.
Nothing further of general interest happened to Ibsen until 1896, when he sat down to compose another drama, John Gabriel Borkman. This was a study of the mental adventures of a man of high commercial imagination, who is artificially parted from all that contact with real affairs which keeps such energy on the track, and who goes mad with dreams of incalculable power, a study, in fact, of financial megalomania. It was said, at the time, that Ibsen was originally led to make this analysis of character from reading in the Christiania newspapers a report of the failure and trial of a notorious speculator convicted of fraud in 1895, and sentenced to a long period of penal servitude.
Whether this be so or not, we have in the person of John Gabriel Borkman a prominent example of the ninteenth century type of criminous speculator, in whom the vastness of view and the splendidly altruistic audacity present themselves as elements which render it exceedingly difficult to say how far the malefactor is morally responsible for his crime. He has imagined, and to a certain point has carried out, a monster metal "trust," for the success of which he lacks neither courage nor knowledge nor practical administrative capacity, but only that trifling concomitant, sufficiency of capital. To keep the fires blazing until his vast model is molten into the mould, he helps himself to money here, there, and everywhere, scarcely giving a thought to his responsibilities, so certain is he of ultimate and beneficent triumph. He will make rich beyond the dreams of avarice all these his involuntary supporters. Unhappily, just before his scheme is ready and the metal runs, he is stopped by the stupidity of the law, and finds himself in prison.
Side by side with this study of commercial madness runs a thread of that new sense of the preciousness of vital joy which had occupied Ibsen so much ever since the last of the summers at Gossensass. The figure of Erhart Borkman is a very interesting one to the theatrical student. In the ruin of the family, all hopes concentre in him. Every one claims him, and in the bosoms of each of his shattered parents a secret hope is born, Mrs. Borkman believing that by a brilliant career of commercial rectitude her son will wipe out the memory of his father's crime; Borkman, who has never given up the ambition of returning to business, reposing his own hopes on the co-operation of his son.
But Erhart Borkman disappoints them all. He will be himself, he will enjoy his life, he will throw off all the burdens both of responsibility and of restitution. He has no ambition and little natural feeling; he simply must be happy, and he suddenly elopes, leaving all their anticipations bankrupt, with a certain joyous Mrs. Wilton, who has nothing but her beauty to recommend her. Deserted thus by the ignis fatuus of youth, the collapse of the three old people is complete. Under the shock the brain of Borkman gives way, and he wanders out into the winter's night, full of vague dreams of what he can still do in the world, if he can only break from his bondage and shatter his dream. He dies there in the snow, and the two old sisters, who have followed him in an anxiety which overcomes their mutual hatred, arrive in time to see him pass away. We leave them in the wood, "a dead man and two shadows"—so Ella Rentheim puts it—"for that is what the cold has made of us"; the central moral of the piece being that all the errors of humanity spring from cold-heartedness and neglect of the natural heat of love. That Borkman embezzled money, and reduced hundreds of innocent people to beggary, might be condoned; but there is no pardon for his cruel bargaining for wealth with the soul of Ella Rentheim, since that is the unpardonable sin against the Holy Spirit. There are points of obscurity, and one or two of positive and even regrettable whimsicality, about John Gabriel Borkman, but on the whole it is a work of lofty originality and of poignant human interest.
The veteran was now beginning to be conscious of the approaches of old age, but they were made agreeable to him by many tokens of national homage.
On his seventieth birthday, March 20, 1898, Ibsen received the felicitations of the world. It is pleasing to relate that a group of admirers in England, a group which included Mr. Asquith, Mr. J. M. Barrie, Mr. Thomas Hardy, Mr. Henry Arthur Jones, Mr. Pinero and Mr. Bernard Shaw took part in these congratulations and sent Ibsen a handsome set of silver plate, this being an act which, it had been discovered, he particularly appreciated. The bearer of this gift was the earliest of the long stream of visitors to arrive on the morning of the poet's birthday, and he found Ibsen in company with his wife, his son, his son's wife (Bjoernson's daughter), and his little grandson, Tankred. The poet's surprise and pleasure were emphatic. A deputation from the Storthing, headed by the Leader of the House, deputations representing the University, the various Christiania Theatres, and other official or academic bodies arrived at intervals during the course of the day; and all the afternoon Ibsen was occupied in taking these hundreds of visitors, in parties, up to the case containing the English tribute, in showing the objects and in explaining their origin. There could be no question that the gift gave genuine pleasure to the recipient; it was the first, as it was to be the last, occasion on which any public testimony to English appreciation of his genius found its way to Ibsen's door.
Immediately after the birthday festivities, which it was observed had fatigued him, Ibsen started on a visit to Copenhagen, where he was received by the aged King of Denmark, and to Stockholm, where he was overpowered with ovations from all classes. There can be no doubt that this triumphal progress, though deeply grateful to the aged poet's susceptibilities, made a heavy drain upon his nervous resources. When he returned to Norway, indeed, he was concealed from all visitors at his physician's orders, and it is understood that he had some kind of seizure. It was whispered that he would write no more, and the biennial drama, due in December, 1898, did not make its appearance. His stores of health, however, were not easily exhausted; he rested for several months, and then he was seen once more in Carl Johans Gade, smiling; in his usual way, and entirely recovered. It was announced that winter that he was writing his reminiscences, but nothing more was heard of any such book.
He was able to take a vivid interest in the preparations for the National Norwegian Theatre in Christiania, which was finally opened by the King of Sweden and Norway on September 1, 1899. Early in the morning, colossal bronze statues of Ibsen and Bjoernson were unveiled in front of the theatre, and the poets, now, unfortunately, again not on the best of terms, were seen making vast de*tours for the purpose of satisfying their curiosity, and yet not meeting one another in flesh or in metal. The first night, to prevent rivalry, was devoted to antiquarianism, and to the performance of extracts from the plays of Holberg. Ibsen and Bjoernson occupied the centre of the dress circle, sitting uplifted in two gilded fauteuils and segregated by a vast garland of red and white roses. They were the objects of universal attention, and the King seemed never to have done smiling and bowing to the two most famous of his Norwegian subjects.
The next night was Ibsen's fete, and he occupied, alone, the manager's box. A poem in his honor, by Niels Collet Vogt, was recited by the leading actor, who retired, and then rushed down the empty stage, with his arms extended, shouting "Long live Henrik Ibsen." The immense audience started to its feet and repeated the words over and over again with deafening fervor. The poet appeared to be almost overwhelmed with emotion and pleasure; at length, with a gesture which was quite pathetic, smiling through his tears, he seemed to beg his friends to spare him, and the plaudits slowly ceased. An Enemy of the People was then admirably performed. At the close of every act Ibsen was called to the front of his box, and when the performance was over, and the actors had been thanked, the audience turned to him again with a sort of affectionate ferocity. Ibsen was found to have stolen from his box, but he was waylaid and forcibly carried back to it. On his reappearance, the whole theatre rose in a roar of welcome, and it was with difficulty that the aged poet, now painfully exhausted from the strain of an evening of such prolonged excitement, could persuade the public to allow him to withdraw. At length he left the theatre, walking slowly, bowing and smiling, down a lane cleared for him, far into the street, through the dense crowd of his admirers. This astonishing night, September 2, 1899, was the climax of Ibsen's career.
During all this time Ibsen was secretly at work on another drama, which he intended as the epilogue to his earlier dramatic work, or at least to all that he had written since The Pillars of Society. This play, which was his latest, appeared, under the title of When We Dead Awaken, in December, 1899 (with 1900 on the title-page). It was simultaneously published, in very large editions, in all the principal languages of Europe, and it was acted also, but it is impossible to deny that, whether in the study or on the boards, it proved a disappointment. It displayed, especially in its later acts, many obvious signs of the weakness incident on old age.
When it is said that When We Dead Awaken was not worthy of its predecessors, it should be explained that no falling off was visible in the technical cleverness with which the dialogue was built up, nor in the wording of particular sentences. Nothing more natural or amusing, nothing showing greater, command of the resources of the theatre, had ever been published by Ibsen himself than the opening act of When We Dead Awaken. But there was certainly in the whole conception a cloudiness, an ineffectuality, which was very little like anything that Ibsen had displayed before. The moral of the piece was vague, the evolution of it incoherent, and indeed in many places it seemed a parody of his earlier manner. Not Mr. Anstey Guthrie's inimitable scenes in Mr. Punch's Ibsen were more preposterous than almost all the appearances of Irene after the first act of When We Dead Awaken.