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  • Who's Modern Now?Shaw, Joyce, and Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken
  • Kathleen Ochshorn (bio)

Henrik Ibsen's last play, When We Dead Awaken, published in 1899, quickly attracted the critical attention of George Bernard Shaw and a young James Joyce. The implicit artistic dialogue among these three writers still resonates a century later. Ibsen's play was written in an atmosphere of fin de siècle pessimism, at a time when the nineteenth century was, as Thomas Hardy put it in his 1900 poem "The Darkling Thrush," a "corpse ouleant."1 Prospects for the new century did not necessarily look so bright either. We might further consider how bright our prospects seem today, one hundred years later, and how relevant the issues continue to be.

Here I wish to speculate about what Shaw and Joyce brought of themselves to their interpretations of this Ibsen play and to ask how the vision depicted in the play and their responses to it might strike us early in this new century. The Woman Question, the role of the artist, and the role of a work of art as a vehicle for depicting the weight of suffering in the world all figure prominently in the play and in their critiques.

Shaw was, of course, electrified by Ibsen, coining the term "Ibsenism," an antidote to Victorianism. For him, the production of Ibsen's Ghosts in 1897had been a welcome tonic to the ubiquitous Queen's Jubilee. The juxtaposition of the play and Queen Victoria's celebration crystallized for Shaw ideas about women's roles in society, about how women should be raised, and the larger political issue of how an intelligent critic, political theorist, or artist might look back on the Victorian era and the whole nineteenth century. According to Shaw: "The Jubilee represents the nineteenth century proud of itself. Ghosts represents it loathing itself. And how it can loathe itself when it gets tired of its money! Think of Schopenhauer and Shelley, Lassalle and Karl Marx, Ruskin and Carlyle, Morris and Wagner and Ibsen. How fiercely they rent the bosom that bore them! How they [End Page 96] detested all the orthodoxies, and respectabilities, and ideals we have just been celebrating!"2

The life of Queen Victoria and the character of Mrs. Alving in Ghosts also proved a fine focus for Shaw's view of the ill-effects, on women in particular, of a proper upbringing. For Shaw, in Ghosts, Mrs. Alving "discovered how appallingly opportunities were wasted, morals perverted and instincts corrupted, not only—sometimes not at all—by the vices she was taught to abhor in her youth, but by the virtues it was her pride and uprightness to maintain."3 Ghosts and that 1897 Jubilee caused Shaw to imagine Queen Victoria herself reflecting on her earlier Jubilee in 1937, realizing how ill-prepared she had been for her role as queen when the crown "dropped on her head" and she was left to reign "by her mother wit and the advice of a parcel of men who to this day have not sense enough to manage a Jubilee, let alone an empire, without offending everybody."4

When We Dead Awaken dealt once again with Ibsen's interest in this Woman Question, and for Shaw it also questioned whether "the cultured, gifted male is less hardened, less selfish towards the woman than the Paleolithic man?"5 In the play, the artist Rubek sacrifices the woman/model to art and it destroys them both. For Shaw, the artist is frozen by the ideal of the pure woman; by 1930 Shaw believed men were "waking up to the perception that in killing women's souls they have killed their own."6

To Shaw, the central horror of this play is "the wasting of the modern woman's soul to gratify the imagination and stimulate the genius of the modern artist, poet, and philosopher."7 He believed that Ibsen had decided to depict himself as the sculptor Rubek, someone like Rodin, for example. Ibsen's Rubek makes his fame with "The Resurrection Day" and then becomes a hack, doing commissioned busts that depict his sitters as having faces like horses, dogs, and swine...


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