WHEN WE DEAD AWAKEN

An analysis of the play by Henrik Ibsen
The following article is reprinted from Henrik Ibsen: Plays and Problems. Otto Heller. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1912. pp. 308-319.

We come to the final monument of Ibsen's genius. At first he named this last work forebodingly A Dramatic Epilogue ("En Dramatisk Epilog"), and in his correspondence her regularly refers to it as the Epilogue. Whether his mind was bent on a final summing-up of all his work when this play was undertaken, or whether the hope of a new phase of poetic activity hovered before his vision, we have no positive means of deciding. The drama was published near the end of 1899 under the romantically expressive title: When We Dead Awaken (Naar vi doede vaagner"). Despite his advanced years, Ibsen felt hardy enough in mind and body to be thinking of still further dramatic enterprises. Several months after the publication of the Epilogue he hinted broadly in a letter that another artistic project was agitating him. "I do not imagine that I shall be able to keep permanently away from the old battlefields. However, if I were to make my appearance again, it would be with new weapons, and in new armor." Precisely what he may have meant must remain a secret. Possibly his English editor is right in assuming that Ibsen was planning a metrical play -- he had said to Professor Herford a long time before that he hoped to wind up his work with a drama in verse. Perhaps he was through with all forms of artistic realism; a revulsion to the idealistic conception of the drama would have found the literary world not altogether unprepared, after the streams of pronouncedly romantic tendency manifest in the symbolical plays.

For its personal interest, namely, as a grand poeticl confession, as the epitome of a great artist's strenuous and lifelong struggle, and the expression of a long-hoarded philosophy of life, this play stands supreme. Moreover, it contains portions artistically exquisite, full of surpassing lyric beauty; and for brief moments the intuitive and unerring vision of the born dramatist, the force and power of the practiced master of stage effect unequivocally reassert themselves. Yet judged in its entirety, When We Dead Awaken is not on a plane with Ibsen's best creations. As a stage piece it is lessened in strength by a lack of that admirable balance between outer truth and deeper meaning which characterized the social problem plays. It is difficult to repress a feeling that the persons in this drama behave somewhat like marionettes, and yet that, in the words of Sculptor Rubek, "there is something equivocal, something cryptic, lurking in and behind these busts." I have expressed ... a belief that certain peculiarities of Ibsen's symbolistic method have had a notable influence upon the work of Maurice Maeterlinck. Ibsen's great Belgian disciple, however, went, in special instances, far beyond his master, so that his studied effects frequently border on mannerism. Particularly is this true of Maeterlinck's dramatic dialogue, with its almost infantile simplicity, and of the outer bearing of the dramatis personæ, now so shadowy and uncanny as to suggest visitors from another planet, now so mechanical in speech and gesture as to appear like animated automatons. It seems that after Maeterlinck's style had been fully developed, the master in his turn fell under the influence of the pupil. In the Epilogue, nearly all important figures thus bear the Belgian's marque de fabrique; the wan, silent Sister of Mercy as well as Irene, weird in speech and gesture, in form tall, slender, and emaciated like some pre-Raphaelite portrait; the uncouth bear hunter, less man than satyr, and the lusty, reckless little Maja, both of them frankly the slaves of their senses, yet nevertheless refined into a sheer extramundane semblance. But whereas Maeterlinck, in his subtilized quasi-puppet plays,--even when the presentment happens to be couched in terms of ordinary facts of life, as in L'Intruse or in L'Intérieur,--comes to the aid of our imagination by plain hintings of supernatural interferences, such hints are absent from a play like When We Dead Awaken, and consequently the spectator is both greatly mystified and tantalized. This makes the Epilogue a failure as a play. Viewed, on the other hand, not as a mere theatric entertainment, but as Ibsen's apologia pro vita sua before an audience of initiates, it becomes a great human document that bears an unmistakable impress of truth. Of course, no sillier blunder could be made than to attempt, by means of biographical excavations, to cover the movement of the play step by step with data from the poet's personal history.

In general, however, we may acquiesce in the simple equation that Professor Rubek is identical with Henrik Ibsen. There is much outer and still more inner evidence of this. In the early exposition of the play, Rubek explains why he does not feel quite happy in his native country, to which he has just returned. "I have perhaps been too long abroad, I have drifted quite away from this--this home life." In words closely corresponding with this sentiment, Ibsen in a private letter lamented his inability to renaturalize himself in Norway. "Oh, dear Brandes, it is not without its consequences that a man lives for twenty-seven years in the wider, emancipated, and emancipating spiritual conditions of the great world. Up here, by the fjords, is my native land. But--but--but! Where am I to find my home-land?" Maja's remarks about Rubek's restlessness, "You have begun to wander about without a moment's peace. You cannot rest anywhere, neither at home nor abroad. You have become quite misanthropic of late," apply with the same force to the poet's own homelessness and his migratory habits. In the play, Rubek has lost the power to work; it is as though herein lay a prediction of the sad fate that was to overtake the poet. Turning to a still surer criterion, could there be a more trustworthy index to Ibsen's skeptical feelings about the popular appreciation of his works than the following colloquy?

MAJA: Why, Rubek--all the world knows that it [The Resurrection] is a masterpiece!

PROFESSOR RUBEK: All the world knows nothing!

MAJA: Well, at any rate, it can divine something.

RUBEK: Something that isn't there at all, yes. Something that never was in my mind. Ah, yes, that they can all go into ecstasies over! (Growling to himself) What is the good of working one's self to death for the mob and the masses,--for "all the world"!

The true analogy between Rubek and Ibsen that is hinted in the inward discontent of the sculptor has to do with the eternal question as to the relative satisfactions of work and pleasure. Rubek's repudiation of his art is dictated by the characteristic despondency of a great man in his decline, the poignant grief of a creative artist whose power is on the wane. And that great artist was Ibsen himself. The works of his last decade were pervaded by a tone of resignation and regret.

RUBEK: All the talk about the artist's vocation and the artist's mission, and so forth, began to strike me as being very empty, and hollow, and meaningless at bottom.

MAJA: Then, what would you put in its place?

RUBEK: Life, Maja.

When We Dead Awaken, as a postlude to Ibsen's life-work, interweaves nearly all the leading motifs by which his life and work were governed. But through the maze of harmonies a final melody rings clearly forth--the plaintive query: What shall it profit a man to enrich the whole world if by so doing he pauperize himself?

It is, then, in a symbolical aspect that the persons of this play have to be viewed, and this is especially true of the great sculptor and his model. Nothing could be more irrelevant and improper than to push the biographical parallel so far as to seek evidence, for example, of some unconsummated love affair in the life of Ibsen. It is due to say that his marriage was so thoroughly happy that he prized it as the one true fortune life had borne him.

Emil Reich, whose opinion on any matter connected with Ibsen is worth noting, observes well that, in When We Dead Awaken, Ibsen spoke his final word on the woman question. The theme here resumed is that of a self-conscious woman who is treated by the man she loves as a piece of property instead of as a personality. Hebel's Herodes und Mariamne and his Gyges und sein Ring are devoted to the same problem in dramatized psychology. Irene's life was sacrificed by Rubek, for although he loved her as a man loves a woman, he repressed his feelings and used her solely as the tool of his artistic ambition. An image of virginal purity was to be wrought, and the model must be of immaculate innocence. Irene exposed unreservedly the stainless radiance of her beauty; however, she did it not for the good of art in the abstract, but for love of the man in the artist.

IRENE: You did wrong to my innermost, inborn nature.

PROFESSOR RUBEK: (starting back) I--

IRENE: Yes, you! I exposed myself wholly and unreservedly to your gaze--and never once did you touch me.

PROFESSOR RUBEK: Irene, did you not understand that many a time I was almost beside myself under the spell of all your loveliness?

IRENE: And yet if you had touched me, I think I should have killed you on the spot.

Rubek's one real chance of happiness was with Irene. But the turning-point of his fortune was allowed to slip by unused. That was when their "child," the statue, was finished. Irene now at last expected to be his, the mother of his children in the flesh and blood. But she was honorably dismissed with a cool word of thanks: "I thank you, Irene. This has been a priceless episode for me." Thus she passed out of his life. Her entire personality was swept away by the loss of her love. She now hates Arnold's art--as Rita in Little Eyolf hates Alfred's studies--because it has killed her "love-life." Revenge on Rubek is vicariously wrought through retribution meted out to men in general. Emotionally long dead, she eventually loses her reason, her fixed delusion being that she is dead. Half-cured from her insanity, she meets Rubek again.

For Arnold Rubek, on the other hand, Art lost its meaning when Irene left. Professor Grummann offers an extremely tempting interpretation of Rubek's separation from Irene. She was Rubek's highest art ideal. In him, then, we have the artist who at first lives up to the highest demands of his ideals. Rubek casts Irene aside, and her character degenerates. Clearly the conception is that an ideal degenerates when it is forsaken. Rubek's ambition has ceased to soar; he attempts only petty things; and when he portrays human beings, he presents them sarcastically in animal masks, that being the way he has come to know them. With the inspirations of art gone, Rubek's existence becomes dull and empty. So he makes a belated attempt to "live." Since he can "afford" a beautiful villa and extensive traveling, he humors himself still further by purchasing a companion for his enjoyments. His young wife's name is Maja, which in Indian means the Life-Bearing or Fertile, or--in another connotation--the falseness and hollowness of the external world. The unintelligent, vacuous little Maja bores him as much as he bores her. Both are sighing for relief. She is far better suited to Ulfheim, whose grossly physical attractiveness appeals to her unspiritualized senses. This votary of fleshly joys acts, in a sort, as a "pendant" not only of Maja, but also of Irene. Having been betrayed by one woman, he would revenge himself by seeking to betray all women. His sensuality is not without a certain glamour of poetry, which is shown in striking contrast to Little Maja's matter-of-factness when he refers to his somewhat primitive buen retiro in the woods as a hunting-castle where princesses have dwelt in bliss, and she curtly names it an old pigsty. Ulfheim is a species of Wild Huntsman, who, unlike his kinsman the Flying Dutchman of Henirich Heine and Richard Wagner, can attain his salvation only through the woman that denies herself to him. A significant difference marks the coming together of the two couples. Maja enters lightheartedly into an escapade with the mighty killer of bears. He frees her from her misadventurous union with Rubek; and when up in the mountains their lives are imperiled, Ulfheim and Maja seek safety by quick descent to the lowlands, where existences like theirs best thrive. Irene, on the other hand, is reawakened from death to the realization of life's utmost possibilities when Rubek at last reaches out for her possession. Together their wasted lives reattain a higher meaning. Like John Gabriel Borkman and Ella Rentheim, they ascend the mountain hand in hand, and are buried, like Brand, under a falling avalanche.

For the forcefulness of the idea that is central in When We Dead Awaken it is not material whether the plaint of a misspent life is fully grounded in the poet's own experience. The fundamental question is: Is a life of toil worth the living, and is not success, even supreme achievement, too dearly bought at the cost of happiness? Whilst the great worker labors and suffers in isolation, does not the common life go on relentlessly, careless of his reveries and aspirations? And is it not, after all, the part of wisdom to heed the Mephistophelian advice:--

My worthy friend, gray are all theories,
And green alone Life's golden tree.

In his earliest poems Ibsen again and again raises the question whether the poet's dreams will ever become reality. Once, in Paa Vidderne, the contrast is sharply stated between an artistic conception of life and life itself in its concrete reality. Perhaps, then, all life in the abstract spheres of science, art, and religion is unreal? And here, at the close of his career, made wise by great achievements and still greater disillusionments, Ibsen's last message would seem to be: Whoever has lived only for his art has never attained to real happiness, nay, has never really lived. Is it the poet's or the man's despair that moved the confession? The life that has not been lived--unquestionably this is the burden of this confessio poetœ. It implies certainly a recoil from idealism, if it means nothing more than that the real joys of life are those smaller satisfactions which the man of exceptional endowment is compelled to forego. But even in his decline a man of Ibsen's stamp is hardly to be thought of as steeped in such petty regrets. The great artist is not liable to forget so utterly the fact that to be an artist is to spend and transmute much of one's common share in human happiness into less tangible but higher values. Ibsen expended his tremendous capacity for living in the artistic work to which his entire life was devoted.

Yet it may be, on the other hand, that the aging revolutionary, in a retrospect over his public career, accused himself of a radical inconsistency. He had conceived and advocated theories of life which perhaps he lacked the courage to practice -- forms of happiness perchance that he was too timid to grasp. In spirit a rebel and innovator, he was in conduct prudent and conservative. Once, replying to the inquiry of a certain debating society in regard to the meaning of Rosmersholm, he pointed out as one of its leading motifs the clash that occurs in every serious life between conduct and insight. Man's acquisitive power makes him progressive, while his conscience, being the residuum of past traditions, tends to make him conservative.

Be that as it may, where Rubek tells the story of his master effort, every line is fraught with personal allusion, and in this story Ibsen has undoubtedly bequeathed to us an epitome of his artistic curriculum vitæ. As originally conceived, the master work was to be a supreme embodiment of purity and beauty represented by a woman of sublime nobility of form and mien.

I was young then--with no knowledge of life. The Resurrection, I thought, would be most beautifully and exquisitely figured as a young, unsullied woman--with none of our earth-life's experiences--awakening to light and glory without having to put away from her anything ugly and impure.

After Irene passed out of his life, that concept of the wakening beauty wondering at its own loveliness soon made room for another. The reason for the altered position of the central figure, at first intended to stand alone but now surrounded by many others, lay in a wider knowledge of life.

I learned worldly wisdom in the years that followed. The Resurrection Day became in my mind's eye something more--and something--something more complex. The little round plinth on which your figure stood erect and solitary--it no longer afforded room for all the imagery I now wanted to add.... I imaged that which I saw with my eyes around me in the world. I had to include it--I could not help it. I expanded the plinth--made it wide and spacious. And on it I placed a segment of the curving, bursting earth. And up from the fissures of the soil there now swarm men and women with dimly suggested animal faces. Women and men as I knew them in real life.

The transition from the romantic to the satirical plays is hinted here, and in order to leave not a trace of doubt about the underlying reference of the whole story to Ibsen's artistic career, Ibsen has made Rubek carve his own figure as that of a man who is weighed down with guilt and who cannot quite free himself from the earth-crust. Unquestionably Ibsen subjected his works, in this final review, to a pitiless criticism.

Those readers of Ibsen who regard the works of his Roman period, Brand, Peer Gynt, and possibly also Emperor and Galilean, as the greatest performances of his genius, may if they choose point to the poet's self-estimate as to a court of final appeal. Moved by his regret over the abandonment of pure idealism, they overlook the inner compulsion that wrought the change, and fail to catch Rubek's apology, "I imaged that which I saw with my eyes around me in the world. I had to include it--I could not help it." Already in 1874, Ibsen, addressing the Norwegian students come to bid him welcome, declared:

I have written about those things which, so to speak, stood higher than my daily self, and I have done so in order to settle them, both outside and within myself. But I have also written about the opposite things, those which to an introspective contemplation appear as the dregs and sediments of one's own nature. The work of writing has in this case been to me like a bath which I felt I was leaving cleaner, healthier, and freer.

As the number of subsidiary figures kept increasing, the sculptor had to widen his plinth; and for the sake of a properly proportioned arrangement, the ideal form that once in solitary grandeur occupied the centre was moved somewhat into the background. Even so idealism with the poet was not permitted to overshadow all the facts of life. The transfiguring expression of joy that once glorified the statue's countenance was later subdued, in order to be brought into harmony with the enlarged purpose; for the aggregate idea of the group, as stated so tersely by Irene, was very comprehensive: "The statue represents life as you see it now."

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