Love's Comedy (Annotated) - Henrik Ibsen - ebook

Henrik Johan Ibsen  was a major 19th-century Norwegian playwright, theatre director, and poet. He is often referred to as "the father of realism" and is one of the founders of Modernism in theatre. His major works include Brand, Peer Gynt, An Enemy of the People,Emperor and Galilean, A Doll's House, Hedda Gabler, Ghosts, The Wild Duck, When We Dead Awaken, Pillars of Society, The Lady from the Sea, Rosmersholm, The Master Builder, and John Gabriel Borkman. He is the most frequently performed dramatist in the world after Shakespeare, and by the early 20th century A Doll's House became the world's most performed play.

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Love's Comedy



Love's Comedy

Henrik Ibsen


Koerlighedens Komedie was published at Christiania in 1862. The polite worldso far as such a thing existed at the time in the Northern capitalreceived it with an outburst of indignation now entirely easy to understand. It has indeed faults enough. The character-drawing is often crude, the action, though full of effective by-play, extremely slight, and the sensational climax has little relation to human nature as exhibited in Norway, or out of it, at that or any other time. But the sting lay in the unflattering veracity of the piece as a whole; in the merciless portrayal of the trivialities of persons, or classes, high in their own esteem; in the unexampled effrontery of bringing a clergyman upon the stage. All these have long since passed in Scandinavia, into the category of the things which people take with their Ibsen as a matter of course, and the play is welcomed with delight by every Scandinavian audience. But in 1862 the matter was serious, and Ibsen meant it to be so.

For they were years of fermentthose six or seven which intervened between his return to Christiania from Bergen in 1857, and his departure for Italy in 1864. As director of the newly founded "Norwegian Theatre," Ibsen was a prominent member of the little knot of brilliant young writers who led the nationalist revolt against Danish literary tradition, then still dominant in well-to-do, and especially in official Christiania. Well-to-do and official Christiania met the revolt with contempt. Under such conditions, the specific literary battle of the Norwegian with the Dane easily developed into the eternal warfare of youthful idealism with "respectability" and convention. Ibsen had already started work upon the greatest of his Norse HistoriesThe Pretenders. But history was for him little more than material for the illustration of modern problems; and he turned with zest from the task of breathing his own spirit into the stubborn mould of the thirteenth century, to hold up the satiric mirror to the suburban drawing-rooms of Christiania, and to the varied phenomena current there,and in suburban drawing-rooms elsewhere,under the name of Love.

Yet Love's Comedy is much more than a satire, and its exuberant humour has a bitter core; the laughter that rings through it is the harsh, implacable laughter of Carlyle. His criticism of commonplace love-making is at first sight harmless and ordinary enough. The ceremonial formalities of the continental Verlobung, the shrill raptures of aunts and cousins over the engaged pair, the satisfied smile of enterprising mater-familias as she reckons up the tale of daughters or of nieces safely married off under her auspices; or, again, the embarrassments incident to a prolonged Brautstand following a hasty wooing, the deadly effect of familiarity upon a shallow affection, and the anxious efforts to save the appearance of romance when its zest has departedall these things had yielded such "comedy" as they possess to many others before Ibsen, and an Ibsen was not needed to evoke it. But if we ask what, then, is the right way from which these "cosmic" personages in their several fashions diverge; what is the condition which will secure courtship from ridicule, and marriage from disillusion, Ibsen abruptly parts company with all his predecessors. "'Of course,' reply the rest in chorus, 'a deep and sincere love'; 'together,' add some, 'with prudent good sense.'" The prudent good sense Ibsen allows; but he couples with it the startling paradox that the first condition of a happy marriage is the absence of love, and the first condition of an enduring love is the absence of marriage.

The student of the latter-day Ibsen is naturally somewhat taken aback to find the grim poet of Doubt, whose task it seems to be to apply a corrosive criticism to modern institutions in general and to marriage in particular, gravely defending the "marriage of convenience." And his amazement is not diminished by the sense that the author of this plea for the loveless marriage, which poets have at all times scorned and derided, was himself beyond question happily, married. The truth is that there are two men in Ibsenan idealist, exalted to the verge of sentimentality, and a critic, hard, inexorable, remorseless, to the verge of cynicism. What we call his "social philosophy" is a modus vivendi arrived at between them. Both agree in repudiating "marriage for love"; but the idealist repudiates it in the name of love, the critic in the name of marriage. Love, for the idealist Ibsen, is a passion which loses its virtue when it reaches its goal, which inspires only while it aspires, and flags bewildered when it attains. Marriage, for the critic Ibsen, is an institution beset with pitfalls into which those are surest to step who enter it blinded with love. In the latter dramas the tragedy of married life is commonly generated by other forms of blindnessthe childish innocence of Nora, the maidenly ignorance of Helena Alving, neither of whom married precisely "for love"; here it is blind Love alone who, to the jealous eye of the critic, plays the part of the Serpent in the Edens of wedded bliss. There is, it is clear, an element of unsolved contradiction in Ibsen's thought;Love is at once so precious and so deadly, a possession so glorious that all other things in life are of less worth, and yet capable of producing only disastrously illusive effects upon those who have entered into the relations to which it prompts. But with Ibsenand it is a grave intellectual defectthere is an absolute antagonism between spirit and form. An institution is always with him, a shackle for the free life of souls, not an organ through which they attain expression; and since the institution of marriage cannot but be, there remains as the only logical solution that which he enjoinsto keep the soul's life out of it. To "those about to marry," Ibsen therefore says in effect, "Be sure you are not in love!" And to those who are in love he says, "Part!"

It is easy to understand the irony with which a man who thought thus of love contemplated the business of "love-making," and the ceremonial discipline of Continental courtship. The whole unnumbered tribe of wooing and plighted lovers were for him unconscious actors in a world-comedy of Love's contrivingnaive fools of fancy, passionately weaving the cords that are to strangle passion. Comedy like this cannot be altogether gay; and as each fresh romance decays into routine, and each aspiring passion goes out under the spell of a vulgar environment, or submits to the bitter salvation of a final parting, the ringing laughter grows harsh and hollow, and notes of ineffable sadness escape from the poet's Stoic self-restraint.

Ibsen had grown up in a school which cultivated the romantic, piquant, picturesque in style; which ran riot in wit, in vivacious and brilliant imagery, in resonant rhythms and telling double rhymes. It must be owned that this was not the happiest school for a dramatist, nor can Love's Comedy be regarded, in the matter of style, as other than a risky experiment which nothing but the sheer dramatic force of an Ibsen could have carried through. As it is, there are palpable fluctuations, discrepancies of manner; the realism of treatment often provokes a realism of style out of keeping with the lyric afflatus of the verse; and we pass with little warning from the barest colloquial prose to the strains of high-wrought poetic fancy. Nevertheless, the style, with all its inequalities, becomes in Ibsen's hands a singularly plastic medium of dramatic expression. The marble is too richly veined for ideal sculpture, but it takes the print of life. The wit, exuberant as it is, does not coruscate indiscriminately upon all lips; and it has many shades and varietiescaustic, ironical, imaginative, playful, passionatewhich take their temper from the speaker's mood.

The present version of the play retains the metres of the original, and follows it in general line for line. For a long passage, occupying substantially the first twenty pages, the translator is indebted to the editor of the present work; and two other passages Falk's tirades on pp.58 and 100result from a fusion of versions made independently by us both.


MRS. HALM, widow of a government official.

SVANHILD AND ANNA, her daughters.

FALK, a young author, and LIND, a divinity student, her boarders.

GULDSTAD, a wholesale merchant.

STIVER, a law-clerk. MISS JAY, his fiancee.

STRAWMAN, a country clergyman.

MRS. STRAWMAN, his wife.



SCENEMrs. Halm's Villa on the Drammensvejen at Christiania.


The SCENE represents a pretty garden irregularly but tastefully laid out; in the background are seen the fjord and the islands. To the left is the house, with a verandah and an open dormer window above; to the right in the foreground an open summer-house with a table and benches. The landscape lies in bright afternoon sunshine. It is early summer; the fruit-trees are in flower.

When the Curtain rises, MRS. HALM, ANNA, and MISS JAY are sitting on the verandah, the first two engaged in embroidery, the last with a book. In the summer-house are seen FALK, LIND, GULDSTAD, and STIVER: a punch-bowl and glasses are on the table. SVANHILD sits alone in the background by the water.

FALK [rises, lifts his glass, and sings].

Sun-glad day in garden shady Was but made for thy delight: What though promises of May-day Be annulled by Autumn's blight?

Apple-blossom white and splendid Drapes thee in its glowing tent, Let it, then, when day is ended, Strew the closes storm-besprent.


Let it, then, when day is ended, etc.


Wherefore seek the harvest's guerdon While the tree is yet in bloom? Wherefore drudge beneath the burden Of an unaccomplished doom? Wherefore let the scarecrow clatter Day and night upon the tree? Brothers mine, the sparrows' chatter Has a cheerier melody.


Brothers mine, the sparrow's chatter, etc.


Happy songster! Wherefore scare him From our blossom-laden bower? Rather for his music spare him All our future, flower by flower; Trust me, 'twill be cheaply buying Present song with future fruit; List the proverb, "Time is flying;" Soon our garden music's mute.


List the proverb, etc.


I will live in song and gladness, Then, when every bloom is shed, Sweep together, scarce in sadness, All that glory, wan and dead: Fling the gates wide! Bruise and batter, Tear and trample, hoof and tusk; I have plucked the flower, what matter Who devours the withered husk!


I have plucked the flower, etc. [They clink and empty their glasses.

FALK [to the ladies]. Therethat's the song you asked me for; but pray Be lenient to itI can't think to-day.

GULDSTAD. Oh, never mind the sensethe sound's the thing.

MISS JAY [looking round]. But Svanhild, who was eagerest to hear? When Falk began, she suddenly took wing And vanished

ANNA [pointing towards the back]. No, for there she sitsI see her.

MRS. HALM [sighing]. That child! Heaven knows, she's past my comprehending!

MISS JAY. But, Mr. Falk, I thought the lyric's ending Was not so rich inwell, in poetry, As others of the stanzas seemed to be.

STIVER. Why yes, and I am sure it could not tax Your powers to get a little more inserted

FALK [clinking glasses with him]. You cram it in, like putty into cracks, Till lean is into streaky fat converted.

STIVER [unruffled]. Yes, nothing easierI, too, in my day Could do the trick.

GULDSTAD. Dear me! Were you a poet?

MISS JAY. My Stiver! Yes!

STIVER. Oh, in a humble way.

MISS JAY [to the ladies]. His nature is romantic.

MRS. HALM. Yes, we know it.

STIVER. Not now; it's ages since I turned a rhyme.

FALK. Yes varnish and romance go off with time. But in the old days?

STIVER. Well, you see, 'twas when I was in love.

FALK. Is that time over, then? Have you slept off the sweet intoxication?

STIVER. I'm now engagedI hold official station That's better than in love, I apprehend!

FALK. Quite so! You're in the right my good old friend. The worst is pastvous voila bien avance Promoted from mere lover to fiance.

STIVER [with a smile of complacent recollection]. It's strange to think of itupon my word, I half suspect my memory of lying [Turns to FALK. But seven years agoit sounds absurd! I wasted office hours in versifying.

FALK. What! Office hours!

STIVER. Yes, such were my transgressions.

GULDSTAD [ringing on his glass]. Silence for our solicitor's confessions!

STIVER. But chiefly after five, when I was free, I'd rattle off whole reams of poetry Tenfifteen folios ere I went to bed

FALK. I seeyou gave your Pegasus his head, And off he tore

STIVER. On stamped or unstamped paper 'Twas all the same to himhe'd prance and caper

FALK. The spring of poetry flowed no less flush? But how, pray, did you teach it first to gush?

STIVER. By aid of love's divining-rod, my friend! Miss Jay it was that taught me where to bore, My fianceeshe became so in the end For then she was

FALK. Your love and nothing more.

STIVER [continuing]. 'Twas a strange time; I could not read a bit; I tuned my pen instead of pointing it; And when along the foolscap sheet it raced, It twangled music to the words I traced; At last by letter I declared my flame To herto her

FALK. Whose fiancee you became.

STIVER. In course of post her answer came to hand The motion grantedjudgment in my favour!

FALK. And you felt bigger, as you wrote, and braver, To find you'd brought your venture safe to land!

STIVER. Of course.

FALK. And you bade the Muse farewell?

STIVER. I've felt no lyric impulse, truth to tell, From that day forth. My vein appeared to peter Entirely out; and now, if I essay To turn a verse or two for New Year's Day, I make the veriest hash of rhyme and metre, AndI've no notion what the cause can be It turns to law and not to poetry.

GULDSTAD [clinks glasses with him]. And trust me, you're no whit the worse for that! [To Falk. You think the stream of life is flowing solely To bear you to the goal you're aiming at But here I lodge a protest energetic, Say what you will, against its wretched moral. A masterly economy and new To let the birds play havoc at their pleasure Among your fruit-trees, fruitless now for you, And suffer flocks and herds to trample through Your garden, and lay waste its springtide treasure! A pretty prospect, truly, for next year!

FALK. Oh, next, next, next! The thought I loathe and fear That these four letters timidly express It beggars millionaires in happiness! If I could be the autocrat of speech But for one hour, that hateful word I'd banish; I'd send it packing out of mortal reach, As B and G from Knudsen's Grammar vanish.

STIVER. Why should the word of hope enrage you thus?

FALK. Because it darkens God's fair earth for us. "Next year," "next love," "next life,"my soul is vext To see this world in thraldom to "the next." 'Tis this dull forethought, bent on future prizes, That millionaires in gladness pauperises. Far as the eye can reach, it blurs the age; All rapture of the moment it destroys; No one dares taste in peace life's simplest joys Until he's struggled on another stage And there arriving, can he there repose? Noto a new "next" off he flies again; On, on, unresting to the grave he goes; And God knows if there's any resting then.

MISS JAY. Fie, Mr. Falk, such sentiments are shocking.