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IN APRIL 1900 the eighteen-year-old James Jovce wrote a worshipful review of Henrik Ibsen's last drama, When We Dead Awaken. He ranked the play with the greatest of the author's work and called the author himself "one of the world's great men before whom criticism can make but feeble show." Ibsen, reading the review, wrote to thank the young Dubliner with words which, Joyce vowed. "I shall keep in my heart all my life."
What makes Ibsen of primary importance for twentieth century literature--what Joyce called "his lofty, impersonal power"--is driven to its furthest conclusion in When We Dead Awaken. Subtitled "A Dramatic Epilogue" because it concludes a long series of socially critical dramas beginning with A Doll's House, the play also marks the epilogue to Ibsen's development as an artist. From the intense portrayal of the failures of bourgeois society, Ibsen's discontent has flooded over into a despairing view of art itself and of the artist as a man who has not lived.
Like Exiles, the great play which his young reviewer would later create, Ibsen's last work is a story of homelessness. The aging sculptor Arnold Rubek has returned with his young wife Maja to a coastal resort in his "homeland." But Rubek's life and work have subsided into boredom and mediocrity. His master-piece, a representation of the idea of resurrection in the form of a beautiful young woman, is finished, and its model, the only woman he could ever have loved, has left him. His new wife, his new house, and all the belated rewards which bourgeois society has tendered him are mere substitutes for the real spiritual home which Rubek lacks.
The pattern of Rubek's earlier life is a sort of Pygmalion theme in reverse: the sculptor has found a perfect woman and taken from her the soul he needs for his marble masterpiece. Irene, the model for the statue, has loved him desperately but without the slightest response. When the work is complete she leaves him, her soul shattered and his ground away by the forces of creation. Art has died as well, for Rubek, in his bitterness at the loss of Irene, can sculpt only the faces of animals behind the masks of wealthy men who come to him for portraits.
The mainspring of the play's action is provided by the return of Irene. Shadowed by an ever-vigilant nun who is part fury, part mad-house attendant, Irene drifts back into Rubek's life with ghostly grace. Now art and life play out their conflict in the best fin de siecle fashion: while Rubek and Irene seek to regain both life and the past in a belated union, Maja flees to the arms of Rubek's counterbalance--the blustering bear hunter Squire Ulfhej.
But if life is the enemy of art, then death must be its comrade. In the last acts Ibsen moves his characters to a health resort in the mountains--a look forward to Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain where on a peak high above the "real" world, Rubek and Irene are swept away in the mist and snow of a sudden storm. From below, in the bourgeois flatland, resounds the simple voice of Maja in a childish freedom song which is both mocking and sad.
IN THE CURRENT PRODUCTION the ending is unfortunately obscured by the way in which lights have been substituted for the storm. Obviously meteorological effects are not easily duplicated in a small-scale production, but the stop-action tableau which poses Rubek and Irene facing each other tenderly while the lights flash and die is unnecessarily ambiguous. Their only possible reunion should be clear: cold death on the great heights of art.
The character of Rubek is simply too archetypal, too close to Ibsen himself, to be acted fully. Michael Brewer approaches the role with a partially appropriate tone which is at once bored, petulant and bitter, but too often seems to slide into a monotone which is more the actor's than the role's. Rubek's wife Maja (Karen Ross) comes on like a little girl who wants to play house, but can find no playmate in her cynical husband. He has tried to buy and enjoy the ideal domesticity she embodies, but it is only life and cannot satisfy him. Like the Hindu veil of appearances which her name suggests. Maja swishes on and off stage, a shallow and fleeting part of Rubek's life.
Karl Baldwin is well-cast as the "real man" who punctuates his brogued sentences to the ladies with frequent damns, and calls his faithful hunting dogs his best friends. But the strongest performance of the production is Tanya Contos's as Irene. Her reveries and reproaches fill the stage with the past, and she shifts easily back and forth from half-mad laughter to sober despair. Ken Bartel's direction respects Ibsen's carefully built-up structure of recurrent phrases and gestures. The result is a straightforwardly loyal production whose tense sadness is too direct to be shirked.
JOYCE FOUND IN IBSEN a genius "which faces all, shrinks at nothing." This directness is one reason why Ibsen's legacy has been so treasured in the literature of the century, why his one-time reviewer would accord him the singularly Joycean honor of some sixty puns on his name and works within the pages of Finnegan's Wake. It is also the quality which enabled Ibsen--facing his own last awakening unto death--to make his last play so uncompromisingly despairing of art and life.
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