James Joyce

Ibsen’s New Drama — When We Dead Awaken

Twenty years have passed since Henrik Ibsen wrote “A Doll’s House“, thereby almost marking an epoch in the history of drama. During those years his name has gone abroad through the length and breadth of two continents, and has provoked more discussion and criticism than that of any other living man.

He has been upheld as a religious reformer, a social reformer, a Semitic lover of righteousness, and as a great dramatist. He has been rigorously denounced as a meddlesome intruder, a defective artist, an incomprehensible mystic, and, in the eloquent words of a certain English critic, ‘a muck-ferreting dog’. Through the perplexities of such diverse criticism, the great genius of the man is day by day coming out as a hero comes out amid the earthly trials. The dissonant cries are fainter and more distant, the random praises are rising in steadier and more choral chant.

Even to the uninterested bystander it must seem significant that the interest attached to this Norwegian has never flagged for over a quarter of a century. It may be questioned whether any man has held so firm an empire over the thinking world in modern times. Not Rousseau; not Emerson; not Carlyle; not any of those giants of whom almost all have passed out of human ken. Ibsen’s power over two generations has been enhanced by his own reticence. Seldom, if at all, has he condescended to join battle with his enemies. It would appear as if the storm of fierce debate rarely broke in upon his wonderful calm.

The conflicting voices have not influenced his work in the very smallest degree. His output of dramas has been regulated by the utmost order, by a clockwork routine, seldom found in the case of genius. Only once he answered his assailants after their violent attack on “Ghosts”. But from “The Wild Duck” to “John Gabriel Borkman”, his dramas have appeared almost mechanically at intervals of two years. One is apt to overlook the sustained energy which such a plan of campaign demands; but even surprise at this must give way to admiration at the gradual, irresistible advance of this extraordinary man.

Eleven plays, all dealing with modern life, have been published. Here is the list: “A Doll’s House”, “Ghosts”, “An Enemy of the People”, “The Wild Duck”, “Rosmersholm”, “The Lady from the Sea”, “Hedda Gabler”, “The Master Builder”, “Little Eyolf”, “John Gabriel Borkman”, and lastly — his new drama, published at Copenhagen, December 19th, 1899 — “When We Dead Awaken”. This play is already in process of translation into almost a dozen different languages — a fact which speaks volumes for the power of its author. The drama is written in prose, and is in three acts.

To begin an account of a play of Ibsen’s is surely no easy matter. The subject is, in one way, so confined, and, in another way, so vast. It is safe to predict that nine-tenths of the notices of this play will open in some such way as the following: