Lukacs/Ibsen: Tragedy, Selfhood, and "Real Life" in the Master Builder and When We Dead Awaken

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The relation of Georg Lukacs and Henrik Ibsen, uncomplicated in terms of their single instance of personal contact, is intricate indeed with respect to the former's early writings on theater, the surprisingly few references to Ibsen's drama, and--especially--the implications of Lukacs's theory with regard to two of the playwright's late plays in particular. In these instances, a reading of Lukacs against, or in concert with, the dramatist's portraits of selfhood (Halvard Solness and Arnold Rubek), his modernist associations with a heritage of tragic drama, and a related application of Lukacs's conception of "real life," provide a multidimensional standpoint on Ibsen's art in his final years. While most of what follows is concerned with two of Lukacs's renowned essays in dramatic theory, "The Sociology of Modern Drama" and "The Metaphysics of Tragedy," I begin with a brief allusion to one of his later statements on character in drama.

In "The Intellectual Physiognomy in Characterization," Ibsen is given only passing attention. He is mentioned along with many other writers, mostly novelists, but with Strindberg included also. The essay dates to 1936, several years after Lukacs's conversion to Marxism--and following, significantly, his renunciation of the critical writings of younger days. (1) His intention is not, however, to feature particular writers or writings--although the Symposium is identified as a model for character portrayal with a basis in intellectual standpoints--but rather to argue the necessity for ideology in the composition of vital, if fictional, personages. (2) Singling out Diderot and Balzac along with Plato, Lukacs declares that in works by figures such as these, "characters are individualized through their dynamic personal, vital positions on abstract questions; the intellectual physiognomy again is the chief factor in creating living personality." (3) With respect to Ibsen, the example of Peer Gynt is referenced briefly in the context of a loss of cohesiveness in character, with the well-known metaphor of the peeled onion described in this connection. For Lukacs, the "extreme subjectivism in modern ideology, the increasing refinement in the depiction of the unique, and the increasingly exclusive emphasis on the psychological lead to the dissolution of character." Ibsen, he suggests, "had already given this philosophical attitude poetic expression. He has the ageing Peer Gynt meditate on his past and on his personality and its evolution while peeling an onion. He compares each skin with a phase in his life until he recognizes with despair that his life consists of skins without a core, that he has lived through a series of incidents without having achieved a character." (4) Again, it is not Lukacs's primary business here to delve into specific characterizations. At the same time, it is noteworthy that no other of Ibsen's characters is mentioned--either in the context of a questioning of self or, perhaps more significantly, with reference to composing a vital "physiognomy" in relation to given dramas or social applications. Moreover, and even with the author's political transformation and renunciations taken into account, it is striking that his own past relationship to the playwright goes without mention or nuance. Strindberg, instead, is credited among modern playwrights with exhibiting "the greatest virtuosity with dialogue." (5)

There is no doubt that for the younger Lukacs, Ibsen was an object of veneration and emulation. And yet, in neither of the aforementioned essays in dramatic theory (each from 1911, when the author was twentysix), is there significant mention of the playwright's name or works, nor is there reference to characters such as Halvard Solness and Arnold Rubek who might have served, I argue, as noteworthy exceptions or as especially illustrative examples. (6) In truth, the influence of Ibsen and his works upon the young Lukacs was extraordinarily strong and long-lasting. …