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RASMUS B.ANDERSON on Ibsen's genius, American 1882

RASMUS B.ANDERSON on Ibsen's genius, American 1882

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best, there can be no question, and by writing this tragedy he has

staked nothing less than his whole painfully acquired reputation. The

eminent critic, George Brandes, says of this book that it is ‘the most

noble literary act’ in Ibsen’s life.

7. Clemens Petersen on Ibsen and Björnson


From ‘An Engagement’, by Clemens Petersen, Scandinavia

(August 1882), i, 271. Petersen, a prominent NorwegianAmerican critic, was a regular contributor to Scandinavia. This

article, the second to deal at some length with Ibsen in an Englishlanguage American journal, is essentially a review of George

Brandes’s An Engagement, which Petersen approaches by way of

a general discussion of Norwegian literature.

Björnson and Ibsen have exercised great influence upon each other,

though in the structure of genius they are very different. Björnson is a

poet; Ibsen is a critic. Björnson has that power of attraction, not to say

compulsion, which characterises the truly creative mind. He appeals to

a feeling of responsibility in the reader. When he has spoken there must

be an answer, and the answer must be a clear Yes or No. A book by him

has no audience until it becomes twenty-five years old. On its

appearance it has only friends and foes. Ibsen, on the contrary, stops

short at the suggestion, the explanation, the instruction. He may startle

the reader, but he does not force him into a decision. He may warn all

passersby that the house is falling, but he does not tear it down himself.

It is true that in The Glove1 one of the principal arguments has been

overlooked, and yet, as soon as Svava appeared she found thousands of

thousands of followers. It is probable that in A Fairy-Nest1 no more


A play by Björnson, sometimes translated as The Gauntlet.


MRS LORD ON A Doll’s House

striking or more pointed argument could be presented and yet no one

has ever dreamt of following Nora, nor ever will.

8. Henrietta Frances Lord on A Doll’s House


From Mrs H.F.Lord’s introductory essay, ‘The Life of Henrik

Ibsen’, in her translation of Nora (i.e. A Doll’s House)

(London: Griffith and Farran, 1882). This was the play’s first

English translation; as a rendering it has many limitations.

(For William Archer’s comments and Mrs Lord’s reply see

Nos 9 and 10.)

Some of the clearest light Ibsen has so far shed on marriage we get

from Nora. The problem is set in its purest form; no unfavourable

circumstances hinder the working out of marriage; nor does the

temper of Nora or Helmer; both are well fitted for married life, and

everything points to their being naturally suited to each other. The

hindrance lies exclusively in the application of a false view of life,

or—if some insist it once contained truth—a view that Western

peoples have out-lived. When Helmer said he would work night and

day for his wife, his were no empty words. He had done it, he meant

to do it; he had been faithfully working for eight years, and there is

no sign that he meant to cease. His happiness lay in Nora’s being

unruffled. Nor would he dream of curtailing what he considers her

wife’s freedom, i.e. the happy play of her imagination. He would

deprive her but of one thing—reality. How could he claim to be a ‘real

man’, he would say, if he gave it to her? And he so far succeeds in

unfitting her for action, that when she takes upon herself to meddle in

realities, she immediately commits a crime. He gives her everything but


A Doll’s House.


WILLIAM ARCHER ON An Enemy of the People

his confidence; not because he has anything to conceal, but because she

is a woman….

The idea in Nora is: the object of marriage is to make each human

personality free. However incontrovertible this may be when laid down

as an axiom, does that confer the power of giving it expression in real

life, steering one’s way among all the difficulties of deceit,

inexperience, etc.? Doubtless not; but the poet’s work tells us, until the

relation between man and woman turns in this direction, the relation is

not yet Love. This is the idea in Nora, freed from all side issues, and no

other key will unlock it.

9. William Archer on Mrs Lord’s

imperfections and An Enemy of the People


From William Archer’s review of Mrs Henrietta Frances Lord’s

Nora (see No. 8) and En Folkefiende (Copenhagen, 1882),

Academy (6 January 1883), xxiii, 5–6. This article, entitled ‘Two

Dramas by Ibsen’, was Archer’s first published piece on the

Norwegian dramatist. William Archer (1856–1924), critic and

translator, is chiefly remembered for the intelligence, vigour and

persistence with which he championed Ibsen in England. His

translations of Ibsen’s plays (Walter Scott, 1890) were standard

texts for many years.

Dr. George Brandes, in a recent masterly essay upon Henrik Ibsen,

remarks that in his drama of Ghosts, published a year ago, he has given

expression to his darkest thoughts, his most despairing moods, adding

that he must strike a new key if he wishes to recover his whole

popularity. The remark is perhaps the least happy in the whole essay.

Ibsen has never had any true ‘popularity’, which implies a certain


WILLIAM ARCHER ON An Enemy of the People

measure of affection. He has had power enough and to spare, the power

which belongs to colossal strength and deadly earnestness. This power

the sombre intensity of Ghosts could by no means diminish. But this is

not popularity in the ordinary sense of the word; and in his new play,

An Enemy of the People, he has had small thought of ‘regaining’ what

he either never had or never lost. If a poet’s popularity be measured

solely by the editions of his works, then Ibsen is popular to a degree.

So quinine may be said to be popular in a fever-stricken land—but the

term is surely misapplied.

En Folkefiende is not so startling as its predecessor. There is no

physical horror in it, and consequently it does not tell upon the nerves

as did Ghosts. Its motive may be stated in a few words, for Ibsen has

again chosen a perfectly simple theme, and forsworn all his former

complexity of intrigue.

[Archer outlines the plot.]

In this play the poet has studiously avoided every effect of theatrical

sensation. The whole theme and many of the individual scenes are

strongly dramatic, but the thrilling situations of The Pillars of Society

and A Doll’s House are totally absent. In its abundance of pure humour,

as well as in other respects, the play is more closely related to The Young

Men’s League than to any other of his former works. Its dialogue is

perfect—not a word is thrown away, not a word is unduly brilliant, not

a word is dull. Each character is clearly individualised, and Dr.

Stockmann especially will one day take his place among the most

masterly, as he is certainly one of the most sympathetic, of all Ibsen’s

creations. In none of his plays is the technique more exact, the welding

of character and incident more thorough. Some of us would like to see

the poet return to his old manner and give us another great fantastic

drama in verse; but so long as he produces such plays as En Folkefiende,

we have no valid reason to regret his adherence to realism and prose.

The difficulty of translating from Ibsen’s idiomatic Norwegian into

our half-Latinised tongue has proved rather too much for the lady who

has attempted an English version of Et Dukkehjem.1 She has neither a

perfect knowledge of Norwegian nor a thorough mastery of English, so

that she has perpetrated several mistranslations, while she fails

throughout to reproduce the crispness and spontaneity of the dialogue.

Several indications, indeed, lead one to suspect that the translation is

not made direct from the Norwegian, but through the Swedish. In the


Mrs H.F.Lord. See her retort, No. 10.


WILLIAM ARCHER ON An Enemy of the People

original, for example, Ibsen discards the foolish French fashion of

marking a new ‘scene’ at every entrance or exit, whereas it is religiously

followed in that version. It must be admitted, however, that Miss Lord

has shown herself at once conscientious and courageous. She has

followed the original faithfully where some might have been tempted to

tone it down for the English market; and the defects of her work

proceed from lack of knowledge, not from want of care or enthusiasm.

A so-called ‘Life of Henrik Ibsen’—being, in fact, an essay on ‘Ibsen

and the Marriage Question’—precedes the drama, and may assist a

sympathetic reader to perceive, though it be ‘through a glass darkly’,

some of the power of this most finished of the poet’s works. It is

difficult to understand why Ibsen’s title, A Doll’s House, which fits the

play so perfectly, should have been discarded, in England as well as in

Germany, for the meaningless and commonplace Nora. Even ‘a public

unused to Ibsen’s surprises’ could scarcely have failed to perceive the

combined pathos and irony of the original title.


10. Mrs Lord replies


A letter printed in the Academy (13 January 1883), xxiii, 28,

referring to Archer’s harsh review of the writer’s translation of A

Doll’s House (see No. 9). The letter is dated 8 January, and

addressed from 176 Lambeth Road, SE.

Can you give me a few lines of space to reply to the reviewer’s remarks

on my translation of Ibsen’s Nora? I would merely say that I translated

from the Norwegian, divided it into scenes for the practical convenience

of actors, and changed certain phrases that would represent nothing to

English readers: e.g. ‘Sagøorer Krogstad’ I called ‘Government lawyer’

because the Norwegian civil service is wholly different from ours. I

should also like to quote (from Temple Bar) that Mdme. Modjeska has

created a furore with this play in Warsaw; and we should rejoice to see

it on the English stage.


11. Kongsemnerne (The Pretenders)


From a long article, ‘Henrik Ibsen’, by the Norwegian-American

critic, T.A.Schovelin, published in four successive issues of

Scandinavia (November 1883), i, 11–18; (December 1883), i,

35–8; (January 1884), i, 66–101; and (March 1884), i, 133–7.

The article is a rambling, general exposition of Ibsen’s career

with some tendentious philosophical reflections thrown in for

good measure and gives fairly detailed plot descriptions, up to

and including Ghosts. Schovelin rates The Pretenders highest of

all, however—‘the greatest tragic drama in Norse Literature’—

seeing in it the perfect Hegelian tragedy. The extract below is

from Scandinavia, January 1884.

Kongs-Emnerne fulfils all the demands of the modern tragedy. The

chief persons represent two contending ideas, two different views of

human life. Hakon is the champion of the new era, the representative of

the future, while Skule is the defender of the old saga, the

representative of the past.


12. Breaking a Butterfly (A Doll’s House)

April 1884

A signed notice by William Archer in the Theatre (1 April 1884),

iii, 209–14, of Henry Arthur Jones’s and Henry Herman’s

adaptation of A Doll’s House. The play, which claimed only to be

‘founded’ on Ibsen’s original, was called Breaking a Butterfly,

and it was produced at the Prince’s Theatre on 3 March 1884. The

cast, notable for the presence of Beerbohm Tree, was as follows:

Humphrey Goddard Mr

Philip Dunkley .. Mr

Martin Grittle .. Mr

Dan Bradbury .. Mr

Kyrle Bellew

H.Beerbohm Tree

John Maclean


Flora Goddard

Agnes Goddard

Mrs Goddard

Maid ..


Miss Lingard

Miss Helen Mathews

Mrs Leigh Murray

Miss Annie Maclean

‘A pleasant little play’ or ‘an unpleasant little play’, ‘an interesting little

play’ or ‘a tedious little play’—these and such as these are the terms in

which Breaking a Butterfly has been described. The one point on which

all critics have agreed is that, whether good, bad, or indifferent, the play

is unimportant and trifling. This judgment is undeniably just; whatever

may be its merits, it is certainly not a great play. Therefore, I am

prepared for general scepticism, when I assert that the play on which it

is founded is a very great play, that the character of its heroine is

comparable in point of sheer warm-blooded vitality to such a creation

as Hetty Sorrel or Maggie Tulliver, and that some of its scenes are of

unsurpassed theatrical effect. What has become of all this vitality? is the

obvious question; one which I cannot quite answer even to my own

satisfaction. Take a piece of music, omit all the harmonies, break up and

rearrange the melodic phrases, and then play them with your forefinger

on the pianoforte—do this, and you will have some idea of the process

to which Messrs. Jones and Herman have subjected A Doll’s House. The

mere theatrical action of Ibsen’s play bears to its social and moral

significance the relation of a melody to its supporting harmonies. No

one is a greater master than he of the theatrical counterpoint, so to speak,

which develops every detail of plot and character from an underlying

ethical ‘plain-song’, and so gives it symbolic generality in addition to its

individual truth. It is this combination of the moralist—or ‘immoralist’,


Breaking a Butterfly (A Doll’s House)

as some would prefer to say—with the dramatic poet which has given

Ibsen his enormous influence in the three Scandinavian kingdoms; and

it is this which makes his plays suffer more than any others by

transportation across the Channel. For the British public will not have

didactics at any price, and least of all such didactics as Ibsen’s. Even a

moralist like Dumas fils would be easier to deal with. The problems he

presents are much less subtle. They turn upon absolute vice in one form

or another—generally in one very definite form—and are not concerned

with such intangible matters as egoism, intellectual dishonesty,

conventional cowardice, repression of individuality, heredity in moral

(and physical) disease, and so forth. Moreover, Dumas has not Ibsen’s

art of welding his didactics into his action. He preaches through the

mouth of one or other of his characters, so that in many of his plays a

few strokes of the pen would remove all the moralizing, and leave the

action intact. Ibsen never preaches or, at least, never makes one

character his mouthpiece. His moral, or rather his morals, for they are

many, must be inferred from the whole structure of character and action.

His didactics cannot be cut away at one stroke; they must be torn out by

the roots, and are then found to have sent fibres into every scene and

speech of the play. Messrs. Jones and Herman have gone about this

eradication resolutely and unflinchingly, and, in so doing, have

necessarily mangled and scarified their original until there is little of it


It is now about fifteen years since Ibsen finally deserted verse as a

dramatic medium, and nine or ten since he devoted himself entirely to

pictures of actual modern life. In the interval he had published his great

double drama, Emperor and Galilean, with Julian the Apostate for its

hero. It has been translated by Miss C.Ray (London 1876). Of his

fantastic dramas in verse, both have been translated into German, one

of them, Brand, as often as four or five times, but no translation into

English has yet been attempted, the difficulties presented by his strong

local colour and rich versification being probably insuperable. In The

Pillars of Society (1876–7) he took his stand once for all upon the solid

ground of modern life. ‘I have quite given up verse’, he wrote in a

private letter, ‘and have devoted myself to the incomparably more

difficult task of fashioning my poems in simple, sincere prose.’ A

slightly condensed translation of The Pillars of Society, by the present

writer, was produced at a morning performance at the Gaiety, in

December, 1880, but failed to make any impression. Nevertheless the

play, though not in itself such a remarkable work as A Doll’s House is


Breaking a Butterfly (A Doll’s House)

probably much better fitted for the English stage, and had I had the

courage (or audacity) to adapt instead of translating it, and to transfer

the action to England, the result might have been different.

In 1879 appeared A Doll’s House. In Scandinavia its success was

electrical. Edition after edition poured from the press. At the

Copenhagen Royal Theatre, Fru Hennings made an almost

unprecedented sensation in the part of Nora, which was repeated on a

smaller scale by Fru Juul in Christiania. The character of Nora entered

into the national life of the three kingdoms. Her sayings became

catchwords among the frivolous, watchwords among the more serious.

Continuations of the play were written, attempts to answer the mark of

interrogation with which Ibsen characteristically closed his work. One

amusing jeu d’esprit represented a discussion of the drama at a

children’s party, at which the little hostess (æt. six or seven) gravely

maintained that Nora was quite right in leaving her husband, and

asserted that had she been in her position she would have done the same

thing. At last the subject had to be placed under a taboo in society, for,

once brought upon the carpet, it left no chance for other themes of

conversation. So strong a hold did the play take of the national mind;

and the Scandinavian public is more than ordinarily critical, being

familiar, on the stage, not only with its own rich dramatic literature, but

with the masterpieces of the French and German drama. Clearly it must

have been a very different work from Breaking a Butterfly.

It soon penetrated into Germany, and even into Poland. At Warsaw,

Madame Modjeska scored greatly in the part of Nora, and Frau Hedwig

Niemann-Rabbe positively turned the heads of the difficult Berlin

public. Ibsen’s conclusion, however, was found too startling. Audiences

could not bear to see Nora calmly leave her husband’s home, and, to his

bitter regret, Ibsen was forced to make her relent on hearing the voices

of her children. It was pointed out to him that if he did not make the

change some one else would, and, as he had no means of preventing

this, he made a virtue of necessity. The published German translation,

however (in Reclam’s Universal-Bibliothek), exactly follows the

original, and to this I would refer any reader who wishes to gain a fair

idea of the play. The English translation by Miss Frances Lord (Griffiths

& Farran) is a conscientious piece of work, but heavy and not always

accurate. There exists, by the way, another English translation,

published in Copenhagen by some gentleman who seems to have

conceived that in order to write our language he had but to procure a

Danish-English dictionary, look up all the words, and take the first


Breaking a Butterfly (A Doll’s House)

meaning that came to hand. The result is more humorous than ‘English

as She is Spoke.’ The curious may consult it in the British Museum.1

What, then, are the differences between the Norwegian and the

English play? They are so many, that it will be better to begin with the

resemblances, which can be much more easily enumerated.

The events which precede the rise of the curtain are practically the

same in each. A young wife, without her husband’s knowledge, borrows

money for a journey to Italy, which is to save her husband’s life.

Ignorant of the true import of the act, she writes her father’s name on

the back of the promissory note, he being then on his deathbed and

unable to attend to business. The husband’s life is saved, and through

years of poverty the wife manages to keep her debt concealed from him

and to pay some of it off. At length the husband is appointed to a wellpaid post as manager of a bank. The man from whom the money has

been borrowed is a clerk in this bank. His character is shady, and the

husband’s first act is to dismiss him. At this point the drama begins—

and here the resemblance between the two plays may almost be said to

end. In each the money-lender opens the wife’s eyes to the seriousness

of her position, and forces her, by the threat of a charge of forgery, to

intercede for him with her husband. In each the intercession is

ineffectual, and the money-lender explains the situation in a letter to the

husband, which he drops into a letter-box with a glass back, visible on

the stage. In each the wife makes a pretext of rehearsing a tarantella so

as to distract her husband’s attention from the letter box and its

contents. These are, literally, the sole points of resemblance between the

two plays.

Now for the differences. The easiest way, perhaps, to make them

clear will be to indicate the idea of Ibsen’s play.

Nora Helmer is the daughter of a thoughtlessly unprincipled though

not absolutely dishonest government official. Her husband, Helmer,

met her through being deputed to examine her father’s accounts. He fell

in love with her, and, though as a rule a man of strict probity, for her

sake he winked at certain irregularities in her father’s conduct of his

office. Naturally of a courageous and truthful disposition, Nora has yet

been brought up with no conception of the necessity for truth in the

every-day affairs of life. To her nothing is ‘as easy as lying’. Scarcely

has the curtain risen when we find her telling small fibs in mere childish

glee, and we soon learn that her life for years past has been one string

of deceptions forced upon her by the necessity of paying off her debt


Archer later made this translation the basis for an article in Time. See No. 35.


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RASMUS B.ANDERSON on Ibsen's genius, American 1882

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