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An analysis of the play by Henrik Ibsen

The following article is reprinted from Iconoclasts: A Book of Dramatists. James Huneker. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1907.

Rosmersholm was finished in 1886. It followed The Wild Duck, that ghastly mockery of Ibsen's own ideals, and in turn it was followed by The Lady from the Sea. The astonishingly fecund imagination that drew Gina Ekdal in The Wild Duck did not show any symptoms of fatigue in the characterization of Rosmersholm. Its first representation occurred on January 17, 1887. Bergen, Norway, and later Berlin, heard it twenty-five times in one season. London had its taste of the strange combination of evil and good on February 23, 1891; Paris, October 4, 1893, with Lugné-Poë's company. All Europe witnessed with astonishment Rosmersholm, and New York had its first English performance March 28, 1904, at the Princess Theatre by the Century players.

Rosmersholm is not an agreeable drama. Why anyone who prefers amusement should sit it out is strange: stranger still the impulse to abuse it because it does not give the same pleasure as the circus. Like Hamlet, Rosmersholm has a long foreground -- Emerson said the same of Walt Whitman. Hamlet comes before us after the mischief of his life has been worked, his father has been slain, his mother has married the slayer of her son's father, of her son's happiness. The first scene in Hamlet is illuminating; the first two acts of Rosmersholm are most perplexing to an audience unprepared for them by study. The technical error of the modern play lies here: until Act III we are left in darkness as to Rebekka's character and her ruling motives. Dr. Emil Reich proposed, merely as a matter of experiment, a schemata or a new scenario, in which the first two acts would show Rebekka West freshly arrived in Rosmersholm, her conduct with Beata Rosmer, the slow persecution of that unfortunate lady, and her death by suicide at the mill-dam. This idea has only one drawback -- Ibsen did not follow it when he planned his work.

The truth is that, notwithstanding its mastery of character, Rosmersholm must not be viewed as a drama following any previous model. Emile Faguet declines to consider any longer the northern dramatist as a realist. In his early prose dramas, when he filled in his canvas with jostling throngs, Ibsen was a painter of manners; but as he grew, as his method became less that of his predecessors and more of his own, the action became more intense. The modern psychologic drama was born, the drama in which wills collide, but not the will for trivial things. It is the eternal duel of the sexes, the duel of the old and the new. In this sombre atmosphere, subjected to many pressures by the black and alembicated art of the dramatic wizard, the circumstances that occur externally are of little significance, the dialogue spoken not to be accepted unless for its "secondary intention." Bald on its surface, its cumulative effect discloses the souls of his peole. Commonplace, even provincial as are their gestures, their surroundings, we presently see the envelope of humanity melt away, and soon exposed are the real creatures, the real men and women, exposed as in a dream. It is a cruel art this that unwraps by leaf the coverings of the human soul. With the average dramatist, clever though he may be, his inspiration compared to Ibsen's is like fire in a sheaf of straw -- the spark glows for an instant and then there is a vivid crackling of shallow flame. We witness the illuminated edge of an idea, and then it fades into the blackness. Ibsen's flame is more murky than brilliant; but it makes light the swamps he traverses on his irresistible progress to the mountains beyond.

Isolated then as is the milieu of Rosmersholm, its real territory is spiritual and not Rosmer's gloomy manor-house. The real and the ideal are indescribably blended. Only after much study does the character of Rebekka Gamvik, called West, yield its secrets. She was born in Finmark. Her mother, possibly of Lapp origin, had carried on an intrigue with Dr. West. Rebekka was its fruit. This she did not know until too late to avert a hideous catastrophe; it was not alone her illegitimacy that so horrified her when Rector Kroll informed her of it -- there were depths which she did not care to explore further, though she made the offer to Rosmer. Dr. West at his death bequeathed a small library to his adopted daughter, and this proved a Pandora box both to her and to Rosmersholm. Books of a "liberal" character filled the mind of the young woman with dangerous ideas; for like the disciple in Paul Bourget's novel, she speedily translated these ideas into action. As cunning as Becky Sharp, as amorous as Emma Bovary, as ambitious as Lady Macbeth, Rebekka West is the most complete portrait of a designing woman that we know of; she is more trouble-breeding than Hedda Gabler.

Vernon Lee speaks of "the certainty that something is going on, that certain people are contriving to live, struggle, and suffer, such as I am haunted with after reading Thackeray, Stendhal, or Tolstoy." She quotes William James's phrase, "the warm, familiar acquiescence which belongs to the sense of reality." All greatly imagined characters in fiction and drama have this "organic, inevitable existence," which persists in the memory after the book is closed, after the curtain has fallen. Rebekka West is among these characters. She is more terrible than one of Felicien Rop's etched "Cold Devils." She grows in the mind like a poisonous vegetation in the tropics. More magnificent in her power to will and execute evil than Hedda Gabler, she weakens at the crucial hour; this same will is paralyzed by the old faiths she had sneered away. Edmund Gosse considers the failure of Rosmer as an instance of new wine fermenting in old bottles. Equally, in Rebekka's case, the old wine spoils in the new bottles.

Taking her courage in both hands the comely young woman contrives to enter the household of Rector Kroll, whose sister Beata is married to Rosmer. Kroll is a sturdy schoolmaster, an orthodox Conservative, settled in his conviction that the world was made for good churchmen with fat purses -- by no means a ludicrous or a despicable character. As drawn by Ibsen, his is a massive personality -- sane, worldly-wise, a man who hates the things of the spirit just as he hates radicalism. But he doesn't know this. And it is the irony of his fate that he utters those smug phrases dedicated by usage to matters spiritual, while he walks in the way of the flesh. A tower of strength, Kroll is more than the match for such a dreamer as Johannes Rosmer. Brendel, besides being a fantastic adumbration of Ibsen, has propulsive power. He changes, at each of his two appearances, the current of Rosmer's destiny.

Rebekka intuitively discerns this little rift in the armour of Kroll, and flatters the worthy teacher, flatters his wife until she smuggles herself beneath the Kroll roof-tree. There she encounters Rosmer and his wife Beata. The latter is attracted by the fresh, vivacious stranger with the free manners. Life at Rosmersholm is dull; Johannes is a student of heraldry and a poor companion. Again Rebekka moves. She is soon mistress of Rosmersholm. Her quick brain makes her a delight to the master, her hypocritical sympathy an actual necessity to his wife. Then begins the systematic undermining of both. She lends Dr. West's books to the clergyman, and she insinuates into the feeble brain of Beata the deadly idea that because of her childlessness she is no longer worthy to remain Madame Rosmer. Slowly this idea expands, and its growth is accelerated when Beata sees Johannes falling away from the faith of his fathers. Sick in body, sick in brain, the deluded woman is led step by step to the fatal mill stream. Before the confession that Rebekka is disgraced and must leave Rosmersholm at once, Beata recoils, and quickly commits suicide. And now the curtain rises on Act I.

While these facts are revealed by subtle indications in the dialogue, a feeling of dissatisfaction is also aroused. Not until Act III do we learn of them completely, then through Rebekka's defiant confession. This confession is brought about by a simple result, the failure of Rosmer to reach her ambitious expectations. He is an idealist, a hero of dreams, one who longs to step into the noisy arena of life and "ennoble" men. Little wonder his brother-in-law Kroll mocks him. A Don Quixote without the Don's courage. Surely Ibsen was smiling in his sleeve at this milk-and-water Superman, this would-be meddling reformer to whom he adds as pendant the pure caricature of Ulric Brendel. Full of the new and heady wisdom garnered from Dr. West's library, Rosmer resolves to break away from his political party, his early beliefs, his very social order. The insidious teachings of Rebekka flush his feeble arteries. He defies Kroll, and the war begins. It is not very heroic, principally consisting in mud-throwing by rival newspapers. Ibsen's vindictive irony -- for the episode was suggested by the disordered politics of Norway in 1885 -- has ample opportunities for expression in the character of Mortensgaard, the editor of the opposition journal, a man who has succeeded in life because, as Brendel truthfully says, he has managed to live without ideals. Mortensgaard is very vital. He is a scoundrel, but an engaging one in his outspoken cynicism. It is only in print that he hedges. As much as he desires the support of Rosmer, easily the most prominent man in the country-side, it is as Rosmer the priest and conservative and not Rosmer the radical. There are too many of the latter tribe!

This shifting of standards puzzles the clergyman; but when he learns that the editor has a letter written by Beata which might incriminate both Rebekka and himself, then he begins to see his false position, and also the peril of playing with such fire. Slowly he is undeceived as to Rebekka's character. He catches her eavesdropping, and is stunned by her confession of treachery and murder. In the last act the bewildered man hears another upsetting disclosure. On the eve of her departure for the north, and after Rosmer has made his peace with Kroll and his party, she blurts forth the fatal truth. She has long loved Rosmer, and that love, at first passionate, selfish, impelled her to crime; with the months came a great peace, and then, like a palimpsest showing through the corrupt training of her girlhood, her conscience asserted itself. Rosmersholm and the Rosmer ideals had begun their work of denudation and disintegration. If the Rosmer ideal ennobled, it also killed happiness, which really means that, the sting of her wickedness being extracted, the woman was powerless for good or for evil; she no longer had the inclination to descend into the infernal gulf of crime, nor had she the will power to live the higher life. The common notion is that Rebekka is converted by pure love. It is a suspiciously sudden conversion. Rather let us incline to the belief that the mainspring of her will was broken, even before Rosmer offered her marriage. Of a cerebral type, like the majority of Ibsen's heroines, the violence of her passion once cooled, she had nothing to make her life worthwhile. Her confession calmed her nerves; after it, like many notorious criminals, she was indifferent to the outcome.

In Rosmer the old churchly leaven began to work. Horrified by Rebekka's revelation, as disappointed in her as she was in him, he demanded why she had confessed her love. To give you back your innocence, she replied. Does he wish for another test? -- then make one, she will not fear it. Straightway the stern priest awakens in him; he has never cast off, despite his blasphemies, the yoke of the Lord. This woman that he loves was the murderess of his wife Beata. An eye for an eye! Expiation must be by blood sacrifice! Does she dare go out on the bridge across the stream and --? Rebekka, worn out, sick of the vileness of her soul, weary of this life which can now promise nothing, eagerly assents. She will go, and go alone. Soon the last tremor of manhood is felt in the superstitious brain of Rosmer. No, she shall not go alone. Together as man and wife, sealed by a kiss, they will go to eternity. And then the male moral coward and the female companion of his destiny walk calmly to their fate. The housekeeper watches them fall in the raging pool, and she is not as much surprised as one would imagine.

"The dead wife has taken them," she exclaims, for, like every one at Rosmersholm, she believes in the triumph of the dead.

Rebekka West recalls to Georg Brandes the traits of a Russian woman, rather than a Scandinavian. This is true. She might have stepped out of a Dostoyevsky novel. She is far more interesting because far more complex than Hedda Gabler, while not so modish or so fascinating. She is less of a moral monster than Hedda, and far braver. She, at least, has tested life and found its taste bitter in the mouth. Her eroticism we must take for granted; in the play she displays nothing of it; all is retrospective and introspective. The woman never contemplated suicide; but that way out of the muddle is as good as a wretched existence in some Finish village. Rosmer proposes the suicide, he dares not face his own wrecked ideals; it takes a man who is master of himself to master his fellows. Life is like running water in his hands; the woman he loved is a failure; all things come too late to those who wait. Of Rebekka's repentance Ibsen leaves us in no doubt; but that she would have elected self-slaughter for her end one strongly discredits. It is despair, not heroism, that exalts her. She committed a crime for love, and now that crime she will expiate by self-surrender to her lover's wish.

Browning would have delighted in such a theme as this, and might have developed it into a second Ring and the Book. But dramatically the English poet could never have beaten and bruised the idea into shape. Ibsen has surmounted perilous obstacles in his dramatic treatment of a purely psychological subject. We wish to witness a conflict of wills, and not the hearsay of such a conflict. Thus nearly two acts seem wasted before the real situation occurs at the close of Act II, when Rosmer proposes marriage. But so little does the poet care for incident, for detail, that Rosmersholm might be played in one scene; the main action takes place before the curtain goes up. The drama is a curious blending of several styles -- there are two motives and two manners. Both Free Will and Determinism -- not such Hegelian opposites as we imagine -- have each a share; while a mingling of romance and realism is shown in the narration and in the background. The White Horse of Rosmersholm is a colourful bit of symbolism, recalling Walter Scott; the accessory characters are the homeliest and most natural imaginable. Auguste Ehrhard, Ibsen's French admirer, has pointed out that in his subsidiary figures the dramatist is very lifelike and his chief characters are usually the mouthpieces of his theories.

The protagonist of Rosmersholm is Beata. She is seldom long absent from each of the four acts. She peers over the edges of the dialogue, and in every pause one feels her unseen presence. An appalling figure this drowned wife, with her staring, fish-like eyes! She revenges herself on the living in the haunted brain of her wretched husband, and she exasperates Rebekka, slowly wearing away her opposition until the doleful catastrophe. There is something both Greek and Gothic in this spectral fury, this disquieting Ligeia of the mill-dam.

We find the old hero and heroine obsessed by fate, replaced by this neurasthenic pair. The antique convention is altered, ancient values depreciated. A hero is no longer interesting or heroic; the heroine, a criminal, is no longer sympathetic. Yet we are enthralled by this spectacle; for if cultivated man disdains the crude dramatic pictures of lust and cruelty admired of his ancestors, he, nevertheless, hankers after tragedy. And it is for the modern that Ibsen has devised a tragic, ironic drama of the soul. In doing this the dramatist is the slave of his own epoch, for, to quote Goethe, a genius is in touch with his century only by virtue of his defects; he, too, must be an accomplice of his times.

Brandes has quoted Kierkegaard in relation to Ibsen's position: "Let other complain of his age as being wicked. I complain of it as being contemptible, for it is devoid of passion. Men's thoughts are thin and frail as lace, they themselves are the weakling lace-makers. The thoughts of their hearts are too paltry to be sinful." Browning has expressed the same sentiment in his poem, "The Statue and the Bust"; Ibsen transformed it into drama. His men are dreamers, his women devils; both stop short of the great renunciation or the great revolt. It is the realization of his failure that drives Rosmer and Rebekka with him to death. As her strength of will once dominated him, so his weakness ultimately overmasters her. She is a woman after all, a woman in whom instinct has cried so imperiously that it wrecks her soul. A fiddle may be mended, says Peer Gynt, but a bell, never! A cracked bell might be the symbol of this extraordinary drama.

Rosmersholm has a planetary moral, and not a theologic one. And the moral law cannot be transcended, he teaches in his elliptical style. He is in the uttermost analysis an optimist.

Those self-indulgent weaklings who seek in Ibsen's dramas for confirmation of their mediocre ideals will be sadly mistaken. Ibsen, if he teaches anything, teaches that the ego is a source of danger. It is in the delicate relations of the sexes that he reveals himself the sympathetic poet and healer. And what greater tragedy on earth is there than an unhappy marriage? Ever the moral idea is the motive of his plays, the one overarching idea of our universe: man's duty to himself, man's duty to his neighbour! That has been the chief concern of all the great dramatists, and to its problems this poet-psychologist has added his burden of the discussion.

In Rosmersholm we see how the self-deceptions of the man and woman who disregarded the natural law and worldly wisdom ruined their lives.

Dr. Wicksteed concludes that "the strength and weakness of Ibsen's much-discussed treatment of marriage lie in the fact that he does not deal with it as marriage at all, but as the most striking instance of the ever recurrent problem of social life, the problem that we may hide in other cases, but must face here, the problem of combining freedom with permanence and loyalty, of combining self-surrender with self-realization."

Faguet scores Brandes for denying that Ibsen alone among dramatists has used the symbol in a peculiarly poetic manner, proving that if Ibsen is a realist he is also a psychologist, who with his lantern illuminates the recesses of the soul. "For example," writes M. Faguet, "in Rosmersholm, northern nature in its entirety, with its savageness, its immense expanse of space, its broad horizons, its lofty heavens, is the symbol, to my mind, of the moral liberty to which aspire several characters of the play, as, indeed, do half of Ibsen's characters." Finally, the symbol is above all a means for the dramatic poet to give full expression to the poetry of his soul ... in Ibsen it is essentially a direct product of the author's poetic faculty.... [Ibsen was the first] dramatic poet to write symbolical dramas, that is to say, dramas into which a symbol is introduced occasionally by way of explanation or commentary, or as an element of beauty." The symbol, then, is not a sign of a weakened imagination, as some bigoted "psychiatrists" would have us believe.

And the interpretation of Rosmersholm! Not a half-dozen actresses on the globe have grasped the complex skeins of Rebekka West's character, and grasping them have been able to send across the footlights the shivering music of her soul.... It is a new virtuosity, a new fingering of the dramatic keyboard, that is demanded.

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