When We Dead Awaken departs from the principles of art to which Henrik Ibsen’s earlier social and later psychological dramas conform, and for this reason it is sometimes considered inferior to them. It delves into the realm of pathology, dealing with improbabilities rather than probabilities, with symbolic motive rather than actual motive. Solely as an artistic creation, however, the play has enduring merit. It is Ibsen’s last production; the audience may read in it the intention of the dramatist to express some deeply felt final message, one that could be clothed only in poetically suggestive and symbolic language.
When Arnold Rubek, the aged sculptor hero of Ibsen’s last work, describes the three stages of his masterpiece “Resurrection Day,” he is actually presenting a thinly disguised outline of Ibsen’s career as a playwright. After the early apprentice works came the idealized, poetic plays, Brand(1866; English translation, 1891) and Peer Gynt (1867; English translation, 1892). Then came the great social and psychological plays of his middle period, from Samfundets støtter (1877; The Pillars of Society, 1880) through Hedda Gabler (1890; English translation, 1891). Finally came the late symbolic and highly personal—even autobiographical—dramas, beginning with Bygmester Solness (1892; The Master Builder, 1893) and ending with When We Dead Awaken.
Two kinds of characters dominate the plays of this final phase: the aging but powerful artist, who, having been driven by his obsessive ambition to the top of his profession, finds that he pays too high a spiritual price, and the mysterious female out of his past who, acting as a kind of nemesis figure, forces the hero to recognize and come to terms with his past failings, even though it destroys him. Although When We Dead Awaken may lack some of the dramatic intensity of The Master Builder or of John Gabriel Borkman (1896; English translation, 1897), the play is the most complete and final...
(The entire section is 854 words.)