Gide and Ibsen: A Symbolist Crossroads

By Pollard, Patrick | The Modern Language Review, January 2008 | Go to article overview

Gide and Ibsen: A Symbolist Crossroads


Pollard, Patrick, The Modern Language Review


In the 1890s Gide's views on Ibsen did not always coincide with critical opinion, and in 1904 he wrote on 'mask' and 'character', echoing Oscar Wilde. Ghosts and The Wild Duck provide an important link between Ibsen and Gide. However, other plays with similarly difficult social themes by Strindberg and Shaw did not attract him. He saw Ibsen as someone who, like himself, posed questions without answering them, illuminated conflict between an individual's soul and the forces of nature, and, above all, undermined the complacency of society and the self, showing that false values prevent the achievement of individual freedom.

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Henrik Ibsen and Andre Gide never met in real life nor did they exchange any correspondence. However, so influential were the ideas manifest in the former's plays that a generation of French writers responded to them and often incorporated them into their aesthetic. In several ways, Gide's discovery of Ibsen in the early 1890s sheds a particularly interesting light on the impact which the Norwegian playwright exercised on this segment of French intellectual society. At the outset of his literary career Gide, like many of his contemporaries in France and England, was drawn towards the world of northern Europe. He read a number of the works of Ibsen, Strindberg, and Bjornson which were available in French translation. 'Les litiratures du Nord sont effrayantes', he wrote to his mother on 22 September 1894. 'Elles sont brutales comme leurs anciens dieux; l'histoire du protestantisme continue en elles.' (1) In his opinion, however, Ibsen was, generally speaking, less brutal and less 'mythological' than the world of the Eddas which he had already discovered through reading Thomas Carlyle's Heroes and Hero Worship. (2)

Ibsen's plays were first performed in France by Antoine at the Theatre Libre (Ghosts in 189o, The Wild Duck and Hedda Gabler in 1891), (3) and then by Lugne-Poe at the Theatre de l'OEuvre (The Lady from the Sea in 1892, Rosmersholm in 1893, Little Eyolf and Brand in 1895, Peer Gynt in 1896). As the plays became less controversial for their audiences, productions increased in frequency and popularity, and in the course of time French critical resistance to a style of acting which was widely felt to be foreign to the national classical tradition became less of an obstacle. The actor, who had up to then been widely seen as the vehicle for projecting a typical character or set of feelings, was now able to give voice to and embody the concept of a particular individual. (4) The critics were divided. The most conservative and influential of their number was Francisque Sarcey, whose love for Scribe and the 'well-made play' (not that Ibsen's dramas were in fact badly made) led him to condemn what he saw as Ibsen's ambiguity and literalness (5) Ibsen was widely castigated for his immorality, his pessimism, his choice of morbid subject-matter, and his 'unhealthy' presentation of the role of woman in society as well as his focus on her oppression and freedom. On the other hand, Ibsen's supporters praised his modernity, the openness of his approach, his moral questionings, his suggestive and symbolic discourse (which was also evident in the avant-garde staging which the plays were given), his focus on the freedom of women, and, last but not least, the manner in which the link between physical and moral weakness was exploited. Many of these positive critics praised Ibsen's 'realism', but they were puzzled by the way in which he often seemed to shift away from it: (6) the dramas were seen variously but not simultaneously by the same critic as 'naturalist' in the sense which current literary fashion gave to that term when priority seemed to be given to material fact, and 'symbolic' when use was made of objects, characters, and situations to orchestrate an abstract level of meaning which lay within and beyond the action. (7) It is perhaps paradoxical that one of the first promoters of Ibsen in France was Emile Zola, who encouraged Antoine to put on Ghosts. …

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