When We Dead Awaken

by Henrik Ibsen

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Critical Evaluation

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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 exploration of this process, and so it stands as Ibsen’s final statement on the artist’s relation to society and to his or her own soul.

Having achieved great personal success with his masterpiece, yet feeling unaccountably uneasy about it, Rubek attempts to satisfy his needs by taking a young wife and living in moderately luxurious indolence, satisfying his artistic and financial needs by turning out satirical portrait busts. He grows tired of Maia, and the ironical pleasure of making fun of his clients while taking their money wears off. He then attempts to find out what it is that bothers him.

When he meets Irene, she reminds him of their life together many years before when, as an innocent young girl, she modeled for the first version of “Resurrection Day.” On the realistic level, Irene simply wants revenge on the man who cast her off and thereby turned her to a life of promiscuity, prostitution, and, finally, insanity. This is not a realistic play, however, and Irene’s function is to probe Rubek’s soul, not to get some mundane revenge. As he tells her about the evolution of the statue, Irene toys with her knife, but she declines to use it when Rubek confesses his own anguish and sense of failure. “I suddenly realized you are already dead,” she tells him, “dead for years.”

Rubek’s crime in rejecting Irene’s love to “create the one great work of my life” is the major reason for his failure not only as a human being but also as an artist. By withholding his emotions from her, he stifles them, and, ironically, dissipates his own talent in the process. Without the knowledge and experience of love, Rubek is unable...

(This entire section contains 854 words.)

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to respond to humanity’s nobler aspects, and so his works can, at best, be inhuman, merely satirical portraits. When Irene understands the reason for his depression and sense of failure, her desire for revenge changes to a feeling of pity and rekindled love. Rubek cannot fully understand what is happening to him, but his feelings for her are awakened; he senses that his own vindication—salvation, perhaps—lies in her.

The Irene-Rubek affair is juxtaposed against that of Rubek’s wife, Maia, and the bear hunter, Ulfheim. The young couple represents youth, vigor, and sensual experience of all kinds—eating, drinking, sex, physicality, and a joyous relationship to the immediate, natural environment. Rubek and Irene, on the other hand, stand for age, wisdom, and spiritual realization.

When We Dead Awaken ends on a note of reconciliation. Although he spurns her love in his youth, Rubek is ready to accept it in age. He and Irene go to seek a higher reality in the frozen mountains than Maia and Ulfheim will find in the lush valley. The living dead can awaken only into a spiritual reality beyond death. Ibsen suggests this idea at the play’s conclusion, and it is exactly what happens to Irene and Rubek as they are swept up in an avalanche. With Maia’s voice echoing “I am free as a bird” in the background, the nun in black, apparently a symbol for Irene’s tainted past, emerges and blesses the couple with the sign of the cross and a pax vobiscum.