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William Archer: The Mausoleum of Ibsen

Ibsen was controversial in his own time, and nowhere was he more so than in England. "The Mausoleum of Ibsen" by William Archer, who was probably the foremost champion of Ibsen in the British Isles, is a very interesting document about Ibsen’s position in England: an object of hatred for the press, but admired by an increasing body of readers and theatre-goers.


William Archer
The article was published in the Fortnightly Review in London in July 1893 (Vol. 60, pp. 77 - 91).

"THE MAUSOLEUM OF IBSEN."

"The Master Builder bids fair to raise a mausoleum in which the Ibsen craze may be conveniently buried and consigned to oblivion." - Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, February 25, 1893.
FOR the past four years, ever since June 7, 1889, when A Doll’s House was produced by Mr. Charles Charrington and Miss Janet Achurch at the Novelty Theatre, the compact majority of English theatrical critics has been assiduously, energetically, one may almost say unintermittently, occupied in building the mausoleum of Ibsen. Mausoleum, perhaps, is scarcely the word; cairn or barrow would be nearer it. Each critic has simply brought his "chunk of old red sandstone" - his pebble of facetiousness, his ‘arf-brick of abuse, his boulder of denunciation - and has added it at random to the rude pyramid under which the flattened remains of Henrik Ibsen were supposed to lie. When, at intervals, they have rested from their work, it has only been to look upon it and pronounce it very good. How often have we been informed, in tones of complacent assurance, that "we have heard the last of Ibsen," that "Ibsenism" (or, if the critic be a wit, "Ibsenity") "has died a natural death," that "the cult" or "the craze," is "played out," that "Ibsen has been tried in the balance and found wanting," that "the public won’t have Ibsen at any price," and so forth, and so forth! There is probably not a conservative critic in London who has not announced to his readers some four or five times within the said four years that Ibsen is authentically dead at last, until even the great public, one fancies, must be beginning to regard the intelligence with suspicion. And when, after each of these announcements, it has manifestly appeared that Ibsen was not dead at all, but rather more alive than ever, the critics, with truly heroic pertinacity, have sought finally to crush him, by adding to the same old mausoleum or cairn - piling Pelion upon Ossa, Ossa upon Olympus, until the pyramid of execration has reached a magnitude almost unprecedented in literary history. Strange it should never occur to them that, since all this lapidation fails of its object, the reason can only be that Ibsen is not under that stone-heap at all, but only an effigy, a simulacrum, a "contrap-shun" as Uncle Remus would call it, compounded of their own imaginings, and bearing but the faintest resemblance to the real Ibsen. In brief, the mausoleum is a cenotaph.

My purpose in this paper is not critical but purely historical. I desire to give a few, a very few, specimens of the treatment accorded to Ibsen by the immense majority of the critics, and then to show, by means of a few facts and figures, that, despite these incessant thunders of condemnation, the works of Ibsen have met with very remarkable acceptance on the stage, and have, in book form, attained an astounding and, so far as I know, unprecedented success.

Except in one quarter, to be hereafter noticed, A Doll’s House, on its first production, was treated with comparative leniency. The acting was very highly and very justly praised. The critics, to their credit be it said, have all along admitted that Ibsen gives his actors incomparable opportunities - an odd characteristic in a dramatist so pitiably ignorant of the rudiments of his art. It is surprising - almost startling - to find that those who ventured to admire the play, apart from the acting, were already regarded as a sect of devotees. The term "Ibsenite" occurs in the first line of Mr. Clement Scott’s first notice. Whether he invented it I do not know; but whoever may claim the credit of it, this policy of treating the poet as a hot-gospeller, and those who took pleasure in his creations as adepts of some esoteric doctrine, was exceedingly astute, and its prompt adoption at the very outset of the campaign showed the truest tactical genius. Already in the fifth line of the same article we hear of "the amiable fads of the gifted author." How many thousand times has the word "fad," with its derivatives, been repeated in the same connection! Then, in a second article (Daily Telegraph, June 18, 1889), we learn that "there are already signs of weakness in the over-vaunted Ibsen cause. The Ibsenites, failing to convince common-sense people of the justice of their case, are beginning, as a last resource, to ‘abuse the opposing counsel.’ Hard words and ill names are flying about." The ground thus cleared, the writer proceeds to analyse the character of "the socialistic Nora". At the beginning she is "all heart like a cabbage," at the end, she is "a mass of aggregate conceit and self-sufficiency." And this "foolish, fitful, conceited, selfish and unlovable Nora is to drive off the stage the loving and noble heroines who have adorned it, and filled all hearts with admiration from the time of Shakespeare to the time of Pinero. ... The noble women of drama and fiction, the Andromaches and Penelopes, and the Iphigenias and Unas and Imogens and Constances and Jeanie Deans, are to be thrust aside for deformed and stunted and loveless creatures, whose unnatural selfishness the modern dramatist extols, and with whose puny natures the modern essayist professes to be in love!" Here already we have another feature of the opposition tactics fully exemplified - the trick of assuming that to admire Ibsen is to loath and despise all other dramatists from "Shakespeare to Pinero." It is an adroit and effective device, and has done good service in its day.

Other deliverances on A Doll’s House must be given more briefly: -
"By the new school of theorists the genre ennuyeux is assigned a place of distinction; for A Doll’s House, with its almost total lack of dramatic action, is certainly not an enlivening spectacle." - Times.
"It would be a misfortune were such a morbid and unwholesome play to gain the favour of the public." - Standard.
"Such a starting-point has dramatic possibilities. A Sardou might conceivably turn it to excellent account on the stage. .. It is simply as a mild picture of domestic life in Christiania that the piece has any interest at all. It is a little bit of genre painting, with here and there an effective touch." - Daily News.
"Of no use - as far as England’s stage is concerned." - Referee.
"Unnatural, immoral, and, in its concluding scene, essentially undramatic." - People.
"Ibsen … is too faddy and too obstinately unsympathetic to please English playgoers." - Sunday Times.
"Strained deductions, lack of wholesome human nature, pretentious inconclusiveness. .. Cannot be allowed to pass without a word of protest against the dreary and sterilizing principle which it seeks to embody." - Observer.
"The works of the Norwegian playwright are not suitable for dramatic representation - at any rate on the English stage." - St. James’s Gazette.
In these remarks, of course, there is nothing surprising, nothing excessive. I quote them merely to show how, from the very first, the public has been untiringly assured that it does not want Ibsen, and that his plays are tedious. Two years passed, during which only two Ibsen performances were given - one matinée of The Pillars of Society and one of A Doll’s House. All his prose dramas, however, had meanwhile been translated and published. Then, on February 23rd, 1891, Miss Florence Farr produced at the Vaudeville a hitherto unattempted play - Rosmersholm - and this time the critics spoke out with no uncertain note. Only one of them wavered, the critic of the Daily Telegraph, who admitted that "Say what we will about Ibsen, he unquestionably possesses a great power of fascination. Those who most detest his theories, his doctrines, his very methods of art, confess to a strange absorbing interest." These startling admissions were very far from finding an echo in the Press in general. If gall had been poured forth on A Doll’s House, Rosmersholm was douched with vitriol -
"A handful of disagreeable and somewhat enigmatical personages. … Ibsen is a local or provincial dramatist." - The Times.
"Impossible people do wild things for no apparent reason… Those portions of the play which are comprehensible are utterly preposterous… Ibsen is neither dramatist, poet, philosopher, moralist, teacher, reformer - nothing but a compiler of rather disagreeable eccentricities." - Standard.
"The brain-sick extravagancies of the Norwegian playwright." - Daily News.
"His play is morbid, in fact it is not a play but a tiresome exposition of a fantastic theory that no healthy mind can accept… Ibsenism, a craze happily confined to a few… Ibsen worship is a hysterical thing." - Morning Advertiser.
"A dreary and dismal function was that undergone at the Vaudeville on Monday afternoon." - Sporting and Dramatic News.
"A singularly gloomy and ineffectual function was that undergone at the Vaudeville on Monday afternoon." - Observer.
"Love, truth, religion, and self-respect have still some hold upon us, and it is hardly likely that Ibsen’s gloomy ideas will be generally accepted." - Morning Post.
"Mr. Ibsen’s silly sayings." - Evening News.
"The stuff that Ibsen strings together in the shape of plays must nauseate any properly-constituted person." - Mirror.
"Ibsen’s gruesome play… His repulsive drama… Greeted with the silence of contempt when the curtain finally fell." - People.
"Studies in insanity best fitted for the lecture-room in Bedlam… At the fall of the curtain there was loud applause, and but the faintest attempt at hissing." - Stage.
"The whole affair is provincial and quite contemptible." - Saturday Review.
"Mr. Ibsen does not call Rosmersholm a farce; but that is because of his modesty… To judge it seriously either as literature or as drama is impossible." - St. James’s Gazette.
"The style and matter of most of his work is always tiresome, frequently childish, and the subject often morbid and unwhole some … method tedious to the last degree of boredom. …Here and there he gives expression to pretty ideas, reminding me of Tom Robertson." - Punch.
"These Ibsen creatures are ‘neither men nor women, they are ghouls,’ vile, unlovable, unnatural, morbid monsters, and it were well indeed for society if all such went and drowned themselves at once." - Gentlewoman.
"Rosmersholm is not very dramatic. It is hardly at all literary… It is without beauty, without poetry, without sense of vista. It is not even dexterously doctrinaire… The farce is almost played out." - Mr. F. Wedmore in Academy.
"There are certain dishes composed of such things as frogs and snails, stews in which oil and garlic reek, and dreadful compounds which we taste out of sheer curiosity, and which, if we expressed our honest, candid opinion, we should pronounce to be nasty and unpleasant… Rosmersholm is beyond me." - Topical Times.
"To descant upon such morbid, impracticable rubbish would be an insult to the understanding of every reader, except an Ibsenite… If Herr Ibsen were well smothered in mud with his two creations and with every copy of his plays, the world would be all the better for it." - Licensed Victuallers’ Gazette.
Alas, poor Ibsen! It is well that he does not read English, else who knows but the disesteem of the Licensed Victuallers’ Gazette might drive him into his mausoleum in good earnest.

Less than a month later (March 13th, 1891) Ghosts was produced at the first performance of the Independent Theatre. The frenzy of execration with which it was greeted must be within the memory of all my readers. I compiled at the time a Schimpflexikon - a Dictionary of Abuse - which was published in the Pall Mall Gazette of April 8th under the title of "‘Ghosts’ and Gibberings."1I somewhat repent me of this title, which smacks of the controversial methods of the enemy; but the temptation was irresistible. The Schimpflexikon itself I shall not reproduce, but shall merely cull a few of its choicest epithets: Abominable, disgusting, bestial, fetid, loathsome, putrid, crapulous, offensive, scandalous, repulsive, revolting, blasphemous, abhorrent, degrading, unwholesome, sordid, foul, filthy, malodorous, noisome. Several of the critics shouted for the police. The critic of the Daily Telegraph, having repented his moment of backsliding over Rosmersholm, and recovered his moral tone, declared that "Ghosts might have been a tragedy had it been treated by a man of genius. Handled by an egotist and a bungler it is only a deplorably dull play. There are ideas in Ghosts that would have inspired a tragic poet. They are vulgarised and debased by a suburban Ibsen. You want a Shakespeare, or a Byron (!), or a Browning to attack the subject matter of Ghosts as it ought to be attacked. It might be a noble theme. Here it is a nasty and a vulgar one."

Nothing daunted by the tempest, Miss Elizabeth Robins and Miss Marion Lea produced Hedda Gabler only five weeks later (April 20th, 1891). This time the "suburban Ibsen," the "egotist and bungler," was found by the Daily Telegraph to have produced a "ghastly picture beautifully painted." "It was like a visit to the Morgue. ... There they all lay on their copper couches, fronting us, and waiting to be owned. ... There they all were, false men, wicked women, deceitful friends, sensualists, egotists, piled up in a heap behind the screen of glass, which we were thankful for. ... There were the dead bodies, and no one could resist looking at them. Art was used for the most baleful purpose. It is true that the very spectacle of moral corruption was positively fascinating. ... Would indeed that, after this Morgue inspection, after this ghastly spectacle of dead bodies and suicides, after this revolting picture of human frailty and depravity, there could be a break in the cloud. ... But alas! there is no gleam to be seen in the dark raincloud of Ibsenite pessimism! ... What a horrible story! What a hideous play!" Most of my readers are probably aware that there is only one dead body in Hedda Gabler, seen for something like a quarter of a minute just as the curtain falls. But what must the readers of the Daily Telegraph have gathered from the outburst I have just quoted? "I should like so much to see the piece you’re in," a lady said to Mr. Scott Buist, the excellent Tesman of the cast, "but I don’t think I could stand anything so horrible." "Horrible! How do you mean?" he inquired. "Why, you have the Morgue on the stage, haven’t you?" was the reply. And I have no doubt many thousands of people were under the same impression, on that 21st (not 1st) of April. The other critics, if less imaginative, were no less denunciatory.
"Ibsen’s plays regarded as masterpieces of genius by a small but noisy set of people, but ... the tastes of English playgoers are sound and healthy, and the hollowness and shams of the Ibsen cult need only be known to be rejected." - Standard.
"Dr. Ibsen’s social dramas have yet to prove their power to interest cultivated audiences; for the limited number of worshippers who proclaim these productions as masterpieces of art and stagecraft ... cannot be accepted as a fair sample even of the educated public." - Daily News.
"Robust common-sense of ordinary English audiences will confirm the adverse judgment pronounced upon the morbid Norwegian dramatist by all save a clique of faddists anxious to advertise themselves by the aid of any eccentricity that comes first to hand. ... Already, we fancy, the craze has had its day." - Sporting and Dramatic News.
"One left the theatre filled with depression at the sorry spectacle that had been set before them (sic)." - Reynolds’ Newspaper.
"A few steps out of the hospital-ward and we arrive at the dissecting-room. Down a little lower and we come to the deadhouse. There, for the present, Ibsen has left us. ... Miss Elizabeth Robins has done what no doubt she fully intended to do (!). She has made vice attractive by her art. She has almost ennobled crime. She has glorified an unwomanly woman," &c., &c. - Mr. C. SCOTT in the Illustrated London News.
"Hideous nightmare of pessimism... The play is simply a bad escape of moral sewage-gas. ... Hedda’s soul is a-crawl with the foulest passions of humanity." - Pictorial World.
"The piece is stuff and nonsense; poor stuff and ‘pernicious nonsense.’ It is as if the author had studied the weakest of the Robertsonian comedies, and had thought he could do something like it in a tragic vein." - Punch.
"It is not, possibly, so utterly repulsive as others that have been seen, but, nevertheless, it is offensive." - Lloyd’s News.
"The more I see of Ibsen, the more disgusted I am with his alleged dramas." - London.
"Utterly pessimistic in its tedious turmoil of knaves and fools. ... Other plays from the same tainted source." - The People.
"Full of loathsomeness." - The Table.
"Things rank and gross in nature alone have place in the mean and sordid philosophy of Ibsen. ... Can any human being feel happier or better from a contemplation of the two harlots at heart who do duty in Hedda Gabler? ... Insidious nastiness of photographic studies of vice and morbidity. ... It is free from the mess and nastiness of Ghosts, the crack-brained maunderings of Rosmersholm, the fantastic, short-sighted folly of A Doll’s House. ... The blusterous little band of Ibsen idolaters. ..." - Saturday Review.
"Strange provincial prigs and suburban chameleons. ... The funereal clown who is amusing us ... is given to jokes in very questionable taste. We are reminded again and again of Goethe’s famous stage direction, ‘Mephistopheles macht eine unanständige Geberde,’ and it is a coarseness of this sort which, I fear, constitutes Ibsen’s charm for some of his disciples. ... For sheer unadulterated stupidity, for inherent meanness and vulgarity, for pretentious triviality ... no Bostonian novel or London penny novelette has surpassed Hedda Gabler." - Mr. ROBERT BUCHANAN in the Illustrated London News.
And now, before passing on to examine the latest layer or story of the mausoleum - the onslaughts on The Master Builder - I wish to return for a little while upon the earlier layers, and look at some of the largest blocks or boulders, which I have hitherto purposely passed over. Speaking of the 1889 production of A Doll’s House, I said that the critics, with one exception, treated it leniently. The exception was the critic of Truth. This gentleman, as we shall see, announced himself from the first as a very malleus hereticorum, and kept up that character, with an ever-increasing fury of conviction, until - well, until about the time when Mr. Clement Scott departed on his journey round the world. It is commonly understood that Mr. Scott is the author of these articles. They bear the impress of his very characteristic style, and a public statement connecting him with them has elicited from him, not a disclaimer of their authorship, but an assertion of the sacred privileges of anonymity. Now, here I differ from Mr. Scott; I do not admit these sacred privileges. Whether a writer shall or shall not sign his articles is a question between him and his editor; but what he shall write, in unsigned no less than in signed articles, is a question between him and his conscience. I deny the right of any man to shirk responsibility for his words merely because he has not put his name to them. Anonymity should be rather an obligation than a privilege. If we must go forth to battle wearing the Cloak of Darkness, we ought, at least, to be doubly careful not to hit below the belt. I offer no apology, then, for quoting the following utterances as Mr. Scott’s, if indeed they are Mr. Scott’s. But as I read them over I can scarcely believe it. If they are not his - if he, or, in his absence, the Editor of Truth, will state in so many words that he did not write them - I will make the most public apology for having for a moment connected him with them, though I shall in fact have done him a substantial service in giving him this opportunity for such a disclaimer. Whoever may be their author, they certainly deserve to be immortalized among the curiosities of criticism. I regret that my own name figures so prominently in the first article of the series; but the reader will readily acquit me of quoting it in a spirit of vainglory. Further comment is unnecessary. I shall merely preface my extracts with a brief citation from an article signed by Mr. Clement Scott, in the Illustrated London News of February 28, 1891: "It seems to many of us a great pity that the discussion on Ibsen and all his works cannot be carried on with a little more exercise of temper and forbearance. It looks suspiciously like the knowledge of a weak cause when rude invective and coarse motive are flung at the head of any one."
"It was a great night on Friday for the Ibsenites. They were determined to worship at the shrine of their great apostle and saint. The erudite Archer had long ago been put forward, or had put himself forward, as the evangelistic herald to lighten our darkness, and to prepare the way of Henrik Ibsen in the dramatic wilderness. ... Certain Philistine heretics some five years ago had the temerity to lay their sacrilegious hands on A Doll’s House. ... Breaking a Butterfly was the result, and naturally the Ibsenites put the failure down to ‘Ibsen ruined.’ ... On this memorable occasion outspoke the erudite Archer ... and made one unfortunate admission. He declared, ore rotundo, that ‘Ibsen on the English stage is impossible. He must be trivialized.’ And Archer proved his case up to the hilt on Friday at the Novelty Theatre, where a scant audience of unnatural-looking women, long-haired men, atheists, Socialists, egotists, and Positivists, assembled to see Ibsen when nothing was eliminated that was satirical or unpleasant, and to gloat over the Ibsen theory of woman’s degradation and man’s unnatural supremacy. ... Ibsen is impossible on the English stage because he wants to preach nonsense and not to play sense. He is impossible because he is the idol of a clique of ‘faddists.’ ... It is well that Ibsen should have been exploited and exposed. ... By this time the Ibsen bubble must have burst, and a very good thing too." - Truth, June 13th, 1889.
"An obscure Scandinavian dramatist and poet, a crazy fanatic, and determined Socialist, is to be trumpeted into fame for the sake of the estimable gentlemen who can translate his works, and the enterprising tradesmen who publish them... The unwomanly women, the unsexed females, and the whole army of unprepossessing cranks in petticoats ... sit open-mouthed and without a blush on their faces, whilst a Socialist orator reads aloud Ghosts, the most loathsome of all Ibsen’s plays... If you have seen one play by Ibsen you have seen them all. A disagreeable and nasty woman: an egotistical and preachy man; a philosophical sensualist; dull and undramatic dialogue. The few independent people who have sat out a play by Ibsen ... have said to themselves, Put this stuff before the play-going public, risk it at the evening theatre, remove your claque, exhaust your attendance of the Socialistic and the sexless, and then see where your Ibsen will be. I have never known an audience yet that cared to pay to be bored." - Truth, March 19, 1891.
"THE IBSEN FOLLY. Has it never struck the enthusiastic opposers of ‘free theatres’ and ‘independent managers,’ and self-advertising Dutchmen, and Ibsenites generally, that they are giving quite unnecessary notoriety to a wave of human folly...? Outside a silly clique there is not the slightest interest in the Scandinavian humbug and all his works. The public at large knows nothing about him. If they ever take the trouble to listen to him, they will hiss him contemptuously off the stage. Those who read Ibsen, instigated by this absurd ‘booming’ of a very insignificant person, find him not only consistently dirty but deplorably dull. Now, if people like dirt let them have it. Let them feed on it if they care for it. The decent householder puts his garbage and offal outside the door, to be taken away by the scavenger in the morning. But some well-bred and educated dog is sure to rout over the pile and to bury his nose in the nastiest morsel. The better-bred and educated the dog, the more he relishes the worst scrap of carrion. This is human nature. But cannot we leave this muck-heap to the educated and muck-ferreting dogs? If we hunt the hounds away, they will always turn to the delightful pile again. … The scene between the Rank Doctor and the Squirrel Nora is too dirty for discussion by decent people. Apart from that bit of dirt the play is dull. There is a scene and countless suggestions in Rosmersholm ... that would be too gross for any respectable man to start as a discussion at any dinner-table where the sexes are mingled. Apart from that, the play is dull to the pitch of desperation. .. And as to Ghosts ... if certain eccentric women choose to rout in these muck-heaps, it does not much concern the general public. ... They all of them, men and women alike, Ibsenites and Socialists, know that they are doing not only a nasty but an illegal thing. .. The Lord Chamberlain wisely left them all alone to wallow in Ghosts ... What would have been the good to hunt away these educated individuals from the Ibsen dust-bin? They would all have returned to it again. They know it is nasty, and they pretend to conceal their love of nastiness with a love of literature. Literature, forsooth! Where, may I ask, is a page of literature to be found in the whole category of Ibsen’s plays? It is an insult to the word. Ibsen, so far as I can see, is a crazy, cranky being who has derived his knowledge of life from some half-civilised Norwegian village. ... He sees filth in his Norway society, and imagines that all the world is filthy as well. This is not philosophy, it is folly. To my mind, three things have been triumphantly proved by the recent performances: First, that Ibsen is no philosopher at all; secondly, that his plays are not literature; thirdly, and most important of all, that his so-called plays are dull to the point of desperation. ... Men ... and women ... came to see something spicy. .. They came to gloat, and they remained to yawn. ... I don’t think the fifty-shilling subscriptions will roll in very fast to the exchequer of the enterprising Dutchman, who has a soul for art, but also very keen eye to the main chance!" - Truth, March 26, 1891.
"There was only one thing to be done with Ibsen so as to popularise him with a set of boobies, and that was to treat him with religious fervour. This hoary-headed old atheist is the craze to-day in the same way that Oscar Wilde’s æstheticism was the craze a few years ago. ... At the command of the hack translators of Ibsen, they fall down at the feet of the cynical old preacher of Schopenhauerism, Voltairism, and pessimism! ... Listen to this old grey Norwegian wolf as he chuckles in his den. ... This is the art of Ibsen, to make us love the hideous, the ugly, and the depraved. Read the character of Hedda Gabler. ... She is a fiend in human form. She is a revolting, abominable, heartless woman. See her acted by Miss Elizabeth Robins! Do we hate her, do we despise her, do we condemn her? No; we admire her for her very wickedness. ... When art is the propagandist of faithlessness and lawlessness, it becomes a serious question whether Faith has not a right to look after its own creed, Morality its own mission, and the Law its own dignity." - Truth, April 30th, 1891.
"Mr. J. M. Barrie’s parody, Ibsen’s Ghost, came rather too late in the day, for poor old Ibsen is as dead as a door-nail. ... Nobody cared twopence for the Scandinavian playwright or all his wild romance, and no one would have heard of him had not the critics and crotchetmongers fought over his corpse. The coup-de-grace, if it were wanted, will be given by chaff." - Truth, June 4th, 1891.
"Old Ibsen is dead as a door-nail. He was a ‘bogey’ at the best - a turnip at the top of a long pole. ... But let not the satirists and burlesque-writers lay the flattering unction to their souls that it was they who killed this perky old Cock Robin. …" - Truth, June 11th, 1891.
These extracts are all from articles in Truth treating directly of Ibsen’s works, or of parodies upon them. They might be indefinitely extended if one included side-flings of similar "epieikeia, or sweet-reasonableness," from articles professing to deal with other topics.

We come now to the uppermost course (for the present) in the pyramid of invective. On the 20th of last February, Mr. Herbert Waring and Miss Robins produced The Master Builder at the Trafalgar Square Theatre, and this is how it was greeted by the Press: -
"Dense mist enshrouds characters, words, actions, and motives. ... A certain kind of interest in the Norwegian writer’s strange dramas. ... One may compare it, to put an extreme case, to the sensations of a man who witnesses a play written, rehearsed, and acted by lunatics." - Daily Telegraph.
"Assuredly no one may fathom the mysteries ... of the play, so far as it can be called a play. ... If it did not please, it most unquestionably puzzled. ... It is not for a moment to be understood that we personally recommend any one to go and see it." - Standard.
"Here we contemplate the actions of a set of lunatics each more hopeless than the other. ... Platitudes and inanities. ... The play is hopeless and indefensible." - Globe.
"People sit and make themselves think that it is great because they know it is by Ibsen. ... The same work with an unknown name they would most assuredly ridicule and hiss." - Echo.
"A feast of dull dialogue and acute dementia. ... The most dreary and purposeless drivel we have ever heard in an English theatre. ... A pointless, incoherent, and absolutely silly piece." - Evening News.
"Rigmarole of an oracle Delphic in obscurity and Gamp-like in garrulity. ... Pulseless and purposeless play, which has idiocy written on every lineament. ... Three acts of gibberish." - Stage.
"A distracting jumble of incoherent elements. There is no story; the characters are impossible, and the motives a nightmare of perverted fingerposts." - Saturday Review.
"Sensuality ... irreverence ... unwholesome ... simply blasphemous." - Morning Post.
"Dull, mysterious, unchaste." - Daily Graphic.
"A play to which even the Young Person may be taken with no more fear of harm than a severe headache. ... Ibsen is a master of the chaotic and meaningless epigram. ... Thrilling moments in last act marred by bathos. The rest idle babble." - Figaro.
"Presents human life in a distorted form, and is entirely without intelligible purpose." - Mr. MOY THOMAS in the Graphic.
"Same old dulness prevails as was the feature of his previous prosy pratings." - England.
"The blunder has been made. Master-Builder Solness has been played. ... Hilde Wangel is perhaps the most detestable character in the drama’s range ... victim of nymphomania (!) ... deliberate murderess ... mean, cheap, hateful, stands out in dishonourable distinctness." - Pall Mall Gazette.
"Ibsen has written some very vile and vulgar plays. ... The Master Builder bids fair to raise a mausoleum in which the Ibsen craze may be conveniently buried and consigned to oblivion." - Sporting and Dramatic News.
So much for the critical mausoleum. Was ever artist in this world denounced with greater fury, with more unwearying persistency? It must be remembered that I have only selected a few bricks from the pyramid. It would be easy to multiply such extracts twentyfold. "This is all very well," the reader may say, "but how about the other side of the case?" There has, of course, been a good deal of sane and competent Ibsen criticism during these four years, and some, no doubt, extravagantly enthusiastic. But both in bulk and influence the favourable, or even the temperate, criticism, has been as nothing beside the angrily or scornfully hostile. All the great morning papers, the leading illustrated weeklies, the critical weeklies, with one exception, and the theatrical trade papers, have been bitterly denunciatory. If, now and then, I have quoted from obscure prints for the sake of preserving some delicious absurdity of criticism, the great mass of my extracts have been taken from papers of influence and position. The upshot of the whole is that the "Scandinavian humbug," the "hoary-headed old Atheist," the "determined Socialist,"2 the "suburban Ibsen," is dull, dreary, dirty, dismal, and dead; that no one ever did take any sort of interest in his works; and that if the English public could possibly be got to pay the smallest attention to such an incurable "egotist and bungler," its healthy common-sense would rise up in revolt, and it would "hiss him off the stage." If hard words (and foul words) could kill, in short, how very dead Ibsen would be!

Let us see, now, how dead he is - first in the book market, then on the stage.

About four years ago The Pillars of Society, Ghosts, and An Enemy of the People were published in a shilling volume, one of the Camelot Classic series. Of that volume, up to the end of 1892, Mr. Walter Scott had sold 14,367 copies. In 1890 and 1891 the same publisher issued an authorised uniform edition of Ibsen’s prose dramas in five volumes, at three and sixpence each. Of these volumes, up to the end of 1892, 16,834 copies had been sold. Thus, Mr. Walter Scott alone has issued (in round numbers) thirty-one thousand volumes of the works of the man for whom nobody "outside a silly clique" cares a brass farthing. But these figures in reality understate the case. The "volume" is an artificial unit; the natural, the real unit, is the play; and each volume contains three plays. Thus we find that one publisher alone has placed in circulation ninety-three thousand3 plays by Ibsen. Other publishers have issued single-volume editions of A Dolls House, Ghosts, Rosmersholm, The Lady from the Sea, Hedda Gabler, and The Master Builder, some of which (and especially Mr. Heinemann’s copyright editions of the last two plays) must have had a very considerable sale. Thus, I think, we are well within the mark in estimating that one hundred thousand prose dramas by Ibsen have been bought by the English-speaking public in the course of the past four years. Is there a parallel in the history of publishing for such a result in the case of translated plays? Putting Shakespeare in Germany out of the question (and he has been selling, not for four years, but for a century), I doubt whether any translated dramas have ever sold in such quantities. Ibsen himself must have had a very large sale in Germany; but there his plays are to be had for threepence each, while here, on an average, they cost at least three times that sum. In English publishing, at any rate, such sales are absolutely unprecedented. The publishers to whom I proposed a collected edition of the Prose Dramas before Mr. Walter Scott undertook it, dismissed the idea as visionary, roundly declaring that no modern plays could ever "sell" in England; and, except in the one case of Ibsen, experience justified this assertion. It will be said that the works of the French dramatists, Dumas, Augier, &c., are not translated, because people read them in the original. But do there exist in England at the present moment one hundred thousand plays by all the modern French dramatists put together - Dumas, Augier, Sardou, Meilhac, Labiche, Gondinet, and all the rest? I very much doubt it. Of course, it would be folly to deny that the very frenzies of hostility above exemplified have defeated their own ends and helped more than anything else perhaps to arouse and sustain public interest in Ibsen. But when did deserved denunciation ever secure popularity for a writer? If a book is dull, and the critics say so, people will not find it interesting out of sheer perversity. Not until criticism, in declaring a writer tedious, prosy, "dull to the point of desperation," contradicts itself on its very face by the eager emphasis of its invective, does the public begin to wonder whether the dulness which so potently excites the critics may not have in it some stimulus, some suggestion, in a word some interest, for the general reader as well. It is quite true, as the publishers assured me, that for fifty years or more the English public had lost the habit of reading plays, and that to many people the unaccustomed dramatic form is in itself an annoyance. Yet in spite of this draw-back, in spite of the foreignness of Ibsen’s subjects, his atmosphere and his point of view - in spite, too of the loss in sheer beauty of style which he necessarily suffers in translation - the fact remains that 100,000 of his plays are at this moment in the hands of the reading public. Whether the interest in his works will wax or wane no one can predict. For the present it shows no symptom of flagging. But even if it were to fall dead to-morrow, I think it will be admitted that these 40,000 volumes,4 these 100,000 plays, form a tolerably handsome "mausoleum."

Now as to the stage - but before stating the facts of the case let me suggest a few preliminary considerations. Except in omnivorous Germany, have translated plays ever been known to take very deep root on a foreign stage? In adaptations there has been for centuries a brisk international trade - the French have borrowed from the Spaniards, we and all the world from the French, and so forth - but translations have been few and far between. In England least of all have we shown any appetite for them. Even of Molière we have made, for the stage, only crude and now almost forgotten adaptations. Since, then, Ibsen - translated, not adapted - has met with some acceptance in the English theatre, that fact is in itself practically unique. If he had indeed been "impossible" on the English stage, he would have had as companions in impossibility Corneille, Racine, Molière, Marivaux, Hugo, Musset, Lessing, Goethe, Schiller, Lope, and Calderon;5 no such despicable confraternity. As a matter of fact, and in the face of the unexampled tempest of obloquy in the Press, seven of his plays - not adapted, but faithfully translated - have been placed on the English stage. If our theatrical history presents any parallel to this, I shall be glad to hear of it; I can certainly think of none. "This is all very fine," cry the adversaries, "but we do not deny that there is a ‘silly, noisy, &c., &c., clique of faddists’ who applaud these productions. What we maintain is that the great public, the paying public, will not have Ibsen at any price." It is undoubtedly true that the compact majority of the critics has done all that lay in its power to frighten the paying public away from any theatre where Ibsen is being played; and their invectives, though they doubtless cut both ways, have on the whole tended to diminish the chances of pecuniary success. Especially effective has been the persistent accusation of "indecorum" - an accusation which cannot but be injurious in a country where the theatre is so largely a family institution. The cry is beginning to lose its effect, for open-minded playgoers, who have braved the warnings of the Press, have discovered for themselves that of all writers for the stage Ibsen is the farthest remote from any taint of lubricity. It is certain, as the critic of Truth puts it, that any one who has gone to the theatre with the view of "gloating over" his improprieties, must have been grievously disappointed. But a superstition so adroitly implanted and sedulously fostered takes time to die, and thousands of people are doubtless kept away from Ibsen performances by the notion that they are not entertainments "to which a daughter can safely take her mother." Yet in spite of denunciation and misrepresentation, Ibsen’s plays have by no means made the pecuniary fiasco industriously predicted and insinuated by the hostile critics. It is true that (apart from The Master Builder6 which, as I write, is still being performed, so that its balance-sheet cannot be finally made up) I know of only one instance in which any very considerable profit has been made out of an Ibsen production; but taking the others all round, he may fairly be said to have paid his way and a little more. Of the production of The Lady from the Sea at Terry’s Theatre, I know nothing, and do not include it in my calculations. Ghosts, again, has never been licensed, so that no money has been taken for its two performances. As to the five remaining plays I am enabled to state with tolerable accuracy the total amount paid by the London public in order to see them on the stage, between June 7, 1889, and March 18, 1893. The public, says the critic of Truth, will not "pay to be bored," but somehow or other they have paid £4,876 to be bored (and of course bewildered, nauseated and all the rest of it) by Ibsen. Of these five plays The Pillars of Society was played only once and Rosmersholm twice to receipts amounting in all to £276. Thus it appears that for the privilege of being bored by the "prosy prating" of A Doll’s House, the "Morgue inspection" of Hedda Gabler, and the "unchaste drivel and gibberish" of The Master Builder, the London public (who "will not have Ibsen at any price,") has paid, up to March 18, the pretty handsome price of £4,600. 7

Let me not be understood to put this forward as, in itself, a very imposing result. I know that a successful production at a fashionable West-End theatre will draw as much money as this in a single month. But consider the circumstances of the case! Here are a set of foreign plays, representing society in a small and little-known country; not adapted, but translated; not produced at leading theatres with the prestige and popularity of the actor-managers to support them, but acted under all sorts of disadvantages at second-rate theatres,8 by actors (in many cases) comparatively unknown to the great public; bitterly denounced and ridiculed by the vast majority of the Press; and yet, in the face of all these difficulties, making so much financial success as fairly to pay their own way, and leave a margin over! In the case of Hedda Gabler the margin was a very large one. The nett profit on the ten matinées, after all expenses paid, amounted to £281, or an average of £28 on each performance - a rate of profit which the most prosperous actor-manager would scarcely despise; and, when the play was put in the evening bill, it drew houses which, under ordinary circumstances, would have been fairly remunerative, though, as the manager had to pay two sets of salaries (to the Hedda Gabler company, and to the regular company of the theatre, who were meanwhile unemployed), he could not run it beyond a month. What becomes, then, of the assertion that "the public will not have Ibsen at any price"? Does it not rather seem that there is a public, and not a very small one, which will have Ibsen at any price, despite such a chorus of critical anathema as was never heard before in the history of the English stage?

I am far from predicting that Ibsen will ever be really popular on the English stage, though such a prediction would seem less extravagant to-day than the prediction of the success he has actually achieved would have seemed ten years ago. It is possible, as a French critic, M. Doumic, has recently been arguing, that "a certain mediocrity" is essential to great popular success on the stage. I have very little doubt that criticism will soon come to take a saner view of his works, and that they have a certain future before them even in the theatre. It is scarcely to be expected, however - it would contradict all experience, here and elsewhere - that they should take deep and permanent hold upon the English stage. Scarcely to be expected, and scarcely to be desired; for no theatre can for long live healthily on imported material. Each nation should produce, in its own theatre, its own criticism of its own life. Criticism of life from a foreign standpoint, and illustrated by foreign examples, may be very interesting and fascinating, but cannot, in the long run, satisfy our souls. I look forward to a time when Ibsen, having completed the work which many even of his enemies admit that he has well begun, of lifting the theatre on to a higher intellectual plane, shall himself be heard no more, or heard but rarely, upon the English stage. By that time, in a certain sense, this great Master Builder will have built his own mausoleum; but not a mausoleum of oblivion. It will tower aloft, like Hilda’s castle, "with the vane pointing upwards at a dizzy height"; and, looking up at it, we shall seem to hear harper i luften - "harps in the air."

WILLIAM ARCHER.


P.S. This article was in type before the recent series of Ibsen performances at the Opera Comique was so much as thought of, and while Mr. Beerbohm Tree’s production of An Enemy of the People at the Haymarket was still in the vague future. The Opera Comique performances resulted in a clear profit, and I believe Mr. Tree has, up to the present, had every reason to be satisfied with the financial result of his experiment.


Notes:

(1) Reprinted in part in Mr. G. Bernard Shaw’s Quintessence of Ibsenism.

(2) He is just as much of a socialist as Mr. Herbert Spencer is - that is to say, the very reverse of a socialist. But these nice distinctions are beyond the critical intellect.

(3) This of course includes sales in America and the colonies; but as a matter of fact the great bulk of these editions has been sold in the United Kingdom.

(4) Mr. Scott, as aforesaid, has sold over 31,000 volumes, and we may quite safely assume a sale of 9,000 for the six single plays issued by other publishers.

(5) The deplorable perversions of Faust, and the crude melodramas made out of one or two of Hugo’s plays, must certainly be reckoned as adaptations, not translations.

(6) "That Mr. Ibsen’s fantastic balderdash has been supported during the present week by playgoers who have paid to see it, I decline to believe." So says the indefatigable "Rapier," of the Sporting and Dramatic News (March 4th). It was "supported," and liberally supported, by the paying public. Does "Rapier" think it a quite legitimate trick of the fence to make injurious inuendoes on matters of which he knows nothing? Another paragraphist, pursuing the same magnanimous tactics, states that to his certain knowledge the receipts have at their highest never risen to a sum to which, as a matter of fact, they have at their lowest never fallen. Such are the methods of anti-Ibsenism.

(7) Performances at the Crystal Palace are included in this calculation.

(8) The first, and very successful, production of A Doll’s House took place at the Novelty Theatre, a house utterly unknown to the majority of playgoers, and hidden away in a by-street on the very confines of theatrical civilization. The Vaudeville, where Hedda Gabler was produced, has been, and is, a popular theatre, but scarcely with the class of playgoers to whom Ibsen most directly appeals. The Trafalgar Square Theatre, where The Master Builder was produced, is one of the pleasantest and best-appointed houses in London, but has the disadvantage of being quite new. It takes the public a long time to discover the existence of a new theatre.