The League of Youth.
With an introduction by William Archer.
AFTER the momentous four years of his first visit to Italy, to which we owe Brand and Peer Gynt, Ibsen left Rome in May 1868, visited Florence, and then spent the summer at Berchtesgaden in Southern Bavaria. There he was busy “mentally wrestling” with the new play which was to take shape as De Unges Forbund (The League of Youth); but he did not begin to put it on paper until, after a short stay at Munich, be settled down in Dresden, in the early autumn. Thence he wrote to his publisher, Hegel, on October 31: “My new work is making rapid progress.... The whole outline is finished and written down. The first act is completed, the second will be in the course of a week, and by the end of the year I hope to have the play ready. It will be in prose, and in every way adapted for the stage. The title is The League of Youth; or, The Almighty & Co., a comedy, in five acts.” At Hegel's suggestion ho omitted the second title, “though,” he wrote, “it could have given offence to no one who had read the play.”
Apparently the polishing of the dialogue took longer than Ibsen anticipated. It was his first play in modern prose, and the medium did not come easy to him. Six or seven years earlier, he wrote the opening scenes of Love's Comedy in prose, but was dissatisfied with the effect, and recast the dialogue in rhymed verse. Having now outgrown his youthful romanticism, and laid down, in Brand and Peer Gynt, the fundamental positions of his criticism of life, he felt that to carry that criticism into detail he must come to close quarters with reality; and to that end he required a suppler instrument than verse. He must cultivate, as he afterwards put it, “the very much more difficult art of writing the genuine, plain language spoken in real life.” Probably the mastery of this new art cost him more effort than he anticipated, for, instead of having the play finished by the end of 1868, he did not despatch the manuscript to Copenhagen until March 1869. It was published on September 30 of that year.
While the comedy was still in process of conception, Ibsen had written to his publisher; “This new, peaceable work is giving me great pleasure.” It thus appears that he considered it less polemical in its character than the poems which had immediately preceded it. If his intentions were pacific, they were entirely frustrated. The play was regarded as a violent and wanton attack on the Norwegian Liberal party, while Stensgård was taken for a personal lampoon on Björnson. Its first performance at the Christiania Theatre (October 18, 1869) passed quietly enough; but at the second and third performances an organised opposition took the field, and disturbances amounting almost to a riot occurred.
Public feeling soon calmed down, and the play (the first prose comedy of any importance in Norwegian literature) became one of the most popular pieces in the repertory of the theatre. But it led to an estrangement from Björnson and the Liberal party, which was not healed for many a day-not, indeed, until Ghosts had shown the Norwegian public the folly of attempting to make party capital out of the works of a poet who stood far above party.
The estrangement from Björnson had begun some time before the play appeared. A certain misunderstanding had followed the appearance of Peer Gynt, and had been deepened by political differences. Björnson had become an ardent National Liberal, with leanings towards Republicanism; Ibsen was not at all a Republican (he deeply offended Björnson by accepting orders and decorations), and his political sympathies, while not of a partisan nature, were mainly “Scandinavian” -that is to say, directed towards a closer union of the three Scandinavian kingdoms. Distance, and the evil offices of gossiping friends, played their part in begetting dissension. Ibsen's last friendly letter to Björnson (of these years) was written in the last days of 1867; in the first days of 1869, while he was actually busied with The League of Youth, we find him declining to contribute to a Danish magazine for the reason (among others) that Björnson was to be one of its joint editors.
The news of the stormy reception of his comedy reached Ibsen in Egypt, where, as the guest of the Khedive, he was attending the opening of the Suez Canal. He has recorded the incident in a poem, At Port Said. On his return to Dresden he wrote to Hegel (December 14, 1869): “The reception of The League of Youth pleases me very much; for the disapprobation I was prepared, and it would have been a disappointment to me if there had been none. But what I was not prepared for was that Björnson should feel himself attacked by the play, as rumour says he does. Is this really the case? He must surely see that it is not himself I have bad in mind, but his pernicious and ‘lie-steeped’ clique who have served me as models. However, I will write to him to-day or to-morrow, and I hope that the affair, in spite of all differences, will end in a reconciliation.” The intended letter does not appear to have been written: nor would it, probably, have produced the desired effect, for Björnson's resentment was very deep. He had already (in November) written a poem to Johan Sverdrup, the leader of the Liberal party, in which he deplored the fact that “the sacred grove of poetry no longer afforded sanctuary against assassination,” or as the Norwegian word vigorously expresses it, “sneak-murder.” Long afterwards, in 1881, he explained what he meant by this term: “It was not the portrayal of contemporary life and known personages that I called assassination. It was the fact that The League of Youth sought to represent our young Liberal party as a gang of ambitious speculators, whose patriotism was as empty as their phraseology; and particularly that prominent men were first made clearly recognisable, and then had false hearts and shady characters foisted upon them.” It is difficult to see, indeed, how Ibsen can have expected Björnson to distinguish very clearly between an attack on his “lie-steeped clique” and a lampoon on himself. Even Stensgård's religious phraseology, the confidence with which he claims God as a member of his party, was at that time characteristic of Björnson. The case, in fact, seems to have been very like that of the portraiture of Leigh Hunt in Harold Skimpole. Both Dickens and Ibsen had unconsciously taken more from their respective models than they intended. They imagined, perhaps, that the features which did not belong to the original would conceal the likeness; whereas their actual effect was only to render the portraits libellous.
Eleven years passed before Björnson and Ibsen were reconciled. In 1880 (after the appearance of A Doll's House and before that of Ghosts The League of Youth soon became very popular in Norway, and it had considerable success in Sweden and Denmark. It was acted with notable excellence at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. Outside of Scandinavia it has never taken any hold of the stage. At the date of its appearance, Ibsen was still quite unknown, even in Germany; and when he became known, its technique was already antiquated. It has been acted once or twice both in Germany and England, and has proved very amusing on the stage; but it is essentially an experimental, transitional work. The poet is trying his tools.
The technical influence of Scribe and his school is apparent in every scene. Ibsen's determination not to rest content with the conventions of that school may already be discerned, indeed, in his disuse of the soliloquy and the aside; but, apart from these flagrant absurdities, he permits himself to employ almost all the devices of the Scribe method. Note, for example, how much of the action arises from sheer misunderstanding. The whole second act turns upon the Chamberlain's misunderstanding of the bent of Stensgård's diatribe in the first. act. As the Chamberlain is deliberately misled by his daughter and Fieldbo, the misunderstanding is not, perhaps, technically inadmissible. Yet it has to be maintained by very artificial means. Why, one may ask, does not Fieldbo, in his long conversation with Stensgård, in the second act, warn him of the thin ice on which he is skating? There is no sufficient reason, except that the great situation at the end of the act would thus be rendered impossible. It is in the fourth act, however, that the methods of the vaudevillist are most apparent. It is one string of blunders of the particular type which the French significantly call “quiproquos.” Some arise through the quite diabolical genius for malicious wire-pulling developed by old Lundestad; but most of them are based upon that deliberate and elaborate vagueness of expression on the part of the characters which is the favourite artifice of the professor of theatrical sleight-of-hand. We are not even spared the classic quiproquo of the proposal by proxy mistaken for a proposal direct-Stensgård's overtures to Madam Rundholmen on behalf of Bastian being accepted by her as an offer on his own behalf. We are irresistibly reminded of Mrs. Bardell's fatal misunderstanding of Mr. Pickwick's intentions. All this, to be sure, is excellent farce, but there is no originality in the expedients by which it is carried on. Equally conventional, and equally redolent of Scribe, is the conduct of the fifth act. The last drop of effect is wrung out of the quiproquos with an almost mathematical accuracy. We are reminded of a game at puss-in-the-four-corners, in which Stensgård tries every corner in turn, only to find himself at last left out in the cold. Then, as the time approaches to ring down the curtain, every one is seized with a fever of amiability, the Chamberlain abandons all his principles and prejudices, even to the point of subscribing for twenty copies of Aslaksen's newspaper, and the whole thing becomes scarcely less unreal than one of the old-comedy endings, in which the characters stand in a semicircle while each delivers a couplet of the epilogue. It is difficult to believe that the facile optimism of this conclusion could at any time have satisfied the mind which, only twelve years later, conceived the picture of Oswald Airing shrinking together in his chair and babbling, “Mother-give me the sun.”
But, while we realise with what extraordinary rapidity and completeness Ibsen outgrew this phase of his art, we must not overlook the genuine merits of this brilliant comedy. With all its faults, it was an advance on the technique of its day, and was hailed as such by a critic so penetrating as George Brandes. Placing ourselves at the point of view of the time, we may perhaps say that its chief defect is its marked inequality of style. The first act is purely preparatory; the fifth act, as we have noted, is a rather perfunctory winding-up. The real play lies in the intervening acts; and each of these belongs to a different order of art. The second act is a piece of high comedy, quite admirable in its kind; the third act, both in tone and substance, verges upon melodrama; while the fourth act is nothing but rattling farce. Even from the Scribe point of view, this jumping from key to key is a fault. Another objection which Scribe would probably have urged is that several of Fieldbo's speeches, and the attitude of the Chamberlain towards him, are, on the face of them, incomprehensible, and are only retrospectively explained. The poetics of that school forbid all reliance on retrospect; perhaps because they do not contemplate the production of any play about which any human being would care to think twice.
The third act, though superficially a rather tame interlude between the vigorous second act and the bustling fourth, is in reality the most characteristic of the five. The second act might be signed Angier, and the fourth Labiche; but in the third the coming Ibsen is manifest. The scene between the Chamberlain and Monsen is, in its disentangling of the past, a preliminary study for much of his later work-a premonition, in fact, of his characteristic method. Here, too, in the character of Selma and her outburst of revolt, we have by far the most original feature of the play. In Selina there is no trace of French influence, spiritual or technical. With admirable perspicacity, Dr. Brandes realised from the outset the significance of this figure. “Selma, “he wrote,” is a new creation, and her relation to the family might form the subject of a whole drama. But in the play as it stands she has scarcely room to move.” The drama which Brandes here foresaw, Ibsen wrote ten year's later in A Doll's House.
With reference to the phrase “De lokale forhold,” here lamely represented by “the local situation,” Ibsen has a curious remark in a letter to Markus Griinvold, dated Stockholm, September 3, 1877. His German translator, he says, has rendered the phrase literally “lokale Verhältnisse” - “which is wrong, because no suggestion of comicality or narrow-mindedness is conveyed by this German expression. The rendering ought to be ‘unsere berechtigten Eigenthümlichkeiten,' an expression which conveys the same meaning to Germans as the Norwegian one does to us Scandinavians.” This suggestion is, unfortunately, of no help to the English translator, especially when it is remembered in what context Aslaksen uses the phrase “de lokale forhold” in the fifth act of An Enemy of the People.
 Letter to Lucie Wolf, May 1883. Correspondence, Letter 171.
 See Correspondence, Letters 44 and 45.
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