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Lukacs/Ibsen: tragedy, selfhood, and "real life" in The Master Builder and When We Dead Awaken.

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. Before the age of twenty, Lukacs aspired to be a playwright (albeit with doubts about his abilities), wrote drama criticism as well as plays, and was co-founder of The Thalia Theatre, where Ibsen's works were produced (along with Strindberg and Hauptmann) and where, as Arpad Kadarkey reports, the artistic climate was "infused with Ibsen's dramatic spirit." (7) Kadarkey refers, indeed, to the "mesmerizing impact" that Ibsen had on Lukacs in these early years, and to the younger man's "obsession" with the dramatist. (8)

The one actual meeting between the two occurred in 1902, some three years after the completion of When We Dead Awaken, when Lukacs's father provided him with the train fare to Norway to visit the son's hero. Ibsen had experienced a second stroke in the preceding year but, in Kadarkey's recount, "his mind was as brilliant as ever. Ibsen's restless daemon, questioning and searching men's hearts, the chastiser and visionary--all this stamped Lukacs for the rest of his life. At seventeen, Lukacs looked to Ibsen as the incomparable master who, more than Shakespeare, had wrestled the secret from life." (9) Lukacs identified strongly with certain of Ibsen's characters and plays as well as with the playwright's social rebellion and iconoclastic predisposition. In this relation, Kadarkey describes a Lukacs who "struck up a fraternal union with Ibsen's protagonists--Brand, Peer Gynt, Rosmer, Hedda Gabler, Rubek." (10) Indeed, the plays that Lukacs wrote in his teens, no doubt emulative of the admired dramatist, had a "kinship" with Ibsen's late dramas especially, including When We Dead Awaken. (11)

"The Sociology of Modern Drama," published originally as the second chapter of Lukacs's A History of the Development of Modern Drama, appeared approximately eight years after his meeting with Ibsen and five years after the playwright's death in 1906. It is a peculiar document in many ways, not only stylistically but due also to assertions, interpretations, or references that can be read as anachronistic or as specialized in terms of the historical setting that is ostensibly addressed and critiqued. (12) Still, it stands by itself (that is, apart from the larger work) as an ambitious, powerfully felt treatise on circumstances that the author views as new (but diminished in this regard) with respect to dramatic character as constrained specifically by conditions of modernity in comparison with older theater traditions, primarily those of the Renaissance. In brief, the essay disparages a theater of the bourgeoisie, going so far as to question the authenticity, and even the potential existence, of a drama that can reflect only a sharply curtailed individuation of character and experience. While there is no surprise in Lukacs not including Ibsen in his vision of a modern drama impoverished by uniformity, it is curious--again, given the past relationship and strong identification--that he does not refer more directly to Ibsen's (or even Strindberg's) characters as exemplary of a notable exception or countertrend. Instead, there is incidental mention of five of Ibsen's characters: Hedda (438), Gregers Werle and Ekdal (442), Oswald and Doctor Rank (449). (13) Although Solness and Rubek are by no means reflective of the social or historical ills or trends that Lukacs describes, each figure can be understood nonetheless as a model of individuation, but in a strongly affirmative way--and in the case of Solness particularly, of modernist characterization in tragedy.

In further contradiction, it appears incongruous that Lukacs, at age twenty-six and prior to his recanting of his early dramatic criticism, should consistently draw comparisons of the "new" drama of the bourgeoisie and of individualism with an "old" tradition of tragedy, by way of marking what has been lost to the drama. Tragedy in the pure sense is, after all, an exceedingly rare phenomenon, aesthetically and philosophically as well as historically. And yet, Lukacs refers comparatively and generically to ancient and Renaissance tragedy, to a system of beliefs that attends such drama, to attributes of the tragic hero, and to aspects of destiny or fatality that are, in his view, sacrificed to the new drama of individuation, uniformity, and pathology. Interestingly, he makes no mention of science or psychiatry, or other discoveries of the age in which he writes, as in any way connected with a disappearance of tragedy in its traditional forms and associated belief systems.

Halvard Solness is among a select few characters with authentic tragic stature in modernist drama. He inhabits not only an immediate sphere of home and workplace but also the more rarified and cosmic setting that Ibsen implies through layers of ironic signification and through Solness's discourse with "Him"--that is, with divinity. (14) Solness's guilt is ambiguous: on the one hand, he is absolved in such matters as the deaths of his sons following the fire that destroys the family home; at the same time, he is implicated in the ruin of his marriage and in the treatment of those around him, notably the Brovik father and son, and Kaja Fosli. His pursuit of the "impossible," especially in concert with the young Hilda Wangel, leads him inexorably to a tragic boundary, and finally to a height where death is the only possible outcome. Solness, as Bernard Shaw pointed out in reviewing The Master Builder, is "daimonic, not sham daimonic like Molvik in The Wild Duck, but really daimonic, with luck, a star, and mystic 'helpers and servers' who find the way through the maze of life for him." (15) Moreover, Solness is a direct reflection of Ibsen himself: the playwright acknowledged, as Halvdan Koht notes, that this play "contained more of his own self than any other." (16)

In the "Sociology," Lukacs delineates contrasts among character, environment, and destiny: "In Greek and even in Shakespearean drama we can still easily distinguish between man and his environment, or, speaking from the viewpoint of drama, between the hero and his destiny. But now these lines of division have blurred." And further: "Destiny is what comes to the hero from without. If we are to continue composing dramas, we must hold to this definition regardless of whether it is true in life." (17) There is a question: "To what extent is modern man the enactor of his actions"--and then, in Lukacs's summation: "All reflection on the drama comes to this: how does man achieve a tragic action? Is it indeed he who achieves it? By what means? The question truly at the bottom of the theory of tragic guilt is this: did the tragic personage really do his tragic deed, and if he did not, can it be tragic?" It is here that Lukacs poses the question of dramas survival under the circumstances: "We have to ask whether there can still be a drama. The threat to it is indisputably great, and in naturalism, for instance, we see that it virtually ceases to be dramatic." (18)

Aside from the categorical and questionable aspects of this assertion, the question of tragic guilt is more ambiguous than Lukacs would suggest. From ancient tragedy forward, it is more likely the case that guilt and non-guilt go hand in hand, are complementary and even necessary to the tragic weave of dramatic character and circumstance. Indeed, it is typically a more inclusive and not always readable pattern of individual action in combination with a variably transcendent context that ensures an authentically tragic impression. This is the case for Solness, who is both implicated and exonerated--although he is more properly a protagonist than "hero" (or heroic). And, in further ambiguity, his "destiny" comes from within and also from without. The characterization of Solness is psychological in ways that are strikingly unusual by comparison to other figures in Ibsen's plays where mental processes are foregrounded--including, say, Hedda Gabler, whose pathology is a prominent motivator in the play's events, interrelations, and repercussions. For Solness, interiority is a combination of rationality with obsessiveness, prescience, and consciousness of "helpers and servers," not to mention a concurrent, if "impossible," metaphysical discourse. These factors do, in fact, comprise his destiny, and might well be construed as coming from without as well as within. The ironically opportune arrival of Hilda Wangel, the embodiment of such a destiny, would appear to be from without--unless, in his prescience, Solness has been able to summon her within, even while dreading the arrival of "youth" at his door.

Despite the omission of Solness from the "Sociology," Lukacs was by no means unaware of the character's tragic qualities. In fact, in his "Thoughts on Henrik Ibsen" (1906, the year of Ibsen's death), Lukacs refers to characters who were "born for tragedy," including Solness:
   Earlier, Ibsen accorded tragedy to the forces that restrained the
   individual and his potential; now tragedy originates in individuals
   who act upon and experience the opportunities available to them.
   The opportunities reside in the characters' very souls; there is
   something demonic about these characters and their ability to
   achieve great things. At the same time, there are forces which
   prevail over the characters and impel them in a certain direction.
   And at the end of the road disaster awaits them. There is Solness
   climbing up the church spire; there is Rebecca West sending Beata
   to her death [Rosmerholm], and there is Borkman embezzling the
   bank's money [John Garbriel Borkman]. These characters are unable
   to resist their own selves. (19)

Not only does this passage address Solness's tragic qualities, it speaks to the destiny that comes to a tragic character from without as opposed to within: a figure such as Solness is personally "demonic," and yet there are other forces also, and ones that "prevail," that drive him to his fate. "Ibsen's characters cannot resist," Lukacs writes, "they cannot stop lest they suffocate, and therefore they press forward to the disaster that awaits them." (20)

But this is not the language of the "Sociology," which comes five years after the "Thoughts" and does not characterize Solness, or any other of Ibsen's characters, in a like fashion. Solness is omitted, yet a palpable, albeit tacit, association of his identity with Lukacs's arguments can still be discerned, perhaps especially so with respect to this character's power of will. In the "Sociology," Lukacs declares that "a drama remains possible so long as the dynamic force of the will is strong enough to nourish a struggle of life and death dimensions, where the entire being is rendered meaningful." And continuing: "Man grows dramatic by virtue of the intensity of his will, by the outpouring of his essence in his deeds, by becoming wholly identical with them." (21) Here, too, Solness is exemplary in the context, in the sense that "will" is precisely what defines his desire and manner of action. Indeed, the relationship of Solness and Hilda Wangel is, at the beginning and end of their relationship, to a large extent a matter of will. Soon after her arrival at his home, when she relates the story of their first encounter at Lysanger, Solness is at first disbelieving, then changes his mind: "I must have willed it. Wished it. Desired it." (22) Later, in the second act, when he is telling Hilda about the fire and about his prior awareness of the crack in the chimney as potentially hazardous, he is again conscious of the force of will in the events around him:

Solness (confidingly): Don't you believe with me, Hilda, that there are certain special, chosen people who have a gift and power and capacity to wish something, desire something, will something--so insistently and so--so inevitably--that at last it has to be theirs? Don't you believe that?

Hilda (with an inscrutable look in her eyes): If that's true, then we'll see someday--if I'm one of the chosen.

Solness: It's not one's self alone that makes great things. Oh no--the helpers and servers--they've got to be with you if you're going to succeed. But they never come by themselves. One has to call on them, incessantly--within oneself, I mean. (830)

Earlier, Solness mentions the power of will and suggestion to Dr. Herdal, with respect to the hiring of Kaja Fosli: "The fact that she thought I'd told her what I had only wished and willed--all in silence, inwardly. To myself" (797). For Solness, in fact, "will" is all-embracing, affecting not only his desire, career path, and effect upon others, but also the drive that brings him back to the top of a church spire for his confrontation with "Him." With reference to Lukacs's phrasing in the "Sociology," Solness's will provokes a conflict of "life and death dimensions." He "grows dramatic" to a significant degree because of the "intensity of his will" and through "becoming identical" with deeds that are the direct consequence of the will's exertion. Summarizing, Lukacs asserts that "where the tragedy was previously brought on by the particular direction taken by the will, the mere act of willing suffices to induce it in the new tragedy." (23) Yet Solness, a figure contemporary with his time, is more exemplary of the "old" than "new" in this relation; the course of action in The Master Builder is strongly reliant upon a destiny that results in large measure from Solness's will, more so than the mere act of willing that he himself describes (yet which is mysterious, even to him).

For Lukacs, a mythology, or mythos, is indispensable. "The old drama was founded in a universal sensibility, unifying and meta-rational, which circumscribed as well as permeated its composition and psychology." By contrast, "the foundations of the new drama are rational: from its origins it lacks the quality of mystical religious emotion." (24) Tragedy is, properly, Dionysian, and its beginnings in a religious context are fundamental to its nature. Ancient tragedy is ceremonial, and responsive to a cosmos of divinities and of daimon. Occasions when these dimensions have been recovered are historically rare indeed--appearing most notably in the work of dramatists such as Racine or Corneille with reference to classical precedent. Even in the Renaissance drama, which Lukacs includes with the admired "old" the ancient mysteries are not truly replicated, even through supersensory depictions, as in Shakepearean tragedy.

Here also, The Master Builder is the exception to the rule as Lukacs would have it, in this instance with respect to the play's debt to an individual as well as a shared mythology. In this connection, in fact, there is a corollary problem of dramatic character, and of individuation, with respect to Solness or to him and Hilda Wangel in combination. The mythology that belongs to Solness is to some degree psychological--or psychic--but to a different extent it belongs to a realm that is exterior, embracing, and metaphysical. The distinction here is key, as Lukacs differentiates between figures in drama that are depicted with or without the element of mythos: "When a mythology is absent--which explains why this case is perhaps more striking than others--the basis on which everything must be justified is character." (25) With Solness, however, there is mythology that resides within as well as outside--it is personal, intuited, yet also beyond the self and far-reaching. For him, the cosmos can include trolls and devils along with "helpers and servers" as well as the deity with whom he would argue. Moreover, Solness's mythology is one of retribution, and here the implications are by no means strictly personal or confined to the depicted character alone.

As Lukacs argues: "The new life lacks a mythology; what this means is that the thematic material of tragedies must be distanced from life artificially. For the aesthetic significance of mythology is twofold. In the first place it projects, in the concrete symbols of concrete fables, man's vital emotions concerning the most profound problems of his life." (26) The Master Builder is not constructed upon "concrete fables," although it includes Hilda's insistence upon her Kingdom of Orangia as well as Solness's convictions concerning castles in the air "on a solid foundation" (856). Yet the play's mythos is not completely individuated. Hilda's understandings--"The impossible? (Vivaciously.) Oh yes! You know it too?" (826)--ensures that Solness is not alone with his prescience, imaginings, or transcendent beliefs. In this instance, then, the requisite mythology is neither widely shared nor is it strictly personal, and Solness comes across, appropriately, as a figure who inhabits a psychological but also a metaphysical realm, at once. When Lukacs refers to a unity of "man's vital emotions" and the "most profound problems of his life," his reference is to humankind as opposed to individual character, and to a shared mythos over a solitary belief system as a basis for tragedy. Yet Solness's mythologies and aspirations are, it should be noted, portrayed by Ibsen as generalized or inclusive as well as particular--including the builder's ultimate conviction that he can speak to Him directly, as at Lysanger: "Hear me, Thou Almighty! From this day on, I'll be a free creator--free in my own realm, as you are in yours" (854).

"Tragedy itself has become problematic," says Lukacs--and here, of course, there is the possible anachronism of characterizing an ancestry of tragic drama in a modernist context. He writes: "There are, that is, no longer any absolute, overriding, external, easily discerned criteria by which one judges whether a given man and a given destiny are tragic. The tragic becomes strictly a matter of viewpoint, and--important as a problem of expression--strictly an inward, spiritual problem." (27) As articulated here, the "problematic" aspect is linked closely to the need for mythology--that is, an inclusive context for the tragic action, destiny, or individual. There is, however, a sense in which tragedy is always problematic, and along similar lines. The contours of a tragic progression are typically not "easily discerned," even though situations and events themselves may be clearly demarcated. Tragedy retains its mysteries, together with its sparagmatic and Dionysian aspects. In The Master Builder, it may be obvious early on that Hilda Wangel is the incarnation of Solness's fate, but the intricacy of how their relationship plays out is a different matter entirely. (28) The tragic vision, in fact, has tended historically toward ambiguity over clarity, to what is contrary over what is absolute. Concurrently, though, tragedy retains recognizable and definable features, including (and perhaps especially) the intrinsic aspect, the relentless interior mechanisms that have signaled the destinies of characters in drama since the ancient beginnings. Lukacs suggests that, lacking a shared belief system for tragedy, the tragic becomes linked with point of view and, as such, is drawn inward, becoming more singular and thus diminished. Yet in this instance, too, The Master Builder can be consulted as a contrary case in point. Solness's tragedy is eminently personal, yet it develops and runs its course along classical lines. In his approach to, or transgression of, the god-realm, Solness is recognizable among characters from Oedipus to Faustus and beyond. While Solness's drama may well be one of "individualism," if extraordinarily so, it by no means sacrifices historical resonance, authentic tragic authority, or a present-day application as a result.

Ultimately, Lukacs identifies the disdained, "new" drama of the personal with what is pathological, providing yet another slant on the diminution of modern character in tragedy. In this connection, Solness can be apprehended in ways that bridge the "old" and "new" drama. Lukacs points to the present need for characters who, lacking the tragic stature of earlier times (or at least the belief systems that might ensure such stature), must have "a single quality, exaggerated to a degree beyond any found in life, so that this single quality will be seen to rule the entire man and his destiny as well" In his view, the extremity of this characteristic signifies "a kind of illness, a pathological overgrowth of a certain specific into the whole life of a man." (29) Clearly, Solness can be understood as representing precisely this tendency; his psychological well-being is portrayed throughout the play as controversial in his own eyes as well as through the perspectives of Hilda, Dr. Herdal, and Aline. Even though his pathology is marked, however, and even as it is all-embracing, encompassing his "whole life," it cannot stand for a reduction of Solness's prescience, insight, belief in the "impossible," or tragic qualities more generally. Instead, his pathology--which is to say his mental apartness, imbalance, or singularity--is portrayed as elevating, unique, exalted, even as it destroys. In sum, and contrary to his near omission from the "Sociology," Ibsen represents in several ways the survival of what Lukacs would claim had been lost to the drama. Halvard Solness, as a prominent example, is a supreme embodiment of what Lukacs would ostensibly mourn and disparage, including modernist individuation, mythos, and pathology, each of which can, as in the case of The Master Builder, be components vital to a character's tragic stature.

Lukacs opens "The Metaphysics of Tragedy" with a quotation from Ibsen--"Whoever sees God, dies ... but can he who has been seen by God continue to live?"--but after that there is infrequent mention of the playwright. (30) Indeed, the focus of the essay, in its latter sequences especially, is on Paul Ernst, a theorist and dramatist of lesser consequence than Lukacs imagines but one whose theory and dramatic work prompts in this instance a stunning inquiry into self, "real life," essentiality, and what Lukacs identifies as the pale of a tragic "frontier." Here, again, a document is encountered that bears a singular kinship with Ibsen's later plays, and to the portrayals of Arnold Rubek and Halvard Solness in particular. In the case of Rubek, as with Solness, there is a direct reflection of the playwright himself in his later years, and of Ibsen's own soundings of a metaphysical or transcendent order in the tragic context. (31) Yet Rubek's complexity is quite different from that of Solness, and in the sculptor's case it is not so much a state of mind that is depicted but rather an intricate state of aesthetic being as it is rarified into apotheosis and approaches death.

Rubek is not drawn as individually or with the particularity of Solness, a figure that Ibsen portrays as solitary, isolated by his own psyche and barren marriage, in pursuit of the "impossible," with only the society of Hilda Wangel to alleviate--even as she complicates--the singularity of his existence. Rubek, by contrast, is shown collectively as not only sharing encounters with the other characters but as being those figures together with himself, as if they are projections of his psyche or that he has summoned them into being. To borrow Richard Schechner's perfect term, the people in When We Dead Awaken are "aspectival." (32) Maja is Rubek's wife, Irene, his former model and muse, and Ulfhejm, the earthy hunter who attracts Maja away--but all are aspects of the sculptor, the creator of "Resurrection Day," and are figures of his memory and vision, his artistic and existential reckonings. Albert Bermel, who shares Schechner's view, refers to the setting of the play as "the soul of Arnold Rubek." In Bermel's description, the four major roles are "variations on one character. They are all Rubek, pulled in different directions." (33) Of course, the artist/muse entity is the central one, with the other characters secondary to the unity of Rubek and his ideal, his own "impossible," embodied as the ghostly and vengeful Irene.

When We Dead Awaken does not qualify as tragedy in the way that The Master Builder does, even though each play culminates in the central figure's death upon the reaching of a height that is "impossible," that cannot be borne. Ibsen in the later play does not intend nor approximate the intrinsically tragic mechanisms that are so clearly at work in the earlier one. Yet in each case there is the "daemonic" aspect within the central figure and at large. Schechner notes, with respect to When We Dead Awaken, the "daemonic characters" that are "at once personified thoughts of the hero and pure daemonization introjected into the hero's psyche." (34) While Solness, in his imprecations and arguments with "Him," becomes aligned with an ancestry of tragic figures who have challenged and then been subordinated to gods or fatalities, Rubek does not belong to this heritage. His accounting is not with divinity per se but with artistry, and with what for him has become an unachievable coexistence of art and being. Still, there are authentically tragic alignments in this play that pertain, and do so strongly. When We Dead Awaken is, in Brian Johnston's phrasing, a "tragedy of consciousness" (35)--and it is in this relation, together with the master builder's prescience, that we find the closest of Ibsen's connections with what Lukacs calls the "metaphysics" of tragedy, and, within that compass, what he terms "real life." In Lukacs's description:
   Real life is always unreal, always impossible, in the midst of
   empirical life. Suddenly there is a gleam, a lightning that
   illumines the banal paths of empirical life: something disturbing
   and seductive, dangerous and surprising; the accident, the great
   moment, the miracle; an enrichment and a confusion. It cannot last,
   no one would be able to bear it, no one could live at such
   heights--at the height of their own life and their own ultimate
   possibilities. One has to fall back into numbness. One has to deny
   life in order to live. (36)

Both Solness and Rubek exist within this apparent paradox of the real and unreal and in relation to an "impossible." However, whereas Solness is depicted in a world that for him is at once empirical and transcendent, Rubek already stands apart from empirical life--from the beginning scenes of When We Dead Awaken, he intuits and is already moving in the direction of the only "real life" he can now experience, on the mountain heights where he is conjoined again, albeit in death, with Irene. Neither Solness nor Rubek can survive at the height to which they must ascend, be it a church spire or mountain peak, yet "real life" is only conceivable at the acme, the end of the ascent, as a progression from an intrusion--the "gleam"--toward the "real," beginning in effect with the arrival of Hilda Wangel and the reappearance of Irene, respectively.

In When We Dead Awaken especially, the relation of life and death is interwoven and paradoxical. Irene is fully embodied in the drama, yet she claims to be dead, as Rubek's victim, the sacrifice of his duty to artistry over sensuality. Rubek himself is alive in the action, yet his death (much like Solness's) is shown as inevitable. With reference to the play's final sequence, as Rubek and Irene ascend the mountain while Maja and Ulfhejm descend, the four of them meeting in a fulcrum encounter, Michael Meyer points to the paradox, that of the latter two returning "to what they think is life but what Rubek and Irene regard as death, while Rubek and Irene climb upwards to what the others regard as death but they regard as life. As long as people remain imprisoned in flesh, Ibsen seems to say, they are dead; it is only when the body dies that the dead awaken." (37) And yet, the death that is approached by Rubek and Irene, resulting from an event in nature (the avalanche) is also what Lukacs calls "real life"--the impossible, pinnacle moment when all is manifest, clarified, and essential. Essentiality, too, is a component of the "real" for both figures, but especially so for Rubek. Solness believes, or successfully convinces himself, that he can climb and crown the spire despite his vertigo, and that life and career can continue "on a solid foundation." For Rubek, though, all of the past is gone, together with the trappings of home and artistic career. He is alone from the play's opening scene, even as he stands for and among the other characters, and over the course of action he is progressively reduced in relation to externals even as he is enlarged in vision and interiority.

As Lukacs asserts in the "Metaphysics": "Naked souls conduct a dialogue here with naked destinies. Both have been stripped of everything that is not of their innermost essence; all the relationships of life have been suppressed so that the relationship with destiny may be created; everything atmospheric between men and objects has vanished, in order that nothing should exist between them but the clear, harsh mountain air of ultimate questions and ultimate answers." (38) In the case of Rubek, the "relationship with destiny" is dramatized with especial effectiveness, particularly so in the character's determination to reclaim the muse, or to reassert himself as susceptible to a muse through Irene--and if that is unattainable, then to achieve that essential moment of the self's definition nonetheless. This, too, is "real life"--not linked specifically to Ibsen in the "Metaphysics," yet still with a connection that Lukacs identifies elsewhere as "true" or "genuine" life. In his "Thoughts on Henrik Ibsen," Lukacs conjoins the "impossible" with the character's life at the end point: "The Ibsenian hero pursues the impossible. His soul dreams of the impossible; he wants to experience it even if for a moment. And after that? 'He who sees the face of God, dies', said Brand. Perhaps Ibsen's heroes no longer want to live any more. I have a feeling that for his heroes, having attempted the impossible, life itself no longer holds any meaning. After all, the impossible moment constituted the true life, and after that the hero's life sinks and declines. Even if the hero continues to live, his life is not a genuine life." (39)

"Tragedy," writes Lukacs, "can extend in only one direction: upward." (40) In The Master Builder, Solness is compelled, in effect, to revisit a height that he has previously conquered, as the play brings full circle the initial, precipitating encounter with Hilda Wangel at Lysanger. In When We Dead Awaken, the scenic progression that reflects Rubek's journey takes the form of what Inga-Stina Ewbank calls a "rising gradient"--"beginning at sea level and ending in the high mountains." (41) Yet the shared theme of ascent in the two plays can be understood not only in relation to their tragic properties but with what Lukacs also associates with upward direction--specifically, the advancement on the part of character toward essentiality and, by extension, to a state of pure and realized selfhood. In this regard, Lukacs poses a question that queries not only abstraction but also temporality and duration: "This, then, is the paradox of drama and tragedy: how can essence come alive? How can it become the sensual, immediate, the only real, the truly 'being' thing?" (42) In the case of Rubek, who is drawn with more aesthetic abstraction and less physicality than Solness, "essence" is dramatized almost exclusively through Irene--that is, through the Irene/Rubek unity which contains of necessity a drama of oneness, of reunion, even though combined with murderous antagonism. For Rubek, this is the essential drama. What, after all, is more crucial for him than to relocate and then to claim the promptings of his artistry? "Essence" is brought to life by Ibsen through Rubek's progression back to his art even as he moves forward--upward--toward the essentiality of the final moments with Irene.

Rubek: I swear to you, Irene, our love isn't dead.

Irene: That love that belongs to life on earth--this lovely, miraculous earthly life--this life full of mysteries--that love is dead in us both.

Rubek (passionately): Do you realize, it's exactly that love--that scalds and burns in me now more than ever! (1090)

From Lukacs's point of view, the "great moments" in tragic drama are definitive of essentiality and of a selfhood that can only be achieved outside of the quotidian. In The Master Builder, these would include mastered instances of ironic appropriateness--most notably Hilda's arrival on the ten-year anniversary of the first encounter with Solness--but also the later scenes between the two of them that lead the builder inexorably toward the ascension. Similarly, in When We Dead Awaken, the "great moments" center on the return of Irene and, especially, the occasion of a mutual determination to continue up the mountain.

Irene (in an ecstasy of passion): No, no--up in the light and all its flaming glory. Up to the peak of promise!

Rubek: Up there we'll celebrate our marriage feast, Irene--my beloved! (1091)

In both plays, such moments stand utterly outside the empirical, and in each instance all of that which is nonessential, for Solness or for Rubek, has been stripped away, including the marriages of both figures. Lukacs writes in the "Metaphysics" that the core of the "great moments" is the "pure experience of self. In ordinary life we experience ourselves only peripherally--that is, we experience our motives and our relationships. Our life ordinarily has no real necessity, but only the necessity of being empirically present, of being entangled by a thousand threads in a thousand accidental bonds and relationships." (43) For Rubek as for Solness, a vital component of self is "real necessity," dramatized as the reuniting and conjoining with Irene, on the one hand, and the encounter with "Him" before Hilda, on the other.

Even as Ibsen effectively, albeit delicately, limns a metaphysical aspect in these late plays, examining such in conjunction with the "Metaphysics" enhances an understanding of their transcendental dimension and how it is accomplished. In Lukacs's reading of tragic drama, including the portrayal of the definitive or "great" moments, the factor of time's unity, and its compression, is critical. From his standpoint, the unity of time "is born of the desire to come as close as possible to the timelessness of this moment which yet is the whole of life"--meaning the "great" moments of essential self-definition. (44) In The Master Builder, again, Ibsen's tactic is to characterize the final confrontation with "Him" by comparison with the earlier one, thus compressing Solness's experience over ten years into a sharp and concentrated relief.

Solness (looking deep into her eyes): If I did try it, Hilda, I'd stand up there and talk to Him the same as before. Hilda (with mounting excitement): What would you say to Him?

Solness: I'd say: Hear me, Almighty God--you must judge me after your own wisdom. But from now on, I'll build only what's most beautiful in all this world--(856)

"Tragedy," Lukacs says, "is only a moment: that is the meaning of the unity of time; and the technical paradox contained in trying to give temporal duration to a moment which, by its very nature, is without such duration, springs from the inadequacy of expressing a mystical experience in terms of human language." (45) In the case of When We Dead Awaken, the tragic moment is achieved in much this way, in the sense that "temporal duration" is lent, as if paradoxically, to an isolated occasion of supreme intensity and brevity--the ecstatic final reunion of Rubek and Irene. In this instance, duration arises from the unity of action--all of the play's events and encounters lead toward the mountainside--yet it is accomplished more significantly through Ibsen's success at creating an impression of simultaneity, perhaps another facet of all the other characters being projections, or "aspectival" with respect to Rubek.

Lukacs asserts that "tragic drama has to express the becoming-timeless of time. To fulfill all the conditions of unity is actually to unite the past, the present, and the future." He characterizes a tragic drama in which "every moment is a symbol, a reduced-scale image of the whole, distinguishable from it only by its size. To fit these moments together must therefore be a matter of fitting them into one another, not after one another." (46) Ibsen, a master of juxtaposition, typically prioritized in his dramas a precise (and often ironic) succession or counterpoise of events, as in the case of Solness predicting the arrival of "youth" to Dr. Herdal immediately prior to Hilda's knock at the door. In When We Dead Awaken, however, the dramatist accomplishes exactly what Lukacs describes--a fitting into rather than after--thereby creating the complementary effects of simultaneity, unity, and an essentiality that can appear to stand outside of empirical time. The action of the play unfolds as a dream, even while avoiding techniques or conventions commonly associated with expressionist or surrealist drama. It is, in large measure, a dream of resurrection, emerging from Rubek's sculpture "Resurrection Day" but leading more pointedly toward the encounter with "real life" shared by the sculptor and his muse/model. As the de facto author of the resurrection dream, Rubek fits events "into," rather than "after," one another, even as the play represents an ostensibly chronological succession. Rubek's dream is evident in fitted moments such as this, near the end of act one:

Irene (looks at him smiling almost imperceptibly, and whispers): Go instead high up into the mountains. As high as you can go. Higher, higher--always higher, Arnold.

Rubek (tensely expectant): Are you going up there?

Irene: Do you have the courage to meet me one more time? (1053)

As Bermel suggests, the characters in When We Dead Awaken "are not realistic because they are not only themselves. They must also play Rubek; they play him back to himself; to us in the auditorium they are independent figures; to him they are distorting mirrors." At the play's end, says Bermel, Rubek "hopes that at the heights he can meet himself beyond himself." (47) This, too, is his dream, with the foregoing moments in the action fitted into that "resurrection."

The ostensible paradox of a character achieving or recognizing self-hood only within an end moment of definitive essentiality is for Lukacs a necessary hallmark of tragedy. "The miracle of tragedy is a form-creating one." he writes, "its essence is selfhood." (48) It is not the case that Solness or Rubek is a different personage at the end of The Master Builder or When We Dead Awaken, but rather that all that is unessential has been subordinated. Moreover, the actual securing of a height, be it church spire or mountain peak, is not the definitive factor--Solness plummets from his tower and Rubek and Irene are swept away by avalanche before reaching their summit. More significant is the clarity of aspiration, and the self-recognition and definition that goes along with that vision. "The final tension of selfhood," says Lukacs, "overleaps everything that is merely individual. Its force elevates all things to the status of destiny, but its great struggle with the self-created destiny makes of it something supra-personal, a symbol of some ultimate fate-relationship." (49) In both cases, Solness's and Rubek's, the end is "supra-personal," especially to the degree that each figure is bound fatefully to another, as, in essence, to a co-self. (50)

When We Dead Awaken, to a more profound degree than The Master Builder, is situated on a boundary between life and death, with the two situated ambiguously with respect to one another. While each play is the charting of a final passage, the story of Rubek accentuates the qualities and atmospheres of the border zone itself more than The Master Builder does. M. S. Barranger points to the "death-in-life existences of both Rubek and Irene," which in one sense relate to Rubek's inability to love her as a woman as well as a muse, to her feelings in response to his attitude of remove, and to her consequent "death" as well as his. (51) In another sense, though, the idea of death-in-life, or the reverse, life-in-death, is central to the play's overall dialectic of creativity and sensuality on the one hand, with decay and remorse, but also resurrection, on the other--with this last term shown as consistently ambiguous. Rubek's "Resurrection Day" sculpture, originally the glorious and celebrative image of the young and naked Irene, turns in his later modifications to a grotesque and tormented portrayal of regret, peopled with the sculptor himself as the central figure of remorse among others with hidden animal faces. Within the present action of the play, is Rubek now hoping that he will be resurrected as an artist, as Barranger argues, or is he dreaming rather of a conjoined resurrection, spiritual if not corporeal, with his muse and model Irene? (52)

The life-in-death ambiguity, which so characterizes the zone in which When We Dead Awaken is played out, bears noteworthy resemblance to what Lukacs calls the "frontier" in tragic drama. As he says in the "Metaphysics": "The tragic life is, of all possible lives, the one most exclusively of this world. That is why its frontier always merges into death. Real, ordinary life never reaches the frontier; it knows death only as something frightening, threatening, meaningless, something that suddenly arrests the flow of life.... But for tragedy, death--the frontier as such--is an always immanent reality, inseparably connected with every tragic event." Continuing, Lukacs underscores the "conscious last moments when the soul has already given up the broad richness of existence and clings only to what is most deeply and intimately its own. Quite apart from these and many other negative reasons, death is also--in a purely positive and life-affirming sense--the immanent reality of tragedy." (53) It is notable here that Ibsen did not originally conceive of delivering Rubek and Irene to the "frontier," considering instead, as Koht reports, the option of "letting Rubek find life on the mountain heights, thus granting him the same grace as that other 'poet,' Peer Gynt." (54) In fact, however, Rubek must reach the frontier and pass through and beyond it, and do so not alone but in a merging with Irene. Rubek must arrive at his essentiality, his selfhood in a final sense, and the frontier is the only place for him (the soul) to locate what is "most deeply and intimately its own." For him, this is the only way to resurrection, and to awakening.

"Awakening," together with resurrection, are conjoined as the play's foremost metaphysical concerns. Rubek cannot return to his original, seminal conception for "Resurrection Day," but he can pursue and locate artistic and spiritual rebirth nonetheless, albeit at the frontier, when wedded, even in death, to Irene. With reference to When We Dead Awaken (Ibsen's "Epilogue") and the "Ibsen Cycle," Johnston notes that "Resurrection, or spiritual awakening, in fact, is the theme not merely of the Epilogue to the Cycle, but of the whole Cycle itself." (55) And yet, a paradox of such rebirth is that it must be realized through physical death. In Meyer's reading, "As long as people remain imprisoned in flesh, Ibsen seems to say, they are dead; it is only when the body dies that the dead awaken." (56) This contradiction, in fact, is at the heart of the metaphysics of When We Dead Awaken. For Lukacs, the concept of the frontier relates directly to that of awakening. In the "Metaphysics," he writes: "The experiencing of the frontier between life and death is the awakening of the soul to consciousness or self-consciousness--the soul becomes conscious of itself because it is thus limited, and only because and in so far as it is limited." (57) Here again, it is the factor not simply of limitation but of the concurrent essentiality, the stripping away of the prior existence of Rubek or Solness, that is coincident with an authentic, final consciousness of self, or "soul."

For Lukacs, "awakening" and the tragic are related, if not mutually dependent, terms. Tragedy, he writes, is "the awakening of the soul. The recognition of the frontier extracts the soul's essential nature, lets everything else fall away, but gives to this essential nature the existence of an inner and only necessity. The frontier is only outwardly a limiting and possibility-destroying principle. For the awakened soul it is the recognition of that which is truly its own." (58) Yet in spite of the "personal stake" which Kadarkey suggests that Lukacs had in When We Dead Awaken, the theorist does not, in the "Metaphysics," note any connection among tragedy, "awakening," and this particular play. (59) And yet this work, Johnston's "tragedy of consciousness," is profoundly concerned with the "frontier," and with a tragic awakening. In common with The Master Builder, it is a drama that is genuinely metaphysical along the lines suggested by Lukacs, in terms of its depiction of events as well as through the portrayals of character and psyche--and Ibsen's own metaphysics, the supersensory aspect of these dramas, is illumined by the comparison. Rubek, like Solness, must find "real life," as existing only above and beyond the empirical. Each must locate and then confront and pass into the "frontier"--and for each it will be at a pinnacle. "Prodded by his daemonic ego, atop his peak," writes Schechner, "the artist catches a last glimpse of the immutable and ineffable." (60) This, indeed, is Rubek's recognition, and his claim to pure self, his aesthetic "soul." At last the sculptor takes the hand of his model, his "sanctified bride," as they resume their ascent:

Rubek (drawing her along with him): First, up through the mist, Irene, and then--

Irene: Yes, through all, all the mist--and then up to the topmost peak of the tower that gleams in the sunrise. (1091-92)

New Mexico State University


(1) Marvin Carlson, Theories of the Theatre (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984). Carlson notes that from Lukacs's "pre-Marxist years came a number of significant critical writings that established the young scholar as a major critic, even though he renounced these after his political conversion" (328).

(2) Georg Lukacs, "The Intellectual Physiognomy in Characterization," in Writer and Critic and Other Essays, ed. and trans., Arthur D. Kahn (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1970), 151.

(3) Ibid., 150.

(4) Ibid., 172.

(5) Ibid., 175.

(6) I distinguish between "The Sociology of Modern Drama" and the work in which it was a chapter, A History of the Development of Modern Drama, appearing in Hungarian in 1911 (and not yet translated into English) in which Ibsen is mentioned in various contexts.

(7) Arpad Kadarkay, Georg Lukacs: Life, Thought, and Politics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 31.

(8) Arpad Kadarkey, The Lukacs Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), 66.

(9) Kadarkey, Life, 28-29.

(10) Kadarkey, Reader, 66.

(11) Kadarkey, Life, 16-17. When We Dead Awaken is mentioned specifically in this connection, along with Little Eyolf and John Gabriel Borkman: "There can be no doubt that Lukacs's Kohn Gabriel, described by [Marcell] Benedek as a 'family drama,' was modeled on Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman. Like the old Ibsen, the young Lukacs was morbidly fascinated with the family whose drama operates within the triangular pattern formed by the husband and wife and the way their ruined life impinges on the destiny of the son."

(12) See, for example, G. H. R. Parkinson, Georg Lukacs (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977), vii. Parkinson characterizes the works of Lukacs's early years as "often obscure in style."

(13) Georg Lukacs, "The Sociology of Modern Drama," in The Theory of the Modern Stage (1968), ed. Eric Bentley (New York: Penguin, 1990; repr. Applause, 1997), 425-50. The "Sociology" was published in English in the Tulane Drama Review 9 (1965). Carlson dates its first appearance in Hungarian to 1911 (328); Bentley writes that it was "finished in 1909" (423).

(14) For additional discussion of Ibsen's use of irony in a cosmic as well as localized frame, see my own Irony and the Modern Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 13-37.

(15) George Bernard Shaw, "The Master Builder (1892)," in The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1913; New York: Hill and Wang, 1957), 120. For characterization of "daimon" in the ancient and tragic contexts, see, for example, Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, trans., John Raffan (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984). In Burkert's phrasing: "Daimon is occult power, a force that drives man forward where no agent can be named." And further: "Daimon is the veiled countenance of divine activity" (180).

(16) Halvdan Koht, Life of Ibsen, ed. and trans. Einar Haugen and A. E. Santaniello (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1971), 433. Elaborating, Koht adds, "Many of the problems that had filled [Ibsen's] mind in the last few years are concentrated in The Master Builder. There is much talk of mysterious forces, of a variety of 'demons' within, of unexpressed wishes translating themselves into action, of unconscious thoughts that have a life of their own, of the power of one spirit over another" (435).

(17) Lukacs, "Sociology," 427.

(18) Ibid., 428.

(19) Georg Lukacs, "Thoughts on Henrik Ibsen," in Kadarkey, Reader, 103-4.

(20) Lukacs, "Thoughts," 104.

(21) Lukacs, "Sociology," 429.

(22) Henrik Ibsen, The Complete Major Prose Plays (1965), ed. and trans., Rolfe Fjelde (New York: Penguin, 1978), 807. All quotations from The Master Builder and When We Dead Awaken are from this collection.

(23) Lukacs, "Sociology," 433.

(24) Ibid., 435.

(25) Ibid., 448.

(26) Ibid., 445-46.

(27) Ibid., 447.

(28) For assessment of the play's Dionysian aspects with attention to Solness and Hilda at its culmination, see Theoharis C. Theoharis, Ibsen's Drama: Right Action and Tragic Joy (New York: St. Martin's, 1996), 272-73, 277-82. In reference to Hilda's arrival and embodiment per se, Joan Templeton writes, "Not since Ghosts has there been such a sense of fatality in an Ibsen play. Hilda enters bringing Solness' death with her as though she were carrying it in her knapsack," in Ibsen's Women (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 266.

(29) Lukacs, "Sociology," 448.

(30) Georg Lukacs, "The Metaphysics of Tragedy," in Soul and Form, trans. Anna Bostock (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1974), 152.

(31) Michael Meyer, Ibsen: A Biography (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971). Meyer refers to When We Dead Awaken as "Ibsen's final account with himself," noting that, "nowhere do we find so complete and merciless a self-portrait as the character of Arnold Rubek" (786).

(32) Richard Schechner, "The Unexpected Visitor in Ibsen's Late Plays," in Ibsen: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Rolfe Fjelde (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965), 168.

(33) Albert Bermel, Contradictory Characters (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1973), 270, 276.

(34) Schechner, 167.

(35) Brian Johnston, The Ibsen Cycle: The Design of the Plays from "Pillars of Society" to "When We Dead Awaken" (University Park: Penn State University Press, 1992), 180.

(36) Lukacs, "Metaphysics," 153.

(37) Meyer, 783.

(38) Lukacs, "Metaphysics," 155.

(39) Kadarkey, Reader, 104. In his "Thoughts," Lukacs writes: "Rubek is unable to forsake his art, for his whole being pulsates with creativity. He must choose, but he is unable to choose. Even if he made a choice, his fate would be still tragic" (105). In this connection, Kadarkey notes: "Lukacs had a personal stake in Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken, whose central theme is that the work of art demands human sacrifices. Rubek's creative act had necessitated the exploitation of his model Irene's humanity, had required the draining of her life's essence, had exacted the death of her living soul" (111).

(40) Lukacs, "Metaphysics," 155.

(41) Inga-Stina Ewbank, "The Last Plays," in The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen, ed. James McFarlane (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 150.

(42) Lukacs, "Metaphysics," 156.

(43) Ibid., 156-57.

(44) Ibid., 158.

(45) Ibid.

(46) Ibid., 158-59.

(47) Bermel, 283, 285.

(48) Lukacs, "Metaphysics," 160.

(49) Ibid.

(50) As M. S. Barranger notes, "The heart of the matter in When We Dead Awaken is Rubek's resurrection from his former self as well as Irene's transformation into a bride of light." "Ibsen's Endgame: A Reconsideration of "When We Dead Awaken," in Modernism in European Drama: Ibsen, Strindberg, Pirandello, Beckett: Essays from Modern Drama, ed. Frederick J. Marker and Christopher Innes (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), 66.

(51) Ibid., 63.

(52) Ibid., 64.

(53) Lukacs, "Metaphysics," 160-61.

(54) Koht, 459.

(55) Johnston, 297.

(56) Meyer, 783.

(57) Lukacs, "Metaphysics," 161.

(58) Ibid., 162.

(59) Kadarkey, Reader, 111.

(60) Schechner, 164.
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