“A Doll’s House”–With A Fourth Act

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/December, 1909



ONCE upon a time a Norwegian critic named John Paulsen encountered the late Henrik Ibsen in the Cafe Luitpold, at Munich, and invited him to make answer to the following question:

“In your play, ‘A Doll’s House,’ you show us how Nora Helmer, the heroine, rebels against the terms of her marriage. Her husband, Torvald Helmer, is an exemplary husband and loves her sincerely, but it dawns on her one day that this love of his is not much different from that which a man feels for his dog. She is, in a word, not a life partner, to be consulted and respected, but a mere plaything, to be fondled in idle hours. When Nora discovers this she packs her clothes and departs from the house, leaving her husband and her three children behind. She will not return, she says, until she is able to command, not only Helmer’s tolerant liking, but also his spontaneous respect. Well, now, what I want to know is this: Does she ever really return?”

Ibsen, pondering deeply, lifted the lid of his stein, and after the diligent waiter had seen to his needs, replied substantially as follows:

“God knows! As for me, I can only guess. Maybe she goes caroming into moral anarchy and becomes a roving circus woman. Maybe, on the contrary, she gets homesick for her children next clay, and goes back to Torvald on any terms he chooses to make. I’m sure I don’t know. It is the business of a playwright merely to ask the question. Let every man answer it for himself.”

So much for Ibsen. David Graham Phillips, the American, has more courage — and perhaps more ingenuity. That is to say, his new novel, “The Hungry Heart” (Appleton, $1.50), tells anew the story of “A Doll’s House,” but with the addition of the fourth act that Ibsen refused to attempt. We see Nora and Torvald in their home, and we see the growth of Nora’s unrest and its culmination in open rebellion; and then we see the consequences of that rebellion—her philosophy of individualism put to the bitter test and its final disappearance in a compromise with the stern facts of existence. She comes home a sadder and a wiser wife. It is not that she loses faith in herself, but that she learns the great truth—greater than all others because it is its own only exception—that nothing is ever absolutely right and nothing is ever absolutely wrong.

It may be said at once that Mr. Phillips has written a book of assertive and unmistakable merits. There is rugged earnestness in it—the earnestness of a man who has thought out his ideas, to five places of decimals, before setting pen to paper—but it is very far from a tract. The author does not preach; he lets his characters tell their own story, contenting himself with the effort to make them credible and alive. In the case of the wife he has succeeded admirably. She is as real as Evelyn Innes or Sister Carrie, and that reality be longs to her, not only as an individual, but also, in some sense, as a type. She represents, in brief, exactly that combination of formless aspiration and vague discontent which marks the average American woman of the middle class. As she says herself, she has been educated too much and too little—too much to make her the complacent toy of a man, and too little to make her his free equal.

The other characters have less rotundity, obviously because Mr. Phillips is less interested in them. The husband, only too often, is merely Torvald Helmer speaking English. He seldom strikes the note of nationality, and the note of universality almost never. As for the Other Man, he seems a gratuitous intruder. The story would have been better without him; he is no more than a god from the machine, dropping in at convenient times to help translate thought into act. His very name—Basil Gallatin—is grotesquely theatrical and irritating. The other characters are few and have no real part in the transactions that matter. From curtain to curtain, the drama is played out in the soul of the wife alone.

Several critics, in reviewing “The Hungry Heart,” have taken Mr. Phillips to task for the sin of monotony. He is obsessed, they aver, by the sex problem, and in each successive book presents anew a wife at war with the biblical theory of marriage. It seems to me that, even if this were true, it would not be a valid objection. If you examine, in fact, the books of any novelist, great or small, you will find the same dominance of one master idea. That idea is a key to the author’s philosophy of life; it indicates his view of things in general by revealing the particular thing that he thinks most significant. In the books of George Moore the basic motive is always the eternal strife between faith and facts, the spirit and the flesh. In the books of Joseph Conrad it is the utter meaninglessness of life, the remoteness of first causes, the inexplicable vagaries of fate. Again, in Thackeray, it is the deep rooted human impulse to play a part, to pretend, to dissemble, to wear a mask. Mr. Phillips, it seems to me, is fully entitled to his point of view. The test of his work is to be sought, not in the orthodoxy of that point of view, but in the accuracy of the observations he makes from it. In “The Hungry Heart” he has made a good book, not a flawless masterpiece by any means, but still a book full of insight, feeling for form and clear writing. Let us hope that its faults are counterbalanced by its promise; that it marks his final retirement from the vain trade of manufacturing best sellers.

“Martin Eden,” by Jack London (Macmillan, $1.50), is a combination of incredible biography and undigested philosophy. It tells the story of a literary genius, and the press notices give currency to the notion that, in more than one place, Mr. London is his own hero, but I have not found that hero either interesting or lifelike. He starts out as an ignorant sailor, acquires an education in record breaking time and then takes the reading world by storm. But the success that he has longed for gives him no joy when it comes. Sober reflection makes him doubt its genuineness. Is there any real understanding in the public’s homage, or only mob emotionalism? The problem baffles him, and he puts an end to its insistence by suicide. A labored and tedious novel, with a good deal of bad writing in it.

“The White Prophet,” by Hall Caine (Appleton, $1.50), rises superior to all estimate and analysis. It is a mammoth tome of over six hundred closely printed pages, in which every conceivable problem of human life is disposed of. The canvas is a thousand miles wide, with its bottom edge in the waters under the earth and its top in the empyrean heights. There is room for a whole race of people—to wit, the race of modern Egyptians. How they rise against the domineering English and how, in the end, they work out their destiny—this is the main story. Engrafted upon it are tales of love, honor and simple faith. It is magnificent, and if you like Hall Caine you won’t stop to inquire if it is also art.

“Stradella,” the last of the late F. Marion Crawford’s romances to see the light (Macmillan, $1.50), is a brisk and diverting variation upon the story of Friedrich von Flotow’s half-forgotten opera of the same name. The Venetian magnifico who used to warble so divinely in the opera reappears in the book, and he has the same beautiful and rebellious ward, whose heart goes out as ever to our old friend, Alessandro Stradella, hero and music master. But let it not be supposed for a moment that Mr. Crawford’s tale is a slavish copy of Flotow’s antique libretto. Far from it, indeed! In the first place, the names of the magnifico and his ward are changed from Bassi and Leonora to Pignaver and Ortensia, and, in the second place, the course of Alessandro’s true love has a host of new and ingenious impediments. Pignaver, like Bassi, wants to marry Leonora-Ortensia himself, and so sends a pair of ruffians to rescue her from the fond embraces of Alessandro; but the ruffians of Crawford (borrowing something from “Erminie,” perhaps) are far more humorous and villainous than those of Flotow, for after taking Pignaver’s retainer, they take another from the rascally nephew of a cardinal, and so poor Leonora-Ortensia is shanghaied twice. But in the end all is well, and the lovers are happy. An excellent story to read on a dull Sunday or in jail. It has movement, color, comedy, plausibility and an air.

“Northern Lights,” by Sir Gilbert Parker (Harpers, $1.50), is a collection of seventeen short tales of the Canadian Northwest, ranging in merit from tales that are very good indeed to tales that could scarcely be much worse. To the first category belongs the opening story, “A Lodge in the Wilderness,” a keen and sympathetic study of the soul of a white man under barbarism. Of the bad stories, the best, perhaps, is that called “A Man, a Famine and a Heathen Boy,” a grotesque imitation of Kipling’s early “Plain Tales” manner. Most of the stories occupy a ground midway between the heights and the depths. They have a certain ingenuity and they show a certain facility, but the act of reading them is not to be counted among the stimulating intellectual privileges.

A book of much greater draught and beam is “The Southerner,” by “Nicholas Worth,” whoever he may be (Doubleday-Page, $1.50). Here we have the simple but engrossing account of one strong man’s encounters with the appalling sentimentality which marked all Southern thought, though in slowly lessening degree, during the thirty years following the Civil War. The wounds of that great conflict, far from breaking the Southerner’s pride, only made it more austere and inflexible. Fiercely resenting the heartless exploitation of his conqueror, he arrived, by an easy psychological process, at a violent hatred of his conqueror’s practical philosophy and undoubted efficiency. The result was a lamentable exaltation of romance. The professional veteran, with his bloody shirt, became a demi-god, ex officio, no matter what his actual failings as a man; and there was a vast reverence for orthodox theologians, mob orators and other such vapid rhapsodists. It took a lot of hard and thankless work by the younger generation to break down the old habits of mind, but broken down they were at last, and then began that rapid industrial progress which is making the South a mighty empire today. The old civilization was beautiful, but time had rumbled over it. This book is the story of one of the men who strove to build up a new civilization upon its ruins. It is the earnest, passionate, often extravagant story of a propagandist, and more than once his violence seems even more savage and even less intelligible than that of his opponents; but, all the same, it is a story well told and well worth reading by all Americans in general—for sentimentality is not found in the South alone—and by all Southerners in particular.

The Zenda romance will not down. Here are two more—“The Man in the Tower,” by Rupert S. Holland (Lippincott, $1.50), and “The Game and the Candle,” by Eleanor M. Ingram (Bobbs-Merrill, $1.50). In each there is the same delectable blend of love, honor and adventure; in each a magnificent American plays a heroic part, and on each there is a cover so alluring that it will draw the money out of your pocket. So why praise them? The taste for Zenda romances is a vice perhaps, but, like all other vices, it serves to make its devotees happy.

It is pleasant to welcome every new printed play that comes along, for printed plays are all too scarce in this, our fair republic. The German and French dramatists get into type almost before they get into rouge and threesheet, and so do the more important men of England, but on this side of the water a great fear of the printing press seems to afflict the play makers. No doubt this fear was engendered in the old days of carefree piracy, when a play printed in New York on Monday was certain to be played in Peoria and Kalamazoo on Thursday, without a by-your-leave or a dollar of royalty. But those days belong to history, for an efficient copyright law now gives the author protection, and the provincial pirate is no more. In the course of time, it is likely, our American dramatists will hear of this law, and then the presses will begin to disgorge dramas as they now disgorge romances.

“The Melting Pot,” by Israel Zangwill (Macmillan, $1.25), is one of the plays that have lately got between covers. The United States of America is the pot of Mr. Zangwill’s dream. Here, he says, come the diverse and antagonistic races of Europe, and here they are all melted down into clear and homogeneous metal. In witness whereof he gives us a Jewish hero, the son of martyrs massacred at Kishinef, and a Russian heroine, the daughter of the man who instigated the massacre. In Russia a bloody chasm would separate the two, but in America it closes up. Their lives begin anew; no longer Jew and Russian, they start again as free Americans.

As a tract Mr. Zangwill’s drama is exceedingly impressive, but as a stage play it suffers by its very virtues as a tract. That is to say, it is hopelessly dialectic, and its people are tiresomely introspective. The things that the hero and heroine do are swallowed up by the things that they incessantly say. They are constantly explaining their motives; they are engaged, without rest, in sociological and anthropological debates. Time was when such debates were heard by English speaking audiences with keen attention; in that time Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet.” In some future age, no doubt, the same taste will prevail again, and then Ibsen’s “Little Eyolf” will hold the boards for months and “The Melting Pot” will become a classic. Meanwhile, it is pleasant to have this earnest little drama to read, for in the library it seems to lose many of the faults which mark it on the stage. It is, indeed, a play for reading rather than for seeing, a play by a man who is far more novelist and controversialist than dramatist.

Another printed drama of the moment is “The Great Divide,” by William Vaughn Moody (Macmillan, $1.25) This piece has held the boards for several years, and with enormous success. The reason is not far to seek, for it appears in the very first act—an act of utterly overwhelming drama. But the play is not all thrill and desperate encounter, for Mr. Moody has got into it an idea as complex and as debatable as Mr. Zangwill’s. In setting it forth, however, he has employed the method of the dramatist, whereas Mr. Zangwill has employed the method of the novelist. If you would understand the difference between these two methods, you could do no better than study the two plays side by side.

A blank verse drama called “ Yzdra,” by Louis V. Ledoux (Putnam, Si. 2 5), is also on the month’s list. The heroine of this strange composition is a Punjab maiden who has been fed from infancy upon poisons. These deadly henbanes and poppies have so permeated her system that her very kiss is certain death. Therefore, when Alexander the Great, after conquering Persia, comes roaring down into the Punjab, what more natural than for Poros, the Emperor, to send her to Alexander’s camp, to woo him, charm him and kiss him to death? This tale is told in three acts of exceedingly vapid verse.

In the old days diplomatic ladies were a chattering and scribbling lot, and their multitudinous journals and memoirs kept the chancelleries of Europe in a constant shiver. But that was long, long ago, and today they write no more. Even “My Dear Maria” has held her peace. What a rattling chronicle of international whispering and wire pulling she could pen if she would!

But it is a poor rule that has no exceptions; and behold! An exception to this one at once appears in the person of Mrs. Sarah Pike Conger, wife of that plain spoken, hard working, efficient Mr. Conger who was American minister to China in the days of the Boxers. Mrs. Conger has little in common, however, with Metternich’s Pauline and the other grand dames of the old school. She is, I take it, a middle-aged lady who finds her highest happiness in her home, with her grandchildren about her. And yet fate, in one of its ironic moods, transported her to beleaguered Peking, and made her a leading figure in the most terrific melodrama of modern times.

In her quiet way, she gets a good deal of the hot flavor of this melodrama into her book, “Letters from China” (McClurg, $4.00). It is not history, but the raw material of history, a rambling record of impressions and emotions. One derives from it a vivid notion of what the day’s toil and the night’s alarms meant to those God forsaken foreigners in the British Legation—what their fears were when their yellow foes came storming on in the dark, and what their joy was when the dawn of a memorable day brought the rattle of Chaffee’s guns. But even in all that turmoil there were dull hours, and when they came Mrs. Conger wrote home to her daughter, her sister and her friends. The letters thus written make up her book.

A hundred intimate glimpses of the Chinese court illuminate the main story. No other white woman was on such good terms with the late Empress Dowager as Mrs. Conger. They met often, and they got on famously. Here we have a close range portrait of the magnificent old heathen, a portrait that should help the historian of the future to see something of the hidden causes behind the great awakening of China.

In “Green Ginger,” by Arthur Morrison (Stokes, S1.50), we come upon the author of “Tales of Mean Streets” in sportive mood. There are sixteen stories in the book, and in all of them the farcical element is to the fore. The first story recounts the adventures of a Small Investor who puts a hundred pounds into a circus. When dividends fail to be forthcoming on schedule he demands his money back, and the humorous Barnum at the head of the outfit sends him a caged tiger on account. Not until this tiger has turned the Small Investor’s hair gray is it discovered that he is really a drunken Irishman in a tiger’s hide. The humor in these tales, it must be confessed, is not of the highest class. Only too often it recalls the painfully artificial buffoonery of those obscure Congreves who write for the barber shop weeklies.

“The Uttermost Farthing,” by Mrs. Belloc Lowndes (Kennerley, $1.25) is a novel with one smashing situation, to wit: An American gentleman leaves Paris with the wife of a dear old friend for a week of carefree dalliance in the country. The pair fall asleep in the railway compartment. When the American awakes he finds that his companion is dead! Problem: How is he to get away without allowing the husband, or anyone else, to suspect that he was with her?

Well, he does it. I am not going to tell you how. You must read the book yourself.

“The New New York,” by John C. Van Dyke, with more than one hundred drawings by Joseph Pennell (Macmillan, $3.50), is no mere picture book, but a serious attempt to set forth the might and majesty of Marvelous Manhattan. Professor Van Dyke’s text, far from being subordinate to the pictures, is a good deal more satisfying than the latter, which are sometimes marked by exceedingly bad drawing. In a number of them the buildings seem to be falling over, chiefly to the right, and in others there is evidence of haste and carelessness. It is only fair to say, however, that these are in the minority, and that the collection, as a whole, shows some of Mr. Pennell’s most interesting work. He is at his best, perhaps, when he leaves the skyscrapers and visits the rivers and the bay. His sketch of Lower Broadway misses entirely the grim magnificence of that canyon, but up among the castles of the West Side he is at home. His attempts to achieve atmospheric effects, mist and rain, are remarkably successful.

Professor Van Dyke writes as one who knows New York and loves it.

“Wits, Beaux and Beauties of the Georgian Era,” by John Fyvie (Lane, $4.00), is a welcome book if only on account of its long and excellent chapter on the life and dramas of Samuel Foote, playwright, mimic, bon vivant and crusader. Foote was one of the most remarkable figures of the eighteenth century, and yet he seems to be forgotten utterly. In twenty years but one of his plays has been given in the United States, and then it was at but a single performance, and by amateurs. They are certainly worthy of a better fate, for there is the true spirit of comedy in every line of them. Foote, like George Bernard Shaw, delighted to stir up the animals.. He put real personages upon the stage, and had memorable bouts with the play censor. He was, in his day, a public figure as conspicuous as Garrick, and even old Dr. Johnson, who disliked him, was forced to admit him the first of wits. Adversity overtook him in his old age, and implacable enemies killed him. A hero who deserves a full length biography! Why doesn’t Mr. Fyvie undertake it?

“Men, the Workers” (Doubleday Page, $2.00) is a collection of the late Henry Demarest Lloyd’s speeches and essays on the relations between capital and labor. Mr. Lloyd’s rank in the war upon opulence was much like that of Colonel Ingersoll in the war upon dogmatism. That is to say, he was not a critic, but a spellbinder. His discourses cast no new light upon the staggering problems they presumed to discuss; they were essentially harangues for friendly and emotional, but far from reflective, audiences. Considered merely as harangues, no one can deny their enormous effectiveness. They were straightforward and electric appeals—to the stomach as much as to the mind. They put resolution and courage into the hearts of the workers, and they put Mr. Lloyd himself into the Valhalla of Labor’s gods.

All praise for the excellent reprint of “King Leir,” in the Shakespeare Classics series (Duffield). It was upon this old play, first issued in 1594, that Shakespeare founded his greatest tragedy. Not a single copy of the edition of 1594 remains, but there are several known copies of the reprint of 1605, and the title page of one of these is reproduced in photogravure as a frontispiece to the present volume. The introduction and notes, by Dr. Sidney Lee, author of the best “ Life of Shakespeare” ever written, are all that could be desired, and in printing and binding the book is perfect. Too often the charm of the old dramas, when they come to be reprinted, is spoiled by the pedantry of editors, but Dr. Lee, for all his learning, has nothing of the college professor about him.


Once upon a Time —

by Carl Holliday. (Broadway Pub. Co., $1.00)

A dozen fairy tales, done with no little grace and charm.


Questions at Issue in our English Speech —

by Edwin W. Bowen, Ph.D. (Broadway Pub. Co., $1.25)

A cheerful blend of philological lore and entertaining writing. Chapters on spelling, slang, Britishisms, Americanisms and pronunciation.


The Jew in English Literature —

by Edward N. Calisch. (Bell, $1.50)

A scholarly and excellent work in a new field. Very few Jewish authors have escaped Dr. Calisch’s wide reading.


The Confessions of a Con Man—

Edited by Will Irwin. (Huebsch, $1.00)

Not fiction, but veracious history. A book of rare humor and human interest.


The Toll of the Sea—

by Roy Norton. (Appleton, $1.50)

A thrilling tale of earthquakes, tidal waves and other cosmic mishaps. Huge ocean steamers are sucked into watery abysses by stupendous magnets. Imaginative scientists play the devil. Jules Verne himself could give no better show for the money.


Happy Hawkins —

by Robert Alexander Wason. (Small-Maynard, $1.50)

A farcical sketch of life in the western country, set forth in rather dubious dialect.


In Whaling Days—

by Howland Tripp. (Little-Brown, $1.50) Chapters about the heroes and common folks of old New Bedford. The worst of them have plenty of color, and the best are delightful.


Songs from the Garden of Kama—

by Laurence Hope. (Lane, $3.00)

A selection from Mrs. Nicolson’s lyrics of the Far East, with remarkably effective photographic illustrations by Mrs. Eardley Wilmot. An admirable gift book—but not for your pastor or maiden aunt.


The Leopard and the Lily —

by Marjorie Bowen. (Doubleday-Page, $1.30)

An old-fashioned romance of the Middle Ages, with a fighting hero, a beautiful but baleful adventuress and a good deal of charming butchery. In the last chapter the adventuress is run down and trampled to death by cavalry.


Virginia of the Air Lanes —

by Herbert Quick. (Bobbs-Merrill, $1.50)

A fantastic romance of aeronautics, with a good deal of dash and color in it. Striking illustrations by W. R. Leigh.


The Renewal of Life—

by Thos. B. Keyes, M.D. (Tubercle Press, $1.00)

A somewhat vague essay, arguing that subcutaneous injections of oil will cure, or help to cure, “all manner of diseases.”


Idylls of the King—

by Walter Spence. (Cochrane. $1.25)

A silly attempt to read theological balderdash into Tennyson’s poetry.


The Golfer’s Almanac —

by W. L. Stoddard. (Houghton-Mifflin, 90 cents)

A little encyclopedia of golfing, of certain interest to all who love the Presidential game.


At the Back of the North Wind —

by Geo. Macdonald. (Lippincott, §1.50)

An unusually attractive gift book for children of twelve or thirteen, with pictures in color.


Phoebe Deane—

by Grace L. H. Lutz. (Lippincott, $1.50)

A sentimental tale of the ’30’s, with the scenes laid in New York State.


The Flaw in the Sapphire —

by Chas. M. Snyder. (Metropolitan Press, $1.00)

An exceedingly amusing bit of foolery, out of the customary rut. Just the thing for a rainy afternoon.


Apologies for Love —

by F. A. Myers. (Badger, $1.50)

“ ‘Do you remain long in Paris. Miss Wadsworth?’ Earl Nero Pensive (!!!) inquired, as he seated himself beside her. His eyes, like beaming lights out of shadowless abysm, were transfixed upon her as by magic force. …” Thus the story begins. God knows how it ends!


Was Shakespeare a Gentleman?

by Samuel A. Tannenbaum. (Tenny, 50 cents)

Mr. Tannenbaum says that he was. So say we all of us.


The Motor Car —

by R. W. A. Brewer. (Fait Nostrand, $2.00)

Here we have a comprehensive treatise upon the automobile, by an expert. Every part of the machine is described in detail, and the mechanical theories underlying them are explained. It is not a “handy guide,” but a text-book which invites serious study.


The Wayfarer in New York—

With an introduction by E. S. Martin. (Macmillan, $1.25)

A pleasant little collection of pen-pictures of New York, in prose and verse, and by men as divergent in point of view as Richard Hovey and O. Henry, Walt Whitman and James Bryce.


The Return of the Half-Moon —

by Diedrick Crayon, Jr. (Broadway Pub. Co., $1.00)

Heavy, heavy humor.


Historical Guide to the City of New York —

by Frank B. Kelley. (Stokes, $1.50)

An invaluable handbook for the wayfarer interested in the history of New York. Every ancient landmark is plainly platted, and there are route directions for no less than seventy little tours of the metropolis. The maps and illustrations are excellent.


For You and for Me —

by “Andrew Hale.” (Campion, $1.00)

The frontispiece shows “Andrew Hale” to be a young woman of considerable good looks. Her verses are the graceful, earnest verses that all of us write when we are young.


The Oath of Allegiance —

by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps. (Houghton-Mifflin, $1.25)

Eleven of Mrs. Phelps’ admirable short stories—frankly sentimental in their point of view, but marked throughout by a sure feeling for form and color, and a technique that never fails.


A Reaping—

by E. F. Benson. (Doubleday-Page, $1.50)

Delightfully rambling essays upon all things under the sun, hung together by a thread of story. Open it at any page, and it will give you half an hour of profitable idleness.


Susanna and Sue —

by Kate Douglas Wiggin. (Houghton- Mifflin, $1.50)

A little story of the Shakers and their ways and of a rebellious wife, made into a charming gift book.


Allegretto con delicatezza. The Master of Life —

by W. D. Lighthall. (McClurg, $1.25) Here we have a tale of the pre-Columbian Indians, and an attempt to describe their civilization and philosophy of life. Is it accurate? I’m sure I don’t know.

(Source: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101076426178;view=1up;seq=697)

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