Anonym anmelder i The Saturday Review
IBSENS NEW PLAY.Little Eyolf. A Play in Three Acts. By HENRIK IBSEN. Translated by WILLIAM ARCHER. London: W. Heinemann. 1894.
THE event on which the drama of Little Eyolf is built is the death of a child. It is not a painful death. Eyolf has all the charm of thoughtful, old-fashioned childhood. He has been badly lamed by a fall, and belongs half to the other world already. Every spell that a poet can weave about death is woven round his fate. In his finest velvet dress he follows the fairylike ratwife, first cousin to the Piper of Hamelin, down to the sea; and, as she goes off in her boat, he goes to the pierhead, and past it. We see him resting for a moment in the depths, with wide-open, calm eyes, before the undertow sweeps him out. We watch him go without any wringing of the heart, except, perhaps, for an almost happy pang of half longing, half curiosity, to follow him in search of the peace to which that strange old woman lures all «little gnawing things,» children who gnaw their parents consciences, childrens own hearts, and other sorts of rats that drive people out of house and home.
One need not sign this picture with the name of Ibsen: that last stroke is itself a signature. No other hand, living or dead, draws quite in that way. In the subject we have what the commercial playwright calls an «incident»; and such children of this world will doubtless conceive the play as leading up to it and ending with it and some slow music. One sees, on this familiar plane, the tiny form floating out to sea, like Ophelia in Ambroise Tomass opera, with, perhaps, the bereaved mother gasping a pathetic «tag» on the beach. But Ibsen always begins a play where other playwrights end it, being in this respect, as Peer Gynt ruefully says of God, «not economical.» The death of little Eyolf ends, not the last act of the play, but the first.
Those who are in Ibsens secret will not need to be told that Eyolfs death is the foundation of one of those wonderful cloud prisons which men build for themselves out of their own fears and ideals and superstitions, with duty for the treadmill and conscience for the rack. Years ago, Bunyan, thinking ignorantly enough, but feeling surely and rightly, gave us the allegory of the pilgrim trapped in Doubting Castle, and lying there until he found that he had in his own bosom a key that fitted every lock in the castle. But in Doubting Castle there were many bones of pilgrims who did not find the key, and so perished there miserably; and Ibsen, in Brand and elsewhere, has told us the story of these bones oftener than that of the finder of the key. In Little Eyolf, however, the key is found by a woman.
The distinction which all poets of the first rank have made between a higher and a lower love between Tannhäusers passion for Venus and his adoration of St. Elizabeth, and which vulgar writers can only make real to themselves and their readers by degrading Venus to the level of the streets, and then labelling a doll Elizabeth as a first-rate article without going into particulars, has hitherto taken a peculiar turn in Ibsen. We find it first in Peer Gynt between Solveig and Ingrid, or the Hottentot Venus Anitra, the contrast being a little forced against Venus in the vulgar manner. We have it much more subtly and originally in Rosmersholm, where, instead of a Tannhäuser deserting Venus for St. Elizabeth, we have Venus herself attaining the higher love. But the change is one which breaks the womans spirit; and nothing is more characteristic of Ibsen than his evident sympathy with her in a certain regret for her disablement. In The Master Builder, where we have the heroine in the very stage of «free fearless will» which Rebecca West regretted, we find Ibsen still full of the same rebellious and sceptical sympathy, and still pessimistically admitting the destructive results of what he admired. But there is an utter absence of this vein in Little Eyolf nay, there is something like a change of front on the question.
If this change of front is due to any external influence, it is probably due to Tolstois Kreutzer Sonata. That extraordinary tale was the first work of modern art in which it was definitely asserted that the lower love, meaning not necessarily the gross love, but the jealous love, is absolutely identical with hatred. The Kreutzer Sonata did not teach this as a lesson: it asserted it as a fact. It went further: it extended the assertion from the relation between husband and wife to that between parents and their children. Ibsen is one of the few men in Europe capable of feeling the staggering force of Tolstois assertion. And when we find in Little Eyolf a husband, wife, and child on exactly the Kreutzer Sonata terms the man loathing the wife of whom he is enamoured, and turning with deep affection to a woman whom he supposes to be his sister, whilst the wife dotes on her husband with a jealousy that makes her hate the child and himself as well it is difficult to avoid the guess that Tolstoi has thrown a flash on a dark spot in Ibsens path. For whilst the other elements in Little Eyolf may be easily identified in the former plays, this element is quite new.
The drama will now leap to the eye of the experienced Ibsenite. The child, first lamed for life in a moment of neglect in which the husband forgets everything but his wifes beauty, is then drowned because, being thus lamed, he is the only child in the village who cannot swim. In their horror and remorse the father and mother become aware of their real feelings for one another and for the child; and there is an unspeakable «terror and pity» in the scenes in which they turn and rend one another. These scenes will be hardly bearable on the stage until repeated performances have given the less deepsighted spectators the comfort of foreknowing that the woman has in her bosom the key that opens all the gates in Doubting Castle.
The key is the old, the only possible key. In Little Eyolf, as in the worlds history, Venus is supplanted by the Virgin Mother. When the man, resolving to leave the wife who has become intolerable to him, bids her raze to the ground the huts on the property which shelter the fisherfolk and their brats who would not risk their lives to save his child, the woman, worn out with passion, suddenly feels the rush into her heart of the true immaculate motherhood, and declares that she will bring those brats to her house, and gives them Eyolfs clothes, his toys, his books, and his mothers care. It is an exquisitely happy ending: no words can convey the tranquil joy and reassurance with which the towers of Doubting Castle are seen to be mere mist phantoms vanishing in the heavenly radiance.
When Little Eyolf comes into the glare of the footlights, it may prove that Ibsen the old theatrical hand has been too much for Ibsen the poet. Nine-tenths of the audience will share the apparently hopeless burden of horror which is laid so heavily on the parents; and even when the relief comes, it is likely enough that it will seem merely an ignominious retreat of the dramatist from the grimness of reality into the pretty pretence of a conventional happy ending. Whatever softness and glamour the incident of the childs death takes on when the description of it is completed in the second act, the scene in the parents house when they are startled by the hubbub from the beach, when they learn from the outcries that a child has fallen into the water, when they miss Eyolf, whom they supposed to be playing in the garden, and, finally, when the mother hears the words, «The crutch is floating» all this is worked up with that frightful skill in torture described by Lamb in the well-known sentences in which he vainly tried to persuade himself and us that it was possessed as well as coveted by Webster. Then there is no sparing of our delicacy in the wifes reproach to the husband
and those who sigh for «comic relief» will hardly be appeased by the grim irony of the scene in which the bereaved father, chatting happily with his beloved sister, repeatedly breaks off to blame himself for forgetting the duty of being miserable because of the boys death. There is a passage or two which will amuse the impossible creatures who laughed at Mrs. Solnesss dolls in The Master Builder; and there is the serious difficulty for firstnight purposes that in Little Eyolf, as in all Ibsens later plays, each act is fully intelligible only in the light of that which follows it; so that, unless the whole is played backwards, the unfortunate dramatic critics who do not fortify themselves by a careful study of the book beforehand are likely to blunder as helplessly as ever over it.
Mr. William Archer has translated the play as he has translated so many others by the same hand. Let those criticize him who know as much Norwegian as he.