IBSEN AND THE DRAMA.*
THE volume before us is a curious illustration of the con- fusion of mind in the reading public upon which the success of Ibsen largely depends. The object of the book, according to the author's own statement, is, by removing the prejudice raised against Ibsen by stupid and ignorant critics, to pro- cure more frequent opportunities of seeing his plays upon the stage. The plays he particularly wishes to see more frequently acted, are described collectively as the "Social dramas ; " and these he declares are not, as the critics allege, dull, repulsive, or depressing. Unfortunately the writer— who hides himself under the pseudonym of " Zanoni " —clpalm throughout in mere generalisations. He gives no
• Ibsen and the Drama. By " Zanoni." Lo-don: Digby and Long.
extracts to illustrate his assertions; names none of the plays; discusses no characters individually ; gives no sketches of dramatic situations ; and particularises none of the subjects. Though he complains continually that the hostile public attacks Ibsen without knowing his works, he conducts his defence of the works condemned in a manner that can only convey definite ideas to readers who know Ibsen thoroughly. To such it will cause a shock of bewilderment to find that the latest apologist of Ibsen sets aside the nobler dramas, such as Brand, Peer Gynt, and Emperor and Galilean, in which every reader endowed with literary instinct must recognise some- thing of the inspiration of the poet and the elevation of the idealist, and rests the fame of the Norwegian dramatist entirely upon the group of works which includes The Doll's House, The Enemy of the People, The Pillars of Society, Ghosts, The Wild-Duck, Bosmerholz, The Lady of the Sea, Hedda Gabler, and The Master Builder.
The principal grounds on which "Zanoni" claims respect for these plays, are that "Ibsen shows us both sides of human life, whereas we had before been accustomed to having only the one presented to us ; " that far from being "gloomy and depressing," or "dull and repulsive," as critics have repre- sented them, the plays are "invigorated with the freshness of life ; " that the subject-matter (taken from that side of life which it is the fashion just now to speak of as a newly discovered universe) is invested with a "peculiar charm and alluring fascination ; " that "by shaking the general con- fidence in views which before had never been called in ques- tion, Ibsen has done much good;" that "to hold an opinion of some kind on a subject is preferable to remaining in abso- lute ignorance with regard to it ; " and that "it is of much higher importance for the dramatist that his words should excite the interest of his hearers than that they should receive their entire acquiescence. However noble be his purposes, if he cannot arouse their minds from the slumber of apathy, he will never be able to convey to them his meaning." A good many of these reasons seem to point to a view of Ibsen which is not quite consistent with the writer's scorn of the people who regard him as an author with a mission. But we pass lightly over this inconsistency in order to em- phasise our agreement with the last sentence quoted. Most certainly it is useless to attempt to reform the world by literary means unless one has sufficient mastery of those means to command a hearing ; and though we are among the hostile critics, we recognise that Ibsen does possess the gifts which will always make a great many men and women listen. He has a subtlety and audacity of intellect that we are tempted to call " satanic ; an easy familiarity among topics, on the threshold of which people bred in decent traditions generally pause in shame or modesty according to their knowledge or their ignorance ; and a never-failing aplomb in confronting every authoritative pro- hibition with the "yea, hath, God said ?" that is not the honest inquiry of conscientious doubt, but an insolent chal- lenge to the very principle of authority. We grant that in none of lbsen's plays is there anything that may be called a definite summing-up in favour of immorality. As far as we know, the combination of knave and fool who would dare go that length has not yet appeared. We grant even that one or two of his plays have arbitrary conclusions enforcing sound morals; but these conclusions are the weakest and most inartistic things in his work ; they do not spring legitimately out of his situations, and though they may be effective on the stage, they will not bear the test of being read in the closet.
In the group of plays of which "Zanoni" has undertaken the vindication there are only two—The Enemy of the People and The Pillars of Society—of which the influence is not pro- foundly and insidiously immoraL And these two are satires which, though they may have an apt and living ap- plication to the actual conditions of society in Norway, are, for Europe at large, out of date. The Enemy of the People is a clever play with a provincial moral, rather spoilt by the bitterness of its satire and sadly needing the relief of humour ; but humour is a gift involving sympathy with one's kind, and it is not among the gifts of Ibsen. The Pillars of Society has the same qualities, and the same defects ; but it is less clever than The Enemy of the People, and it is one of the plays that end with a sudden conversion intended to be edifying, but succeeding only in being inartistic. Both dramas have the bright colloquial dialogue, the variety of well-known and well.
accentuated characters, the concentration of interest, and the exaggerations of light and shade, that make good acting plays. A dozen works of the same calibre would have made Ibsen a popular playwright. But a hundred would not have won him the place in literature to which Brand entitles him, or the importance as a fashion in thought that he owes to some of the other plays in the group. It is to the plays that flatter the secret meannesses, falsenesses, and impurities in minds that are set towards no great ideal, that Ibsen owes the favour of one section of society and the hostility of another. It is an affront to common-sense as well as to good feeling, to tell the world that it is better to have
"an opinion of some kind" upon such subjects as are mooted with loathsome indelicacy in Ghosts and The Wild-Duck, than to remain in ignorance of them. There is but one opinion
that it is desirable to hold upon the evil which makes the theme of these two plays; that it is a sin against God, against self, against the neighbour, and against posterity; and that it is better not to talk about it. No good can result from presenting this sin and its consequences in such a way that the hereditary curse shall appear as an inevitable doom, crashing hope and destroying responsi- bility. Far better remain ignorant of the guilt of the parents than call in question the free-will of the children. All the social dramas are not so frankly offensive as these two ; but in them all the lusts of the lower nature are shown as triumphing over higher inclinations, poisoning the better motives at their roots, and dragging the nobler spirits down to the level of the baser. When " Zanoni " speaks of the service Ibsen has rendered by showing 'both sides of human life," one is fain to think that he is only falling into the silly fashion of pretending that because English literature has hitherto thrown a decent veil over the grosser facts of life, English men and women have been ignorant of their existence. But when one considers what is the actual presentment of life in some of these plays, it requires a good deal of charity not to suppose that he thinks it a gain to the drama and to society that animal last should be represented as the dominant power in human nature, and its outcome a dark and endless vista of which the only issue is despair.
That Ibsen's most artistic plays always end badly is their strongest condemnation. His conception of life excludes all the influences that make for good—divine authority and divine help ; spiritual stedfastness, in spite of intellectual difficulties and animal temptations ; even that humbler attendant upon religion, which, like the faithful dwarf in Spenser's allegory who carried the provender for the Knight and ITna—the common-sense of men of the world who are loyal to the good fruits of faith and obedience, though the secret of faith may not be theirs—all these are left out in the plays we are considering ; and the most sacred interests not only of social and family life but of self-respect and personal integrity, are handed over without reserve to be reduced to absurdity by processes of intellectual casuistry. In the course of his vindication of Ibsen's dramatic methods, ' Zanoni " remarks that-
." In the presence of their equals people are not abashed to enter with zest upon a discussion which, before their superiors, they would have avoided altogether. Beneath the weight of constraint they preserve a rigid silence, but when once it is removed they can be induced to speak freely without much effort. To remove this weight, therefore, should be the prime object of the dramatist."
He has already explained how Ibsen has won himself a hearing in an age when "what are commonly called the best books' possess but small attraction for the majority of the people," by discarding the form and the spirit of the romances of chivalry,—the rhetorical ornaments, the lofty sentiments, and the great actions which do not charm "the sterilised imagination of this practical age," and adopting in their place common incidents of everyday life, and common characters who talk common sentiments. "To the eye of the superficial observer," he says, "there is nothing of value to be derived from this material, but in capable hands it may be made to yield abundant interest."
Common material, we all know, has again and again yielded interest and beauty in the hands of skilled artists ; but then it has been transformed by a noble inspiration. This naive apologist attributes no such transformation to the art of Ibsen. His admiration is built upon the fact that Ibsen descends altogether to the level of his audience, choosing subjects and chsracters that will not oppress them with a sense of superiority, flattering them into a belief that they are competent to judge all the topics he puts before them, and yet all the while moulding their judgments as the p Ater moulds his clay. He gives an excellent description of Ibsen's method, which might stand also for a description of the way in which an unscrupulous demagogue manages a mob. The odd thing is that it should be intended for praise.
One of Z aware" complaints is that the critics "do not take Ibsen seriously." We cannot plead guilty to this offence. We recognise—almost with trembling—the subtlety and acuteness of his intellect. But that does not hinder us from finding much of his work repulsive and all of it depres- sing. We also find in it a want of sanity. The root-ideas " Zanoni " praises are the fixed ideas of monomaniacs. His destructiveness moves upon the same vicious lines as the de- structiveness of the insane. Ideas are pat before us apparently for admiration, and suddenly we find that they are being pulled down and trampled in the mud; and the thing is done without evident motive, and without concern, as mad people do disastrous things and then laugh and cry at random. Moreover, among the characters in the plays many are un- mistakably mad, though their madness is not acknowledged by the author. This is by no means to hint a charge of in- sanity against Ibsen himself ; any more than to say that the work is immoral in its tendency, is to bring a charge of im- morality against himself. The works of Ibsen represent to us with extraordinary freshness and vitality, and with the most many-sided variety, a phase of thought and feeling that is a bewildering fact of the present day, and of which the general characteristics are a disposition to seek objects ostensibly good by methods that have been proved bad, and to level all the distinctions between good and evil,—getting rid of the superiority of virtuous conduct by calling it a higher kind of selfishness, and glozing over the ugliness of vicious conduct with phrases such as "a phase" or "a development." This stage of thought and feeling is not unreasonable in Agnostics who have either never had any faith, or have left it so completely behind that they harbour no prejudices derived from it. When a clean sweep has been made of divine authority, and enough of life has been lived to put it beyond doubt that the "service of man" unaided by any inspiration higher than human, is but the husks upon which the swine refuse to feed—then it is reasonable to try whether the garbage that the swine do- not ref use, may not be more satisfying to human appe- tite. It would be easy to understand the craze for Ibsen if all those who are possessed by it were Agnostics. or hedonists of the grosser sort. But among the admirers of Ibsen and the strange literature that follows in his train, it is fair to distinguish two classes of people ; those who not being themselves consciously attracted by evil, yet having no standard by which to judge it, feel themselves bound in charity not to condemn those who are attracted by it; and those who are consciously attracted by evil and use the veil of other people's charity as a screen behind which to indulge appetites they know to be unwhole- some. The latter are certainly the more odious, but the former are perhaps the more mischievous. Their interest in the new literature seems to justify its existence and to make it more difficult to condemn it unequivocally. But it really makes it only more necessary that those who still recognise authoritative standards of right and wrong should refuse to be frightened into admitting that there is no limit to be placed to the kind of subject an artist shall treat, and the kind of handling he shall give it. Such limits are really set by the common-sense of the world, and the art that transgresses them mast fail to achieve lasting fame, because it offends against the great commonplaces of human experi- ence, which are the only truths that outlast all fashions and make rallying-points for the sane minds of all ages.