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Annotated Ibsen Bibliography, 1983-2011, from Ibsen News and Comment

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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 Ibsen’s prescience, and in some of the articles the “modern semantics” seems more of the critic’s than of Ibsen’s 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 don’t 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 Doll’s 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 Ibsen’s dramatic modalities.

McFarlane (2) agrees with Kenneth Muir that “the most important event in the history of modern drama” was “Ibsen’s 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 Ibsen’s 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 Ibsen’s 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 Ibsen’s development. Homer’s 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. Brand’s 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 sculptor’s 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 Solness’s 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.” Calderwood’s (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. Hornby’s drama of deconstruction has here become Bellquist’s drama of self-destruction. Ibsen is “putting his own symbolic mode on the rack to test its limits.” The play is immune to De Man’s objection to symbolism for positing a false identity across the existential gap between man and nature, for Ibsen’s 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 Solness’s and Ibsen’s enterprises: the towered new house is both an ideological incongruity and an architectural freak, and Solness’s 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 Calderwood’s speculations about the symbolism in Solness and Hilde’s names (“Sol-” does not connote either Ger. Soll [debt, guilt] or Ital. solo, and “Wangel” does not suggest the Norw. equivalent of Engl. “wangle”).

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 play’s 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 Quigley’s variants on the old theme have merit, some of his examples are telling, and his “distributed raisonneur” is a useful technical term.

Bennett’s (7) salient concept, “Cubism of Time,” denotes not the expressionist’s 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 Ibsen’s 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 Ibsen’s 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 can’t 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 and affinities.

Nichols’s (8) spacious, erudite, and eloquent linking of Racine’s Phaedra and Ibsen’s Hedda in a discussion of the permutations of the Ariadne myth is a Freudian study in cultural anthropology and psycho-sociology rather than a drama-critical study--though I know that is a suspect distinction these days. Its richness of texture (paradigms, archetypes, echoes, allusions, ironies) is more evident than the dynamics of its argument. Nichols contrasts the two playwrights’ use of myth. In Racine it is antithetical to a divinely sanctioned social and moral order; for Ibsen it was a way of organizing “imprecise and individual perceptions in a recognizable pattern”--the only means available to the modern artist who seeks to create meaningful form out of meaningless chaos. Hedda’s suicide “redeems the myth of art.” Nichols uses mythography to critique cultural ideology in a historical context. The feminist resonances of her article seem to me only implicit.

Merivale’s (9) premise is Eric Bentley’s label for Peer Gynt: a “counter-Faust.” In Goethe, “Faust’s 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 Ibsen’s own to himself.” Ibsen’s 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 Goethe’s 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 Øehlenschläger’s viking plays. Van Laan (ll) thinks it’s possible that Augier’s 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 Joyce’s “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 Ibsen’s 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 Mann’s Death in Venice. Moore (15) considers the many echoes from and the allusions to Peer Gynt in William Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions among the recognitions Gaddis’s long unrecognized and sophisticated novel demands of its readers.

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 committed—to the idea of the self’s absolute freedom—and his life is an enactment of the tensions between community and selfhood, received truths and individual creativity. Much of this vigorous updating of Ibsen’s 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 says—except her simplistic notion of what Peer’s “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 Northam’s “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 Ibsen’s reception in, respectively, England and Germany over the roughly forty-year period that the turn of the century divides in half. Britain focuses on Ibsen’s 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. Britain’s main point is that Ibsen’s 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 Ibsen’s 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, Ibsen’s 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 Britain’s. 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 George’s statement of his theory of reception—or, 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 George’s tentative formula for what makes a foreign work assimilable by the importing culture. It must be provocative but not iconoclastic, exciting but not disorienting—in 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 l’Oeuvre in October, 1893, Lugné-Poë used the Danish novelist and littérateur Herman Bang as a kind of consultant, but Bang’s efforts to modify Lugné-Poë’s heavily symbolist staging with an infusion of psychological realism were largely unsuccessful. Cima (21) credits Ibsen’s plays with contributing to the emergence of a new kind of acting in the years around 1900. Actors in Ibsen’s 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 character’s 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.

Otto Reinert
University of Washington


(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,” Scandinavica 23:2 (1984), 101--18

(3) John Eric Bellquist, “Ibsen’s Brand and Når vi døde vaagner: Tragedy, Romanticism, Apocalypse,” Scand. St. 55:4 (1983), 345-70.

(4) Richard Hornby, “Deconstructing Realism in Ibsen’s 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, “Racine’s Phaedra and Ibsen’s Hedda: Transformations of Ariadne,” American Imago 40:3 (1983), 237-56.

(9) Patricia Merivale, “Peer Gynt: Ibsen’s Faustiad,” Comp. Literature 35:2 (1983), 126-39.

(10) Samuel C. McLellan, “On Catilina: A Structural Examination of Ibsen’s First Play and Its Sources,” Scand. St. 55:1 (1983), 39-54.

(11) Thomas F. Van Laan, “The Ending of A Doll House and Augier’s Maître Guérin,” Comp. 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), 153-83.

(14) David Bronsen, “The Artist Against Himself: Henrik Ibsen’s Master Builder and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice,” Neohelicon 11:1 (1984), 323-44.

(15) Steven Moore, “Peer Gynt and The Recognitions,” In Recognition of William Gaddis, John Kuehl and Steven Moore, eds. (Syracuse: Syracuse Univ. Press, 1984), 81-91.

(16) Alice N. Benston, “Ambiguity, Discontinuity and Overlapping in Peer Gynt,” Modern Drama 27:2 (1984), 157-73.

(17) Barry Jacobs, “Ibsen’s Little Eyolf: Family Tragedy and Human responsibility,” Modern Drama 27:4 (1984), 604-15.

(18) Ian Britain, “A Transplanted Doll’s House: Ibsenism, Feminism, and Socialism in Late-Victorian and Edwardian England,” Transformations in Modern European Drama, Ian Donaldson, ed. (Canberra, 1983), 15-45.

(19) David E. R. George, “A Question of Method: Ibsen’s Reception in Germany,” Transformations in Modern European Drama, Ian Donaldson, ed. (Canberra, 1983), 55-79.

(20) Frantisek Deák, “Ibsen’s Rosmersholm at the Théâtre de l’Ouvre,” 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 Ibsen’s plays—big, 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 Ibsen’s timidity before his sources, to his mistaken attempt to fuse traditional tragedy of hubris with philosophical historicism, and to the pernicious influence of Winckelmann’s idealized version of Greek culture. Johnston, the archetype critic, sees prefigured in the play’s 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 Arrowsmith’s contention that Julian’s 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 Ibsen’s 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 Weigand’s 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 Ibsen’s 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 society’s “wrong”: and that of the tragedy of hubris, of which Coriolanus is Hettner’s model in Das moderne Drama. The generic compound is the play’s “intrinsic genre.” Van Laan’s 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 play’s 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 Trilling’s 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 wife’s 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 wife’s 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 Ibsen’s 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 artist’s 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 individual’s 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 Hedda’s marrying Tesman. Olsen’s 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 Olsen’s use of intentionality to dispose of an issue of plausibility is methodologically confusing.

A vast allegorical scheme informs Fuch’s (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. “Løvborg’s child is sacrificed so that Tesman’ s child may be born”—out of the “symbolic womb” of Thea’s 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 Johnston’s way of reading Ibsen, but Fuchs’s “mythic structure” hardly explains how the play works on stage.

Respectfully correcting Johnston’s Hegelian Ibsen cycle, Westphal (9) argues that the “spirits’ odyssey” traced by Johnston is the audience’s 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 them”—an 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 emerges—not 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 Donne’s 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 Shakespeare’s 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 Ibsen’s idealist and Strindberg’s naturalist views on the woman question. Hedda Gabler was Ibsen’s response to Strindberg’s 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 Swede’s misogyny—in 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 Carlson’s (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 child’s eyes. The motif reflects not just Ibsen’s 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 Zola’s strictly naturalistic interpretation of telegony into psychology and metaphor. Goethe’s Wahlveiwandschaften had already sanctioned the literary use of a motif whose history goes back to the Bible. Carlson’s article is solid scholarship effectively presented. But I am not much enlightened by his distinction between Ibsen’s predominantly psychic use of the motif and Strindberg’s, which, Carlson says, was divided between the psychic and the physiological.

Of three source studies the most rewarding is Berst’s (13) on the ideological and formal congruity between A Doll House and Shaw’s 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 Ibsen’s influence on Oscar Wilde. Not all of Powell’s 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 Powell‘s 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 Bernick’s half-confession at the end is taken as irony.

Keating (15) reads Conrad’s 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 Ibsen’s 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 Robins’s determination to play Hedda, which led to Archer’s re-translation of Edmund Gosse’s literally unspeakable version, to Robins’s celebrity, and to the conversion of “new and important enthusiasts to the Ibsen movement.” Davis’s (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 didn’t 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 Ibsen’s “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 Borkman’s play till the end, and that his clownish Foldal quoted lines from Catiline as his own.

I conclude with Fjelde’s (19) affirmation of Ibsen’s rightful place among the makers of the world’s literary masterpieces. T. S. Eliot’s criteria yielded a total of two works: The Aeneid and The Divine Comedy. Fielde’s criteria include (besides “technical proficiency”) “range, depth, and urgency”—that is, “diversity and density of life realized within [the work’s] bounds,” “veridical ambiguity,” and “something vital, even indispensable, to tell us.” Ibsen’s plays meet the requirements because “the quintessential Ibsenian urgency” is in the dialectic of the Third Empire myth. In every major age of western literature two writers have represented, respectively, “the world-image shapers” and “the world-image testers.” In antiquity, they were Homer and the Greek dramatists; in the late middle ages and the Renaissance, Dante and Shakespeare; in modern times, Goethe and Ibsen. One reason (among a possible many) for enrolling Ibsen in this eminent company is Maja Rubek. The etymology of her first name resonates with mythic meaning. It is she, not Rubek or Irene, who embodies the evolutionary process. Physical and vital, the breaker of prisons and despiser of security, she is a mystic envisioning humanity’s as yet unrealized potential.

Fjelde’s article has scope and weight; I like his criteria and share his high regard for Ibsen’s plays, though I happen to be among the lessening number of Ibsen readers who thinks the Third Empire concept one of Ibsen’s 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 Ibsen’s art—not 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 Ibsen’s 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 Johnston’s 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.

Otto Reinert
University of Washington


(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 Ibsen’s Enemy of the People,” Comparative Drama 20:2 (1986), 95-114.

(4) Carol S. Tufts, “Recasting A Doll's House: Narcissism in Ibsen’s Play,” Comparative Drama 20:2 (1986), 140-59.

(5) Joan Templeton, “Of This Time, of This Place: Mrs Alving’s Ghosts and the Shape of the Tragedy,” PMLA 101:1 (1986), 57-68.

(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), 591—610.

(8) Elinor Fuchs, “Mythic Structure in Hedda Gabler,” Comparative Drama 19:3 (1985), 209-21.

(9) Merold Westphal, “Ibsen, Hegel and Neitzsche,” Clio 14:4 (1985), 395-406.

(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 Telegony,” PMLA 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, “Conrad’s 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 (1985), 591-610.

(17) Tracy C. Davis, “Ibsen’s Victorian Audience,” Essays in Theatre 4 (1985), 21.

(18) Lise-Lone and Frederick Marker, “Bergman’s Borkman: An Interview,” Theater 17:2 (1986), 48-55.

(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 Ibsen’s 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 Archer’s essays on Ibsen, the other a critical biography of Archer- favorable to both but unimpressed with Postlewait’s 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. Ibsen’s props, sets, images, words, and events, says John Peter in Vladimir’s Carrot (1987), invite “open” discussion; Beckett’s are opaque, causeless, “closed.” This is approximately Ibsen’s function also in Katherine Burkman’s 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 Lyons’s “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 Peter’s and Burkman’s hardly confirm Lyons’s assumption that the Ibsen of the moment is Joyce’s and Kenner’s visionary poet rather than Shaw’s and Archer’s 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 the play.

In both Patricia Behrendt’s (5) Hedda-as-Narcissus and Linn B. Konrad’s (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 Solness’s psyche that fatefully inspires him to challenge his vertigo-Minotaur. Maeterlinck’s Ariane et Barbe-Bleue and Strindberg’s A Dream Play are other male plays that use the Ariadne figure as creative man’s indispensable but destructive helpmate. In another essay, Konrad (7) sees Ghosts and Daudet’s 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 Szondi’s contention that the mode of Ibsen’s 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 Hedvig’s natural father, so does he never unambiguously disclose the facts of Rebecca’s 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 Ibsen’s “fatalistic plays” are will-less under the power of a past that seeks them, they “react” rather than “act”—which is Brecht’s objection to them. But that does not degrade them to paralyzed memory-carriers without present existence, as Szondi alleges.

Oliver Gerland’s deconstructionist reading of When We Dead Awaken (9) also tries to define the dramaturgy of Ibsen’s anatomies of multi-layered selves engaged in dubious enactments and re-enactments. The self-reflexiveness of WWDA is in Rubek’s attempt to escape from his imprisonment within his own artifact, making of the statue at once a plot element and the text’s “synecdoche of itself.” That phrasing marks the gravitation of this kind of discourse to tautology too refined for detection. The idea is that the play’s action duplicates that of the playwright writing to escape the text constituted by his protagonist’s self-definition. For all its semiotic twists, Gerland’s article has conceptual range and subtlety and poses the play’s 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 Ibsen’s 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 doesn’t do much with her secondary argument about a corollary (?) movement “towards greater structural simplicity.”

Stephen J. Walton redivides the canon by means of psychological paradigms based on types of delusions that have a bearing on Ibsen’s criticism of society (11). There are three types: plays in which a minor character comments on the main character’s delusion after the catastrophe (WD, Ros, HG, MB), plays in which the main character thinks he has gained new knowledge and wisdom but really hasn’t (PG, PS, G, EP, LE, WWDA), plays in which the protagonist does attain “a liberating consciousness of his or her situation” (Pret, E&G, LfS, JGB). (Since the classifying is not limited to the modern plays in prose—though DH is excluded—it isn’t clear why it doesn’t cover such major plays from the mid-canon as Love’s 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 Roches’s 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 Sea—Watts (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 Ibsen’s use of “dragende,” “skremmer,” “fremmed,” “gal,” and “spennende.” 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 Wangel’s 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 Durbach’s 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 Lear’s 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 Durbach’s 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 WD] 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 Durbach’s 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 Geist’s of Hedda Gabler with Ann Whitefield in Shaw’s Man and Superman (14) and Yvonne Shafer’s of the resolutions of the marriage problem in DH and LfS (15). Both Hedda and Ann like to listen, spellbound, to the talk of unconventional men, but why that makes them variants of Everywoman Geist doesn’t 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.”

Thomas Van Laan’s essay on Ibsen’s dramaturgy in
The Wild Duck, in the first issue of a journal which promises to be a major and exciting new forum for drama criticism (17), is the kind of article that makes it all right again to be interested in form. WD is the breakthrough play in modern realism because it is the first play in which Ibsen established, only to subvert, the devices by which playwrights traditionally have made their “presence felt” in the multivocal medium of drama. (Van Laan is here moving on ground he explored in The Idiom of Drama, 1970.) In WD there is neither a raisonneur, corresponding to Lona Hessel or Dr. Stockman and even (with reservations) Nora in earlier plays (the drunken cynic Relling doesn’t qualify); nor an obvious protagonist, for Hjalmar succeeds Gregers and Hedvig Hjalmar in that role. There is no specially privileged discourse, only a collage of idiolects, none of which is “authoritative in relation to the others.” Foil relationships among characters are so many and so volatile that they mute or deflect any potential authorial “message.” There are no clear generic signs to guide our understanding: labeling the play a tragicomical thesis play (“Preserve the home, however flawed!”) with moments of melodrama and farce only lists the ingredients without focusing them. We move from Werle’s study to the Ekdal studio, which is split into visible stage front and a barely glimpsed stage rear, which itself is multiple because different characters perceive it differently. The wild duck, presumably the play’s central symbol, turns out to be more like a Jamesian “central reflector.” The more the symbols proliferate, the more we realize what a suspect thing symbolizing is in this play. Gregers is both the principal symbol-maker and “the primary cause of the disaster.” The Christian symbolism (Old Werle as God, the Ekdals as the family expelled from paradise, Gregers as would-be Son-redeemer) is at best tentative and certainly oddly skewed. Even “facts” are uncertain: Hedvig’s parentage, Old Ekdal’s guilt, Old Werle’s treatment of his wife, Hedvig’s state of mind as she pulls the trigger. WD marks a departure from both earlier and later Ibsen plays. In them past facts come to light, and a character discovers their part in the larger “sammenheng” (causal, logical and emotive “hanging-togetherness”) and acts decisively on that discovery. By deliberately making us expect and then undercutting the conventions by which drama means, Ibsen in WD obliterates every trace of himself and extends “the boundaries of realism through seeking to accommodate elements of mystery and myth.”

Different in its immediate subject and larger in scope (though shorter), Alisa Solomon’s apologia for Ibsen’s naturalism (18) belongs to the same genre of criticism as Van Laan’s 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 Ibsen’s 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 Nora’s Tarantella dance. And Hedda Gabler would not be “a human being” if she were not first a woman.

Otto Reinert
University of Washington


(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 (1987), 145-48.

(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, 1987), 147-56.

(7) Linn B. Konrad, “Father’s Sins and Mother’s 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 1987:4, 39-55.

(11) Stephen J. Walton, “Illusion as an Existential State, or: Why Do Ibsen’s Main Characters (Almost) Always Get It Wrong?” New Comparison 1987:4,

(12) Kay Unruh Des Roches, “A Problem of Translation: Structural Patterns in the Language of Ibsen’s Lady from the Sea,” Modern Drama 30:3 (1987),

(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 Ibsen’s Lady from the Sea,” Theatre Annual 40 (1985), 65-76.

(16) Yvonne Shafer, “Complexity and Ambiguity in Ibsen’s Doll House,” Literature in Performance 5:2 (1985), 27-35.

(17) Thomas F. Van Laan, “The Novelty of The Wild Duck: The Author’s 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.
(My coverage is based on items in the bibliographies for 1987 in PMLA and Modern Drama. Both include some items published earlier than 1987.)



1988 was not a particularly rich year for Ibsen studies. It was, however, like the rest of the eighties, a year in which more articles appeared on the plays written during the centennial decade than on any other part of the canon. Ghosts and The Wild Duck were the favorites.

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 don’t fall readily into the familiar categories.

In a suggestive but methodologically casual study (1), John Lingard traces Ibsen’s use of the inner stage. In St. John’s Night, Lady Inger, and The Pretenders, it is in counterpoint to the forestage: fairyland and old folklore vs. modern prosaism; Norway’s 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, Peter’s sacrilege becomes “a type of that violation of the past—that attempt to drag meaning from history by force—which [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 Skule’s understanding that he must not force Haakon to break sanctuary in Elgeseter can be sensed the dramatist’s own painfully won freedom from the Norwegian Myth.” That Ibsen did not soon reach what lies “beyond” Elgeseter’s “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 Hedvig’s attic, the Rosmersholm mill race, Wangel’s carp pond, and Hedda’s inner room) from the “realistic, contemporary…bourgeois living rooms and gardens” that occupy the forestage. Lingard skillfully weaves together stage architecture, dramatically charged space, literary interpretation and history, philosophical ideas, and Ibsen’s artistic development. He makes scenographic specifics relevant to larger concerns.

Erik Christensen’s essay on “Henrik Ibsen’s Political Poetics” (2) serves as a coda to his two-volume Henrik Ibsens realisme: illusion katastrofe anarki (Copenhagen, 1985). The essay sums up Ibsen’s sociopolitical ideology as Christensen extracts it from Ibsen’s non-literary texts: reviews, articles, addresses, speeches, interviews, and letters. Nowhere does Christensen presume that what this material yields is what the plays are about—Ibsen’s thoughts on good citizenship transposed to dialogue and fictional circumstances. Christensen’s crux—and an important one it is—is the close analogy between Aristotle’s and Ibsen’s theories of the creative process and its social import. In Aristotle, the poet’s 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 poet’s act of creation; the second is in the spectator’s 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. Ibsen’s goal was to educate people by such dramatic illusions of real life—successful mimesis—as 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 Fjelde’s “Ibsen as Artist” (3) has not much to do with esthetics. Fjelde’s Ibsen envisioned the progress of the spirit by the power of “his imagination, his courage, his scope, and his faith.” This is another of Fielde’s 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 Ibsen’s 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.”

1988’s comparativist essays are an uneven lot, and even the more interesting of them are not of major importance. Something can be said for Bert Cardullo’s juxtaposition of Oedipus Rex and Ghosts (in a piece badly proofread and badly printed) (5). Sophocles’ play is a tragedy of resignation to fate; Ibsen’s 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 God’s help doesn’t 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 Strindberg’s 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 The Father remain “theatrically and critically alive.” Brandell doesn’t tell us why.

Maurice Gravier (in an article in French) (7), finds a shared dramatic function for Ibsen’s and Strindberg’s 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 lives—or, rather, like Stoppard’s 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 Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, A Doll House, and Shepard’s 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 Ibsen’s time”—all 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 mother’s (so much for Fergusson’s truncated “tragic rhythm”) and takes the form of a nightmare come true. Osvald’s collapse marks the collapse of the dramatic form—the 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 Ibsen’s indifference to it. Ghosts’s 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 Cardullo’s contrast between Ghosts and Oedipus Rex in #5 above.)

Iring Fetscher’s answer to his title question (in an article in German) is, yes, Dr. Stockmann is “an enemy of the people,” and not in Ibsen’s 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 Ibsen’s intention. There is something endearing about such confidence.

Two things lift Albert Bermel’s 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 Hedvig’s natural mother? Did Relling and Molvik make love the night Hjalmar slept over at their place, and does that explain Hjalmar’s disgust with Relling the next morning? The other (more significant if not more exciting) is the link Bermel establishes between Hedvig’s self-sacrifice and the imagery of nature violated by the play’s two hunters and demanding a human sacrifice in atonement. “…there is something residually ‘Greek’ in Hedvig’s very act of sacrificing her life in place of a wild animal’s; it is a kind of fertility ritual.” Partaking in this imagery are the Høydal heights and woods and the bacchanalian aspects of Werle’s 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 Bergman’s (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 director’s interpretation. On Bergman’s 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 Bergman’s setting suggested symbolic realism, Ronconi’s suggested surrealism. Huge photographs decorated the walls in Werle’s 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: “It’s a very fine play, Mr. Ronconi, but you must not call it Ibsen.”

Bredsdorrf reads WD as a play about power—primarily 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 play’s and Gregers’ subtext, though he doesn’t know it. Bredsdorff‘s 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 Bredsdorff’s book, Power Play (Magtspil, Copenhagen, 1986).

Otto Reinert
University of Washington

(1) John Lingard, “To Elgeseter and Beyond: Ibsen, History, and the Inner Stage,” Dalhousie Review 67 (1987), 244-56.

(2) Erik Christensen, “Henrik Ibsen’s 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,” Language Quarterly 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
12 (May 1988), 67-78.

(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, “Hedvig’s Suicide: a Re-examination of The Wild Duck,”
Theatre 3 1 (1986), 57-72.

(12) Thomas Bredsdorff, “The Sins of the Fathers: Bergman, Ronconi, and Ibsen’s Wild Duck,” trans. Andrea Cervi, New Theatre Quarterly 4:14 (May 1988), 159-72.


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