Thursday, 5 June 2014

DALLYING WITH IBSEN

In the Athenæm-hall on Monday evening last an intelligent audience met to dally a while with IBSEN. An essay upon the alleged excellences of the productions of that puzzle-witted Scandinavian was followed by a symposium of platform speeches. From these it would appear that the speakers represented three classes, to wit, those who know nothing about IBSEN, those who know him slightly and have no desire to know him better, and those who know him well enough to wish there were no such writer to know. It did not seem to occur to any speaker that Mr. IBSEN owes much of his present eminence to the really irrelevant fact that he is a voice out of Norway. The recent exploration of the country of Norway by English travellers has been accompanied by a similar exploration of Norwegian literature. The prevailing passion is for discovery —to be first in the field with a new fact or a new figment ; and, after a futile attempt to make a sensation with such mediocre personages as WERGLAND and WELHAVKN, and a rather more successful operation with BJÖRNSTJERNE BJÖRNSON, the explorers have produced some considerable stir with HENRIK IBSEN. Not satisfied with finding an eccentric Norwegian writer of passable short stories embodying inexact studies in social pathology, the discoverers have exalted their "find" into an epoch-making dramatic artist plus reformer, a kind of SHAKSPEARE and BUDDHA rolled into one. And, amid the universal tendency to gape after what is new, together with the general British lack of clear ideas, it was not unnatural that the "wave of folly " called Ibsenism should carry many a rootless mind before it. The magazine-writer with his everlasting need of something striking, the chronic faddist and professional grumbler at society, the moral anarchist and the constitutional libertine, the freethinker of the strive-and-cry species, the academic fledgling with a waving to fly in advance of the times, the youth who seeks to make up for his ignorance of real life and real literature by posing as an esoteric and a hierophant of something out of the way—all these find their common interest in IBSEN, as they do in Leaves of Grass or the Kreutzer Sonata.

Of Mr. IBSEN'S three classes of work —his historical dramas, his dramatic poems, and his social dramas—it is the last-named which chiefly exercise the faithful. It is before these, also, that the unbeliever chiefly experiences that mixture of amusement and disgust which the believer most particularly resents. Of course, the Ibsenite makes the obvious retort that the scoffer lacks the capacity to appreciate the master. But so long as the Ibsenite and the contemner of IBSEN remain respectively who they are, this facile answer will probably go for nothing, The Ibsenite is commonly found to herd much too closely with the hysterical doctrinaire and the constitutional malcontent for the argumentum ad hominem to carry much weight on his side. A reasoning public will prefer a few clear principles. It will ask whereon exactly the huge claims of IBSEN are founded. Is he dramatist, moralist, or both ? Does he entertain or does he instruct ? "Do his plays hold the stage, like a SHAKSPEARE'S or a MOLIERE'S, by sheer power of intrinsic interest? Do they hold the mirror up to nature? Or are we to go to them as to a sermon or a lecture ? We are not afraid to say that simple honest answers to these questions would instantly reveal the folly of lbsenomania.  It is notorious that the dramas, as dramas, have been saved from immediate damning only by sheer exertion of some individual actress, Miss ACHURCH, Miss ROBINS, or Miss FARR. For holding audiences delighted and enthralled, they can no more compare with a work of SHAKSPEARE or MOLÍERE, of SHERIDAN or SARDOU, than Mr. LEWIS MORRIS can compare with DANTE or MILTON. The fact is that IBSEN might as well have chosen, and would most likely have chosen, some other vehicle, such as the novel form of Mr. HOWELLS, if drama had not been already the grand Norwegian vogue.

There is a class of persons who prate in vague and voluble phrase of ''Art," and "Art for Art's sake," and " Truth," and who make the rest of the world very tired and somewhat resentful by their manifest impotence to express the secrets they pretend to hold. At times, however, they become intelligible, and tell us that the artist concerns himself only with the objective contemplation of nature and life, and with depicting it. And some of these assure us that IBSEN is a consummate artist in this sense, inasmuch as he represents society in the simple light of its real self. What has been claimed for ZOLA is also claimed, for IBSEN, the "Zola with a wooden leg." We are not in a position to tell what, experience of life the Ibsenite may  have enjoyed or suffered. But if the society of little coast-towns in Norway is so putrid a mass of unmitigated cant, hypocrisy, lying, meanness, selfishness, sensuality, silliness, and crass stupidity as that depicted in Pillars of Society, Ghosts, An Enemy of Society, and their like, we can only say, with the King of BROBDINONAG, " I cannot but conclude the bulk of  your natives to be the most pernicious  race of little odious vermin that Nature ever suffered to trawl upon the  surface of the earth." IBSEN holds no mirror up to nature. Nor is it to be expected that he should. A man who sets about inculcating a wild moral or social chaos by means of a drama is rendered ipso facto incapable of depicting things as they are. He creates mere types and extremes, and he creates them by an act of intellect, not from the fruit of observation. His pastors are all wooden döfunds, his officials all pompous bubbles of the same shape. The only commendable characters are featherheads, and very much alike at that. To suit a dramatic purpose he divides a whole town into two parts ; on one side are two individuals of honesty and sense, on the other a mere population of moral jellyfish. It is impossible to see the world as it is, when your first purpose is to show that it is all wrong. If objective contemplation of life means looking at particular portions of life through a coloured microscope and disregarding the rest, then IBSEN is an " artist'" in whom those who will may rejoice.
But, we shall be told, IBSEN is a great reformer. Yet no two of the devoutest Ibsenites agree as to how the reformer would inform. That he scolds society as roundly as DIOGENES or CARLYLE is evident. That he regards the conventional ideals of society as somehow irremediably rotten is equally clear. According to his own reported statement the salvation of society lies in anarchy combined with a wholesale conversion of human nature. But what this means, how it is to be done, and what human nature is to be converted into, the prophet sayeth not. That society is now steadily working out its own evolution, that individuality is actually deepening, that moral conventions have palpably ameliorated moral practices, that it is better for a few to be hypocritical than for all to rush like a herd of swine into promiscuous naturalism, are considerations on which the sage appears never to have spent a thought. Ask, What is his teaching? Does he advocate that every man shall follow his own impulses? The " artistic '' dilettante replies, something idiotically, '' He advocates nothing, he depicts." Does he propose that man shall have no marriage, no religion, no moral standard ? And, again, his serene futility the "artist " answers, " He proposes nothing, he paints." Possibly, indeed, we might pardon a writer who did in reality show us things as they are, and let us correct them for ourselves. But IBSEN gives us limelight views of certain offensive elements only, and assures us that these nastinesses constitute life. The Ibsenite, proper claims that such a proceeding is justifiable in view of IBSEN'S "mission." But what in the name of good faith and common sense is IBSEN'S mission ?

As an influence on society and ethics Ibsenism is either futile or pernicious. The works of IBSEN teach us nothing we do not know, lend no help to reformation, and leave a bad taste in the mouth. As dramas they are not a tenth part as interesting or as powerful as " Hamlet," or " The School for Scandal," or " Caste." As stories they have a certain merit, but one which cannot be mentioned in the same breath with the power and interest of THACKERAY or of CHARLES  READE. The personnel of Ibsenism, is largely composed of those ill-ballasted minds which run after Shakspearian ciphers, phalanstères, or those vagaries which may be summed up as Annie-besantism. It would, we think, be no bad advice for the adolescents of the Trinity Dialectic or any other society to gain maturer knowledge of man and deeper lore in worthy literature before they deliver their impressionable souls over to the men with the muck-rake.

 The Argus 22 July 1893,

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