Henrik Ibsen

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Henrik Ibsen


Bibliographic Citation

Georg Brandes, “Henrik Ibsen,” Mother Earth 1, no. 7 (September 1906): 39-46.


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By Georg Brandes.


A WRITER born in a country whose language is not one of the principal languages of the world is generally at a great disadvantage. A talent of the third order that finds expression in one of the tongues that may be called universal achieves glory much more easily than a genius with whom the great nations cannot enjoy direct familiarity.

And yet it is impossible for another to produce anything whatever that is really artistic in any other than his native tongue. First of all, his fellow-countrymen must recognize in his work the exact savor of the soil. There is nothing for him, then, but to bow to this alternative: either the savor in question will evaporate through translation, or else, by some master-stroke at the command of very few interpreters, it will persist; but in the latter case the work will preserve peculiar characteristics of a nature to render its diffusion slow and difficult.

If Henrik Ibsen has become known and admired in all countries in a minimum number of years, this is due, in the first place, to the fact that he wrote in prose. Everybody knows that prose is infinitely more easy to translate than poetry. Furthermore, he has no style, in the rhetorical sense of the word. He uses short, simple, clear phrases, whose shades lie in the content and not in the form.

On the other hand, his production has evolved steadily in the direction of the generalization, the universalization, of theses. After having written plays in which only the Scandinavian soul was faithfully reflected, he worked more and more for the world public. A detail here and there indicates this tendency in a remarkable fashion. Thus in a play written in the middle of his career he places in Norway a chateau (Rosmersholm) of a type very common in Germany, Scotland, and elsewhere, but utterly unknown in Scandinavia.

Finally, and especially, he has revolutionized the art form in which he expressed himself.

Efforts have been made to trace his work to the initiative of certain German dramatists,—Friedrich Hebbel, for instance,—but it has been impossible to deny that these were no more than precursors.

The French dramatists who dominated the European theatre during Ibsen’s youth belong to a category absolutely different from his own. We find in their works a special characteristic called intrigue, which Ibsen utilized only in the plays of his youth,—which are not real Ibsen. Another peculiarity emphasizing the contrast between the French manner, classic or romantic, and Ibsen’s manner is the development of the characters. In the French pieces the character is established almost from its first appearance, either by acts or by other external indications. But at an Ibsen play the spectator who would decipher an individuality is forced to the same efforts as in life. No more than in life, for instance, can he count on the aid of such childish expedients as the monologue and the aside.

The most happily conceived characters of modern French dramas are almost all one-sided, or in some other way incomplete. Emile Augier’s Giboyer, which seems so life-like, is lacking in complexity nevertheless, not only in comparison with kindred characters familiar to us in actual life, but in comparison with Rameau’s nephew. In spite of everything, it is a symbol, and inspires within us no vibrant response.

How different with Solness! This character, too, is a symbol, but in his nature there are a number of individual peculiarities which create between him and ourselves close, firm, palpable ties,—painful too, and thereby moving our passions.

And Ibsen has carried to such perfection this scenic realization of character and this thorough utilization of individual mental intrigue that it has become impossible to achieve theatrical success with plays of the sort that was triumphant in France and elsewhere twenty years ago.

Some of the most eminent savants of Scandinavia—Tycho-Brahe, Linnaeus, Berzelius, Abel—and one sculptor, only one, Thorwaldsen, have won fame with some promptness beyond the confines of their own land. The number of writers who have had the same good fortune is limited. The novels of Tagner are esteemed in Germany and England; the fantastic tales of Andersen are popular in Germany, Poland and France; Jacobsen has exercised a certain influence in Germany and Austria. This is all, or almost all; and the Danes, for instance, will never become resigned to the thought that the foreigner is unaware even of the existence of so profound and original a mind as Sceren Kiarkegaard.

This injustice, of which the rest of Europe is guilty toward most of the Scandinavian authors, and toward Kiarkegaard in particular, has been of much service to Henrik Ibsen. He was the first Scandinavian to write for the universal public, and he worked a revolution in one branch of literature; it was commonly agreed that he was the greatest of all the writers ever born in the three countries of the North, and that, besides, he had no intellectual ancestry in his own race any more than in central, or western, or southern Europe.

One distinction must be noted. If the three Scandinavian literatures be considered from the absolute point of view; if account be taken only of the personal genius of the authors and of their national genius,—that is, of their individual value and of the relations between this value and their environments, race, etc.,—then several Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish writers are indisputably worthy to be ranked with Ibsen. But it is certain, on the other hand, that, if the first consideration is to be the influence exercised over universal intellectuality, Ibsen must be proclaimed the most powerful mind of Scandinavia up to the present time.

Henrik Ibsen began by producing plays whose subjects are borrowed from history or from legend. Then he gave to the stage works which fairly may be considered as purely polemical: “The Comedy of Love,” “Brand,” “Peer Gynt,” “The League of Youth.” But his glory rests on his twelve modern plays on which he worked during his maturity.

Of these twelve dramas six are devoted to social theses; these are: “The Pillars of Society,” “A Doll’s House,” “Ghosts,” “An Enemy of the People,” “The Wild Duck,” and “Rosmersholm.” The six others are purely psychological developments, bearing principally upon the intellectual and sentimental relations between woman and man. It is possible, however, to view these also as pieces devoted to a thesis, for they seem written especially to establish the superiority of the feminine character. This cycle includes: “The Lady of the Sea,” “Hedda Gabler,” “The Master-Builder,” “Little Eyolf,” “John Gabriel Borkman,” and “When We, Dead, Awaken.” This is a cycle of domestic and familiar plays,—intimate, in short.

It is with these twelve plays that Ibsen has conquered one of the most eminent situations among the rare minds that guide the course of universal culture. And, to form an exact and precise idea of the importance and the nature of his influence, it is fitting to compare him with other directors of the contemporary conscience. Taine, Tolstoi, and Ibsen were born in the same year. Naturally, these three men possess several traits in common.

Taine, like Ibsen, began by being a rebellious mind; before the age of forty, he did his utmost to bring about a revolution of French intellectuality. And then, as the years passed, Taine, still like Ibsen, came to hate democracy more and more, looking upon it as a blind leveller. Both have taught that majorities always and everywhere group around the worst guides and the worst solutions.

Taine, however, is the more conservative of the two. His ideal is the British regime. Ibsen is no more indulgent for that regime than any other that rests on an ensemble of established principles. In his eyes doctrines scarcely count. It is not by the aid of new dogmas that society is to be ameliorated, but the transformation of individuals.

Tolstoi, so great in his feelings, but so narrow in his ideas, has failed to understand either Taine or Ibsen, and it is painful to hear him declare Ibsen unintelligible. He belongs none the less to the same family as the Scandinavian dramatist, the family of the great modern iconoclasts, who are also prophets. He, too, is working for the destruction of all prejudices, and announces the advent of a new order of things, which is born and develops without the aid of the State and even against its opposition. Like Ibsen, he is full of tenderness for all forms of insurrection against contemporary society,—all, including Anarchism. Only he is impregnated with oriental fatalism, and of equality he has the most basely demagogical conception, the conception of a tramp,—and of a Russian tramp at that! Whereas Ibsen is a furious aristocrat, who would tolerate only one form of levelling,—a form whose plan should be indicated by the proudest of all souls. Tolstoi recommends the individual to dilute himself in evangelical love; Ibsen counsels him to disengage and fortify his autonomy.

We find in Ibsen certain of the fundamental ideas of Renan, who was his elder, and with whose works he seems to have been unfamiliar. When he writes: “I propound questions, knowing well that they will not be answered,” do we not come in contact with a mentality substantially identical with that of Renan? The only difference to be seen sometimes between the two is that one attracts you by his charm, while the other lays hold of you in a manner that terrifies.

Count Prozor, moreover, has shown clearly the relationship existing between the conceptions set forth in a work of Ibsen’s youth, “Brand,” and those developed by Renan in one of his early works, “The Future of Science.”

When Brand proclaims that the church should have no walls or any sort of limits, because the vault of heaven is the only roof befitting it, we recognize the same idea that Renan affirmed in declaring that the old church is to be succeeded by another vaster and more beautiful.

Among the great guides of conscience there is another whom we cannot help comparing with Ibsen. I mean Nietzsche, of whom, however, he had never read a line. Ibsen, Renan, Nietzsche, all three have claimed for truly noble individualities the right of escape from all social discipline. This is the favorite idea of Rosmer, and also that of Dr. Stockmann. Long before predicting the “overman” through the lips of Zarathustra, Nietzsche declared the formation of superior beings to be the essential aspiration of the race. The individualism of the three thinkers is of an ultra-aristocratic tendency.

Ibsen and Nietzsche meet also in the psychological domain. The latter loves life so passionately that truth seems to him precious only so far as it tends to the preservation of life. Falsehood, in his eyes, is reprehensible only because in general it exercises a pernicious influence upon life; when its influence becomes useful, then it is commendable.

In vain does Ibsen profess the worship of truth; he sometimes concludes exactly like Nietzsche, in favor of the contingent legitimacy of falsehood. In “The Wild Duck” Dr. Relling pleads the necessity of certain simulations. In “Ghosts” the very thesis is the harm that truth may do. Madame Alving cannot and will not tell Oswald what his father really was. She refuses to destroy his ideal. For here Ibsen goes so far as to place the ideal in opposition with truth.

Madame Borkman lives on an illusion. She says to herself that Erhart will become capable of accomplishing great things and will make his family famous. “That is only a dream,” another character tells her, “and you cling to it simply to avoid falling into despair.” Borkman, for his part, dreams that a deputation is coming to offer him the management of a great bank. “If I were not certain that they will come,” he cries, “that they must come, I would long ago have blown my brains out.”

Says the sculptor Rubec: “When I created this masterpiece—for the ‘Day of Resurrection’ is surely a masterpiece, or was at the beginning no, it is still

a masterpiece; it must, it absolutely must remain a masterpiece.”

Ibsen and Nietzsche lived lives of grim solitude. It is difficult to solve the problem posited by Count Prozor,— the question which of the two has best and most betrayed in his works the influence of this isolation. It would be still more difficult to decide which of the two makes the deeper impression on the reader, and which of the two will be the longer famous.

In Scandinavia, at any rate, Ibsen has founded no school. He seems really to have rendered the three kingdoms but one service,—that of greatly contributing to draw the attention of the rest of the world to their literature.

In Germany, Ibsen was highly appreciated twenty years ago as a great naturalist, like Zola and Tolstoi. Nobody would hear a word of the idealism of Schiller, and it was thoroughly agreed that Ibsen was no idealist. Various groups began to be fond of him for diametrically opposite reasons. On account of the revolutionary current that runs, so to speak, through the depths of his works, and which is especially apparent in “The Pillars of Society,” the conservatives catalogued him among the Socialists. On account of his championship of the individual and his curses on majorities, the Socialists placed him, now in the category of reactionaries, now in that of Anarchists.

The contemporary German theatre, especially that of Hauptmann,—and Hauptmann is the greatest living German dramatist,—reflects the influence of Ibsen even more than that of Tolstoi.

In France Ibsen was adored as the god of symbolism in the days when symbolism was the fashion. He won hearts by the Shakespearean character of his mystical discoveries,—the white horses in “Rosmersholm,” the stranger in “The Lady of the Sea.” And they consecrated him Anarchist during the years when it was good form to pose in favor of Anarchism. The bomb-throwers, in their speeches in court, named him among their inspirers. On the other hand, his technique has made a school,—witness, for example, Francois de Curel.

In England Ibsen has had scarcely any influence except on Bernard Shaw; and, in spite of the efforts of critics like Edmund Gosse and William Archer, his works are known to a very limited public. It is to be remarked that, in general, the English see in him the perfect materialist, but an admirable psychologist.

When everybody feels sure that he sees in the works of a genius a faithful reflection of the most diverse and contradictory mentalities, that genius must be very broad and very deep. The Norwegians have declared Ibsen a radical after having proclaimed him a conservative; elsewhere he has been dubbed by turns Socialist and Anarchist, idealist and materialist, and so on. He is all that, and he is nothing of all that; he is himself,—that is, something as immense and manifold as humanity itself.


Georg Brandes, “Henrik Ibsen,” Mother Earth 1, no. 7 (September 1906): 39-46.




Brandes, Georg, 1842-1927, “Henrik Ibsen,” The Libertarian Labyrinth, accessed October 17, 2019, http://library.libertarian-labyrinth.org/items/show/1479.