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«Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses 1 (1994): 151-58 Bernard Shaw's Ibsenisms Javier Ortiz State University of New York at Binghamton ABSTRACT ...»

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Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses 1 (1994): 151-58

Bernard Shaw's Ibsenisms

Javier Ortiz

State University of New York at Binghamton

ABSTRACT

This paper deals with the complex and ambiguous admiration that Bemard Shaw

professed for the Scandinavian play wright Henrik Ibsen. Throughout Shaw's professional

Ufe as a critic, he devoted a great deal of his writings to analyze and decipher Ibsen's

plays for British audiences. Shaw wrote three sets of critical essays on Ibsen: The

Quintessence oflbsenism, Our Theatres in the Nineties, and The Prefaces. The article emphasizes not only the evolution in Shaw's Ibsen criticism, but also the parallelism of that evolution with the confirmation of Shaw himself as a world renown playwright. In The Quintessence Shaw discusses Ibsen's plays superficially, since he himself was in the process of becoming a playwright of the sort of Ibsen. In Our Theatres Shaw orientales his criticism around the plays themselves—he does not need to hide Ibsen's achievements from the British audience any more, as he already claifns to master drama creation as much as Ibsen did in his time. Finally, in The Prefaces the critic shows many reservations towards Ibsen's dramaturgy becoming the ultímate estimations of Shaw's Ibsen interpretations.

Traditionally, Henrik Ibsen's influence in Bernard Shaw has been framed almost exclusively in what the British critic and playwright discussed in The Quintessence of Ibsenism. Although this can be taken as partially true, we must add some considerations about Ibsen, and more specifically, about Shaw's interpretations of such an Ibsenism.

Therefore, the goal of this essay is going to have a double scope. On the one hand, the analysis of how their contemporaries perceived Shaw's interpretations of Ibsenism will occupy the first stage. On the other one, it is essential to specify and clarify how Shaw developed his interpretation oflbsenism, expressed not only in the Quintessence, but also in other pieces of criticism, and in most of his plays. In order to determine whether Shaw misunderstood and misinterpreted Ibsen, an author for whom he professed the greatest admiration, it is necessary to examine all his Ibsen criticism. It is true that Shaw was a novelist, journalist, critic, and dramatist; therefore, considering in which of these capacities he wrote about Ibsen is essential.

Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses On many occasions, Shaw tried to persuade his readers of what he considered a false

and superficial influence of Ibsen in his plays. But he never went as far as when he said:

"What! I a follower of Ibsen! My good sir, as far as England is concerned, Ibsen is a follower of mine!" (Quintessence 25). This remark was made by Shaw in the first edition of the Quintessence, and it is characteristic of his treatment of the subject. Shaw frequently denied that he was influenced by Ibsen. Nevertheless, the similarities are so obvious in some cases, that a reconsideration of them is not worth it. The starting point of the essay is based on the assumption that Shaw was in debt with the Scandinavian playwright.

It has been widely accepted that Edmund Gosse introduced Ibsen to England, William Archer translated his plays, but it was Shaw who became the authentic exponent of Ibsen's message to the British public. Shaw started writing about Ibsen with the Quintessence of Ibsenism in 1891, and then he enlarged it in 1913. As early as 1890, Shaw made his first public mistake about Ibsen by calling him a "socialist" (Wisenthal 77) in a Fabián exposition. From that moment, some writers and critics (such as Archer, Archibald Henderson, Frank Harris, and Henry Arthur Jones) sprung to defend Ibsen from "Mr.

Bernard Shaw's victimization of him" (Franc 34). The Quintessence of Ibsenism, which was Shaw's revisión in book form of his original Fabián exposition of Ibsen, became the standard exponent of misguided Ibsen criticism. Even William Archer, one of Shaw's closest friends, warned against such misinterpretations: "A grave injustice has been Ibsen of late by those of his English admirers who have set him up as a social prophet, and sometimes omitted to mention that he was a bit of a poet as well" (Franc 35). Archer's point is crucial in the development of the discussion, but not as much as the commonly asserted affirmation that Shaw, rather than talking about Ibsen, is talking about himself in his criticism. Evidently, all these accusations were refuted by Shaw in two other sets of his critical work (Out Theatres in the Nineties and Prefaces).

In The Quintessence Shaw was writing as a socialist novelist and a playwright-to-be.

In Our Theatres of the Nineties, from 1895 to 1898, he continued in the form of weekly criticism contributed to the Sunday Review, where Shaw was working as a professional play reviewer and dramatist. Finally, from the beginning of the century to 1930, a world renown Shaw wrote about Ibsen in The Prefaces to some more modern plays. These three phases, sometimes overlapped one to another, must be viewed as the more or less conscious process that Shaw intended to achieve when examining Ibsen's plays.

At this point, before proceeding to the main body of Shaw's criticism, we should distinguish one of Shaw's beliefs from Ibsen's attitude. Despite all the bad aspects of our era many people are convinced that humanity has improved over the centuries in terms of ethic, government and law. There is a common assumption that we should be happier than our predecessors. As far as Ibsen was concerned, on the contrary, 19th century in Norway was not better than, for example, the 9th century, the age of the Vikings. All that mattered fundamentally to Ibsen was the noble spirit which flickered here and there in every generation, and just a small number behaved in accordance with nature.





Shaw's point of view is different. On the one hand he claims that there must be improvement in mankind, but on the other hand, as he explains through Tanner in one of the sections of the Revolutionists Handbook in Man andSuperman, "we must frankly give up the notion that man as he exists is capable of net progress" (Man and Superman 421).

Bernard Shaw's Ibsenisms 153 That was written in 1903, but as late as 1944, in Everybody's Political What Is What, he answers his own question by saying that some cure will eventually work.

So, there was from the beginning a remarkable difference between Shaw and Ibsen, but in The Quintessence this difference is disguised. Towards the end of the essay, Shaw says that Ibsen is not looking for a golden rule which conducís Ufe; in his own words, Shaw is saying to his readers about Ibsenism that "its quintessence is that there is no formula" {Quintessence 125). Thus, the difference noted above can be transcended to a higher degree; we are talking about a world of difference between an Ibsen who refused to narrow structures into ideas, and a Shaw who could hardly refrain himself from doing so. Ibsen discouraged exactly what Shaw demanded: the drawing of general conclusions from particular fictional instances.

Partly because of its origins in a paper Shaw read to the Fabián Society in 1890, The Quintessence of Ibsenism is a mixture of adequate exposition and progressist misinterpretation. In the first section of the essay, Shaw advances the thesis that in his works, Ibsen is attacking false ideáis in other 19th-century writers or in other social contexts with slight relation to Ibsen.

From the very beginning Shaw states that his purpose is "to distill the quintessence of Ibsen's message to his age" {Quintessence 15). However, he insists that the valué of Ibsen's plays lies in their message, and discusses them as if they were novéis, without any attention to their dramatic form. Certainly these are strange and naive misinterpretations, but why does Shaw insist on the message of the plays ignoring completely the most basic kind of dramatic concerns? To answer that question it has to be pointed out that Shaw published The Quintessence for a very specific public, and that only the newspaper controversy launched by Ghosts in 1891 led him to write in the form of essay his Fabián Lecture. With these premises, we can affirm that Shaw's purpose with the publication of The Quintessence was both polemic and ambiguous. Polemic, because he was writing at the outset of the virulent controversy which raged England for five years. Ambiguous, because Shaw placed special emphasis on reading, rather than seeing Ibsen's plays.

Shaw was trying to take advantage of the creation of a new audience through the reactivation of the oíd habit among the British of the reading of plays. This audience was predisposed to new ideas and new methods in drama, and it was this new public which made possible Ibsen's great success with British readers, even though he never was completely victorious on the English stage.

It is at this point where, in my opinión, Shaw's main success in The Quintessence lies.

He intended to make Ibsen interesting to novel readers; his summaries in novelistic form had the mere goal of deciphering the complexities of the exposition of the plays, so that a reader uninitiated in Ibsen could make sense of them. He managed to draw comparisons and illustrations from the whole tradition of the 19th-century European literature and thought. In terms of contents, Shaw places Ibsen with Shelley, Dickens, Butler, and Darwin. That Shaw was primarily concerned with the way the public reacts to Ibsen can be exemplified by the analysis of Ghosts, consisting of the enumeration of newspapers reviews, which enables the reader to detect the artistic perception of the British press with respect to Ibsen.

Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses In spite of our latent pesismism towards Shaw's Ibsen criticism, there is a second important success in The Quintessence when he talks, though not explicitly, about three of the crucial principies of posterior Ibsen criticism. In his monumental work on Shaw and Ibsen, Wisenthal cites them saying that: "one must know all Ibsen's work to understand any of it; one must study the plays chronologically in order to grasp all the relationships between them; one must recognize a continuous theme running through all the plays" (Wisenthal 38). Obviously, these principies are open to question, though it is not the purpose of this essay to get into them. What is clear, is that, to a smaller extent, Shaw's criticism is pioneering the 20th-century view of the Scandinavian playwright.

So far we have only analyzed Shaw's first criticism, that is the first edition of The Quintessence published in 1890. The fact that the British critic and playwright brought his essay up to date twenty years later indicates two shifts in Shaw's attitude: first, a change in his critical emphasis, which reveáis a new approach to Ibsen. Second, and more important, is that Shaw, throughout these twenty years, had seen how Ibsen had been accepted as a classic, along with his own consolidation as a well known playwright. By 1913 Ibsen was no longer controversial and Shaw was a famous and original writer, having written most of the plays for which he is now known.

As mentioned above, in his dramatic criticism, Shaw writes a history of audience relations. By 1913 it was taking place a re-evaluation of Ibsen by his audience. In the first place, the audience for Ibsen was no longer primarily composed of readers, for the modern stage drama had won a place on the stage. Shaw recognized this development and, in his own discussion of Ibsen's last four plays, he distinguished clearly between the dramatic form of the plays and the novelistic summaries which he still provided with the purpose of making it easier to follow the play in performance.

Secondly, the audience was far more sophisticated and had outgrown Ibsen in some respects. Shaw's goal was no longer polemic, since the battle had been won. At this point, Shaw was able to look back dispassionately and assign Ibsen his place in the evolution of ideas and form in modern drama. From this distant point of view, Shaw was also able to develop himself as a playwright supported by Ibsen's constant growing. To confirm this, and to place this retrospective evaluation of Ibsen's level in drama, Shaw realized that he himself, along with Ibsen's other followers, may have been responsible for creating a false

picture of Ibsen. He states in the second edition of The Quintessence:

When an author's work produce violent controversy, and are new, people are apt to read them with that sort of seriousness which is very appropriately called deadly... I remember a performance of The WildDuck, at which the late Clement Scott pointed out triumphantly that the play was so absurd that even the champions of Ibsen could not help laughing at it. It had not occurred to him that Ibsen could laugh like other man.

{Quintessence 185)

–  –  –

Quintessence is about Shaw, not Ibsen. Although we accept that Shaw deviates from Ibsen in this point, it has to be emphasized that such digression was caused by Ibsen's influences on Shaw, and more specifically, by the overwhelming impact of the former over the latter.

Another proof of this incessant admiration that Shaw professed for the Scandinavian

can be grasped when Shaw affirms that:

Formerly you had in what was callee! a well made play: an exposition in the first act, a situation in the second, an unravelling in the third. Now you have exposition, situation and discussion; and the discussion is the test of the playwright... The discussion conquered Europe in Ibsen's Doll's House; and now, the serious playwright recognizes in the discussion not only the main test of his highest powers, but also the real centre of his play's interest. (Quintessence 187-88) Shaw is supporting the thesis that Ibsen prepared the way for later developments in which he had no part, although it is curious to note that he never mentions Ibsen explicitly alóng The Quintessence to this respect. Because of Ibsen, it is now possible for a dramatist like Shaw to write plays that begin with discussion rather than end with it; or even, that are all discussion.



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