Monday, June 9, 2014

And then something came and pulled him away. It was an undertow, they said - Ibsen sure is weird

I did not mean to march through Ibsen’s plays in four packs, but it has not worked out so badly.  Here are the last four: The Master Builder (1892), Little Eyolf (1894), John Gabriel Borkman (1896), and When We Dead Awaken (1899).  These plays were clearly meant to cap the long sequence begun in 1877 with Pillars of Society, and in some clear ways they reach back to Brand in 1866.  Both Brand and When We Dead Awaken end with apocalyptic avalanches, for example, this time atop the “peak of promise” where “all the powers of light will look kindly on us.  And those of darkness, too.”

IRENE:  Yes, through all, all the mist – and then up to the topmost peak of the tower that gleams in the sunrise.  (Act III)

Then, whammo!

Three of the plays end with catastrophe on the heights -  a tower, a mountain – while Little Eyolf mixes sea and mountain imagery in ways I do not understand.  Boy, that is a strange one.  A couple has a nine year-old child who is handicapped because he fell off a table while his parents were having sex.  Then, at the end of the first act, the boy drowns offstage while his parents, onstage, watch in horror.  No wonder this play is seldom performed.  It might be too awful to watch.  The subsequent collapse of the marriage takes up the rest of this painful play.

It is possible that Eyolf does not drown, but is rather carried away by the Pied Piper-like Rat-Wife.

EYOLF: Do they drown then?

RAT-WIFE: Every last one. (More softly.)  And then they have it as still and as nice and dark as they ever could wish for – little beauties.  Down there they sleep such a sweet, long sleep – all of them that people hate and persecute.  (Act I)

I had not planned to read all twelve late Ibsen plays when I started on them.  Some are certainly better than others, by ordinary aesthetic standards and, I do not doubt, by standards of performance.  The Master Builder seems like it is almost obviously the best.  Little Eyolf is too static and has an ending that is either thumpingly earnest or corrosively self-parodic.  But it was easily worth reading.  The Rat-Wife alone, and a description of a drowned or drowning Eyolf (see post title) that a horror writer would envy, and then steal.  They have all been worth reading.

I had planned, but will not write, a post about Ibsen’s humor.  He is often quite funny, although I can see how a director or actor could make choices to downplay or emphasize the absurdity of certain scenes or passages.  John Gabriel Borkman has a poet whose foot is run over by a sleigh.  Breaks his umbrella, too.  Ghosts has a pastor who is so shocked by what seems to me like fairly common human misbehavior that an actor would have to struggle not to be funny.  When We Dead Awaken has a ludicrous he-man hunter (“Bears by preference, ma’am”)  who sweeps a woman away with his overwhelming manliness.  Funny.

Look at Ibsen’s contemporaries, the ones from this late period.  Strindberg’s dream plays, Jarry’s chaotic Ubu, Wedekind’s Young Adult play Spring Awakening.  Ibsen fits right in with these anarchists.  Chekhov, Schnitzler, and Shaw, all helped along to one degree or another by Ibsen, are the calm, reasonable ones.

Shaw, I think I’ll turn to Shaw tomorrow and wrap this up.


  1. The last act of Little Eyolf is awkward. Henry James, for one, was most disappointed by it. Apparently, after seeing the play, someone commented to Ibsen that she couldn't imagine Rita running an orphange. Ibsen looked surprised - or, at least, he feigned surprise. "Do you think she would?" he asked.

    The way I read the last scene, it ends - as, indeed, Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment" does - not with regeneration, but with the possibility of regeneration. In the second act, Alfred and Rita are at the lowest moral ebb; it is not possible to get lower. And if the final act doesn't dramatise a regeneration, it dramatises at least their recognition of where they stand.

    I have seen this play twice on stage (both times in very small auditoria),; and there was a very fine BBC production from the 1980s with Diana Rigg and Antony Hopkins. This is for me the most harrowing of Ibsen's plays. How, I wondered, could Ibsen have expected a paying audience to put themselves through this? I think by this stage he was writing for himself.

  2. Seen it twice - that's impressive. It would be hard to take. With actors that good, maybe even harder.