For people with intellects, reading Ibsen was more than entertaining; it was enthralling. Reading his plays is equivalent to a journey through nineteenth-century thought, its art, politics, and philosophy. Ibsen’s collected works painted the intellectual landscape of his time as a magnificent panorama, which he traversed with a thoroughness unmatched by any other creative writer. He turned audiences into debating societies, theaters into political arenas, and drama into a chronicle of the times. What bliss it must have been to be young and impressionable when Ibsen wrote those masterpieces that revolutionized the drama and paved the way for Strindberg, Chekhov, Shaw, and the best playwrights of the twentieth century.
Although Ibsen’s richest characters suggest the enormous potential in human nature, their promise is left unfulfilled, and even the best of them come to no good end. Brand, a prophet who wages war against hypocrisy and slackness of spirit, is abandoned by the few converts he has made and dies in an avalanche. Gregers Werle in The Wild Duck believes that the truth will set men free, but the truth when told results in the death of an innocent child. Hedda Gabler, superior intellectually and culturally to everyone around her, blows out her brains. One senses all too often in Ibsen that waste of the good in human beings which A. C. Bradley thought constituted the essence of that “painful mystery” called tragedy, and nothing was more painful to him than Shakespearean tragedy. But in Shakespeare the waste often derives from a conflict between good and evil, whereas evil seems to have lost its meaning in Ibsen’s universe, or takes on the appearance of the good. Macbeth and Claudius are cold-blooded murderers who are punished for their crimes. In Ibsen destructive characters like Brand and Gregers Werle are monuments of rectitude.
Nothing is more characteristic of Ibsen’s power to disturb than his forays into the no-man’s-land between good and evil, right and wrong. He was, in the words of James Huneker, “the greatest moral artist of his century, Tolstoy not excepted,” and as such he went beyond good and evil. He was the point man for Nietzsche (though the German philosopher did not realize it), in search of those heights where a superman might live and breathe. For him the tragic conflict was not between moral forces in the conventional sense but between the human and the superhuman, between man’s capabilities and his aspirations. He was quite explicit about this. At the midpoint in his career, in 1875, he said that much of his work concerned “the conflict between one’s aims and one’s abilities, between what man proposes and what is actually possible.” What may appear to the casual reader as blatant contradictions were to Ibsen expressions of one personality and one unending struggle. The war within him never ceased, although the strength of the contending forces fluctuated. His major accomplishment was to see the great intellectual, political, and cultural conflicts of modern times as a mirror of his own inner contradictions.
Expressed abstractly like that, the conflict doesn’t sound like the stuff of drama. But for Ibsen it was what life was all about. It was his own conflict, and for him victory meant immortality. It was a lifelong obsession with him. In 1867, while he was forging the immortal verses of Peer Gynt in the intense heat of an Italian summer, he told a painter friend that he wrote not just for his own time but for all time. The painter replied that, philosophically speaking, fame, however great, had its limits. Some geniuses might be remembered for a generation, some for a century, but in a thousand years all of them would be forgotten, even the greatest of them. Ibsen exploded, “Go to hell with your metaphysics! Take eternity from me and you take everything!”
The drama critic Brooks Atkinson once remarked that Eugene O’Neill had an infatuation with oblivion; Ibsen had the opposite longing, a passion for fame and honor. It was more than a passion—it was an obsession. And he got what he wanted. He became one of the immortals, his grasp matched his reach, and he attained his kind of heaven. But at what a price. And therein lay the tragedy of living as he saw it.
From Ibsen’s Kingdom by Evert Springchorn. Published by Yale University Press in 2021. Reproduced with permission.
Evert Sprinchorn is a senior scholar of Scandinavian literature and drama and nineteenth-century intellectual history. He is professor emeritus in the drama department at Vassar College and the author of Strindberg as Dramatist, among other books.