The following essay was originally published in The Ibsen Secret: A Key to the Prose Drama of Henrik Ibsen. Jennette Lee. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1910. pp. 45-58.
The decade from 1867 to 1877 marks a dead center in Ibsen's work. Except for the Emperor and Galilean, which was the mere elaboration of a sketch made in Rome some years before, and which bears no relation, either in content or in interest, to the time in which it was written--except for this play he produced no art-work from the writing of The Young Men's League, begun in 1868, to the presentation of Pillars of Society in 1877. Up to this period he had produced, from the time he was twenty years old, an almost regular succession of dramatic works of highly romantic character; after this period, from 1877 to 1899, he produced every other year a play of the most realistic nature--each play belonging to the same order, and the whole differing in every regard from the work of his earlier period. They make in all a dozen plays that may prove to be the most significant work, artistically, of the nineteenth century. Certainly the nineteenth century has no parallel to offer to the change of ideal that they mark. At the age of fifty, after thirty years of writing and thinking, Ibsen began his lifework anew. Tolstoy, it is true, changed from artist to reformer in his old age, and Wagner, after middle life, composed Parsifal and the Niebelungen Ring, the greatest operas of musical history; but Tolstoy only struck, in each successive work, a little more loudly the note of the reformer, a little less clearly the note of the artist, till the voice of the artist was lost; and Wagner but brought to perfection in Parsifal the motives that shaped the Flying Dutchman and Tannhauser and Lohengrin. Neither Tolstoy nor Wagner changed his ideal.
But Ibsen faced squarely about. He forswore the gods of his youth and waited ten years for the dawning of a new hierarchy. He had worked twenty years, now he waited ten, and again he wrought twenty. That is the sum of his life-work, fitting itself, approximately, into decades for the pleasure of the curious. The work of the first twenty years is of the most ultra-romantic character. All literature would have to be searched to find a companion piece for Peer Gynt in its romantic emphasis. The plays of this earlier period--which are romantic and poetic and highly artistic--deal, for the most part, with the past. The plays of the second period--which are realistic and written in prose--deal entirely with the present. Thus a change of artistic ideal that is generally accomplished only by generations has taken place in the life and soul of one man. Ibsen's realistic work is even more perfect and finished than his romantic. It is as if, when a young man, he had engaged in literature through mere overflow of spirit, a kind of Viking energy that must expend itself--in historical romance, in Norse fancy, in finished phrase, and hurried, tumbling rhymes and lines--work so spontaneous and intricate and finished that it has taxed translators to the utmost to give a conception of its free, bubbling nature and exact perfection of form. Then there came a pause. The man seems to have stayed his hand, considering-- "Why should I fashion these romantic trifles, playthings of art? The men and women of my own time, society, life as it is,--these are what fascinate the mind and elude it." He planned a new play, The Young Men's League. It should be in prose, and it should treat of Norwegian society of the present day. He sets forth his ideal in a letter written to Mr. Edmund Gosse:
There is one point which I must discuss with you. You think my new drama ought to be written in verse, and that it will gain an advantage if it is. Here I must simply contradict you; for the piece is, as you will find, developed in the most realistic way possible. The illusion I wish to produce is that of truth itself; I want to produce upon the reader the impression that what he is reading is actually taking place before him. If I were to use verse, I should by so doing be stultifying my own intention and the object which I placed before me. The variety of every-day and unimportant characters which I have intentionally introduced into the piece would be effaced and blended into one another if I had allowed them all to converse in a rhythmic movement.... --My new drama is not indeed a tragedy in the old-world signification of the word, but what I have tried to depict in it is human beings, and for that very reason I have not allowed them to talk the language of the gods!
The Young Men's League has, in itself, no interest. It is prosaic, hard, and unconvincing. Biographically it has the greatest interest. In it Ibsen had tried and failed. Then he waited. Ten years earlier he had made a similar attempt at prose form in Love's Comedy, a satiric drama treating of modern society. Failing to satisfy himself--failing in realism--that is, he had turned the whole bodily into verse, sometimes line for line and sometimes with free hand. He had recognized that prose is the form suited to treatment of modern life, and prose he could not handle; therefore he returned to verse. But now, ten years later, a change had come over him. He would not return to the old form and he could not go on. Therefore he waited.
He was intensely interested in the life and problems of his own time. They fascinated and eluded him. He must treat these, or nothing. But he was, first and foremost, an artist--more artist than reformer. He would never write a second Young Men's League.
Slowly, it may be, out of the years of waiting, or in a flash, the secret of his later art form came to him. Surrounded in his Dresden retreat by the noblest art-work of the past, and by the Music of the Future, with its richness of harmony and melody and dramatic motive, he groped his way to a new dramatic form such as no playwright had ever dreamed. Art-form he must have. He would write of the people of his own time; therefore he must write in prose. And prose as a dramatic art-form was unknown. He must hew it out of the rock of his own being. In 1877 he produced Pillars of Society. His form was found. He never varied from it. He only perfected and developed it.
The new form was symbolism.
Literature, as the record of universal experience, has gradually acquired certain symbols that have become conventionalized--a kind of stage property of poets and artists and common people. The lily is a symbol of purity, the eagle of strength, red of passion, and gray of peace. These are symbols that carry their meaning in the mere naming of them. They serve their use most perfectly when the symbolic quality is most revealed. Rossetti's work is full of conventional symbolism--mystery and charm and unreality. We walk among his poems as in a garden where perfume and shape and colour haunt the senses with curious, hidden meaning. One may not pluck a flower, or touch it, lest the dream be broken.
Of this conventional symbolism Ibsen's work has no trace. His work gives, first and foremost, a sense of intense reality--of actuality even. It is not till later that a hidden intent is guessed, and when this intention is traced to its source, the symbols discovered are original. Each of them--the pistol, the tarantelle, the wild duck, the white horses, the rotten ship--reveals perfectly that for which it stands. They originate in Ibsen's imagination, and serve his purpose because they are the concrete images of his thought.
The symbolism of character--if it may be so called--in which a character stands for a universal type--Othello for jealousy and Macbeth for ambition--is found in the work of Ibsen's earlier period. In his first play, Catilina, for example, the two women, Aurelia and Furia, embody two abstract principles in the life of Catiline, one drawing out all that is tender and gentle, the other inciting him to wild deeds. Jaeger calls attention to them as prototypes of Ibsen's later women. Symbolism of this more obvious character will be found both in Ibsen's earlier and later plays, as in all dramatic work. But symbolism of this sort, if it may be called symbolism at all, differs from the conventional order in that it attains its highest excellence when the symbolic quality is submerged and the reality appears to occupy the stage alone. Othello is not embodied jealousy, but a jealous man; Rita Allmers is not the embodiment of physical beauty and wealth, but a living woman who charms the senses.
It is not, however, types of this sort that are referred to when Ibsen's symbols are mentioned, but, as in A Doll's House and Hedda Gabler, symbols that stand, first, for a character of the play; and second ... for the meaning of the play as a whole. An object or event is used as a central theme or motive of the play. Toward this symbol the ostensible action of the play moves, and from it, it recedes. This object or event--as the tarantelle--also stands for the character of the play, whose soul is the stage of the real action of the play; and thus the symbol stands, at last, for the play itself.
It was the discovery of this artistic device that enabled Ibsen to go on with the prose drama. "On the whole," he had written earlier to Mr. Gosse, "my feeling is that literary form ought to be in relation to the amount of ideality which is spread over the representation." This he had at last achieved. His prose dramas preserve the sense of reality. They "produce upon the reader the impression that what he is reading is actually taking place before him." But they convey at the same time a sense of art, of removal, a picture set in its frame, a touch of the higher reality that is called truth, a meaning underlying and refining the whole. This sense of art is produced by the use of symbol. It reserves itself, is not puffed up, thinketh not of itself more highly than it ought; but all the time it is there, constant, pervasive, convincing--persuading the spectator that that which he looks upon is life itself and that, more than life, it is truth.
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