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    by Einar Haugen (Volume 20: Page 1)

One of the most interesting aspects of literary history is the story of how and why an author is accepted outside his own country. Some authors are popular at home, but never penetrate abroad, while others succeed abroad and fail at home. We have here a problem in international cultural relations which invites research and speculation. Why is it that a nation takes one foreign author to its heart and rejects an other who may be just as good? In some cases the story of an author’s acceptance resembles a searchlight that illuminates the profile of a national psychology.

Henrik Ibsen is one of the relatively few Scandinavian authors who have enjoyed and still enjoy the interest and respect of a large American public. But Ibsen’s name has al ways been associated with controversy. To this day there is an undercurrent of dislike and criticism on the part of some observers, and it would be wrong to say that he is a popular author. In his own lifetime Ibsen represented a challenge to literary and social smugness. His plays raised controversies which are almost unequaled in literary history. He divided the waters in such a way that men were either for or against him, and it is not always easy to perceive the real reasons for their passionate attacks or defense. Perhaps one could say that the extent of his acceptance was a test of literary and intellectual maturity.

In America, as in so many other countries, the period of controversy was followed by one of acceptance. Ibsen be came a classic of the stage. There is a small library of articles and books written about him in the United States alone. No published history of the drama excludes his name. But the danger now is that he who once was ahead of his time will [2] be held by some to be old-fashioned. The very ideas which once made him controversial now tend to obscure his art in the eyes of some critics, who declare that he no longer has a message. Yet he lives on, and a growing number of critics appreciate the inherent power of his dramatic art, which still brings his figures to life when they are competently presented on the stage. {2}

Even in his homeland it took Ibsen a long time to win acceptance and admiration. He was practically driven away from Norway in 1864 at the age of thirty-six, and it was not until he had written “Brand” two years later that he won recognition as an ornament of his country. His first victories abroad, in Denmark, were closely followed by a great popularity in Germany in the 1870’s and 1880’s. He came like a breath of fresh air to the heavily burdened generation of Bismarck and William I. With the publication of “A Doll’s House” and “Ghosts” he became the acknowledged literary leader of the radical movement in Germany. At this time he was still practically unknown in the Romance and English-speaking world. The year 1889 was a turning point, when his fame penetrated from the German-Scandinavian area into England. The introduction of Ibsen to England was a crucial test, which revealed how great the distance was between Continental and English culture. In the age of Queen Victoria the English Channel was a very broad stream indeed, which would not let an author pass without carefully filtering him and cleaning him up. The English were nursed on a tradition of gentility and Puritanism which made them shun and abhor the French and scorn the German authors of their time. A writer like Ibsen, who challenged the conventions of middle-class life and set a new fashion in the writing of intellectual plays, could not immediately win a hearing in the English speaking world. The English were shocked by his ideas, repelled by his characters, and deaf to his humor. It took great courage in the England of the 1890’s to advocate the cause [3] of Ibsen, and it is not without significance that the men who did the most for him were in a position of protest against English society. One was the Scotchman William Archer, who translated most of his plays; the other was the Irishman George Bernard Shaw, author of one of the most interesting books of criticism ever written about Ibsen. Another famous Irishman, the novelist James Joyce, was a very young man in Dublin in 1900 when he discovered Ibsen and found in him just the stimulus he needed for his future career of protest. {3}

The American discovery of Ibsen was promoted by two distinct currents of culture. One was the presence in America during these years of Norwegian emigrants and their descendants, some of whom were in touch with developments abroad and sought to bring Ibsen’s fame across the Atlantic. Among these the earliest was Rasmus B. Anderson, then professor of Scandinavian languages at the University of Wisconsin, who wrote the first known article (in English) about Ibsen in America, a review of “Brand” in the Literary World. Anderson also assisted in the first English performance of Ibsen in America, a performance of “A Doll’s House” in Milwaukee in 1882. Unfortunately, Anderson did not follow up his good beginnings. In his autobiography, which appeared thirty years later, he wrote: “I have no sympathy whatever with his so-called social dramas, beginning with A Doll’s House and ending with When We Dead Awaken. Aside from the improprieties and offense against good morals that are found in them, they seem to me mere twaddle and all the symbolism which they are said to contain I regard as a mere opinion of his readers and admiring critics.” This is a fair summary of what we might regard as the opinion of right-minded citizens in America and England in the 1890’s. It is much less violent than most of what was written in England during these years. In Anderson’s case the bourgeois in him [4] overcame the Scandinavian; his enthusiasm for Norwegian literature faded before the prevailing American opinion. But the Norwegian critic and novelist Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen, who was a professor at Columbia University, carried on where Anderson stumbled. He lectured on Ibsen, published articles on his plays, and even wrote a book about him, which appeared at the height of the Ibsen controversy. In this book he wrote of Ibsen that his charm lay in always dealing with “vital things. . . . He is strong and virile and opens to his reader long vistas of thought in unsuspected directions.” But he was not uncritical of Ibsen: “I can detect no dominant principle underlying his criticism of life. . . . Ibsen is, to my mind, as philosophically unsound as was Shelley.” {4}

A certain reluctance towards the apparent iconoclasm of Ibsen on the part of some of his emigrated countrymen did not deter all of them from a devoted study of his works. Anderson’s successor at the University of Wisconsin, Julius E. Olson, made Ibsen’s writings a major part of his teaching throughout a long (1884-1931) and popular career. In spite of early criticism, schools founded by Norwegian church groups for higher education, like Luther and St. Olaf colleges, gradually introduced his writings into their curriculums. Peter J. Eikeland, dean of Norwegian studies at St. Olaf College, wrote essays on Ibsen’s earlier plays which were published after his death by the St. Olaf College Press. His colleague and successor, the novelist O. E. Rølvaag, was an equally enthusiastic apostle of Ibsen the idealist, and the tradition is being carried on into the present by Theodore Jorgenson. A book of Ibsen interpretations and another of translations are excellent evidence of his devotion to the master. {5} [5]

The other current of culture that bore Ibsen forward to the position he now holds was the English tradition. What ever was being discussed in England won an interest in literary American circles also. Essays by William Archer and Edmund Gosse were reprinted in American literary journals and the translations of his works which had appeared in Lon don were published in New York also. All this began in 1890 and carried on through the early part of the twentieth century down to the end of World War I. By that time we may say that Ibsen was thoroughly accepted, even though the voices of dissent were by no means silenced.

The early criticism was often violent enough. About “Ghosts” one early writer said, “The plot is immoral be cause it is exaggerated and without the power of imparting a wholesome lesson.” Concerning “A Doll’s House,” one re viewer said, “It is seldom that such a cataract of vapid talk has been set loose in a theatre.” In 1890 W. E. Simonds wrote: “That [the Americans] should give any general assent to the truth of his assertions, or anticipate the realization of his suggestions, is out of the question altogether. Ibsen is too revolutionary, too much of an extremist, to permit of any large following here.” Others referred to him as “that foul-mouthed Ibsen, who recognizes no law, human or divine.” William Winter, long an eminent critic of the American stage, wrote: “Mr. Ibsen, as the writer of a number of insipid, and some times tainted compositions, purporting to be plays, could be borne, although, even in that aspect, he is an offence to taste and a burden upon patience. But Mr. Ibsen obtruded as a sound leader of thought or an artist in drama is a grotesque absurdity.” William Watson wrote in 1893, “He shows us little but the ugliness of things; the colour seems to fade out of the sunset, the perfume seems to perish from the rose in his presence.” We are not surprised to learn that a performance of “Ghosts” in Boston aroused one Pastor Lansing to preach against it, though he felt it was “almost degrading [6] . . . . even to denounce it in public. . . . Decent people,” he added, “should never permit themselves to endorse such plays, but should get far away from the mire of unwholesomeness and uncleanliness.” {6}

Fortunately Ibsen did find his defenders in America, who did not confuse criticism of current ideas of morality with an advocacy of immorality. One of the first, as is not unnatural, was a woman, Annie Nathan Meyer, who detected what she called “his strong, sympathetic belief in the future of woman.” She soundly analyzed his position as follows, “Ibsen is not interested in women as a sex merely, but as a part of humanity, for he cannot believe that humanity can be emancipated unless all its component parts are freed.” Not until the year of Ibsen’s death did critics appear who were willing to proclaim Ibsen’s greatness in America. William Dean How ells, the father of American realism, declared that his plays “will never have a great or a small popularity with our race, in any of the seven seas; and yet, for all the reasons against them, however furiously urged, we should be the better for their wide acceptance, honester and cleanlier.” James Huneker wrote a book about the drama called Iconoclasts in which he devoted much space to Ibsen. In a laudatory memorial essay he said: “By some critical hocus-pocus the world was led for years to believe that the lofty thinker, moralist, and satirist concealed an immoral teacher. . . . Ibsen was fathered with all the sins of his characters. Instead of being studied from life, they were, so we averred, the result of a morbid brain, the brain of a pessimist and a hater of his kind.” The Dial wrote, “The ideas of this man, and the dramatic pieces which embodied them, had to fight their way by slow degree, for they found arrayed against them all the forces of Philistinism and all the prejudice of a society given over to materialism, and self-satisfaction, and comfortable [7] compromise.” Edwin E. Slosson even wrote an article called “Ibsen as an Interpreter of American Life,” in which he said, “In this country, especially, where some of the plays are never seen and rarely read, the ideas of Ibsen have the freshness and interest that they had when they first startled Europe. And nowhere is their galvanic shock more needed than here. . . . Even more than Norway, America lies apart from the great currents of modern thought, and there are eddies of provincialism to be found in all parts of the United States that would match anything of the kind in Scandinavia. Ibsen describes our small towns better than our own writers.” {7}

The change of atmosphere is reflected in a quotation from the Independent in 1908, “Fifteen years ago a man who read Ibsen’s plays in this country was regarded as an eccentric, and if he professed to admire them, he was suspected of affectation or worse.” W. P. Eaton wrote in the same year: “Henrik Ibsen is one of the most popular playwrights in America today. . . . His printed plays are among the books most in demand in the New York public libraries; they are sold in great numbers at the book shops; they are a part of all collegiate courses in the drama.” Of course this did not silence Ibsen’s enemies; old William Winter still croaked, “The fads have their little day; but sooner or later, the world comes back to the right standard . . . to beauty, purity, simplicity, truth.” {8}

Much of this change in opinion was due to the performances that brought Ibsen to life for theatergoers. I have al ready referred to the first Ibsen performance in Milwaukee; but this was not a very notable event in the history of the [8] theater, for the actors were mostly amateurs and the play itself was mutilated. The play was renamed “The Child-Wife” and it was described by the translator as “a protest against the European estimate of woman.” But the pro test was diluted by the adoption of the German ending of the play, in which Nora changes her mind and stays with her family. The translator introduced an Irish widow to give the play some humor, and in the second act one of Nora’s children sang a pretty solo, which the audience enjoyed so much that she had to repeat it. This performance is merely a historical curiosity, and it took seven years before a really worthwhile production in a major center of dramatic art took place. This was Beatrice Cameron’s performance of “A Doll’s House” in Boston in 1889. But the 1890’s and 1900’s saw a number of actresses and actors who brought Ibsen to America. Foremost among these was Minnie Naddern Fiske, with her performance of “A Doll’s House” (1894), “Hedda Gabler” (1903), “Rosmersholm” (1907), “Pillars of Society” (1910), and “Ghosts” (1927). She wrote in 1905, “Of course Ibsen continues to be the most interesting and powerful figure in the world of dramatic writing, and it is our purpose to pro duce his Rosmnersholm when the opportunity offers.” In 1906 the great Russian-born actress Alla Nazimova began her long career of Ibsen performances, which included all his famous women from Nora and Hedvig to Hedda Gabler and Rebecca West. She wrote in 1907, “Of all Ibsen’s women Hilda Wangel is the one I like best to play.” She made one amusing re mark: “It is curious that men are more interested in Hedda; women in Nora. I played them alternately last year and I could have told by looking through the peep-hole in the curtain which play was to be given, because there were so many more men in the audience on the Hedda nights.” A male actor who also did much for Ibsen was Richard Mans field, whose version of “Peer Gynt” (1906) was enthusiastically received. Even so there was a general critical agreement that Ibsen was a dish for the few. One review of “Peer [9] Gynt” declared that “it is a hopeless attempt to make any large number of practical-minded Americans get at the bottom of such recondite things.” Charles Frohman wrote, “Americans do not understand Ibsen’s characters, particularly his women.” Clayton Hamilton said, “The greatest works of Ibsen can be appreciated only by the cultured individual, and not by the uncultured." {9}

There is much truth in this statement. It has become obvious that in the years that have passed since that time Ibsen has been the concern chiefly of cultured rather than of uncultured people. But it is a tribute to the growth of literary and dramatic culture in America that this interest has not died, but has continued to live. He has proved to be a dramatic classic, and the fascination of his characters still brings him readers and spectators throughout the United States.

The peculiar combination in Ibsen of dramatic skill and symbolic idealism has particularly fascinated the academic world. No other Scandinavian author has had so many academic courses devoted to his writing as Ibsen. In the latest survey of Scandinavian studies in America by Bronner and Franzen I find that courses containing his name in their titles are currently being offered at the universities of California, Columbia, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Stanford, Washington, and Wisconsin. My own experience has been that no course title in Scandinavian literature will draw so many students as Ibsen, and this has now gone on in my case for twenty-eight years and seems to be quite undiminished. One result of this academic interest has been that a large number of theses have been written on Ibsen, most of them of little importance, but some of them [10] genuine contributions to the scholarly literature on the subject. One of these is Annette Andersen’s “Ibsen in America,” a bibliography published in 1937, but originally submitted as a thesis at the University of Iowa. Leafing through this bibliography, one comes upon many interesting items reflecting the academic preoccupation with Ibsen. As far back as 1910 there was a study of Ibsen’s symbolism in “The Master Builder” and “When We Dead Awaken.” There have been numerous short articles on particular problems in “Peer Gynt” and other plays, on the supernatural in his plays, on recur rent elements in his art, on action behind the scenes, on his use of Biblical allusions, on his women characters, and on his proverbs, besides numerous other miscellaneous topics which have interested individual investigators. One student wrote a whole course in playwriting based on Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” There has been a superabundance of studies on literary influences. Students have published books and articles on the influence of Hebbel, Goethe, Heiberg, Oehlenschlager, Bjørnson, and other writers on Ibsen. But they have also been generous in their writings about Ibsen’s influence on other writers, from Hauptmann to Eugene O’Neill. American Ph.D.’s have published whole books about Ibsen in Germany, Ibsen in England, Ibsen in France, and Ibsen in Spain. The study I like best, however, is an admirable bit of jesting published by Adolph Zucker some years ago about Heine’s uncle and Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. He there solemnly shows that Peer Gynt must have been modeled on Heine’s uncle and lists all the similarities; but at the end of the article he quietly informs us that Heine’s account of his uncle was not published until several years after “Peer Gynt.” After World War I the rise of psychiatry made it inevitable that the psychiatrists should get hold of Ibsen and make their researches upon him. Five such studies were published between 1919 and 1944, probing the mental quirks of the characters in Ibsen plays. {10} [11]

Most of the academic studies are dry and unappealing, written for an audience of specialists. This is not true of the biography written by Adolph E. Zucker, called Ibsen the Master Builder (New York, 1929). The author is a professor of German who made a pilgrimage to all the places in Europe where Ibsen had lived and interviewed the people who remembered him. As a result his biography is enlivened by anecdotes which bring out the human side of the author. But its value in other respects does not come up to that of Her man Weigand’s The Modern Ibsen, which appeared in New York in 1925. This study marks a milestone in American criticism of Ibsen. For the first time a scholar, thoroughly familiar with the Ibsen literature and a sensitive critic, set himself the task of finding the inner meaning of the plays. Beginning with “Pillars of Society,” he discusses each of the later plays. In the treatment of these he attempts to relive the characters, to analyze and understand the purpose of each episode. While this study appears to be less known in Scandinavia than it should be, since it is not mentioned in the Centennial Edition of the plays, it deserves to be carefully pondered by every student of Ibsen. I do not myself think that all Weigand’s conclusions are acceptable, but I have never failed to find them amusing and stimulating. He insists, for example, that Nora is a comic rather than a tragic character, that she is play-acting when she says she is going to commit suicide, and that she is an irresponsible girl who enjoys making her husband squirm. Whether one agrees with this conclusion or not, it is hard not to be convinced by the close reasoning of the author and his personal manner of presenting what he has to say.

Outside the confines of the academic world, the last fifty [12] years have seen the growth of a significant critical tradition in the United States. I have already mentioned James Huneker, whose book Iconoclasts (1905) was the first in America to give full and serious treatment to Ibsen. Huneker included Hedda Gabler in a later essay entitled “Three Disagreeable Girls.” Another great figure in American criticism was Henry L. Mencken, whose interest in the dramatic was sufficient to impel him to write a preface to an edition of Ibsen’s plays as early as 1908. Mencken made himself famous for his slashing style and for his tongue-in-cheek attack on all the sacred idols of American life. It was therefore quite natural that he should espouse Ibsen. In his introduction to the “Master Builder” (New York, 1917) he wrote: “I know of no sure cure for all the sorrows of the world, social, political, or aesthetic, that was not credited to him, read into him, forced into his baggage. And I know of no crime against virtue, good order and the revelation of God that he was not accused of.” In an essay included in his Prejudices: Third Series (1922), he wrote, “To this day there is no American translation of the plays of Ibsen; we use the William Archer Scotch-English translations, most of them atrociously bad, but still better than nothing.” But Mencken’s attempts to analyze Ibsen’s plays suffer from his own refusal to take anything very seriously; of “The Master Builder” he writes that it is “at bottom no more than a sentimental epitaph to a love affair that he himself had suffered at sixty.” And of “John Gabriel Borkman” he states that it was written after Ibsen had lost his mind. Mencken was particularly harsh on those who tried to read symbolism into Ibsen’s plays: “These imbeciles read such extravagant meanings into the old man’s plays that he was moved finally, to violent protests. He was not trying to compose cryptograms, he said; he was simply trying to write stage plays.” {11}

The theater critics who flourished in the 1920’s and 1930’s [13] have all had their say on Ibsen, and their views are generally different from those expressed in the years before the war. Among them may be mentioned George Jean Nathan, Edmund Wilson, Joseph Wood Krutch, and Donald C. Stuart. In 1926 Krutch wrote, “The interest of Ibsen’s plays, far from fading, like that of lesser works, in the light of a different day, renews itself again, constantly shifting its center, but remaining always keen and fresh.” An interesting essay by Krutch entitled “The Tragic Fallacy” maintained that “Ghosts” was not a true tragedy because the characters lacked contact with the supernatural powers, and that Oswald’s death was unimportant because modern man has lost his feeling that he is unique in the universe. Edmund Wilson, who is still living and is generally regarded as one of the finest critical writers of America, wrote as long ago as 1924: “We renew our conviction that Ibsen is perhaps the only tragic writer of our own time who can be compared to the very greatest of tragic writers. . . . The tragedy of Ghosts is the tragedy of nineteenth-century respectability, middle-class prejudices, and Protestant religious views, of what we now call Victorianism.” Two years later he wrote: “As the theatrical seasons come and go and he maintains his popularity, we begin to realize that he is perhaps really to be reckoned among the few great tragic dramatists. In his combined mastery of human character, he deserves a place beside them, Sophocles and Shakespeare; we cannot doubt that many generations will continue to be stirred by the intensity and astonished by the intellect which has disentangled a highly complex and a poetic vision of life into the perfect lucidity and logic of Ibsen’s plays - which has achieved actor-proof masterpieces of the theatre without ever sacrificing for a moment the seriousness and the significance of the severest art.” {12} [14]

This was written at a time when the New York theater was particularly active in its productions of Ibsen, the middle twenties. In 1923 Joseph Schildkraut performed a “Peer Gynt” which one reviewer called “the most beautiful and inspiring production of a noble play that I have seen in twenty years.” In 1924 Eleanora Duse, the great and temperamental Italian actress, visited America and performed “The Lady from the Sea” and “Ghosts.” In the year 1925-26 there were also American performances of “The Wild Duck,” “The Master Builder,” “John Gabriel Borkman,” “Little Eyolf,” “Hedda Gabler,” “Ghosts,” and “An Enemy of the People.” In these performances a new Ibsen interpreter appeared in the person of Eva Le Gallienne, the daughter of a Danish mother and a French father, who is still one of the great ornaments of the American stage. Her performances of “Hedda Gabler” and “The Master Builder” are reckoned among the great events of the theater. More of her later. {13}

The years that have passed since the 1920’s have not again brought any such revival of Ibsen plays on Broadway as did that era. But few years have passed without some revivals, such as “John Gabriel Borkman” with Eva Le Gallienne in 1946, “Ghosts” in 1948, “The Lady from the Sea” with Luise Rainer in 1950, and “The Wild Duck” in 1952. In recent years one peculiar feature of the jungle known as Broadway has been its tendency to “adapt” the classics to make them more suitable to contemporary taste. This was true of Arthur Miller’s rendition of “An Enemy of the People” with Fredric March in 1950. One reviewer called it “a painful example of what can happen when such exploitation goes wrong. The weaknesses of the original - and they are considerable - are played up, not down, in this confused version.” An even more radical rewriting of Ibsen was Paul Green’s “Peer Gynt” in 1951, which was described by the same reviewer as “not only cast in prose, but in prose which seems designed to turn a poetic drama into a topical, realistic play.” She added, “The [15] result is a melange of the fantasy and the problem play which is convincing as neither, since it lacks the poetry of one and the actuality of the other.” The ultimate step was taken when television seized upon Ibsen. In 1954 “Hedda Gabler” was performed in a one-hour version by Tallulah Bankhead. Miss Bankhead has her charms, but they are not those of the sophisticated Hedda. Her performance was an example of what can happen when a popular medium attempts to reduce a classic to the level of the western and the wrestling match. The critic of the New Yorker magazine, Philip Hamburger, entitled his review, “Hedda Get Your Gun!” He recalled, from his boyhood, having seen Nazimova as Hedda: a wonderful experience, “especially for a growing boy with vine leaves in his hair.” He called the play “an extremely impressive drama, no matter how you look at it.” But the version presented on television was “a messy, shrill, and meaningless hour” which was “distinguished by a lack of integrity and by a persistent attempt to turn Ibsen’s thoughts topsy-turvy.” {14}

In the meanwhile the real core of the Ibsen interest has been found in the many college and university theaters throughout the nation. No season passes without some Ibsen production. The University Theater at Wisconsin produced “The Master Builder” in a well-staged version in 1955 and gave a TV performance of “Ghosts” in 1958; before that it presented “Ghosts” in 1943 and “Peer Gynt” in i948. Although college actors are amateurs, the standards of performance are usually high, and the love of acting makes everyone interested in rendering the author’s intent as truly as possible. Such theaters often escape the commercial problem which dominates the playhouses of Broadway. A survey of recent college theaters by L. M. Collins showed that Ibsen either had been or was being planned for production at two thirds of the colleges answering. {15} [16]

Many of these performances have grown out of the work of drama teachers and their classes in dramatic technique. If one scans the many books that have appeared in the last generation concerning the drama, one finds constant references to Ibsen. Many of these books are used as textbooks in the courses. They attempt to place Ibsen in relation to the currents in the drama of the world; often they have some genuinely interesting things to say. Some of them compare Ibsen with the ancient Greeks; for example, Martha F. Bellinger writes, “It is significant that Ibsen should arrive by his own route at the very principles adopted by Sophocles and commended by Aristotle, namely the unities of time, place and action.” Others emphasize his position as the chief exponent of the thesis or problem play, which they regard as outdated. Anita Block declared in 1939 that Ibsen’s plays no longer offer us vital theater because they do not deal with subjects essential to life today. “But because they were great works of art, vital to their own day, which transcended the passing theatre, they have achieved immortality for the true lover of drama.” While some of the surveyors of the drama place Ibsen on a level with Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Moliere, others rank him on a lower plane along with such modern classics as Shaw, Chekhov, Synge, Hauptmann, and Galsworthy. Among the Ibsen qualities which they particularly point out to their students is his skill in characterization, which many note is of more importance than his ideas. Watson and Pressey wrote in 1931 that “Ibsen’s true claim to greatness was . . . in his far more important merits as the artist creator of character and action and in his penetrating spiritual discernment.” Watson and Pressey also emphasize his enormous influence in making dialogue natural, his skill in building plots, his use of the retrospective technique, his imaginative use of symbolism. There is a general tendency to deny the importance of Ibsen’s ideas and to emphasize his skill as a dramatist. The question of whether he is a poet is debated, with some emphasizing the poetic values in [17] his prose, while others contend that there are no “veils of poetic imagery” in his prose plays. {16} Perhaps the best summary of the position taken by most textbook writers in America is this passage from Elisabeth Drew’s book, Discovering the Drama:

He did not bring the emotional intoxication of the great romantics; his language had none of the stimulating, uplifting qualities of verse; and most of us must in any case read and hear through the mist of translations. He provokes no easy theatrical response. But his implicit criticism and indictment of everything which is sordid and selfish . . . of all the barriers of convention and stupidity, of pettiness and jealousy and cruelty which stand between man and his freedom, and in the absorbing interest he creates in watching personality forge action and action modify personality, in the steady revelation of that mixture of the commonplace and the miraculous, the familiar and the surprising, which is the truth of human character, the greatest artist in the world is still Henrik Ibsen. . . . But Ibsen’s world is no longer our world, and we have as yet no great serious dramatist who can be spoken of in the same breath with him. {17}

It is a consequence of this view that most collections of the drama include at least one play by Ibsen, usually chosen from the social plays: “A Doll’s House,” “Ghosts,” “An Enemy of the People,” or “The Wild Duck.”

One of the best recent criticisms of Ibsen in American writing is an article by Eric Bentley called “Ibsen, Pro and Con,” which appeared in a pocketbook edition of four Ibsen plays. Bentley here uses the amusing device of first presenting all the arguments against Ibsen and then answering them in a separate section. He brings up many of the old charges against Ibsen for his unpoetic language, his stale ideas, and his melodramatic structure. But it is evident that his own heart is in the second part, where he emphasizes the dramatic quality of Ibsen’s writing. He says: “Ibsen is one of the great modern writers. Like most of the others he has presented modern life to us in the form of a fable, parable, myth and, [18] once you realize that his medium was the theatre, you will not find his fables inferior to those of other masters. Ibsen is a poet. Although he gave up verse, he managed to enrich and intensify his work by so many other means that the verse plays of the best poets since his time - T. S. Eliot’s, for example - seem dilute and ‘unpoetic’ by comparison.” {18}

One of the common complaints about Ibsen, that his language is unpoetic, must in part be blamed on the translations. William Archer and his collaborators performed a herculean task in bringing Ibsen to the English-speaking world. But Archer admitted in his introduction that it was his principle “to subordinate fluency to fidelity.” The result has been a certain stiffness, a lack of style and vividness, which has not grown less conspicuous as the years have passed and the language of the American stage has become ever more supple. Stark Young once wrote that “in many passages of Ibsen’s dialogue we can tell from both the character and the situation that the tone of the translation is off.” Archer was not sensitive to the needs of the stage, and most theater directors have found it necessary to rewrite the translations in order to make the dialogue come to life. In England a number of new translations have been published in recent years, but in America the attempts were few and unimportant until the recent appearance of two new translations by Eva Le Gallienne. She is perhaps the only American actress playing Ibsen who has understood the original language, and she is therefore in an admirable position to publish these two books, which appeared in the United States in 1955. They contain new versions of “Hedda Gabler” and “The Master Builder,” with long prefaces containing Miss Le Gallienne’s interpretations of the plays. These are the versions she has herself used on the stage, so that she can speak from experience about the needs of an acting script. I do not intend to say anything about the merits of her versions, except that they consistently read very well. They have since [19] been republished in a Modern Library volume entitled Six Plays by Henrik Ibsen (New York, 1957), in which she has added new versions of “A Doll’s House,” “Ghosts,” “An Enemy of the People,” and “Rosmersholm.” Although her introduction to this volume is helpful, it gives us much less than the long prefaces to her earlier volumes, which are unique in the vast Ibsen literature. In these prefaces we have the personal testimony of a great actress and a great woman to the perennial fascination of Ibsen. {19}

In Miss Le Gallienne’s preface to “Hedda Gabler” she gives a detailed summary of the story, and discusses at each point how she understands the characters, and how each scene ought to be acted. This is the exciting record of a lifelong relationship with the characters of a play who have become to her as real as her living friends, perhaps more real than most of them. She speaks of her “close association” with Hedda over twenty years, as if Hedda were someone she had known personally. She makes the very interesting declaration that in her early days she played Hedda in modern costume in order to emphasize the modernity of the woman, but now she has changed her mind because she feels that Hedda will be most comprehensible against the background of the 1890’s. She is an incurable romantic, who “must have loved Les Fleurs du Mal, and Beardsley’s illustrations for Salomé.” Even so, she says, we must not forget that “the vital point,” the reason she has to die, is “ageless and universal.” What I admire most about her treatment of Hedda is the combination of personal experience and empathy with a deep sense of loyalty to the author’s intention. She writes: “What an extraordinary experience it must have been to see Hedda Gabler when it was first performed! . . . Try to imagine the impact of Hedda Gabler on an audience that knew nothing about it. . . . The suspense must have been almost unbearable.” She herself, she says, has had the experience of playing [20] it to audiences of young people. For them “Hedda Gabler still weaves a potent spell, and leaves them breathless and enthralled, to an extent that very few ‘modern’ plays could equal.” She emphasizes that the actor should not be awed, but treat the play simply, with “truth, pace, humour, and excitement. . . . These people that Ibsen writes of are all extremely human; though they lived in another era and another land, the workings of their minds and hearts are universal and timeless.”

Miss Le Gallienne carries this same realistic, intimate, personal approach over into her discussion of “The Master Builder.” This is one of the most difficult of Ibsen’s symbolic plays and she chooses to ignore the symbolism as much as possible and play it realistically “on a purely natural-psychological plane.” She contends that it is not the actor’s business to underline heavily the overtones of meaning that a play like this may contain. If it is played honestly and beautifully, its symbolical meanings are bound to emerge, in so far as they are really there. The audience may not be able to formulate them exactly, but they will have felt them as an emotional excitement which raises the play above its everyday surface. Miss Le Gallienne says of “The Master Builder” that it is “a great poem” which “opens up doors in the mind leading to vistas along which our thoughts wander fascinated, occasionally bewildered but constantly stimulated.

It may mean different things to different people,” but it is “constantly provocative and, in performance, its impact on an audience is little short of startling.” An outstanding trait of Eva Le Gallienne’s retelling of the plot is her imaginative reconstructions of the characters. She advises the actress playing the minor role of Kaia to explore not just what we see of her on the stage, but the rest of her life which we do not see. If she does this, “she will succeed in creating a three-dimensional human-being, instead of an unnatural puppet, and the audience, far from dismissing her as a tiresome, hysterical and somewhat abnormal young woman, will [21] respond to her with pity and understanding.” In this way Eva Le Gallienne succeeds in bringing to life even minor figures whom Ibsen endowed with so little vitality that they have generally been regarded as mere bits of dramatic machinery. When she gets to one of the high moments in the play, the entry of Hilda, she says that “the whole room seems suddenly to spring to vivid life, and the atmosphere crackles as though charged with electricity.” This is an excellent description of the effect which Miss Le Gallienne’s own entrance on the stage is said to have had on an audience. And she reads a sermon on how to play Ibsen that could well be heeded in the Scandinavian countries: “There is a deplorable tendency to approach Ibsen’s plays portentously and solemnly; it is perhaps for this reason that they are generally regarded as gloomy and obscure. . . . There should be strong highlights and vivid colour, as well as swift pace and infinite tonal variety, in the performance of all his plays.” Two facts stand out from her interpretation of “The Master Builder.” One is that Solness is and must be played as a genius. “Otherwise,” she says, “his colossal egotism might seem unconvincing as well as intolerable, and his mental and spiritual anguish merely the neurotic ravings of a weak, unbalanced temperament.” The other is that Hilda is a real woman, who grows up from childhood to womanhood in the course of the play. These two people are “drawn together by the mystical force of a great passion.” Concerning the end of the play she says that it “begins to soar, ascending rapidly in a breathlessly exciting spiral.” Her analysis is a masterpiece of psychological insight, but it is more than that: it is a revelation of the soul of a great actress who has herself relived the life of her character.

In conclusion I shall spend a few words on the question of whether Ibsen has had an influence on American literature. The earliest American author who is known to have admired Ibsen was Henry James, although he was perhaps more an Englishman than an American at the time. James was [22] profoundly moved by Ibsen when he saw performances of his plays in London in the 1890’s, and he wrote four essays on him which are important documents in his own development. He wrote of Ibsen’s “perfect practice of a difficult and delicate art” and he insisted that Ibsen was primarily a dramatic artist rather than a social reformer or a thinker. In an impulsive moment, after reading “John Gabriel Borkman,” he wrote, “What an old boy is our northern Henry! he is too delightful-an old darling!” These words would hardly be applied to Ibsen by most people, but they represent James’s delight in good craftsmanship. He tried in his later novels to introduce just the kind of objectivity that he found in Ibsen’s plays . {20}

In the American drama we can point chiefly to two authors whose work shows Ibsen’s influence. One is Eugene O’Neill, whose play “The Iceman Cometh” has much in common with “The Wild Duck.” Both plays deal with the force of illusion in human life, the importance for human happiness of the life lie. They show the disaster that comes from any attempt to remove this illusion. Another author is Arthur Miller, who adapted “An Enemy of the People” and produced it on the New York stage. His realistic plays of modern life, with their appeal to the social conscience, have been profoundly influenced by Ibsen. He has himself spoken warmly of his experience of Ibsen, and his own plays may be regarded as a revival of the Ibsen spirit in the drama. {21}

Our survey has now come to an end, and we are ready to draw our conclusions. Ibsen has penetrated into American life and is accepted as one of the classics of the theater. He tends to be looked upon as an intellectual rather than a popular dish, and some are awed or repelled by him. But his position appears to be secure among those who love the [23] theater. His relentless advocacy of the claims of the individual against society awakened resentment at first and can still bite on occasion. When the flurry about security oaths became a national disease a few years ago, there was an immediate response in the form of several productions of “An Enemy of the People.” But many admire and love his plays merely for the sake of the characters they have created and the poetry of situation which they bring to the stage. Norway has given the world few things that are so definitely a part of American cultural life today as the works of Henrik Ibsen.


<1> This study is a revised version of a lecture given by invitation at the Ibsen Semicentennial May 29, 1956, organized by the City of Oslo. This and other lectures given at the festival were printed in Edda for 1957.
<2> See Einar Haugen, “The Living Ibsen,” in Quarterly Journal of Speech, 41:19--26 (1955).
<3> The overwhelming influence of Ibsen on the young Joyce is carefully and convincingly documented in Vivienne K. MacLeod, “The Influence of Ibsen on Joyce,” in Publications of the Modern Language Association, 60:879-898, 62: 573-580 (1945, 1947).
<4> Rasmus B. Anderson, review of “Brand,” in Literary World, 13:325 (1882); Einar Haugen, “Ibsen in America,” in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 33:396-420 (1934); Haugen, “Ibsen i Amerika,” in Edda, 553-559 (1934); Rasmus B. Anderson, Life Story, 487 (Madison, Wisconsin, 1915); H. H. Boyesen, A Commentary on the Writings of Henrik Ibsen, 7 (New York, 1894).
<5> Einar Haugen, “Wisconsin Pioneers in Scandinavian Studies,” in Wisconsin Magazine of History, 34:28-39 (1950); P. J. Eikeland, Ibsen Studies (Northfield. 1934); Theodore Jorgenson, Henrik Ibsen: A Study of Art and Personality (Northfield, 1945); Henrik Ibsen, In the Mountain Wilderness and Other Works, translated by Theodore Jorgenson (Northfield, 1957).
<6> Otto Heller, in Poet-Lore, 1:340 (1889); Critic, 15:329, 16:170 (1889, 1890); Charles Wingate, review of “Ghosts,” in Critic, 24:312 (1894); W. E. Simonds, review of Jaeger’s biography of Ibsen, in Dial, 11:146 (1890); William Winter, Shadows of the Stage, 3:336 (New York, 1892); William Watson, Excursions in Criticism, 128 (New York, 1893).
<7> Annie Nathan Meyer, “Ibsen’s Attitude toward Women,” in Critic, 16:147 (1890); Meyer, “A Prophet of the New Womanhood,” in Lippincott’s, 53:375 (1894); William Dean Howells, “Henrik Ibsen,” in North American Review, 183:10 (1900); James Huneker, “Henrik Ibsen,” in Scribner’s, 40:354 (1906); Dial, 40:352 (1906); Edwin E. Slosson, in Independent, 60:1255 (1906). The article in the Dial is an unsigned editorial, said by Annette Andersen to have been written by William Morton Payne, although there is no evidence in the magazine to this effect. Payne’s articles in the Dial are signed; the editor’s name was Francis F. Browne.
<8> lndependent, 64:921 (1908); W. P. Eaton, The American Stage of Today, 132 (Boston, 1908); William Winter, Other Days, 224 (New York, 1908).
<9> Minnie Maddern Fiske, “Ibsen versus Humpty Dumpty,” in Harper’s Weekly, 49:160 (1905); Alla Nazimova, “Ibsen’s Women,” in Independent, 63:910 (1907); Theatre, 6:291-294 (1906); Charles Frohman, “Why Some of Our Dramatists Fail,” in Theatre, 7:324 (1907); Clayton Hamilton, “The Psychology of Theater Audiences,” in Forum, 39:242 (1907). A biography of Mrs. Fiske by Archie Binns entitled Mrs. Fiske and the American Theatre (New York, 1955) declares that the 1894 performance of “A Doll’s House” was a turning point not only in Mrs. Fiske’s own career, but in the acceptance of Ibsen in America: it cracked the solid front of American opposition to Ibsen” (page 55).
<10> Hedin Bronner and Gösta Franzen, in Scandinavian Studies, 30:157-177 (1958); Adolph Zucker, “Heine’s Uncle and ‘Peer Gynt,’” in Germanic Review, 8:40-43 (1933) Miss Andersen’s thesis was submitted in 1931; it was published in Scandinavian Studies and Notes, 14:65-109, 115-155 (1937). This bibliography has been supplemented by Sverre Arestad in Scandinavian Studies, 24: 93-110 (1952), covering the years 1936-46, and in annual bibliographies beginning with 1947. On the psychiatric studies, see Alan R. Thompson, “Ibsen as a Psycho anatomist,” in Educational Theatre Journal, vol. 3, p. 32, fn. 4 (1951).
<11> James Huneker, in Forum, 52:765-769 (1914); H. L. Mencken, ed., A Doll’s House and Little Eyolf (Boston, 1908); Mencken, Prejudices: Third Series, 301- 308, and Prejudices: Fifth Series, 209 (New York, 1922, 1926).
<12> Krutch, “Ibsen Restated,” in Nation, 123:513 (1926), and “The Tragic Fallacy,” in Atlantic Monthly, 142:606-609 (1928); Wilson, “Mrs. Alving and Oedipus,” in Literary Review, 4:501 (1924), and “Hedda Gabler and Little Eyolf,’ in New Republic, 45:356 (1926).
<13> Roland Holt, in Forum, 69:1560 (1923).
<14> Margaret Marshall, review of “An Enemy of the People,” and of “Peer Gynt,” in Nation, 172:18, 140 (1951); New Yorker, January 23, 1954, p. 73.
<15> “The Ibsen Profile,” in Scandinavian Studies, 28:11-14 (1956).
<16> Bellinger, A Short History of the Drama, 320 (New York, 1927); Block, The Changing World in Plays and Theatre, 7 (Boston, 1939); E. Bradlee Watson Benfield Pressey, Contemporary Drama: European Plays 1, 8 (New York,
<17> Page 209 (New York, 1937).
<18> Plays by Henrik Ibsen (New York, 1950). This article was also printed in Theatre Arts, 34:39-43 (July, 1950).
<19> Stark Young, review of “Hedda Gabler,” in New Republic, 106:238 (1942); Eva Le Gallienne, trans., Hedda Gabler and The Master Builder (New York, 1955). William Archer is quoted by Young, in New Republic, 106:238.
<20> See Herbert Edwards, “Henry James and Ibsen,” in American Literature, 24:208-223 (1952-53).
<21> Frederic Fleisher, “Livsløgnen hos O’Neill -og ‘Vildanden,’” in Vinduet (Oslo), 10:154-159 (1956); Sverre Arestad, “‘The Iceman Cometh’” and “‘The Wild Duck,’” in Scandinavian Studies, 20:1-11 (1948); Henrik Ibsen, An Enemy of the People, adapted by Arthur Miller (New York, 1951).

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