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REVIEWS Brian Johnston. T o the T h ird E m pire: Ibsen’s E arly D ram a. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980. Pp. xix + 328. $20.00. T o the T h ird E m pire is Brian Johnston’s second book on Ibsen. His first, T h e Ibsen C ycle (1975), was a study of Ibsen’s final twelve plays, his realistic prose dramas of modern life, which sought to demonstrate that these plays form a coherent cycle deliberately modeled upon the sequence of twelve dialectical dramas in Hegel’s account of the evolution of human consciousness as set forth in T h e P h en om en ology o f M in d. Although in my opinion this idea finally remains untenable, Johnston argued it brilliantly and with near persuasiveness, and in any case the book is packed with stunning insights into the meanings and dramatic designs of the plays, so that no one interested in Ibsen can afford to ignore it. Johnston’s new book examines the plays Ibsen wrote during the first half of his career. It contains a Preface in which Johnston defines his conception of Ibsen as a dramatist, an account of Ibsen’s critical writings, detailed readings of the fourteen early plays from C atiline to the two parts of E m p ero r an d G alilean, an Epilogue relating these plays to the final twelve, and an extensive, effectively annotated bibliography of basic works on Ibsen and nineteenth-century thought and culture. Of the 244 pages devoted to detailed readings of the plays, more than half (126 pages) discuss the best known plays of the group: B rand, P eer G yn t, and E m p ero r an d G alilean. T o the T h ird E m pire has difficulties and strikes me as less rich than its predecessor—perhaps in part be­ cause so many of the early plays are less rich than any of the final twelve—but there are few extensive discussions of Ibsen’s early plays available in English (or in any other language, for that matter), and this one would have a great deal to recommend it even if such studies were plentiful. Johnston perceives Ibsen as a highly self-conscious artist-thinker, the creator of “a poetic and at the same time con ceptu al art that is striving to be not just a good poem nor just an absorbing human story but also a ‘great argument’ about the human condition” (p. 190). In fact, “each of the plays, from C atiline on, is a dramatized concept in which characters, dialogue, actions, and the scenes in which they take place are all elements of a detectable argument” (p. xii). Lacking a “given, conventional world view such as Shakespeare still (uneasily) possessed,” Ibsen had to draw on “the great legacy of Romantic thought and art” in order to create both a world view of his own and its poetic expression (p. 190), so that he could address “the great bourgeois civilization of the second half of the nineteenth century” (pp. ix-x), of which he was both a product and a creator. Consciously and firmly 72 Reviews 73 extending the range of his dramatic argument with each successive play, Ibsen deliberately fashioned himself into the poet of this civilization. His conceptual purpose, difficult to determine from Johnston’s some­ what murky account of it, seems to have been to bring this civilization “to the experience of the full content of the human spirit, both the ‘good’ upon which [it] had turned its back for a smaller inheritance and the ‘evil’ which it complacently had considered alien to it” (p 278). This conception of Ibsen is one of the primary sources of the book’s difficulties. The notion of Ibsen as a “playwright as thinker” is, of course, by no means a novel one, but Johnston tends to reverse the terms of this formula, making Ibsen far too consciously and deliberately ideolo­ gical, even to the point of perceiving most of these early plays as resulting from a preconceived plan methodically adhered to. This con­ ception of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 72-75
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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