The following article was originally published in Personal Impressions. San Francisco: D.P. Elder & Morgan Shepard, Mar. 1900.
Criticism of Henrik Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken, his last drama, has centered around what is declared to be the non-reality of the characters -- a better word is the symbolism of the characters. The thought of the Far North has always so expressed itself. Nature's method of endowing men and women first of all with practicality is seemingly reversed. The motive forces of human nature are clothed with bodies and endowed with life. Such beings regard all that is external to these, including their nearest associates, as material completely subject to the molding power of the motive that rules them. Impractical as this is as a method of life, it has a certain effectiveness as a method of art. To picture half-true motives as completely controlling these lives, sincere even to utter recklessness, is to warn against the narrowing of life. Ibsen's purpose is to point a moral -- that men and women are not merely playmates, but primarily co-workers. And the action of the play is in bringing together those who have some common ground of aspiration.
Maia plays the part of absolute irresponsibility. The uncouth Ulfheim, whom she at last consents to wed, is, as the world goes, her equal -- she has as much to learn from him as he from her. She can teach him propriety and he can teach her that this life is more than play by giving her children of her own. The only hope of either's accomplishing any good is that their children will be better than they. And any fact or question concerning them is comparatively subordinate.
The interest centers in the relation of Rubek and Irene. Irene is insane, yet has much that is human in her. Her insanity was in not knowing whether Rubek, whom she has been separated from and yet loved all her life, is human or devilish, and this doubt is so crystallized in her that the change from one theory to the opposite is back and forth in a moment. She feels an impulse to kill him, and as quickly returns to her love of him. In the finale she trusts him completely, and with that regains possession of herself. Yet the fierceness of the mental struggle has been such as to leave her mind unable to grasp but one thought -- that she had regained him. She alone knew of the mortal dangers that surrounded them, but her mind refused to bring that knowledge to consciousness, and the meaning of the play is brought out by their giving their lives rather than forsaking their work of doing what they can to solve the mystery of life. They had lived most of their lives apart from each other. Then, in order to meet, they break every tie that the history of the world has proved it best to strengthen. Their hope lay in one another unregardful of all else. Their striving is great, and they sacrifice themselves to their idealism. They refuse in the last moment to seek the comfortable shelter that they know is "of the earth, earthy." Rubek again, as in earlier parts of his life, feels that sense desire profanes his soul and makes him unable to accomplish what they are striving for. And Irene, with the same feeling and with equal unconcern for surrounding dangers, is one with him in his attempt to mount "right up to the summit of the tower that shines in the sunrise." The storm envelopes them and they die together.
Ibsen has pictured life and history -- one-sided idealism again perishing -- and practicality, though almost irredeemably sensual, occupying the earth. No answer is given to the problem of the play -- how shall we dead awaken in this world? Partial answer would have been given if Rubek had, when he first knew Irene, recognized in her another being with aims and inspirations equal to his own. He did not realize the separation would render both of them helpless, dividing their lives into the useless halves of sensuality and uninspired drudgery.
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