There is little about the charming Hotel Tramontano in Sorrento to indicate quite what inspired Henrik Ibsen to write a play about congenital syphilis while staying there, and not much more (I am assured) in the equally delightful Hotel Luna at Amalfi to evoke the dark midwinter drama of A Doll’s House. The incongruity between the stark Scandinavian gloom of the major plays and the Mediterranean lushness of the places where Ibsen wrote them is a warning against reading the art too readily from the life, and one that Robert Ferguson has not heeded. For him, the life is the only way to support his thesis, which is that the great plays aren’t great at all, and that after Ibsen’s first success, Peer Gynt (written at Casamicciola, Ischia, in 1867), it all went horribly wrong.
Ferguson, himself a playwright, and a translator of Ibsen, was inspired to write the first major biography for 25 years by seeing John Barton’s Oslo production of Peer Gynt ‘and wondering why a man who could create a comic circus like that should choose to devote the rest of his life to writing a series of dark analyses of unhappiness’. The explanation he comes up with is that between Brand, written just before Peer, and the social dramas written after it, Ibsen set out to construct himself, or rather reconstruct himself, as the black-hatted, grim-lipped and impenetrable Henrik Ibsen ‘of a thousand dour cabinet portraits’ – a reinvention of which the plays were an integral part.
The first half of this thesis is persuasive. Like Dickens’s, Ibsen’s parents were petit-bourgeois fallen on hard times; Ibsen’s equivalent of Dickens’s sojourn in the blacking factory was a period in an apothecary’s laboratory at Grimstad. Thrown together with the maids in this cramped establishment, Ibsen fathered an illegitimate child, whose upkeep was partially responsible for the debt which dogged him through the first half of his life and drove him into exile in his late thirties. It was after the success of his epic verse-drama Brand (written at the age of 37) that he consciously undertook that ‘radical process of self-reinvention to create an outward image that would become – through the Victorian fashion for portrait photography – the agent of his spreading fame’. And it was this Ibsen – he of the shaved lip and mutton-chop whiskers, the wardrobe of a London businessman and the demeanour of a patriarch – who wrote bombastically aggrieved letters of complaint to publishers, collaborators and associates, and who harvested awards and honours with the single-minded zeal of a small boy spotting trains.
This Ibsen was also a man of strangely mutating views. For Ferguson, ‘the popular definition of Ibsen as a liberal humanist is misleading in its simplicity and obscures several paradoxes.’ They include Ibsen’s increasingly dismissive attitude to the feminist movement he was deemed to have promoted in A Doll’s House, excoriating ‘feminist fanatics’ and declaring to the Norwegian Women’s Union that he was interested not in the woman problem but rather woman’s role as wife and mother. Though Ghosts was famously reviled as obscene, Ibsen remained silent as two young writers were jailed for writing ‘immoral literature’ in defence of sexual equality. He was the romantic nationalist who hoped that Italian unification would not bring about ‘too many changes to the usual way of things’, the erstwhile champion of working-class emancipation who opposed the introduction of democracy in his own country and the advocate of directness and honesty in family relations who took four months to reply to his sister’s letter reporting their mother’s death.
All of this is excellently and elegantly argued, copiously backed up by documentary material, old and new. Ferguson has, for example, found the letter in which the playwright admitted paternity of his son: ‘I cannot with any certainty deny the charge that I am the father,’ the young Ibsen writes, ‘since I have unfortunately had intercourse with her, encouraged as I was by her flirtatious ways.’ (Her response, reported somewhat later in life, was: ‘Well, you know, that Henrik, it wasn’t easy to stop him.’) He also reveals how close Ibsen came to being sentenced to hard labour for failing to keep up with his support payments, and the general humiliations attendant on his early poverty, which explain his eagerness for respectability when his fortunes changed.
The problem is not with the point that this was the person who wrote Pillars of Society, A Doll’s House and Ghosts, but with the idea that these plays were part of the same project of self-promotion. For Ferguson, the mythological Brand and Peer Gynt were timeless creations, but ‘it takes a certain kind of daring ... to erect monuments to ourselves and our ways while we are still alive.’ For ‘daring’ read ‘arrogance’: Ibsen’s sense of his own destiny demanded that he set about documenting his age and it was indeed the Ibsen of the photographs, the decorations and the monumental scowl who convinced himself that he should express ‘an absolute and attainable truth’ which had ‘been revealed to him alone’.
In a more decorous biographical age, the horticultural fallacy consisted of the attempt to know men by their fruits. The current fashion is precisely the opposite. Clearly, there is a temptation for tabloid biography to select material from the work that will exaggerate the importance of the biographical scoop, and in Ferguson’s case this applies particularly to his treatment of the plays Ibsen wrote after his return to Norway. As is widely known, Ibsen spent some of his latter years indulging in intensely affectionate relationships with young women. Ferguson suggests that the closest of these may have been with a maid, Lina Jacobsen, who, he reported, ‘sees to my needs with the greatest solicitation’. Jacobsen left behind no clues as to her views of her crusty employer, but the 27-year-old Emilie Bardach did, and Robert Ferguson has found her diary (hitherto presumed to be lost) in a Paris library, and reprinted large chunks of it.
It’s a good find, illuminating about both Bardach and Ibsen. The problem, however, is the way Ferguson applies this and other late Ibsen flirtations to the late Ibsen plays, and in particular to The Master Builder and When We Dead Awaken. Already, Ferguson has cast the characters of Lady from the Sea as Ibsen’s wife and sister-in-law, their father and mother, and a demon lover from the mother-in-law’s otherwise exemplary youth. Now, armed with the story of a young woman entering the home of an ageing creator and promising him a rejuvenation of his professional and, by implication, sexual powers, Ferguson easily identifies Master Builder Solness and young Hilde Wangel as Ibsen and Bardach: the dénouement of the play – in which Solness is persuaded by Wangel to climb the tower he has just completed and falls to his death – becomes a clear and indeed orthodox ‘statement of Old Testament morality’, demonstrating that ‘adultery, even in the mind, is a mortal sin.’
Ferguson believes that Ibsen is writing out his guilt over the treatment of his loyal wife Suzannah. The shortcomings of this approach are exposed in his treatment of When We Dead Awaken, in which another ageing creator (the sculptor Arnold Rubek) meets a lover of his youth – the model for his only work of authentic genius – and leaves his wife, Maja, to commune with his lifelong love in the mountains (Maja herself chooses to commune with a virile young huntsman). As Ferguson puts it: ‘Ibsen/Rubek announces to his lifetime wife Suzannah/Irene that he has finished dabbling with Bardach/Maja figures and is returning to her ... Their purpose as they head on into the mysterious cloud-drenched mountain heights is to get married once more.’ But the problems with the strict autobiographical model – especially the ‘Death to All Adulterers’ interpretation of the late plays – are obvious. Young Maja is, after all, the present Mrs Rubek, and Irene – who has spent her post-Rubek career in professional striptease – is in that sense the supplanter. A less literal view might be to see Irene as an idealised Mrs Ibsen, and if you want to find support for it in the fact that Irene makes the odd reference to letters Suzannah wrote to Ibsen about caves and mountains, then fair enough. But Ferguson’s analogy between sculptor Rubek’s work of genius and Ibsen’s early mythological work, and his identification of Rubek’s descent into hack portraiture with Ibsen’s realist plays, is both mechanical and absurd, relying as it does on the notion that Ibsen himself thinks the early, funny ones were best – for which there is not a jot of evidence.
As it happens, there is an alternative interpretation of When We Dead Awaken – Bernard Shaw’s. The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891) is certainly the best essay by one playwright about another and one of the best pieces of sustained dramatic criticism ever written. Shaw argues that Ibsen’s great project is to counter idealism, by which he means the tendency to mask the shortcomings of institutions by pretending that they are perfect and celebrating them as such. In A Doll’s House, the idealised institution is marriage, the idealiser Torvald Helmer, and the ‘realist’ (Ibsen’s term for the anti-idealist) Nora, who realises that her family life has been a fiction and walks out on him. In Brand, the idealist is a fundamentalist parson who sacrifices his child, his marriage and ultimately himself to his religion; in The Wild Duck he’s a man who destroys a family and kills a child as a result of his strict adherence to the principle of honesty.
In When We Dead Awaken, he’s the sculptor Rubek. As Shaw puts it, the contrast at the heart of the play is between a couple (Rubek and Irene) of high culture and the essentially uncultivated young Mrs Rubek and her huntsman. Far from celebrating Rubek/Ibsen’s ascent with Irene/Suzannah into cloud-drenched bliss, and by implication condemning young Mrs Rubek and her huntsman for returning to the prosaic safety of their hotel, Ibsen has cast Rubek as the villain and Irene as his victim. ‘The sacrifice of the woman of the Stone Age to fruitful passions which she herself shares is as nothing compared to the wasting of the modern woman’s soul to gratify the imagination and stimulate the genius of the modern artist, poet, and philosopher’: that, according to Shaw, is Ibsen’s message. There could not be a starker contrast between the two readings. For Ferguson, the play is yet another celebration of grandly flawed genius tempered by devoted womanhood; for Shaw, it’s a feminist tract. Neither is entirely right, but one is more right than the other.
When her new clients asked her how they should learn about structure, the literary agent Peggy Ramsay is reputed to have replied: ‘Read Ibsen, darling.’ In fact Ibsen is quite hard to read, darling, and certainly you need some guidance on his delicate and complicated stagecraft in order to understand the miraculous way in which it works. Robert Ferguson has read a great deal of Ibsen but only twice does he address the way in which the structure of Ibsen’s plays embodies his meaning (they are comments on the only two post-Peer Gynt plays he admires): he notices how Hedda Gabler is set up by other characters before she enters, and the off-stage presence of the title-character in the first act of John Gabriel Borkman. He doesn’t remark that Ibsen pulls off this kind of coup again and again.
Oddly, Shaw pays little attention in his essay to the structure of the plays, although he analyses the scene in Rosmersholm in which Rebecca West admits to John Rosmer that she unintentionally provoked Rosmer’s wife, Beate, into killing herself. We know there were two reasons for this: Rebecca’s ambition for Rosmer’s life’s mission (to which Mrs Rosmer was seen as an obstacle) and her own sexual passion. But, as Shaw points out, because Ibsen has placed somebody else – the horridly reactionary schoolmaster Kroll – in the room, she can only confess to the ambition. Appalled by the news, Rosmer leaves the house with Kroll, denying Rebecca a moment alone with him. Rebecca then calls on the housekeeper to pack, and we end Act III with the possibility that, having confessed only the bad half of the truth, she will never see Rosmer again.
In one sense Rosmer’s reappearance, alone, at the beginning of the next act, could be seen merely as a device to heighten the tension (technically, it’s an elongated dummy exit). It is, however, an emphatic technique which goes to the centre of Ibsen’s art. The fact of a character’s being unable to say something that would be to their advantage, and which we know about, draws our attention effortlessly but inevitably to the question of why they can’t. In the second act of Ghosts, Osvald Alving tells his mother that he has developed what is obviously syphilis; either he has caught it or he has inherited it from his dead father. He wants to believe the latter possibility, but knows from his mother’s letters that his father was a man of uprightness and virtue, and therefore assumes that he has brought this ruin on himself. We in the audience know that Mrs Alving lied in her letters – Captain Alving was a drunk, a womaniser and a reprobate – and that if she told Osvald this, he’d realise it wasn’t his fault after all. The scene forces our attention onto the two questions that Ibsen wishes us to ask: why Osvald wants to believe his father was to blame for his disease, and why Mrs Alving won’t tell him. The answers – two varieties of socially-induced guilt – contain the meaning of the play.
Shaw argues that Ibsen’s great innovation as a playwright was the discussion: while pre-Ibsenite (and by implication pre-Shavian) plays consisted of exposition, situation and unravelling, ‘now you have exposition, situation and discussion; and the discussion is the test of the playwright.’ While there may be talk, there is always drama, however. The most obvious example of the Shavian discussion in Ibsen is the last, brilliant scene of A Doll’s House, but even that is remembered principally by the slamming of the door at the end. There is another parting scene in a later play which makes a strongly feminist point about marriage with hardly a word of discussion. The background plot of The Wild Duck consists in the businessman Werle impregnating his maid, Gina, who is then married off to what Shaw describes as a ‘vain, petted, spoilt dawdler’, Hjalmar Ekdal. Fourteen years later, Werle’s dissident son, Gregers, decides to join the Ekdal household, and for the sake of the ideal of total truth, reveals that Hjalmar isn’t his daughter’s father. Hjalmar – whose irresolution has been a running joke – declares that he never wants to see young Hedvig again, and that he has decided to leave immediately. He spends a good part of the next twenty minutes trying and failing to do so, in a wonderful black farce in which his long-suffering wife trails round behind him from room to room trying to ascertain what he wants to take so she can find it for him (not without a certain rebellious wit: at one point he opens a door, sees his daughter and cries out in anguish; Gina mutters, ‘Goodness gracious, the child must be somewhere’). Gina then comes up with the sensible suggestion that Hjalmar stay secluded in the living-room for a day or two while various problems are sorted out (Hjalmar insists on his old father coming with him, and there is the question of what they are going to do with his rabbits). His first reaction to this suggestion is melodramatic (‘I’ll go out in the storm and the snow, I’ll go from house to house seeking shelter for my father and myself’), but then, sporadically, he appears to consent. Finally, in desperation, Gina demands a decision from him: is she to pack or get the room ready? His answer – typically – is ‘both’.
Without a line of ‘discussion’, Ibsen paints a picture not just of the matter but of the means of patriarchal oppression (the objects Hjalmar can’t decide whether or not to take are cunningly chosen to underline his grandiosity and dependence). But Ibsen hasn’t finished yet. After her exposure in the living-room, unseen by Gina (who is now trying to prevent Hjalmar rummaging pointlessly in a tidy chest of drawers), Hedvig has entered the main room, taken a gun and gone off with it to the rabbit loft. When, a few minutes later, Hjalmar’s apocalyptic meanderings are interrupted by a shot, we alone know where and who it comes from. There follows a hysterical search through all the rooms of the house – a desperate, tragic parody of the packing scene – until, finally, Hedvig’s body is found and Hjalmar (and Gregers Werle) must confront the consequences of pursuing empty abstractions.
At the end of the play, then, Hjalmar brings about his daughter’s death and we are invited to condemn him for it. With the shameful and short-lived ‘German Ending’ of A Doll’s House, Ibsen subverted not only the climax but the whole of his play by giving Nora a last-minute change of heart at the door of the nursery. Ferguson accepts that the death of the protagonist in The Master Builder implies a fairly definite judgment on his behaviour. So why is it difficult to grasp that the end of When We Dead Awaken – in which the sculptor Rubek demands that his one-time model follow him up the mountain to certain death, while his wife and her huntsman escape and survive – implies that Shaw is at least half right?
Half, not wholly. Shaw’s overt mission in his essay is to demonstrate that Ibsen’s idealists – from Brand to Rubek – are villains rather than exemplars. On the other hand, he accepts that the question which makes an Ibsen play interesting is often precisely which is the villain and which the hero? In fact, the structures, with their very precise demand that we address the questions Ibsen wants us to address about intense human dilemmas, demonstrate that he was not a Shavian but a Mametian. For David Mamet, drama poses questions the conscious mind cannot answer, questions whose complexity and depth render them insusceptible to rational examination. For Ferguson, Nora Helming’s escape from the Doll’s House is both psychologically implausible and morally reprehensible: Nora is ‘someone prepared to sacrifice his or her own children, defenceless and precious, for the goal of self-realisation’. For Shaw, however, the ending demonstrates quite precisely that ‘unless Woman repudiates her womanliness, her duty to her husband, to her children, to society, to the law and to everyone but herself, she cannot emancipate herself.’ The notion that only by individuals being selfish can groups become free is not the whole of the story, but it is much closer than Ferguson’s glum, accusatory morality to the unresolvable and unbearable dilemma at the heart of A Doll’s House.
At the end of his book, Robert Ferguson sums up. ‘In Peer Gynt,’ he writes, Ibsen ‘took a well-established art form to the summit of its development, while in the run of plays that began with the Pillars of Society he laid the foundations of a new one. His achievement scarcely needs repeating, but for the sake of form: he created the modern theatre.’ The first of these statements is questionable, and the second true but unexplained.
Right about some things, half-right about others, The Quintessence of Ibsenism is wrong on only one count. Shaw insists that great drama is an escape from and not a development of melodrama; so Shakespeare ‘survives by what he has in common with Ibsen, and not by what he has in common with Webster’. It is precisely what Ibsen has in common with Webster which makes him such a towering figure. By moving away from the fantastical symbolism of Peer Gynt to the firm ground of realism, Ibsen laid the foundation of a modern theatre that was both serious and accessible. Unlike his contemporaries in music and painting, he found a way of harnessing the principles of classical dramaturgy – blood, guts and all – to contemporary subjects. Having abandoned the figurative and the tonal, serious music and painting had no answer to popular music and photography. Serious theatre, however, has survived the cinema and television – indeed it has inhabited both – because it entered this century hand in hand with Ibsenite realism rather than the avant garde, and has remained no more than a finger-touch away ever since.