When we dead awaken - Henrik Ibsen - ebook

Ibsen’s last play and his most confessional work, it is an examination of the problem that had obsessed him throughout his career: the struggle between art and life. Arnold Rubek, a famous sculptor, is vacationing at a mountain resort. There he meets Irene von Satow, a former model of his, whose love he had rejected years ago because of his plan to consecrate his life to his art.

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First digital edition 2017 by Maria Ruggieri









From Pillars of Society to John Gabriel Borkman, Ibsen’s plays had followed each other at regular intervals of two years, save when his indignation over the abuse heaped upon Ghosts reduced to a single year the interval between that play and An Enemy of the People. John Gabriel Borkman having appeared in 1896, its successor was expected in 1898; but Christmas came and brought no rumour of a new play. In a man now over seventy, this breach of a long-established habit seemed ominous. The new National Theatre in Christiania was opened in September of the following year; and when I then met Ibsen (for the last time) he told me that he was actually at work on a new play, which he thought of calling a “Dramatic Epilogue.” “He wrote When We Dead Awaken,” says Dr. Elias, “with such labour and such passionate agitation, so spasmodically and so feverishly, that those around him were almost alarmed. He must get on with it, he must get on! He seemed to hear the beating of dark pinions over his head. He seemed to feel the grim Visitant, who had accompanied Alfred Allmers on the mountain paths, already standing behind him with uplifted hand. His relatives are firmly convinced that he knew quite clearly that this would be his last play, that he was to write no more. And soon the blow fell.”

When We Dead Awaken was published very shortly before Christmas 1899. He had still a year of comparative health before him. We find him in March 1900, writing to Count Prozor: “I cannot say yet whether or not I shall write another drama; but if I continue to retain the vigour of body and mind which I at present enjoy, I do not imagine that I shall be able to keep permanently away from the old battlefields. However, if I were to make my appearance again, it would be with new weapons and in new armour.” Was he hinting at the desire, which he had long ago confessed to Professor Herford, that his last work should be a drama in verse? Whatever his dream, it was not to be realised. His last letter (defending his attitude of philosophic impartiality with regard to the South African war) is dated December 9, 1900. With the dawn of the new century, the curtain descended upon the mind of the great dramatic poet of the age which had passed away.

When We Dead Awaken was acted during 1900 at most of the leading theatres in Scandinavia and Germany. In some German cities (notably in Frankfort on Main) it even attained a considerable number of representatives. I cannot learn, however, that it has anywhere held the stage. It was produced in London, by the State Society, at the Imperial Theatre, on January 25 and 26, 1903. Mr. G. S. Titheradge played Rubek, Miss Henrietta Watson Irene, Miss Mabel Hackney Maia, and Mr. Laurence Irving Ulfheim. I find no record of any American performance.

In the above-mentioned letter to Count Prozor, Ibsen confirmed that critic’s conjecture that “the series which ends with the Epilogue really began with The Master Builder.” As the last confession, so to speak, of a great artist, the Epilogue will always be read with interest. It contains, moreover, many flashes of the old genius, many strokes of the old incommunicable magic. One may say with perfect sincerity that there is more fascination in the dregs of Ibsen’s mind than in the “first sprightly running” of more common-place talents. But to his sane admirers the interest of the play must always be melancholy, because it is purely pathological. To deny this is, in my opinion, to cast a slur over all the poet’s previous work, and in great measure to justify the criticisms of his most violent detractors. For When We Dead Awaken is very like the sort of play that haunted the “anti-Ibsenite” imagination in the year 1893 or thereabouts. It is a piece of self-caricature, a series of echoes from all the earlier plays, an exaggeration of manner to the pitch of mannerism. Moreover, in his treatment of his symbolic motives, Ibsen did exactly what he had hitherto, with perfect justice, plumed himself upon never doing: he sacrificed the surface reality to the underlying meaning. Take, for instance, the history of Rubek’s statue and its development into a group. In actual sculpture this development is a grotesque impossibility. In conceiving it we are deserting the domain of reality, and plunging into some fourth dimension where the properties of matter are other than those we know. This is an abandonment of the fundamental principle which Ibsen over and over again emphatically expressed, namely, that any symbolism his work might be found to contain was entirely incidental, and subordinate to the truth and consistency of his picture of life. Even when he dallied with the supernatural, as in The Master Builder and Little Eyolf, he was always careful, as I have tried to show, not to overstep decisively the boundaries of the natural. Here, on the other hand, without any suggestion of the supernatural, we are confronted with the wholly impossible, the inconceivable. How remote is this alike from his principles of art and from the consistent, unvarying practice of his better years! So, great is the chasm between John Gabriel Borkman and When We Dead Awaken that one could almost suppose his mental breakdown to have preceded instead of followed the writing of the latter play. Certainly, it is one of the premonitions of the coming end. It is Ibsen’s Count Robert of Paris. To pretend to rank it with his masterpieces is to show a very imperfect sense of the nature of their mastery.






MRS. MAIA RUBEK, his wife.

THE INSPECTOR at the Baths.

ULFHEIM, a landed proprietor.



Servants, Visitors to the Baths, and Children.

The First Act passes at a bathing establishment on the coast; the Second and Third Acts in the neighbourhood of a health resort, high in the mountains.


[Outside the Bath Hotel. A portion of the main building can be seen to the right. An open, park-like place with a fountain, groups of fine old trees, and shrubbery. To the left, a little pavilion almost covered with ivy and Virginia creeper. A table and chair outside it. At the back a view over the fjord, right out to sea, with headlands and small islands in the distance. It is a calm, warm and sunny summer morning.

[PROFESSOR RUBEK and MRS. MAIA RUBEK are sitting in basket chairs beside a covered table on the lawn outside the hotel, having just breakfasted. They have champagne and seltzer water on the table, and each has a newspaper. PROFESSOR RUBEK is an elderly man of distinguished appearance, wearing a black velvet jacket, and otherwise in light summer attire. MAIA is quite young, with a vivacious expression and lively, mocking eyes, yet with a suggestion of fatigue. She wears an elegant travelling dress.

MAIA [Sits for some time as though waiting for the PROFESSOR to say something, then lets her paper drop with a deep sigh.] Oh dear, dear, dear!

PROFESSOR RUBEK [Looks up from his paper.] Well, Maia? What is the matter with you?

MAIA Just listen how silent it is here.

PROFESSOR RUBEK [Smiles indulgently.] And you can hear that?

MAIA What?


MAIA Yes, indeed I can.

PROFESSOR RUBEK Well, perhaps you are right, mein Kind. One can really hear the silence.

MAIA Heaven knows you can, when it’s so absolutely overpowering as it is here

PROFESSOR RUBEK Here at the Baths, you mean?

MAIA Wherever you go at home here, it seems to me. Of course, there was noise and bustle enough in the town. But I don’t know how it is-- even the noise and bustle seemed to have something dead about it.

PROFESSOR RUBEK [With a searching glance.] You don’t seem particularly glad to be at home again, Maia?

MAIA [Looks at him.] Are you glad?


MAIA Yes, you, who have been so much, much further away than I. Are you entirely happy, now that you are at home again?

PROFESSOR RUBEK No, to be quite candid, perhaps not entirely happy

MAIA [With animation.] There, you see! Didn’t I know it!

PROFESSOR RUBEK I have been too long abroad. I have drifted quite away from all this, this home life.

MAIA [Eagerly, drawing her chair nearer him.] There, you see, Rubek! We had much better get away again! As quickly as ever we can.

PROFESSOR RUBEK [Somewhat impatiently.] Well, well, that is what we intend to do, my dear Maia. You know that.

MAIA But why not now, at once? Only think how cozy and comfortable we could be down there, in our lovely new house

PROFESSOR RUBEK [Smiles indulgently.] We ought by rights to say: our lovely new home.

MAIA [Shortly.] I prefer to say house, let us keep to that.

PROFESSOR RUBEK [His eyes dwelling on her.] You are really a strange little person.

MAIA, Am I so strange?

PROFESSOR RUBEK Yes, I think so.

MAIA But why, pray? Perhaps because I’m not desperately in love with mooning about up here?

PROFESSOR RUBEK Which of us was it that was absolutely bent on our coming north this summer?

MAIA, I admit, it was I.

PROFESSOR RUBEK It was certainly not I, at any rate.

MAIA But good heavens, who could have dreamt that everything would have altered so terribly at home here? And in so short a time, too! Why, it is only just four years since I went away

PROFESSOR RUBEK Since you were married, yes.

MAIA Married? What has that to do with the matter?

PROFESSOR RUBEK [Continuing.] since you became the Frau Professor, and found yourself mistress of a charming home, I beg your pardon, a very handsome house, I ought to say. And a villa on the Lake of Taunitz, just at the point that has become most fashionable, too. In fact, it is all very handsome and distinguished, Maia, there’s no denying that. And spacious too. We need not always be getting in each other’s way

MAIA [Lightly.] No, no, no, there’s certainly no lack of house-room, and that sort of thing

PROFESSOR RUBEK Remember, too, that you have been living in altogether more spacious and distinguished surroundings, in more polished society than you were accustomed to at home.

MAIA [Looking at him.] Ah, so you think it is I that have changed?

PROFESSOR RUBEK Indeed I do, Maia.

MAIA, I alone? Not the people here?

PROFESSOR RUBEK Oh yes, they too, a little, perhaps. And not at all in the direction of amiability. That I readily admit.

MAIA, I should think you must admit it, indeed.

PROFESSOR RUBEK [Changing the subject.] Do you know how it affects me when I look at the life of the people around us here?

MAIA No. Tell me.

PROFESSOR RUBEK It makes me think of that night we spent in the train, when we were coming up here

MAIA Why, you were sound asleep all the time.

PROFESSOR RUBEK Not quite. I noticed how silent it became at all the little roadside stations. I heard the silence, like you, Maia

MAIA H’m, like me, yes.

PROFESSOR RUBEK and that assured me that we had crossed the frontier, that we were really at home. For the train stopped at all the little stations, although there was nothing doing at all.

MAIA Then why did it stop, though there was nothing to be done?