“To be a poet is, most of all, to see,” Henrik Ibsen said, and early in his literary career, he had already recognized the hammer as at once the symbol of creation and of destruction, with mythical overtones of the Old Norse thunder god, Thor, who unflinchingly sacrificed his own hand to bind the wolf Fenris and save his world from the unleashed forces of the underworld. Ibsen’s early poem “The Miner” shows his gaze fixed firmly into the depths: “Downward I must break my way . . . break me the way, my heavy hammer, to the hidden mystery’s heart.” Throughout his literary canon, although he is best known for his prose dramas, the rich poetic vein is never far from the working face of Ibsen’s creativity.
The constructions and destructions necessary to the realization of Ibsen’s vision fall into two distinct categories on either side of the watershed year of 1875. Fjelde differentiates them in apt architectural metaphor, viewing the earlier romantic group of Ibsen’s plays as a diverse old quarter, ranging from Roman villa to Viking guildhalls and even a contemporary honeymoon hotel, while glimpsing immediately beyond a small arid space “what appears to be a model town of virtually identical row houses . . . dark and swarming with secret life.”
Whatever the outward style of their construction, at the core, all of Ibsen’s earlier plays share a basically romantic orientation. Romanticism had already reached its fiery height in most of Europe by the time Ibsen published his first verse drama in 1850, but like the Northern summer sun, the German-derived glow of romanticism lingered longer in Norway, where the emerging Norwegian state, lately reestablished, was seeking its national identity in its Viking heritage. While reviewing a folkloristic play in 1851, Ibsen presented his own characteristically individual theory on nationalism in literature: “A national author is one who finds the best way of embodying in his work that keynote which rings out to us from mountain and valley . . . but above all from within our own selves.” Following that precept at the risk of alienating superpatriots, Ibsen wrote three Viking plays, Lady Inger of Østraat, The Feast at Solhaugh, and The Vikings at Helgeland. In 1862, he made an extensive field trip to gather folklore, which he incorporated with Rousseauistic ideals of the simple natural life in The Pretenders, another medieval Viking drama; in the volcanic Brand, set in the harsh west fjord country; and in the lighthearted Peer Gynt.
An important part of Norway’s nationalistic fervor stemmed from its state Lutheranism, in which Ibsen had received a traditionally rigorous grounding as a child, although none of his plays portrays clergymen sympathetically. In Brand, Ibsen also seemed to embody Søren Kierkegaard’s famous “either-or” in Brand’s call for “all or nothing,” challenging the institutionalized religion of his day. Haugen has commented that paradoxically “the rascal Peer is saved, but the heroic Brand is sacrificed,” seeing therein a reflection of Ibsen’s early religious training, similar to his puritanical attitude toward sex and his emphasis on the necessity of confession and atonement for redemption.
The dominant philosophical trend of Ibsen’s time and place was the idealism of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who died in 1831. Ibsen’s enormous double play, Emperor and Galilean, departs from the strictly romantic theories present in his earlier work to take the direction of a Hegelian dialectic conflict between “thesis” and “antithesis,” which is resolved by a “synthesis” that itself becomes the “thesis” of a new conflict. Ibsen pits the pagan happiness that he had celebrated in his Viking plays against the spiritual beauty represented by Christ’s redeeming sacrifice on the Cross. The failure of Julian the Apostate to bring about the required “third empire,” mingling the Christian and the pagan worlds, may be read as Ibsen’s rejection, like Kierkegaard’s, of the possibility of achieving a synthesis in this life. For Ibsen, duality was inescapable in the human condition, with man caught between what he is and what he should be, between the beastly nature and the divine.
In 1875, midway in his literary career, Ibsen struck an “arid place” where he reluctantly had to concede that the rhyme and meter suitable to romantic drama could no longer convey his explorations of “the hidden mystery’s heart.” The literary trend in Europe, leading toward the realistic and even naturalistic expression of contemporary social problems, came to Scandinavia principally through the critic Georg Brandes, who had become Ibsen’s close friend in 1871. Ibsen’s last twelve plays divide neatly into three distinct subgroups of four dramas each, characterized by their dominant thematic elements—social, psychological, and philosophical. This sequence, which Ibsen clearly intended as an organic whole, leads inexorably from social agony to spiritual conflict and at last to an area hitherto unexplored in Ibsen’s time, described by Fjelde as an “extraordinary, pre-Freudian sensitivity to unconscious pressures behind the conscious mind—the relationships of motives and conflicts bred in the troll-dark cellar.” In each category, Ibsen employed his personal experiences differently. From The Pillars of Society to An Enemy of the People, the social plays use contemporary settings that might have been encountered on the streets of Christiania and characters caught up in the new industrialized manifestation of the old conflict between what is and what ought to be. Between The Wild Duck and Hedda Gabler, Ibsen’s hammer broke through to a deeper layer of consciousness beyond the social, forcing away the barriers which the individual erects between his self-image and his ideals. Finally, from The Master Builder to When We Dead Awaken, Ibsen probed the clash between his artistic vocation and his responsibility to those who loved him, using in each play a flawed creative personality who at last realizes that the ultimate height of achievement is denied him because he has not been able to merge love with his art. With the twelve plays of his prose cycle, Ibsen adopted what Fjelde calls “a way of seeing, deceptively photographic on the surface, actually a complex fusion of perspectives, which then became his dramatic method,” as, even more significantly, he simultaneously reached the summit and the deepest heart of his own experience of life.
To the theater in particular and to literature in amazing generality, Ibsen bequeathed innovations almost as astonishing in retrospect as they must have been to his contemporaries. He was first to involve ordinary human beings in drama, abandoning the old artificial plots and instead creating scenes that might be encountered in any stuffy drawing room or aching human heart. He conveyed for the first time in centuries a depth and subtlety of understanding of human character and relationships, especially those of women, evocative of the height of human tragic experience seen previously among the Elizabethans and the Periclean Greeks. He dared to challenge social abuses, knowing their agonizing sting at first hand. He explored the unconscious mind to an extent unmatched until the promulgation of Freud’s theories decades later.
The Vikings at Helgeland
Before Ibsen gained the summit of his creative efforts he participated in the attempt to create a national Norwegian theater by writing plays based on Norwegian folktales. Ibsen gathered his material for The Vikings at Helgeland not from the medieval German epic The Nibelungenlied but from a much older work, The Völsungasaga, itself a derivation of the Elder Edda containing the story of the Valkyrie Brynhild, who destroys her beloved hero Sigurd because he has betrayed her trust. Ibsen chose to base The Vikings at Helgeland on the Icelandic family saga, in which, he said, “the titanic conditions and occurrences of The Nibelungenlied and the Volsung-Saga have simply been reduced to human dimensions.” Yet he saw an insoluble incompatibility between the objective saga and the dramatic form: “If a writer is to create a dramatic work out of this epic material, he must introduce a foreign element. . . .” Ibsen’s “foreign element” in The Vikings at Helgeland is realism, a rendition of the myth of Brynhild set in tenth century Norway, at the advent of Christianity. The Brynhild-figure is Hjørdis, a merciless visionary, married to Gunnar but in love with Gunnar’s close friend, the weak-willed warrior Sigurd, who had won her under the guise of Gunnar and with whom she has had her only satisfying sexual experience. When Hjørdis learns of the deception—Sigurd is married to another woman—she slays her lover, hoping to be united with him in death, but as he dies, Sigurd reveals that his meek wife Dagny has converted him to Christianity. In despair and rage, the pagan Hjørdis hurls herself into the sea. Ibsen’s preoccupation in The Vikings at Helgeland is not with the fall of mythic goddesses and heroes but with the human tragedy wrought by deliberate falsehood, a theme to which he would often return.
Ibsen called Brand “a dramatic poem.” Brand is a stern young pastor who defies both his church superiors and the self-serving local governmental officials, demanding “all or nothing” in the service of his God. Brand even applies his unbending doctrines to his mother, to whom he refuses to grant forgiveness unless she relinquishes all her property, and to his wife and his child, who die because Brand will not take them to a milder climate. Brand then leads his flock to an “ice church” high in the mountains, where he believes that they will all be closer to God, but, daunted by the painful journey, his people at last stone him and return to their valley far below. Brand is finally moved to tears by a vision of his dead wife shortly before he is buried by a mammoth avalanche, above whose roar he hears a voice proclaim, “He is a God of love.” In Brand, the story of a man whose tragedy is the negation of love, Ibsen not only used the figure of an acquaintance he had met in Rome, Christopher Bruun, a devout reformer who fought the established church as well as the spirit of compromise, but also drew on his own personality. He remarked in an 1870 letter, “Brand is myself in my best moments.”
Emperor and Galilean
Emperor and Galilean, the double play that stands between Ibsen’s two groups of dramas, ranges over much of the fourth century Roman Empire, interpreting successive phases in the life of Julian the Apostate, who tried to replace Constantine’s Christianity with a renewed paganism. In part 1, Caesar’s Apostasy, the young Julian is disillusioned by Christianity and is influenced by the pagan seer Maximos, who desires a “third empire” uniting classical beauty and Christian ethics. In part 2, The Emperor Julian, force proves ineffective in reinstating pagan religious observances; in battle, Agathon, a Christian, slays Julian, who mutters as he dies, “Thou hast conquered, Galilean.” Like Cain and Judas, Julian unknowingly changed history in a way he never intended. Ibsen told Edmund Gosse, “The illusion I wanted to produce is that of reality . . . what I desired to depict were human beings.” He also said later that Emperor and Galilean contained “more of my own personal experience than I would care to admit.” He saw Christianity as removing the joy from human life, his own included, encasing people in an emotional confinement from which only violent action could free them. This play marks Ibsen’s “farewell to epic drama” and his adoption of prose as his dramatic medium; Meyer calls it the “forerunner of those naturalistic plays which were shortly to explode . . . like a series of bombs.”
A Doll’s House
The famous slamming of the Helmer front door in A Doll House was the second realistic explosion in Ibsen’s bombardment of his society’s outmoded thought and repressive lifestyle. Significantly, new translations of the play point...
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