Wednesday, 15 June 2016




The performances of the gifted tragedienne, Miss Nance O'Neil, have furnished a round of diversion to the playgoers of Adelaide; and by the presentation of "Hedda Gabler" lovers of Ibsen are tomorrow to be allotted their share in the general enjoyment. The question whether Ibsen will ever attain genuine popularity presents one of those problems over which the fiercest of controversies has already waged, and enthusiasts in the dramatic art have divided their forces into two unequal factions, one of which vigorously denounces the Norwegian dramatist as the greatest preacher of "impropriety" the world has ever seen, whilst the other as strenuously hails him as the new prophet of social regeneration. The fact is that literature, as Thomas Hardy says, is "mainly the expression of souls in revolt;"  and Ibsen, having conceived that the sphere of his labours lay in probing into the heart of social disorders and exposing what he deemed the shams and illusions of conventional ideals, must have realized that he would be called upon to encounter the implacable enmity of those who consider his leaching as a step towards anarchy.
 Ibsen is essentially a revolutionist, not of the "sans culotte" variety, but of the order to which Shelley, Ruskin, and even Burne Jones belong. "There is only one thing that avails— to revolutionize people's minds," are his words. His keen irony, like the scalpel of a surgeon, cuts deep at the core of the most sacred institutions of society, and divests the conventional ideals of all their idealism. "If an ideal is false it must be discarded," he says in effect, "no matter how essential its retention may seem for the stability of society." The "idealists," on the other hand— led by that eminent though somewhat emotional dramatic critic, Mr. Clement Scott — are not unnaturally alarmed for the very existence of the social order which the shattering of popular and conventional idols seem to threaten. But since, as Bernard Shaw in his "Quintessence of Ibsenism" says, "man's onward path is strewn with the wrecks of discarded ideals," Ibsen may fairly claim that in overturning what he deems the images of false Deities he is preparing mankind for the reception of nobler and higher aspirations. Thus it is that the advent of the Norwegian dramatist has divided the dramatic world into the two opposing camps, and initiated a strife the bitterness of which was sufficiently exemplified upon the first production of "Ghosts" in England.
 "Hedda Gabler," the heroine— after whom the play of that title is named, is supposed to represent a typical figure of the dying century— a woman without ideals, a sceptic, and a coward. Having no ideal either in realism or conventionalism, she ultimately convinces herself that her weakness lies in her fear of doing evil. What Ibsen seeks to inculcate is that whilst convention runs counter to reality certain temperaments will be induced to make an ideal of vice. The difficulty of portraying such a character— of presenting those meaner imperfections which so detract from stage dignity — is apparent; and playgoers will look forward with interest to Miss Nance O'Neill's interpretation of so difficult a part. Though Ibsen has strong democratic tendencies, the whole moral of his teaching, paradoxical as it may seem, is an emphatic protest against the tyranny of what Dr. Stockmaun in "The Enemy of the People" calls the "compact liberal majority"—a party he likens to "a sausage machine; it grinds all the heads together in one mash." As Havelock Ellis says, Ibsen's idea is that "only by the creation of great men and women, by the enlargement to the utmost of reasonable freedom of the individual," is the realization of democracy made possible. In this as in other essentials, indeed the Norwegian holds common ground with the great American seer of democracy, Walt Whitman. "Where the citizen is always the head and ideal, where children are taught to be laws unto themselves, there the great city stands." sings Whitman. To elevate mere party machinery into an ideal, to phrase the ever resounding cry of "Unity! Unity!" as the highest motto of human progress— this, in Ibsen's opinion, marks the birth of tyranny and the death of individual freedom; and, with Herbert Spencer, the dramatist would be at one in the view that the loss of personal liberty at the instance of "the compact Liberal majority" heralds the coming slavery of the future.
 To understand and appreciate Norwegian art it is first essential to understand the characteristics of the land which has produced its great exponents. Norway, is a country at once of bright sunshine and gloomy darkness. For six whole months the sun remains above the horizon, and for the rest of the year the land is enthralled in the perpetual night of winter. The mists rising in fantastic shapes out of the sea, the shadows lingering in the gloomy forests, "the play of colours on sky, sea, and rock, from the most glowing red to the most delicate yellow and white; and then the colours of the northern lights on the winter sky with their suppressed kind of wild pictures, yet full of unrest and for ever changing," as Bjornson himself has described it, all play upon the imagination, and gave rise amongst a primitive people in the stories of elves and goblins and fairies with which Norwegian literature abounds. And thus Norway can furnish at least two great imaginative artists— Bjornson, representing the light sunlit side of nature, and Ibsen, its stern and gloomy winter. The poem of Brand, a tragedy of gloomy magnificence, the closing scene of which (we are told, on competent authority), "attains an imaginative height not elsewhere reached in modern literature, and for the like of which we have to look back to the great scene on the heath in Lear," is as far beyond the powers of Bjornson as the charming lightness and gaiety of the novelist are outside the scope of the dramatist. In Norway Bjornson with his virility and freshness is beloved of his countrymen, whilst Ibsen with his "deeds of might," his giant strength, and superb magnificence, is looked upon as a pessimist and a cynic. Goethe, as Havelock Ellis remarks, was never appreciated like Schiller; and "Bjornson, with his genial exuberance, his popular sympathies and hopes, never too far in advance of his fellows, invigorated and refreshes one like one of the forces of nature . . . . Ibsen standing alone in the darkness in front, absorbed in the problems of human life, indifferent to the aspects of external nature, has closer affinities to the stern winter night of Norway. But there is a mighty energy in this man's work. The ideas and instincts, developed in silence, which inspire his art, are of a kind that penetrate men's minds slowly. Yet they penetrate surely, and are proclaimed at length in the market-place."

South Australian Register 25 Sep 1900

No comments: