Annotated Ibsen Bibliography, 1983-2011, from Ibsen News and Comment
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ARTICLES ON IBSEN, 1983-84
Whatever shape current Ibsen studies may be thought to
be in, languishing they are not. The PMLA
and Modern Drama bibliographies for the
two years I am surveying list more than thirty articles. Their diversity
in subject and method discourages generalization, but the prominence
in several of them of the metadramatic dimension in some of the plays
and of their significance in modern ideology suggest that Ibsen is surviving
into an age for which the idea of literature has become virtually coextensive
with the idea of all of verbal culture. An assertion Errol Durbach (l)
makes about The Wild Duck can be inferred
from a number of the articles. The play, he says, anticipates,
in a language searching for a modern semantics of the human psyche,
the fundamental concepts of twentieth-century psychiatry, cultural anthropology,
and existential philosophy. This is making a large claim for Ibsens
prescience, and in some of the articles the modern semantics
seems more of the critics than of Ibsens own making. Many
of them are informative, ingenious, and provocative, and their non-Norwegian
authors responses to the subtleties in the Norwegian text are
often impressively acute and sensitive. But there are also some that
just exercise the old issues in the new idiom or drop ideas and insights
by the wayside of turning roads that dont take the reader to any
definite destination. And do we really need yet more demonstrations
that Ibsen was ambiguous and multiminded and skeptical and not a polemicist
with answers to problems? Collectively, the articles are not obvious
evidence that interdisciplinary approaches to Ibsen inevitably yield
new and larger understanding.
Aside from generally neglecting the early plays, the authors
show no clear preference for one part of the canon over any other. Peer
Gynt, A Dolls House, and The Master
Builder are the plays most often written about, but Brand,
The Wild Duck, and Hedda Gabler run
close. I have chosen articles for comment not by their representativeness,
which was not a feasible criterion, but for their intrinsic interest.
Space limitations are always a frustrating challenge in reviews of this
kind, and mine has been no exception. I begin with articles on Ibsens
McFarlane (2) agrees with Kenneth Muir that the
most important event in the history of modern drama was Ibsens
abandonment of verse after Peer Gynt in
order to write prose plays about contemporary problems (Contem.
Theatre, London, 1962, p. 97) and accordingly thinks Ibsen not
wrong when he insisted that Emperor and Galilean
was his most important and philosophically most relevant play. McFarlane
sees the play as representing a double apostasy in Ibsens career--one
ethical (from national romanticism as hypocritical and provincial) and
one esthetic (from the idealist critics vocabulary of beauty
and truth). The mystic Maximos polymorphous
third empire envisions a new order superseding the old beauty
of paganism and the new truth of Christianity. It is incidental to the
old argument McFarlane reinforces here that he thinks Ibsens apostasy
was triggered by his anger with Brandes and Clemens Petersen, who failed
to find beauty and truth in Peer Gynt.
Bellquist (3) sees an equally drastic change earlier in
Ibsens development. Homers Achilles is the classical tragic
hero moving toward social reintegration; Brand is the romantic hero
moving toward death in solitude. By seeking the actuality of apocalyptic
transfiguration of natural man into godhead, Brand turns the metaphysical
into the solipsistic, which for Ibsen was the peril in Romanticism.
Brands late counterpart is Rubek, for whom art has become a substitute
for religion but is equally self-consuming. The romantic esthetic gives
us poems about the impossibility of poetry and sculptures embodying
the sculptors loss of vision.
Two essays on The Master Builder
move in the same orbit, though their emphasis is on form and not on
ideology. Hornby (4) considers the play a major turning point
in the history of dramatic literature because there is a shift
within it from plausible mimetic drama to a form of expressionism that
anticipates Freud: emotions are ambivalent, dreams significant, thought
has empirical power, past facts may not be facts at all. The shift begins
when Dr. Herdal leaves Solness and Hilde alone in Act I and Hilde begins
her transformation from young girl with a bag of dirty underwear to
troll-like siren or madwoman or a projection of Solnesss
own fantasies. The greatness of the play is that it explores
the boundary between outer and inner reality, deconstructing the former
to bring us to the latter. Calderwoods (5) essay is more
explicitly theoretical, more incisive, and more questionable. As he
reads it, The Master Builder is a metadramatic
critique of the symbolic structure the play itself employs. Hornbys
drama of deconstruction has here become Bellquists drama of self-destruction.
Ibsen is putting his own symbolic mode on the rack to test its
limits. The play is immune to De Mans objection to symbolism
for positing a false identity across the existential gap between man
and nature, for Ibsens symbols are man-made rather than natural
(castles in the air, trolls, dolls), and he uses them to close
the gap between the realistic and the romantic by converting the wildly
unrealistic into metaphors for the real, in order to query the
possibility of doing just that. The point of the architectural imagery
is not the venerable allegorization of Ibsen himself as Solness (the
master builder of successive kinds of dramatic structures) but its function
as self-reflexive spatial imagery signifying the failure of both Solnesss
and Ibsens enterprises: the towered new house is both an ideological
incongruity and an architectural freak, and Solnesss fall entails
deliberately awkward staging. Calderwood seems to be saying that The
Master Builder is an important play because it is flawed by inconsistencies.
The paradox makes intriguing sense from a certain perspective. What
does not make sense to a Norwegian is Calderwoods speculations
about the symbolism in Solness and Hildes names (Sol-
does not connote either Ger. Soll [debt, guilt] or Ital. solo,
and Wangel does not suggest the Norw. equivalent of Engl.
Quigley (6) disagrees with Raymond Williams on the indeterminacy
of the genre of A Doll House. To him it
is a strength and not a weakness. The center of his argument is his
concept of the distributed raisonneur:
no single character is a repository of the plays whole truth.
The play is a fascinating network of interrelated verbal and visual
images that lets us see the characters and their actions from
several viewpoints. In that multiple view Nora becomes an ironic heroine--as
when she blames Helmer for not playing the sexist role as male protector
that she blames him for playing. An ambivalent Nora has not been news
since Weigand, but Quigleys variants on the old theme have merit,
some of his examples are telling, and his distributed raisonneur
is a useful technical term.
Bennetts (7) salient concept, Cubism of Time,
denotes not the expressionists superimposition of one time frame
on another but their fusion in a mental creation, which, by being an
objectionable artistic achievement, cannot be construed as a
mere solipsistic mirroring of the individual or the morbid
dreaming of a single madman. Both Ibsen and Strindberg went beyond
the temporal perspectivism of realistic drama, which creates
an illusion of time as ceaseless flow before and after actual stage
time. But Ibsens incipient movement from realism to impressionism
and toward expressionism and cubism was arrested, Bennett suggests,
by his belief in the ethical value of community and his corollary distrust
of the solipsism implicit in expressionism. Bellquist reads the tragedy
of solipsism in Brand as Ibsens healthful
break with religious Romanticism; Bennett sees in his halfhearted gestures
toward formal avant-gardism in the last plays only timid, bourgeois
scruples blocking an artistic breakthrough. Where Ibsen failed, the
cubist Strindberg succeeded. One cant help asking whether such
a determinedly teleological view of the development of modern drama
is fair to Ibsen.
I come next to a heterogeneous group of articles
that are all comparatist. Some are old-fashioned source studies; others
are imaginative juxtapositions of plays for the discovery of analogues
Merivales (9) premise is Eric Bentleys label
for Peer Gynt: a counter-Faust.
In Goethe, Fausts lifetime of experience becomes, existentially,
the sum total of his identity. . . . . Ibsen ironically
inverts this scheme in Peer Gynt, where
the closely analogous biographical sequence of mock-Faustian episodes
[Merivale itemizes the analogues] adds up, instead, to non-identity.
When mythic characters become aware of their status by being taken out
of the myth, the plays comment metadramatically on the self-reflexive
nature of the drama. Helena and the Troll King are examples. And
when Peer in Act V says he may write a play, it is as if, in one
of his very last assumptions of role, he has recommended Ibsens
own to himself. Ibsens use of Faust,
Merivale says, can be interpreted either as a parody of Goethe
the Sage or as an isolating and intensifying of the
qualities of irony and ambiguity and comedy in Faust
by a romantic irony that leads directly to our contemporary flaunting
of artifice. This is a lively and engaging treatment of an old
topic, though the Faustian theme Merivale finds inverted in Peer
Gynt is smaller than it is in Goethes play.
I can only give brief summaries of a few other selected
source studies. McLellan (l0) thinks that both the triadic character
structure and the sympathetic treatment of the eponymous hero in Catilina
owe something to Øehlenschlägers viking plays. Van
Laan (ll) thinks its possible that Augiers Maître
Guérin served Ibsen as source for A
Doll House; at any rate, the similarities between the two plays
suggest the gradual evolution of art and A Doll
House may not mark quite so sharp a break with previous drama
as we have thought. Theoharis (12) sees the motif of the dead lover
in Joyces The Dead as a borrowing from Hedda
Gabler, and Schenker (13) (in an article of much larger scope
than my summary can note) finds an echo of Ibsens dialogues in
plays with philistine protagonists in the scrupulous meanness
of style in Dubliners. Bronsen (14) writes
about the movement from Eros to Thanatos in both The
Master Builder and Manns Death in
Venice. Moore (15) considers the many echoes from and the allusions
to Peer Gynt in William Gaddiss novel
The Recognitions among the recognitions
Gaddiss long unrecognized and sophisticated novel demands of its
The ambivalent Ibsen is very much on display in two articles
on single plays. Benston (16) argues that Peer
Gynt is much more than an antithesis to Brand.
The play about him is a postmodern play of non-closure and
is about the absences of expectation, inevitability,
determinacy in a scenario that is a recurrent starting over
in a world already determined by a received language and value system.
Peer, too, is committedto the idea of the selfs absolute
freedomand his life is an enactment of the tensions between community
and selfhood, received truths and individual creativity. Much of this
vigorous updating of Ibsens play catalogues dichotomies in Peer:
liar/poet, seducer/idealist, troll/man, wanderer/returner, emperor/madman,
lover/son, and so on. The Derridean terminology cannot dispel my sense
of having read it all before. That may have something to do with my
inability to disagree with anything Benston saysexcept her simplistic
notion of what Peers freedom really means, ethically
and metaphysically. And I wish she had explained the overlapping
in her title.
As Quigley takes on Williams on A
Doll House, so does Jacobs (17) take on Northam on Little
Eyolf. In contrast to Northams happy, Jacobs
finds a bitingly ironic, contrapuntal ending in the tradition
of The Wild Duck and The Master
Builder, an ending centered on solitude. The
main ironies are that Allmers, from whom Asta runs away in sexual fear,
is sexless, and that he is writing a book on a subject (human responsibility)
he does not understand.
Britain (l8) and George (19) have written about
Ibsens reception in, respectively, England and Germany over the
roughly forty-year period that the turn of the century divides in half.
Britain focuses on Ibsens impact on British socialists in general
and on the literary fringe of the Fabian society in particular.
The important names in his chronicle are Shaw, Eleanor Marx Aveling,
and Annie Besant. Britains main point is that Ibsens impact
on the socialists was strong not because of the feminist issues in some
of his plays and not because he was in any formal sense a socialist
himself but because he brought to the surface the dilemmas
and self-conflicts of his bitterest critics in the socialist movement
as well as those of his sympathizers. George attributes Ibsens
popularity in Germany about 1890 to his appeal to the then fashionable
self-criticism among the more thoughtful members of the middle class.
He distinguishes among an early neoclassical (an odd term)
phase (the Ibsen of the saga plays and Brand),
a social realist and psychologist phase (initiated by Brandes), and,
in the 1890s, a misty, northern symbolist-romanticist phase (à
la Maeterlinck and largely an import of the Ibsen whom Lugné-Poë
had introduced in France). After his death, Ibsens German image
once again became that of a classical, sometimes timeless
(as the expressionists saw him, for whom Peer
Gynt was becoming the crucial play) and sometimes
just passé. George tells this story rather untidily, though I
admit it is a more complex and comprehensive story than Britains.
His article is both a summary of and a supplement to a book on the same
subject that he wrote in 1968, and the Ibsen sections in the article
are framed by Georges statement of his theory of receptionor,
rather, his enumeration of the formidable difficulties facing a reception
theorist when he tries to put his theory into practice. It is a useful
discourse, but since there is nothing about Ibsen in it, I must limit
my report on it to Georges tentative formula for what makes a
foreign work assimilable by the importing culture. It must be provocative
but not iconoclastic, exciting but not disorientingin short, new
but not too new. That among the thirty-some articles I have read there
are only two on Ibsen in the theater may be significant, but of what
I am not sure.
Déak (2O) has written a historical footnote on Ibsen in the French avant-garde theater at the end of the last century. For his production of Rosmersholm at his new Théâtre de lOeuvre in October, 1893, Lugné-Poë used the Danish novelist and littérateur Herman Bang as a kind of consultant, but Bangs efforts to modify Lugné-Poës heavily symbolist staging with an infusion of psychological realism were largely unsuccessful. Cima (21) credits Ibsens plays with contributing to the emergence of a new kind of acting in the years around 1900. Actors in Ibsens plays were forced to consider the complication of the verbal sign system and to cultivate a new category of technical resource: the artistic gesture, or subtle visual sign of the characters soliloquy with himself. Cima says, quite correctly, that her essay is concerned less with definition of realistic acting than with the process of creation through which the actor may achieve it.
(1) Errol Durbach, On the Centenary of Vildanden:
the Life-Lie in Modern Drama, Scand.
St. 56:4 (1984), 326-32.
(2) James McFarlane, Apostasy in Prose,
(3) John Eric Bellquist, Ibsens Brand
and Når vi døde vaagner:
Tragedy, Romanticism, Apocalypse,” Scand.
St. 55:4 (1983), 345-70.
(4) Richard Hornby, Deconstructing Realism
in Ibsens Master Builder,
Essays in Theater
2:1 (1983), 34-40.
(5) James L. Calderwood, The
Master Builder and the Failure of Symbolic
Success, Modern Drama
27:4 (1984), 616-36.
(6) Austin E. Quigley, A
Doll House Revisited, Modern
Drama 27:4 (1984), 584-603.
(7) Benjamin K. Bennett, Strindberg and Ibsen:
Toward a Cubism of Time in Drama, Modern
Drama 26:3 (1983), 262-81.
(8) Nina da Vinci Nichols, Racines Phaedra
and Ibsens Hedda:
Transformations of Ariadne, American
Imago 40:3 (1983), 237-56.
(9) Patricia Merivale, Peer
Gynt: Ibsens Faustiad,
35:2 (1983), 126-39.
(10) Samuel C. McLellan, On Catilina:
A Structural Examination of Ibsens First Play and Its Sources,
Scand. St. 55:1
(11) Thomas F. Van Laan, The Ending of A
Doll House and Augiers Maître
Drama 17:4 (1983-84), 297-317.
(12) Theoharis C. Theoharis, Hedda
Gabler and The Dead, ELH
50:4 (1983), 791-809.
(13) Daniel Schenker, Stalking the Invisible
Hero: Ibsen, Joyce, Kierkegaard, and the Failure of Modern Irony,
ELH 51:1 (1984),
(14) David Bronsen, The Artist Against Himself:
Henrik Ibsens Master Builder and
Thomas Manns Death in Venice,
(15) Steven Moore, Peer
Gynt and The Recognitions,
In Recognition of William Gaddis,
John Kuehl and Steven Moore, eds. (Syracuse: Syracuse Univ. Press, 1984),
(16) Alice N. Benston, Ambiguity, Discontinuity
and Overlapping in Peer Gynt,
Modern Drama 27:2
(17) Barry Jacobs, Ibsens Little
Eyolf: Family Tragedy and Human responsibility,
Modern Drama 27:4
(18) Ian Britain, A Transplanted Dolls
House: Ibsenism, Feminism, and Socialism in Late-Victorian and Edwardian
England, Transformations in Modern
European Drama, Ian Donaldson, ed. (Canberra,
(19) David E. R. George, A Question of Method:
Ibsens Reception in Germany, Transformations
in Modern European Drama, Ian Donaldson, ed.
(Canberra, 1983), 55-79.
(20) Frantisek Deák, Ibsens Rosmersholm
at the Théâtre de lOuvre, The
Drama Review 28:1 (1984), 29-36.
(21) Gay Gibson Cima, Discovering Signs: The Emergence of the Critical Actor in Ibsen, Theater Journal 35:1 (1983), 5-22.
I begin with studies of single plays,
go on to comparative and influence studies and stage histories, and
end with a polemic. The order of items in the first category follows
the chronology of the plays. Notable is the absence of items on Brand,
Peer Gynt, and
all the plays preceding them. Of the periodical publications on Ibsen
during the two-year period, my review covers about two-thirds.
Emperor and Galilean is the
problem child among Ibsens playsbig, legitimate, importantly
there, but also overweight, a little dull,
and not very articulate. Arrowsmith (1) and Johnston (2), in articles
appearing side by side, reassess the play from different viewpoints.
Arrowsmith, the classical scholar, attributes its failure as drama to
Ibsens timidity before his sources, to his mistaken attempt to
fuse traditional tragedy of hubris with
philosophical historicism, and to the pernicious influence of Winckelmanns
idealized version of Greek culture. Johnston, the archetype critic,
sees prefigured in the plays Hellenist-Christian conflict the
unveiling, of the immense living presence of the past
our spiritual heritage, ritualized in the twelve-play realist
cycle. In it, as in Emperor and Galilean,
ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Johnston takes on Arrowsmiths
contention that Julians paganism is abstract and the
whole play is lacking in pagan sensuousness, but on the whole the two
authors employ different criteria and address different issues. Because
one analyzes and the other interprets, there is no head-on collision:
Arrowsmith faults Ibsens scholarship and craft; Johnston praises
the profundity of his vision and the almost Dostoyevskyean intensity
and range of his physical realism. Both energize learning with imagination
and strong conviction. Their complementarity is rewarding.
Van Laan (3) argues that An Enemy
of the People is generically richer than the thin,
straightforward play it has been taken to be. There is an
alternative to Weigands view of the play as a schizophrenic
piece, eliciting sympathy with Stockmann in the theater and skeptical
laughter in the reading. On the basic pattern of the then fashionable
realistic social problem comedy of Dumas fils,
Augier, Bjørnson, and Ibsens own League
of Youth and Pillars of Society,
Ibsen imposed two additional patterns: that of the traditional comedy
about the hero, made human by endearing little foibles, who is right
against societys wrong: and that of the tragedy of
hubris, of which Coriolanus is Hettners
model in Das moderne Drama. The generic
compound is the plays intrinsic genre. Van Laans
analysis has obvious bearings on interpretation.
Tufts (4) reads A Doll House
as a critique of the Romantic belief in the supremacy of the individual.
Specifically, she examines the plays variants of isolating narcissism.
Nora is the main example, but Mrs Linde and Helmer are narcissists too.
When Mrs Linde precipitates the crisis in the Helmer marriage, she is
acting out her subconscious wish to punish her more fortunate friend
for her patronizing manner. Helmer shares with Nora a fantasy of noble
self-sacrifice, which is the central game of their marriage, the
very foundation of the mutual narcissism which has bound them together.
Tufts defines narcissism loosely and says more about how
Nora should be acted than about Romantic individualism. Her thesis is
rather in excess of her matter.
Templeton (5) challenges the conventional reading of Ghosts,
hallowed by Lionel Trillings short story Of This Time, of
That Place (which Templeton effectively uses as a frame for her
argument). Since Alving was debauched before Osvald
was conceived, his wifes performance in bed would not have made
any difference to the outcome. When she blames herself for turning a
young lieutenant vibrant with the joy of life into a nasty wreck of
a libertine, Mrs. Alving is still the victim of ghosts: things that
go wrong in a marriage are the wifes fault. Not her confession
to Osvald in Act III but her ghosts speech to Manders in
Act II is her true perception, for cowardice and not sexual prudery
is her tragic flaw. The conventional reading is sexist, ghost-haunted.
This is a crucial re-reading.
Fjelde's (6) new angle on an old biographical perspective
strengthens the case for finding poetry in The
Wild Duck. The play is a symbolic reflection of Ibsens
artistic progress. His outworn luck as a photographer reunited
him with his true vocation as a dramatic poet. . . . The setting is
a model of the artists mind: a practical, utilitarian
downstage; a mysterious, evocative . . . numinous backstage.
In Hjalmar, Ibsen signaled his refusal any longer to be a photographer
manipulated by others. The plays that followed are all in this new mode.
Their fantastic elements are neither psychologized away nor credulously
affirmed; rather they are phenomenologically bracketed, presented as
if, to be tested, interpreted and incorporated within each individuals
cognition of the humanly possible. Westphal and Sprinchorn (below)
also discover a histrionic Ibsen.
Olsen (7) thinks Hedda Gabler
remarkable for questioning the antibourgeois values (defiance,
sublimity, lust for life) that Ibsen endorses elsewhere,
and for endorsing--or at least condoning--the limiting, mildly ridiculous,
but moral, values of the Tesmanesque characters. Society is much
more benign in Hedda Gabler than in other
plays by Ibsen dealing with these themes. Neither psychology nor
socioeconomics dispels our sense, shared by the characters, that there
is something odd about Heddas marrying Tesman. Olsens
explanation is that Ibsen wanted to dramatize the sterility of a character
who defines herself esthetically and that he needed someone like Tesman
for his ironic Hedda: only by embracing the Tesmian values she rejects
might she have turned herself into a moral agent. Assuming
that such a change is what Hedda wants or should want, this makes sense,
but Olsens use of intentionality to dispose of an issue of plausibility
is methodologically confusing.
A vast allegorical scheme informs Fuchs (8) inventory
of the classical myths embedded in Hedda Gabler.
Like Olsen, but for different ends, she despychologizes and desociologizes
the play, which she reads as an ironic recapitulation of the history
of civilization. A Dionysian phase (Løvborg in the past),
when mysteries were celebrated and the senses were central to life,
is followed (when disaster threatened) by an Apollonian phase (Løvborg
in the present), with light and intellect prevailing, and this in turn
is followed by modern materialism, with only faint and ironic echoes
of past glory. The ancient mythic masks have dwindled
into personality. Thea-Thetis is a sexual cripple,
Aunt Julle the goddess as crone, Diana a whore, Tesman not
the bearer of the sacred fire but the cataloguer of the
bones of civilization, Brack the eunuch judge. The
end of Act III enacts a fertility rite, presided over by Hedda, who,
for all her misdirection, is the only fertile
character in the play. Løvborgs child is sacrificed
so that Tesman s child may be bornout of the symbolic
womb of Theas pocket. The scene ritualizes a primordial
vision of the Death of Tragedy from the Spirit of Satire.
Much of this is an exciting application of Brian Johnstons way
of reading Ibsen, but Fuchss mythic structure hardly
explains how the play works on stage.
Respectfully correcting Johnstons Hegelian Ibsen
cycle, Westphal (9) argues that the spirits odyssey
traced by Johnston is the audiences
journey rather than the characters, whom the progress from the
old to the new destroys. So the plays are more Nietzschean than Hegelian.
When Johnston finds an Antigone in Nora, he misapplies the Hegelian
paradigm, for Sophocles heroine acts from commitment to the very
family values that Nora abandons. And in Ghosts,
duty and livisglæde
are not equally valid principles in Hegelian balance. Looking toward
a Nietzschean future of individual self-assertion, Ibsen in creating
Nora and Mrs Alving poured Nietzschean wine into Hegelian wineskins
and burst theman oversimplification, I think. But Westphal
is right that Ibsen shared with Nietzsche a histrionic imagination
that treats beliefs as projects to be put on and tried out.
Comparative studies by Durbach, Sprinchorn, and Carlson
are all articles of substance with elusive cores. To Durbach (10), Antony
and Cleopatra and Rosmersholm have
in common a dialectic of nobility/sensuality, public/private, conscience/energy,
from which in each play something like a third term emergesnot
the lovers impossible dream of a new heaven, new earth,
where passion is forever young and strong; nor synthesis of the opposing
forces; nor accommodation of noble desire to the utilitarian worlds
of Octavian and Mortensgaard; nor Donnes canonized lovers born
again from the ashes of their mutual consummation; but, in Antony
and Cleopatra, a messianic vision (Christ was born only thirty
years after the death of Shakespeares lovers), and, in Rosmersholm,
the achievement of joy (glæde) through secular atonement
for sin. Thus compressed, Durbach s argument seems thinner and
more specious than it actually is, but I confess I was more taken with
some of his single perceptions than with his general concept.
Sprinchorn (11) contrasts Ibsens idealist and Strindbergs
naturalist views on the woman question. Hedda Gabler
was Ibsens response to Strindbergs presentation of unwomanly
women in two stories in Married and
to attacks on himself in The New Kingdom.
With Hedda, the modern woman as an agent of regression,
Ibsen was emulating the Swedes misogynyin irony, presumably,
for after Hedda Gabler he reverted, in the
plays about Solness and Rubek, to the theme of noble though fatal womanly
idealism. The paradox that Strindberg, the alleged woman-hater supported
feminist causes, while Ibsen, the saint of the feminists,
dissociated himself from them is more apparent than real. Scandinavian
feminists in the 1880s and 90s were conservative in politics and
radical on marital issues. Hence their support of Ghosts
and their anger with Strindberg.
Ibsen-Strindberg is the subject also of Carlsons
(12) history-of-ideas study of telegony (offspring at a distance).
In some of the plays with this motif (primarily The
Lady from the Sea, but also Peer Gynt,
Ghosts, The Wild Duck, Little
Evolf, and John Gabriel Borkman),
the supposed affinity between the psychic parent and the
offspring appears in the childs eyes. The motif reflects not just
Ibsens general preoccupation with the effect of the past
on the present but his more particular concern with a free and
conscious choice of an inferior but socially or financially
advantageous union over an emotionally fulfilling
one. Wherever we find the telegony motif, we move onto that ambiguous
ground where the [nineteenth-century] poet and . . . scientist made
common cause in expanding the boundaries of knowledge. Ibsen and
Strindberg extended Zolas strictly naturalistic interpretation
of telegony into psychology and metaphor. Goethes Wahlveiwandschaften
had already sanctioned the literary use of a motif whose history goes
back to the Bible. Carlsons article is solid scholarship effectively
presented. But I am not much enlightened by his distinction between
Ibsens predominantly psychic use of the motif and Strindbergs,
which, Carlson says, was divided between the psychic and the physiological.
Of three source studies the most rewarding is Bersts
(13) on the ideological and formal congruity between A
Doll House and Shaws early novel The
Irrational Knot (1880). The congruity is all the more significant
because Shaw had not read Ibsen by the time he wrote the novel. In a
p.s. to his 1905 Preface Shaw qualified his disparagement of his novel
in the Preface itself: it is one of those works in which the morality
is original and not ready-made. By the same criterion Shaw rated
Ibsen higher than Shakespeare.
Powell (14) examines the evidence for Ibsens influence
on Oscar Wilde. Not all of Powells alleged similarities in theme,
motif, form, and phrasing are equally telling (Nora eats macaroons and
Algernon cucumber sandwiches in subconscious protest against social
repression). And Powells contrast between the penitent Consul
Bernick in Pillars of Society and the non-confessing
Lord Chiltern in An Ideal Husband (a phrase
Wilde may have found in The Quintessence of Ibsenism)
vanishes if Bernicks half-confession at the end is taken as irony.
Keating (15) reads Conrads story The Return
(in Tales of Unrest, 1898) as a possible
rebuttal of A Doll House. Conrad never seems
to have been much interested in Ibsen, but The Return was
written during a London rerun of Ibsens play. In Conrad it is
the woman who is prepared to live a lie and the man who leaves, slamming
the door heavily behind him.
Two of the three articles on stage history deal with the
American actress Elizabeth Robins’s pioneering Ibsen productions
in London in the 1890s. Gates (16) tells the story of Robinss
determination to play Hedda, which led to Archers re-translation
of Edmund Gosses literally unspeakable version, to Robinss
celebrity, and to the conversion of new and important enthusiasts
to the Ibsen movement. Daviss (17) exhaustive record of
London Ibsen productions between 1889 and 1896, with Janet Achurch and
Elizabeth Robins as the leading promoters/performers, shows that the
popular audience attending Ibsen plays was, though not large, yet of
greater size and diversity than the anti-Ibsenites reported. Doing
Ibsen was financially viable. That didnt last: Ibsen
was not important in the London theater between 1900 and 1920. Both
these articles are well researched and fun to read.
From the Markers (18) interview with Ingmar Bergman
about his 1985 Munich production of John Gabriel
Borkman we learn that Bergman considers the play Ibsens
last masterpiece, that he presented Borkman as dead before
leaving the house, that he cut the last two lines of the play to keep
it Borkmans play till the end, and
that his clownish Foldal quoted lines from Catiline
as his own.
Fjeldes article has scope and weight; I like his
criteria and share his high regard for Ibsens plays, though I
happen to be among the lessening number of Ibsen readers who thinks
the Third Empire concept one of Ibsens more banal ideas, saved
from silliness only by being less than clear. But what bothers me is
that the most distinguished American Ibsenist seriously proposes Maja
Rubek as the consummation of Ibsens artnot because she more
fully and complexly is what Nora and Helene Alving and Rebecca West
and Hedda and Hilde and Ella Rentheim are, or because she is the moving
center of a perfected plot, but because she plays her part in an archetypal
pattern, marks a passage in the progress of the soul of the race. Little
fru Maja, descending the heights, up to
who knows what with her aging faun, dittying on about her freedom, is
the ultimate heroine of Ibsens twelve-part, mega-play psychomyth.
This is crushing a dramatic character with significance.
The apotheosis of Maja Rubek and the promotion of Ibsen to the status of Great Mythographer would be less unsettling if Fielde were alone in this kind of solemn puffery, but he is not. His article is yet another symptom of what seems to be a spreading anxiety among Ibsen critics: anything short of finding all of human destiny resounding through the domestic scenarios puts their greatness at risk. Without Brian Johnstons spacious erudition and ordering imagination, most efforts at his kind of allegorization seem both tenuous and redundant. Ibsen survives such inflationary hermeneutics; it is the health of Ibsen studies I worry about.
(1) William Arrowsmith, Emperor
and Galilean: Ibsen in the Grip of His Sources,
Ibsen News and Comment 6 (1985), 6-11.
(2) Brian Johnston, The Abstractions
of Emperor and Galilean,
Ibsen News and Comment
6 (1985), 11-18.
(3) Thomas F. Van Laan, Generic Complexity
in Ibsens Enemy of the People,
20:2 (1986), 95-114.
(4) Carol S. Tufts, Recasting A
Doll's House: Narcissism in Ibsens Play,
20:2 (1986), 140-59.
(5) Joan Templeton, Of This Time, of This
Place: Mrs Alvings Ghosts and the Shape of the Tragedy,
PMLA 101:1 (1986),
(6) Rolf Fjelde, The
Wild Duck as a Portrait of the Artist in Transition,
in Michael Bertin, ed., The Play and Its
Critic: Essays for Eric Bentley. University
Press of America, 1986, 35-44.
(7) Stein Haugom Olsen, Why Does Hedda Gabler
Marry Jørgen Tesman? Modern
Drama 28:4 (1985), 591610.
(8) Elinor Fuchs, Mythic Structure in Hedda
Drama 19:3 (1985), 209-21.
(9) Merold Westphal, Ibsen, Hegel and Neitzsche,
Clio 14:4 (1985),
(10) Errol Durbach, Anthony
and Cleopatra and Rosmersholm:
Third Empire Love Tragedies, Comparative
Drama 20:1 (1986), 1-16.
(11) Evert Sprinchorn, Ibsen, Strindberg and
the New Woman, in Michael Bertin, ed., The
Play and Its Critic: Essays for Eric Bentley.
University Press of America, 1986, 45-66.
(12) Marvin Carlson, Ibsen, Strindberg, and
100:4 (1985), 774-82.
(13) Charles A. Berst, The Irrational Knot:
the Art of Shaw as a Young Ibsenite, JEGP
85:2 (1986), 222-48.
(14) Kerry Powell, Wilde and Ibsen,
English Literature in Translation
28 (1985), 224-42.
(15) Peter Keating, Conrads Doll's
House, in Sven Backman and Göran
Kjellmer, eds., Papers on Language and Literature:
Presented to Alvar Ellegard and Erik Frvkman.
Göteborg, 1985, 221-32.
(16) Joanne E. Gates, Elizabeth Robins and
the 1891 Production of Hedda Gabler,
Modern Drama 28:4
(17) Tracy C. Davis, Ibsens Victorian
Audience, Essays in Theatre
4 (1985), 21.
(18) Lise-Lone and Frederick Marker, Bergmans
Borkman: An Interview,
Theater 17:2 (1986),
(19) Rolf Fjelde, What Makes a Masterpiece? Ibsen and the Western World, Modern Drama 28:4 (1985) 581-90.
The 1987 crop of Ibsen items in periodicals continued
two recent trends: the virtual confinement of critical interest to the
last twelve plays and the high incidence of studies of Ibsen as mythicist
and psychologist (sometimes both at once). Ibsen was generally better
served in the small number of articles about his dramatic art. Their
merits differ, but in none of them is Ibsens text distorted by
a usurping subtext or is Manders unequivocally held responsible for
the orphanage fire.
I can do no more than mention other critical genres.
A catalogue of books Ibsen owned and books he is likely to have read
(1). Two reports on how Ibsen fares in post-Cultural Revolution China
(not badly) (2). An essay/interview with three woman directors (Timothy
Near, Emily Mann, Irene Fornes), all calling for Ibsen productions that
transcend the tiresome debate over [his] feminism and focus
instead on the issue of freedom vs. social determinism in the plays
(3). A review by Errol Durbach of two books about William Archer by
Thomas Postlewait, one an edition of Archers essays on Ibsen,
the other a critical biography of Archer- favorable to both but unimpressed
with Postlewaits argument that Archer was an important Ibsen critic
and not just an important champion of Ibsenism (4).
Books on modern drama in general are outside the purview of this report, but a quick survey suggests that in such books Ibsen is beginning to figure as the prototypical Aristotelian whose plays represent the norm nonmimeticists depart from. Ibsens props, sets, images, words, and events, says John Peter in Vladimirs Carrot (1987), invite open discussion; Becketts are opaque, causeless, closed. This is approximately Ibsens function also in Katherine Burkmans The Arrival of Godot (1987). That Peter deals with the imagistic substitutes for non-narrative (but cognitively accessible) dialogue in recent drama and Burkman with its ritual patterns makes their similar use of Ibsen seem all the more significant. (And so do the Beckett allusions in their titles.) The early pages of Charles Lyonss Introduction to his collection of essays on Ibsen [see footnote 91 give a useful historical perspective on Ibsen criticism since Shaw and Joyce. But books like Peters and Burkmans hardly confirm Lyonss assumption that the Ibsen of the moment is Joyces and Kenners visionary poet rather than Shaws and Archers mimeticist-polemicist.
The methodology of myth studies is familiar
by now. An archetype is identified and its continuing life asserted
and demonstrated in an application of a selection of its details to
plot and character and circumstances in one or several plays. Nobody
minds when the play sometimes does more for the myth than the myth for
In both Patricia Behrendts
(5) Hedda-as-Narcissus and Linn B. Konrads (6) Hilde-as-Ariadne,
the myth is claimed for feminism. Like other narcissists in the Jungian
scheme, Hedda measures her self-worth by her power to urge her disagreeable
demands on others and kills herself when her power proves illusionary.
Hilde symbolizes that force in Solnesss psyche that fatefully
inspires him to challenge his vertigo-Minotaur. Maeterlincks Ariane
et Barbe-Bleue and Strindbergs
A Dream Play
are other male plays that use the Ariadne figure as creative mans
indispensable but destructive helpmate. In another essay, Konrad (7)
and Daudets Obstacle
(1890) as responses to Darwin. Both dramatize the less than fully
human stage in the evolution of sexual myths at which
the patriarchy loads mothers with guilt for protecting their sons from
realizing the imperfection of their fathers. Dry, slow earnestness drives
these articles in their reliance on psycho-social formulas.
In a long article in German,
Hans Helmut Hiebel (8) takes issue with Peter Szondis contention
that the mode of Ibsens plays is epic rather than dramatic because
their past is not so much a function of their present as just a pretext
for remembering. But (argues Hiebel) the three-parented pasts of Dina
Dorf, Regine, Hedvig, Rebecca, little Eyolf, and Erhard Borkman have
determined their present lives. They are innocents atoning, like Oedipus,
for the sins of others, and past and present are linked as cause and
effect, act and retribution. John Gabriel
Borkman, like Pillars
of Society, is about the fusion
of private and public delinquency, and its action reveals not just a
Having-Been but a Being. The past has not just evaporated into soulfulness;
the persistent ongoingness of the internalized is the substratum
of an Ibsen drama. In the rest of his article, Hiebel applies
that formula to Rosmersholm,
where the past does not literally return, as in Pillars
of Society, or as physical signs
and readable marks, as in Ghosts,
but as symbols that are more important than the facts because they let
the speechless speak. As Ibsen in The
Wild Duck never conclusively identifies
Hedvigs natural father, so does he never unambiguously disclose
the facts of Rebeccas past. Her confession has no specific content:
Ibsen has left a void in the center of his play, disclosed
the undisclosable, used a signifier without a signified. As a psychoanalytical
disclosure drama, Rosmersholm
enacts a paradigm of Freudian depth-hermeneutics, in which a hypertrophied
superego, an intrapsychic colony of societal pressures,
forces characters not only to remember the past but to repeat it. To
the extent that the characters in Ibsens fatalistic plays
are will-less under the power of a past that seeks them, they react
rather than actwhich is Brechts objection to
them. But that does not degrade them to paralyzed memory-carriers without
present existence, as Szondi alleges.
Oliver Gerlands deconstructionist
reading of When We Dead Awaken (9)
also tries to define the dramaturgy of Ibsens anatomies of multi-layered
selves engaged in dubious enactments and re-enactments. The self-reflexiveness
is in Rubeks attempt to escape from his imprisonment within his
own artifact, making of the statue at once a plot element and the texts
synecdoche of itself. That phrasing marks the gravitation
of this kind of discourse to tautology too refined for detection. The
idea is that the plays action duplicates that of the playwright
writing to escape the text constituted by his protagonists self-definition.
For all its semiotic twists, Gerlands article has conceptual range
and subtlety and poses the plays problems in new ways. (It is
the only essay in Lyons’s critical anthology that is not a reprint.)
Marie Wells has a new argument
about the old life-art, love-vocation dichotomy in three of Ibsens
last four plays about Promethean rebels (10). (That the
argument does not take in Little Eyolf
weakens it.) The MB-JGB-WWDA
sequence describes a progression from social to psychic reality--that
is, a development, and not just a variation. The substance
of the lengthy exegesis that follows is that Solness displaces
his guilt for betraying both his vocation and his marriage; that Borkman
is all artist-demon, admitting no guilt at all; and that only Rubek
achieves a kind of redemption and the play a kind of resolution because
he accepts his guilt. Wells doesnt do much with her secondary
argument about a corollary (?) movement towards greater structural
Stephen J. Walton redivides
the canon by means of psychological paradigms based on types of delusions
that have a bearing on Ibsens criticism of society (11). There
are three types: plays in which a minor character comments on the main
characters delusion after the catastrophe (WD,
plays in which the main character thinks he has gained new knowledge
and wisdom but really hasnt (PG,
plays in which the protagonist does attain a liberating consciousness
of his or her situation (Pret,
(Since the classifying is not limited to the modern plays in prosethough
excludedit isnt clear why it doesnt cover such major
plays from the mid-canon as Loves
Comedy and Brand.)
The self-deluded characters are either false reformers or compulsive
symbolizers. In the last plays, the latter, as guilt-ridden artist-protagonists,
take over because Ibsen had come to think of the arts as useless in
an age of science and technology. Not all of this is convincing and
even less is exciting.
From such useful austerities
I turn with some relief to Kay Des Rochess essay on a problem
of translating literary Norwegian into English (12). Because Norwegian
has a smaller vocabulary than English, the same Norwegian word must
serve for nuances of meanings for which English has different words.
Examination of four translations of The
Lady from the SeaWatts (Penguin),
Fjelde (Signet), McFarlane (Oxford), Meyer (Anchor)shows that
none of them, however true to the semantics of the original,
attempts a consistent pattern of repetition equivalent to
Ibsens use of dragende,
Since the idea of a single correct English translation that
will fit all speakers and contexts is a chimera, criticism must do what
translation cannot: call attention to the use of repetition in Ibsen
as a functional device for the creation of irony. The same
word used by different characters in different settings and under different
circumstances points up the difference between how characters see themselves
and how others see them. This is particularly important for LfS
because Ellida is essentially inarticulate and nearly incomprehensible
to others. Only criticism can call attention not just to the ethics
or the psychology of Wangels final release of Ellida and what
his action means for her but to the structure of the action and
the peripeteia in the plot. The repetition of certain words signals
the repetition of the men-owning-women motif in both the Lyngstrand-Bolette
and the Wangel-Ellida relationships and the woman-marrying-without-love
motif in both the Bolette-Arnholm and Ellida-Wangel relationships. Ibsen
has given us the structural means to understand the characters
better than they understand themselves. And Des Roches has given us
a formula by which criticism can transport untranslatable
verbal repetitions across the space separating source and target language.
Of comparatist studies the
most original and provocative is Errol Durbachs juxtaposition
of King Lear
and The Wild Duck
in terms of the life-lie and life-truth dichotomy (13). Though on opposite
sides on the truth-lie issue, Edgar and Gregers share a belief in transcendental
solutions to immediate human problems. Gregers confuses
Truth with mere veracity, and Edgar withholds from his father
the redemption that the revelation of his identity might have provided
Gloucester. Gregers and Lears Fool are both truth-tellers, but
only the Fool shares with Edgar the propensity to play the fool
to sorrow. And Cordelia and Hedvig are both rejected daughters.
It is because Durbachs pairing of plays is so fascinating that
I find his flirtation with fashionable indeterminacy so frustrating:
It is the rigid formulation that finally compromises the dialectical
antitheses in the great debate. . . . This open-ended resolution [in
to the equally insistent demands of Life-Truth and Life-Lie applies,
in comparable terms, to King Lear,
where competing therapies are enveloped in similar layers of irony and
moral ambiguity. And as Lear and Relling keep flitting in and
out of Durbachs protean analogies, they begin to embarrass his
whole argument by posing more complexities than it can conveniently
accommodate. There is something nervously fussy about the piece. Even
on basics it is vulnerable. Is it really the case that in WD
Life-Lie and Life-Truth are honoured as ideas that make life possible
and worth living in the face of despair?
Less controversial (and less
important) comparisons are Edward Geists of Hedda Gabler with
Ann Whitefield in Shaws Man and Superman
(14) and Yvonne Shafers of the resolutions of the marriage problem
(15). Both Hedda and Ann like to listen, spellbound, to the talk of
unconventional men, but why that makes them variants of Everywoman Geist
doesnt say. And he comes close to admitting that the dissimilarities
between them are more striking than the similarities. Shafer argues
that Dr. Wangel in LfS
achieves the miracle Helmer does not achieve in DH and that
the later play foreshadows both existential thought
and psychoanalysis. The new idea in another article by Shafer (16) is
that the ambiguities in the middle plays in the canon that defeat attempts
at simple-minded, black-and-white interpretation can, in stage production,
be achieved only through a conscious artistic and intellectual effort
by director and actor and designer. It is not enough to let the
play speak for itself.
Different in its immediate subject and larger in scope (though shorter), Alisa Solomons apologia for Ibsens naturalism (18) belongs to the same genre of criticism as Van Laans article and is as stimulating. Occasioned by the doings of the two-year old American Ibsen Theater in Pittsburgh (with Richard Gilman and Brian Johnston among its mentors), Solomon calls attention to, and wants to arrest, the trend both in Ibsen stage productions and in Ibsen criticism that seeks to dissociate Ibsen from formal naturalism--as if naturalism were the early stage of a disgraceful affliction that inevitably terminates in TV sitcoms. In elevating Ibsens plays into art, AIT severs the vital connection between the plays engagement with the human situation and the audiences s appreciation of their beautiful form. We need to restore to our sense of Ibsen some of the spontaneity, intensity, and deadly seriousness that Helmer (characteristically) found too realistic to conform to the rules of art in Noras Tarantella dance. And Hedda Gabler would not be a human being if she were not first a woman.
(1) Daniel Haakonsen, ed., Ibsens private
bibliotek og trekk ved hans lesning [in Norwegian], Ibsenarbok
1985-86 (Oslo, 1987), 9-168.
(2) Kwok-Kan Tam, Marxism and Beyond:
Contemporary Chinese Reception of Ibsen, Edda
1986:3, 205-20; Elisabeth Eide, Peer Gynt
i Kina, 1983, og en gryende nyfortolkning av Ibsen [in Norwegian
Edda], 1986:3, 221-26.
(3) Janice Paran, Redressing Ibsen,
American Theatre 4:8 (1987), 15-20.
(4) Errol Durbach, Archer and Ibsen: A
Review Essay, Essays in Theatre 5:2
(5) Patricia F. Behrendt, The Narcissus
Paradigm in Hedda Gabler, Journal of Evolutionary
Psychology 6 (1985), 202-10.
(6) Linn B. Konrad, Ariadne and the Labyrinth
of the Creative Mind, in Karelisa V. Hartigan, ed., From
the Bard to Broadway (Lanham, MD: University Press of America,
(7) Linn B. Konrad, Fathers Sins
and Mothers Guilt: Dramatic Responses to Darwin, in Drama,
Sex, and Politics (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985). (In the series
Themes in Drama, #7, ed. James Redmond.)
(8) Hans Helmut Hiebel, Ich habe - eine
Vergangenheit: zur Semantik der psycho-analytischen Dramaformen
bei Henrik Ibsen [in German], Jahrbuch der
deutschen Schillergesellschaft 31 (1987), 267-88.
(9) Oliver Gerland, Enactment in Ibsen,
in Charles R. Lyons, ed., Critical Essays on Henrik
Ibsen (Boston, MA: G. K. Hall & Co., 1987), 226-38.
(10) Marie Wells, The
Master Builder, John Gabriel Borkman,
and When We Dead Awaken: Variations on a
Theme or Developing Argument? New Comparison
(11) Stephen J. Walton, Illusion as an
Existential State, or: Why Do Ibsens Main Characters (Almost)
Always Get It Wrong? New Comparison
(12) Kay Unruh Des Roches, A Problem of
Translation: Structural Patterns in the Language of Ibsens Lady
from the Sea, Modern Drama
(13) Errol Durbach, Playing the Fool to
Sorrow: Life-Lies and Life-Truths in King
Lear and The Wild Duck, Essays
in Theatre 6:1 (1987), 5-17.
(14) Edward V. Geist, Ann Whitefield and
Hedda Gabler: Two Versions of Everywoman, The
Independent Shavian 24:2-3 (1986), 27-33.
(15) Yvonne Shafer, The Liberated Woman
in Ibsens Lady from the Sea,
Theatre Annual 40 (1985), 65-76.
(16) Yvonne Shafer, Complexity and Ambiguity
in Ibsens Doll House, Literature
in Performance 5:2 (1985), 27-35.
(17) Thomas F. Van Laan, The Novelty of
The Wild Duck: The Authors Absence,
Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 1:1 (1986), 17-33.
(18) Alisa Solomon, Denaturalizing Ibsen/Denaturing
Hedda: A Polemical Sketch in Three Parts, in Bert Cardullo, ed.,
Before His Eyes: Essays in Honor of Stanley Kauffman
(Lanhain, MD: University Press of America, 1986), 85-91.
I have reviewed only articles
of more than routine interest. I have read but not covered items only
peripheral to Ibsen, some new exegeses in the old mold, proofs that
author A had in mind scene x in play y by Ibsen when he wrote work z,
and a few cases of mere eccentricity. I start with two articles that
dont fall readily into the familiar categories.
In a suggestive but methodologically
casual study (1), John Lingard traces Ibsens use of the inner
stage. In St. Johns Night,
and The Pretenders,
it is in counterpoint to the forestage: fairyland and old folklore vs.
modern prosaism; Norways glorious, noble past (Riddersalen)
vs. the mean and small present; sacred precinct vs. political squabble
and secular nature. In the final scene of The
Pretenders, Peters sacrilege
becomes a type of that violation of the pastthat attempt
to drag meaning from history by forcewhich [Ibsen] had come to
see as the central danger of national-romanticism. And in the
last tableau, History, setting, tragic recognition, and artistic
breakthrough are all held in balance. . . . Behind Skules understanding
that he must not force Haakon to break sanctuary in Elgeseter can be
sensed the dramatists own painfully won freedom from the Norwegian
Myth. That Ibsen did not soon reach what lies beyond
Elgeseters consecrated ground the obviously
impractical stage directions in Emperor
and Galilean testify; the stage
dialectic of The Pretenders
no longer works. But in the twelve-play modern cycle, the
past of nature, myth, and history has scenically receded
(and become Hedvigs attic, the Rosmersholm mill race, Wangels
carp pond, and Heddas inner room) from the realistic, contemporary
living rooms and gardens that occupy the forestage. Lingard skillfully
weaves together stage architecture, dramatically charged space, literary
interpretation and history, philosophical ideas, and Ibsens artistic
development. He makes scenographic specifics relevant to larger concerns.
Erik Christensens essay
on Henrik Ibsens Political Poetics (2) serves as a
coda to his two-volume Henrik Ibsens realisme:
illusion katastrofe anarki (Copenhagen,
1985). The essay sums up Ibsens sociopolitical ideology as Christensen
extracts it from Ibsens non-literary texts: reviews, articles,
addresses, speeches, interviews, and letters. Nowhere does Christensen
presume that what this material yields is what the plays are aboutIbsens
thoughts on good citizenship transposed to dialogue and fictional circumstances.
Christensens cruxand an important one it isis the
close analogy between Aristotles and Ibsens theories of
the creative process and its social import. In Aristotle, the poets
mimesis of reality produces tragedy, which triggers catharsis in the
spectator, which returns him to reality. In Ibsen, the first of two
stages of poetic cognition (poetisk
Erkaedelse) is in the poets
act of creation; the second is in the spectators response to what
has been created. By the anarchy of this process Ibsen meant
only that both the genetic and the receptive stages of the cognition
are unique to the individual poet and reader/spectator. The difference
is that artistic creation is solitary and reception happens in a community
of individuals. Ibsens goal was to educate people by such dramatic
illusions of real lifesuccessful mimesisas
would release their auto-activity (selvvirksomhed).
Poetic cognition frees people from the burden of the not comprehended,
and The poet is his own first reader. Given that the individual
nature of poetic cognition was the heart of his political poetics,
it makes sense that Ibsen left interpretation of his plays to others.
The art in Rolf
Fjeldes Ibsen as Artist (3) has not much to do with
esthetics. Fjeldes Ibsen envisioned the progress of the spirit
by the power of his imagination, his courage, his scope, and his
faith. This is another of Fieldes eloquent and resonant
tributes to a dramatic canon that heralds an age when the body freely
revels in livsglæde
in a world redeemed by Truth. What makes me want to tiptoe away from
such highmindedness? Perhaps its banquet-speech flavor and my distrust
of Ibsen-as-guru and my hunch that Ibsen students might do worse than
leave cosmic psychology alone for a while and instead look at him the
way Chekhov critics look at their
man: not as a seer but as an observer, not as an ideologue
but as a sceptic. Gurus and visionaries are notoriously lacking in the
spirit of drama.
Richard Gilman (4) asks us
to recover our sense of the mystery in Ibsen and to get
away from what he calls the mis-Ibsenism of symbol-finding
and social significance. That puts him, I think, on my side of the issue
of what Ibsen wrought. We adequately account for Ibsens greatness,
says Gilman, when we acknowledge the psychological plausibility
of his plays, their human presence, that dimension of them
that Henry James called the individual caught in the fact.
essays are an uneven lot, and even the more interesting of them are
not of major importance. Something can be said for Bert Cardullos
juxtaposition of Oedipus Rex
(in a piece badly proofread and badly printed) (5). Sophocles
play is a tragedy of resignation to fate; Ibsens is a tragedy
of possibility, because at the end Mrs. Alving may or may not
give Osvald the pills and may or may not learn and grow from her
experience. In Ghosts,
Fate is society, and Ibsen shows the poetic imagination
as a match for society by forcing society to participate in its
own exposure. But when in a footnote Cardullo calls Ghosts
a Christian tragedy, because it combines the presentation
of the horrors of life with hope for their elimination (with or
without Gods help doesnt matter), he is being merely preposterous.
For all the differences between
a play about ideas about marriage and a nightmarish vision of the primal
war of the sexes, A Doll House
and The Father are
also alike, says Gunnar Brandell (6). Both playwrights violate the conventions
of strict stage realism: at the end Ibsen uses Nora as a voice,
a carrier of an ideological message, and Strindbergs Captain
has no surname and his room no windows. And both move away from the
narrow, polemical indignation play, which was what so many
of the social problem plays (some of them by women and all of them deriving
from Diderot) turned into. Of all the nineteenth-century reformist plays
of this type, only A Doll House and
remain theatrically and critically alive. Brandell doesnt
tell us why.
Maurice Gravier (in an article
in French) (7), finds a shared dramatic function for Ibsens and
Strindbergs learned and articulate vagabonds in Rosmersholm
(Ulrik Brendel) and To Damascus
(the Beggar). Both are catalysts for the protagonists recognitions
and comment sardonically on the establishment. They are, in short, the
protagonists ironic and provocative doubles.
Paul Griffin (8) collocates
three modern plays that all say no to the forces that control
our livesor, rather, like Stoppards Guildenstern, protest
against the condition that fails to alert us to the right time for saying
no. On a scale of increasing hopelessness, the plays are Albees
Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf,
A Doll House,
and Shepards Buried Child.
All are powerful plays because of the radicalness of the victims
protest and/or submission.
I turn now to articles on
single plays. To Bert Cardullo, in an intriguingly unorthodox and not
quite focused essay on Ghosts
(9), Osvald demented is a symbol of the paralysis of mind that
affects the society of Ibsens timeall the more serviceable
as a symbol because he is not sullied by character. It is
his play, and the anagnorisis
at the end is his and not his mothers (so much for Fergussons
truncated tragic rhythm) and takes the form of a nightmare
come true. Osvalds collapse marks the collapse of the dramatic
formthe well-made play, the form that can no longer
paint, the play with Mrs. Alving as protagonist that
reflects the society that destroys him. Hence the uncertain outcome
and Ibsens indifference to it. Ghostss
non-closure involves Manders, Engstrand, and Regine as well; their futures
are not as certain as critics have assumed. And in all this open-endedness
lies the hope and the charity of the play. (Which
is also the point of Cardullos contrast between Ghosts
and Oedipus Rex
in #5 above.)
Iring Fetschers answer
to his title question (in an article in German) is, yes, Dr. Stockmann
enemy of the people, and not in Ibsens ironic sense (10).
Stockmann mistakes the antiliberal minority of magistrates and property--owners
for the compact majority of the people and ignores
the silent working classes, who are the true force of democracy. He
is worse than a naive idealist; he is a classist and an elitist. And
that, says Fetscher, a social scientist, was surely not Ibsens
intention. There is something endearing about such confidence.
Two things lift Albert Bermels
close reading of The Wild Duck
(11) above the commonplaces and far-out ingenuities that have marred
too many readings of this over-read play. One is the not altogether
frivolous questions he asks about circumstances we had thought held
no secrets. Did Gregers testify against Lt. Ekdal at the trial? Could
Mrs. Sørby be Hedvigs natural mother? Did Relling and Molvik
make love the night Hjalmar slept over at their place, and does that
explain Hjalmars disgust with Relling the next morning? The other
(more significant if not more exciting) is the link Bermel establishes
between Hedvigs self-sacrifice and the imagery of nature violated
by the plays two hunters and demanding a human sacrifice in atonement.
there is something residually Greek in Hedvigs
very act of sacrificing her life in place of a wild animals; it
is a kind of fertility ritual. Partaking in this imagery are the
Høydal heights and woods and the bacchanalian aspects of Werles
dinner party, with the Fat Guest as Silenus and Werle himself
a compromise between Dionysus and Zeus. But the ambiance of Greek
tragedy about the play is all due to Hedvig. At all the other characters
we smile; only she attains something like tragic stature
in her devastatingly cruel and unjust death. I only question
the idea of a ritual sacrifice not followed by rebirth and generation.
Could Bermel have made a point about tragic irony but chose not to?
Thomas Bredsdorff's essay
(12) on The Wild Duck
is at once a comprehensive description-analysis of Ingmar Bergmans
(Stockholm, 1972) and Lucia Ronconi’s (Rome, 1977) stage productions,
and an interpretation of the play that focuses on Gregers quest
for vicarious living. Both parts of the essay are fascinating; I am
not sure how to define their relationship. Bredsdorff takes the stage
design of each production as the clue to the directors interpretation.
On Bergmans stage, the loft-attic virtually crowded out the studio,
and when Hedvig or Hjalmar pointed at the wild duck they were pointing
at us, the audience. In the studio the quotidian is transacted, but
at the end it is engulfed by the larger fantasy space surrounding it.
If Bergmans setting suggested symbolic realism, Ronconi’s
suggested surrealism. Huge photographs decorated the walls in Werles
den, and the Ekdal apartment consisted of three identical rooms, like
photocopies of one another, frontally displayed side by side.
The loft-attic was revealed by sliding the three rooms sideways. Ronconi
made of Werle a central character, while in Bergman he was merely
the begetter of the intrigue. Ronconi’s Werle was totally
blind, and his dinner guests reeled as if they were blind too. Photographs
are untrustworthy records of reality, for though Werle sees nothing,
he controls everything, and power is reality. To all this, received,
admittedly, secondhand, I feel like adapting what the classical scholar
Richard Bentley said to Pope about his Homer: Its a very
fine play, Mr. Ronconi, but you must not call it Ibsen.
Bredsdorrf reads WD as a play about powerprimarily the power play between Werle father and son. Secondarily, he reads it as the acting out of Gregers mission, the taking control of the Ekdal marriage. Both Bergman and Ronconi present Gregers not as evil but as the source of harm, but only Ronconi stages the psychological drama of the forsaken son (Father always writes such short letters) who seeks to compensate for his lack of power to live for something by seeking power over the Ekdals. That powerlessness can become dangerous power is both the plays and Gregers subtext, though he doesnt know it. Bredsdorffs discussion of this takes in Freud, the Oedipus complex, Erich Fromm, the declining power of patriarchy, and class conflict. It all hangs together, if we leave the description of the two stage productions aside. The article is a chapter in Bredsdorffs book, Power Play (Magtspil, Copenhagen, 1986).
(1) John Lingard, To
Elgeseter and Beyond: Ibsen, History, and the Inner Stage, Dalhousie
Review 67 (1987), 244-56.
(2) Erik Christensen, Henrik
Ibsens Political Poetics, Scandinavica
27:2 (Nov. 1988), 121-32.
(3) Rolf Fjelde, Ibsen
as Artist: the Anatomy of Vision, Theater
3 1 (1986), 45-56.
(4) Richard Gilman, A
Man Misunderstood in the Midst of Fame, Theater
3 1 (1986), 9-14.
(5) Bert Cardullo, Ghosts
and Oedipus Rex,
26:3-4 (1988), 47-48.
(6) Gunnar Brandell, Ibsen,
Strindberg, and the Emancipation Movement in Nineteenth-Century Scandinavia,
in Alle origini della dranmlaturgia moderna:
Ibsen, Strindberg, Pirandello (Genoa:
Costa & Nolan, 1987), pp. 24-32; (a volume of conference papers
given in Torino, April 18-20, 1985 including other articles on Ibsen,
some in Italian).
(7) Maurice Gravier, Le
double ironique et provocant (d’Ulrik Brendel de Rosmersholm,
au Mendiant du Chemin de Dames),”
in volume in note 6, pp. 49-62.
(8) Paul F. Griffin, Saying
No in Three Modern Dramas, Comparativist
(9) Bert Cardullo, The
Form That Can No Longer Paint,’”Journal
of Dramatic Theory and Criticism
2:2 (1988), 81-94.
(10) Iring Fetscher, Ist
Dr. Stockmann ein Volksfeind?, in
Die Wirksamkeit der Traume: Literarische Skizzen eines Sozialwissenschaftlers
(Frankfurt a. M.: Athenaum, 1987), pp. 185-87.
(11) Albert Bermel, Hedvigs
Suicide: a Re-examination of The Wild Duck,
(12) Thomas Bredsdorff, The Sins of the Fathers: Bergman, Ronconi, and Ibsens Wild Duck, trans. Andrea Cervi, New Theatre Quarterly 4:14 (May 1988), 159-72.
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