Jasminka Markovska

          The Danish critic Georg Brandes, who was Ibsen’s contemporary, labelled him as “one of the modern minds that made the modern breakthrough.” (McFarlane and Bradbury 1976 : 43) The 19th century writers and thinkers were not aware of modernity or modernism as we perceive it, simply because they were the anticipators, or rather, the initiators, of what will later become the complex modernist constellation of aesthetic movements in the first half of the 20th century. The first use of the term modern has been noticed in the 5th century, in order to signify the new coming times of Christianity as opposite the former Roman pagan times. (Habermas 1983 : 3) Christopher L.C.E. Witcombe (2000) shows how art critics referred to their contemporary artists as ‘modern’ ever since  the 15th century, giving the example of Cennino Cennini who was referring to Giotto as modern in 1437, as well as Giorgio Vasari who “writing in 16th-century Italy refers to the art of his own period as ‘modern.’” Witcombe posits ‘modern’ as an art historical term that is generally and roughly used to signify the artistic creation (in style and ideology) in the period from 1860 to the 1970’s. He clarifies that the “term ‘modernism’ is also used to refer to the art of the modern period. More specifically, ‘modernism’ can be thought of as referring to the philosophy of modern art.” (Witcombe: 2000)
          James McFarlane gives biographical facts about Ibsen’s awareness of the coming new times, of “the new era,” and of his own role in its forming:
It has been said that I too, in our countries, have taken a lead in contributing to the creation of the new era. I believe, (…), that the age in which we live might just as well be described as an ending, and that from it something new is on the point of being born. Indeed I believe that the doctrine of evolution and as it is in the natural sciences is valid in the cultural aspects of life. I believe that the time is immanent when the concept of politics and the concept of society will cease to exist in their present forms, (…), poetry philosophy and religion will merge into a new category, a new vital force, of which we who are living today have no understanding. (Ibsen in McFarlane 1979 : 157)

In fact, Ibsen and Brandes were supporting each other on this creation of the new era, believing in one another to be one of the first ones to act in the world towards it becoming reality. In order to do this, Ibsen advised Brandes that one has to

          Subvert the concept of statehood; make free choice and spiritual kinship the sole essentials for union and you have a start of a liberty that is worth something. (…) Yes, dear friend, all that matters is not to be frightened by the venerableness of the institution (…) What is there, fundamentally, that we are obliged to hold fast to? Who can guarantee me that 2 and 2 don’t make five on Jupiter? (Ibsen in McFarlane 1979 : 164)

          As a pioneer of the modern industrialized new era Ibsen shows remarkable awareness for the role he was playing in its forming. His words cited above show a strong idealism and they are written in a prophetic style, with a hope in the new times that were supposed to change humanity in its core. However, what McFarlane also points to is that in fact, Ibsen was supporting, motivating, and pushing Brandes towards acting in the battle for the new era more than he was acting publicly on it himself. According to McFarlane, Ibsen didn’t feel enthusiastic about joining parties, public projects, speeches, “any kind of oratorical posturing” and he even wrote to Brandes that having friends prevents from spiritual development. Ibsen insisted on aloneness and isolation for the purpose of spiritual development because contact with others implies having to oblige to courtesy and politeness that prevent one from being one’s self. (McFarlane : 168) Ibsen was avoiding being a public figure and conforming to the performative standards of a public person, but he couldn’t avoid being modern, (simply because the public liked him) and he couldn’t escape the modern(ist) thinking.
          The two most common understandings of modernity are differing in their attitude to time: one possible understanding of modernity is as a form of life, meaning that to be modern at all times is a prerequisite for being contemporary, fashionable, current, in a here-and-now space, and the other common understanding of modernity is as a period in history that encompasses the historical time and all the events since the renaissance. (Jervis 1998 : Introduction) Modernity was unwrapping and developing differently in different parts of Europe, as well as in the States. As a sublimation of these two ways of understanding modernity, John Jervis suggests that modernity is:

the experience of the world as constantly changing, constantly engendering a past out of the death of here and now, and constantly reproducing that here and now as the present, the contemporary, the fashionable. …the past is inert and the future is unreal: what is real is the momentary experience of the ‘now’, as it moves from an unrealized future into a lifeless, shadowy past. The ‘eternal in the transient’ is perhaps the eternal, recurrence of the transient itself. (Jervis 1998 : 6)

          This notion of the world as constantly changing could have developed only with the abandoning of the Middle Age concept of the world as a pre-determinate order where everything is fixed and fatalistically unchangeable, as well as with the development of the sciences and the discoveries of the new worlds. This definition of modernity is rooted in the present, in the moment, in constant adaptation and change. These adaptation and changes are especially short-lived, various and many in the modern period. To remain modern, a person is required to always be ready to perform right, to stage and shift the self. To choose the clothes one is wearing, to pick the words one is using, even to the way one holds one’s body – all this requires learning, adopting, adapting, constant changing.
          The period from 1850 to 1950, most commonly referred to as late modernity, is the period when the world experienced the first rapid changes of the fast and massive industrialization, the new means of transport and production, the quick and ever faster changes of fashions, moods and styles, growth of population and cities, the development of media and public transportation (like the railways and the trams, for example, the emerging of the telegrams, etc.). This is also the period in which Henrik Ibsen appeared and became fashionable and modern. The meaning of the term modern as Georg Brandes had used it refers to the changes that were apparently completely new at the time Ibsen was writing, compared to other writers from the same period and compared to the established tradition before Ibsen. Ibsen was also referred to as modern by German writers that were active in the same period. In fact, he was so modern in Europe, especially in Berlin, that there was an almost established ‘Ibsenism’.

Ibsen, Ibsen everywhere! There’s nothing like it! Over the whole globe Ibsen fever rages. The whole world is Ibsen-mad, even though unwillingly, for the entire air is full of Ibsen-germs! No salvation! Fashions and advertisements, everywhere proclaim Ibsen’s name, trumpet his praise. On cigars, ladies’ trinkets, pastries, bodices, ties is flaunted the world in letters of gold: Ibsen! A la Ibsen! (McFarlane 1976 : 112).

These are the words of a small rhyme (the rhyme is lost in translation) that was being recited in the streets of Berlin after the performance of his plays in the theatres. Pamphlets and various manifestos were popping out in late 19th and early 20th century Europe, proclaiming aesthetics, styles of life and behaviour, moral and ethic values, poetic guide-lines, visions and prophecies. This appraisal of Ibsen is very similar to the appraisals that the later modernists (the surrealists, the Dadaists and the futurists are the most typical examples) were writing for the purpose of spreading their own fashions. In the ending passage from the Manifesto of Surrealism (1924) by Andre Breton, one can observe the same rhetoric that opposes art/poetics to nature. While the Ibsen lovers of the late 19th century were using the rhetoric of natural sciences and evolution as a metaphor for the growing popularity of Ibsen, the surrealists themselves were trying to chase away natural existence and take over the world with their art and poetics. They were desperate to erase reality, nature and natural sciences and change the world-view of humanity.
          What is important in the emerging of such pamphlets and manifestoes is the ‘prescription’ for being modern, the announcing of the fashions, the description and the performing of ‘style’. What can also be read from these pamphlets and manifestoes is awareness and praising of artificiality, turning to culture, neglecting nature, or using it for the purpose of emphasizing culture.

…Surrealism is the "invisible ray" which will one day enable us to win out over our opponents. "You are no longer trembling, carcass." This summer the roses are blue; the wood is of glass. The earth, draped in its verdant cloak, makes as little impression upon me as a ghost. It is living and ceasing to live which are imaginary solutions. Existence is elsewhere. (Breton 1924)

The opponents mentioned in the excerpt above are no others than the realists of the 19th century, as well as the realists’ vision of the world, and Ibsen was considered to be their leading representative.

          Ibsen was a canonical figure in England, overshadowing Strindberg, who remained “a secondary figure” in comparison. (Rem 2004 : 150) He influenced writers such as James Joyce and Henry James. James admired the difficulty of understanding in Ibsen’s work, and implemented this in his own works. (Ewbank 2002 : 25). In 1900, as a young admirer of Ibsen’s work (he was only eighteen) James Joyce wrote a review on Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken. He was  fascinated by the freshness and actuality of the play. Shaw was also a big admirer of Ibsen and an advocate of the social, political and economic aspects of his work, writing several works related to him, The Quintessence of Ibsenism being perhaps the most famous one. The works of Ibsen were massively read and reproduced, and very influential on the public life of late 19th century Europe and the States. Ibsen was very contemporary modern.
          In his biography of Ibsen, Robert Ferguson demonstrates how much Ibsen was modern and famous at the time he was preparing and writing his dramatic Epilogue, his last play. By the end of 19th century he had become a public figure, a star, and in his honour “even the ships at the harbour were flagged.” (Ferguson 1996 : 412) Royalty and other famous artists and culture-related public people from all over Europe were greeting him and celebrating his birthday in 1898, and he had to make public appearances and speeches. Later that same year in Copenhagen he was chased by an admiring and overwhelmed crowd that had recognized him, and in their show of admiration tattered his clothes. In order to calm them down, Ibsen was forced to make a public bow and ‘expose’ himself, similarly to a royalty or one of the big stars of the present. (Fergusson 1996 : 414)  He had become a powerful public figure, and he had to continuously keep up with this role, aware of what he had become and how it impacted his private life. Ibsen had to constantly perform in public, in front of his audience.
          Before he became famous, he went on a voluntary exile from his own country in Europe, abandoning his roots and his family for more than two decades, while constantly contemplating on Norway and measuring its values on the axis of the private self-family-society relation. In a letter to Bjornstjerne Bjornson from 9\10 December 1867 he points that he had not returned back to his birth place because of not being understood, but that this not returning is a bad way of leading a life:

Jeg har Rett till at sige Dig dette; thi jeg ved at jeg under Skorpen af Vrovl og Svineri har v?ret alvorlig i min Livsforelse. Ved Du at jeg har for hele Livet trukket mig bort fra mine egne For?ldre, fra min hele Sl?gt, fordi jeg ikke kunde blive staaende i et halvt Forstaaelsesforhold? ¬ (Ibsen 1867)

Ironically, his last twelve plays are all in some extent a representation of particular aspects of the new bourgeois family and the new bourgeois home, and they are all situated in Norway. In all of the plays there is a character that is not understood or accepted by his environment. It is as if Ibsen was following a typical modernist obsession coming from the need for understanding the role of the individual in a family and in the fate and the structure of the new society. At the same time, he was also obsessively rejecting interpretations of his work and any ideological etiquette. The story of Ibsen is one of fall and rise, and his story was known to the public contemporary to him. When finally he returned to Norway, Ibsen was well-established, wealthy and popular, and he fit and performed his person in order to support this image. To be modern in this sense, in the sense of popularity, means being public. The public show of a modern person has to be staged in order to cover up the private person that becomes specifically interesting because it is the most vulnerable part of one’s self.
          The private life of a person needs protection not only in the cases of popularity. The need for protection of the private life is a consequence of the changes in the modern times that created a dichotomy between the private and the public. A private thing is something that doesn’t belong to the outside world and that is not free for everyone to touch and see. A private space is someone’s home. The private life, in this sense, is the part of life reserved for the family, the close circle of friends, it is the life outside the public obligatory work in offices and with strangers. Through his works Ibsen shows how the efforts to protect and isolate the realm of the family and the private self from the insecure outside, as well as from the past can lead to isolation of reality and a life spent in a constant “white lie” situation. This life and this lie are not satisfactory and are constantly threatened by the parallel fear of the discovery of the secrets and the real truth about a person’s life.

          In his early years, Ibsen and his family were victims of the economic uncertainty so typical of modern times; their history is a typical tale of decline. As a result of this situation his father was abusing alcohol, while his mother and his sister became piously religious and introverted. His brothers went to the New World to search for their good fortune and prosperity.  The person Ibsen, before he left Norway, was not performing successfully in public and in society, he was not famous, his works were not acknowledged. His family was also not performing successfully and in the eyes of the public, they were a failure. They failed to adapt to the changes that the industrial and capitalist market imposed on society in the age of modernity.
          Ibsen himself as a very young man conceived an illegitimate child with a much older woman from a lower class. In a manner similar to the one of avoiding his own family, he avoided seeing his son or talking about him. Mohr emphasizes that he “…was not merely an author but a creator of myths,” (Mohr 2005 : 35) referring to his untrue statement for the declaration of paternity. This ability and need for creation of myths, or appearances, personas, performatives, or performances is one of the dominant characteristics of the modern times. It is a necessity that protects and shows the abilities of the fittest. It is what Ibsen tried to avoid by not posing, but what later inescapably filled his life. The bitter experiences that the young Henrik Ibsen had in connection to the security of family life and intimacy are reflected in his social dramas, from The Pillars of Society to The Wild Duck. However, even in the more psychological – oriented ones afterRosmersholm, Ibsen poses the problem of the truth about social and external reality as destructive for the constructed peace and security of the family and the self. The realism of Ibsen’s modern drama lies in this representation of the impact of society on the bourgeois family, shifting the interest from the folklore-based story to a shocking depiction of reality. However, as James McFarlane points out, modernism brought the awareness of the individual and the struggle to state and implement individual truth, for the purpose of uncovering the false nature of established “truths”. (McFarlane 1976 : 80) And this is also a large part of Ibsen’s posing topics. “Ibsen er kunstneren som borger.” (Osterberg 2000 : 201)
          In connection to realist drama, J.L. Styan explains how the realist dramatist of the 19th century, despite having to represent real life situations had to also portray the middleclass and their life, even when it meant writing a plot with events that do not “normally” happen in an everyday life. The real purpose of the dramatist was to bring the plots and the general interest closer to the individual, the family, the relations of the individual with society and the surrounding.  (Styan 1981 : 5)
          Erik Osterud sees Ibsen’s realism as transparent, as something that is merely there to get the effect of reality, as a convention that he used because of belonging to the modern times and following the current convention of realism and naturalism. He assumes a double meaning coming from Ibsen’s works, which is achieved by allowing a “sacred drama, a drama of myth and ritual ceremonies, to be housed with another drama, a drama of modernity. ” (Osterud 1994 : 162) By introducing sacred drama that is framed by mythical, magic and religious intertexts, Ibsen was in fact responding to the insecure and changed fate of the modern human. Modernity was cutting of the connections to tradition, to established rules, concepts and determinism, and as a result of this there was an emerging need for re-confirming one’s position in the world, for a repetitive re-establishing of truths.

Modernity cultivates the utopian perspective, it wants the new, even the shockingly new, to be released from the present moment. The sacred drama on the other hand works with a different set of concepts. (…) In Ibsen’s plays these two dramas confront each other. As they have opposite conceptions of the present moment, they fight each other. The sacred drama attacks the actual flux of life from behind in an attempt to link what is to what has been: time should not change! The drama of modernity puts a strong and never-ending effort into freeing the present moment from the tyranny of tradition in order to change what is to what shall be: to be is to become! (Osterud 1994 : 163)

          The modern realist drama was pointing to the audience the complexity of the private-public relations, the insecurities of the modern times. The space that is left for the plots and events that do not “normally” happen is exactly Ibsen’s strong and attractive side, it is the point where his realism is spiced up with issues and techniques that bring him closer to modernism. It is also the space where deep buried psychological issues and mechanisms appear on the stage. It is the space where the search for the true self begins, the place where the public life appears only as a threat, as a controlling mechanism, and where the questions fall not on the social purpose and the pragmatism of the human, but on his very essence and his true desires. It is the space where psychological reflexivity enters Ibsen’s works, as a result of the psyche’s need for security.
          R. Sennett reminds that “the artfulness which is squandered in self-absorption is that of playacting; playacting requires an audience of strangers to succeed, but is meaningless or even destructive among intimates.” (Sennett 1977 : 28-29) Playacting means that a person adopts a certain role that has to be put on and acted out properly in order to be believed that it is ‘natural.’ Thus, the individual that is playing a role can be accepted as a ‘genuine’ person. This understanding of social, public life brings it very close to the structure of theatre. It also connects to Osterud’s pointing to the sacred drama as strive for re-establishing order and tradition, since, like in sacred rituals, the public roles are continuously repeated and re-evoked, and, like in rituals, they are known, recognizable, limited and conventional. And the success of their performing is dependent of the successful re-performing. However, among intimates, this kind of public performing is destructive, because the private life is expected to be the field of the spontaneous and the natural.
          The idea of social life as theatre is not new, nor specifically and exclusively inherent to modernity. There are three common purposes that this idea serves: the purpose of introducing illusion and delusion as fundamental questions of human life; it separates human nature from social action (i.e. puts into light the difference between an illusion and a belief); and it creates the images of this theatrum mundi as reflections on the art people exercise in ordinary life as actors, as playing roles. (Sennett 1977 : 35) These roles that people should play are determined by conventions, fundamentally grounded in public life. These same conventions are the safe prescription for acting properly, the most reliable thing about public life, while at the same time they are what oppresses and restricts individuality, expression and intimacy the most. They are the real creators of the gap between the private and the public, a gap that became an obvious problem in the age of modernity and the new capitalist society. The problem of the public-private relation in the bourgeois capitalist society is a persistent topic in Ibsen’s works which won the immediate attention of the wider European and American public of the late 19th and early 20th century.
          This immediate influence of the dramatic works of Ibsen was felt in most of the Western European cultural centres. In the introduction of the reader on European and Nordic Modernisms (2004: 12-13), Nordic modernisms, and especially Ibsen, are presented as to have responded to European modernism in an active way by contributing to the development and spread of modernist ideas. The implication of this statement is that there was an existing European modernism at the time that Ibsen was writing. However, this was not the case. Modernism in Europe started to develop with and after the emergence of Ibsen, Strindberg, and a whole set of other writers in different genres. Nordic modernism, on the other hand, comes to its full development and growth much later, in the first half of the 20th century, after the influence of the big European literary movements, or all the  –isms of the early 20th century.
          According to The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, modernism in literature “reveals a breaking away from established rules, traditions and conventions, fresh ways of looking at men’s position and function in the universe and many (in some cases remarkable) experiments in form and style.” (Cudon 1999 : 516) In the same edition, Ibsen is presented as a key figure that favored realism, (732) and as the founder of naturalist drama (Cudon 1999 : 538).

          However, it would be a mistake if one fails to mention that he was also breaking the rules of established naturalism and realism by introducing romanticist and modernist elements in his works, by commencing myth, folklore, and hints of the supernatural. He presented new points of view to accepted and commonly established norms of cultural, social, aesthetic, religious and moral issues, uncovering the truth about human relations grounded in power, the bourgeois ideal of the home, the family, the new capitalist society, the artistic ideal.
          The recent book of Toril Moi (2006) demonstrates and explains how Ibsen’s formal techniques and innovations in playwriting, his “self-conscious metatheatrical reflections” (Moi 2006 : 2) as well as his choice of topics and problems are clear signs of modernism. She rejects the most commonly established opinion of Ibsen as only a realist, or even naturalist, and shows that there is a need for a new and fresh look at these categories. Moi opens her book with a discussion on the ambiguous position that Ibsen has within the defining limits of modernism by pointing to the curious fact that although Ibsen’s works are in the common curricula for studying modernism in the dramatic arts, he is usually not claimed to be one of the first introducers of modernism in drama. Rather, he is considered to be a rather vague and boring figure, a necessary, but not interesting link in the historical chain that leads to the birth of the many European modernisms of the first half of the 20th century. She explains this to be a result of the “specific set of aesthetic beliefs” (Moi 2006 : 2) of the post World War Period that completely rejected romanticist idealism as well as later realism and was turned solely to the poetics and aesthetics of the developed modernisms of the early twentieth century.
          Historically and aesthetically, Ibsen was raised in the tradition of romanticism, and he stopped writing just before the fruitful emerging of many of the European forms of modernism. Therefore, it is natural to look at his work as the link between these two aesthetic paradigms, and to look at him as an in-between-periods writer that cannot be placed totally in one or the other concept, but can be understood as having his own unique poetics and aesthetics that encompasses elements from romanticism and announces issues of modernism while using realist techniques and settings. Therefore, I am inclined to call Ibsen’s specific modernism proto-modernism, since it is not modernism in the purest sense of the word, nor does it fit historically into the period of the blossoming of the many modernist movements. In fact, the modernists were always denying and throwing of Ibsen as a realist, as boring, and they were establishing their set of aesthetic guides and beliefs on this basis of the rejection of realism. This attitude is what Moi labels as ‘modernist ideology.’ (Moi 2006 : 2)
          The later modernists were more oriented towards aesthetic criteria that praised artificiality, meta-artistic and otherworldly qualities, they were experimenting radically with the formal aspects of art, as well as language, they had an increased interest in madness, pagan religions and cults, distant civilizations, childhood and mystery – the everyday, reality, and even art was banal if it was not aestheticized, changed, or mystified in some way. Language had to be fragmented, distorted and sometimes meaningless, the family was not considered as a high value by modernists - they were mostly in search of extraordinary experiences, and humanity was mostly seen through scopes of utopia or dystopia. Ibsen was presenting real life problems, the family and the everyday as something that is under a threat from the early capitalism, he was concerned with the changes that the modern times impose on the self, he was self-reflexive and considerate of the common and the everyday. He was observing and noticing the changes that the modernists are a consequence of, and, as Osterud suggests, he was also introducing modernist aesthetic techniques and criteria. On the formal level, he shows more inclinations towards innovations and experiments as his writings develop. His last plays are the ones that are closest to modernist aesthetics in this sense. While his are mostly reactions to the melodramatic conventions, the modernists’ reactions are against realism and realistic presentation. Therefore, Ibsen can not be labelled as a pure modernist, but as a proto-modernist, as a crossing, transitory bridge from romanticism to modernism.


          In “Anticipations of Modernism in the Age of Romanticism” (1985), Brian Rowley emphasizes the fact that both romanticism and modernism appeared at the end of a century – romanticism at the end of 18th, and modernism at the end of 19th century. The concept of ‘the turn of the century’ is usually marked as a period when change is ‘naturally’ expected. Therefore, paradoxically, change usually ‘naturally’ arrives at turns of centuries. When change is present in the general expectations of a nation, a culture, or all humanity, change actually occurs, inspired by the idea that it can happen. Change at the turn of centuries is a performed phenomenon, a public construct. Usually it is connected to apocalyptic visions and prophecies (it is enough to think of the recent ‘millennial bug’ concept that was supposed to bring the performance of computers to a global collapse just before the New Year 2000 and the amount of attention and belief this idea attracted), but it can also be connected to positive utopian visions (like the idea of the New Age).
          Fritz Paul connected the fin de siecle mythem with the metaphysical landscapes in Ibsen’s later plays and with representation of space and the vertical scheme of climbing and falling in his later works.

The experience of space and height, the acromanic aspect as passion is carried over in process of visualisation typical for the fin the siecle; it also attains central importance in the dramas of Maeterlinck, Strindberg and Chekov. Seen in the context of the period, it is no accident that the attempt of the main characters to repeat the ascension of the tower or the mountain ends catastrophically; transcendence can only be experienced in radical negativity. One sees in this, besides the modish cultural pessimism and decadence of the turn of the century, that consciousness of the existential crisis of the secularized man, that characterizes the often puppet like figures of the drama. (Paul 1994 : 18)

Fritz Paul is inclined to look at the turn of the century only from the pessimistic point of view and neglects some of the utopian images, like the futurists had, for example. He calls Ibsen’s attitude when writing When We Dead Awaken a “paradoxical, metaphysically founded anti-transcendentalism” that reflects “not only the departure of the 19th century, but also the arrival of the 20th.” (Paul 1994 : 30) Similar is Simon William’s reading of degeneration as the dark side of progress in Ibsen’s plays, as a result of the forces of nature and society that are always influencing the human with diversely intentioned forces. As a result of this, the modern society is plundered by (sexual) degenerative, even daemonic forces of nature, and since women are the temptresses for sexual pleasures, Williams sees that

Ibsen’s later plays are centred around two conflicts, the need for the individual to hold balance between the demands of convention and the promptings of nature, and, more personally for him, for the creative artist to reconcile the necessity of forcing the vital stuff of life into form with his recognition through the eyes of woman that violates the stuff of life. The human condition is extraordinarily tense. The mind is no longer a tightly structured unit, parameters of experience cannot be clearly defined, masculine identity, formerly so sure and defined, is now ductile in the hands of woman (…) but the moment the tension snaps and the individual surrender to one or the two forces pulling him, disaster is inevitable.”  (Williams 1985 : 257)

This disaster that Williams connects to the degenerative force of the modern times is actually the disaster of nature and impulses overrunning culture (in the Freudian tradition culture is a systematic restrain of the drives). The turn of the century is a return to nature, i.e., to the culture-destructive degenerative forces, and when the (male) character (like Anton Rubek, or Solness for example) gets driven by these forces in the effort to “rich the peak of his creative and sexual potential” he inevitably ends with death. In his reading of the degenerative forces of nature in Ibsen’s late work Williams concludes that Ibsen suggests that man was the one who was holding “the balance between degeneration and impossibility of fulfilment and growth. If he surrenders to either, he is lost. Life and art, society and nature, morality and biology can never be reconciled.” (Williams 1985 : 257)

          Lisbeth P. W?rp finds the fin de siecle, negative attitude in all of the characters in When We Dead Awaken, and points to the simple fact that the play is located at places that imply sickness and recovery – at a spa, at a sanatorium. She reads the play itself as a criticism of two utopian visions that the characters in the play are allegorizing (personificating) their ideal to be. All of the characters are split in some way in the play. “Det gjor de ved hjelp av to forskjellige utopier, som imidlertid begge er varianter av myten om et bedre liv, et paradis, nemlig myten om det naturlige liv (Ulfhejm og Maja) og det lovede land (Rubek og Irene). Men begge avslores som illusjoner. De er og blir myter eller utopier.” (W?rp 1999 : 119) For Libeth P. W?rp, this play’s purpose is to show the irony of the hope in a new life, in a new world, to parodize the dream-visions of the perfect life and the perfect world. The play is not a disillusionment drama, but it is a play that denies the possibility of a disillusionment. “Troen pa at illusjoner kan forkastes en gang for alle, er jo ogsa selv en variant av paradismyten, idet ogsa den gir (falske) forhapninger om et bedre liv uten illusjonenes forblindelse.” (Warp 1999: 120)
          At the end of the 19th century, the industrialization and the new technological discoveries were a part of the utopian vision that was going to change humanity (most radically embodied in futurism). In Ibsen’s works, this idea is embodied best in the character John Gabriel Borkman. The play John Gabriel Borkman was written in 1896, 3 years before When We Dead Awaken, and it depicts ruins of love and a whole family that come as a result of the utopian dream of industrialisation. John Gabriel Borkman ends as a deluded, half-mad and isolated character that had the capitalist dream of industrialization and profit as life-dream. “Unlike Shaw or Brecht, Ibsen’s study of the finance capitalist is unconnected with any program for restructuring society. Instead, more like Shakespeare and Moliere, he accepts the organization of society as it is, and lets the lives that result speak for themselves” (Fjelde 1978 : 939) As Fjelde notices, the myth of the utopia of industrial capitalism and the possibilities it brings is deconstructed by Ibsen who was able to see through its illusion.
          According to Rowley, romanticism and modernism are also associated with “decisive political change” (Rowley 1985: 17), romanticism with the French revolution, and modernism with the decay of the upper class in Europe and the beginning of alliances between states that led to the First World War. Romanticism and modernism were also characterized by a “dissolving of reasonable expectations” (Rowley 1985: 17), meaning that both of the movements, in their own way, were concerned with topics spanning from real to unreal, reason to psyche, logic to illogic. The early capitalist times were times of great instability and changes, because the world was not used to analyzing the new capitalist market. Every investment was made on chance, and therefore people were gaining or loosing in a radical fast paste. One could become very wealthy or very poor overnight. “Respectability founded on chance: that is the economic fact of the 19th century which was associated with a demography of expansion and isolation.” (Sennett 1977 : 139)
          In A Singular Modernity (2002) Fredric Jameson finds that “the only satisfactory semantic meaning of modernity lies in its association with capitalism,” and he rejects any singular and definable, ‘correct’ use of this word and its meaning that is outside an analyses of capitalism’s emerging and its impact on society. (Jameson 2002 : 13) He discards analyses based on subjectivity, i.e. on the psychological changes of the subject as the construct of the modernist ideology. Modernity as a concept discussed by modernists “…is itself modern, and dramatizes its own claims,” and the theory or modernity established by modernists is “itself little more then the projection of its own rhetorical structure onto the themes and content in question: the theory of modernity is little more than a projection of the trope itself.” (Jameson 2002 : 34) Jameson poses modernity as a construct that is itself consisting of the constant repetition of the general characteristics of modernity - through analyses of the world and various art works created in the age of modernity modernists were confirming the basic characteristics of modernity. What Jameson also suggests with this view on modernity is that modernity and modernism was in fact performed by modernists, that it was a prescription, a trope that was constantly iterated to the point of cliche. That is why he throws off the theories and presumptions that function as a confirmation of the performative guidance that this trope offers, and suggests to look at the social and economic changes that led to the forming of the trope, instead of repeating it over and over.


          Modernity and modernism were trying to break with their predecessor – romanticism. Freedom, or libertinism, was the real big issue of the modern times: freedom from the Church and its clerics, freedom from the landlords and feudalism, freedom of the individual. The belief in this freedom is what caused the emergence of capitalism – the freedom to earn and change one’s class on the basis of the capital one owns. Individuality was also a new concept, typical for early capitalism – and one that our contemporary society is based on as well: all modern people prefer to be seen as individuals, and lack of individuality is perceived as a form of imprisonment, or as a lack of character. At the same time, the effort to achieve individuality brings a sense of not-belonging and alienation, a specific melancholy mood and a sort of a chronic existential crisis for the modern person. The failure of the effort to achieve individuality and personal freedom meant not performing being modern correctly and successfully, it meant an unsuccessful performance of the modern times. In the early capitalist times these processes and the need to keep up with the modern paste changed society radically. The technology and the machines that were the crucial factor for the industrialization processes and led to forming of corporations also played a crucial factor in these processes. And in these processes lies the root of McKenzie’s triple understanding of performance (of culture, of the market, of technology).
          Ibsen came from a family conditioned by the result of these processes, and because of this, he had felt the consequences of “the drama of modernity” (Nygaard 1997) in a personal and severe way. As it is emphasized in the edition on Henrik Ibsen’s early childhood,Growing up in Skien,


many Ibsen’s dramas open precisely with the first Act set in an idyllic bourgeois living-room behind the curtains. Then the disaster is played out. The threats manifest themselves. The characters are confronted with experiences they had hoped to forget. Security is lost, feelings are given free rein. Then a thousand disguises are donned in order to preserve self-esteem.”  (Mohr 2005 : 20)


In this excerpt by Mohr the ideals of the bourgeois home are analyzed as under the threat of being uncovered as what they really are – only ideals. That is why the ideal had to constantly be performed, be repeated, preserved. The bourgeois ideal was part of the performance stratum of 19th century, it was covering reality and had to performed, shown to the public, and the ‘thousand disguises’ were ‘donned’ in order to preserve it. The need for this preservation comes from the psyche, from the need for stability, ‘to preserve self-esteem,’ but it is ultimately shaped by the cravings of society and its need for the individuals to perform correctly and efficiently so that it can function and preserve itself.
          Ibsen was presenting families and individuals on the edge of their economical, psychical, as well as physical fall, thus raising issues connected to the establishing of the new bourgeois values and the insecurity and danger of the early modern capitalist times. The melancholic reaction to the loss of the wealth of his family that took place in his early childhood can be read in the pessimistic attitude in his works towards the real background of the new bourgeoisie that does their best to preserve the newly acquired wealth and position in society. Experiencing the ugly side of industrialization and modernization, Ibsen was critically positioned towards the consequences of these changes of the public life on the private realm of the family, and even more on the private self. Richard Sennett looks at the bourgeoisie as the new critical class in an undergoing process of establishment everywhere around Europe. As much as the countries and their own bourgeoisie were differing from each other, still the “cosmopolitan bourgeoisie took on in the last century some of the characteristics of an international class; it was not the proletariat of the industrial countries which did so.” (Sennett 1977 : 137- 138)

         This new bourgeoisie was favouring realism, both in the dramatic arts and in the prose writings, as well philosophies that were dissecting nature and society in a positivistic manner, and it was obsessed with issues such as determinism, heredity, environment, evolution, Darwinism and the relation between the individual and the environment. Idealism in the romantic sense was rejected as non-pragmatic. In his book on literary realism and the idea of determinism, Man and Society in Nineteenth-Century Realism, Maurice Larkin shows that Ibsen, similarly to Buchner and Flaubert, rejected the feudal-times concept of determinism because it gave too little freedom to man’s actions by forcing the idea of a pre-given destiny, completely putting chance and arbitrariness aside.
          The abandoning of the concept of determinism is crucial for the modern times and for the emerging significance of performance and performativity. The abandoning of this concept brings the freedom of changing and adopting new identities, of performing differently in society, according to the social and cultural circumstances. In Ibsen’s works it is society that is corrupting and turning the human towards pathological actions, and the corrupted and distorted qualities are after transferred to the younger generations through the laws of heredity and nature.

Ibsen’s dramatic use of congenital syphilis [in Ghosts] is primarily a symptom and a symbol of the insidious influence of provincial hypocrisy and narrow mindedness…Ibsen saw the individual frustrated at all levels of society, including the narrow intimacy of the family…Yet the play [A Doll’s House] is not primarily concerned with women’s emancipation as such: it is a study of the individual as victim of society’s assumptions. (Larkin 1977 : 185)

In this respect, perhaps a rare example of society having a positive effect on ‘deterministic hereditary madness’ in Ibsen’s work can be seen in Ellida Wangel, who conforms to society’s rules and the conventional marriage. This helps her to overcome the madness that originates in her constant contact only with nature and the inherited narrative of the suicidal nature of her mother. Her isolation and the life in the lighthouse can be seen as a factor that only served to emphasize the irrational, inherited side of her character, and her willingness to come in contact with society and to accept the roles of a mother and a wife serve as an escape from this plunging in the forces of the environment. In a sense, it is as if the contact with society had awakened Ellida to struggle against the assumptions of the presumed hereditary madness. Ibsen shows how the individual has to be aware of the social environment and the accusations and threats it brings, and as a solution he points that the only way to remain a self within society is by adopting awareness of this dialectical relation, not by plunging in one’s own personal world away from society, or by defying and battling society’s rules without being aware of their mechanism and their impact on the self.
          The portrayal of Ellida Wangel, (as well as of Nora Helmer) shows a growth from a situation of performing a role without awareness to accepting reality as it is. The case of Ellida Wangel is especially complex because of her ‘madness.’ All the other characters in the play perceive Ellida as mad, and she also performs madness for them. It is unclear how much she really is not well, and how much she is performing not to be well in front of others. She is repetitively performing a bathing ritual in which she waits for the sea to bring to her the man she longs for, the mysterious stranger, and than suddenly changes her mind and decides to learn how to be a mother and a wife when she is offered freedom to choose her own future. She was horrified of the power that men wanted to impose on her, both her husband and the stranger, and when she felt that she is left to choose freely, she made the choice that was more secure. She chose bourgeois reality.

          ELLIDA. [to the stranger] Your will hasn’t a shred of power over me…
          ELLIDA. Oh, don’t you understand that the change came – that it had to come – when I could choose freedom?
          WANGEL. And the unknown – it doesn’t attract you anymore?
          ELLIDA. It neither terrifies nor attracts. I’ve been able to see deep into it – and I could have plunged in, if I’d wanted to. I could have chosen it now. And that’s why, also, I could reject it.
          ELLIDA. Oh, I don’t know what to say. Except that you’ve been a good doctor for me. You found, and you dared to use the right treatment – the only one that could help me.  (Ibsen: 687)

          The solution she comes to is sudden and unexpected, but she mentions the awareness of her own attraction by the unknown as the main reason for it. Ellida praises her husband, Dr. Wangel, as a good doctor for her, who dared to use the right treatment. It is ambiguous how she knows what the right treatment for her is and how she accepts it immediately. She accepts being given freedom (the same freedom that Nora allows to herself when she leaves the home of Torvad Helmer), but it is as if she is knowingly staging herself in order to be given that freedom. Her husband is her doctor, her psychologist, the one that helps her to ‘acclimatize’. However, it is her that helps him to ‘acclimatize’ to her freedom as well. The older gentleman she is married to performs the role of a tutor, a teacher, a psychologist, a father-like figure before he really can become her husband. He ‘saved’ her from poverty when they married, and then he ‘saved’ her from madness when she accepted him. After his role of a saviour was performed successfully, he can approach her.
          In this play we see the characters struggle to learn how to perform being a family, and how they finally learn how to ‘acclimatize’ to one another, thus denying and breaking out of determinism and determined roles. What is of importance is that the breaking out of determinism and determined roles is done by learning and performing new roles consciously. The need to learn new performatives comes from the need for survival in society – in its very last essence this need is determined by financial existence. And here lies the critical message on the power relations of society in Ibsen’s works.
          One of the socially and culturally ‘determined’ roles of the pre-modern times, especially in romanticism, was the role of the artist. The artist was idealized as a channel of divine messages that were transcending the boundaries of limited human nature. The artist was seen as if gifted with a natural and inborn, determined inclination and sensitivity for these divine messages. In their turn, these messages were thought of as serving the purpose of elevating humanity. This concept was also abandoned by Ibsen, and the artist and the problem of the artist’s nature are the main topic of his last play, When We Dead Awaken. Toril Moi sees the beginning of modernism in the abandoning of this concept of the romanticist idealism. The concept of the romanticist idealism refers to art as a materialization of three qualities: beauty, truth and goodness, and was not really referring to art as an object of the market. However, the modern times also brought the change of looking at art as belonging to the industrial society and the market, and they changed the idealised status of the artist. This can be clearly observed in Ibsen, who at the beginning of his carrier was writing plays that fit the romanticist’s ideals and literary conventions, while at the end he was writing plays that were very close to the modernist aesthetics. According to Toril  Moi, to “trace Ibsen’s aesthetic transformations [means] to trace the birth of European modernism,” (Moi 2006 : 67)
          In the centennial edition of Ibsen’s collected works there is mentioned a connection between Brand (one of his first plays) andWhen We Dead Awaken (his last play). Ibsen had seen one of his first plays just as he was writing his last:

I Kobenhavn fikk Ibsen for forste gang i sitt liv se <> opfort; stykket gikk pa Dagmarteatret med Martinius Nielsen i hovedrolen. Til skuespillerinnen fru Oda Nielsen, skuespillerens hustru, sok dikteren satt sammen med under forestillingen, sa han: <> i tredve ar >> - (se Politiken 20. mars 1928  s. 6.). Folk, som stod n?r, har fortalt at Ibsen la vaken natten etter forestillingen og arbeidet med ideen til sitt nye skuespill, til <>. (A. Fibiger: Henrik Ibsen s. 14 in Seip 1936: 191),

notes Didrik Arup Seip in the Introduction (Innledning) to the play. Although this is not a sufficient proof to claim that When We Dead Awaken and Brand are connected, the reflection of the older play in the more recent one is very obvious in the ending of the two plays. Brand was written using romantic conventions, When We Dead Awaken using realist and modernist techniques.

          Because of his in-between position towards romanticism and modernism, or what Toril Moi calls ‘romantic idealism’ and ‘modernist ideology,’ Ibsen’s works manifest a specific double scepticism: scepticism towards the possibility of completely expressing the idealist’s creative urge and strive as an effort to achieve elevated being, as well as scepticism towards the possibility for the idealist to find complete meaning and fulfilment in the realists’ focus on the everyday, the family, and society. Ibsen’s specific aesthetics, or his own specific proto-modernism, his very own form of idealism and realism are a path for understanding the establishing of the European modernisms, and a clue for understanding his works. Moi analyses the works of Ibsen in the light of the two traditions of romantic idealism and modern realism and comes to the conclusion that

Ibsen’s contemporary plays are concerned with the difficult task of finding a way to honour the dreams of creativity of revolutionary romanticism while at the same time neglecting idealist aesthetics. At his most optimistic, Ibsen thinks that our best chance of expressive freedom and of love comes in ordinary human relationships. At his most pessimistic, he shows that precisely those relationships can easily become the source of desperate meaninglessness. At all times, however, Ibsen sees that both the longing for the (romantic) absolute and the disappointed, sceptical recoil from that longing are essentially destructive. (Moi 2006 : 13)

The ‘sceptical recoil’ from the longing for ideals originates in the new attitude towards art and the artist that the new industrial reality and the new view on the world imposed, and this topic is also present in his last play ,When We Dead Awaken. It is this play that best shows Ibsen’s attitudes to being modern (in the meaning of popular), a to being a modern man (in the meaning of contemporary) and a modernist. It is also the play that shows the attitudes to idealism and the idealized image and self-image of a man – I read a remarkable analysis and a warning of the dangers of aesthetic idealisation in it. But this warning can come only when aesthetic idealisation had become outdated, not fashionable, old – with the coming of the new, late modern industrialised times. Not only that he was one of the first to acknowledge history in his own life time, but Ibsen was one of the first that acknowledged the structure of the coming ones. And he presented it in his works.


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