The following article is reprinted from Henrik Ibsen: Plays and Problems. Otto Heller. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1912. pp. 16-29.
The life of Henrik Ibsen offers small yield to biographical hero-worship, for in its exterior aspects it was singularly uneventful, almost dull. The briefest and barest outline will have to suffice for our purposes. He was born on March 20, 1828 -- in the same year as Tolstoy -- at Skien, a small town on the southeast coast of Norway, important only as a shipping-post for timber, and otherwise the very paradigm of a solemn, somnolent, and multifariously uninteresting country town; a typical home of all the mournful virtues of Philistia, and correspondingly replete with the meannesses and pretensions that are anatomized later on by the unsparing blade of Ibsen's satire. "Stockmanns Gaard," the house where little Henrik Johan gave his first shriek of indignation, was auspiciously surrounded by certain tenebrous institutions for the improvement and protection of society: the church, the public pillory, the jail, the madhouse, the Latin High School, etc... Mr. Gosse warns the tourist that over this stern prospect he can no longer sentimentalize, for the whole of this part of Skien was burned down in 1886, "to the poet's unbridled satisfaction." "The inhabitants of Skien," he said with grim humor, "were quite unworthy to possess my birthplace."
Reared in the affluence of a patrician household, he suffered an evil fall from fortune at the age of eight, when his father lost nearly all of his property. From this time forth till he was well past the middle of his life he did not get out of the clutches of wretched, grinding poverty. His friend, Christopher Lorenz Due, gives the following picture of young Ibsen's destitute circumstances while at Grimstad: "He must have had an exceptionally strong constitution, for when his financial conditions compelled him to practice the most stringent economy, he tried to do without underclothing, and finally even without stockings. In these experiments he succeeded; and in winter he went without an overcoat." Embittered by his early struggle for existence, how could he escape a stern and sombre view of life? Vividly the grievous experience entered into his youthful poetry. In one of his earliest poems mankind is divided into favored guests blithely seated at the banquet of life, and miserable outsiders freezing in the street, condemned to look on through the window. Yet candid references to his childhood and adolescence, with their bitter disenchantments, are not in the manner of this taciturn poet.
His own desire to be sent to an art school abroad was not realizable, and at fifteen he was apprenticed to an apothecary at Grimstad. Here his life was still more penned up than before. But as the apothecary's shop in such towns serves as a favorite resort for the numerous male gossips and busybodies of the stamp of Mr. Daniel Heire (The League of Youth), it afforded the lad, over his pills and pestle, abundant opportunity for watching people in their amusing variety of tricks and manners. He practiced his satirical gift in many spiteful epigrams and lampoons on the worthy burghers. To the end of his career he loved to spy out a safe corner on the unwary, gloating over each unconscious self-revelation conveyed by speech and gesture, and hoarding it up in the iron safe of his memory for opportune use. The oft-drawn picture rises up, by force of association, of the aged dramatist seated with an air of impenetrable reserve and in perpetual silence in his chosen nook at the "Grand Café" in Christiania, his malicious little eyes, armored with gold-rimmed spectacles and masked behind an outspread news-sheet, leveled fixedly upon the tell-tale mirror on the opposite wall. As is the case with all great realists, he had an insatiable curiosity for trifles. This was abetted by extraordinary powers of observation. "He thought it amazing," so Mr. Gosse tells us, "that people could go into a room and not notice the pattern of the carpet, the color of the curtains, the objects on the walls"; these being details which he could not help observing and retaining in his memory. This trait comes out in his copious and minute stage-directions and in his well-known insistence on the details of the setting. For instance, at the first Munich performance of A Doll's House he criticized the wall-paper of Helmer's living-room because it interfered with the "Stimmung." But in course of artistic experience he learned to be equally observant of the recondite peculiarities of men. He had a microscopial eye for human character. The grosser seizure of superficial traits was aided in this case by a closeness and accuracy of mind-reading comparable to the clairvoyancy of the great Russian novelist Dostoyevsky (1821-1881).
The pharmaceutical occupation had been chosen because it afforded Ibsen the future possibility of the professional study of medicine. Arduous self-preparation for the university was resorted to in place of the regular schooling. In course of learning Latin, he was fired, by the reading of Cicero and Sallust, to a first creative effort; this resulted in the tragedy of Catilina. He went to Christiania in 1850, but failed in the entrance examination to the University. The raw pedagogical philosophy of the hour is free to point with grinning satisfaction to Ibsen's failure as an argument against the value of college entrance examinations. A safer inference would be Ibsen's unfitness for the learned professions. He clung obstinately, to the end of his life, to an unbookishness singular in a man of letters, and remained stubbornly incognizant of the works even of his greatest contemporaries, such as Tolstoy and Zola. In his intellectual interest everything else dwindled before the study of living human beings.
In 1850 Ibsen's first play, Kaempehöjen ("The Warrior's Hill"), was brought before the public. He had now drifted into the precarious existence of a literary man. He became co-editor of an ephemeral revolutionary sheet which never reached a round hundred of subscribers, and this connection almost brought him behind prison bars in the period of reaction after the turbulent year of 1848. Some writers have wondered why to such a mere tyro at the theatrical business, a youngster of twenty-three without experience and without any tangible and properly certified attainments, there should have come all at once a call to leadership in a high and serious cause. Before the starveling Bohemian all at once the gates are flung open to a congenial career. Ole Bull calls him to the artistic directorship of the newly founded "National Theatre" at Bergen (1851). As a matter of fact, the "National Theatre," in spite of its high-sounding name, was an extremely modest concern. The annual salary of about two hundred and fifty dollars attached to Ibsen's position indicates plainly enough the limited sphere of his dramaturgical activity. In Bergen he stayed till 1857. As a dramatic author he contributed to the national venture, besides The Warrior's Hill, the following works: in 1853, St. John's Eve; in 1856, The Feast at Solhaug; in 1857, a revised version of Olaf Liljekrans, this having been already sketched out in 1850. None of these juvenile exercises in playwriting is comparable to his first real drama, his parting gift to Bergen, Lady Inger of Östraat (1855).
Ibsen's one lucky strike at Bergen was his marriage (1858) to Susannah Daae Thoresen, daughter of the rector and rural dean at Bergen. Mrs. Ibsen deserves a front place among the capable and long-suffering wives of men of genius. Simply to have endured for full half a century the company of this exacting and exasperatingly unsocial creature bespeaks the calm endurance of a saint. But not only did she contrive to bear with the bluntnesses and edges of his character, she learned to make him happy, and stranger still, to be happy herself in the security of his captured affection.
From 1857 till 1862 Ibsen held successively at the two theatres of Christiania posts similar in responsibilities and privations to that at Bergen. Certainly in this prolonged managerial connection with the theatre lies the chief explanation of his masterful stage-craft.
In 1864 Ibsen shook the dust of Norway from his feet. The reasons will later be touched upon. After spending one month in Copenhagen, he journeyed direct to Rome. He lived there for a while, and elsewhere in Italy, then took up his residence in Germany (1868), living for the most part in Dresden and Munich, with further visits to the South, and regular annual flights to his favorite summer haunts in the Tyrol. The self-imposed exile during which he knew no permanent home and lived, practically, with his trunk always packed, lasted, with two short breaks, till 1891. Ibsen is the sole instance known to me of a writer of the first magnitude the bulk of whose literary work was produced in foreign parts.
The remainder of Ibsen's life was passed in the Norwegian capital, with the brief interruption of a journey in 1898. He died on May 23, 1906, in his seventy-ninth year. The latter portion of his life had brought him, after long and hard struggles, the gratification of every conceivable ambition: wealth, distinctions, ease, celebrity as the world's recognized chief dramatist, the allegiance of a younger generation of writers, and the well-nigh frenzied gratitude of a whole nation unanimous in calling him its first citizen. But the final years were darkly clouded. For six years the poet, now mentally infirm, had to endure the tragic fate of Oswald Alving, the curse of enforced inactivity.
Ibsen was a man of striking appearance notwithstanding his shortness of stature. On powerful shoulders rose his leonine head, with a mane of recalcitrant white locks that framed an impressively high and broad-arched brow. The face with its straight, compressed lips and piercing eyes revealed the whole man. He was taciturn and reserved, except with intimates; yet on occasion frank to the point of harshness; anything but good-natured, in fact rather querulous and occasionally a bit petulant.
A brief survey of Ibsen's earliest works may help us to reach the beginnings of his slow but amazing development as an artist, and as a social thinker and critic. The works here classed as juvenile are now long dead and forgotten; their attempted resuscitation [during the decade following Ibsen's death] was an act of piety on the part of enthusiasts, but they could not be redeemed for the stage. Still they are unquestionably of great interest for literary history, forming as they do a species of prelude of the lifework of a great poet. The most potent influence upon the conception and style of these dramas was that of the Danish poet Adam Öhlenschläger (1779-1850), leader of the romanticist movement in Scandinavia. Next to him the Norwegian prose writer Mauritz Ch. Hansen (1794-1842), also a romanticist, should be mentioned; of foreign writers Schiller was the one most familiar to Ibsen at the earliest stage of his development.
It is not quite clear that Ibsen became fully conscious in his youth of the extraordinary poetic gifts that dwelt within him. Certainly the "lyric cry" was not overpoweringly strong in him. He never excelled as a songwriter. In the epic genre the metrical story of Terje Vigen (1860) was his only noteworthy effort. His many prologues and other poems of occasion demonstrate, in the main, nothing more than an exceptional facility in the handling of verse and rhyme.
In the narrative field he was practically unproductive. Of the projected novel The Prisoner of Agershuus, a mere shred of a beginning reached fruition. For Ibsen, poetical material turned spontaneously into drama, as he himself informs us. "The inorganic comes first, then the organic. First dead nature, then living. The same obtains in art. When a subject first rises up in my mind I always want to make a story of it,--but it manages to grow into a drama."
It is with Ibsen's plays that we are most concerned. As regards the early works of that kind, there is a certain negative quality, quite astonishing in the light of later development, which they have in common. They cling to accepted patterns. Ibsen's technical originality was relatively slow to develop. Without a knowledge of the earlier specimens of his art we might well speculate on the reason why aesthetic Jacobinism as his could have been endured for a dozen years by the decorous bourgeois of Bergen and Christiania. But the fact is, Ibsen was by no means widely out of line with the use and wont of the theatre at this time, and so he created for himself no difficulties in his position by balking the public sentiment. He had not yet stepped from the leading strings of the then acknowledged masters of the drama. A survey of the repertory of the Norwegian Theatre of Christiania under Ibsen's management is given in his annual Director's Report, for 1860-61. We gain an idea of the make-up of this repertory from the titles of the plays that were newly mounted during the period covered by the report: The Wood Nymph's Home, drama with song and dance; Sword and Pigtail (Zopf und Schwert") by Gutzkow; He Drinks, vaudeville; A Dangerous Letter, comedy; A Speech, vaudeville; Pernille's Brief Singleness, comedy; The Folk of Gudbrandsdal, drama, etc...
Ibsen's first drama, Catilina, was never deemed worthy of actual performance. It was begun in the year of the great European uprising, 1848, finished in 1849, and published in 1850, at the expense of a loyal friend and under the pen-name of "Brynjolf Bjarme"; the edition was eventually wasted, after a sale of some twenty copies more or less. The introduction to the second, greatly altered, edition (1875) reinforces the value of the work as a human document. Historical subjects were de rigeur, especially for budding dramatic geniuses. Ibsen's play is written for the most part in the conventional blank verse; the final portion is in rhymes, each line running to from thirteen to fifteen syllables. The one thing at all remarkable in this crude treatment of a time-honored theme is the independent conception of the principal character. Ibsen wrote uninfluenced by and probably ignorant of his predecessors in the premises, from Ben Jonson to Alexandre Dumas fils, nor was he hampered by any attempt at unconditional adhesion to the "historical truth" of the story.
Those who agree with the assertion that Ibsen, throughout his diversified literary career, was above all things a "poet of ideas," that is, had for his chief purpose the ventilation of moral views and theories, will find valuable confirmation of the belief in the introduction to the play. It is in essence an avowal of an excess of intellectual intention. The young dramatist thinks it fair to apologize for having tampered with the characters, and pleads in extenuation his desire of giving unrestrained play to the central animating idea. He explains that his Catiline was not meant for a hero in the popular sense, but for a personality, and therefore had to be presented as an incarnate mixture of noble and base qualities. In fact, Ibsen's Catiline is widely removed from the sly, ambitious desperado of Cicero's rolling periods. Much nearer does he approach the Sallustian view of his character,--an anarchist, but from no ignoble impulse and not without a high patriotic aim. Mr. Haldane Macfall eloquently sums up his case: "An heroic Catiline, a majestic and vigorous soul, burning with enthusiasm for the great heroic past, horrified at the rottenness of his age, raising a revolt at the corrupt state, but too steeped in that rottenness himself to be able to save the age." Single-handed he resolves to clean out the Augean stable of society; but his power for good is perverted by the instability of his nature. His lack of equilibrium between will and capacity brings this figure into conspicuous kinship with many a wrecked Titan of earlier literature; yet closer still is his spiritual affinity with the half-baked overmen of innumerable contemporary German works, as Hauptmann's Meister Heinrich, to instance only one.
It is certainly noteworthy how early in his career Ibsen was fascinated by the virtue of self-reliance militantly advancing against the authority of state, church, and family. But at this stage he could not draw such characters from life as when he came to compose An Enemy of the People or John Gabriel Borkman. The female characters by their complete unrealness betray the novice hand, though they herald Ibsen's notorious division of his women into two distinct classes, namely, women controlled by their heart, and women controlled by their will. And here, too, at the very outset of Ibsen's dramatical career, we find his hero in the characteristic dilemma between two women of the different types. The same antithesis as here between the angelic Aurelia and the demonic Furia occurs with regularity in nearly all the later plays, as in Lady Inger, where Inger Gyldenlöve and her daughter Eline, in The Vikings, where Hjördis and Dagny, in The Feast of Solhaug, where Margit and Signe are placed in sharp juxtaposition.
The youthful plays are strongly under historical influence, but from Roman history the interest soon switches off to themes of a national Scandinavian provenience. The first which actually gained a momentary foothold on the stage was the one-act play entitled The Hero's Mound ("Kaempehöjen," 1851). It was the rifacimento of The Norsemen ("Normannerne"), written in 1849. Ibsen justly held this play in low opinion and would not consent to its being included in the complete edition of his works. Yet it shows a certain fitness for the theatre sadly absent in Catilina. The manuscript of this short dramatic sketch having been irrecoverably lost, likewise the serial reprint of it in a newspaper of 1854, the prompting copy preserved in the library of the theatre at Bergen has had to serve Ibsen's editors in lieu of a more authentic original. The playlet was written in blank verse, with several lyrics interspersed. Originally the scene was laid in Normandy, but later it was moved to Sicily. The time is shortly before the Christianization of the Norwegians. And the fundamental idea was to show how the civilization of the period moved up from the South to the North. The heroine, Blanka, in the restraining influence exercised by her goodness and virtue on the barbarians, seems reminiscent of Goethe's Iphigenia. The tone is decidedly romantic, and both in the conception and the phrasing there is to be observed along with a pronounced lack of individual style an almost slavish imitation of the manner of Adam Öhlenschläger. Obviously Ibsen was now kindled with enthusiasm for the past of his native land. This is not the only time that an expedition of Vikings forms the theme of a drama by Ibsen. In order to understand the range of his images and ideas it should be borne in mind that [during Ibsen's day] Dano-Norwegian poetry derives its themes mainly from three sources, so far as it does not deal explicitly with contemporary or historical subjects. The sources are the Eddas and Sagas, the ancient folk-songs, and finally the works of the great Danish dramatist Ludwig Holberg (1684-1754). To the Bergen period belongs furthermore The Night of St. John ("Sankthansnatten"), a fairy play in three acts dating from 1852 (played 1853). In craftsmanship it shows no material advance. On the stage it proved a flat failure, and but for the rescuing hands of the editors of the posthumous works it would have remained in the oblivion to which its author had consigned it. The story bears a popular character and is full of good ideas, but is clumsily executed. An outline of the plot will serve a use by pointing to the contrast between Ibsen's crude beginnings and his subsequent mastery. The content, it will be observed, is national, but the technique is palpably French, in accordance with the contemporary fashion in drama. Ibsen's chief guiding star at Bergen and Christiania seems to have been Scribe, as appears especially from the technical construction of Love's Comedy. But his own independent manner is already discernible in certain features of The Night of St. John, notably in that favorite contrivance of his, the unveiling of a past family secret for the denouement of the plot, used so effectively in Lady Inger, A Doll's House, Ghosts, Rosmersholm, etc... In later plays several of the dramatic concepts of The Night of St. John are repeated to better advantage. The resemblance of its fantastic romanticism to Peer Gynt is self-evident. The play introduces Mrs. Berg, her daughter Juliane, a son, and a stepdaughter Anne, a sweet poetic soul thought to be unbalanced because of her fantastic imagination and belief in elfs and trolls. Juliane is affianced to the impecunious student Johannes Birk, who falls in love with Anne. Young Berg brings his friend Paulsen home with him. The latter and Juliane fall promptly in love. On the festal night of St. John the young people stroll to a woody hill in order to enjoy the bonfires. A magic potion mixed with the holiday punch makes the region seem enchanted. The hillside bursts open and discloses to their view the Mountain King with his gnomes and sprites. But this and the ensuing witchery is experienced only by two of the young people, Johannes and Anne, thanks to their capacity for deeper feelings. The young "poet" Paulsen and the sentimental doll Juliane see none of it. The ill-assorted couple Juliane and Johannes dissolve their engagement. In the final winding-up Birk marries Anne and Juliane takes the æsthetic poseur Paulsen, a forerunner of Stensgaard in The League of Youth. The meagre little play, with its naïve fable which belongs in a class with the White Grouse of Justedal, harks back to an earlier inspiration perhaps than any other of Ibsen's works. For in the reminiscences of his school days, while speaking of the gay social doings of the little town, Ibsen dwells particularly on the joyous celebration of St. John's Night, when the general merriment was apt to grow boisterous, and good-natured pranks would be indulged with a fair degree of impunity.
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