Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken

I have now been retired for all of two weeks. As you would expect I have been conducting a life review after 44 years as a practising doctor. This process has put me in mind of Henrik Ibsen’s final play When We Dead Awaken. But, more about that later. I want to start off with James Joyce’s response to When We Dead Awaken.

Joyce’s review of Ibsen’s play was his first published work, and it was published in the Fortnightly Review on 1 April 1900. In an earlier essay, Joyce had said of Ibsen that he put real life on the stage, ‘as we see it before our eyes, men and women as we meet them in the real world, not as we apprehend them in the world of faery’. In the journal article, he concluded ‘Henrik Ibsen is one of the world’s great men before whom criticism can make but feeble show. Appreciation, hearkening, is the only true criticism. Further, that species of criticism which calls itself dramatic criticism is a needless adjunct to his plays. Life is not criticized, but to be faced and lived […] On the whole, When We Dead Awaken may rank with the greatest of the author’s work – if indeed, it be not the greatest.’

Ibsen read Joyce’s review and wrote to his English publisher asking him to pass on his thanks to Joyce and Joyce wrote back on 28 April 1900: ‘I wish to thank you for your kindness in writing to me. I am a young Irishman, eighteen years old, and the words of Ibsen I shall keep in my heart all my life.’ I started out with Joyce, the young, barely adult Joyce, as a counter to the Ibsen of 1900, already at the autumn of his life, with a mere 6 more years before his death. In the one we have the enthusiasm of youth and its openness but in the other, as depicted in this final play, a contemplative and melancholic spirit.

Joyce wrote a wonderful letter to Ibsen in March 1901, on the occasion of Ibsen’s 73rd birthday. It confirmed, if confirmation was needed, Joyce’s enduring admiration for Ibsen’s work and contribution to literature. In part, it read

I am a young, a very young man, and perhaps the telling of such tricks of the nerves will make you smile. But I am sure if you go back along your own life to the time when you were an undergraduate at the University as I am, and if you think what it would have meant to you to have earned a word from one held as high in your esteem as you hold in mine, you will understand my feeling […] I have claimed for you your rightful place in the history of the drama. I have shown what, as it seemed to me, was your highest excellence – your lofty impersonal power. Your minor claims – your satire, your technique and orchestral harmony – these, too, I advanced. Do not think me a hero-worshipper. I am not so. And when I spoke of you, in debating-societies, and so forth, I enforced attention by no futile ranting. But we always keep the dearest things to ourselves. I did not tell them what bound me closes to you. I did not say how what I could discern dimly of your life was my pride to see, how your battles inspired me – not the obvious material battles but those that were fought and won behind your forehead – how your wilful resolution to wrest the secret from life gave me heart, and how in your absolute indifference to public canons of art, friends and shibboleths you walked in the light of your inward heroism […]’

This is the context then of When We Dead Awaken, a play that describes an encounter between a retired sculptor Arnold Rubek and Irena, a model who had sat for him. It is a reckoning of sorts, an accounting of the value of a life. And sadly, it concludes that the artistic life eschews living and is dead! Professor Rubek says ‘How blind I was then – when I set the dead clay image above the joy of living – and of love!’ It is not what one expects, that Ibsen at the end of his life, looking at his extraordinary achievements, would regard them as paltry, as mere ephemera, as dead clay images.

It is a complex play. It suggests that in the making of a great work of art, the artist sucks the life out of his model, essentially kills her. Irena, the model says ‘I showed myself, wholly and without reserve, for you to gaze at …[softly] and never once did you touch me!…’ Rubek responds by saying that he was an artist first and that he was sick with longing to make a great work of art and it was to be called “Resurrection Day” ‘expressed in the form of a young woman waking from the sleep of death-‘. We already know that a sculptor’s task is to wrestle with a hard material, block of marble and that the stone resists, even though it be dead, resists rather than let itself be hammered into life. So, the dead marble is wrestled into life and the living model, the woman has her life sucked out to make the marble a living object!

‘This waking woman was to be the noblest, purest, most flawless in the world […] To me you became something holy – not to be touched except in reverent thought.’ Rubek continues ‘I was filled with conviction that if I touched you, or desired you sensually, my vision would be so desecrated that I would never be able to achieve what I was striving after. And I still think that there was some truth in that.’

The model’s response is stunning: ‘I gave you my soul – young and living. And since then I’ve been empty – soulless. That is why I died.’ But the artist too dies inside or at least is racked with guilt from realising that there is substantial gap between the conception of an image and the image itself and also that conception too changes over time. And in Rubek’s case ‘here, as it were – sits a man so laden with guilt that he cannot quite free himself from the earth’s crust. I call him remorse for a wasted life. He sits and dips his fingers in the running brook to wash them clean, and he is racked and tormented by the knowledge that he will never succeed – never in all eternity will he be free to live the resurrected life. He must stay for ever in his own hell.’

It is astonishing that in this reckoning, Ibsen concludes that he has been a failure. That his drawings from life have missed the mark. His life’s work has been futile. And as I am starting in this new phase of my life, looking back at decades of clinical practice, and then looking forward, Ibsen’s immense intelligence, his extraordinary penetrating gaze at the nature of freedom in domestic life and the costs of it, is frightening – for it suggests that everything ends in failure because ultimately, we as humans are not up to the task. The task of elevating ourselves beyond the dead clay images.

The Second Act in When We Dead Awaken opens at sunset and the closing Third Act opens at dawn. At the end the couple, Rubek and Irena, jump to their joint death over a wild jagged mountain-side with sheer precipices.

Photos by Jan Oyebode

4 thoughts on “Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken

  1. This is a hard play to contemplate after a life’s work has ended. What the sculptor left behind was an image hewn from stone. What you left behind were lives brought back from the breach of despair, a legacy of immense human worth. May the weeks and months and years to come be ones where light illuminates the dark corners of wondering.

    1. Carolyn
      Thanks once again for your thoughtful words. I suppose Ibsen was trying to say something about how our efforts never achieve the sublime that we imagine and in his old age, this perspective is transformed by melancholy into pessimism. The hope is that even with the knowledge of ultimate failure we continue to labour and to aspire.

  2. Prof.
    This is thought provoking and a masterpiece as always.
    The melancholy of hindsight and perhaps the ultimate unsatisfactoriness of Rubek’s professional life resonates with me…often after weeks of consultations especially in LD Psychiatry trying to provide some sort of help and often failing (not for want of trying but for the complexity of the cases) I wonder if at all, there is any purpose to what I do.
    If I feel this way in my 20s, just starting a career in psychiatry I can only wonder what the coming years will reveal!

    I hope you enjoy your retirement sir!

    1. Ayomipo
      Thanks for your comments.
      My preoccupation with Ibsen is partly because he was undeniably an important figure in theatre but his final play explored how everything ends in failure as we can never achieve what we aim for; we simply approximate it.
      Best wishes,

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