Contrary opinions [have been] heard as to the relative importance of When We Dead Awaken; it was issued in December, 1899, with 1900 on the title-page, and was regarded as the last message from Ibsen, although the aged poet, reckoning against time, was vaguely speaking of something else to follow. [This] drama had not been written with the usual ease; he had had to force himself in many places, against encroaching weakness; Death's hand was already upon him, and he knew it.
Despite such eminent opinion as one can find ranged on the side of a firm belief in the unabated strength and cogency of When We Dead Awaken, it is impossible to overlook the wild wandering and disconnected imagery of the second and third acts. It is as though the whole phantasmagoria of Ibsen's life had filtered through his weakening brain, and he had caught fitful gleams of past glories. It is as though in Maia, of the earth earthy, and in Irene, the poet was balancing his old problem of Emperor and Galilean, trying to see wherein he had missed life in an effort to fulfil his preordained mission.
In attempting this, Ibsen's two characters, Rubek, the sculptor, and Irene, the model -- whose soul has been sacrificed for art, even as Ella Rentheim's has been bartered for power -- are both endowed with the same qualities of mental weakness; to analyze their meaning consistently, one would have to prescribe physic for their constitutions. In a vague penumbra of existence, they meet, each having lost something out of their lives, and each drawn to the other according to the inviolable laws of compensation.
It is useless to attempt an analysis of fragments, of what [William] Archer calls "the dregs of Ibsen's mind." He is chasing shadows, he is hungry for something that has passed him by. Just before the end, he himself has awakened to find how much he has sacrificed. He did not care for the plaudits of people now; it was a cry forced from a soul made wilfully cold. After all, the best of life is love, and, as Mr. Percy Mackaye declares in his Mater, "The test of love, and the best of love, is laughter."
We hear much concerning coldness of heart, both in John Gabriel Borkman and in When We Dead Awaken. Maia does not satisfy Rubek, the sculptor, because the latter is burned out, having poured into his masterpiece the red blood of his being, having hewn from stone the supple nakedness of his model's body, wilfully restraining his passion, wilfully blinding himself to the woman's soul beneath.
And when it was all over, it was as though the living body were ashes; all beings might now gaze on the nakedness of Irene; all beings might try to touch the heart of Rubek, even Maia, but with no avail. This is what it means to be an artist; in order to create life, one must sacrifice life. The whole question remains -- and is brought home poignantly whenever we come in contact with the warmth of the actual present -- is it worth while? Pessimism did not make Ibsen question this; somewhere in his mind there always flitted that disquieting dualism in nature which in his philosophy he was trying to reconcile.
The characters in When We Dead Awaken are mostly fit subjects for an insane asylum; so distraught are they in their essential details that there is naught to reconcile them with reality. Through the mist we hear Ibsen reiterate his old proposition that life without love is death; through a picturesque and complicated maze of scenery, we put Rubek alongside Brand in his upward climb -- the one with an Ideal, the other with Irene; the one losing sight of the common humanity, the other hearing far off the joy of life in Maia's song.
Had Ibsen been at the height of his power, he would have known how to make poignant the savage conception of Ulfheim -- for the brute element in life is as much a fact as any other element. Sense and spirit battle here for a basis of mutual recognition, but in the struggle, they blind Ibsen's view.
At times the characters in When We Dead Awaken utter some keen, poetic ideas; but temperamentally, in their escape of reality, they do not touch the realm of the supernatural, an element underlying The Lady from the Sea and The Master Builder. We might point to many a John Gabriel Borkman, walking on Wall Street, as Dr. Slossan suggests, and to many a Consul Bernick in New York homes, but only within the insane ward do we hope to discover an Irene, with Rubek in the ante-room.
However weak Ibsen grew, he nevertheless seems to have retained to the very end his enviable instinct for dialogue, nowhere better exemplified than in the first act of When We Dead Awaken. Because of these true touches that flicker into flame, the obscurity of reason seems all the more obscure. As the critic said, "The man of science has discovered the soul [in this drama], and does not altogether know what to do with it." Perhaps in real life that is so; perhaps, when revelation rushes on us, it finds us helpless in our exercise of will; having fought with direct purpose for the vague, we know not what to do when the vague becomes evident.
Were we so inclined, we might enter the realm of spiritualism in our discussion of When we Dead Awaken, but it would be carrying Ibsen much further than he ever went. Suppose a dead love has had an active influence upon Rubek, it does not make the embodiment, Irene, any the less insane. So suggestive is the title of Ibsen's play, that we might carry it to any length, without clearing the Ibsen secret, without reaching the Ibsen solution.
When We Dead Awaken is Ibsen's art tribute on the altar of love; upon its surface, he has sketched faint tracings from Brand, from Hedda Gabler, from The Master Builder, from John Gabriel Borkman. We hear the same chant that rose above the crashing avalanche beneath which Brand was buried.
When a man of Ibsen's age turns upon himself, and becomes satiric over the outcome of his life-work, it is as though he had laughed at his own funeral. Yet though he may thereby have shown that he doubted the efficacy of his mission, he was nevertheless affirming, with unshakable faith, the essential and fundamental elements in life.