Directing Ibsen's Little Eyolf

To fully understand the world of Little Eyolf, it is helpful to know its connection with the world of Ibsen. Ibsen once said, in a discussion with writer and friend Georg Brandes, "What will ensure your latest book a future life is that it reveals how you have regarded things. If you want objectivity, then go to the objects. Read me so as to get to know me!"3 This statement, by no means original in thought4, is still quite noteworthy in this context. Ibsen occasionally asserted that he wrote about what he knew. In a speech to the Christiania5 students in 1874, Ibsen stated, 
All I have written . . . I have mentally lived through. . . . Partly I have written on that which only by glimpses, and at my best moments, I have felt stirring vividly within me as something great and beautiful. I have written on that which, so to speak, has stood higher than my daily self. . . . but I have also written on the opposite, on that which to introspective contemplation appears as the dregs and sediments of one's own nature. . . . Yes, gentlemen, nobody can poetically present that to which he has not to a certain degree and at least at times the model within himself.6
If one reads his biography along with his dramas, one will note the truth of these words. In fact, Ibsen's statement could be turned around to read, "Know me so as to read me!" Thus, to aid the understanding of the Ibsen of Little Eyolf, it is useful to know about the life and ideas of Ibsen before this writing. 

Henrik Ibsen was born at Skein in southeast Norway on 20 March 1828, the eldest of five children (an infant born before him had died in infancy) of Knud Ibsen, a prominent merchant, and his wife Marichen. When he was eight, his father went bankrupt, and at sixteen years of age he went out on his own, moving to Grimstad to work for an apothecary with hopes of keeping fed and being accepted into the university to study medicine. It was during this tenure in Grimstad that Ibsen fathered, out of wedlock, a son by a servant of the apothecary. (An "illegitimate offspring" later appeared in several of his dramas, including Ghosts and Little Eyolf.) 

In 1850, Ibsen went to Christiania to prepare for his matriculation exams which he passed with "conditionals" in mathematics and Greek; but that was as far as his university career reached. He turned instead to journalism and, fortunately, playwriting. Writing under a pseudonym, Ibsen's first drama, Cataline, dealt with the conspiracy against Cicero in 63 B. C., though it also reflected the February Revolution of 1848 in Norway. Ibsen believed that this play would create a stir in Norwegian literary and dramatic circles for two reasons. First, Cataline was the first Norwegian drama written and published in seven years (showing Norway's dependency on foreign dramas, primarily French, Danish, and German). Second (and more important), Norway, unlike much of Europe in 1850, was undergoing an idyllic period, in which "contemporary life was poor and lacking in impulse, all was peace, no danger threatened, [and] people buried themselves in memories. . ." and wanted nothing to do with turmoil.7 It was the "creating a stir" and the impulse toward the idyllic that was to eventually separate the playwright and the country. 

During his short tenure at the university, Ibsen became editor of the student magazine Manden. Busying himself with dramatic criticism and political commentaries, Ibsen expressed his ideas toward the drama which were to be foundations for his subsequent works. In a review in April 1851 of a modern German play, Karl Gutzkow's Zopf und Schwert, Ibsen expressed two views toward the plays and dramaturgy of the day which later surfaced in his own dramaturgy. First, he lambasted the inadequacies of "...the trivia of Scribe..." who was the most popular playwright of the day. Second, he expounded his thoughts toward the differences of character "reality" in the French and German dramas. 

If literal reality has no place in art, neither does a work that does not contain the germ of reality within it; and herein lies the weakness of the French drama. In it characters too often appear as pure abstractions; to portray contrast (the hobby-horse of French drama) they are usually painted as either angels or devils, seldom as people. Whereas when the German aims at reality, which is not in general his hunting ground, he does it with a vengeance, portraying not just human beings as such but only the most trivial kind of everyday people as we daily see and hear them. Yet the character of an everyday person is, from an artist's standpoint, by no means trivial; it is as interesting to him as any other."8
In June 1851, Ibsen again spoke out on the failings of Norwegian dramatic literature. In a review of P. A. Jensen's The Goblin's Home, Ibsen asserted that the dramatic literature will remain inadequate 
. . . as long as our authors fail to distinguish between the demands of reality and the demands of art, and lack the taste to polish the rough surface of reality so that it may qualify to be admitted into the realm of art. Then they may realize that nationalism in art does not consist merely of the trivial copying of scenes from everyday life, and will see that a national author is one who understands how to give his work those undertones which call to us from mountain and valley, from meadow and shore, but above all from within our soul."9
Another useful insight into Ibsen's attitude toward the dramaturgy of the day was written in December 1857. Writing in response to a historical drama, Lord William Russell, by Andreas Munch, Ibsen emphatically expresses his ideas toward the purpose of tragedy and symbolism. 
It has become customary to expect from tragic characters a loftiness, a purification, a greatness of thought and expression, will and action, that shall fulfill the function of the Greek cothurn - namely, to give us the feeling that we are outside the realm of everyday life. But this achieves the exact opposite of its purpose; the world portrayed by the dramatist is rendered completely foreign to the spectator, no bond exists between us and the protagonist as he struggles and is defeated, and so he cannot fully engage our sympathy.10
Ibsen continued with a brief discussion of the proper use of symbolism, a paragraph which Meyer believes should be ". . . compulsory reading for the many commentators who have written ignorantly about this aspect of Ibsen's work." 11 
Every notable human being is symbolic, both in his career and in his relationship to history. But bad writers, misconstruing the theory that the significant phenomena of life should be intensified in art, make this symbolism conscious.... Instead of it existing hidden in the work, like a vein of silver ore in a mountain, it is continually being dragged into the light of day. [A virtue of the play] . . . is that he has allowed the symbolism to stand there without commentary like a runic inscription, leaving it to each member of the audience to interpret it according to his or her individual needs. . . . It is no conscious battle of ideas that enacts itself before us, any more than that ever happens in reality; what we see is human conflicts, behind which, yet interwoven with them, ideas conflict and conquer or are vanquished. And the play does not end at the fall of the curtain on the fifth act. The true end lies beyond; the poet indicates the direction in which we may seek; it is now up to each one of us to find his or her own way there.12
In 1858, Ibsen married Suzannah Thoresen, with whom he had one child, Sigurd Ibsen. This was a marriage that was often as misunderstood as the marriages of Ibsen's dramas. Critics often attacked Ibsen as being an enemy to "...the sacred ties of marriage." People could not understand that to Ibsen marriage was so sacred that he believed that it should be based on a spiritual communion; mere "living together" was not sufficient. Eva Le Gallienne explains: "He felt that a man and a woman should, ideally, go through life together as perfect equals, in perfect honesty, free to develop - each in his own way - into a complete human entity."13 According to Meyer, Ibsen often stated that he would not have been able to write without Suzannah's "strength", a strength that has often been likened to the strong women of the Norse Sagas. Suzannah often would turn people away at the door when Ibsen was writing so as not to disrupt him. Ibsen also followed a daily routine which consisted of a small breakfast, a long walk, five hours of writing, dinner, and either an entertainment or bed; Suzannah never accompanied him except at an occasional entertainment. This was to be his schedule until his first stroke in 1901. 

Ibsen returned to Norway in 1891, thus ending his twenty-seven year self-imposed exile, with his wife. He finished The Master Builder in October 1892 and, as was his custom, allowed his mind to "renew" itself during the following winter, spring, and summer. In September 1893, the seeds of his new play were sprouting. Ibsen wrote to his publisher, Jacob Hegel, "I have now begun to plan a new dramatic work, which it is my intention to complete during next summer."14 In January 1894, he discussed the play with an old friend Elise Auber, stating that he was busy with some "deviltry again" about marriage. According to Halvdan Koht, 

[Ibsen] was clearly disturbed about his own marriage and spoke to Mrs. Auber about it. He had many conflicts with his wife at this time, and on occasion his anger was so extreme that he threatened to leave her. These outbursts were only momentary, and he knew that they would never separate.15
This marital conflict led to another interesting occurrence in the life of Ibsen that was later translated in his new play. Due to a recurring bout with the gout, Suzannah, with the doctor's advice, returned to the fresher and moister air of southern Italy in October 1893, leaving Ibsen alone in Norway. However, he was not alone. Again, as he had several times during periods of distance between his wife and himself, Ibsen found a young lady companion. This time it was a re-acquaintance with a young pianist, Hildur Andersen. Hildur became a constant companion on Ibsen's walks and visits to theatres, lectures, and galleries, especially to those of younger artists. He later gave the young Hildur a diamond ring as a symbol of their bonding and wrote to her after Suzannah returned to Norway. 

Ibsen's interest in the views of the younger generation is noteworthy, especially when one considers the playwright's final four dramas. Lugne-Poe records that Ibsen, during his first year after his return to Norway, showed an almost obsessive interest in the rising generation. Unlike the exiled Ibsen of Italy and Germany, Ibsen now gladly entered into social life, especially loving the company of young people and children; it amused him, at gatherings, to take them into the corner and entertain them with talk and questioning while their parents sat jealously apart. He also went out of his way to get to know the new artists and writers of Norway, reading their manuscripts and helping them with advice. This new fascination with the younger generation stemmed from Ibsen believing his own generation to be less congenial, and feeling a sense of isolation from Christiania society and, in particular, from his wife. He said to a friend that he ". . . felt the need to be together with young people who would accept him as a friend," that he was afraid he might lose touch with the people who understood his plays most clearly.16

The exact date when Ibsen began Little Eyolf is unknown. On 15 June 1894, Ibsen wrote to his daughter-in- law Bergliot: "Tomorrow I shall start writing the dialogue in earnest." A week later he apologized to Gerda Brandes (wife of the critic Georg Brandes) for having left a letter unanswered for three months: "But today I must and shall write to you, for I have now begun to work seriously on my new play, and so must clear my desk and, as far as possible, my conscience of all other commitments."17 Ibsen finished Act One on 10 July, began Act Two the next day, and a fortnight later, on 25 July, was able to tell Hegel: 

Yesterday I completed the second act of my new play, and have already today begun work on the third and last act. So I hope to have the final version finished in good time. This of course means that I cannot think of taking any summer holiday this year. But I don't need one. I am very content here, and happiest when I am working at my desk.18
Ibsen completed the third act on 7 August, also in a fortnight. 
Though Ibsen had abandoned poetry as a medium for public self-expression, he often wrote a poem to enshrine the theme of a budding work. In March 1891, he wrote a poem for the play that became The Master Builder. The importance of this poem is twofold: (1) it is the only extant "thematic" poem; and, (2) it later became a part of the first draft of Ibsen's new play. 
    They dwelt, those two, in so cozy a house
    In autumn and winter weather.
    Then came the fire - and the house was gone.
    They must search the ashes together.

    For down in the ashes a jewel lies hid
    Whose brightness the flames could not smother,
    And search they but faithfully, he and she,
    'Twill be found by one or the other.

    But e'en though they find it, the gem they lost,
    The enduring jewel they cherished -
    She ne'er will recover her vanished peace,
    Nor he the joy that has perished.19
However, Ibsen revised Little Eyolf so thoroughly that the poem was omitted in the final draft, and it was not until two months later that the drama was sent to the printers.20 
William Archer states best what happened during these two months of re-writing. 
Revision amounted almost to re-invention; and it was the re-invention that determined the poetic value of the play. The poet's original idea . . . was simply to study a rather commonplace wife's jealousy of a rather commonplace child. The lameness of Eyolf proves to have been an after-thought; and as Eyolf is not lame, it follows that the terrible cry of "The crutch is floating" was also an after-thought, as well as the almost intolerable scene of recrimination between Allmers and Rita as to the accident which caused his lameness. We find, in fact, that nearly everything that gives the play its depth, its horror and its elevation came as an after-thought. . . . In no case, perhaps, did revision work such a transfiguration as in Little Eyolf.21

On 11 December 1894, Little Eyolf was published simultaneously in Copenhagen, London, Christiania, and Berlin, an unsurpassed feat at the time in his already prosperous career. However, to the irritation of perspective purchasers in Christiania who had been waiting in bookstores since the early morning, a dense fog nearly prevented the arrival of the play to the capital. Readers had never waited with such anticipation for an Ibsen play. "The crutch is floating", a quote from the new play, was already the talk of the town, having been published by Norwegian newspapers earlier.22

However, despite the hindrances, the play was well received, both by the buying public and the critics.23 The play went into its second edition in ten days and its third edition less than a month later, faster than any other Ibsen play to date, and subsequently was produced more in its first season than any of his other immediate successes.24

Almost unanimously, the Scandinavian critics, who dismissed many of Ibsen's earlier plays as having obscure purposes and plots, received the play favorably. "'A new triumph. He has conjured forth another of those monumental dramas the architectonic perfection and severely symmetrical beauty of which will be enough to ensure the continuing admiration of the world,' stated Nils Kj‘r in Dagbladet on 12 December, though he conjectured that 'for the latest vintage of Ibsen's admirers the play may disappoint because it is less symbolic and more realistic.'"25 Krisofer Randers praised Ibsen in Aftenposten on 13 December: "'Has our old poet become young again? Does he wish to put our younger writers to shame, so youthful he is here, so fresh, immediate and powerful?'"26 An anonymous reviewer in Verdens Gang on 12 December wrote that "'. . . the view of life it expresses will arouse bitter opposition, but the play will live.'"27 One opponent was, "as usual", C. D. af Wirsen. 

'As in The Master Builder,' he protested (Kritiker, pp. 115-17), 'the symbolism over-reaches itself, the action is thin, we do not believe in the characters' change of heart. . . . A real decadence is revealed in these three plays, Hedda Gabler, The Master Builder, and Little Eyolf. Where is the author of The Pretenders and The Vikings at Helgeland?'28
Besides being in opposition to Little Eyolf, this criticism revealed another criticism of Ibsen's evolution. No longer was he writing the overt Romantic dramas as he had earlier in his career. From The Pillars Of Society to his dramatic epilogue When We Dead Awaken, Ibsen only wrote one play, The Lady Of The Sea, that displayed an overtly Romantic ending.29 

The new drama was first staged at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin on 12 January 1895. Three days later it was performed in Christiania, and before the end of the month it was performed in Bergen, Helsingfors, and Gothenburg. In February it was seen in Italy, and in March, Sweden and Denmark saw it staged. Later that spring, it was performed in France and the United States. 

It was another eighteen months until the drama was staged in England, though it had aroused much interest in its printed form. Critics believed the first two acts to be the finest that Ibsen had ever written. Henry James believed that the part was that of Asta, the role that obviously agreed with the English sentimentality. As such, when the third act was later received, the same critics denounced the play. Henry James wrote, 

I fear, in truth, no harm can be done equal to the harm done to the play by its own most disappointing third act. It . . . has been to me a subject of depressed refection. It seems to me a singular and almost inexplicable drop - dramatically, representably speaking. . . . The worst of it is that it goes back, as it were, on what precedes, and gives a meagerness to that too - makes it less interesting and less significant. . . . I don't see the meaning or effect of Borgheim - I don't see the value or final function of Asta. . . . I find the solution too simple, too immediate, too much a harking back, and too productive of the sense that there might have been a stronger one.30
James' objections to the third act were commonly shared by his contemporaries, as well as the next generation of readers and theatre-goers. However, more recent opinions hold that the third act, if properly understood and interpreted, is by no means "simple." Michael Meyer stated that the mistake of the final act is believing it to be happy. Ibsen himself agreed. When asked how "poor" Rita and Allmers would be able to care for all the children, Ibsen replied, "Do you really think [that they will care for them]? Don't you rather think it was more of a Sunday mood with her?"31 

Two other mistakes, according to Meyer, are making the character Allmers either sexless or romantic, which, along with the happy ending, ". . . are burdens that no production of Little Eyolf can hope to survive." He continues by saying that other Ibsen plays, such as A Doll's House, Ghosts, and Hedda Gabler, are robust plays that can be 

. . . ill-cast, ill-directed, ill-acted, and yet make a goodish evening. Little Eyolf . . . is fragile; if it is not done well, one would rather it had not been done at all; performed as it was written to be performed, it is a haunting and memorable experience. Nowhere else does Ibsen probe so mercilessly into the complexities of human minds and relationships; it is like a long, sustained and terrifying operation.32
William Archer, the first English champion of Ibsen, wrote, after the initial English production, "I rank the play beside, if not above, the very greatest of Ibsen's works, and am only doubtful whether its soul searching be not too terrible for human endurance in the theatre."33 

Ibsen's biography is a useful tool to understand the bases of his dramas. In the following chapter, I will discuss the techniques used to "find" the answers in this "fragile" drama.

Chapter 2  |  Table of ContentsHome 


 3 Georg Brandes, Levned, II, 99, quoted in Michael Meyer, 
Ibsen: A Biography (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1971), 

 4 As Meyer points out, Ibsen's statement had been one of the 
principles of the Romantic movement throughout Europe at the 
beginning of the century, which Ibsen would have known 
through his acquaintance with Byron's works. 

 5 This was the name of the capital of Norway until its change 
in 1925 to the medieval name of Oslo. 

 6 Eva Le Gallienne, introduction to Six Plays by Henrik Ibsen 
by Henrik Ibsen  (New York: The Modern Library Press, 1957), 

  7 Meyer, Ibsen, 57. 

 8 Ibid, 72. 

  9 Ibid, 77. 

 10 Meyer, Ibsen, 148. 

 11 Ibid. 

 12 Ibid. 

 13 Le Gallienne, xvi. 

 14 Meyer, "Introduction," 213. 

 15 Halvdan Koht, Life Of Ibsen (New York: Benjamin Blom, 
Inc., 1971), 439. 

 16 Meyer, "Introduction," 213; idem, Ibsen, 679. 

 17 Meyer, "Introduction," 214. 

 18 Meyer, Ibsen, 718. 

  19 Ibsen, Henrik, From Ibsen's Workshop, ed. and introduction 
by William Archer, trans. by A. G. Chater  (New York: Da Capo 
Press, 1978.), 507. 

 20 Meyer, Ibsen, 718. 

  21 William Archer, "Introduction to Little Eyolf," in Henrik 
Ibsen, From Ibsen's Workshop, 18. 

 22 To Ibsen's indignation, the line had initially been leaked 
to Danish publications by the author Thomas Krag, who had 
accidentally been sent a copy of the play by his, and 
Ibsen's, publisher. Meyer, 723-4; Richard Hornby, letter to 
author (July 1991), 1. 

  23 As Michael Meyer states, "Ibsen was furious (about the 
leak); but it is an old adage among publishers that any 
publicity is good publicity, and the brouhaha probably helped 
the sales." (Ibsen, 724.) 

 24 Little Eyolf was performed thirty-six times in Christiania 
in its first season, compared to Hedda Gabler (18) and The 
Master Builder (13) in their initial seasons. 

 25 Meyer, Ibsen, 722. 

 26 Ibid. 

   27 Ibid. 

 28 Ibid, 723. 

  29 This is not to dismiss in total the idea of hope from 
Ibsen's endings of his middle and later dramas.  I merely 
suggest that the plays conclude with a veiled hope that 
would, if the play was to be continued, be lost or found. 

 30 Meyer, Ibsen, 726-7. 

   31 Ibid, 730. 

   32 Ibid, 728. 

  33 Ibid, 728.