Standard Print Edition
The Quintessence of Ibsenism
By Bernard Shaw
Forgotten Books, 2010, 161 pages
Genre: Literary Criticism
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - August 17, 2010
This is one of the close to 10,000 books that readers can unload on their computers for free from www.forgottenbooks.org, or buy from Amazon (in standard print) for, in this case $8.14, plus shipping of $3.99. The web site has very good books.
The great playwright Bernard Shaw's Fabian Society were at a loss for lectures in 1890 and its members decided to speak on various subjects. Shaw chose the great playwright Ibsen, whose plays caused a furor among England's older reviewers. Some of newspaper younger reviewers liked the plays, while the majority felt strongly that they are immoral. The latter used vociferous language to demean the plays and their author. The emotional tones of their language showed that Ibsen was threatening their views of morality and society. What was Ibsen saying that threatened them so? Shaw's analysis not only clarifies the then contemporary situation and the methodology of Ibsen's plays, but he offers us a way to analyze our own lives.
Shaw begins by telling us about idealisms, the terrible destructive way of thinking and living, the way life that stifles what is human in people and dislocates them from reality. Idealism is an illusion that people and society create for themselves to camouflage and hide reality which they cannot accept because of their lack of sophistication or over-involvement in and fear of superstitions.
The notion of the Ideal Woman is an example. The true Woman according to the ideal is she who stays at home, takes care of children, coddles her husband, complies with his wishes, and does not work. This ideal is not real. Many women do not want or are unable to comply; many men prefer to perform this work. Imagine how threatened a man or woman would feel if they believe the ideal and are told that it is wrong, that they wasted their lives devoting themselves to a mistake.
Ibsen points out wrong ideals – both societal and religious notions – that are simply not right and which are harmful. Reviewers who bought into these wrong notions, who devoted their lives to them, were insulted by Ibsen's portrayals in his plays of how people who maintain these ideals suffer. They called his plays immoral.
Shaw writes that these people define immorality as conduct "which does not conform to current ideals." Ibsen, he says, "devoted himself almost entirely to showing that the spirit or will of Man is constantly outgrowing his ideal. And that therefore conformity to them is constantly producing results" that are tragic.
Thus Shaw shows that Ibsen's plays are great because they provoke such emotions from misguided, fearful, passive critics, people who are still attached to and unable to grow and change outdated ideals, and Shaw shows us that we need to heed Ibsen's advice and dare to question the accepted illusionary ideals.
Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of fifteen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Rabbi Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides, the latest being Maimonides: Reason Above All, published by Gefen Publishing House, www.gefenpublishing.com. The Orthodox Union (OU) publishes daily samples of the Targum books on www.ouradio.org.