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Ibsen as a dramatist of Common People/ Characteristics of Ibsens Plays

IN the entire history of literature, there are few figures like Ibsen. Practically his whole life and energies were devoted to the theater; and his offerings, medicinal and bitter, have changed the history of the stage. The principle of Ibsens teaching, his moral ethic, was that honesty in facing facts is the first requisite of a decent life. Human nature has dark recesses which must be explored and illuminated; life has pitfalls which must be recognized to be avoided; and society has humbugs, hypocrisies, and obscure diseases which must be revealed before they can be cured. To recognize these facts is not pessimism; it is the moral obligation laid upon intelligent people. To face the problems thus exposed, however, requires courage, honesty, and faith in the ultimate worth of the human soul. Man must be educated until he is not only intelligent enough, but courageous enough to work out his salvation through patient endurance and nobler ideals. Democracy, as a cure-all, is just as much a failure as any other form of government; since the majority in politics, society, or religion is always torpid and content with easy measures. It is the intelligent and morally heroic minority which has always led, and always will lead, the human family on its upward march. Nevertheless, we alone can help ourselves; no help can come from without. Henrik Ibsen's plays anticipate major developments of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: the individual's feelings of alienation and actual alienation from society, the pressures by which society insures conformity to its values and suppresses individuality, the barriers which modern life sets up against living heroically. Ibsen exposed other stresses of modern life by showing the inner pressures and conflicts that inhibit and even destroy the individual. Some of these pressures stem from conditioning, i.e., from the individual's internalizing society's values. John Northam distinguishes the opposing elements within the individual as the social self and the essential self. The social self is the persona which conforms to the demands of family, friends, community, and society and which an individual generally develops for acceptance or as a protection. The essential self is an individual's true Self and expresses the individual's thoughts, feelings, desires, needs, etc. This distinction, which is a useful concept in general, has particular relevance to Hedda Gabler; I will refer to it repeatedly in our discussions of the play. A primary value for Ibsen is freedom, which he believed to be essential for self-fulfillment. Of the "many things" which his later writings, including Hedda Gabler, were concerned with, Ibsen specifically identified "contradictions between ability and desire, or between will and circumstance, the mingled tragedy and comedy of humanity and the individual." Ibsen was constantly experimenting and pushing boundaries in his writing. This habit of exploration often made him and his plays controversial and shocked conservative critics and audiences. Of this habit, he said, "Where I stood then, when I wrote my various books, there is now a fairly compact crowd, but I myself am no longer there; I am somewhere else, I hope in front." His constant changing often confused contemporary theater-goers and critics, who had to keep adjusting their expectations of an Ibsen play. His repeated changes and experimenting also make it difficult to place Ibsen and his plays in neat categories. Adding to the difficulty of classifying him is the complexity with which he presents his heroes and themes. The resulting ambiguity has enabled readers to find support for their own beliefs and to claim him as a member of their movements. This is true today, as it was in the nineteenth century. Over the years, Ibsen has been called a revolutionary, a nationalist, a romantic, a poet, an idealist, a realist, a socialist, a naturalist, a symbolist, a feminist, and a forerunner of psychoanalysis. Furthermore -- and this is a vital point in understanding Ibsen -- experience and life are a happiness in themselves, not merely a means to happiness; and in the end good must prevail. Such are some of the ideas that can be distilled from the substance of Ibsen's plays. On the plane of practical methods Ibsen preached the emancipation of the individual, especially of woman. He laid great stress upon the principle of heredity. He made many studies of disordered minds, and analyzed relentlessly the common relationships -- sister and brother, husband and wife, father and son. There is much in these relationships, he seems to say, that is based on sentimentalism, on a desire to dominate, on hypocrisy and lies. He pictured the unscrupulous financier, the artist who gives up love for the fancied demands of his art, the unmarried woman who has been the drudge and the unthanked burden-bearer -- all with a cool detachment which cloaks, but does not conceal, the passionate moralist. Ibsen the dramatist is as great as Ibsen the individualist ; the two cannot be separated, and, indeed, the one, in a sense, determines the other. Both have been dominant in Ibsen almost from the first. He has stood apart from his fel lows, watching their movements with the curiosity (not always perfectly sane) of a psychologist and the instincts of a dramatist. The queer incidents of Ibsen's boyhood? intrinsically unimportant? show that the child was father to the man. Ibsen's belief that the high moments of life must exist for us as blissful memories only, since they cannot endure in conventional society. Ibsen has always been essentially a psychological or analytic realist. Ibsen's characters and the situations are mostly chosen from higher middle-class society.) Unlike Browning, Ibsen is a great dramatist with the faculty of presenting objectively situations in themselves intensely subjective. But such subjective and tragic situations are necessarily culminating moments on the stage as in life. The action, therefore, must be greatly compressed. " Ibsen goes so far in some of his tragedies as to transgress the bounds of sound art. " Hedda Gabler ' ' is, as Matthew Arnold says of * ' Madame Bovary, " " a work of petrified feeling, over it hangs an atmosphere of bitterness, irony, impotence; not a personage to rejoice or console us; the springs of freshness and feeling are not there to create such personages." This is literally true; it is, as Arnold said of his own "Empedocles, ' ' too painful for tragedy. It has in it nothing to purge the emotions with pity and fear. "Rosmersholm" is open to the same criticism. In truth, though powerful and penetrating, Ibsen on the side of his dramatic criticism of life is narrow, individual, and often painful. Into all his work he has put some of his own bitter, anti-social, iconoclastic spirit. Nevertheless, one will read and reread

such works as " Peer Gynt " and " Brand," "A Doll's House " and " Ghosts," " Little Eyolf " and " When We Dead Awake" with fresh enjoyment of Ibsen's eminent ability as a craftsman and of his indubitable sincerity and depth as a dramatist and poet.

Ibsen portrays people from the middle class of his day. These are people whose routines are suddenly upset as they are confronted with a deep crisis in their lives. They have been blindly following a way of life leading to the troubles and are themselves responsible for the crisis. Looking back on their lives, they are forced to confront themselves. Ibsen's work as a writer represents a long poetic contemplation of people's need to live differently than they do. Thus there is always a deep undercurrent of desperation in his work. Benedetto Croce called these portrayals of people who live in constant expectation and who are consumed by their pursuit of "something else" in life, "a desperate drama. It is precisely this distance between what they can achieve and what they want to achieve that is the cause of the tragic (and in many cases the comic) aspect of these people's lives. Ibsen felt that this contradiction between will and real prospects was at the root of his art. Looking back on 25 years of writing in 1875, he declared that most of what he had written involved "the contradiction between ability and aspiration, between will and possibility. In this conflict he saw "humanity's and the individual's tragedy and comedy simultaneously." A decade later, he created the tragicomic constellation of the priest Rosmer and his scruffy teacher Ulrik Brendel. These two men, who are reflections of each other, both end up on the brink of an abyss where all they see is life's total emptiness and insignificance. Ibsen himself has given the best characteristic of his approach to drama. This was as early as 1857 in a theater review: "It is not the conscious strife between ideas parading before us, nor is this the situation in real life. What we see are human conflicts, and enwrapped in these, deep inside, lay ideas at battle being defeated, or charged with victory." This undoubtedly touches upon something essential in Ibsen's demands to dramatic art: it should as realistically as possible unify three elements: the psychological, the ideological and the social. At its best, the organic synthesis of these three elements is at the heart of Ibsen's drama. Perhaps he only succeeds completely in a few of his plays, such as "Ghosts, "The Wild Duck, and "Hedda Gabler. Interestingly, he considered his major work to be "Emperor and Galilean" (1873), contrary to everyone else. This could indicate how much emphasis he put on ideology, not overt, but as a conflict between opposing views toward life. Ibsen believed that he had created a fully "realistic" rendering of the inner conflict in the abandoned Julian. The truth is, however, that Julian is too marked by the dramatist's own thoughts what he calls his "positive philosophy of life." Ibsen first succeeded as a theatrical writer when he seriously took another approach the one he described in connection with "Hedda Gabler" (1890): "My main goal has been to depict people, human moods and human fates, on the basis of certain predominant social conditions and perceptions." "A Doll's House" has a plot which he repeated in many subsequent works, in the phase when he cultivated "critical realism. We experience the individual in opposition to the majority, society's oppressive authority. Nora puts it this way: "I will have to find out who is right,

society or myself. Martin Lamm, had in mind when he claimed: "Ibsen's drama is the Rome of modern drama: all roads lead to it and from it."

In Hedda Gabler one can sense her frustrated childhood. She despises her husband and cannot turn to the child as a remedy. It seems perfectly possible that her father was one of those petty tyrants on the home scene who perhaps gave her a sense of inferiority at not being a boy. Hedda's attraction to her father's pistols, her rejection of flowers, and her wish to burn Mrs. Elvsted's hair are all acts sig-nificant for their obvious sexual symbolism. When Hedda calls herself poor, despite a long list of earthly goods, she is, in reality, referring to her emotional possessions. Also, she violently resents Judge Brack's power over her in connection with the fatal shooting of Eilert Livborg: "I'm in your power. Dependent on your will, and your demands. Not free. Still not free! No. I couldn't bear that. No."37