The Ibsen Cycle

In THE IBSEN CYCLE, I follow Ibsen's own account of his plays as a "Cycle" with "mutual connections between the plays" which, as he further insisted, should be read in the order in which they were created. Pillars of Society inaugurates the Cycle and is pregnant with themes, images, archetypes and characters that will evolve throughout the Cycle, somewhat as Richard Wagner's Das Rheingold establishes the themes and leitmotifs that will evolve throughout Der Ring des Nibelungen. The twelve plays thus form a single, aesthetically ambitious artwork, a tripartite unity with four plays to each group. Each group has its own design, as distinct as the tripartite division of Dante's COMMEDIA. ('Divine Comedy') while the Cycle as a whole reveals a dialectical evolution from the first play, Pillars of Society, to the last, When We Dead Awaken.


The Three Groups.

(a) Pillars of Society; (b) A Doll House; (b) Ghosts; (a) An Enemy of the People.

  The first group sets out a planned structure (abba) of symmetrical parallels and contrasts that will be the procedure, also, of the second and third groups.   For a more complete account of this procedure see 'The Structure of the Cycle' in THE IBSEN CYCLE, (pp. 98 - 186). An objective analysis of the design of this first group will prepare the reader to consider the similarly symmetrical design of the Cycle as a whole.  This represents a radical departure from traditional ideas of Ibsen's artistry so that it is important to consider the evidence for the claim impartially, setting aside received ideas of Ibsen's art.

Two 'outer' plays open and close the group and prepare for the evolution to the second group; and two 'inner plays that explore other dimensions of the dialectic. The two 'outer plays, Pillars of Society and An Enemy of the People show striking parallels. In both  the contrasting leading figures are male: the 'pillar of society', Karsten Bernick and the rebel or 'enemy of society', Thomas Stockman. Both plays have large casts and stage crowd scenes of public occasions confronting the heroes. Both plays focus on humanity in its public and social aspect (the polis) and are noisy and confrontational. Both end with tableaux of the hero flanked by his family.

 The two 'inner' plays show a similar symmetry. Here, the leading figures are female - Nora Halmer and Helene Alving - and both plays are notably domestic and 'interior' in imagery and subject matter, focusing on the themes of marriage and the family. The name 'Nora' is a diminutive of 'Eleanora' - an alternative form of "Helen', suggesting a link between the two heroines, Nora-Helene. The dialectical action at work in each play, causing the complex reversals of the principal characters and their situations, also determines the dynamic structure of the whole group where the leading character, the 'pillar' of his community evolves into its 'rebel'. 

The final play of this group, An Enemy of the People, concludes this tetralogy with its predominantly 'Greek' dialectic, themes and imagery and, in the last Act, introduces the 'Christian' themes and imagery that emerge strongly in the second group.

The Second Group                   

(a)The Wild Duck; (b)Rosmersholm; (b)The Lady from the Sea;(a) Hedda Gabler                                                     In  both The Wild Duck and Hedda Gabler we find scenes divided between a foreground room associated with everyday reality and a more secretive and escapist background room: a visual dualism that is extended into a wide-ranging psychological, social, and metaphysical dualism. There are other parallels: both plays, uniquely in the cycle, are punctuated by two pistol shots, and in both, the similarly names heroines, Hedvig-Hedda, retreat to the background room to shoot themselves. Lieutenant Ekdal dons full dress uniform to stand over the body of Hedvig, and Hedda is discovered beneath the portrait of her uniformed father, General Gabler. In both plays the somewhat similar Hjalmar Ekdal and Jørgen Tesman have been brought up by two maiden aunts; in both households there is a cynical and controlling (and 'satanic') neighbor, Relling and Judge Brack.

The two 'inner' plays, (b) Rosmersholm; (b) The Lady from the Sea, also have themes and imagery in common. In a first draft of the play, the priest, Rosmer was given the two daughters now transferred to Wangel; both male characters have a deceased wife in the background and a wayward and somewhat mysterious partner in the present. Rebecca West, from northern Finnmark is termed a 'mermaid', 'sea troll', and 'witch', while the mermaid-like Ellida Wangel was referred to as "the pagan' by 'an old priest'.

The dialectic of the second group leads from the humble 'insulted and injured' condition of the fallen Ekdal family to the open aggression of the aristocratic Hedda Gabler against the bourgeois world closing around her.  The group, therefore, opens and closes in strongly contrasting conditions of entrapment and unfreedom.   The time of year is the Fall - the season in which the first play of the next group opens. The Master Builder begins in the same condition of entrapment, loss of freedom as Hedda Gabler, and the stage set is again divided between foreground and background rooms. But this is only the precondition for a dynamic of liberation from intolerable confinement that will govern the dialectic of the third group.

The Third Group:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     The opening and closing plays, The Master Builder; When We Dead Awaken dramatize the agons of the leading characters as artists (master builder Solness; sculptor Rubek) burdened and constrained by past guilt and finally breaking free for exultantly assertive but fatal actions of ascent and fall. The actions of each play are instigated by 'unexpected visitors from the past' to whom promises were made, and who lure the artists 'upward' to their deaths.

The two inner plays, Little Eyolf; John Gabriel Borkman portray marriages torn apart by conflict over the possession of the younger generation.

The following diagram can best set out the structure and design of this last group:


Mountain peak
When We Dead Awaken
Hilltop - Mountain View
John Gabriel Borkman
Estate hillock
Little Eyolf
Tower top
The Master Builder
Last Act




The four plays in succession form a distinct evolutionary sequence. The last act endings show a clear progression from evening to dawn while the scenography reveals an equally clear pattern of ascent within an expanding natural scene. As Ibsen is a meticulous artist, our interpretation of the individual plays and of the Cycle as a whole cannot begin to be adequate - or serious - until we engage with this huge structural dimension of his art.

The claim for such an ambitious, consciously plotted project goes against the received ideas of Ibsen's art that has become accepted wisdom for over a century of critical commentary and that often has had resolutely to ignore Ibsen's own statements about his art. The initial reaction of many who have adopted and contributed to that voluminous commentary is likely to be dismissive without seriously  putting the claim to the test of impartial analysis.  It will require a total reimagining, revaluation and reassessment of the author.  That such a large-scaled achievement co-exists with the intricately and sensitively rendered human worlds explored by each play in the Cycle, down to the minutest rhythms within the active consciousnesses of individual characters, can only increase our awe at Ibsen's quite astonishing artistry.  In my accounts on this website of the individual plays I have tried to make my analyses respond to both dimensions of that art: the humanly intimate and intricate as well as the universal and visionary.  Neglect of either dimension ressults in a drastically inadequate idea of Ibsen's artistry.