Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Quintessence of Shaw's Ibsenism - the unbearable face of the truth

I will be on vacation for a while, returning, with luck, next Thursday, so I will wrap up Ibsen with George Bernard Shaw’s brilliant little book The Quintessence of Ibsenism.  The publication history is complex:  lectures at the Fabian Society in 1890, a book in 1891 – and thus missing Ibsen’s last four plays, and revisions or I think really additions in 1913 and 1922.

Writing about Ibsen, I have included fewer quotations than usual.  I am mimicking Shaw, who uses almost none, maybe just a fragment slipped in occasionally.  He covers each play from Brand through When We Dead Awaken in a few pages – as few as a single page sometimes – that summarize the story, pull out a conclusion or two, and link the play backwards and forwards.

I have referred to Shaw’s summaries many times recently.  They were at first a bit baffling.  I would think, I just read this play, this is not how things happened.  But I was wrong.  Shaw does not tell the story that happens onstage, but rather the story that occurs in the fictional world of the play.  He dismantles all of the revelations about past behavior and straightens them out into a conventional linear plot.  If there is a secret from ten years ago that we do not learn about until it is explosively revealed in Act V, Shaw has moved it to the beginning of the story, to when it “really” “happened.”

As a result, in the six pages that summarize Hedda Gabler, four of them cover events before the curtain rises.  The play we see is all in one long (two page) paragraph.  The Master Builder is even more extreme.  Four short lines cover the onstage action.  Here are two of them:

The play begins ten years after the climbing of the tower…  This time he really does break his neck; and so the story ends.

Enough technical business.  It is a commonplace to say that Shaw tries to bend Ibsen into Shaw, but when the book was first published Shaw was not exactly Shaw.  He had not had a play produced, and was best known as a music critic.  He emphasizes the reformist side of Ibsen, and has no interest in the visionary side, or more likely thinks they are the same thing.  The Socialist paradise would be on earth.  Shaw has read the plays, so he is careful not to push too hard for specific Ibsenian reforms, but rather embracing the long-running and subtle Ibsenian attack on what Shaw perversely calls “idealists.”  What is Shaw if not an idealist, but no, the idealists are those who “will be terrified beyond measure at the proclamation of their hidden thought – at the presence of the traitor among the conspirators of silence – at the rending of the beautiful veil they and their poets have woven to hide the unbearable face of the truth” (“Ideals and Idealists”).  Ibsen’s plays are then are a powerful assault on false conventions, some legal, some traditional, but many more psychological.

Shaw’s book begins with some of the more hysterical attacks on Ibsen by English reviewers (“Bestial, cynical, disgusting, poisonous, sickly, delirious, indecent, loathsome” etc.) and ends with a call for an Ibsen theater along the lines of Richard Wagner’s Bayreuth.  “But I think Ibsen has proved the right of the drama to take scriptural rank, and his own right to canonical rank as one of the major prophets of the modern Bible.”  However excessive that rhetoric, however unrealistic the idea, all I had to do to agree with Shaw was read Ibsen’s plays one after the other.


  1. Hm, I think I should re-read this one, at least the part about the British attacks on Ibsen. Sounds like a riot.

    1. Why is reading negative reviews from the past always so much fun? I have a battered copy of Nicholas Slonimsky's "Lexicon of Musical Invective" that I turn to far too often. Beethoven's "Grosse Fuga" is "unlistenable Chinese music," whatever that means.

    2. Past negative reviews are always fun. I'm just no sure what's funnier, if reviews about celebrated novels you've heard, or reviews about forgotten novels you'll never read. The former allows you to faceplam along, the former allows you to savour the vitriolic qualities without remorse.

  2. Yes, they're fun. That stuff is mostly in the "Ghosts" section, since that is the one that drove the late Victorian reviewers extra-crazy. Sexual content and so on. I guess.

    "Chinese music," how stupid! Although not understanding the "Grosse Fuge," I sympathize with that.

  3. Like Miguel, I think that the attacks on Ibsen make him sound so appealing. What a riot indeed! Thanks for this series of posts, by the way. I'm much more interested in Ibsen now than I was not too long ago, and it seems that your writing has been particularly colorful of late in addition to displaying its usual insight.

  4. I wonder if I would enjoy this as much as I did Auden's book (lectures) on Shakespeare. It's interesting to have one iconic writer review the work of another. It can be interesting.

    I like reading bad reviews for their own sake. Dorothy Parker wrote some wonderful ones about A.A. Milne's plays, but generally I find "reviews" from the past to be, at best, fun reading. I've only rarely found them useful.

    This does sound like an interesting book both for looking at Ibsen and at Shaw.

  5. "returns"! That is exactly the problem. I am having the hardest time returning from my vacation. And I mean hard in the air-travel sense, not the wasn't-that-wonderful-hard-to-readjust sense.

    Having said that, thanks for the good wishes.

    To the earlier comments, the Shaw book on Ibsen is terrific, a great combination of one strong flavor enhancing another.