Poor Old Ibsen!

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/November 7, 1910

Crimes In Ibsen’s Name

Now comes the Equal Suffrage League of Baltimore with a list of books for the edification of neophytes–and lo! “A Doll’s House” leads all the rest! O Ibsen, what crimes are committed in thy name! O Henrik, what mud pies are made from thy defenseless dust! Once it was the symbolists, those creatures of fantastic garb and unearthly whisker, that filled thy plays with their puerile imaginings and the air with their lemurine chatter! Then it was the Virtuosi of Virtue, those connoisseurs of the unclean, that sought to make thee out a delver into the cesspool in which they themselves disported! And now it is the suffragettes, earnest and unlearned girls, who seek to make thee march absurdly at the tail of their juggernautean car, thy shins hobbled with ribbons of purple and green, a pickax over thy shoulder and “Votes for Women!” bursting from thy lips!

But enough of such lofty and beautiful stuff! As a matter of fact, the suffragette raid upon poor old Ibsen is no more a new thing under the sun than some of the suffragettes themselves. It began long, long ago—to be precise, in the year 1882 anno domini—with the publication of Henrietta Frances Lord’s translation of “A Doll’s House.” Ibsen was then practically unknown to the nations of English speech. “A Doll’s House,” true enough, had been translated in 1880 by a Dane named Weber, but the translation was so atrocious that no one could understand it. And so the chance was there for Miss Lord to do the work a bit better and to make her version of the play a medium for the dissemination of her own stupendous thoughts.

The Case of Miss Lord

Miss Lord, it appears, was a young woman of a type quite familiar in the suffrage movement, as it is, in truth, in all movements for the quick cure of social and economic ills. That type is marked by a profound ignorance of the nature of man and a wild enthusiasm for sounding phrases. It is to the fore in every new crusade, whether moral, philosophical or therapeutic. It supplies the solid, hard-marching infantry of the Emmanuel Movement, the antivivisection jeremiad, the New Thought propaganda. Miss Lord, later on in life, became a professor of incredible metaphysics, and ended, if I make no mistake, as one of the sponsors of Christian Science in England. But at the time she translated “A Doll’s House” she was in the thick of the early battle for the suffrage, and so she read into Ibsen’s play all of the vast ideas which that battle inspired and made glorious.

Besides obfuscating the text, she also fitted the drama with a 10,000-word preface, and it is upon this preface that the suffragettes still ground their chief claims to Ibsen. It is an elaborate and ridiculous “interpretation” of the play, in which Nora is converted into a shrieking sister and poor Helmer, that harmless ass, is made to stand for the tyrannical male. This preface, it would seem, made a great impression upon Miss Lord’s contemporaries in the suffrage movement, for they were soon counting Ibsen as one of their prophets, quite as a matter of course, and finding further dramas. Before long the notion that he was an ardent suffragist began to spread over the whole of Europe, and even in Norway it became customary for suffragette spellbinders to refer to him in terms of eulogy as a man who, despite his masculinity, had sense.

An Era of Rabbinism

Ibsen himself kept silent for 16 years. He was inured to such grotesque rabbinism. The symbolism craze was then at its height and a host of self-constituted authorities were reading all sorts of insane meanings into his plays. In France he was hailed as a decadent, a parnassian, a diabolist: in Germany they were disputing as to whether Hedda Gabler was Brunnhilde, Kundry or the Lorelei: in Russia the censor was prohibiting “Ghosts” as an anarchist tract: in America a lot of bad actors were playing “A Doll’s House” in the manner of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome,” and in England the suffragettes fought over the play with the Socialists. Ibsen retired to his storm cellar and stopped his ears.

But the worm will turn. The camel’s back, burdened to such-and-such a point, will break. It broke, in fact, when the Norwegian Woman’s Rights League invited Ibsen, as their beloved Moses, to be the star performer at a great outpouring of the faithful in Christiania on May 26, 1898. The old man, with grim humor, accepted the invitation. What is more, he actually appeared at the gathering. What is still more, he made a speech—and that speech was about as severe a dressing down as any crowd of foolish folk ever received.

“I am not a member of the Woman’s Rights League.” Thus he began, with a mighty accent on the not, and then he proceeded to read the assembled suffragettes a much-needed lesson. “Whatever I have written,” he said, “has been without any conscious thought of making propaganda. I have been more the poet and less the social philosopher than a good many persons seem willing to believe. I thank you for your good will, but I must distinctly disclaim the honor of having done anything for the woman’s rights movement. As a matter of fact, I am not even clear as to what that movement really is.”

The Work of Women

“The task always before my mind,” he said, “is that of advancing our country and our people. To accomplish any such advancement, we must keep two things in mind. In the first place, we must make a conscious effort to acquire culture, and in the second place, we must submit ourselves to discipline. Here is work for the women of Norway. Let them, as mothers, awaken a desire for these things in the rising generation of men. It is the women who are to solve our problems. But they must do it as mothers, and only as mothers.”

Scarcely the speech of a suffragist! And yet the suffragettes still try to set up Nora Helmer as their protagonist and to claim poor old Ibsen as their prophet!

(Source: University of North Texas, Microfilm Collection)

The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism.