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by Robert Brustein

The Revolt of Henrik Ibsen


In 1869, Henrik Ibsen, then forty-one, paused in his dramatic labors to compose a short poem. He had left his beloved Rome just one year before to settle in Dresden (he was to remain in exile from Norway until 1891), and he had just completed his first mature realistic prose play, The League of Youth, after having established his reputation as the author of Brand and Peer Gynt. Since The League of Youth contains strong satire on the hypocritical opportunism of the contemporary Scandinavian Liberal, critics were beginning to charge Ibsen with having joined the Conservative faction. The poem—”To My Friend, the Revolutionary Orator”—is addressed to one of these critics, and is a polemical defense against the current charges. In these verses, Ibsen affirms that he is still a perfervid revolutionary—but he then proceeds to distinguish his own revolt from anything in recorded history. All previous revolutions, he declares, were compromised by their incompleteness—even the Flood, the most radical revolution of all time, left a few survivors aboard Noah’s ark. For him, on the other hand, nothing short of total revolution will suffice: “Your changing pawns is a futile plan;/ Make a sweep of the chessboard, and I’m your man.” Intoxicated by an uncompromising vision of absolute freedom and purity through a total purge of existing life, he announces what he sees as his own part in this revolution: “With pleasure I will torpedo the Ark!”

Torpedo the Ark! No wonder Georg Brandes—Ibsen’s friend, advisor, and best contemporary interpreter—thought him the most radical man he had ever met. Discontented with everything but a new beginning, Ibsen finds it impossible to identify with any existing parties, systems, or programs, or even to ally himself with any existing revolutionary principles. His revolt, in short, is so individualistic that it transcends politics entirely. We would do well to remember, should we ever be tempted to regard Ibsen as the champion of such things as women’s rights, divorce, euthanasia, or cures for syphilis, how sublimely indifferent he is to social amelioration or political reform. As he writes to Brandes two years later, “Yes, to be sure, it is a benefit to possess the franchise, the right of self-taxation, etc., but for whom is it a benefit? For the citizen, not for the individual.” The distinction he makes here is plain, and Ibsen’s own sympathies are undisguised. The citizen is domesticated man, the agent of existing institutions, who identifies his needs with the needs of the community as determined by the compact majority: Karsten Bernick, Torvald Helmer, Pastor Manders. The individual is revolutionary man, superior to all confining social, political, or moral imperatives, who finds his purpose in the pursuit of his own personal truth: Pastor Brand, Doctor Stockmann, Master Builder Solness. In Ibsen’s mind, these two types are like slave and master, so fundamentally opposed that a victory for one is inevitably a defeat for the other, so that the citizen’s rights are always attained at the cost of the individual’s freedom. Ibsen may possess, in his drama, a highly ambiguous attitude towards his rebel heroes, but on this question there is no doubt where he personally stands: self-realization is the highest value, and if this conflicts with the public welfare, then the public welfare can go hang.

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