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Henrik Ibsen

Personal Reminiscences and Remarks on his Plays


Author of "Principal Tendencies in the Literature of the Nineteenth Century," etc.

IS name was the greatest of the literature of the three Scandinavian countries. The intellectual life of three centuries culminated in him. And he was, during the last years of his life, the dominating personality of the literature of both Europe and America.

It is, as a rule, a curse for an author to be born in a small country. It is easier for a third-rate talent who commands a world language to win general renown than it is for a mind of the highest type dependent upon translations. And this does not apply to poetry only.

Besides, when a man's works are translated, it is often found that while admirably adapted to his own community, they are out of harmony with the great world. His works have been molded to suit his surroundings; they abound in references, allusions, mannerisms which the outside world does not appreciate or understand.

If Ibsen surmounted all such obstacles, and despite everything set his stamp on the literature and thought of the world, it is first of all because his plays are written in prose, in sharp, crisp, meaty dialogue, of which not too much is lost in translation. And secondly, because as Ibsen developed and unfolded his art, he ceased writing for the North alone, but worked with the public of the world in mind. At times this brought him in conflict with actual facts: to enforce the dramatic effect of "Rosmersholm," for instance, he sets Rosmersholm Castle on the stage, although there is no such edifice in Norway.

And lastly, his renown sprang from the way in which he rendered and crystallized the modern spirit in his works. The most

highly reputed German authors, as Friedrich Hebbel, for instance, appear like mere forerunners compared with him. French dramatists like Alexandre Dumas and Emile Augier, who ruled in Ibsen's youth, grew old, and their methods seemed theatrical in comparison with his art.

Compare a French intrigue play, even the most recent ones, with a play by Ibsen, and notice how much that is artificial there is in the intrigue play. Virtually all are built on the same principle: the author sets out with a formula, and the characters are created to live up to it, and react accordingly. They have no life.

How different is Ibsen's method! He lays bare the character's very soul. The curtain rises, and the character's personality is displayed. Another cover is lifted, as it were, and we get a view of his past. Another, and we see his environment, the factors which have made him what he is. All Ibsen's main characters have a depth of perspective which is greater than that shown by any other modern poet, and it is portrayed naturally, without effort. And Ibsen's technic is new. He uses no asides, no monologues,-Dumas and Augier have both,-the spectator must make an effort to understand, just as in life.

According to the dramatic ideal of Ibsen's time, the hero was supposed to be a man of one purpose, even if this meant artificiality and one-sidedness. Compare this idea with Ibsen's. Take Solness, for instance. What a powerful type he is, and yet how decidedly individual! Solness is both a symbol-that of genius growing old and afraid of the strength of youthand a person with innumerable facets to his character.


It is impossible for dramatists who come after Ibsen to write as one wrote before him. He set the demands of dramatic technic and characterization so high that they cannot be lowered to what they were before his works.

GERMAN literature has undoubtedly received the strongest imprint of Ibsen's influence. If the Germans were slow in recognizing Ibsen,-in 1880 "A Doll's House" failed miserably in Berlin,-they have passionately made up for lost time. He impressed them first as a realist, and as such was honored, in the eighties, together with Tolstoy and Zola. This was at a time when the old idealism à la Schiller was in disfavor, and before people had begun to awaken to the new idealism of Ibsen.

On account of his faith in the minority, Ibsen impressed the general German reading public as an individualist, and then again, on account of the revolutionary undercurrent in his works, as a socialist.

In Austria, as well as in Germany, Ibsen, at the time of his death, was read, acted, and studied as much as any native author, and admired and appreciated more. How much the younger generation has learned from him cannot be measured. Especially has he influenced dramatic literature, from Richard Voss to Herman Bahr, Sudermann, and Hauptmann. "Before Sunrise" shows the influence of "Ghosts" as well as of Tolstoy's "The Power of Darkness." "The Sunken Bell" reminds one of "Brand" and "Bygmester Solness" at the same time.

His influence on English-speaking countries has been less marked. In America

his plays have been acted considerably, without meeting with any real understanding. In England, Edmund Gosse, William Archer, and to a certain extent Bernard Shaw have worked to spread his renown. As a dramatist the latter is also, in a measure, his disciple. Curiously enough, in England, at the outset, Ibsen was not only attacked as incomprehensible, but as a materialist. He was admired, in the main, as a psychologist.

But if Ibsen was hailed as a materialist in England, and a realist in Germany, he impressed France, ten years later, as a symbolist and an anarchist, when the symbolistic movement first began to spread. The foremost French dramatists, like François de Curel, show his influence. Ibsen's mysticism, -the white horses in "Rosmersholm," the stranger in "The Lady from the Sea,"-particularly appealed to the French. Frequently he was accepted as an anarchist. "An Enemy of the People" was taken as a protest against society.

The Latin races, on the whole, have been slow in accepting Ibsen,-Italy, for instance, has never grasped "Rosmersholm" or "The Wild Duck," but the Slavonic and Hungarian peoples, with their keen impressionability and brilliant adaptability, welcomed him with enthusiasm and unbounded admiration. In Petrograd, Warsaw, Prague, and Budapest he has been honored magnificently.

Of Ibsen's greatness nothing, perhaps, is better proof than the fact that in Norway he was first hailed as a conservative, then as a radical; in Germany as a realist and a socialist; in France as an anarchist and a symbolist. Each country had eyes. for only one side of his personality and genius, and in this way proved how rich and many sided that genius was.

About three years before his death I saw Ibsen for the last time. The pleasure of being with him was accompanied with sadness, for all work had grown impossible for him after a stroke of apoplexy. His mind was as brilliant as ever; an extraordinary mildness pervaded his manner, supplanting his former sternness; his charm had grown, while his distinction of manner was the same as ever. Yet the general impression was one of weakness.

After that, Ibsen lost strength. What he suffered! He, to whom work was everything, who made Oswald, in "Ghosts" exclaim: "Never to be able to work again! Never, never.-To be dead and yet alive! Mother, can you imagine anything more horrible?" And this was Ibsen's fate for six long years.

I knew him a long time. In April,

1866, I received his first letter, and it is more than fifty years since I first met him. "Brand" had at that time just startled Norway. But Ibsen was not yet appreciated; indeed, he was scarcely considered. an author or a poet worth speaking of. The one critic in Norway who had any authority felt, upon the publication of "Brand," impelled to write a few words about it, and he finished his review with the words, "Would you call this poetry?"

But the condescension and even animosity of his surroundings only helped to crystallize Ibsen's self-confidence. When he read in the papers, "Mr. Ibsen is an empty-headed nobody," or, "Mr. Ibsen is by no means endowed with what one might call genius; he possesses a slight talent and some literary ability," he reacted, and felt lifted above it all by a conviction that he did belong to the chosen, even if no one recognized it.

Ibsen's printed letters give but little idea of his personality. In them he appears almost exclusively interested in caring for his material interests. As a matter of fact, these were rather indifferent to him. In his letters there are few traces of his proud, uncompromising spirit.

He was never satisfied with looking at the surface of things; he groped below it, seeking to find the problems and causes which underlie those that are obviously apparent. He delved always deeper and deeper into his own soul, and consequently into his characters.

The one question which Ibsen always returned to is that of human responsibility. To what extent has a person right to untrammeled development? How far should he be allowed to follow his own beliefs, purposes, or nature? Responsibility is the problem of Julianus in "Catilina," of Helmer and Nora in "A Doll's House," of l'andel in "The Lady from the Sea," of Allmers and Asts in "Little Eyolf," of Solness and Hilda in "The Master Builder." It is the dominant problem of those characters who wreak destruction, like Captain Alving or Borkman, or of those who try to reform the world, like Werle or Dr. Stockman.

Björnson, Ibsen's contemporary, was frankly a moralist when he preached for or against a tangible question. Ibsen never preached. He set a problem before us, and made us think.

The way in which Ibsen embodied certain minor details and facts in his plays, transforming them or incarnating them in his characters, may be of interest. In some cases I happen to know either the originals or else the original traits that Ibsen later embodied in his characters.

There are many models back of Peer Gynt, and among them a young Dane. Ibsen met the young man frequently in Italy. He was a peculiarly conceited and affected young bluffer. He used to tell the Italian girls at Ischia and Capri that his father, a school-teacher in reality, was the best friend of the King of Denmark and that he himself was one of the greatest men in Denmark. To prove this, he often appeared in entire suits of white satin. He called himself a poet, but could find poetical inspiration only in the wil derness or in desolate, dreary spots. He once went to Crete to write, he said, a great drama or tragedy. He returned. however, without having accomplished his purpose. He averred that he could feel tragic emotion only in the mountains, and lived in self-delusion and illusion.

Some of his characteristics have passed into Peer Gynt. Otherwise Peer Gynt is supposed to be an incarnation of Norwegian foibles. Peer's lies are not really falsehoods, if this implies the intention to deceive others. They are rather self-deceptions. Peer Gynt has something in common with Cervantes's Don Quixote, and is more closely related to Daudet's Tartarin.

The germ of "A Doll's House"-that is to say, Nora's character--is found in "The League of the Young." In this play Selma complains that she is kept away from everything vital, that she has no share in the responsibilities of the home. but is being treated like a doll. In 1869 I remarked in a criticism of the work that the character did not have room for development in this play, but in her relation

to her family there was material for a whole drama. Ten years later Ibsen wrote this play. At the time Ibsen had a slight acquaintance with a young woman who, on the whole, resembled Nora. She used now and then to write to Ibsen, and in her letters she often referred to her troubles and anxieties without ever going into details. With that interest characteristic of Ibsen's attitude in regard to the psychology of others, he began to speculate as to what these troubles might be. One day he announced, with the poet's elation at having found a plausible solution of the problem, "She is worried over money matters."

This turned out to be the fact. A newspaper clipping revealed that the lady, like Nora, had obtained money by forgery, though for a less worthy purpose, it is true-not in order to save her husband's life, but in order to beautify her home. Her husband is said to have been furious when he found it out.

This ordinary affair of every-day life sufficed to stimulate Ibsen's imagination and to create a masterpiece, "A Doll's House." He widened the scope of the play, however, so as to make it almost a program for the new ideas of woman's emancipation, which had been distasteful to him, to begin with, and especially a plea for the right of a person to live his or her own life, even if a wife.

I can prove by another example how his personal experiences helped him to create his characters. A young man of letters, whom I shall call Holm, was a great admirer of Ibsen and considered it the greatest joy of his life to have the privilege of knowing the master personally. And Ibsen, too, rather liked the young man. One day, in Munich, Ibsen received a package from Holm. He opened it, and a bundle of letters from Ibsen to his young friend, together with a photograph of Ibsen, fell into his lap. Not a word of explanation was attached to the package.

Ibsen began to ponder. Why did Holm return his letters? He must have lost his mind. But even if he had lost his mind, why return the letters and the picture?

Only lovers do this, or engaged people, when they quarrel. Ibsen's solution was that in his insanity he must have mistaken Ibsen for some, one else whom he also liked. But who could that be? A woman? He had once spoken to Ibsen, with a show of feeling, about a lady. He must have offended her in some way, and her father or her brother must have requested Holm to return her letters and picture. But why should he go insane?

A certain time elapsed. One morning the young man visited Ibsen. He seemed wholly normal. After a few indifferent remarks, Ibsen said:

"Why did you return my letters?" "I've never returned your letters," Holm replied.

"Were n't you in correspondence with Miss -?" Ibsen asked.

The young man, very much surprised, answered:

"Yes. Why?"

"And were n't you requested to return her letters?"

"How do you know?"

"I gathered that you must have mixed us up in some way because you are fond of both of us."

Otherwise the young man seemed wholly sane. But Ibsen had no peace of mind until he found out what ailed the young man. He went to his hotel in Munich and asked the clerk to tell him something about Holm. The clerk replied:

"We make it a rule never to give out any information concerning our guests, but as you, Herr Doctor, are an old Münchener, you have a right to ask. When Dr. Holm wakes up, he orders a bottle of port; at lunch a bottle of wine; at dinner a bottle of red wine; and in the, evening another bottle or two of port."

The character of Eilert Lövborg in "Hedda Gabler" thus took form in Ibsen's mind. As Holm was really gifted, combining erudition with imagination, while being absolutely without pedantry, he grew into Eilert Lövborg, with "vine leaves in his hair." The young man, by the way, was so delighted at recognizing himself that for a long time he signed all

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