‘Everything which I have created as a poet,’ Ibsen said in a letter, ‘has had its origin in a frame of mind and a situation in life; I never wrote because I had, as they say, found a good subject.’ Yet his chief aim as a dramatist has been to set character in independent action, and to stand aside, reserving his judgment. ‘The method, the technique of the construction,’ he says, speaking of what is probably his masterpiece, Ghosts, ‘in itself entirely precludes the author’s appearing in the speeches. My intention was to produce the impression in the mind of the reader that he was witnessing something real.’ That, at his moment of most perfect balance, was his intention; that was what he achieved in an astonishing way. But his whole life was a development; and we see him moving from point to point, deliberately, and yet inevitably; reaching the goal which it was his triumph to reach, then going beyond the goal, because movement in any direction was a necessity of his nature.
In Ibsen’s letters we shall find invaluable help in the study of this character and this development. The man shows himself in them with none the less disguise because he shows himself unwillingly. In these hard, crabbed, formal, painfully truthful letters we see the whole narrow, precise, and fanatical soul of this Puritan of art, who sacrificed himself, his family, his friends, and his country to an artistic sense of duty only to be paralleled among those religious people whom he hated and resembled.
His creed, as man and as artist, was the cultivation, the realisation of self. In quite another sense that, too, was the creed of Nietzsche; but what in Nietzsche was pride, the pride of individual energy, in Ibsen was a kind of humility, or a practical deduction from the fact that only by giving complete expression to oneself can one produce the finest work. Duty to oneself: that was how he looked upon it; and though, in a letter to Björnson, he affirmed, as the highest praise, ‘his life was his best work,’ to himself it was the building-up of the artist in him that he chiefly cared for. And to this he set himself with a moral fervour and a scientific tenacity. There was in Ibsen none of the abundance of great natures, none of the ease of strength. He nursed his force, as a miser hoards his gold; and does he not give you at times an uneasy feeling that he is making the most of himself, as the miser makes the most of his gold by scraping up every farthing?
‘The great thing,’ he says in a letter of advice, ‘is to hedge about what is one’s own, to keep it free and clear from everything outside that has no connexion with it.’ He bids Brandes cultivate ‘a genuine, full-blooded egoism, which shall force you for a time to regard what concerns you as the only thing of any consequence, and everything else as non-existent.’ Yet he goes on to talk about ‘benefiting society,’ is conscious of the weight which such a conviction or compromise lays upon him, and yet cannot get rid of the burden, as Nietzsche does. He has less courage than Nietzsche, though no less logic, and is held back from a complete realisation of his own doctrine because he has so much worldly wisdom and is so anxious to make the best of all worlds.
‘In every new poem or play,’ he writes, ‘I have aimed at my own personal spiritual emancipation and purification, for a man shares the responsibility and the guilt of the society to which he belongs.’ This queer entanglement in social bonds on the part of one whose main endeavour had always been to free the individual from the conventions and restrictions of society is one of those signs of parochialism which peep out in Ibsen again and again. ‘The strongest man,’ he says in a letter, anticipating the epilogue of one of his plays, ‘is he who stands alone.’ But Ibsen did not find it easy to stand alone, though he found pleasure in standing aloof. The influence of his environment upon him is marked from the first. He breaks with his father and mother, never writes to them or goes back to see them; partly because he feels it necessary to avoid contact with ‘certain tendencies prevailing there.’ ‘Friends are an expensive luxury,’ he finds, because they keep him from doing what he wishes to do, out of consideration for them. Is not this intellectual sensitiveness the corollary of a practical cold-heartedness? He cannot live in Norway because, he says, ‘I could never lead a consistent spiritual life there.’ In Norway he finds that ‘the accumulation of small details makes the soul small.’ How curious an admission for an individualist, for an artist! He goes to Rome, and feels that he has discovered a new mental world. ‘After I had been in Italy I could not understand how I had been able to exist before I had been there.’ Yet before long he must go on to Munich, because ‘here one is too entirely out of touch with the movements of the day.’
He insists, again and again: ‘Environment has a great influence upon the forms in which the imagination creates’; and, in a tone of half-burlesque, but with something serious in his meaning, he declares that wine had something to do with the exaltation of Brand and Peer Gynt, and sausages and beer with the satirical analysis of The League of Youth. And he adds: ‘I do not intend by this to place the last-mentioned play on a lower level. I only mean that my point of view has changed, because here I am in a community well ordered even to weariness.’ He says elsewhere that he could only have written Peer Gynt where he wrote it, at Ischia and Sorrento, because it is ‘written without regard to consequences—as I only dare to write far away from home.’ If we trace him through his work we shall see him, with a strange docility, allowing not only ‘frame of mind and situation in life,’ but his actual surroundings, to mould his work, alike in form and in substance. If he had never left Norway he might have written verse to the end of his life; if he had not lived in Germany, where there is ‘up-to-date civilisation to study,’ he would certainly never have written the social dramas; if he had not returned to Norway at the end of his life, the last plays would not have been what they were. I am taking him at his word; but Ibsen is a man who must be taken at his word.
What is perhaps most individual in the point of view of Ibsen in his dramas is his sense of the vast importance trifles, of the natural human tendency to invent or magnify misunderstandings. A misunderstanding is his main lever of the tragic mischief; and he has studied and diagnosed this unconscious agent of destiny more minutely and persistently than any other dramatist. He found it in himself. We see just this brooding over trifles, this sensitiveness to wrongs, imaginary or insignificant, in the revealing pages of his letters. It made the satirist of his earlier years; it made him a satirist of non-essentials. A criticism of one of his books sets him talking of wide vengeance; and he admitted in later life that he said to himself, ‘I am ruined,’ because a newspaper had attacked him overnight.
With all his desire to ‘undermine the idea of the state,’ he besieges king and government with petitions for money; and he will confess in a letter, ‘I should very much like to write publicly about the mean behaviour of the government,’ which, however, he refrains from doing. He gets sore and angry over party and parochial rights and wrongs, even when he is far away from them, and has congratulated himself on the calming and enlightening effect of distance. A Norwegian bookseller threatens to pirate one of his books, and he makes a national matter of it. ‘If,’ he says, ‘this dishonest speculation really obtains sympathy and support at home, it is my intention, come what may, to sever all ties with Norway and never set foot on her soil again.’ How petty, how like a hysterical woman that is! How, in its way of taking a possible trifling personal injustice as if it were a thing of vital and even national moment, he betrays what was always to remain narrow, as well as bitter, in the centre of his being! He has recorded it against himself (for he spared himself, as he proudly and truthfully said, no more than others) in an anecdote which is a profound symbol.
During the time I was writing Brand, I had on my desk a glass with a scorpion in it. From time to time the little animal was ill. Then I used to give it a piece of soft fruit, upon which it fell furiously and emptied its poison into it—after which it was well again. Does not something of the kind happen with us poets?
Poets, no; but in Ibsen there is always some likeness of the sick scorpion in the glass.
In one of his early letters to Björnson, he had written: ‘When I read the news from home, when I gaze upon all that respectable, estimable narrow-mindedness and worldliness, it is with the feeling of an insane man staring at one single, hopelessly dark spot.’ All his life Ibsen gazed until he found the black spot somewhere; but it was with less and less of this angry, reforming feeling of the insane man. He saw the black spot at the core of the earth’s fruit, of the whole apple of the earth; and as he became more hopeless, he became less angry; he learned something of the supreme indifference of art. He had learned much when he came to realise that, in the struggle for liberty, it was chiefly the energy of the struggle that mattered. ‘He who possesses liberty,’ he said, ‘otherwise than as a thing to be striven for, possesses it dead and soulless…. So that a man who stops in the midst of the struggle and says, “Now I have it,” thereby shows that he has lost it.’ He had learned still more when he could add to his saying, ‘The minority is always right,’ this subtle corollary, that a fighter in the intellectual vanguard can never collect a majority around him. ‘At the point where I stood when I wrote each of my books, there now stands a tolerably compact crowd; but I myself am no longer there; I am elsewhere; farther ahead, I hope.’ ‘That man is right,’ he thought, ‘who has allied himself most closely with the future.’ The future, to Ibsen, was a palpable thing, not concerned merely with himself as an individual, but a constantly removing, continually occupied promised land, into which he was not content to go alone. Yet he would always have asked of a follower, with Zarathustra: ‘This is my road; which is yours?’ His future was to be peopled by great individuals.
It was in seeking to find himself that Ibsen sought to find truth; and truth he knew was to be found only within him. The truth which he sought for himself was not at all truth in the abstract, but a truth literally ‘efficacious,’ and able to work out the purpose of his existence. That purpose he never doubted. The work he had to do was the work of an artist, and to this everything must be subservient. ‘The great thing is to become honest and truthful in dealing with oneself—not to determine to do this or determine to do that, but to do what one must do because one is oneself. All the rest simply leads to falsehood.’ He conceives of truth as being above all clear-sighted, and the approach to truth as a matter largely of will. No preacher of God and of righteousness and the kingdom to come was ever more centred, more convinced, more impregnably minded every time that he has absorbed a new idea or is constructing a new work of art. His conception of art often changes; but he never deviates at any one time from any one conception. There is something narrow as well as something intense in this certainty, this calmness, this moral attitude towards art. Nowhere has he expressed more of himself than in a letter to a woman who had written some kind of religious sequel to Brand. He tells her:
Brand is an æsthetic work, pure and simple. What it may have demolished or built up is a matter of absolute indifference to me. It came into being as the result of something which I had not observed, but experienced; it was a necessity for me to free myself from something which my inner man had done with, by giving poetic form to it; and, when by this means I had got rid of it, my book had no longer any interest for me.
It is in the same positive, dogmatic way that he assures us that Peer Gynt is a poem, not a satire; The League of Youth a ‘simple comedy and nothing more’; Emperor and Galilean an ‘entirely realistic work’; that in Ghosts ‘there is not a single opinion, a single utterance which can be laid to the account of the author…. My intention was to produce the impression in the mind of the reader that he was witnessing something real…. It preaches nothing at all.’ Of Hedda Gabler he says: ‘It was not really my desire to deal in this play with so-called problems. What I principally wanted to do was to depict human beings, human emotions, and human destinies, upon a groundwork of the social conditions and principles of the present day.’ ‘My chief life-task,’ he defines: ‘to depict human characters and human destinies.’
Ibsen’s development has always lain chiefly in the perfecting of his tools. From the beginning he has had certain ideas, certain tendencies, a certain consciousness of things to express; he has been haunted, as only creative artists are haunted, by a world waiting to be born; and, from the beginning, he has built on a basis of criticism, a criticism of life. Part of his strength has gone out in fighting: he has had the sense of a mission. Part of his strength has gone out in the attempt to fly: he has had the impulse, without the wings, of the poet. And when he has been content to leave fighting and flying alone, and to build solidly on a solid foundation, it is then that he has achieved his great work. But he has never been satisfied, or never been able, to go on doing just that work, his own work; and the poet in him, the impotent poet who is full of a sense of what poetry is, but is never able, for more than a moment, to create poetry, has come whispering in the ear of the man of science, who is the new, unerring artist, the maker of a wonderful new art of prose, and has made him uneasy, and given uncertainty to his hand. The master-builder has altered his design, he has set up a tower here, ‘too high for a dwelling-house,’ and added a window there, with the stained glass of a church window, and fastened on ornaments in stucco, breaking the severe line of the original design.
In Ibsen science has made its great stand against poetry; and the Germans have come worshipping, saying, ‘Here, in our era of marvellously realistic politics, we have come upon correspondingly realistic poetry…. We received from it the first idea of a possible new poetic world…. We were adherents of this new school of realistic art: we had found our æsthetic creed.’ But the maker of this creed, the creator of this school of realistic art, was not able to be content with what he had done, though this was the greatest thing he was able to do. It is with true insight that he boasts, in one of his letters, of what he can do ‘if I am only careful to do what I am quite capable of, namely, combine this relentlessness of mind with deliberateness in the choice of means.’ There lay his success: deliberateness in the choice of means for the doing of a given thing, the thing for which his best energies best fitted him. Yet it took him forty years to discover exactly what those means to that end were; and then the experimenting impulse, the sense of what poetry is, was soon to begin its disintegrating work. Science, which seemed to have conquered poetry, was to pay homage to poetry.
Ibsen comes before us as a man of science who would have liked to be a poet; or who, half-equipped as a poet, is halved or hampered by the scientific spirit until he realises that he is essentially a man of science. From the first his aim was to express himself; and it was a long time before he realised that verse was not his native language. His first three plays were in verse, the fourth in verse alternating with prose; then came two plays, historic and legendary, written in more or less archaic prose; then a satire in verse, Love’s Comedy, in which there is the first hint of the social dramas; then another prose play, the nearest approach that he ever made to poetry, but written in prose, The Pretenders; and then the two latest and most famous of the poems, Brand and Peer Gynt. After this, verse is laid aside, and at last we find him condemning it, and declaring ‘it is improbable that verse will be employed to any extent worth mentioning in the drama of the immediate future…. It is therefore doomed.’ But the doom was Ibsen’s: to be a great prose dramatist, and only the segment of a poet.
Nothing is more interesting than to study Ibsen’s verse in the making. His sincerity to his innermost aim, the aim at the expression of himself, is seen in his refusal from the beginning to accept any poetic convention, to limit himself in poetic subject, to sift his material or clarify his metre. He has always insisted on producing something personal, thoughtful, fantastic, and essentially prosaic; and it is in a vain protest against the nature of things that he writes of Peer Gynt, ‘My book is poetry; and if it is not, then it will be. The conception of poetry in our country, in Norway, shall be made to conform to the book.’ His verse was the assertion of his individuality at all costs; it was a costly tool, which he cast aside only when he found that it would not carve every material.
Ibsen’s earliest work in verse has not been translated. Dr. Brandes tells us that it followed Danish models, the sagas, and the national ballads. In the prose play, Lady Inger of Östraat, we see the dramatist, the clever playwright, still holding on to the skirts of romance, and ready with rhetoric enough on occasion, but more concerned with plot and stage effect than with even what is interesting in the psychology of the characters. The Vikings, also in prose, is a piece of strong grappling with a heroic subject, with better rhetoric, and some good poetry taken straight out of the sagas, with fervour in it, and gravity; yet an experiment only, a thing not made wholly personal, nor wholly achieved. It shows how well Ibsen could do work which was not his work. In Love’s Comedy, a modern play in verse, he is already himself. Point of view is there; materials are there; the man of science has already laid his hand upon the poet. We are told that Ibsen tried to write it in prose, failed, and fell back upon verse. It is quite likely; he has already an accomplished technique, and can put his thoughts into verse with admirable skill. But the thoughts are not born in verse, and, brilliantly rhymed as they are, they do not make poetry.
Dr. Brandes admits everything that can be said against Ibsen as a poet when he says, speaking of this play and of Brand:
Even if the ideas they express have not previously found utterance in poetry, they have done so in prose literature. In other words, these poems do not set forth new thoughts, but translate into metre and rhyme thoughts already expressed.
Love’s Comedy is a criticism of life; it is full of hard, scientific, prose thought about conduct, which has its own quality as long as it sticks to fact and remains satire; but when the prose curvets and tries to lift, when criticism turns constructive, we find no more than bubbles and children’s balloons, empty and coloured, that soar and evaporate. There is, in this farce of the intellect, a beginning of social drama; realism peeps through the artificial point and polish of a verse which has some of the qualities of Pope and some of the qualities of Swift; but the dramatist is still content that his puppets shall have the air of puppets; he stands in the arena of his circus and cracks his whip; they gallop round grimacing, and with labels on their backs. The verse comes between him and nature, as the satire comes between him and poetry. Cynicism has gone to the making of poetry more than once, but only under certain conditions: that the poet should be a lyric poet, like Heine, or a great personality in action, like Byron, to whom cynicism should be but one of the tones of his speech, the gestures of his attitude. With Ibsen it is a petty anger, an anger against nature, and it leads to a transcendentalism which is empty and outside nature.
The criticism of love, so far as it goes beyond what is amusing and Gilbertian, is the statement of a kind of arid soul-culture more sterile than that of any cloister, the soul-culture of the scientist who thinks he has found out, and can master, the soul. It is a new asceticism, a denial of nature, a suicide of the senses which may lead to some literal suicide such as that in Rosmersholm, or may feed the brain on some air unbreathable by the body, as in When we Dead Awaken. It is the old idea of self-sacrifice creeping back under cover of a new idea of self-intensification; and it comes, like asceticism, from a contempt of nature, a distrust of nature, an abstract intellectual criticism of nature.
Out of such material no poetry will ever come; and none has come in Love’s Comedy. In the prose play which followed, The Pretenders, which is the dramatisation of an inner problem in the form of a historical drama, there is a much nearer approach to poetry. The stagecraft is still too obvious; effect follows effect like thunder-claps; there is melodrama in the tragedy; but the play is, above all, the working-out of a few deep ideas, and in these ideas there is both beauty and wisdom.
It was with the publication of Brand that Ibsen became famous, not only in his own country, but throughout Europe. The poem has been seriously compared, even in England, with Hamlet; even in Germany with Faust. A better comparison is that which Mr. Gosse has made with Sidney Dobell’s Balder. It is full of satire and common-sense, of which there is little enough in Balder: but not Balder is more abstract, or more inhuman in its action. Types, not people, move in it; their speech is doctrine, not utterance; it is rather a tract than a poem. The technique of the verse, if we can judge it from the brilliant translation of Professor Herford, which reads almost everywhere like an original, is more than sufficient for its purpose; all this argumentative and abstract and realistic material finds adequate expression in a verse which has aptly been compared with the verse of Browning’s Christmas-eve and Easter-day. The comparison may be carried further, and it is disastrous to Ibsen. Browning deals with hard matter, and can be boisterous; but he is never, as Ibsen is always, pedestrian. The poet, though, like St. Michael, he carry a sword, must, like St. Michael, have wings. Ibsen has no wings.
But there is another comparison by which I think we can determine more precisely the station and quality of Brand as poetry. Take any one of the vigorous and vivid statements of dogma, which are the very kernel of the poem, and compare them with a few lines from Blake’s Everlasting Gospel. There every line, with all its fighting force, is pure poetry; it was conceived as poetry, born as poetry, and can be changed into no other substance. Here we find a vigorous technique fitting striking thought into good swinging verse, with abundance of apt metaphor; but where is the vision, the essence, which distinguishes it from what, written in prose, would have lost nothing? Ibsen writes out of the intellect, adding fancy and emotion as he goes; but in Blake every line leaps forth like lightning from a cloud.
The motto of Brand was ‘all or nothing’; that of Peer Gynt ‘to be master of the situation.’ Both are studies of egoism, in the finding and losing of self; both are personal studies and national lessons. Of Peer Gynt Ibsen said, ‘I meant it to be a caprice.’ It is Ibsen in high spirits; and it is like a mute dancing at a funeral. It is a harlequin of a poem, a thing of threads and patches; and there are gold threads in it and tattered clouts. It is an experiment which has hardly succeeded, because it is not one but a score of experiments. It is made up of two elements, an element of folklore and an element of satire. The first comes and goes for the most part with Peer and his mother; and all this brings Norwegian soil with it, and is alive. The satire is fierce, local, and fantastic. Out of the two comes a clashing thing which may itself suggest, as has been said, the immense contrast between Norwegian summer, which is day, and winter, which is night. Grieg’s music, childish, mumbling, singing, leaping, and sombre, has aptly illustrated it. It was a thing done on a holiday, for a holiday. It was of this that Ibsen said he could not have written it any nearer home than Ischia and Sorrento. But is it, for all its splendid scraps and patches, a single masterpiece? is it, above all, a poem? The idea, certainly, is one and coherent; every scene is an illustration of that idea; but is it born of that idea? Is it, more than once or twice, inevitable? What touches at times upon poetry is the folk element; the irony at times has poetic substance in it; but this glimmer of poetic substance, which comes and goes, is lost for the most part among mists and vapours, and under artificial light. That poet which exists somewhere in Ibsen, rarely quite out of sight, never wholly at liberty, comes into this queer dance of ideas and humours, and gives it, certainly, the main value it has. But the ‘state satirist’ is always on the heels of the poet; and imagination, whenever it appears for a moment, is led away into bondage by the spirit of the fantastic, which is its prose equivalent or makeshift. It is the fantastic that Ibsen generally gives us in the place of imagination; and the fantastic is a kind of rhetoric, manufactured by the will, and has no place in poetry.
In The League of Youth Ibsen takes finally the step which he had half taken in Loves Comedy. ‘In my new comedy,’ he writes to Dr. Brandes, ‘you will find the common order of things—no strong emotions, no deep feelings, and, more particularly, no isolated thoughts.’ He adds: ‘It is written in prose, which gives it a strong realistic colouring. I have paid particular attention to form, and, among other things, I have accomplished the feat of doing without a single monologue, in fact without a single “aside.” ‘The play is hardly more than a good farce; the form is no more than the slightest of advances towards probability on the strict lines of the Scribe tradition; the ‘common order of things’ is there, in subject, language, and in everything but the satirical intention which underlies the whole trivial, stupid, and no doubt lifelike talk and action. Two elements are still in conflict, the photographic and the satirical; and the satirical is the only relief from the photographic. The stage mechanism is still obvious; but the intention, one sees clearly, is towards realism; and the play helps to get the mechanism in order.
After The League of Youth Ibsen tells us that he tried to ‘seek salvation in remoteness of subject’; so he returned to his old scheme for a play on Julian the Apostate, and wrote the two five-act plays which make up Emperor and Galilean. He tells us that it is the first work which he wrote under German intellectual influences, and that it contains ‘that positive theory of life which the critics have demanded of me so long.’ In one letter he affirms that it is ‘an entirely realistic work,’ and in another, ‘It is a part of my own spiritual life which I am putting into this book … and the historical subject chosen has a much more intimate connexion with the movements of our own time than one might at first imagine.’ How great a relief it must have been, after the beer and sausages of The League of Youth, to go back to an old cool wine, no one can read Emperor and Galilean and doubt. It is a relief and an escape; and the sense of the stage has been put wholly on one side in both of these plays, of which the second reads almost like a parody of the first: the first so heated, so needlessly colloquial, the second so full of argumentative rhetoric. Ibsen has turned against his hero in the space between writing the one and the other; and the Julian of the second is more harshly satirised from within than ever Peer Gynt was. In a letter to Dr. Brandes, Ibsen says: ‘What the book is or is not, I have no desire to enquire. I only know that I saw a fragment of humanity plainly before my eyes, and that I tried to reproduce what I saw.’ But in the play itself this intention comes and goes; and, while some of it reminds one of Salammbô in its attempt to treat remote ages realistically, other parts are given up wholly to the exposition of theories, and yet others to a kind of spectacular romance, after the cheap method of George Ebers and the German writers of historical fiction. The satire is more serious, the criticism of ideas more fundamental than anything in The League of Youth; but, as in almost the whole of Ibsen’s more characteristic work up to this point, satire strives with realism; it is still satire, not irony, and is not yet, as the later irony is to be, a deepening, and thus a justification, of the realism.
Eight years passed between The League of Youth and The Pillars of Society; but they are both woven of the same texture. Realism has made for itself a firmer footing; the satire has more significance; the mechanism of the stage goes much more smoothly, though indeed to a more conventionally happy ending; melodrama has taken some of the place of satire. Yet the ‘state satirist’ is still at his work, still concerned with society and bringing only a new detail of the old accusation against society. Like every play of this period, it is the unveiling of a lie. See yourselves as you are, the man of science seems to be saying to us. Here are your ‘pillars of society’; they are the tools of society. Here is your happy marriage, and it is a doll’s house. Here is your respected family, here is the precept of ‘honour your father and your mother’ in practice; and here is the little voice of heredity whispering ‘ghosts!’ There is the lie of respectability, the lie hidden behind marriage, the lie which saps the very roots of the world.
Ibsen is no preacher, and he has told us expressly that Ghosts ‘preaches nothing at all.’ This pursuit of truth to its most secret hiding-place is not a sermon against sin; it sets a scientific dogma visibly to work, and watches the effect of the hypothesis. As the dogma is terrible and plausible, and the logic of its working-out faultless, we get one of the deeper thrills that modern art has to give us. I would take A Doll’s House, Ghosts, and The Wild Duck as Ibsen’s three central plays, the plays in which his method completely attained its end, in which his whole capacities are seen at their finest balance; and this work, this reality in which every word, meaningless in itself, is alive with suggestion, is the finest scientific work which has been done in literature. Into this period comes his one buoyant play, An Enemy of the People, his rebound against the traditional hypocrisy which had attacked Ghosts for its telling of unseasonable truths; it is an allegory, in the form of journalism, or journalism in the form of allegory, and is the ‘apology’ of the man of science for his mission. Every play is a dissection, or a vivisection rather; for these people who suffer so helplessly, and are shown us so calmly in their agonies, are terribly alive. A Doll’s House is the first of Ibsen’s plays in which the puppets have no visible wires. The playwright has perfected his art of illusion; beyond A Doll’s House and Ghosts dramatic illusion has never gone. And the irony of the ideas that work these living puppets has now become their life-blood. It is the tragic irony of a playwright who is the greatest master of technique since Sophocles, but who is only the playwright in Sophocles, not the poet.
For this moment, the moment of his finest achievement, that fantastic element which was Ibsen’s resource against the prose of fact is so sternly repressed that it seems to have left no trace behind. With The Wild Duck fantasy comes back, but with a more precise and explicit symbolism, not yet disturbing the reality of things. Here the irony is more disinterested than even in Ghosts, for it turns back on the reformer and shows us how tragic a muddle we may bring about in the pursuit of truth and in the name of our ideals. In each of the plays which follows we see the return and encroachment of symbolism, the poetic impulse crying for satisfaction and offering us ever new forms of the fantastic in place of any simple and sufficing gift of imagination. The man of science has had his way, has fulfilled his aim, and is discontented with the limits within which he has fulfilled it. He would extend those limits; and at first it seems as if those limits are to be extended. But the exquisite pathos which humanises what is fantastic in The Wild Duck passes, in Rosmersholm, in which the problems of Love’s Comedy are worked out to their logical conclusion, into a form, not of genuine tragedy, but of mental melodrama. In The Lady from the Sea, how far is the symbol which has eaten up reality really symbol? Is it not rather the work of the intelligence than of the imagination? Is it not allegory intruding into reality, disturbing that reality and giving us no spiritual reality in its place?
Hedda Gabler is closer to life; and Ibsen said about it in a letter:
It was not really my desire to deal in this play with so-called problems. What I principally wanted to do was to depict human beings, human emotions, and human destinies, upon a groundwork of certain of the social conditions and principles of the present day.’
The play might be taken for a study in that particular kind of ‘decadence’ which has come to its perfection in uncivilised and overcivilised Russia; and the woman whom Ibsen studied as his model was actually half-Russian. Eleonora Duse has created Hedda over again, as a poet would have created her, and has made a wonderful creature whom Ibsen never conceived, or at least never rendered. Ibsen has tried to add his poetry by way of ornament, and gives us a trivial and inarticulate poet about whom float certain catchwords. Here the chief catchword is ‘vine-leaves in the hair’; in The Master-builder it is ‘harps in the air’; in Little Eyolf it takes human form and becomes the Rat-wife; in John Gabriel Borkman it drops to the tag of ‘a dead man and two shadows’; in When we Dead Awaken there is nothing but icy allegory. All that queer excitement of The Master-builder, that ‘ideal’ awake again, is it not really a desire to open one’s door to the younger generation? But is it the younger generation that finds itself at home there? is it not rather Peer Gynt back again, and the ride through the air on the back of the reindeer?
In his earlier plays Ibsen had studied the diseases of society, and he had considered the individual only in his relation to society. Now he turns to study the diseases of the individual conscience. Only life interests him now, and only life feverishly alive; and the judicial irony has gone out of his scheme of things. The fantastic, experimental artist returns, now no longer external, but become morbidly curious. The man of science, groping after something outside science, reaches back, though with a certain uneasiness, to the nursery legend of the Rat-wife in Little Eyolf; and the Rat-wife is neither reality nor imagination, neither Mother Bombie nor Macbeth’s witches, but the offspring of a supernaturalism that does not believe in itself. In John Gabriel Borkman, which is the culmination of Ibsen’s skill in construction, a play in four acts with only the pause of a minute between each, he is no longer content to concern himself with the old material, lies or misunderstandings, the irony of things happening as they do; but will have fierce hatreds, and a kind of incipient madness in things. In When we Dead Awaken all the people are quite consciously insane, and act a kind of charade with perfectly solemn faces and a visible effort to look their parts.
In these last plays, with their many splendid qualities, not bound together and concentrated as in Ghosts, we see the revenge of the imagination upon the realist, who has come to be no longer interested in the action of society upon the individual, but in the individual as a soul to be lost or saved. The man of science has discovered the soul, and does not altogether know what to do with it. He has settled its limits, set it to work in space and time, laid bare some of its secrets, shown its ‘physical basis.’ And now certain eccentricities in it begin to beckon to him; he would follow the soul into the darkness, but it is dark to him; he can but strain after it as it flutters. In the preface to the collected edition of his plays, published in 1901, Maeterlinck has pointed out, as one still standing at the cross-roads might point out to those who have followed him so far on his way, the great uncertainty in which the poet, the dramatist of to-day, finds himself, as what seems to be known or conjectured of ‘the laws of nature’ is forced upon him, making the old, magnificently dramatic opportunities of the ideas of fate, of eternal justice, no longer possible for him to use.
Le poète dramatique est obligé de faire descendre dans la vie réelle, dans la vie de tous les jours, l’idée qu’il se fait de l’inconnu. Il faut qu’il nous montre de quelle façon, sous quelle forme, dans quelles conditions, d’après quelles lois, à quelle fin, agissent sur nos destinées les puissances supérieures, les influences inintelligibles, les principes infinis, dont, en tant que poète, il est persuadé que l’univers est plein. Et comme il est arrivé à une heure où loyalement il lui est à peu près impossible d’admettre les anciennes, et où celles qui les doivent remplacer ne sont pas encore déterminées, n’ont pas encore de nom, il hésite, tâtonne, et s’il veut rester absolument sincère, il n’ose plus se risquer hors de la réalité immédiate. Il se borne à étudier les sentiments humains dans leurs effets matériels et psychologiques.
So long as Ibsen does this, he achieves great and solid things; and in Ghosts a scientific dogma, the law or theory of heredity, has for once taken the place of fate, and almost persuaded us that science, if it takes poetry from us, can restore to us a kind of poetry. But, as Maeterlinck has seen, as it is impossible not to see,
quand Ibsen, dans d’autres drames, essaie de relier à d’autres mystères les gestes de ses hommes en mal de conscience exceptionelle ou de ses femmes hallucinées, il faut convenir que, si l’atmosphère qu’il parvient à créer est étrange et troublante, elle est rarement saine et respirable, parce qu’elle est rarement raisonnable et réele.
From the time when, in A Doll’s House, Ibsen’s puppets came to life, they have refused ever since to be put back into their boxes. The manager may play what tricks with them he pleases, but he cannot get them back into their boxes. They are alive, and they live with a weird, spectacular, but irrevocable life. But, after the last play of all, the dramatic epilogue, When we Dead Awaken, the puppets have gone back into their boxes. Now they have come to obey the manager, and to make mysterious gestures which they do not understand, and to speak in images and take them for literal truths. Even their spectral life has gone out of them; they are rigid now, and only the strings set them dancing. The puppets had come to life, they had lived the actual life of the earth; and then a desire of the impossible, the desire of a life rarefied beyond human limits, took their human life from them, and they were puppets again. The epilogue to the plays is the apostasy of the man of science, and, as with all apostates, his new faith is not a vital thing; the poet was not really there to reawaken.
Before Ibsen the drama was a part of poetry; Ibsen has made it prose. All drama up to Ibsen had been romantic; Ibsen made it science. Until Ibsen no playwright had ever tried to imitate life on the stage, or even, as Ibsen does, to interpret it critically. The desire of every dramatist had been to create over again a more abundant life, and to create it through poetry or through humour; through some form, that is, of the imagination. There was a time when Ibsen too would have made poetry of the drama; there was a time when verse seemed to him the only adequate form in which drama could be written. But his power to work in poetry was not equal to his desire to be a poet; and, when he revolted against verse and deliberately adopted as his material ‘the common order of things,’ when he set himself, for the first time in the history of the drama, to produce an illusion of reality rather than a translation or transfiguration of reality, he discovered his own strength, the special gift which he had brought into the world; but at the same time he set, for himself and for his age, his own limits to drama.
It is quite possible to write poetic drama in prose, though to use prose rather than verse is to write with the left hand rather than with the right. Before Ibsen, prose had been but a serving-maid to verse; and no great dramatist had ever put forward the prose conception of the drama. Shakespeare and the Elizabethans had used prose as an escape or a side-issue, for variety, or for the heightening of verse. Molière had used prose as the best makeshift for verse, because he was not himself a good craftsman in the art. And, along with the verse, and necessarily dependent upon it, there was the poetic, the romantic quality in drama. Think of those dramatists who seem to have least kinship with poetry; think, I will not say of Molière, but of Congreve. What is more romantic than The Way of the World? But Ibsen extracts the romantic quality from drama as if it were a poison; and, in deciding to write realistically in prose, he gives up every aim but that which he defines, so early as 1874, as the wish ‘to produce the impression on the reader that what he was reading was something that had really happened.’ He is not even speaking of the effect in a theatre; he is defining his aim inside the covers of a book, his whole conception of drama.
The art of imitation has never been carried further than it has been carried by Ibsen in his central plays; and with him, at his best, it is no mere imitation but a critical interpretation of life. How greatly this can be done, how greatly Ibsen has done it, there is Ghosts to show us. Yet at what point this supreme criticism may stop, what remains beyond it in the treatment of the vilest contemporary material, we shall see if we turn to a play which seems at first sight more grossly realistic than the most realistic play of Ibsen—Tolstoi’s Powers of Darkness. Though, as one reads and sees it, the pity and fear seem to weigh almost intolerably upon one, the impression left upon the mind when the reading or the performance is over, is that left by the hearing of noble and tragic music. How, out of such human discords, such a divine harmony can be woven I do not know; that is the secret of Tolstoi’s genius, as it is the secret of the musician’s. Here, achieved in terms of naked horror, we find some of the things which Maeterlinck has aimed at and never quite rendered through an atmosphere and through forms of vague beauty. And we find also another kind of achievement, by the side of which Ibsen’s cunning adjustments of reality seem a little trivial or a little unreal. Here, for once, human life is islanded on the stage, a pin-point of light in an immense darkness; and the sense of that surrounding darkness is conveyed to us, as in no other modern play, by an awful sincerity and an unparalleled simplicity. Whether Tolstoi has learned by instinct some stagecraft which playwrights have been toiling after in vain, or by what conscious and deliberate art he has supplemented instinct, I do not know. But, out of horror and humour, out of some creative abundance which has taken the dregs of human life up into itself and transfigured them by that pity which is understanding, by that faith which is creation, Tolstoi has in this play done what Ibsen has never done—given us an interpretation of life which owes nothing to science, nothing to the prose conception of life, but which, in spite of its form, is essential poetry.
Ibsen’s concern is with character; and no playwright has created a more probable gallery of characters with whom we can become so easily and so completely familiar. They live before us, and with apparently so unconscious a self-revelation that we speculate about them as we would about real people, and sometimes take sides with them against their creator. Nora would, would not, have left her children! We know all their tricks of mind, their little differences from other people, their habits, the things that a novelist spends so much of his time in bringing laboriously before us. Ibsen, in a single stage direction, gives you more than you would find in a chapter of a novel. His characters, when they are most themselves, are modern, of the day or moment; they are average, and represent nothing which we have not met with, nothing which astonishes us because it is of a nobility, a heroism, a wildness beyond our acquaintance. It is for this that he has been most praised; and there is something marvellous in the precision of his measurements of just so much and no more of the soul.
Yet there are no great characters in Ibsen; and do not great characters still exist? Ibsen’s exceptional people never authenticate themselves as being greatly exceptional; their genius is vouched for on a report which they are themselves unable to confirm, as in the inarticulate poet Lövborg, or on their own assertion, as with John Gabriel Borkman, of whom even Dr. Brandes admits, ‘His own words do not convince me, for one, that he has ever possessed true genius.’ When he is most himself, when he has the firmest hold on his material, Ibsen limits himself to that part of the soul which he and science know. By taking the average man as his hero, by having no hero, no villain, only probable levels, by limiting human nature to the bounds within which he can clinically examine it, he shirks, for the most part, the greatest crisis of the soul. Can the greatest drama be concerned with less than the ultimate issues of nature, the ultimate types of energy? with Lear and with Œdipus? The world of Shakespeare and of the Greeks is the world; it is universal, whether Falstaff blubbers in the tavern or Philoctetes cries in the cave. But the world which Ibsen really knows is that little segment of the world which we call society; its laws are not those of nature, its requirements are not the requirements of God or of man; it is a business association for the capture and division of profits; it is, in short, a fit subject for scientific study, but no longer a part of the material of poetry. The characteristic plays of Ibsen are rightly known as ‘social dramas.’ Their problem, for the main part, is no longer man in the world, but man in society. That is why they have no atmosphere, no background, but are carefully localised.
The rhythm of prose is physiological; the rhythm of poetry is musical. There is in every play of Ibsen a rhythm perfect of its kind, but it is the physiological rhythm of prose. The rhythm of a play of Shakespeare speaks to the blood like wine or music; it is with exultation, with intoxication, that we see or read Antony and Cleopatra, or even Richard II. But the rhythm of a play of Ibsen is like that of a diagram in Euclid; it is the rhythm of logic, and it produces in us the purely mental exaltation of a problem solved. These people who are seen so clearly, moving about in a well-realised world, using probable words and doing necessary things, may owe some of their manner at least to the modern French stage, and to the pamphleteer’s prose world of Dumas fils; yet, though they may illustrate problems, they no longer recite them. They are seen, not as the poet sees his people, naked against a great darkness, but clothed and contemporary, from the level of an ironical observer who sits in a corner of the same room. It is the doctor who sits there, watching his patients, and smiling ambiguously as he infers from his knowledge of their bodies what pranks their souls are likely to play.
If Ibsen gets no other kind of beauty, does he not get beauty of emotion? Or can there be beauty in an intensity of emotion which can be at least approached, in the power of thrilling, by an Adelphi melodrama? Is the speech of his people, when it is most nearly a revelation of the obscure forces outside us or within us, more than a stammering of those to whom unconsciousness does not lend distinction but intensifies idiosyncrasy? Drama, in its essence, requires no speech; it can be played by marionettes, or in dumb show, and be enthralling. But, speech once admitted, must not that speech, if it is to collaborate in supreme drama, be filled with imagination, be itself a beautiful thing? To Ibsen beauty has always been of the nature of an ornament, not an end. He would concentrate it into a catchword, repeated until it has lost all emotional significance. For the rest, his speech is the language of the newspaper, recorded with the fidelity of the phonograph. Its whole aim is at economy, as if economy were an end rather than a means.
Has not Ibsen, in the social dramas, tried to make poems without words? There is to be beauty of motive and beauty of emotion; but the words are to be the plainest of all the plain words which we use in talking with one another, and nothing in them is to speak greatly when great occasions arise. Men’s speech in great drama is as much higher than the words they would use in real life as their thoughts are higher than those words. It says the unuttered part of our speech. Ibsen would suppress all this heightening as he has suppressed the soliloquy and the aside. But here what he suppresses is not a convention but a means of interpretation. It is suppressing the essence for the sake of the accident.
Ibsen’s genius for the invention of a situation has never been surpassed. More living characters than the characters of Ibsen have never moved on the stage. His women are at work now in the world, interpreting women to themselves, helping to make the women of the future. He has peopled a new world. But the inhabitants of this new world, before they begin to transgress its laws and so lose their own citizenship there, are so faithfully copied from the people about us that they share their dumbness, that dumbness to which it is the power and privilege of poetry to give speech. Given the character and the situation, what Ibsen asks at the moment of crisis is: What would this man be most likely to say? not, What would be the finest, the most deeply revealing thing that he could say? In that difference lies all the difference between prose and poetry.