The following review of Henrik Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken was originally published in The Ideal Review, Jul. 1900. C.H.A. Bjerregaard. pp. 46-8.
If the winter season had been before us, I would not review Ibsen's [last] play, When We Dead Awaken, because the impressions made by it would correspond too well with the dreariness of the cold. But summer is before us and we are full of the rising life and fruitfulness...
"A Stranger Lady" is the main person in the play, though not the one who acts the most. Her name is Irene and presumably this name is chosen for symbolical reasons. Irene means "peace," that peace which comes after war. She symbolizes in this drama that peace which follows "when we dead awaken," but that peace is really only an illusion. Her appearance on the scene produces conditions as treacherous as those of quicksands. What problem is it that Ibsen tries to resolve? Who are "we dead"? In the first place Ibsen presents Rubek, sculptor and brutal egotist, who is the cause of all the misery of the drama, as "dead." He died after finishing his "great masterpiece," "The Resurrection Day," for which Irene stood model, being cast adrift by him after a love affair with her; to him it was "only an episode" but the life of existence to her. His wife, Maia, is also "dead," and seems to have died after four years of wedded life in which she waited for him to take her "up into a high mountain and show her all the glory of the world?" Rubek failed; to him this promise was "only a figure of speech," his object being to lure her "to play" with him. His relations to her being also "only an episode." Irene is also "dead" but being "dead," she is most interesting. She died when he deserted her, but she lived on even in the grave: she could not live without him to whom she had given her soul and her form, and in whose image he had created "their child," "The Resurrection Day." Rubek, Maia and Irene are "the dead" of the drama and it is with regard to them "this epilogue" is written. An inspector at the baths, a landed proprietor and a Sister of Mercy also figure, but they symbolize nothing essential in it; the inspector and the Sister are only convenient "lay figures"; the landed proprietor is a beastly character such as Ibsen commonly introduces. Ulfheim is his name and profession. Ulfheim is the Norse for "Wolf's-home," viz., the incarnation of a wolf. He preys upon unsuspecting women and is the enemy of society. Buffon's description of a wolf fits him to a nicety: "disagreeable in every respect, with mean air, savage look, frightful voice, insupportable odor, perverse nature, ferocious manners, he is odious; noxious while living, useless after death."
But, has Ibsen really understood the problem involved in the sentence "when we dead awaken"? I think not. His dramatis personae move and have their being in love only, and in love, at that, which seems but little above sex-love. As in most of his other plays his men are beasts of desire and his women "play-toys." They know nothing, it seems, of truth and law, and life is to them merely an emotion. To die means to Ibsen to lose sensual love, and to awaken means to discover, as does Rubek, that to be married four or five years is "a trifle long," and, yawning, to tell the wife so. Irene's attitude gives a slightly different interpretation to "to die" and "to awaken" but does not introduce any principle from a higher world. Ibsen's clumsy expedient of making Irene and Rubek disappear in masses of snow while they ascend the mountain is almost to burlesque his own idea and intention.
We are dead when we are tied hand and foot, mind and life in our own illusions, in the conventional, or when we, without freedom and independence, are mere objects of the play of cosmic forces. We awaken when we realize our bondage and take steps to free ourselves to live a self-centered life. The power to awaken must come as it were from "outside," must be a principle from "above," or la grande passion. Rubek cannot represent such a principle to Irene nor can she be it to him with one husband "in a churchyard somewhere or other" and another "far away in the Ural Mountains--among all his gold mines," and the recollections of a model: "I have stood on the turn-table--naked--and made a show of myself to many hundreds of men--after you." Maia's "awakening" is still more mysterious. When she sees Rubek and Irene go off, she is legally, as she sings, free; but how their violence can be an inspiration to a new life for her, is incomprehensible, and how Ulfheim, with whom she spent a night on the mountain, can represent a liberator can be explained only on the principle that he is an enchanted prince; but Ibsen does not tell us so.
When We Dead Awaken is a naturalistic play, though differing somewhat from the ordinary ones, by having some symbolism in it and a few metaphysical points. These latter are perhaps unintentional. Naturalistic as it is, the play touches only indirectly the great problems of the science of life; it is simply descriptive of how four "lovers" change partners. It avoids pointing to any ultimate purpose in existence and describes only features of life well known in divorce-courts. Its psychology is trifling and superficial. It presents such everlasting changes in "the animal soul" as are analogous to the ever-varying shapes of clouds and the instability of water.
What of the vibrations that go through this drama? I liken them in their weakness to the eddies on a bay near a great city. They have neither force nor purity but plenty of flotsam; they do not break on the shore echoing the mysteries of the deep; they only wet the pebbles that lie about for no special purpose. Ibsen's work is not a drama or a soul-reproduction of the breathing universe, the palpitating heart of the greater Man or Nature. At best When We Dead Awaken is a repetition of the ideas of John Gabriel Borkman. Its morals, that is to say the morals unintentionally taught, are as immoral as they well may be. The lovers ignore the fact that they voluntarily bound themselves to perform certain duties before "the awakening" came. Such bonds cannot be broken with impunity. An act of will is Karmic and of profound significance. Ibsen's lovers leave behind them all previously assumed duties. Perhaps he intended to parody that great prophet's words, which were, "Let the dead bury their dead."
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