From Roses to Ashes
Born in Norway in 1828, Henrik Ibsen is perhaps the most well-known playwright right after William Shakespeare. His works, which set the standard for modern drama, span the late Romantic period and deal mainly with social problems. But one of the most notable aspects of Ibsen’s plays is also his criticism against the antiquated Romantic sensibility and melodramatic style of the 19th century.
Romantic art encourages the free flow of emotions and lets the artist’s feelings guide his or her creative process. There often is a “higher truth,” which is accessible only through feelings, that the artist is trying to convey in his creations.
Thus, in Romanticism, art is beautiful when it evokes spontaneous, authentic emotions within the audience and allows them understand the “truth” the artist is trying to convey. However, some artists, in particular melodramatic playwrights, overly focus on evoking emotions and fail to realize that this flood of emotions can actually blind an audience to truly understanding the work’s meaning because they are encouraged to simply feel rather than to feel and think. Ibsen very much questions the integrity and value of such creations.
In a criticism of this idealistic artistic movement, Ibsen has highlighted its flaws through the characterization of the protagonists in two of his plays: Hedda Gabler and Halvard Solness. These two are Ibsen’s caricatures of the typical Romantic artists in a fervent search for their own concept of Romantic beauty while creating much unnecessary drama and harm to others along the way.
The title character of Hedda Gabler and The Master Builder’s Halvard Solness are Ibsen’s caricatures of the stereotypical Romantic artist. In both plays, these characters behave emotionally and attempt to evoke strong responses from the audience.
However, as audiences, even though we may feel the passionate and idealistic sentiments of Hedda and Solness, we cannot quite empathize with their experiences because these characters are always irrationally and selfishly chasing some kind of ephemeral or illusory Romantic ideal of art and beauty.
As a result, they end up blinding themselves to reality and failing in their quests, due to their overwrought emotionalism. Ultimately, they seriously harm themselves and/or others. By using these two characters as a medium, Ibsen is actually pointing out very futility of their melodramatic action, and by association, the Romantic style.
In Hedda Gabler, the title protagonist once had a relationship with Eilert Lovborg, a gifted historical writer. In that relationship, Hedda had always wanted to be a muse to Lovborg and inspire him to create great works. This is because Lovborg had the capability and talent to be a great artist, yet he somehow could not achieve his potential due to problems in his personality and demeanor.
Instead, he drank away his troubles. Since the conventional Hedda lacked the courage to live an emotionally authentic life with Lovborg, she left him for the more reliable but boring and ordinary George Tesman. Nevertheless, when Hedda later sees what Lovborg has achieved with Mrs. Elvsted’s support, she clearly wants again to be Lovborg’s muse and to inspire him.
We can see this yearning during Mrs. Elvsted’s conversation with the Tesmans when she tells them about helping Lovborg write his book. While Tesman acts elated, Hedda is immediately inquisitive, “[looks] searchingly at Mrs. Elvsted” (Ibsen, Hedda Gabler 235), and questions her about Lovborg’s whereabouts. We can deduce from Hedda’s reactions that she is jealous of someone else’s ability to be Lovborg’s muse and wishes she, like Mrs. Elvsted, could “have power over a human being” (272).
When she unscrupulously burns the only copy of Lovborg’s manuscript and comments that she was “burning [Elvsted’s] child” (HG 288), Hedda’s jealousy over Mrs. Elvsted’s prowess is clearly shown. In Hedda’s obsession with being the muse in Lovborg’s life, one can see her selfish Romantic illusions about being some kind of an artist who creates truth and beauty in her actions.
While ostensibly wanting to be a muse, Hedda really symbolizes the frustrated Romantic artist who tries to achieve beauty, but can only do so through cheap melodramatic means. Lovborg’s life becomes her artistic medium and Hedda imagines herself as his muse creating beauty in two possible ways.
Her first and most obvious means would be to inspire Lovborg to greater artistic heights in his next manuscript. It would be his work only in the sense that a mortal man is just a tool for channeling the vision and inspiration granted by the classical Greek muses or God.
Hedda herself would be the muse or goddess who was the true artist. When this option becomes unlikely, Hedda inspires Lovborg to kill himself. Her vision requires that he die “beautifully” (HG 288) with “a shot in the temple” (HG 304) as a passionate Romantic artist, who chooses to end it all in a nobly tragic way rather than suffer the loss of his soul’s art — the manuscript that Hedda stole and burned. In short, Hedda becomes a kind of performance artist molding someone’s life into a beautiful artifact and finally gains “power over a human being” (HG 272).
Hedda may have deluded herself that her intentions were noble, or at least designed to protect her husband Tesman from a rival academic, yet the melodramatic and reckless way she chooses to create art and meaning in her life results in her downfall. Her lack of restraint once led her to attempt to shoot Lovberg, despite being “afraid of scandals” (HG 266), and the end of her relationship with him ended as well as any possibility of her being the muse for his groundbreaking manuscript.
On impulse when he mislays it in her home, she decides to hide his manuscript and uses the opportunity to encourage Lovborg to commit suicide in a Romantic way, much like the title character in Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. No matter if anyone else knew, Hedda would always know that she was the reason for all of Lovborg’s actions and the inspiration for his “beautiful” death.
However, Lovborg does not commit suicide. Instead, he is killed by a misfired bullet through his chest. At the news of his messy death in a brothel, Hedda’s reaction is a “stare with a look of revulsion” (HG 299).
In essence, Hedda’s “art” has been ruined beyond repair. Given that her possibility of being Lovborg’s muse and creating beautiful Romantic art has perished, and that she may be imminently disgraced, she recognizes the lack of purpose and meaning in her life as well as the impending threat of Judge Brack’s sexual blackmail. Yet, in her final moments, Hedda salvages a modicum of personal triumph as a Romantic artist: she commits suicide with a “shot to the temple” (HG 304).
Unable to accomplish anything in her life, her death is a misguided attempt at artistic integrity. But it is a pointless gesture. Actually, Hedda could still have been Lovborg’s muse if she had inspired Lovborg to change and give up his alcoholism. But that would have required the hard work and patient faith of someone like Mrs. Elvsted, not just Hedda’s egocentrism and impetuous whims.
Hedda’s actions clearly show her immaturity and emotionalism. As a result, she did not clearly evaluate the potential consequences of her actions and fails in the end to achieve “power over a[nother] human being” (HG 272), permanently harming others and herself. Hedda highlights the futility of a blind pursuit for Romantic truth and beauty through only emotional experience.
Ibsen’s scorn for melodrama can be seen as well in Halvard Solness’s life in The Master Builder. A respected architect in his society, Solness built many churches in his earlier life and was highly renowned as an artist. However, a fiery accident, which burned down his home, prompts him to stop creating ornate temples and instead build simple, residential houses that guaranteed a high income. His reluctance to pursue and challenge his artistic potential and to reach greater heights in architecture is the basis for many of his actions in the play.
Now an older man, Solness is fearful of the younger generation catching up and surpassing him artistically. This is best demonstrated by his reactions towards his employee Ragnar’s “completely new and different” (Ibsen, Master Builder 313) designs for the building commission in Lovstrand.
Instead of praising Ragnar, Solness speaks pettily about Ragnar’s achievements to Brovik, Ragnar’s father, and questions whether Ragnar “really had enough talent” (MB 312) to undertake the firm’s new building commission. In fact, envious and fearful of his rival’s imminent success, Solness even restricts Ragnar’s projects so his rival would not be able to develop his artistic skills. It is evident from this scene that Solness’ jealousy and egotism leave him insecure and ripe for a futile Romantic quest to rediscover beauty and artistic integrity in his life.
Like Hedda, Solness the “Master Builder” wants to live a more authentic Romantic life of personal meaning, but unlike Hedda, Solness is an artist with actual talent of his own. But, like Hedda who thinks she can become a muse by simply willing it, Solness is deluded about his abilities, to the extent that he even believes he can make things happen by simply wishing them into existence, like some kind of demigod. So in this play, inspired by his muse Hilda Wangel, Solness decides to recreate himself in a vision of his younger, more inspired self.
He wants to view himself as still vital artistically and was just as gifted, if not more so, than his contemporaries. However, instead of working towards his goal by stretching his skills, taking some social and economic risks, and pushing his artistic limits, he resorts to a whimsical symbolic quest, based on someone else’s Romantic illusions.
In fact, Hilda actually embodies Solness’ fantasy of a virile, younger self with a worshipful younger woman, almost as if he had conjured up her existence. Note her mysterious and abrupt arrival at the exact moment Solness needs reassurance of his abilities (MB 324) and the implausibility and absurdity of her remembering a man who promised her prepubescent self a beautiful kingdom “exactly ten years to the day” (MB 325). Thus, Hilda becomes Solness’ muse and inspires Solness’ youthful, impulsive and emotional imagination.
Solness fears old age and irrelevance but instead of doing anything substantial to alleviate these concerns, he just believes that he “ha[s] the gift and power and capacity to wish something, desire something, will something – so insistently and so – so inevitably – that at last it [had] to be [his]” (MB 354).
Solness’s lack of motivation to actually do anything real and his whimsical thinking point to his hubris. Imbued with reckless confidence, Solness is persuaded, at Hilda’s insistence, to place a wreath “high, high up on a church tower” (MB 359). Solness believes that by climbing the spire, he will be able to create an emotional scene amongst the onlookers and demonstrate that his prowess and his artistic capabilities are still intact: he is still a great artist and man despite all the compromises he has made in his life. In this way, he would be able to attain Romantic beauty and make his own life a piece of art.
However, ironically, Solness falls to his death instead of achieving his goals. In fact, he ends his own career prematurely. Ibsen further demonstrates scorn for Solness’ melodramatic pursuit of artistic integrity through Hilda’s deluded reactions following Solness’ plunge.
The stage directions indicate that Hilda still adores her hero in “hushed, dazed triumph” (MB 384) when her idol was clearly past his prime. It is noteworthy here that even Hilda is egotistical and deluded by Romantic sentiment, as shown in her self-deceit and unwillingness to accept the defeat of her hero. Ibsen parallels Solness and Hilda with the artists he derided and shows that their melodramatic pursuits for Romantic beauty only reinforce their egotism and keep them from their actual capabilities and potential.
Ibsen further depicted such artists as Hedda and Solness as being cowards in the artistic shaping of their lives. Hedda wants to grasp some ephemeral Romantic beauty through being Lovborg’s muse and influencing him because she was too cowardly to pursue a life of passionate feeling herself.
Given his artist personality, Lovborg was clearly associated with a bohemian lifestyle, yet Hedda, while desiring to pursue beauty with him, was “deathly afraid of” (HG 302) the scandals which might come while living such an emotionally unrestrained life. Thus, out of fear, Hedda marries the boring Tesman and, regretting the decision, attempts to “redeem” herself by influencing Lovborg’s actions.
That Hedda tries to look for power and freedom in Lovborg, and not in herself, clearly shows her lack of personal integrity. In fact, leaving Lovborg for Tesman was perhaps the “worst cowardice” (HG 266) that Hedda was referring to during her first reunion with the now-successful Lovborg.
Likewise, though a master in his own craft, Solness was a coward. After the fire accident, Solness built houses that “put [him] in business” (MB 349) rather than challenging himself artistically and emotionally by continuing to build churches. Indeed, Solness’s economic motive in building homes cannot be ignored. However, this is just a pretext that masks his lack of faith in his own work.
We can see this from Solness’s reluctance to build anything that bears a resemblance to churches. When Hilda suggests that Solness build “homes with high towers and spires on them” (MB 348). He replies with a half-hearted sigh: “If possible” (MB 349). Solness actually doubts his own abilities as an old artist and has probably spent his past years fearing ,what others would think of his art, especially if he allowed his imagination free rein.
Thus, as a social coward who has spent too much of his life building safe homes for “people to live in” (MB 348), rather than great temples worthy of God, Solness tries to rediscover the Romantic “truth [and] beauty” (Keats) in his life. But to demonstrate his renewed artistic integrity.
Clearly, Hedda and Solness are aspiring Romantic artists who delude themselves into believing ,that they are acting idealistically, in order to mask their own cowardice about not living the lives that they secretly want.
In reality, they are not pursuing art because their objective is not to create and seek Romantic beauty. Rather.They shelter themselves in an illusion where they attribute their actions to their “noble” causes. In other words, they deceive themselves. In essence, Ibsen parallels Hedda and Solness in order to challenge the misguided motives behind their lofty deals.
Through these two protagonists, Ibsen challenges his contemporary writers who chose to pursue idealized Romantic art and beauty. He even implies that such writers may be cowards who are afraid of seeing life as it really is, instead of being artists deeply engaged in the so-called Romantic experience of living authentically and emotionally in the moment.
Thus, with this lack of integrity and unwillingness to represent truthful reality, no matter how hard such artists try to pursue beauty, their creative processes would only lead to something dishonest, selfish, and corrupted. By prophesizing their future and symbolizing it through the untimely deaths of Hedda and Solness, Ibsen’s criticism against the Romantic artists is complete as he pushes for modern drama. All that is left are those Hildas who still blindly yearn for the return of Romanticism.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. The Sorrows of Young Werther. Project Gutenberg. PT: Language and Literatures: Germanic, Scandinavian, and Icelandic literatures, 01 Feb. 2001. Web. 13 Oct. 2009. <http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/2527>.
Ibsen, Henrik. Four Major Plays, Volume I (Signet Classics). New York: Signet Classics, 2006. Print.
Keats, John. “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Ed. Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch. The Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250-1900. Oxford, Jan. 1999. Web. 13 Oct. 2009. <http://www.bartleby.com/101/625.html>.