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Produced by Nicole Apostola





LITTLE EYOLF

By Henrik Ibsen

Translated, With an Introduction, by William Archer




INTRODUCTION.

Little Eyolf was written in Christiania during 1894, and published
in Copenhagen on December 11 in that year. By this time Ibsen's
correspondence has become so scanty as to afford us no clue to what may
be called the biographical antecedents of the play. Even of anecdotic
history very little attaches to it. For only one of the characters has a
definite model been suggested. Ibsen himself told his French translator,
Count Prozor, that the original of the Rat-Wife was "a little old woman
who came to kill rats at the school where he was educated. She carried
a little dog in a bag, and it was said that children had been drowned
through following her." This means that Ibsen did not himself adapt
to his uses the legend so familiar to us in Browning's _Pied Piper of
Hamelin_, but found it ready adapted by the popular imagination of his
native place, Skien. "This idea," Ibsen continued to Count Prozor, "was
just what I wanted for bringing about the disappearance of Little Eyolf,
in whom the infatuation [Note: The French word used by Count Prozor is
"infatuation." I can think of no other rendering for it; but I do not
quite know what it means as applied to Allmers and Eyolf.] and the
feebleness of his father reproduced, but concentrated, exaggerated, as
one often sees them in the son of such a father." Dr. Elias tells us
that a well-known lady-artist, who in middle life suggested to him the
figure of Lona Hessel, was in later years the model for the Rat-Wife.
There is no inconsistency between these two accounts of the matter. The
idea was doubtless suggested by his recollection of the rat-catcher of
Skien, while traits of manner and physiognomy might be borrowed from the
lady in question.

The verse quoted on pp. 52 and 53 [Transcriber's Note: "There stood the
champagne," etc., in ACT I] is the last line of a very well-known poem
by Johan Sebastian Welhaven, entitled _Republikanerne_, written in 1839.
An unknown guest in a Paris restaurant has been challenged by a noisy
party of young Frenchmen to join them in drinking a health to Poland. He
refuses; they denounce him as a craven and a slave; he bares his breast
and shows the scars of wounds received in fighting for the country whose
lost cause has become a subject for conventional enthusiasm and windy
rhetoric.

"De saae pas hverandre. Han vandred sin vei.
De havde champagne, men rörte den ei."

"They looked at each other. He went on his way. There stood their
champagne, but they did not touch it." The champagne incident leads me
to wonder whether the relation between Rita and Allmers may not have
been partly suggested to Ibsen by the relation between Charlotte
Stieglitz and her weakling of a husband. Their story must have been
known to him through George Brandes's _Young Germany_, if not more
directly. "From time to time," says Dr. Brandes, "there came over her
what she calls her champagne-mood; she grieves that this is no longer
the case with him." [Note: _Main Currents of Nineteenth Century
Literature_, vol. vi. p. 299] Did the germ of the incident lie in these
words?

The first performance of the play in Norway took place at the
Christiania Theatre on January 15, 1895, Fru Wettergren playing Rita And
Fru Dybwad, Asta. In Copenhagen (March 13, 1895) Fru Oda Nielsen and Fru
Hennings played Rita and Asta respectively, while Emil Poulsen played
Allmers. The first German Rita (Deutsches Theater, Berlin, January 12,
1895) was Frau Agnes Sorma, with Reicher as Allmers. Six weeks later
Frl. Sandrock played Rita at the Burgtheater, Vienna. In May 1895 the
play was acted by M. Lugné-Poë's company in Paris. The first performance
in English took place at the Avenue Theatre, London, on the afternoon
of November 23, 1896, with Miss Janet Achurch as Rita, Miss Elizabeth
Robins as Asta, and Mrs. Patrick Campbell as the Rat-Wife. Miss
Achurch's Rita made a profound impression. Mrs. Patrick Campbell
afterwards played the part in a short series of evening performances.
In the spring of 1895 the play was acted in Chicago by a company of
Scandinavian amateurs, presumably in Norwegian. Fru Oda Nielsen has
recently (I understand) given some performances of it in New York, and
Madame Alla Nazimova has announced it for production during the coming
season (1907-1908).

As the external history of _Little Eyolf_ is so short. I am tempted to
depart from my usual practice, and say a few words as to its matter and
meaning.

George Brandes, writing of this play, has rightly observed that "a kind
of dualism has always been perceptible in Ibsen; he pleads the cause of
Nature, and he castigates Nature with mystic morality; only sometimes
Nature is allowed the first voice, sometimes morality. In _The Master
Builder_ and in _Ghosts_ the lover of Nature in Ibsen was predominant;
here, as in _Brand_ and _The Wild Duck_, the castigator is in the
ascendant." So clearly is this the case in _Little Eyolf_ that Ibsen
seems almost to fall into line with Mr. Thomas Hardy. To say nothing of
analogies of detail between _Little Eyolf_ and _Jude the Obscure_, there
is this radical analogy, that they are both utterances of a profound
pessimism, both indictments of Nature.

But while Mr. Hardy's pessimism is plaintive and passive, Ibsen's is
stoical and almost bracing. It is true that in this play he is no
longer the mere "indignation pessimist" whom Dr. Brandes quite justly
recognised in his earlier works. His analysis has gone deeper into the
heart of things, and he has put off the satirist and the iconoclast. But
there is in his thought an incompressible energy of revolt. A pessimist
in contemplation, he remains a meliorist in action. He is not, like Mr.
Hardy, content to let the flag droop half-mast high; his protagonist
still runs it up to the mast-head, and looks forward steadily to the
"heavy day of work" before him. But although the note of the conclusion
is resolute, almost serene, the play remains none the less an indictment
of Nature, or at least of that egoism of passion which is one of her
most potent subtleties. In this view, Allmers becomes a type of what
we may roughly call the "free moral agent"; Eyolf, a type of humanity
conceived as passive and suffering, thrust will-less into existence,
with boundless aspirations and cruelly limited powers; Rita, a type of
the egoistic instinct which is "a consuming fire"; and Asta, a type of
the beneficent love which is possible only so long as it is exempt from
"the law of change." Allmers, then, is self-conscious egoism, egoism
which can now and then break its chains, look in its own visage, realise
and shrink from itself; while Rita, until she has passed through
the awful crisis which forms the matter of the play, is unconscious,
reckless, and ruthless egoism, exigent and jealous, "holding to its
rights," and incapable even of rising into the secondary stage of
maternal love. The offspring and the victim of these egoisms is Eyolf,
"little wounded warrior," who longs to scale the heights and dive into
the depths, but must remain for ever chained to the crutch of human
infirmity. For years Allmers has been a restless and half-reluctant
slave to Rita's imperious temperament. He has dreamed and theorised
about "responsibility," and has kept Eyolf poring over his books, in the
hope that, despite his misfortune, he may one day minister to parental
vanity. Finally he breaks away from Rita, for the first time "in all
these ten years," goes up "into the infinite solitudes," looks Death in
the face, and returns shrinking from passion, yearning towards selfless
love, and filled with a profound and remorseful pity for the lot of poor
maimed humanity. He will "help Eyolf to bring his desires into harmony
with what lies attainable before him." He will "create a conscious
happiness in his mind." And here the drama opens.

Before the Rat-Wife enters, let me pause for a moment to point out that
here again Ibsen adopts that characteristic method which, in writing of
_The Lady from the Sea_ and _The Master Builder_, I have compared to
the method of Hawthorne. The story he tells is not really, or rather not
inevitably, supernatural. Everything is explicable within this limits
of nature; but supernatural agency is also vaguely suggested, and the
reader's imagination is stimulated, without any absolute violence to his
sense of reality. On the plane of everyday life, then, the Rat-Wife is a
crazy and uncanny old woman, fabled by the peasants to be a were-wolf in
her leisure moments, who goes about the country killing vermin. Coming
across an impressionable child, she tells him a preposterous tale,
adapted from the old "Pied Piper" legends, of her method of fascinating
her victims. The child, whose imagination has long dwelt on this
personage, is in fact hypnotised by her, follows her down to the sea,
and, watching her row away, turns dizzy, falls in, and is drowned. There
is nothing impossible, nothing even improbable, in this. At the same
time, there cannot be the least doubt, I think, that in the poet's mind
the Rat-Wife is the symbol of Death, of the "still, soft darkness" that
is at once so fearful and so fascinating to humanity. This is clear not
only in the text of her single scene, but in the fact that Allmers, in
the last act, treats her and his "fellow-traveller" of that night among
the mountains, not precisely as identical, but as interchangeable,
ideas. To tell the truth, I have even my own suspicions as to who is
meant by "her sweetheart," whom she "lured" long ago, and who is now
"down where all the rats are." This theory I shall keep to myself; it
may be purely fantastic, and is at best inessential. What is certain is
that death carries off Little Eyolf, and that, of all he was, only the
crutch is left, mute witness to his hapless lot.

He is gone; there was so little to bind him to life that he made not
even a moment's struggle against the allurement of the "long, sweet
sleep." Then, for the first time, the depth of the egoism which had
created and conditioned his little life bursts upon his parents'
horror-stricken gaze.



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