Ibsen’s ‘Little Eyolf’

Ibsen’s ‘Little Eyolf’

This is preeminently the age of the Novel; and yet, in spite of the popularity of that form of literature, there are some readers (I avow myself one) to whom the Novel is far less congenial, far less instructive, than the Drama. There is no scope in the Drama, as there is in the Novel, for diffuseness on the part of the author or laziness on the part of the reader; each must brace himself to his work, and do it in the most concise manner in the least possible space. Nothing more erroneous has ever been written of the relative functions of the Drama and the Novel than what Richard Jefferies wrote in one of his own very feeble romances. “It occurred to me,” he says, “how happy the dramatist must be, since he places his hero and heroine in living shape at once before you. The unfortunate narrator is not permitted these advantages. It takes me pages upon pages to describe a single character, and then very likely you do not see half what I had hoped you would see. This is very hard upon me, I think. Could you not let me write my scenes one after the other, and supply the connecting links out of your own imagination, as you do on the stage?”

But the facts of the case belie Jefferies’ assertion. If the dramatist is in any sense more “happy” than the novelist, it is only in this, that he is severely saved, by the very conditions of his work, from that temptation of wordiness into which the novelist so commonly falls; he has no choice but to “consume his own smoke,” so to say, to do his tedious descriptive business in private, and behind the scenes, to convey by a single pregnant sentence or word what a novelist may lazily loiter over for half a chapter. The Drama, unlike the novel, is a condensation, a quintessence; it gives us, instead of statements, hints—brief suggestive touches instead of detailed pictures. Without dogmatizing, it may be said that the Drama and the Novel appeal to different orders of intellect—the Novel to those readers who are of a full and capacious habit of mind, the Drama to those who are by nature spare and thrifty, who believe in the simplification of literature no less than the simplification of life. To such, if they read it aright, the work of Ibsen is a very precious study.

Every great writer has to fight his way to fame through barrier after barrier of stupidity, prejudice, and misunderstanding; and Ibsen, like Shelley and Whitman and Thoreau, and other master-minds of the modern democratic movement, has had to take his full share of obloquy. For example, “Ibscenity” was the humorous term employed at one time by a certain weekly paper, in its disreputable efforts to brand as “obscene” the plays of this most dispassionate, self-controlled and conscientious author; and, as usually happens in such cases, the critics, into whose little ready-made compartments Ibsen did not fit so charmingly as, let us say, Mr. Hall Caine, have been more at fault than ordinary people. Time, and the inevitable growing recognition of a great genius, have now to a large extent softened down the asperities of reviewers; but there is still a lingering idea in some quarters, a solace much clung to by certain sinking reputations, that “Ibsenism” is a “passing craze,” the ephemeral fad of a degenerate and decadent age, which cannot survive the sober verdict of criticism. Precisely the same thing has been said before of “Whitmania,” and doubtless the same will be said again hereafter of whatever new intellectual “cults” may be successively developed. Herein is the misfortune of the Old, that it will seldom give way quietly to the New, but will insist on furnishing distressful proofs of its own dotage and decrepitude.

The recent performance of “Little Eyolf,” Ibsen’s latest drama, at the Avenue Theatre has given a fresh impetus to the so-called “Ibsen question,” and has brought a renewed opportunity to those hapless persons who are constitutionally unable to understand a great new dramatist, of showing their profound pity for the deficiencies of—Ibsen. Take, for example, the dramatic critic of the Times, who expresses the opinion (November 24th) that “Little Eyolf,” is “a perplexing phantasmagoria, which, still less than the majority of its predecessors, deserves the name of a public entertainment.” Well, certainly, one would not choose the term “public entertainment,” which seems more applicable to a city dinner or the Lord Mayor’s Show, as the best possible description of a drama by Ibsen; but when the same wiseacre goes on to remark that “it is hard to guess upon what principle or with what object such a work as ‘Little Eyolf’ is written, and that “Little Eyolf interests the spectators much as the other Ibsen plays interest him; he sees on the stage a set of irresponsible people, moved by unaccountable impulses and addicted to fantastic views of duty—there is no knowing what they will do next,” we cannot but feel that it is the critic’s own intelligence, rather than the dramatist’s genius, that is arraigned. “The strangest of all spectacles,” continues the Times, with reference to the guarantee fund by which provision was very properly made for the performance of “Little Eyolf,” “is that of a master whose works are unable to secure the paying support of the public to whom they are addressed.” So far, however, from being the strangest spectacle, this is one of the commonest, and may be paralleled by the case of Browning or Meredith, or any great original writer who, instead of finding a ready-made public, has had slowly to make his own public for himself. We have only to look at the works which most easily secure the “paying support” of the public, to see what is the value of such a testimonial on the intellectual side! Judged by this criterion, a Drury Lane pantomime is a great dramatic masterpiece; while “Rosmersholm,” or “The Wild Duck” or “Little Eyolf” is very small game indeed.

“Little Eyolf” belongs, like its immediate predecessor, “The Master Builder,” to the more esoteric and mystical order of Ibsen’s plays, as compared with such a “social” drama, for example, as “The Pillars of Society.” It is true that for those who are content, like Mr. Gosse, to take Ibsen superficially, as simply the dramatic artist who portrays with consummate fidelity scenes of local Norwegian life, the story of “Little Eyolf,” divorced from any profounder meaning, is tolerably plain; but then it is not very rational so to divorce it from what is felt, by the sympathetic reader, to be the essence of the work. It is a property of every great artistic achievement, as of life itself, thus to have an outer and an inner significance, which stand each to each somewhat in the relation of body and spirit—the one dear and indubitable, a common possession of all intelligent readers, the other vague and indeterminate, admitting all sorts of conflicting theories and speculations. As to the relative “importance” of the two meanings, it is a mere battle of words. The near is always in a sense more important than the remote, as being elementary and indispensable; but in another and deeper sense we are more concerned in the shadowy intimations of the spirit than in the material realities of the body.

In “Little Eyolf,” as in so many of Ibsen’s play, an intense interest is concentrated in a small circle of characters. Alfred Allmers, a cold unimpassioned man of letters and of “phrases,” has just returned from a holiday among the high northern mountains, with a resolve that he will henceforth devote himself, even at a sacrifice of his literary ambitions, to being a true father to little Eyolf, his crippled child, whom neither he nor his wife, the jealous passionate-hearted Rita, has ever really understood. The first Act leads up to the death of little Eyolf through the agency of the “Rat-Wife,” an old woman who goes from house to house to rid folk of rats, and any “gnawing things” that may be troubling them. Eyolf, lured by the fascination of this mysterious personage, follows her secretly to the pier as she rows away across the fiord, and then, turning giddy, falls into the water and is drowned. But though little Eyolf thus early disappears, his personality dominates the drama throughout; for the child’s loss is the means of awakening husband and wife to the reality of their position—their true relations towards themselves and towards others. In a succession of terribly impressive scenes, which only Ibsen could have conceived, ruthless revelation is made of the insincerity of that sexual love which turns in a moment to hatred, and of the parental affection which has been deficient in true sympathy with the living, and is scarcely unselfish even in its sorrow for the dead. Meantime in strong contrast with the undisciplined sensuous character of Rita stands that of the calm sweet-souled Asta, the supposed half-sister of Allmers, the former “Eyolf” and close companion of his early years. She has but just discovered that there is no blood-relationship between them, and this discovery, when shared by Allmers, gives a momentary revival to the bond which he now perceives, too late, to have been the one true affection of his life, and then, by Asta’s retirement, leaves him to face the future, as well as he may, with Rita and his own remorseful thoughts. At the end the two find their comfort in the growth of a larger love, which prompts them to fill little Eyolf’s vacant place by taking to their heart the poor neglected children of the hamlet at their gates; and thus the drama, after passing through stage after stage of poignant sorrow and antagonism, closes on a note of quiet peace and resignation. Here are the concluding lines, in the words of Mr. William Archer’s exceptionally admirable translation:—

Allmers. We have a heavy day of work before us, Rita.
Rita. You will see—that now and then a Sabbath peace will descend on us.
Allmers. Then perhaps we shall know that the spirits are with us.
Rita. The spirits?
Allmers. Yes, they will perhaps be around us—those whom we have lost.
Rita. Our little Eyolf. And your big Eyolf, too.
Allmers. Now and then, perhaps, we may still, on the way through life, have a little passing glimpse of them.
Rita. Where shall we look for them, Alfred?
Allmers. Upwards.
Rita. Yes, yes—upwards.
Allmers. Upwards—towards the peaks. Towards the stars. And towards the great silence.
Rita. Thanks!

Such is the story which the Times reviewer finds a “perplexing phantasmagoria,” but which to less exalted critics is full of strongest thought and subtlest intimation. Nor can it be doubted that it contains much of symbolic import, as in the repeated references to the hidden sorrows of life (in this case the child Eyolf himself), the little things “that keep nibbling and gnawing” until the Rat-Wife removes them; to the crutch, emblem of the crippled outcome of a too sensuous love; to the mountain solitudes, the region of high faith and self-forgetfulness; and, above all, to the sympathetic bond between sister and child, between “big Eyolf” and “little Eyolf,” in which there seems to be a hint of some strange spiritual affinity transcending the parental relationship.

That “Little Eyolf” is in the very front rank of Ibsen’s plays I do not think: it is not equal to “Rosmersholm,” or “The Lady from the Sea,” or “The Master Builder,” or others that might be mentioned. But it has much of the fascination that belongs to Ibsen's best work—the keen analysis of motive and character that is a ceaseless intellectual delight, and the glimpses of pure poetic feeling that break out, here and there, even in the sternest of these dramas. For Ibsen is not merely the merciless analyst that he is often represented; he has at times, and always at the right times, passages that breathe a tone of serene tenderness and beauty, the more tender, perhaps, because of their rarity and self-restraint:—

“As gentle as Dante the poet, for only the lulls of the stress
Of the mightiest spirits can know it, this ineffable gentleness.”

“Little Eyolf,” a Play in Three Acts, by Henrick Ibsen. Translated from the Norwegian by William Archer. (Heineman, 5/.)

Henry S. Salt

Vegetarian Review, December 1896