Among epidemic maladies the passion for theatrical management ranks with the influenza. It would be unfashionable not to be attacked by it; the patients friends can only hope that the attack will be a mild one. The latest addition to the list of distinguished victims is Miss Ellen Terry, and in her case the symptoms may seem at first sight unusually alarming, for she has not only gone into management, but gone in for Ibsen. Her numerous friends may, however, be reassured. The Ibsen she has gone in for is not the Ibsen whose «social» dramas have given several worthy gentlemen cause for much uneasiness Ibsen Ibsenissimus but the earlier Ibsen of the romantic period Ibsen «caught young» the Ibsen, in fact, of 1858, author of The Vikings at Helgeland. This work is a Scandinavian saga or hodgepodge of sagas turned to dramatic uses, after (if it was not before) part of the story had been turned to musical uses by Richard Wagner.
Given the epoch about A.D. 933 it seems the spectator is prepared for a good deal of violence. He certainly gets his fill of it. High-tempered ladies quarrel like fish-fags about the physical prowess of their respective husbands, whom they appraise as though they were prize-fighters. If we have counted aright, at least nine persons of high social standing, not to reckon a miscellaneous crowd of retainers (or «house-carles»), come to a violent end between the rise and fall of the curtain. Roof-trees are burned, swords flash, axes are brandished, and arrows hurtle through the air. This is called, in the language of the piece, «going a-viking,» which seems to have been the equivalent for going a-mafficking in A.D. 933. Domestic differences are (as usual) the cause of all the mischief. Gunnar has wedded Hiördis by fraud. The man who would win her had to slay the white bear which guarded her virgin bower; Sigurd the Strong did the deed, but his friend Gunnar, the Comparatively Weak, took the credit by private arrangement and the bride. Sigurd then paired off with the gentle Dagny. But in due course the truth came to light, as the truth in such matters generally does. It came to light at what should have been the festive board, had not Hiördis proved an extremely unpleasant hostess. To begin with, Hiördis so taunted young Thorolf, Dagnys brother, that, in a frenzy, he misled her into supposing that his father, Örnulf, had slain her only child, Egil. Thereupon Gunnar took an axe and clave Thorolfs skull in twain and at the very next moment Örnulf entered with Egil, whom he had saved from some wicked peasants. Not content with this mischief, Hiördis bragged about her husband. He was the strongest man of all, for he had slain the white bear outside her virgin bower. Not so, replied Dagny; it was my husband, Sigurd, who slew the white bear. And then the feast broke up in confusion.
Hiördis now set herself to make a bow-string and to forge arrow-heads intended, of course, for vengeance on Sigurd the Strong but Fraudulent. Sigurd, however, took a private opportunity of declaring to Hiördis that she was the only woman he had ever loved, and Hiördis in return assured him that he had always had her heart. She proposed to flee with him, not as his paramour, but (if we are not mistaken) as a kind of comrade-in-arms. When he demurred, she determined that, if they would not live together, they should die together, and she planted an arrow in his heart. With his last breath he declared himself a Christian (converted, it would appear, by Æthelstan, King of England «Æthelstan the Christian King,» as Mr. Wilson Barrett would say), and Hiördis threw herself into the sea.
It is a curious play, and ought to interest students of folklore. They will find in it abundance of valuable detail about early marriages-by-capture, the etiquette of such unions, the ransom to be paid to parents, and so forth. The chief exponent of the law in primitive communities the Sir Henry Maine of the period, so to speak is the aged Örnulf, who, as the father of Dagny, fosterfather of Hiördis, and father-in-law of Gunnar and Sigurd is related to all the chief parties in the case. As an exponent of the law Örnulf is what the cabman called John Forster, «a barbitrary cove,» always standing upon his strict rights; indeed, he would be rather tiresome were he not ennobled by his misfortunes and the simple dignity of his grief. When he has lost all his seven sons he raises a mound over them with his own hands, and sings for he is a bard as well as a warrior a kind of funeral dirge, while his warriors croon a weird chorus. This is a very impressive scene, impressive by reason of Mr. Holman Clarks fine acting as well as of the scenic simplicity and severity imagined by Mr. Gordon Craig. For that matter, all Mr. Craigs scenes and costumes are good harmonious in colouring, broad and massive in design. He has his own system of stagelighting all the illumination, if we are not mistaken, comes from above and the result is sometimes to leave the personages, where Dr. Johnson on a former occasion left the question of ghosts, in obscurity; but the new experiment, if not as yet a complete success, is a welcome change from the false old system of the footlights.
Miss Ellen Terry is, of course, Hiördis. She looks every inch a Vikings bride, but we do not think she is at her best as a virago. Her womanly wiles, her rippling laughter, her sense of fun have no proper chance of employment. Nor is she yet by any means perfect in her words. Mr. Oscar Asche is sufficiently burly as Sigurd the Strong, Miss Hutin Britton is an agreeable Dagny, and Young Thorolf is pleasantly played by Mr. Conway Tearle. Mr. Holman Clarks Örnulf the happiest thing in the cast we have already praised. An overture and incidental music supplied by Mr. M. F. Shaw were so unobtrusive as to be scarcely audible. Everybody, however, seemed highly delighted with The Vikings, and Miss Terry was compelled to utter a few words of thanks.