The following article 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. 86-113.
Henrik Ibsen's plays have many of the attributes of Greek dramatic art. They deal with subjects of present interest to the audience for which they are written, as did the plays of the great dramatists. To a Greek audience of the time of Aeschylus, the relation between men and gods was of vital interest. To an audience of the present day, the relation of men to men is of supreme importance. The social relation, which is becoming more and more emphasized in the minds of men, and which may be destined to be the next great subject for art, is the chief subject of Ibsen's plays. Most of us are still in the thick of the fight. The moral aspects of the question, the ethical and altruistic and practical demands are too insistent for us to see it as a whole, or to see it clearly, as material for art--to see it as beautiful. The artist, who walks away a little ahead of his age, pointing out the beauty and meaning that might otherwise escape notice, sets up his flag-staff here and there to mark the way. He will perhaps have passed out of sight before his generation reaches the place where the flag is set. But they will find his message waiting them there, as all beautiful things wait their finding. Ibsen is the artist of [his] day who points the way. He, more than any other, used for the basis of his art the vital interest of his age. In this he is Greek.
In unities of time and place, too, he meets the Greek ideal. In Ghosts and A Doll's House and Hedda Gabler the action of the whole play is confined to one room, and in none of the plays does it escape the small town in which it opens up. Each act of a play is invariably given in one scene. In Ghosts the action is limited to twenty-four hours, in A Doll's House to forty-eight, and in none is the usual time more than two or three days.
One who is accustomed to think of plot and action as synonymous must dissociate the two terms in taking up the work of Ibsen. His plays have plot in abundance, but nothing happens in them, any more than in one of Mr. Henry James' novels. The action takes place in the soul of a character or in the relation between characters. There are few incidents--unless one regards the adventures of the soul as such. "It is an incident," maintains Mr. James, "for a woman to stand up with her hand resting on a table and look out at you in a certain way; or if it be not an incident, I think it will be hard to say what it is." There are plenty of women in Ibsen's plays standing by tables and looking out at you in a certain way. But there is little that is understood by plot and action in the ordinary sense of the words. The interest of the plot is psychological, the action such as will develop it.
Off the stage, however, many things take place, or have already taken place when the play opens. Ibsen's plot begins where in the ordinary play it leaves off, just before the catastrophe. If one takes for the representation of the ordinary play Freytag's cone, in which the parts of the plot are present to the eye, (a) introduction, (b) rise, (c) climax, (d) return or fall, (e) catastrophe, and places beside it the plot of a play of Ibsen's, he will find that the part represented by a, b, c, and d has taken place before the curtain rises. The opening scene upon the stage is placed between d and e and very near to e. The interest of the play centers, not in the rise or climax or fall, but in the catastrophe. The Ibsen play may be called the play of catastrophe. In the Shakespearean play the interest practically ceases with the fall, since the catastrophe from that point on is foreseen and inevitable. But in Ibsen's play, a new interest arises with the catastrophe: namely, the interest of soul. How will the soul conduct itself under test? In the Shakespearean play the hero has brought upon himself the calamity. It is the natural outcome of his action and the spectator watches the return and fall of the movement of the play with a certain sense of appeased justice. The catastrophe falls, but the hero himself has precipitated it. In the Greek drama and in Ibsen's the hero is, perhaps, not responsible for the evil that has befallen him. Through the misdoing of parents or society, or through overruling fate, the crisis is upon him. How will he meet it? What has the soul to show? The time is short. The action swift.
In apparent rapidity of action, Ibsen's plays have an advantage over the Greek model. The part played by the chorus in the Greek play, that of narrating the events that have led up to the play and forecasting the future is taken in an Ibsen play by the main characters. The recounting of the past and the onward movement of the plot are simultaneous.
In The Lady from the Sea, for instance, the prior plot is gathered from the conversation of the characters as the plot upon the stage moves swiftly to its denouement. Ellida, the Lady from the Sea, had fallen in love with the mate of a vessel that had anchored at the light-house. She had been betrothed to him by a romantic ceremony--their two united rings thrown into the sea--and he had gone away leaving her in her light-house. After a few years she grows tired of waiting--perhaps forgets--and when Dr. Wangel, a widower from the mainland, asks her to marry him, she consents. She goes with him to his home on the mainland by the fiord, and is at first contented; but a little before her child is born she grows restless. She remembers vividly the Stranger. She is drawn toward him in her thoughts. When the child comes, and she sees that it has the Stranger's eyes, she grows frightened. The child lives only a few months. Through its life, and after, the Stranger haunts her. She cannot escape him. Meanwhile the Stranger, who has sailed to various ports, learns from a stray copy of a Norwegian paper of the Lady's marriage and swears a vow to go and claim her for his own. It is at the time that this vow is made that the Lady first remembers him and feels his presence calling to her.
The situation, therefore, when the play opens is: the Lady strongly drawn to the Stranger, compelled to him in thought and longing, yet full of dread. She longs to go with him. Yet she must stay. She has no free choice in the matter. The Stranger is on his way to claim her. The Lady's husband and the other characters are ignorant of the situation. It concerns only the Lady. Her soul is the stage of action. The action is thus confined to narrow limits, and will cover only a short time.
The Stranger comes, claims her; she is given power of free choice, and voluntarily elects to abide by her life as it is. The action certainly is of the slightest. If there is plot, one must look for it elsewhere than in the outer action.
One source of interest is the gradual unfolding of precedent plot. It is a series of pictures, each picture suggesting some phase of early action in its setting. Compare this method with that of the Shakespearean play in which the early lines narrate what slight precedent action is given. In Ibsen's play we see the Lighthouse, the Betrothal, the Sea, the Stranger killing the captain, wandering over the face of the waters, entering foreign ports, in the cabin of the ship reading the Norwegian paper, that tells of the marriage of his betrothed. All these are not merely events narrated. They are scenes--all connected with the Sea, keeping its vastness constantly before our eyes, its sound in our ears, throughout the play; and all the while the ostensible action is taking place on dry land, "by the lukewarm waters of the fiord." Thus the play, through the pictured representation of the action leading up to it, becomes a wide, free thing, with shining opalescent gleams and the breath of winds in it. Ellida becomes in truth the Lady from the Sea. Ibsen has accomplished in this play what Saint-Saens regards as "a miracle" in Wagner--in that "he succeeded, during the whole of the first act of 'The Flying Dutchman', in making us hear the sound of the Sea without interrupting the dramatic action."
Meanwhile, as the spectator gathers up the threads of the past story, he finds them centering toward one point--the soul of the Lady. Everything converges to that. Now, on this new stage, the denouement is to come. Will they draw her again, these threads stretching from the Sea? Or will she herself cut the knot that holds them and toss them to the winds of heaven? This is the real interest, the inmost kernel of the plot. It is a question that no one can answer--not Dr. Wangel anxious and uncertain about her, not the Stranger with his changing eyes and alluring charm, not Ellida herself, swayed to his presence as the tide to its moon, not even the reader, who sees as in a picture the Lady with her web of threads stretching far. Only the master, from beginning to end, knows the answer. He weaves his web with skilful hand, and when the pattern is complete before our eyes, in colour and beauty and design, we see that it could not have been otherwise. But up to that point, the interest holds--not interest of action, but the interest which must always attach to the spectacle of the human soul under challenge.
It is the real interest of all great dramatic work. Underneath the vicissitudes of events, one pierces to the soul upon which they play. How will it meet the test? What of Prometheus on his mighty rock, and Lear upon the storm-swept heath, and Faust in the sordid Rathskeller? The interest in dramatic action is Soul, and again Soul, and once more Soul. Things happen: winds blow, masts break--rain and hail and flood and the trampling of armies--but the real field of action is limited to a handful of grey matter, stuff that one could hold in his hand and scatter to the winds. There, and there alone, have taken place the battles that have shaped the world. The soul, acting and reacting upon events, is the dramatic norm. In the Shakespearean drama we see the events, as they come and go, acting upon the soul and the soul reacting upon them. In Ibsen's plays the events are all of the past. It is now the turn of the soul. His plays--more than those of any other dramatist--focus attention upon the action of the soul. To this form of drama no artistic method could be so well suited as that of symbol. The action is not progressive, but static; and it is, thus, best revealed, not by events, but by pictures; that is, by symbols. The symbol touches the struggle at every point. By it the soul is revealed--in pictures. Layer after layer it opens out; deeper and deeper the eye penetrates until the inmost heart of the matter is reached.
The Sea, the symbol of the play, is the Stranger. He is variable, fascinating; his eyes, still in sunshine or darkening in stormy weather, and his pearl "like a dead fish's eye staring at one." He has many names and no abiding place, but he draws, compels one always. The reader feels him and sees him and has a curious, uncanny desire to follow him. With the Lady, one waits breathless his coming, and when at last he reappears and demands her--"That is the first bell for going on board. You must say yes or no"--we understand well the feeling with which she wrings her hands, "I must decide--decide for life." We know, with her, that it is not the mere man that terrifies and attracts her, but the wide reaches behind him, the Sea and all that is therein. "To live on the sea--in the sea, even, who knows--we should be very much more perfect than we are, better and happier." She must go with him. "The summertime is drawing to a close. The water ways will be locked."
The symbol tosses new pictures to light at each turn. In the opening scene, it is the picture that Lyngstrand is painting on the cliff, "Here by the rock in the foreground a half-dead mermaid is to be lying. She has wandered in from the sea and cannot find her way out. So she lies dying in the brackish water, you understand.... It was the lady of the house here who put it into my head to paint something of the kind." Thus the first mention of the Lady strikes her note. Soon she is brought in again, by the artist, speaking to Hilda, "Yes, I was in the sea for a little while. I saw your mother there. She went into her bath-house." At last the Lady herself comes on the scene "with wet hair hanging over her shoulders." Wangel smiles and holds out his hands to meet her. "Well, here is our mermaid." This note, once unmistakably struck, is not sounded again till the very end of the play, when Ellida says (smiling but grave) "Well, Mr. Arnholm, you see--Do you recollect our talk yesterday? As, once for all, we have become land animals there is no way of escape out to sea again, nor to the life of the sea, either." And Lyngstrand responds, "Why, that is exactly like my mermaid," There is no other mention of the mermaid in the five acts if the play. But the picture given at the start remains with one throughout the intervening lines. It fits into the sea and the story of the sea. It gives colour to Ellida's love for the sea, her longing for it, and her eager interest in every mention of it. When Lyngstrand relates the story of the American (the Stranger), of his crushing and crumpling the paper and tearing it into a thousand bits, his face as white as chalk--the paper that contained the news of her marriage--Ellida's interest and fear is not that of a mere woman who has broken her troth. Playing over and around her, in the imagination of the reader, is the picture of the mermaid who has wandered in from the sea and lies dying in the brackish water.
It is, throughout, a play of pictures. They are constantly before the eye. The artist plans to paint a dead seaman returning and looking upon his betrothed as she lies asleep, so that even in her dreams she feels him there. Wangel says to Ellida, "Now I begin to understand you, little by little. You think and feel in pictures, in living images. Your longing and pining for the sea, its attraction for you, and the power of that stranger were the experience of your growing yearning for liberty, nothing else."
We, too, begin to understand, "little by little." Ibsen himself thinks and feels in pictures. He does not plan bare, architectural dramas, nor ingenious play and counterplay of events. He "thinks and feels in pictures, in living images;" and these images reveal the soul, in whose action is centered the interest of the play.
The likeness of Ibsen's symbols to the Leading Motives in Wagner's music is inevitably suggested to the mind. No one familiar with Wagnerian opera and with Ibsen's dramatic form can fail to be struck by the kinship between the two. Of Wagner's method his biographer writes: "In his desire to make the singer's utterances intelligible, Wagner went so far as to call upon the orchestra for assistance, by making it, also, speak a language with a definite meaning. This he could only do by using Leading Motives--those reminiscent melodies or chords associated with a particular person, incident, or dramatic emotion, which recur in the music whenever the person or dramatic idea with which they are assocated recurs in the play or the singer's utterances. These definite orchestral Motives not only help to elucidate the plot, they also, by their subtle suggestiveness and emotional definiteness and vividness, help to atone to the spectator for the loss of those delicate shades of facial expression which is inevitable in our large modern opera-houses; and, thirdly, the system of Leading Motives has enabled Wagner to be the first composer who could convert an opera from a crude mosaic of unconnected "numbers" into a music-drama, all parts of which are as organically connected by means of recurrent melodies as the parts of the drama itself are by the recurrence of the same characters, with the same thoughts, traits, and motives of action." One can easily transpose the description into terms of drama and symbol in Ibsen's work.
Of Wagner's process of musical composition Wagner himself says, "I remember that, even before I actually set to work upon the composition of The Flying Dutchman, I had sketched Senta's ballad in the second act, and elaborated it poetically and musically; into this piece I placed unconsciously the thematic germ of the whole musical score: it was the concentrated image of the whole drama, as it stood before my mind's eye." In composing the opera, he goes on to say, this condensed thematic scheme in his mind spread itself spontaneously as a connected web over the whole opera; all he had to do was to let the various thematic germs contained in the ballad develop, each in its own direction, and the drama was complete. In adopting this new method, he followed an instinctive impulse inspired by the dramatic poem.
Wagner's Motives are musical characters, as Ibsen's are pictorial, and these musical characters "undergo the same emotional changes as the dramatis personæ themselves." In Ibsen, the symbols undergo like changes. The Hospital is carefully planned and built, and it burns. The Wild Duck, wounded, droops and pines in confinement, but at last seeks the nest of sticks and straws provided for her, and is finally sacrificed to the doom of the Ekdal family. To Rita and to Allmers after Little Eyolf is drowned in the depths of the fiord, comes the distant call of children from the beach below, "The crutch is floating--The crutch is floating."
"Every bar," writes Mr. Finck of Tristan, "betrays its source, just as every piece of a broken mirror reflects the same image." So every line of Ibsen's work reveals the drama from which it is taken. The Lady from the Sea has the colour and tone of the sea; Ghosts has its taint, and Hedda Gabler its hard shining surface. It is the close connection of the plot and character and symbol that makes Ibsen's plays as perfect and unique and satisfying in the realm of dramatic art as are the operas of Wagner in that of music.
In each play, the symbol is introduced early in the action. In Ghosts, Engstrand and Regina, in the first scene, refer to the completion of the hospital; in Pillars of Society, Aune, who is on the stage when the curtain rises, speaks of the Indian Girl, "that cursed American that's put in for repairs"; in Rosmersholm, Mrs. Helseth tells of the White Horses in the first scene. After its introduction, the symbol plays in and out through the drama, giving it colour and light and character--a thousand and one indefinable shades that could be given in no other way. Like the Flower-girl music in Parsifal,--"We hear it first when Gurnemanz, in his monologue, tells his companions about Klingsor's garden, and it arouses our curiosity regarding the damsels who are arrayed in such beautiful music. In the second act we see these girls, and are bathed in the fragrance of this music in full blossom; and when subsequently a reminiscent strain is introduced it thrills us by its suggestive glimpse of the past as no mere words, and be they ever so poetic, could thrill us. Indeed, the poet's most imaginative figures of speech have not such suggestive power as these reminiscent Motives, which resemble them in function."
A the climax of the play the symbol appears for the last time. The Wild Duck is sacrificed by Hedvig at the point where she, in turn, is sacrificed for the Ekdal family and the family for humanity at large, and humanity to social conventions that stifle and cramp the best and purest impulses of human life; the Hospital burns at the critical moment when all Mrs. Alving's plans fall in pieces from her hands--Parson Manders turns from her, Engstrand, takes his booty and departs, Regina gives notice. Mrs. Alving is left alone with the ruins of life smouldering beside her. Since the action of the play is psychological, the climax of the play, the psychological moment, coincides with the moment of decision. In each case there is a struggle--short or long, a moment of turning--either an acceptance of the fate that has overtaken one and a yielding to it voluntarily, or rebellion against it.
This coincidence of the psychological moment and the symbol is so constant, that one hesitating, in doubt as to the main symbol amid the many possible ones that spring to light in the close study of an Ibsen play, may decide the matter by turning to the climax of the action, the psychological moment. There, inevitably, the symbol appears. It is the silent hinge on which the action turns, noiselessly, itself unseen, unguessed.
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