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EDWIN E.SLOSSON: 'Ibsen as an Interpreter of American Life', Independent 1906

EDWIN E.SLOSSON: 'Ibsen as an Interpreter of American Life', Independent 1906

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Brieux; in England, Pinero and Shaw, have gone to school to Ibsen, and

have so far profited by their lessons as to reach a wider public than their

master could.

In America, Ibsen has exerted no such influence, because there are no

such dramatists to be influenced. The thought of Clyde Fitch, Augustus

Thomas, or George Ade being influenced by anybody, or influencing

anybody excites a smile. Our American playwrights are taken seriously

neither by the public nor by themselves. We have no cause to find fault

with them. They give us what we want and we pay them well for it.

An American Ibsen would starve. The Norwegian Ibsen came near it.

But, as he says, thru the mouth of Dr. Stockmann, ‘the strongest man in

the world is he who stands most alone.’ Ibsen, single handed and under

the ban, conquered a place in the world’s esteem which he could never

have obtained if he had been hampered by a train of friends, allies and

disciples. In his old age his own people received him again, and now he is

dead shower upon him the praise and honor which, if he had received

them in his prime, would have cheered his heart and spoiled his work. If

he had come by his opinions easily he would not have believed them so

strongly. If they had been accepted readily, he would not have stated them

so forcibly.

Ibsen was able to break thru the barrier of language, because his

characters are universal types and at the same time very definite

individuals. When the scientist speaks the name of a species he does not

mean the platonic ideal, perfect and non-existent; he means one particular

plant, fish or fossil on a certain shelf in the British Museum or elsewhere.

This is the type specimen, and it is of interest because in many parts of

the world are found other specimens resembling it more or less closely in

different ways. So Borkman and Stockmann, Nora and Hilda were first

discovered by Ibsen in Norway, but the same species are found in all

countries, and nowhere more abundantly than in America.

John Gabriel Borkman, for example, has never appeared in America

on the stage, but he is well known on the street. He is the typical financier

of the kind who are now being pilloried in the market place by official

and unofficial investigators. He is a Napoleon of finance, but crippled in

his first engagement. On the eve of success, just as he is about to carry out

his gigantic schemes, he is caught in a bit of financial juggling, and sent

to prison for five years. After his release he shuts himself up in the upper

room of his house for eight years waiting for his vindication, pacing the

floor day after day expecting those who have betrayed and wronged him

to come to him there in his room and on bended knees beg him to return


EDWIN E.SLOSSON, Independent

to the management of the bank. He thinks no one can take his place, tho

in reality the business world has forgotten him.

He admits the technical illegality of his act, but cannot understand

why people should make such a fuss about a little thing like that, cannot

believe that they are sincere in condemning it.

I had almost reached my aim. If I had had a week more everything would have

been in order. All the deposits would have been turned in. All the securities that

I had boldly made use of would have been again laid in their places just as

before. Not a single person would have lost a penny. And then to be struck in

the back by a traitor! …What I could have done with the millions! All the mines

that I would have opened! New shafts without end! The waterfalls! The bridges!

Railroads and steamship lines thru the whole world.

He hears the ore calling to him from under the ground, singing for joy;

the kobolds, guardians of the hidden treasure, waiting for the stroke of

the hammer, like the midnight bell, to release them, and let them get at

their work, the service of mankind.

I had the power. There lay the imprisoned millions everywhere in the depths of

the mountains and called to me, cried to me for deliverance! But no one else

heard. Only I, alone.

I would like to know if the others, if they had had the power, would not have

done exactly as I did.

They would have if they had possessed my ability. But if they had done it

they would not have done it with my object in view. The action would then have

been a different one. In short, I have acquitted myself.

He had sacrificed his love, his family and himself to his commercial

aim, but this, he insisted, was not a selfish aim. He did not want money

or luxury or ease; he wanted to set the wheels going, to free the kobolds

of the metals from their idle prison life. Consequently he cannot repent

his act; he can only regret that the world has robbed itself of what he

alone could do for it. In this we hear again the dying lament of Cecil

Rhodes: ‘So little time, so much to do.’ He is the modern financier, with

nothing extenuated and naught set down in malice.

Ibsen’s Pillars of Society is a dramatized insurance and Slocum scandal.

Consul Bernick, as he stands at the door of his home receiving the homage

of his fellow townsmen and listening to the eulogy of Pastor Rörlund on the

purity of his family life, the generosity he shows to his workmen, the public

spirit manifested in his business enterprises, and the unselfishness and probity

of his character, realizes that it is all a lie. He knows, and he knows that



there are others who know, that he has for years concealed an immoral life,

that his workmen are being discharged without mercy to be replaced by

machines, that he has bought up all the land along the railroad he is being

praised for bringing to the town, and that the ship which is then leaving the

harbor is so imperfectly repaired that it is sure to sink in a storm. He has

sacrificed everything and everybody to build up a good reputation, to be

called, as he is now, the ideal citizen, but at this moment he realizes the

extent and meanness of his hypocrisy, he tears off the veil from his life, and

exposes to the gaze of the crowd the moral rottenness of the pillars of society.

‘But what good came of it at last?’

Quoth little Peterkin,

‘Why, that I cannot tell,’ said he;

‘But ’twas a famous victory.’

This verse of Southey’s might be placed as a tag to this and all the rest of

Ibsen’s plays. They are famous victories of self assertion over the

oppression of society, and of naked truth over conventional shams, but

the outcome of these outbursts of individuality and honesty Ibsen does

not explain. Ibsen’s curtains always fall at the most interesting point, and

he does not write sequels.

According to his theory of ethics, virtue consists in daring to do what

one individually believes is right, even tho the consequences be disastrous,

and, in his plays, they usually are. The individual is killed or is ruined at

the moment he triumphs by the assertion of his will. Ibsen offers no reward

for good conduct, not even a hero medal.

Dr. Stockmann is under the common delusion that he will be greeted

as a public benefactor if he exposes the faults of the society in which he

lives. When he finds that the water of the Baths, on which the prosperity

of his native town is built, is contaminated with disease germs and the

whole system of sewer pipes must be relaid at great expense, he feels that

he has deserved well of his fellow citizens, and he ingenuously suggests

to his friends that he hopes they will not get up a public demonstration

and a torchlight procession in his honor. When he finds that his exposé is

to be suppressed by the town authorities, he turns to the Liberal press,

only to find that Liberals are just as illiberal as Conservatives when their

interests are touched, and, finally, when he appeals to the common people,

he is ostracized and stoned. Ibsen wrote this play, The Enemy of the People,

as a reply to the storm of denunciation which greeted his exposure of

conventional shams in The Pillars of Society.


EDWIN E.SLOSSON, Independent

The present time would be a good opportunity to have The Enemy of

the People produced upon the American stage. Possibly a company of

actors for this play could be made up from those writers who have been

contributing to the literature of exposure, but who now find no demand

for their wares since the reaction against muck-rakers has set in. They

might get as much satisfaction in playing it as Ibsen got in writing it.

The question of tainted money is treated in Ghosts as part of the

general bad inheritance of Oswald. Mrs. Alving devotes all of Captain

Alving’s money to the building of an orphanage as an atonement for his

sins and to free their son Oswald from their sequelæ. But ‘Captain

Alving’s Home’ burns down on the eve of its dedication, and Oswald

perishes likewise from the tainted blood in his veins. Mrs. Alving, with

all her courage and determination, is not able to free herself and her son

from the ‘ghosts’ of the past.

I almost think we are all of us ghosts. It is not only what we have inherited from

our father and mother that walks in us. It is all sorts of dead ideas and old lifeless

beliefs, and so forth. They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same and we

can’t get rid of them. Whenever I take up a newspaper I seem to see ghosts gliding

between the lines. There must be ghosts all the country over, as thick as the sands

of the sea. And because we are, one and all, so pitifully afraid of the light.

Ibsen is a disillusioned democrat. He is aware that tyrants do not all

perish when the kings are slain. Norwegians are not afraid of kings.

They discharge them and elect them at their will. But they are not a free

people as Ibsen is always pointing out. The tyranny of tradition, the

tyranny of conventionality, the tyranny of public opinion are the objects

of his sharpest invective.

The majority has might—unhappily, but right it has not. The minority is always

right…. I am going to revolt against the lie that truth resides with the majority.

What sort of truths are those that the majority is wont to take up? Truths so full

of years that they are decrepit. When a truth is as old as that it is in a fair way

to become a lie…. You may believe me or not, but truths are by no means the

wiry Methuselahs as some people think. A normally constituted truth lives—let

me say—seventeen or eighteen years, at the outside twenty years, seldom

longer. But truths so stricken in years are always shockingly thin.

Since The Enemy of the People, from which these words are quoted, was

written in 1881, it might be said that all the truth it may have contained

lost its validity some five years ago. But it is obvious that he applies this

statute of limitation only to truths that are so far accepted as to become



conventionalized. Ibsen followers are few in any land, and his doctrines

will long preserve their vitality by being safely kept in hands of a very

small minority.

In this country, especially, where some of the plays are never seen

and rarely read, the ideas of Ibsen have the freshness and interest that

they had when they first startled Europe. And nowhere is their galvanic

shock more needed than here. His mission is to rouse people from self

complacency and stolid satisfaction with things as they are. Even more

than Norway, America lies apart from the great currents of modern

thought, and there are eddies of provincialism to be found in all parts

of the United States that would match anything of the kind in

Scandinavia. Ibsen describes our small towns better than our own

writers. The vices of the village, its narrow interests, its gossip, its

exclusiveness, and its rigid control of the conduct and opinions of the

individual, are the same here as in Norway, and need the same drastic

exposure. We are all acquainted with Peter the pompous burgomaster,

with Mortensgard, the free-thinker, who turns out to be neither free nor

a thinker; Aslaksen, the moderate man, whose heart belongs to the

people, but whose reason inclines to the authorities: Hovstad, the

printer, whose paper is radical on questions of national politics, but

observes a certain amount of caution in regard to purely local matters;

Solness, the master builder, losing his grip on his work and in mortal

terror of being supplanted by the younger generation; and Tesman, the

professor, physically and mentally nearsighted. As for Ibsen’s women,

we have them all here, from Nora, the bird-woman, to Hedda, the catwoman. There is need in America for this Ibsen, layer of ghosts and

pricker of bubbles.


180. ‘Playing Ibsen in the Badlands’, by

Joseph P.Dannenburg, Theatre

August 1906, vi, 219–21

This article is lavishly illustrated with photographs. (The

magazine should not be confused with the British periodical of

the same name.)

Strange shows find strange pastures. But never were the gods of Thespis

implored to grant grace to a stranger outfit than that which left St. Paul,

Minnesota, to produce Ibsen’s Ghosts in the Bad Lands.

There are plays and players. The trail of the shekel-seeking manager

extends from Maine to Calcutta. The classics mix with the tawdry, and

the repertoire star does everything from rapping cocoanut shells to

produce the effect of running horses to swinging forth in full tones the

eloquence of Shakespeare or the memorable lines of Uncle Tom’s

Cabin. But imagine Ghosts, at which expert metropolitan managers

shiver, being presented to farmers, cattle punchers, wheat harvesters,

cowboys, Indians and gamblers! And yet the company played over

fifteen months appearing nearly two hundred and twenty-five times,

and covering over sixteen thousand miles of territory.

Charles A.Gay, who appeared in the Fawcett Ghosts company with

Mary Shaw, went from New York to St. Paul, and when the company

closed in the latter place a business man offered to back a company to

be sent over the one-night stands through the wild and woolly section.

Mr. Gay accepted the proposition and became manager. Those

theatrical people who heard of the intended trip ridiculed the idea of the

company staying out longer than a fortnight. Mr. Gay believed,

however, that Uncle Tom and Hamlet had become mossworn in the onenight Western stands.

‘One touch of Nature makes the whole world kin,’ he said, and he

was right. The touch of nature was found beneath the shaggy

mackinaws of the Wisconsin lumbermen, the flannel-protected hunters

of the North, the Swedes in the wheat fields, the superstitious gamblers,



even the rough cowboys and stolid Indians, to all of whom the grim,

morbid story appealed.

True, it was not understood by many. Nearly every place, after the

large cities were left behind, resolved itself into an enormous question

mark with hundreds of queries as to the why and wherefore of the play.

In the wilds of Wisconsin a rough lumber ‘jack’ elbowed his way to the

doorkeeper as he entered the playhouse.

‘Say, mister!’ said he, ‘do you really have a ghost with y’u!’?

When he was informed that the only ghost presented was the ghost of

a sordid past he drew his brows to a thick frown, kicked the thin woodwork

between the orchestra chairs and the cold Northern air and was ready to

shoot holes in the place unless he had his money refunded. He got it.

It was in the Dakotas and the wheatlands of the North that the play

found its most appreciative audiences, the population being made up

largely of Norwegians and Swedes, to whom Ibsen is a household fetish.

Ghosts! Ibsen! The very names brought the brine of their beloved fjords

to their eyes, and the world seemed smaller and in closer touch. Nearly

all of them had seen the production in the mother tongue. When the

production reached one place in Northern Minnesota the wheat harvesters

went on a strike and would not work until the play had passed on.

As to the newspaper notices they were decidedly breezy and original

as regards the point of view. Here, for instance, is what the Morning

Appeal of Carson City, Nevada, said:

Ibsen’s Norwegian play of Ghosts, with one setting of scenery, no music and

three knocks with a club on the floor to raise the curtain, was presented last

evening. The play is certainly a moral hair-raiser and the stuffing is knocked out

of the Decalogue at every turn. Mrs. Alving, the leading lady, who keeps her

chin high in the air, has married a moral monstrosity in the shape of a spavined

rake and hides it from the world. She wears a pleasant smile and gives society

the glad hand and finally lets go all holds when her husband gets gay with the

hired girl and gives an old tar three hundred plunks to marry her and stand the

responsibility for the expected population.

Oswald, the mother’s only boy, is sent to Paris to paint views for marines

and takes kindly to the gay life of the capital, where the joy of living is the

rage and families are reared in a section where a printer running a job

office solely on marriage certificates would hit the poorhouse with a dull

thud. Regina, the result of Mr. Alving’s attentions to the hired girl, also

works in the family and falls in love with the painter boy on his return

from Paris. They vote country life too slow and plan to go to Paris and

start a family. The doting mother gives her consent, and Pastor Manders,


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EDWIN E.SLOSSON: 'Ibsen as an Interpreter of American Life', Independent 1906

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