Franz Mehring

Ibsen’s Greatness and Limitations


Translator: A.S Grogan.
Originally Published: Neue Zeit, 1900.
Source: Angel Flores (ed.), Ibsen Critics Group, New York, 1937.
Transcribed: Sally Ryan for, October 2000.

Seldom has a nation paid so heavily as the Scandinavians for the illusory splendor of military glory. During the Thirty Years’ War, because of especially favorable conditions their military domination over Germany seemed to be assured; a century later, ridiculous as was the part they were condemned to play in war, they had much less real influence on the intellectual life of Europe, or indeed any part in it worth mentioning. The storm of the French Revolution, which gave a new impetus to the literature of all European nations, left the Scandinavian countries almost untouched.

They surrendered all the more readily to reaction. Scandinavian literature became a fanatic disciple of romanticism and remained so even when romanticism had fallen into decay everywhere else in Europe. As late as 1848 the Neue Rheinische Zeitung rightly said that Denmark imported all of both her literary and her material food from Germany, but that Germany was progressive and revolutionary compared with Denmark. “Scandinavianism,” the only movement originating in the Scandinavian countries, was characterized by this revolutionary paper as an enthusiasm for the brutal, dirty national character of the old Nordic pirates, an enthusiasm for that depth of feeling that could not express its exuberant thoughts and sentiments in words, but only in deeds, in brutality towards women, in continual drunkenness and outbreaks of berserk fury alternating with tearful sentimentality. Cutting as these expressions were, they do not seem to have been exaggerated; when, twenty years later, the youthful Georg Brandes lectured at Copenhagen University on literary history, adopting the viewpoint of bourgeois enlightenment, he was universally attacked as a heretic with a bitterness reminiscent of the mediaeval Inquisition, so bloodthirsty was it, though fortunately impotent.

Until late in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Scandinavian literature was dominated by the romantic current – flight from the life of the present, constant return to subjects drawn from long ago, a predilection for writing allegorical fairy tales, and last but not least, a kind of fantastic mysticism degenerating into an ascetic rejection of the world. With few exceptions, this literature was bitterly hostile to all modern ideas, and denounced their advance not only as apostasy from the Christian faith, but as marking the dissolution of all social and moral bonds. Yet modern ideas could not be repelled when capitalism advanced victoriously into the Scandinavian countries and mercilessly revolutionized the hoary and venerable structure of society. The economic revolution brought the intellectual revolution in its wake, and the winds of spring blew all the fresher after the long winter.

The leadership in the belated awakening of Scandinavian literature fell to Norway, thanks to the native peasantry and petty bourgeoisie who had for several centuries been the ruling classes in Norwegian society. The Norwegian peasant had never been a serf, as the Danish and Swedish had, and the Norwegian petty bourgeois was descended from free peasants; Norway was the only country which had preserved a democratic constitution after the victory of European reaction at Waterloo. It must be admitted that this petty bourgeois world, which afforded such extremely poor opportunities for industrial development on a large scale, for the stock exchange and all other levers for the concentration of capital, had a mental horizon equally limited – in effect, the horizon of the peasantry and petty bourgeoisie; but when the modern system of production invaded the land it infused a strong and healthy element which rapidly advanced from the deep swamps of romanticism to the heights of modern society and was checked at last only because its path onwards from these heights was lost in the clouds. Nevertheless a mass proletariat could not, and cannot, evolve in Norway; for this reason the most revolutionary writer in Norwegian literature failed to find the key to the deepest problems of his time, so that Henrik Ibsen said: “I am concerned with asking questions; answers have I none.” But Ibsen’s way of putting his questions has made him a European writer of the first rank.

Henrik Ibsen was born on the twentieth of March, 1828, at Skien, one of those small Norwegian coast towns where the salt tang of the sea mingles with the smell of the mountain forests. The little town was a stronghold of puritanism, and at the same time a model in miniature of modern commerce, displaying the most glaring social contrasts in the smallest imaginable space. According to Goethe the child is father of the man, and certain youthful impressions of his native town stamped themselves on Ibsen’s mind; the most trenchant of his social dramas are set in places of which Skien was the original.

Ibsen came of a petty bourgeois family, and attended grammar school till the age of sixteen, when he went to live as a pharmacist’s apprentice in the small town of Grimstad. Here he lived for four or five years, preparing for the entrance examinations at Christiania University, where he intended to study medicine. Before he had reached this goal, however, the February Revolution of 1848 broke out and stirred the twenty-year-old youth deeply. He wrote fiery poems dedicated to the revolutionary Hungarians and, in a series of sonnets, appealed to the King of Sweden to take up arms to aid their Danish brothers against the Germans. It should not be overlooked, however, that the party in Copenhagen which urged the annexation of Schleswig-Holstein was the revolutionary party in Denmark, and that Ibsen had nothing to do with the reactionary principles of Scandinavianism, although he did wish the Danish cause to be supported against the Germans. His immediate future belonged to the struggle for emancipation through which Norwegian literature sought to free itself from its complete dependence on Denmark.

Apart from the revolutionary lyrics of his youth, Ibsen had written a revolutionary tragedy, Catiline, and had it published under a pseudonym. The critics for the most part received it unfavorably, but Ibsen was not discouraged by this, and remained true to his literary penchant after passing the entrance examination at Christiania and beginning his studies at the university. Still his name was almost unknown when in 1852 he was appointed dramatist to the Norwegian Theatre in Bergen. He kept this post until 1857 and wrote a play every year, whereby he acquired that sure technique which distinguishes his later masterpieces to such a high degree. Apart from this Ibsen himself condemned, almost without exception, the plays which he wrote at that time. Essentially they were still in the style of Danish romanticism, and the attempt to create an independent Norwegian literature was doomed to failure so long as it continued to distinguish itself from Danish literature merely by means of slight differences in dialect and other such non-essentials.

The first to find the right way was Björnson, a fellow student of Ibsen’s, who was dramatist to the Norwegian Theatre in Christiania. His peasant stories mirrored the life of the Norwegian people with refreshing truth. In 1857 the two writers exchanged posts and now Ibsen’s genius, too, flew higher, in plays such as The Pretenders and The Vikings at Helgeland, which showed his effeminate contemporaries some figures from Norway’s past, full of vigor and rude greatness. In Love’s Comedy, however, Ibsen held up a mirror to his contemporaries, showing not their forefathers’ virtues, but rather their own foolishness. The play struck at the heart of the hypocrisy of the time, and stirred up a storm of indignation, which even threatened the author’s position, particularly since the Norwegian Theatre in Christiania went bankrupt in the same year that Love’s Comedy appeared. Ibsen’s friends were already trying to keep him from starvation by means of some minor post in the Civil Service when somebody succeeded in procuring him a small travelling grant from the state. Ibsen went to Rome, where, in the late sixties, he wrote his mystical dramas Brand and Peer Gynt and began the historical play Emperor and Galilean, not completed until later.

In these vast works many of Ibsen’s admirers see his most gifted and sublime creations, not to be compared save with Goethe’s Faust. Yet such an opinion is merely a reflection of the world fame which Ibsen later won; anyone approaching without prejudice the works which Ibsen wrote in Rome will agree with the skeptical words of Georg Brandes: “Is Brand reaction or revolution? I cannot tell, there is so much of both in the play. In Brand Ibsen sets up ideals from whose giddy heights reality seems to disappear in the distance. True, there is revolutionary spirit in those works, and in Peer Gynt the poet castigates severely enough that reactionary Scandinavianism of great words and small deeds, of overflowing sentimentality and hard narrow egoism. But he himself is still in a ferment, out of which no great work of art can crystallize. Ibsen first found the path which was to bring him undying laurels when, in 1869, he wrote The League of Youth, a comedy which graphically portrayed the life of contemporary Norway and vigorously attacks its political careerists, though it was still cast in the somewhat superficial mold of French comedy. The play made new enemies for Ibsen in Norway and he did not return to his motherland. After his sojourn of several years in Italy he lived now in Dresden, now in Munich. He acclaimed the war of 1870 and the Paris Commune with high hopes, soon to be disappointed; in a letter written from Dresden surrounded by “heavy German phrasemongers and boasters who shout themselves hoarse with their eternal Watch on the Rhine,” he foresaw, with wonderful clarity, the menacing future that lay ahead: “In this very victory lies defeat and the sword will turn into a whip.” The celebrated idols of the day he compared to the Egyptian columns of Memnon which the storm soon covers with layers of sand. Of the position of the workers in a state where arms ruled, he declared that they were like larvae which can never become butterflies. Ibsen was at last ripe to call model capitalist society before his tribunal.

In the sixth decade of the author’s life his masterpieces were written. Especially of these is Ibsen’s remark to one of his biographers true: “All that I have written is closely wedded to what I have lived through if not personally experienced. For me the purpose of every new work was to serve as a process of spiritual liberation and purification. For no man is ever free of responsibility for the society to which he belongs, or without a share in its guilt.” The essence of these dramas, considered both objectively and subjectively, is pungently summed up in these words. The writer stands within a society whose vital functions he can closely observe, even down to the faintest heart beats – a feat which would be impossible to him if he stood above society, and really knew how to liberate and purify himself from it.

That is at once Ibsen’s greatness and his limitation. None can excel the realism of the characters which Ibsen learned to put on the stage. One sees them walk and stand, one hears them talk, as if they really lived. The dialogue is free from any brilliant artificiality; one might almost call it commonplace. Such at least is the impression of those who unthinkingly give themselves up to the enjoyment of these works. Anyone who studies his technique closely will discover the supreme achievement of his art in this very simplicity; each of those negligent words, apparently dropped by chance, has been well pondered and is closely woven into the whole texture of the play. But this masterly technique is always completely merged in his poetic faculty.

Yet while the writer lives in and with the characters he has created, he too is unable to overcome the barriers hemming them in. He may resent their faults and quarrel with them, but free them he can not. Herein lies the root of Ibsen’s notorious pessimism. This catchword in itself is as meaningless as any other; it gains real content and meaning only by reason of its social basis. Pessimism rears its head in all declining classes, but in each particular case the deciding factor is above all which class is concerned and how it declines. The pessimism of the German philistine Schopenhauer is quite different from the pessimism of the petty bourgeois Ibsen; the former suffers with head bowed; the latter, rebelling, fights; it is this element of struggle which lends to Ibsen’s masterpieces such a powerful dramatic tension. Yet the struggle is never crowned with victory; Ibsen proclaims the “new epoch,” but he cannot throw open the gates to it: his criticism of society as expressed in his plays comes to a dead end.

In as early a work as Pillars of Society, published in 1877, the villain turns from his evil ways: after committing or attempting every possible infamous deed the profiteering capitalist is converted to the honorable principle of the petty bourgeoisie – that is, verbally. He proclaims that “from this day” – that is, from the day on which his frauds are no longer successful – the “new age” shall begin; that as for the past, “with its pretenses, its hypocrisy and hollowness, its false respectability and infamous obsequiousness,” it will live on only as a museum piece, displayed for the instruction of the public. Freedom and truth are the real pillars of society; such is the shallow truism with which the audience is sent away, just after being thoroughly stirred by a vivid picture of capitalist corruption. This picture was true enough to life to rouse the hottest anger of “good society” against the writer, and to dispel all suspicion that with his “happy end” he was moved by an intention which actually lay far from his thoroughly sincere nature. The psychological fallacy with which the work ended was rooted in nothing but the author’s lack of clarity with regard to sociological problems.

This he combated honestly and vigorously enough, as evidenced by his immediately subsequent plays: A Doll’s House, 1879, and Ghosts, 1881. In these plays Ibsen turns his searchlight upon the comfortable home of the philistine and pillories the falsity of the bourgeois money marriage. No longer does he veil the harsh truth. While he does not see any way of salvation, he does see the curse under which bourgeois society lives. While he does not yet understand the struggle of the oppressed class, he already understands the struggle of the oppressed sex. Nora is the pampered doll who plays with life and knows little more about it than a doll, until, brought into sharp conflict with life, she recognizes its crudeness and brutality and resolutely tears asunder the whole web of lies woven about her with its unnerving softness. Mrs. Alving did not come to that resolution at the decisive hour in her life; she did not break up her marriage when she recognized it as no more than a falsehood: “I hadn’t the courage to act differently, not even for my own sake; I was such a coward.” The atonement she has to make is terrible, for the ghosts of her youth return; she has to poison her only son to relieve him from the awful bodily torture inherited from his diseased father. The principal figure of this play is Mrs. Alving, and not the son on whom the sins of the father are visited. Although in the use of such a theme there lurks a danger of obscuring the importance of the social factors by overemphasizing the apparent effects of natural laws, yet Ibsen handles it with originality and in a manner not to be compared with that of his stale would-be disciples who distort it into a reactionary caricature and think they are great revolutionaries.

A Doll’s House and Ghosts will probably keep Ibsen’s name alive longest. In An Enemy of the People, published in 1882, he already declines from their high standard. In this he responds to the violent outbreaks aroused by his two tragedies: his “enemy of the people” is an honest man who does not lie or dissimulate and who is afraid of nothing when the cause of truth is at stake, but who loses his post and for that reason is outlawed by a “compact majority,” so that he consoles himself with the thought that the strongest man in the world is he who stands alone. Though rich in trenchant satire, the play is weak in its hero, who, with all his honesty and resoluteness, is after all a queer fellow, more of a headstrong eccentric than an intellectual fighter for the cause of humanity, just as, by the principle which he proclaims at the end, he simply condemns himself to starvation. Yet this figure is also true to life; this narrow honesty, inflamed with anger against the symptoms of social evil without understanding its real essence, is ever claiming victims in bourgeois society, yet tragic figures such victims are not. They arouse in us a feeling of compassion, but it is a compassion accompanied not by terror, but by a touch of amusement and even contempt.

The solution of the problem contained in An Enemy of the People verges on unintentional comedy, in The Wild Duck, 1884, Ibsen created a comedy in the highest sense of the word, the hero of which, Hjalmar Ekdal, recalls Falstaff and Don Quixote. The fighter who sees that the world is out of joint, and would set it right with his “claims of the ideal,” is shown as a fool who causes nothing but misfortune; contrasted with him is the dry cynic with his practical wisdom: “Rob the average man of his life’s illusion and you rob him of his happiness.” Between them wavers Hjalmar Ekdal, a poor fellow, no better and no worse than people of his kind usually are, who feverishly endeavors to live up to the “claims of the ideal” and who always relapses into the old comfortable “life’s illusion” which has become second nature to him. It was wrong to see a milder mood in this tendency of Ibsen’s; immediately afterwards he returned to strict tragedy. In 1886 he published Rosmersholm, in which the weak man who cannot and will not fight, together with his daemonic wife who tries in vain to drag him with her up steep paths, seeks and finds death.

Ibsen took an ever gloomier view of his world the more it was overshadowed by the evils accompanying the irresistible deluge of capitalism, and the more surely the burden of his years robbed him of the hope of ever seeing a new dawn break. In his sixtieth year Ibsen’s militant pessimism changed to a visionary pessimism. The time came when the fat money bags, through their literary hacks, used to say that Ibsen was getting madder and madder, incapable as they were of perceiving the appalling stench of corruption which rose from a perishing society to the thousand fine senses of a great writer.

The work of Ibsen’s old age includes as many plays as the period of his masterpieces, and the line between the two cannot be drawn with any strict exactitude. Mystical elements already play a part in Rosmersholm; while in The Lady from the Sea and Hedda Gabler, dramatic psychology is not yet entirely overshadowed by the dark sway of a dark fate. Ibsen becomes really enigmatic with The Master Builder. Nevertheless, so far as any line can be drawn, it lies between Rosmersholm and The Lady from the Sea. From this drama onwards the writer’s thoughts and language become ever more mysterious; The Master Builder, Little Eyolf, John Gabriel Borkman and When We Dead Awaken are dramatic riddles which everyone can solve as he pleases, only no one can ever claim to have found the right solution.

In his “Dramatic Epilogue,” as Ibsen himself calls his last play, When We Dead Awaken, he makes the hero, an artist, angrily complain that “the whole world” always goes into raptures over what is unintentional in his work, and so it is not worthwhile to exert himself for “the mob.” It is easy enough to recognize in this a complaint of the author himself, and who can deny that unreasonably bulky commentaries have been written on the work of his old age? Yet the tragic poet himself succumbs to a tragic fate if he thinks that he awakes only to see that he has never lived. Ibsen has lived and will live, but only in those of his creations which are modelled after the image of life, by the hand of genius. Since social development has grown past his understanding, since he has ascribed to incomprehensible powers, of whose moods man is the toy, the effects of an economic process which he does not and cannot understand, since then he has lost touch with real life and not all the traces of genius plentifully displayed in his later works will assure them of immortality.

Ibsen is no thinker, but a poet. It seems to be in pain, with urgency and sorrow that he creates the dramas in which he speaks in abstruse words of the downfall of a world from whose curse he cannot free himself, and this explains his impatience with the “rapture” with which his latest plays were received. But apart from this he had no grounds for writing a bitter epilogue to his creative work, which has ranked him with the greatest authors of his century, and has also contributed so much towards the awakening of a love for drama in the modern working class.

It is to his honor that the aged poet is not weakened by the success which lesser poets would gleefully enjoy. What youth denied him age has given him in plenty. For the last ten years Ibsen has been living in Christiania decked with medals and loaded with riches, the most celebrated poet of his nation, in the splendor of European fame. To keep a Promethean steadfastness though fanned by the breezes of the flattery of one’s contemporaries, is the mark of true genius.


Last updated on 16.2.2004