My thanks to Amateur Reader who blogs at Wuthering Expectations for pointing this book out to me a couple of months ago. Amateur Reader is a much better student than I have been with The Quintessance of Ibsenism (I confess to both skimming parts and not reading it all the way to the end) so please check his posts out if you’d like a more thorough and thoughtful response to Mr. Shaw’s little book.
On with what I have to say…
In The Quintessence of Ibsenism George Bernard Shaw works his way through all of Ibsen’s plays to develop an overall theory of them. It’s a decent theory and an interesting read. The two were contemporaries and both wrote works dealing with similar themes, namely the condition of women, throughout their careers. While I’ve not seen the complete works of either, I’ve seen enough to recognize how the two may have influenced each other, or at least why Ibsen was so important to Shaw, important enough to write a book about him.
Basically, Shaw believes Ibsen’s plays are about the corrosive effects of duty and ideals on the development of human society. Shaw describes Ibsen’s work as all involved in this discussion, even the early more fantastical works like Peer Gynt, which I confess I walked out on at the first intermission. I love Ibsen’s more realistic plays, A Doll’s House, The Master Builder and Ghosts, but there was no way I could sit through four hours of trolls, a student production no less.
Shaw describes how duty works against human progress here:
The point to seize is that social progress takes effect through the replacement of old institutions by new ones; and since every institution involves the recognition of the duty of conforming to it, progress must involve the repudiation of an established duty at every step. If the Englishman had not repudiated the duty of absolute obedience to his king, his political progress would have been impossible. If women had not repudiated the duty of absolute submission to their husbands, and defied public opinion as to the limits set by modesty to their education, they would never have gained the protection of the Married Women’s Property Act, the municipal vote, or the power to qualify themselves as medical practitioners.
Part of the way duty functions to maintain societal institutions is by creating an ideal, a representative figure who behaves in a fashion everyone else should admire and follow. For Ibsen, and quite often for Shaw, the ideal in question was the ideal woman, the Victorian Age’s Angel in the House. (One has to keep in mind that Shaw was born in 1856 and lived until 1950. He saw these ideals in action, the price people paid to maintain them and their eventual fall as well.) In both A Doll’s House and Ghosts we see Ibsen presenting his audience with an ideal woman and then presenting us with the price she has paid to maintain this ideal. In both plays we see the error inherent in doing one’s duty and in being an idealist.
Amateur Reader read The Quintessence of Ibsenism while working through all Ibsen’s plays, which is an admirable project, but one I did not undertake. To be honest, I sort of enjoy reading plays, but I’d much rather see them. I’m lucky enough to live in an area where both Shaw and Ibsen are regularly staged. If you ever get a chance to go see Ghosts, do. Very few plays have made as strong an impression on me as the closing scenes of Ghosts did. Shaw does not move me nearly as much, though he is always very funny, and usually a bit disturbing. I list Major Barbara as my favorite.
There’s a good chance that your public library has a copy of The Quintessence of Ibsenism gathering dust on a back shelf somewhere. If you’re a fan of or a student of Ibsen or of Shaw I think you’ll find it interesting even if you don’t read the entire book.