The Quintessence of ibsenism / George Bernard Shaw

The Lady from the sea – 1888

Tiré de The Quintessence of ibsénism, de George Bernard Shaw, 1891

(…) Ibsen’s next play, though It deals with the old theme, does not insist on the power of Ideals to kill, as the two previous plays do. It rather deals with the origin of ideals In unhappiness, in dissatisfaction with the real. The subject of The Lady from the Sea Is the most poetic fancy imaginable. A young woman, brought up on the sea-coast, marries a respectable doctor, a widower, who idolizes her and places her in his household with nothing to do but dream and be made much of by everybody. Even the house- keeping is done by her stepdaughter : she has no responsibility, no care, and no trouble. In other words, she is an idle, helpless, utterly dependent article of luxury. A man turns red at the thought of being such a thing; but he thoughtlessly accepts a pretty and fragile-looking woman in the same position as a charming natural picture. The lady from the sea feels an indefinite want in her life. She reads her want into all other lives, and comes to the conclusion that man once had to choose whether he would be a land animal or a creature of the sea; and that having chosen the land, he has carried about with him ever since a secret sorrow for the element he has forsaken. The dissatisfaction that gnaws her is, as she interprets it, this desperate longing for the sea. When her only child dies and leaves her without the work of a mother to give her a valid place in the world, she yields wholly to her longing, and no longer cares for her husband, who, like Rosmer, begins to fear that she is going mad. 99At last a seaman appears and claims her as his wife on the ground that they went years before through a rite which consisted of their marrying the sea by throwing their rings into it. This man, who had to fly from her in the old time because he killed his captain, and who fills her with a sense of dread and mystery, seems to her to embody the mystic attraction the sea has for her. She tells her husband that she must go away with the seaman. Naturally the doctor expostulates declares that he cannot for her own sake let her do so mad a thing. She replies that he can only prevent her by locking her up, and asks him what satisfaction it will be to him to have her body under lock and key whilst her heart is with the other man. In vain he urges that he will only keep her under restraint until the seaman goes that he must not, dare not, allow her to ruin herself. Her argument remains unanswer- able. The seaman openly declares that she will come; so that the distracted husband asks him does he suppose he can force her from her home. ‘To this the seaman replies that, on the contrary, unless she comes of her own free will there is no satisfaction to him in her coming at all: the un- answerable argument again. She echoes it by demanding her freedom to choose. Her husband must cry off his law-made and Church-made bar- gain; renounce his claim to the fulfilment of her vows; and leave her free to go back to the sea with her old lover. Then the doctor, with a heavy heart, drops his prate about his heavy responsibility for her actions, and throws the responsibility on her by crying off as she demands. The moment she feels herself a free and responsible woman, all her childish fancies vanish: the seaman becomes simply an old acquaintance whom she no longer cares for; and the doctor’s affection produces its natural effect. In short, she says No to the seaman, and takes over the house- keeping keys from her stepdaughter without any further maunderings over that secret sorrow for the abandoned sea. It should be noted here that Ellida [call her Eleeda], the Lady from the Sea, seems more fantastic to English readers than to Norwegian ones. The same thing is true of many other characters drawn by Ibsen, notably Peer Gynt, who, if born in England, would certainly not have been a poet and metaphysician as well as a blackguard and a speculator. The extreme type of Norwegian, as depicted by Ibsen, imagines himself doing won- derful things, but does nothing. He dreams as no Englishman dreams, and drinks to make him- self dream the more, until his effective will is destroyed, and he becomes a broken-down, dis- reputable sot, carrying about the tradition that he is a hero, and discussing himself on that as- sumption. Although the number of persons who dawdle their life away over fiction in England must be frightful, and is probably increasing, yet their talk is not the talk of Ulric Brendel, Rosmer, Ellida, or Peer Gynt; and it is for this reason that Rosmersholm and The Lady from the Sea strike English audiences as more fantastic and less literal than A Doll’s House and the plays in which the leading figures are men and women of action, though to a Norwegian there is probably no difference in this respect.

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