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Mr. Gladstone as Solness, Saturday Review 1893

Mr. Gladstone as Solness, Saturday Review 1893

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contemporary life of England, including its statesmanship. May he not

have designed to symbolize, in the architectural career of Mr. Halvard

Solness, the political career of Mr. Gladstone? The Bygmester’s

constructive period, like Mr. Gladstone’s, had its beginning in an act of

incendiary destruction, which gave him his basis of operations. Then,

again, Mr. Halvard Solness’s conversion from the building of churches

to the erection of secular edifices coincides with Mr. Gladstone’s

transition from ecclesiastical to secular politics. He does not build

churches, he pulls them down or turns them, as by the application of the

Irish Church Fund, into homes for the people. In Halvard Solness’s

dread of the young generation knocking at the door, and threatening to

thrust him from his supremacy, and his advertisement of himself by

startling architectural projects, a parallel perhaps may be found to Mr.

Gladstone’s schemes of sensational legislation. A succession of eyeopening novelties is always on hand—something frightfully thrilling.

The examination into the sickliness or robustness of Mr. Solness’s

conscience seems vaguely to reveal things we have read about Mr.

Gladstone. It is possible that in Miss Hilda Wangel, who urges Solness

to build in future castles in the air, and who drives him to ascend the

scaffolding from which he falls, breaking his neck, Mr. John Morley

and his fatal counsels are adumbrated. There seems to be a distinct

allusion to the Irish question in one of the dialogues:—Solness: ‘I’m not

quite clear about the plans yet.’ Brovik: ‘They say they’re longing to get

into a house of their own.’ Solness: ‘Yes, yes; we know all that. And so

they’re content with whatever is offered them.’ But we must pause; and,

having suggested the parallelism between the two Master-Builders,

leave others to work it out in detail.


116. Hjalmar Boyesen on Ibsen’s self-satire

in The Wild Duck

September 1893

From ‘Ibsen’s Treatment of Self-Illusion’, by Hjalmar Hjorth

Boyesen, Dial (16 September 1893), xv, 137–40.

In no play of Ibsen’s is the corrosive self-destroying character of his

social criticism more apparent than in The Wild Duck. A Doll-House and

The Pillars of Society enforced the lesson that unless there be truth in

personal and social relations they cannot endure; they are built upon

sand, and cannot brave the rocks of adversity. This was perhaps the first

positive lesson to be derived from Ibsen’s teachings. We felt that here

we had at last firm ground under our feet; and Pilate’s pertinent query

‘What is truth?’ we left preliminarily in abeyance. But no sooner have

we opened The Wild Duck than we find the earth rocking and heaving

in the most uncomfortable manner. That which we mistook for rock was

after all nothing but quagmire. The Wild Duck teaches us that truth is by

no means an unqualified boon. It takes a strong spirit to endure it. To

small, commonplace men, living in mean illusions, the truth may be

absolutely destructive. It is better for such people to be permitted to

cherish undisturbed their little lies and self-deceptions than to be

brought face to face with the terrifying truth, lacking, as they do, both

the courage and the strength to grapple with it and to readjust their lives

to radically altered conditions.

It appears to me as if Ibsen had undertaken to satirize himself in this



117. Ghosts in New York and Boston

January 1894

From an unsigned notice, New York Times (6 January 1894), 4.

Ghosts was first performed in English in America at the Berkeley

Lyceum, New York, on 5 January 1894. The cast, an English

company, was as follows:

Oswald ..



Regina ..

Mrs Alving






Courtenay Thorpe

Albert Lawrence

G.Herbert Leonard

Eleanor Lane

Ida Jeffreys-Goodfriend

William Dean Howells hailed the performance as ‘a great

theatrical event—the very greatest I have ever known’.

The audience yesterday was very small, but what is called ‘select’.

Excepting a few newspaper writers, nobody was present who is not,

presumably, of the ‘cult.’ Mr Howells, Mr Aldrich, Mr Brander

Matthews, Mr Lawrence Hutton and Mr Boyesen, were


The merit in Ibsen that concerns us in this young and healthful

community [i.e. America] is purely technical. His plots and the traits of

his personages are unclean; his philosophy, in spite of Archer and Gosse

and their followers in America, is vicious. If accepted it would not make

men better. In this unwholesome Ghosts—which shows us a respectable

man who has fought down his passions, preached wise doctrine,

bestowed alms, and lived a clean life, and then holds him up to scorn,

with a paretic, a courtesan, a procurer, and a woman, who, having been

the wife of a horribly-diseased debauchee, is prepared to believe that all

that is wrong, as his only visible associates—his morals are at their

worst. The play is bad enough in the reading, but when one sees it acted

as it was yesterday, and its horror becomes real, it makes him wickedly

yearn to see that old, gray-whiskered, canine-looking head of the

photographs on the renowned charger of the daughter of Herodias.


118. Ibsen consigned to hell in Boston

May 1894

From ‘Boston Letter’, a regular column, by Charles Wingate,

Critic (5 May 1894), xxiv, 312. The ‘eminent English actor’ was

Mr. Courtenay Thorpe.

Ibsen’s Ghosts has stirred up Bostonians, although it has had but one

production in this city. The Rev. Isaac J.Lansing, pastor of that famous

old church at the corner of Park Street, which from its conservative

orthodoxy has so long gone by the name of ‘Brimstone Corner,’

devoted an entire service against this inroad, as he deemed it, upon

public decency and morality. The theatre where this play was produced,

said he, is on the same street with this church, and on its stage not long

ago an eminent English actor was playing. What would be thought if in

this church a clean, high-toned sermon were followed by a discourse

from the vilest speaker that could be secured? An attrociously immoral

production, the clergyman declared, was Ghosts, so attrocious that even

to denounce it in public is almost degrading. Decent people, he added,

should never permit themselves to endorse such plays, but should get

far away from the mire of unwholesomeness and uncleanliness. The

speaker made one lapse when he denounced the Governor for attending

the production, because the Governor did not accept the box offered to




Royalty Theatre, 4 May 1894

119. An unsigned notice by Clement Scott,

Daily Telegraph

5 May 1894, 7

The play was produced under the aegis of the Independent

Theatre group and the cast was as follows:


Gregers Werle


Hialmar Ekdal

Gina Ekdal


Mrs Sörby










Mr George Warde

Mr Charles Fulton

Mr Harding Cox

Mr W.L.Abingdon

Mrs Herbert Waring

Miss Winifred Fraser

Mrs Charles Creswick

Mr Lawrence Irving















Mr Gilbert Trent

Mr Charles Legassick

Mr Sydney Dark

Mr C.S.Skarratt

Mr G.Armstrong

Mr Herbert Fletcher

Mr Herbert Maule

A wild duck is an excellent bird, with a red, gravy-tinted breast, a

judicious squeeze of lemon, and a hasty dash of cayenne pepper. Now,

Ibsen’s Wild Duck was very well cooked indeed last night. It was done

to a turn. The cook had run round the kitchen with him and served him

up hot, brown, and savoury. The red gravy oozed from his tender breast.

The lemon and pepper were not wanting. But the poor Wild Duck was,

as epicures would say, a trifle fishy. He had been banqueting

somewhere near the sea shore. The consequence was that the most

devoted Ibsenites in the audience did not know exactly what to do, to

swallow the Duck or to make a wry face. Accordingly they made a not

very ingenious compromise. They roared with laughter at the scenes

intended to be serious, and they yawned ominously at the master’s

ponderous and heavy-handed wit. There is no need to enter into the

details of so commonplace and suburban a story. In essence it is trivial;

in effect it is bald and unconvincing. To call such an eccentricity as this

a masterpiece; to classify it at all as dramatic literature; or to make a

fuss about so feeble a production is to insult dramatic literature and to


The Wild Duck

outrage common sense. Men and women who have no sense of humour

in their composition can be impressed with oldEkdal’s battue of rabbits,

cocks, hens, and a tame wild duck in the suburban garret, and find there

a mystery and a moral; but those who can understand the meaning of

the word bathos’ will appreciate the roars of laughter that greeted the

silly vapourings of the self-conscious photographer, who apparently

could not make up his mind if he should represent a mild Micawber or

an attenuated Harold Skimpole.

But absurd, impracticable, and indefensible as the play might be, it

was interesting, as all Ibsen’s plays are interesting, in that it brought to

the front another young student of the stage. It was not a woman this

time, but a man. The hero of last night’s experiment was without a

doubt Mr. Lawrence Irving, who played the commonsense Dr. Relling,

who ridiculed as Ibsen ridicules and Mr. Bernard Shaw ridicules the

men and women they profess to flatter, and who played a remarkably

difficult character not only in an able, but a masterly manner. It looks

as if in Mr. Lawrence Irving we had an actor who inherited the strong

humour, the decision, and the influence on an audience that his gifted

father possesses. The young man made the character tell by sheer force

of will and accentuated comedy power. He was never flurried; all

through he was as cool as a cucumber; but he knew the man he was

playing, he lived in the part, his enunciation and style were alike

excellent, and there was as much accentuated character in this Dr.

Relling, as there was years ago when his father played Chevenix in

Uncle Dick’s Darling. Comedy is clearly young Mr. Lawrence Irving’s

line, and in comedy, if he works hard, he will one day make his mark.

His Ibsenite doctor, with all its shrewdness, character, observation, and

common sense, is an earnest of still better things to come.

It seemed to us, on the other hand, that Mr. W.L.Abingdon mistook

the idea of the selfish, pragmatical photographer. He burlesqued what

should have been from his point of view serious. He was laughing with

the audience when they should have been laughing at him. No girl such

as Hedrey [sic] could have loved or believed in such a man. He placards

his character outside his coat. The suavity, the sentiment, and the charm

of the man should have been convincing at least to his own household.

But Mr. Abingdon was leading the laugh instead of deprecating it. It is

impossible to conceive better performances than the housemaid wife,

Gina Ekdal, by Mrs. Herbert Waring, and the loving girl child, by Miss

Winifred Fraser. It does not seem possible that a slave woman with a

past, or an intelligent girl with a too-developed mind, could be better



acted. Mr. Harding Cox was also excellent, and so were the usual

Ibsenite prig by Mr. Charles Fulton and the old Werle of Mr. George

Warde. How far the cause has been advanced by the production of this

play it would be impossible to say. Mr. Grein evidently thinks he has

turned the scale with the Wild Duck, and said as much in his earnest and

modest speech. If the Wild Duck were presented for a run tomorrow at

a theatre where the paying public secures its seats in the ordinary

fashion it would be laughed off the stage, for such eccentricities are not

as yet tolerated or even recognised by a healthy and vigorous public

opinion that keeps the atmosphere of the theatre free from absurdity and

affectation. But if Mr. Lawrence Irving, Mrs. Herbert Waring, and Miss

Winifred Fraser were to repeat the performance they gave last night for

a dozen or a hundred nights they would be recognised as excellent by

all good judges of acting. These three performances would never make

such a play palatable or popular, but they would decidedly temper the

critical wind to the shorn Ibsenite lamb. One sentence from Halmar, the

photographer, must be ringing in the ears of the audience even now.

‘What! Am I to drag all those rabbits with me, too?’ asks the selfish

photographer of his cool and complacent wife. Ibsen may be a mighty

genius, but he has no sense of humour. The rabbits, the menagerie, the

tipsy old Shikarry, and the dreadful Wild Duck would be enough to

condemn the finest philosophical play ever written. The right thing to

do is to chaff the craze, as Mr. Bernard Shaw has succeeded in doing.

The sunflower has gone, and so will the Ibsenite play and the Yellow

Book—in time.


120. From an unsigned notice,

Daily Chronicle

5 May 1894, 6.

There is many a laugh to be obtained from it, particularly after the

second act. It does not follow that perfect understanding of the plot or

of the purpose of the author will be obtained by early attendance. Even

from many members of the audience last night came the inquiry on

emerging from the theatre, ‘What does it all mean?’

121. From an unsigned notice, Evening News

and Post

5 May 1894, 1

One of its gems of meaning dialogue is the remark of old Ekdal to his

granddaughter that he is going into his own room ‘to—wash my hands.

You understand?’ Pah! It is an unclean play, marked with the special

Ibsen taint.


122. From an unsigned notice, Truth

10 May 1894, 1071

It is the most ‘drunken’ play, in a certain sense, that I have ever been

introduced to. Nearly every character in it is either drinking or drunk.

When the curtain draws up all the characters are boozing in a back

parlour. They come on the stage to discuss the drink they have

consumed. They top up Tokay with beer, and mix beer with punch. The

women apparently drink as much as the men. When the hostess

dismisses her guests, she bids her servants shove a brandy-bottle into

the coat-pocket of each. Hoary-headed old men sneak into cupboards to

sodden themselves with hot brandy and water, and come out half

speechless to drink more beer. The parson of the parish and the doctor

of the community are in a chronic state of liquor. And it is to oblige one

of these semi-inebriates that a young girl of sixteen blows her brains

out, preferring to die than to cause annoyance to her father, who is eaten

up with vanity of the usual Norwegian pattern.

123. From a pseudonymous notice by

‘Hafiz’, Black and White

12 May 1894, 576

To pass from King Kodak to The Wild Duck is to pass from the Land of

Cocayne into the Depths of the Sea. From the lightest and latest

example of clowning to the grimmest and gloomiest of Ibsen’s plays is

a wide step, and it is only the supreme impressionist who can profess

to be influenced by the two expressions of dramatic art with the same

completeness. The Wild Duck is, in the opinion of some whose opinion


The Wild Duck

is not most lightly to be neglected, the crowning mercy of Ibsen’s

dramatic career. It is certainly his most terrible, as it is perhaps his most

faithful picture of life as it is, seen from a certain standpoint, and seen

under certain conditions. In its unfailing irony, its unredeemed

melancholy, its sombre acquiescence in the inexorable, it is one of the

saddest and the sternest sermons that the great dramatist has ever

preached disdainfully to a waning age. If it were played as it ought to

be played, it might prove almost too painful an experience to endure

with patience.

124. From an unsigned notice, Era

12 May 1894, 11

‘Who would have thought the old man had so much blood in him?’ asks

Lady Macbeth, in somnambulistic surprise. And who could have

conceived that the sage and spectacled Ibsen was a rival of Mr. W.S.

Gilbert? The Wild Duck is an atrociously true and cruel satire. It has the

rare power of appealing to that deeply buried self-consciousness of our

own weaknesses which is generally suppressed, though it is always

existent. But it is pitiless and pessimistic. The wretched littleness of

average humanity is held up in all the nakedness of truth. The moral of

the piece is—‘Never rob people of their illusions.’…

The Wild Duck is too talky in places, and wants considerable cutting.

There is too much allusion to the bird, and the symbolism in this

connection is harped on even to tedium. The character of Hialmar is

insisted upon too copiously, and to this part the blue pencil might

lightly be applied; but otherwise the piece is theatrically effective, and

is keenly satirical and by turns diverting and pathetic.


125. From an unsigned notice, Theatre

1 June 1894, xxiii, 329–30

Browning was obscure. So some people said, until Mr. Augustine

Birrell darted piercing obiter dicta at their incautiously exposed

intellect, and with grievous wounds enforced a shamefaced silence. But

Browning at his worst is nought compared with Ibsen. When obscurity

is only another word for leaps in thought, the trouble is soon past. You

have only to get into your author’s stride, keep his pace, and jump when

he jumps, and you will never be left lagging in the rear groping for his

meaning in alleged ‘obscurity.’ And that is the worst you have to reckon

with in Browning. But Ibsen is different.

His obscurity arises from his devotion to symbolism; and a very little

symbolism can, like a Will o’ the Wisp, lure you a very long way. What

it did with The Master Builder is within recent memory. It set Mr.

Dawson Archer and Mr. Pythies Walkley by the ears, and for weeks was

a bone of contention in peace-loving households of a (intellectually)

baser sort. Why? Because it was symbolical. We could all agree that it

was utterly unlike life, and curiously unlike drama; but agree upon the

application of its symbolism, we could not, and hinc multœ lachrymœ.

So with The Wild Duck, produced on Friday. It is obviously symbolical.

But of what? Goodness—in other words Mr. Grein, as the H.M. Stanley

of the exploration—only knows. And I would suggest that in future, in

enterprises of this order, an official ‘Digest’ of the play be issued in the

advertisements and programmes, much as Mr. Irving issued once when

he revived Romeo and Juliet, to prepare us for his reading. Then we

should be saved much wild speculation; we could all adopt one standard

of criticism, and the poor actors who stand over-much in the pillory in

these elusive plays, could at once be seen to be revealing the official

idea or obscuring it.

Shorn of its symbolism, the play slowly drifts from domestic intrigue

to farce tinctured with suicide, and is endurable and even interesting,

mainly by reason of the living reality of the loafing egoist Hjalmar, and

the pathetic truthfulness of his wife Gina and Hedvig her child. The

bitterness of Ibsen’s satire is as ever almost painful. That Truth is a

beautiful thing he manifests in the ruin of the happiness of this family


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Mr. Gladstone as Solness, Saturday Review 1893

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