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EDWIN E.SLOSSON: 'Ibsen as an Interpreter of American Life', Independent 1906
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
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
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
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,
‘PLAYING IBSEN IN THE BADLANDS’, Theatre
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,