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. 88-93.

The League of Youth (1869), Henrik Ibsen's first open venture in realistic comedy, was a slashing attack on political hypocrisy. Always keenly interested in politics, Ibsen was not at any time "in regular standing" with a political party. With his independent spirit he could not have endured to have his finer feelings of self-esteem continuously jarred and wounded by "party discipline." For any man there may exist concerns of still greater consequence than active care for the affairs of state. To Ibsen the fulfillment of the ego's call was the highest command, and certainly a prolonged participation in practical politics harbors a danger to the moral and intellectual integrity, the peril of creeping paralysis to a man's power of self-determination. A square look at the distributing agencies of public opinion makes one suspect that while the coarser forces rule it might be safer to keep out of the fuss and wrangle of politics, for the preservation of one's courage, conscience, and convictions. At heart Ibsen sided with political freedom as with freedom of conscience in any form, and therefore joined in many of the demands of the Liberals. Indeed, his writings breathe forth the very air of liberty; but as he did not give full-hearted acquiescence to all the views and policies of the Liberal Party, that party arrayed itself against him. So Ibsen stood stigmatized as a conservative by the radicals, while to conservatives he seemed--and, in another sense, really was--a radical of the deepest dye. The truth of the matter is, the Norwegian Liberals disgusted Ibsen by their invertebrate enthusiasm and fertility in flashing phrase as much as by their Gyntian indecision and the tangle of insincerities by which the movement was surrounded. The impression should therefore be corrected that The League was an attack on Liberalism. It attacks not the Liberal views, but the Liberal phrase. To be sure Iron-master Bratsberg is represented as a kind and philanthropic employer and as an enemy of sordid greed. But the Conservative Party in its chief representative Lundestad is handled without any more delicacy than is Lawyer Stensgaard, the Liberal pro tem. When Ibsen relieves himself in an outburst like, "The Liberals are the worst enemies of freedom," or lets Thomas Stockmann declare, in An Enemey of the People, that the Liberals are the most treacherous enemies of free men he refers to the tyranny of "liberals" in intellectual things. There is more than a grain of truth in his assertion that spiritual and intellectual freedom thrives best under an absolutistic order of government. The arraignment was meant for the sham reformers whose short-ranged vision is a greater obstacle to progress than a reasoned and principled conservatism.

At the same, The League of Youth was widely misconstrued as a slashing satire upon the person of Björnstjerne Björnson, the acknowledged leader of the Liberals. Ibsen promptly contradicted the rumor; that is, he denied having caricatured Björnson in the character of Stensgaard. On the other hand, he frankly admitted having used for models "Björnson's pernicious, lie-steeped clique." Like most great leaders, Björnson was surrounded by a bodyguard of obsequious politicians for whom a frank nature like Ibsen's could not profess anything but a blasting contempt. That living models had been in Ibsen's mind, it would have been useless for him to deny. In effect, the artistic value of the comedy is greatly enhanced by the reality of the characters; human factors shine everywhere through the political interests. It would be base slander to seek to establish the identity of a windbag and fraud like Lawyer Stensgaard with the noble figure of Ibsen's generous friend. What lent color of truth to the rumor was the fact that Stensgaard was actually invested with some of Björnson's personal characteristics. For the poet plainly intended that the worthless fellow, too, should have his redeeming traits. At all events, there resulted a rupture between Norway's two greatest sons. It was patched up for the time being, but soon after that Ibsen gave a genuine ground for offense by referring to Björnson in a mordant poem entitled Nordens Signaler ("The Norther Signals," 1872) as a political weather-cock, because Björnson had urged Denmark to forget about Schleswig and reconcile herself with Germany.

Stensgaard, the central butt of the satire, is a soul steeped in the Gyntian sort of mendacity; the kind that intoxicates himself with his own vaporings and transiently swindles himself into believing his own phrenetic declamations, like Armado in Love's Labor's Lost, a man

That hath a mint of phrases in his brain;
One whom the music of his own vain tongue
Doth ravish like enchanting harmony.

Not such a very bad fellow fundamentally, but thoroughly spoiled for good honest work by his spouting eloquence, among other causes. He possesses that elusive quality of "magnetism," which in only too many cases issues from brazen and rock-ribbed self-assurance. On this intangible asset he stakes his claim to a public career, and becomes, like hundreds of other ambitious orators, a cheap, hollow charlatan and political trimmer. One moment the ferocious demagogue, the next moment the champion of the established order. One moment the big brother of the poor, the next moment the little brother of the rich. "Woe to him," once exclaimed Henrik Ibsen, "who has to think of his parents with aversion!" Stensgaard bears a hereditary taint, albeit of a different order from that of Dr. Rank, Brand, Gynt, Oswald, Rebecca, etc... His is a servile and venal nature, to be had for any sop thrown to his ambition. A dinner invitation from the local magnate overthrows his radical convictions. His life, even in its most sacred privacies, is to be ordered with a single eye to profit and preferment; marriage is to serve him as a lever to wealth, station, and influence; accordingly a single glance into a luxurious household determines him to marry the daughter. By the irony of fate, and not perchance by the eternal fitness of things, the ardent pretender to popularity and favor manages to fall down midways between the several chairs of ease which he has put in place for himself. His pitiable undoing is not meant as a blazing judgment against unrighteousness, but simply goes to show that Stensgaard is as yet too green to beat in the game of politics. Many an aspiring politician felt himself hit by the reverberating shot Ibsen had fired. A tempest of indignation and ill-will broke over the performance of the play in Christiania. And so this capital comedy, which by its dash and go and irresistible merriment completely refutes the inveterate superstition that Ibsen lacked humor (as though without this precious possession he could have had so much sympathy with the wrongs and foibles of men!) missed its highly deserved success. But even had the response been different, Ibsen would not have been influenced in the choice of his further course. The sphere of strictly political comedy would in any case have proved too narrow for his genius, already bound for the much wider sphere of the social drama.

The League of Youth is technically far in advance of its author's previous efforts. So far as the structural qualities go, the almost inextricable tangle of mistakes, misunderstandings, and surprises attests the still prevalent influence of Scribe. By marked contrast to the more or less conventional comicry of the situations the originality of the coming technique announces itself. The realistic method of presentment evolved by conscientious experiment is now for the first time in Ibsen's grasp. The action is managed without monologues and without a single occurrence of the "aside" and the "stage-whisper." The dialogue is in prose and follows much the natural mode of conversation. To us, such features in drama offer not the least matter for surprise; but upon the audience of 1869, sufficiently enraged by the satirical intent of the play, the daring formal innovation produced an effect like an extra insult thrown in with the injury.


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