Academic journal article Comparative Drama

"Hilda, Harnessed to a Purpose": Elizabeth Robins, Ibsen, and the Vote

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

"Hilda, Harnessed to a Purpose": Elizabeth Robins, Ibsen, and the Vote

Article excerpt

When Elizabeth Robins died in 1952 her obituary in the Manchester Guardian described her as the "last of that little phalanx which let Ibsen loose on the English stage ... with the most shattering results." (1) Robins came to be remembered by the theatergoing public for her pioneering performances of Ibsen, to whom she introduced audiences for the first time, after moving to England from the United States in 1888.

Robins's first big Ibsen part was as Mrs. Linden in a matinee of A Doll's House, in January 1891. She then staged the first English production of Hedda Gabler at the Vaudeville Theatre in April to May 1891 in collaboration with the young Philadelphian actor Marion Lea. Robins, who had worked with William Archer on the translation from the Norwegian, took the leading role. Archer was impressed with her acclaimed performance as Hedda and called the production the "finest piece of modern tragedy within my recollection." (2) Robins secured another personal triumph as Hilda Wangel in the first English production of The Master Builder (1893-94), which she co-produced with the actor Herbert Waring at the Trafalgar Square Theatre. Her other successes in the West End of London were as Martha Bernick in The Pillars of Society (1889), Rebecca West in Rosmersholm (1893), and Ella Rentheim in John Gabriel Borkman (1896-97). After she had acted in a series of Ibsen plays at Ellen Terry's Opera Comique, financed by private subscription in May-June 1893 and jointly managed with Marion Lea, Oscar Wilde wrote to Robins styling himself "one of her warmest admirers" and made a guinea subscription toward the silver tea service that was presented to her by appreciative audiences: she "deserves an offering indeed: a very imaginative artist. The English stage is in her debt." (3)

Acting the parts of Ibsen's spirited protagonists politicized Elizabeth Robins and had a profoundly ratiocinative impact on her consciousness. As John Stokes puts it, "Ibsen's consistently dominating heroines offered these actresses images of themselves which intensified their sense of personal involvement." (4) Like other sexual and political radicals such as Olive Schreiner, Eleanor Marx (one of Ibsen's translators), and Havelock Ellis, all drawn to the radical individualism and self-actualization with which Ibsen's drama became synonymous, Robins regarded Ibsen as a standard bearer for her own dreams of a future in which equality between the sexes would be achieved.

Late Victorian and Edwardian society came to associate Ibsen's work with progressive attitudes to contemporary sexual and social issues (divorce, the marriage laws, the "double standard" women's desire for autonomy, etc.) ventilated in the natural-sounding dialogue in the plays of his middle period. Ghosts (1881) did much to consolidate his reputation as a courageous taboo-breaking dramatist. The play intimates the tragic consequence of venereal disease for women and children and was privately performed in London on a subscription-only basis to the Independent Theatre Society at the Royal Theatre in March 1891, in order to avoid censorship from the Lord Chamberlains office.

The "Ibsenism" that Robins espoused represented both a challenge to moral convention and a repudiation of the idea of womanly duty, disturbing some of the most firmly rooted assumptions of late Victorian Britain and dividing literary and theatrical circles into impassioned detractors and defenders of his work. While the Ibsenite "gospel was to a large extent preached by women," (5) Ibsen's own relationship to the reform movements and to the Norwegian Women's Rights League in his own country was complicated. As loan Templeton suggests, Ibsen's much-quoted disavowal of feminist appropriations of The Doll's House reflects his desire to prevent himself and his work from being co-opted by any cause or persons and is not a "precise reference to the dramatist's purpose in writing A Doll's House twenty years earlier. …

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