The Dialectical Realism of Rosmersholm
The extreme precision with which Ibsen shaped his plots reminds us that Ibsen’s plays are primarily works of art, artifacts. Rosmersholm tells a passionate human story, involving psychological, social, political and metaphysical dimensions of reality, all contained within the intricate symmetry of the plotting. The containment of volatile events within the frame of firm aesthetic control is one of the many aspects of the play that recall the Enlightenment dramatist, Friedrich Schiller. The Hegelian source of the play, I claim, is the chapter in the Phenomenology, 'The Struggle of Enlightenment with Superstition' (cf. The Ibsen Cycle, pp.237-88). The play recovers not only the themes of this conflict but also the attitudes and sensibilities of the contestants in Hegel’s analysis. Hegel’s opposition of Enlightenment and Superstition is present in the play’s cluster of light-darkness/reason-superstition metaphors and details.
The social and political scene of Rosmersholm contains, domesticated and transformed into their modern equivalents, two great influences in European history. One of these was ancient Rome that impressed upon the world law, order, civilization and later an established hierarchic Church hostile to intellectual challenge. The other was the history of the 'Germanic' peoples who first devastated the eternal city and later, in the realm of thought (Protestantism and Enlightenment) overthrew Roman authority. The historical antitheses of Order vs. Freedom; Law vs. Anarchy; the challenge to an established, traditional but stifling way of life by a radical and ruthless force of change, are reflected in the structure of Rosmersholm. (For a fuller account, see The Ibsen Cycle, op.cit). During the composition of the play, Ibsen moved his residence from Rome to Munich in Bismarck’s emerging nation state of Germany. I will return to this historical Roman-German opposition later. An aspect of Ibsen’s art is to expand the dialectic of the Phenomenology to take in wider areas of history – many from Hegel’s other writings, such as The Philosophy of History. And behind all the plays in the Realist Cycle is the implied presence of Emperor and Galilean's unresolved conflict between the legacy of Christianity and the pre-Christian humanity it attempted to supplant.
Ibsen’s method, following Hegel, of translating the macrocosm of inherited history into the microcosm of individual modern consciousness can be inferred from his answer to a query from Bjornstjerne Bjørnson’s nephew, then at grammar school:
"....the different spiritual functions do not develop evenly and abreast of each other in any one human being. The acquisitive instinct hurries from conquest to conquest. The moral consciousness – what we call the conscience - is, on the other hand, very conservative. It has its roots deep in traditions and in the past generally. Hence the conflict within the individual."
What is interesting, here, is that Ibsen suggests the drama of many characters on the stage is the drama of a single consciousness: that the characters associated with the “acquisitive instinct” and those associated with the “moral consciousness” are forces at conflict within a single mind; that is, the mind of every member of the audience. This is the Hegelian insistence that we are each of us a world-mind, a Weltgeist and that a true psychoanalysis would be the analysis of the world-history that has created us. In a note to Emperor and Galilean Ibsen wrote, “the individual must go through the evolutionary history of the race”; that phylogeny recapitulates ontology.
Rosmersholm’s somewhat ‘Gothic’ story of sexual transgression and virtual murder within its classically symmetrical frame tempts many to hurry past the plot's insistent artistry to get at the luridly beckoning material. To dwell upon the story of Rosmersholm, re-organizing its details into a narrative and biographical structure is to decode the text as if it were a novel or case history and not a play. Any order or design that might be detected from a selective separation of details will emerge not from within the structure of the play itself but from the non-aesthetic interests of the interpreter. "If we resurrect Rebecca's past," writes Sigmund Freud in his study of Rebekka West, "expanding and filling in the author's hints, we may feel sure that she cannot have been without some inkling of the intimate relation between her mother and Dr. West....". Freud ingeniously unearths from the story the Oedipal pattern he already buried there, imposing coherence on scattered elements of the story outside the drama or the plot. Freud sought to make sense of Rebekka West’s situation by speculating on events in her ‘life’ located in some non-textual dimension beyond the play. However, spatial and temporal events do not exist outside the enclosed artifice of the plot which reconfigures them, piece by piece, as stages of the dialectic. The past does not occur and has not occurred except as an immediately present moment fitted into the plot’s design, changing the evolving experience of the play we are watching or reading. When Ibsen’s text does evoke dimensions beyond the immediate stage action, these are to be reconciled within the play’s ongoing conscious design. The symbolic and metaphoric nature of an art such as drama extends into the 'supertext' of cultural/historical areas of an audience's inherited communal consciousness, but dramatic art does not create actual existences (real lives) to be encountered in a world outside the theater. The temptation to speculate on the imagined lives of dramatis personae beyond the conditions of their aesthetic existence is an impulse the serious interpreter has to resist.
Ignoring the play's plot structure, piecing together the “author's hints” from a hypothetical past outside the plot, might produce endless conjecture on all the characters in the play; including, no doubt, the girlhood of the housekeeper, Mrs. Helseth. The inevitably incomplete histories a playwright supplies his or her characters are not there to lure us towards "filling in the author's hints'" and away from attention to the unfolding action of the plot; but to serve, thematically, the plot emerging before our eyes. There is only so much fictional detail a dramatist can supply. Simply launching a story into the world renders it vulnerable to infinite speculation. The major artist, however, is always upfront with intentions. The too sophisticated or cynical reader wants to detect ‘ambiguities’ and hidden clues planted by the artist as teasers secretly addressing the brighter members of the audience over the heads of the dimmer folk. Conscientious playwrights don't set puzzles. Ibsen’s plays are difficult because he has a difficult subject to clarify, not because he wants to be obscure. But there always will be those who will fuss over how many children had Lady Macbeth.
Reading the play, we should imagine, not 'real life' events but an ideal theatric performance. Despite what the critic George Lukacs stated in The Historical Novel, Ibsen is not telling in the form of drama what better would fit a novel. Lukacs takes the scene in Rosmersholm, Act III where Rebecca West describes to Rosmer and Kroll the nature of her step-by-step actions that led to Beate's suicide. Lukacs pays Ibsen the backhanded compliment of establishing, through his "unflinching honesty" that a play such as Rosmersholm "could not become a real drama." The reason for this is that "at the decisive moment" of Rebecca's confession "we see that the actual drama, namely Rebecca West's struggle, tragic collision and conversion, is, as far as subject-matter, structure, action and psychology are concerned, really a novel, the last chapter of which Ibsen has clothed in the outward form of drama. ". Lukacs reads Ibsen's plays in the way A.C. Bradley read Shakespeare's tragedies: as incomplete Victorian novels where the reader is asked to supply the details of psychology and past motive ("filling in the author's hints") that Shakespeare had only implied. Instead of seeing the drama Ibsen wrote, Lukacs laments the absence of the "actual drama" he believes the retrospective method is a substitute for. His objections could apply as cogently to Sophokles' Oedipus tyrannos.
The past, in Ibsen, is not a way of getting the offstage story told through the restricted form of modern realism. Ibsen is interested less in the violent story from the past (which would make a good melodrama) than in the subtler movement of Rebecca's evolving consciousness, in the present, as the plot brings her for the first time, through the alienating perspective of her evolved identity, to newly interrogate that past. The melodramatic story is the material which the austere dialectic of the 'plot refashions into a drama of evolving consciousness. This is the real subject of the play. The dialectic forces the characters to confront their former motives and actions where the past emerges as an estranging dimension of their present identities. From these painfully arrived at new identities, Rosmer and Rebecca achieve the union that earlier eluded them in the world of compromised action. Rosmer's heritage of law, order, tradition and repression of the instincts confronted Rebecca's antithetical past of anarchic origins, personal history and motives, involving the instinctual transgressions of incest, adultery, and virtual murder.
The plot negotiates the stages towards a tragic reconciliation of present consciousness with its alien past: a process that invites the alerted attention of the audience through each move within the tautly held time of performance. Certain facts from the story, such as those of Rebecca West's confession, are recalled at crucial moments by the plot because only at these precise moments in the sequence do they gain their significance for the evolving dialectic. The plot negotiates the stages by which tragic knowledge - anagnorisis - is reached: a process that needs to hold the attention of the audience through each crucial move within the tautly stretched time of performance, compelling a heightened complexity of response by the audience to the shape the emerging material the story is now taking on. Rosmersholm is autotelic: its meaning is its own adequate performance. “If a work signifies itself, this implies there is no ‘outside’ of the work, that the work acts as its own referent: it presents what it interprets at the same moment it interprets it, forming one and the same manifestation....” (Catherine Malabou, The Future of Hegel, p.71). Though Rosmersholm draws on the historical Enlightenment as its material this does not constitute its meaning or significance: that resides entirely within the structure and texture of the play itself, just as the subject chosen for e.g. a painting - a portrait or landscape - is totally transmuted into an element of the artwork. Recognizing the historical/cultural analogies to Rosmersholm prepares us to better appreciate its aesthetic performance.
The events of the past are not just recollected and re-examined: more devastatingly, they are, unconsciously, simultaneously re-enacted. That is, the plot's gradual evolution of a consciousness that grows to view past events from a radically new perspective is accompanied at the same time by a grimly ironic, undetected replay of the events. Marvin Carlson drew attention to the plot's extraordinary symmetries where both Rosmer and Rebecca fatally re-enact, in sequence; the past events from which they futilely endeavor to break free. In one re-enactment: "The four specific actions taken by the dead wife are precisely repeated and in order, by Rebecca - indeed, they serve as one basis for the four-act arrangement of the play."
The four actions performed in the past by the dead wife are:
Beate revealed to Kroll that Rosmer is falling into apostasy.
Rebecca urges Rosmer to do this in Act One.
Beate wrote a letter to Mortensgaard to protect Rosmer.
Rebecca repeats this action in Act Two
Beate hinted to Kroll at a relationship between Rosmer and Rebecca.
Rebecca confesses this to Kroll in Act Three.
Beate threw herself into the millstream.
as do Rebecca and Rosmer in Act Four.
As in Enlightenment drama, the characters are set out in terms of clear ideological opposition: The cast can be divided into two contending groups, the ‘conservative’ “with “its roots deep in traditions and in the past generally”, and the radical “acquisitive instinct (that) hurries from conquest to conquest” This neat division of the two sides of the dialectic is a feature, also, on such an Enlightenment drama as Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart.
Mrs. Helseth Ulrik Brendel
Beate Dr. West
The members of the Enlightenment group are all associated with light. Rebekka lights the lamp in Act I. when the subject turns to Beate and enlists the aid of Mortensgaard who is editor of The Beacon (Blinkfyret). Brendel is derived from brenne – burn as is his pseudonym, Hetman (het – heat)
The design of the play:
ACT ONE – Evening
Play opens with reference to millrace beyonf window
Rosmer and Rebekka,, united, prepare to attack established society
Ulrik Brendel appears, prepared to join the the attac
Rosmer and Kroll break apart.Kroll's first mention of Beate's accusation of adultery.
ACT TWO: Morning:
Kroll attacks. Rosmer. Brendel attacked by his companions.
Mortensgaard enlisted on the side of Rosmer.
Rosmer openly associated with apostasy and sexual transgressors.
The dead wife's accusation now openly articulated - by Kroll and Mortensgaard.
Rosmer and Rebecca begin to separate.
ACT THREE: Morning:
Full scale attack upon Rosmer and Rebecca by Kroll and his associates. Kroll confronts Rebecca with the truth of her 'origins': illegitimate, incestuous relation to her father.
She also is seen as 'seducer' of Kroll, Beate and Rosmer.
Rosmer and Rebecca now seem poles apart.
ACT FOUR: Evening:
Rosmer and Rebecca give up their challenge to society, contemplating defeat and separation.
Ulrik Brendel re-appears, sharing their defeat.
Rosmer and Rebecca now re-unite in a marriage and suicide.
Play closes with a reference to the millrace beyond the window
The play thus organizes its elements as a design to be contemplated by us after the conclusion of the action. As a realistic mimesis, the play has gaps inevitable to dramatic art. We know nothing of Rosmer's mother, or precisely why Brendel was horsewhipped from Rosmersholm by Rosmer's father; little of how Mortensgaard's adulterous affair evolved, why Mrs. Helseth so detests Kroll's wife or the process by which Rebekka ‘infatuated’ Kroll. The plot requires only those details and only at the moment the dialectical movement of the play requires them.
The somewhat abstract nature of the dialectic and the formal symmetry of the play were features also of German Enlightenment drama, the theater of the stage of consciousness the play is revisiting. In Schiller’s Mary Stuart the similarly passionate story of the heroine’s guilty past and later death-redemption forms a comparably abstract dialectic structure as symmetrical as Rosmersholm’s. (See 'Courses in Drama': Essay on Friedrich Schiller, Mary Stuart.) This implies Ibsen is recreating, in modern terms, the Enlightenment theater as well as its ideological life. This, I believe, is his procedure throughout the Cycle; of resurrecting elements of the theaters of the cultural phases he is recovering. This, however, would require a whole new study in itself which, I hope, will one day be undertaken.
The great merit of the Enlightenment drama of Lessing, Goethe and Schiller was the primacy it gave to the idea the dialectic embodied through the human actions. A corresponding weakness was the often abstract quality of the issues the characters were engaged in. In Rosmersholm, Ibsen takes up this phase of consciousness with its disparity between the actual world and the Idealist agenda; analyzes it in depth and weaves the ideological argument into the passionate story of guilt and destiny; integrating this condition of consciousness into plausible human experience and modern theatrical speech and gesture.
The human story figures the ‘supertext’ of the play’s wider, universal subject: the confrontation of civilization with the forces of revolution. In the chapter of the Phenomenology, “The Struggle of Enlightenment with Superstition’ Hegel analyzes the period immediately preceding the French Revolution when progressive, enlightened forces attack a reactionary established order whose representatives were the priest, the despot and the ‘multitude’. In the Enlightenment ranks were: a man of “witty insight” “ (based on Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew); a figure of moral utilitarianism; and, at a deeper level, an enlightened figure that finally discovers (his/her) identity to be the same as the force, Faith, it had set out to combat.
In The Ibsen Cycle, p.252 I suggested Hegel's reactionary trio correspond to Rosmer (priest) Dr. Kroll (despot) and the housekeeper (multitude: i.e. common people); while the revolutionary trio corresponds to Rebekka West (Enlightenment vanguard); Ulrik Brendel (wastrel and witty insight); and Mortensgaard (utilitarian figure). Hegel describes an idealistic but actually unscrupulous force of Enlightenment engaging with an established world divided between rigidly reactionary attitudes and an ‘undeveloped’ (begrifflös) consciousness that is susceptible to breaking loose from this constraining condition (Phenomenology, 562-63, Baillie). As it becomes increasingly engaged on its liberating program, however, the force of Enlightenment: “becomes untruth and unreason; and its intention passes into the negative of pure intention, becomes a lie and sordid impurity of purpose” (ibid.) This fits Rebekka West’s history: entering Rosmersholm, the citadel of the old repressive order to further the new ideas, only to be self-trapped in a sequence of deceptive and murderous actions, creating the very negative of the pure intention with which she set out. This enlightened identity, Hegel continues, discovers [her] identity to become the same as the power it set out to overthrow: (ibid.566)
But just as the enlightened spirit converts to its opposite, does the vanguard of belief, faith, that comes to see [his] identity in [his] opposite. “Belief...has in fact become the same thing as Enlightenment” (ibid.589). A fuller account of the parallels between Hegel’s and Rosmersholm is detailed in The Ibsen Cycle, 237-88); but even from the few details if cite here, the reader will detect how Hegel’s analysis throws light on Ibsen’s play. Ibsen, though, loads the categories of Hegel’s analysis with a greater weight of historical, mythic and contemporary sources. This is his procedure throughout, where the Phenomenology is the map, only; not the full terrain to be inhabited. Important details of the play suggest that Ibsen also saw in the clash of the established culture with radical philosophy a parallel with another major historical event: the northern and barbarian onslaught on a self-divided Rome of the classical era. This widens the spatial as well temporal perspectives of the drama; into a North-South, pagan vs. Christian opposition, figured in Rebekka’s descent from northern Finnmark into the Rosmer household. Finnmark had strong pagan associations and is a suitable ‘north’ for an action set in Norway.
This makes Rosmersholm analogous to Rome and it can be shown Ibsen gave to Rosmersholm qualities strongly suggestive of Rome. (In a second draft of the play there is a military ancestor, Eilert Hannibal Rosmer who set up the house’s tradition of alternating priests and military figures, like the Caesars and Popes of Rome). In the first draft of Rosmersholm Rosmer’s Roman identity is further suggested in his name, Boldt-Römer. (‘Römer’ is ‘Roman’ in German). Rome, Hegel writes, in contrast with the Persian ‘fullness of life’ and Greek ‘exhilaration and cheerfulness, ‘stifles all vitality’ (Philosophy of History 278). Rosmer, under Rebekka’s influence, sees that the Rosmersholm tradition has emphasized duty and the expense of joy and has been a force of oppression to its surrounding neighbors. Rome was divided between patricians and factious plebeians. The little society of Rosmersholm is similarly divided between patricians (Rosmer and Kroll) and plebeians (Ulrik Brendel designated the factious Mortensgaard as a ‘plebeian’). In his famous Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind, Johann Gottfried von Herder described the Roman nobility as founded on “a proud, family, civilized, Roman spirit, in the first races, on which their country depended for support...transmitted from father to son.” (255) This nobility controlled the military, civic and priestly offices of Rome exactly as the Rosmer family tradition has done. Kroll’s eulogizes the Rosmer family tradition;
“...you have a duty to your family traditions, Rosmer! Remember that! From time immemorial Rosmersholm has stood as a center of discipline and order - of respect and reverence for everything upheld and esteemed by the best in our society. The whole region around has taken its character from Rosmersholm....”
Rosmer, however, sees an “imperative duty to bring light and joy here, where for so long the Rosmer tradition has created darkness and oppression.”
In that exchange are the two views of Rome, as a force of civilizing influence but also of oppressing joy-of-life. In both Hegel’s and Herder’s accounts, Roman civilization has the qualities Ibsen gives to the house of Rosmer: civilizing, patrician, superstitious, melancholy and oppressive. It was violently invaded by the peoples of the Germanic north that, however, it converted and assimilated. Hegel’s account, in the Philosophy of History of this encounter of northern violence and Roman civilization is paralleled, I think, in Rebekka West’s violent descent from the north and subsequent murderous action in the house of Rosmer. The northern ‘barbarians’ invaded a Rome divided between “increasingly rampant passions” on one side and “the lofty position attained by the world of mind” that contemned them.(Phil. Hist. 335). Hegel is thinking of Stoicism’s denigration of the passions. Just such a division existed in Rosmersholm before Rebekka’s arrival from the north. Rosmer reveals to Kroll how Beate would give way to “wild fits of sensual passion” that appalled him. The German spirit’s unconscious mission was to overcome Rome’s “discord between the inner life of the heart and the actual world”(ibid.335) by infiltrating and absorbing the spirit of the culture it initially opposed – a process repeated in Rebekka West’s gradual conversion to the Rosmersholm spirit that she set out to defeat.
Rosmer’s ascetic identity, his recoil from Beate’s passionate nature and his reluctance for action or commitment, are the objective requirements of the play’s dialectic more than invitations to psychoanalytic speculation. His role is to represent the civilizing, constraining ‘Roman’ side of the conflict and he therefore is given the character and history that exemplify these. Rebekka’s radical and pagan qualities represent the opposing side, linking the local human drama to the larger historical one. Her anarchic background, as Kroll observes, is the extreme antithesis of Rosmer’s patrician and ‘establishment’ tradition. The text weaves pagan elements into her identity. To Brendel she is an ‘enchanting mermaid’; to Kroll she has the power of ‘bewitching’; she likens herself to a ‘sea-troll’ slumped over the ship of Rosmer’s future.
With the other members of the Enlightenment group her history is murky and scandalous: she most likely is illegitimate, a possibility that raises the more scandalous implication of incest with her actual father. Her strong erotic appeal has ‘infatuated’ Beate as well as Kroll and Rosmer. This sexual identity brings to mind the familial and inter-sexual situations related of pagan history – of the Volsungs, for example.. An atmosphere of the disreputable hovers over the whole Enlightenment group: Mortensgaard, Brendel and Dr. West as well. Rebekka’s pagan invasion of the Rosmer citadel accompanied by this louche entourage has the quality of lurid fable, beautifully embedded in the plot.
Her actions after infiltrating Rosmersholm display the mixture of innocence and wickedness Hegel sees as typical of the Germanic spirit at the time of its contact with Rome. On the one hand, the Germans could be characterized by the quality of ‘Heart’ while, on the other, they left behind from those early encounters with Rome a record of savage and barbarous evil. Hegel’s account of the encounter of the northern German tribes with Roman civilization describes how the violence of the contact does not spring from “violent and evil passion – does not go to the length of abstract vice” (ibid 351)
For the Germanic spirit “the true is present only as an unsolved problem for their soul is not purified. A long process is required to complete this purification so as to realize concrete spirit. Religion comes forward with a challenge to the violence of the passions and rouses them to madness.” (ibid.354) Ultimately, the ‘barbarians’ were converted to the Roman faith and culture they gradually absorbed.
Rebekka’s confession to Rosmer and Kroll in ACT III of how she was self-trapped into the crime against Beate portrays the condition of consciousness, of not proceeding from some abstract plan but surrendering to the objective of the moment, in the way Hegel saw typical of the Germanic spirit.
Do you think I set to work with cold, calculating composure? I wasn’t the same, then, that I am now, standing here telling you about it. Besides, I think there are two kinds of will in a person. I wanted Beate gone – one way or another. But at the same time, I never believed it would happen. With each step forward I ventured, it was as if a voice inside me cried in terror, “No further now! Not one step further!” And yet I couldn’t hold back. I had to risk just that tiny bit more. Just that one. And then one more – and always one more -. Until it happened. That’s the way such things come about.
Her later contrary conversion to Rosmer’s way of life similarly came about gradually and, typical of the dialectic process, Rosmer, too, gradually was won over to her’s. This is enacted as plausible psychological action but behind it, I am arguing, Ibsen is seeing in the modern psychological action a repetition of the huge historical one; part of the long continuum of consciousness shaping our identities and our world. This is his procedure throughout the Cycle, shaping his art to find a place for the historical, cultural and universal forces beneath the appearances of the present. This we can see, is what he meant, in the passage I have repeatedly citied:
You ought to make a thorough study of the history of civilization, of literature and of art…An extensive knowledge of history is indispensable to a modern author, for without it he is incapable of judging his age, his contemporaries and their motives except in the most incomplete and superficial manner.
A Reading of the play
Given the clues everywhere apparent in the play, therefore, it is not extravagant to discover behind the local action of the play a recreation of huge historical events that shaped the culture of Europe and, with it, the minds of it inhabitants up to Ibsen’s day. The telescoping of ancient Roman, Enlightenment European and modern Norwegian actions into one beautifully shaped dramatic artwork acknowledges that though we cannot truncate our psyches from history, through art we can win aesthetic control over it.
Our immediate experience of the play, nevertheless, is as “a story of human beings and human destiny” and Ibsen’s genius will reveal itself by the success with which he organizes his huge cultural material into plausible, even if remarkable, modern motives and actions. If we are right is discerning the larger dialectic of the play we should be able to understand, and account for, more details than other interpretations. This will be done through close attention to the text – its structure and texture – without recourse to amateur ‘psychoanalysis’, moralising or subjective speculation.
A dialectic tension is implied in the scene of Act I.
A living room, spacious, old-fashioned and comfortable. Downstage before the right-hand wall a glaze-tiled stove decorated with fresh birch twigs and wild flowers. Further back, a door. In the back wall a double door to the entrance hall. In the hall to the left, a window and in front of this a stand with flowers and plants. By the stove, a table with a sofa and armchairs. All round the walls hang old and newer portraits of priests, military officers, and officials in uniform. The window is open, as are the hall door and the doors. Outside can be seen huge old trees leading in an avenue to the estate. A summer evening. The sun has set.
The living room is old-fashioned, its wall hung with the portraits of past and recent ancestors; priests, military officers, state officials affirming the Rosmer heritage. An avenue of ancient trees is visible through the window. Everything emphasizes an old, traditional, patrician state order and power. The time is evening, suggestive of the impending close of this order. Opposing this are those fresh birch twigs and the profusion of flowers (foreign to Rosmersholm) that have invaded the house suggesting renewal, vitality, forces of nature visually combating the scene of civic order. (The contrast between civic Latins and forest dwelling Germans is as old as Tacitus’ Germania) The flowers and birch twigs opposing the gloom of the darkened room are associated with Rebekka as also will be the important metaphor of light when she will light the lamp.
The nature of the struggle is apparent in the first action described in the play: Rosmer’s superstitious inability to‘cross the footbridge’ beneath which his wife, Beate, drowned herself and we immediately hear from Rebekka and the housekeeper of a struggle between the living and the dead. To Rebekka’s enlightened view, the past is something to which the living obstinately cling: to the housekeeper it is the dead who cling to the living. The theme of this collision between the living and the dead will involve every layer of reality. Act I begins with Rebekka mildly making fun of Mrs. Helseth’s folk superstitions, but Act IV will reveal her accepting their ground of truth. The legend of the “white horses” that the housekeeper mentions represents the pagan substratum of the Christian Belief consciousness of Beate's and Kroll’s orthodoxy. Rosmer’s previous vocation are further evolved aspects of this ‘complex' within the mind that the Enlightenment forces must engage with and overthrow.
Rosmer’s sensitivity over crossing the footbridge immediately is contrasted with his brother-in-law’s forthright crossing the stream. Kroll represents a less evolved condition of consciousness than Rosmer, rooted in orthodox attitudes whose inflexibility has resulted in alienating his wife and children whose have defected to the progressive cause of Mortensgaard. He is capable of such gestures as sternly forbidding Rosmer to cross his threshold, while crossing Rosmer’s. His speeches are peremptory and authoritarian and we hear he is a tyrant in his home. He brings to mind the brutal patrician ethos of Rome and the recurring figure of despotic force in Enlightenment drama, such as the Duke of Alba in Goethe’s Egmont and Schiller’s Don Carlos.
The play open on Rebekka’s apparent victory in Rosmersholm but will reveal she is hardly conscious of the forces that will rise against her. Beate, she will tell Kroll, is only “greatly missed and greatly mourned” and the house of Rosmer is ‘empty’. The references to her own past are also seemingly innocuous, seen by Kroll in a mood of indulgent sympathy. She has traveled from the north with her crippled foster-father Dr.West until he “gave up the struggle” and died. The past, then, seems something safe, comfortably contained in the present, calmly talked about, even as something for self-congratulation. A later reading or viewing of the play reveals the tremendous self-deception and unawareness of the characters at this sage of the play’s dialectic. When Kroll explains he stayed away from Rosmersholm not to be a reminder of past sorrow, Rosmer and Rebekka react as follows:
ROSMER That was both beautiful and thoughtful of you – but you’re always so considerate. But, really, there was no need to stay away on that account. Come, Let’s sit on the sofa. (They sit) No, it doesn’t pain me in the least to think about Beate. We talk about her every day. And think of her as still belonging to the house.
KROLL Do you really?
REBEKKA (Lights the lamp) Yes, we really do.
That action of lighting the lamp as the conversation turns to the presence in the house of the dead Beate is a foreboding of Rebekka’s impending more desperate attempt to battle against the past until it finally overwhelms both her and Rosmer. The conversation now turns to another light, The Beacon and to its proprietor, Mortensgaard. His radicalism expands the past-present opposition from the personal to the political – the first of the play's expanding circumferences of action Mortensgaard’s past of adultery is discussed, entwining sexual rebellion into the complex of the Enlightenment cause - a linking that is a major aspect of Schiller’s drama, also. The discussion is interrupted by the appearance of the third member of the Enlightenment group, Ulrik Brendel, Rosmer’s former tutor. His name and his pen name, suggesting light and heat, imply he is one of the Cycle’s sequence of satanic figures. In an earlier draft of the play his ‘Lucifer’ identity is slyly indicated. He once belonged to “good society, the best society:
And... I was the first in that society. They threw me out because I had the ability and courage to say and write what those fine people would rather have had concealed. Now I no longer move in good society – except when I enjoy my own company, alone.
In the final version Brendel refers to “those paragons of virtue who threw me out of the Debating Society.” Goethe’s Mephistopheles and the stage devil of older drama may contribute to his theatrical identity. At one crucial point in the play Ibsen quotes from Faust, referring to Mephistopheles and applying it to Brendel. The most striking parallel, however, is with an extraordinary character that makes a prominent appearance in the Phenomenology’s ‘The Struggle of Enlightenment with Superstition’. In 1805 Goethe brought out his translation of Le Neveu de Rameau (Rameau’s Nephew) and Hegel incorporated this work into his analysis of the Enlightenment, seeing in its central character, the nephew, an example of one aspect of the enlightened spirit: that of the “witty insight” and its mocking relation to the established order.
The nephew, impoverished, dissolute, witty and brilliant, has squandered his talents yet represents a form of revolt against the mores of his society. He was a tutor and entertainer of polite society who earned “bed, board, coat, waistcoat, breeches and shoes” as the learned clown of society from which he has been thrown out for speaking his mind.
He is very much given to picturesque oaths and exclamations and when asked why he has not produced any great work he explains how, when he had persuaded himself of his genius, he took up his pen to write but found there was ‘nothing doing”- the god was absent”. In almost the same words, when Rebekka asks Brendel about why he did not write, he replies:
For twenty years I have been like a miser sitting on his padlocked chest. And then, yesterday...when I opened it to get at the treasure...there was none... The mills of time had ground it all to dust. Not a blessed thing. Nichts.
The parallels between the nephew and Brendel are too numerous and too close to be coincidental. The nephew professes to admire the opportunist Bouret as “the greatest man in the world” for the same reason Brendel ironically professes to admire Mortensgaard as “the lord and master of the future" because, as also in the nephew’s and Hegel’s ironic account of the utilitarian spirit, he can live his life without ideals.
The reaction of the others to Brendel’s arrival adds further ‘diabolic’ traits. Rebekka is surprised he is still alive, Rosmer thought he was on tour with a theatrical company while Kroll, typically harsh, believed him to be in the workhouse (arbeidsanstalten). He is therefore redundant, theatrical, and condemned to hardship and disgrace – playful references to a satanic figure in the Enlightenment. The stage directions of him is he are notably rich:
He is an impressive figure, with grey hair and beard, rather gaunt, but alert and vigorous. He is dressed like a common tramp. Threadbare frock coat, down at heel. No sign of a shirt. He is wearing black gloves and carries a soft dirty hat crumpled under his arm and a walking stick in his hand.
Everything suggests the brilliant outcast who has seen better days in society and, perhaps, in the theater. To his ‘disciple’, Johannes Rosmer he uses the phrase of Christ to his favorite disciple (Johannes): “...you whom I have loved most” (du, hvem jeg har elsket mest). This physical appearance recalls the teacher of another apostate: Maximus, Julian’s mentor in Emperor and Galilean. Brendel’s speech is interlaced with oaths and phrases from French and German. He terms himself a ‘sybarite’ whose powers of artistic creation are sealed in his private imagination, only, not objectified into public works of art. He is more than a merely preposterous figure; otherwise Rosmer and Rebekka would not, as they do, treat him respectfully. His frequent ‘wrong notes’ of fulsome rhetoric and his general air of emotional and intellectual dissoluteness and of belonging to a different time and place than he finds himself in, build up a figure both conceptually and theatrically intriguing. In the dialectic of the play he is an anachronistic presence, a fighter of lost causes. He tells his audience:
At certain internals in life I am driven to strike a blow for existence. I perform. This, not out of pleasure but, enfin, from overriding necessity.
As Rosmer’s former tutor, he planted the seeds of rebellion that Rebekka will nurture into open revolt. In Act I. as Rosmer confidently announces his campaign to challenge his society, Brendel, too, proclaims his intention of placing his “mite on the altar of liberty.” Defeated in Act IV, his despairing rhetoric underscores Rosmer’s sense of defeat. The ‘arc’ of his action in the social scene parallels Rosmer’s in the realm of consciousness. This identification is emphasized when he borrows Rosmer’s clothes in which to preach his version of the message Rosmer intends to preach. He will pawn the clothes, the outward aspect of Rosmer’s identity, and will have to be redeemed by Mortensgaard who will be concerned, also, to redeem Rosmer’s own outward aspect: his Christian identity which he has, in fact, discarded.
Rebekka describes Brendel as going off to “make his great sacrifice” and his example impels Rosmer to proclaim his own intellectual allegiance to the radical cause. This will trigger the violent counter attack by Kroll and the reactionary forces. Kroll now turns upon Rosmer, brands him an apostate, and seriously unnerves Rebekka by raising the specter of the dead Beate. As the act ends, she confides to Mrs. Helseth her anxiety, using the language of the housekeeper’s folk superstition, the recurring, ghostly white horses. Act I has set out the nature of the local ideological conflict and suggests the wider historical perspectives evoked by the drama. Events in the microcosmic world of the play begin to take on the shape, also, of macrocosmic archetypal events in the evolution of human consciousness: Rome vs. the Northern world; traditional Faith vs. Enlightenment radicalism; the power of the past vs. the present.
In Act II the established order strikes back at pair who have challenged it. Rebekka’s success in getting Rosmer to defect to the ranks of the Enlightenment dealt a blow to the conservative faction more serious than Mortensgaard’s attacks in The Beacon. But the two sides of the Rosmersholm consciousness are for the first time divided. Rosmer has slept well, his conscience easy now his apostasy is out in the open and his path to action cleared; but Rebekka, who most wished for this outcome, has been disturbed by Kroll’s reference to Beate and she did not sleep until “at least, towards morning.” The scene is set in Rosmer’s study. The books and writing table represent the bookish weapons, with which Rosmer, like the earlier apostate, Julian, will seek to engage the fanatic opposition he arouses. The study will be invaded by Kroll and his language of barbaric violence (‘Now it is war to the knife!” ); by Mortensgaard and his degrading, opportunistic politics and, more alarmingly, by Beate’s voice from the grave.
Rosmer’s hope to ‘ennoble mankind’ from the lofty height of pure motive is undercut from the beginning when Rebekka confesses she wrote recommending Brendel to Mortensgaard, believing Rosmer will need such dubious allies. Kroll’s entrance, soon after, underlines the questionable nature of this alliance: Brendel, Kroll divulges, in Rosmer’s clothes, has been mixing with “the seediest company” getting drunk, abusing the company, and being violently set upon, after which he pawned Rosmer’s overcoat. This anticipates Rosmer’s more sedate predicament too, when, as a patrician leaguing with the ‘plebeian’ Mortensgaard and enlisting in The Beacon’s cause, he will be set upon in the press by men of low principle. The texture of the play darkens, the action moving alarmingly from the innocent optimism of Act I.
The lurid details of Brendel’s actions are followed by Rosmer’s account of Beate’s possible insanity, of her “wild, uncontrollable sensuality” that so appalled him. Kroll now relates Beate’s visit to him just before her suicide, hinting at the consequence of sexual relations between Rebekka and Rosmer and also of his impending apostasy. Kroll’s increasingly violent reaction to Rosmer, threatening “a fight to the death” and culminating in a warning of “the violent storm that will break over you” recalls Hegel’s account of this stage of the dialectic, where Belief sees the work of Enlightenment as “deception and delusion”, as “lying unreason and malicious intent.”
On Mortensgaard’s arrival, Kroll, using the imagery of battle, decides to “quit the field for the time being...” and, invoking the dead Beate, links Both Rosmer and The Beacon’s editor in an accusation of adultery. Mortensgaard now reveals his political opportunism, for he is willing to enlist the useful pastor but not the inconvenient apostate to the cause. “What the party needs are Christian elements. Something everyone has to respect.” This manipulation of the pubic mind is the opposite of Rosmer’s mission of achieving an enlightened community honestly and openly striving for the highest spiritual development.
In Mortensgaard, Rosmer confronts a victim of his former Belief identity for, as pastor, he branded Mortensgaard for an action (adultery) that, as enlightened apostate, he recognizes as not a transgression. In a further ironic reversal of roles, Mortensgaard now confronts Rosmer with a letter accusing the pastor of the same offense yet is willing to conceal it to preserve the appearance of a Christian orthodoxy in which neither believes. This letter, too, brings Beate’s presence again menacingly on stage, weaving her passionate drama inextricably into the ideological conflict.
The lofty and noble motives affirmed earlier by Rosmer and Rebekka are dragged lower in the course of this act. Rosmer allows himself to be manipulated into dishonesty; Rebekka is discovered hiding in the background to overhear the conversations with Kroll and Mortensgaard; and the ‘pure and beautiful friendship’ is crumbling before the pressures, external and internal, bearing upon it. To halt this process, Rosmer offer marriage to Rebekka but her unespected refusal implies a gulf has opened up between them.
Act III develops the darkening atmosphere of deviousness, secrecy, and degrading conflict that overwhelms the enlightened program initiated by Rosmer and Rebekka in Act I. The County Times (the ideological opponent of The Beacon) attacks the pair through ugly innuendo about their relationship and motives. Kroll arrives, but wants his visit concealed from Rosmer so that the housekeeper must whisper secretively to Rebekka and Rebekka, in turn, must dissemble to Rosmer. The enlightened pair will now have to confront forces outside and within themselves they unsuspectingly have raised. Rosmer exclaims he would like to “bring a little light into all this hideous darkness.” His Enlightenment program envisioned:
“No more hateful strife – only friendly rivalry. All eyes fixed on the same goal. Every will, every mind, straining onward, upward. Each on its own naturally ordained course... Happiness for all, created by all.
This vision, recalling the theme of Schiller’s ardent ‘Ode to Joy’ (An die Freude) dissolves before the violent and degrading hostilities of the political world he now has entered. Just as grave is the contaminated (tilsmusset) past that now entangles them because, for Rosmer, “there can be no victory for a cause that begins in guilt.” His own guilt he sees as his unacknowledged love for Rebekka that Beate detected and died to make way for. His salvation, it will seem to Rebekka, lies in having this guilt removed from his tormented consciousness by taking upon herself the blame for Beate’s death. This resolve is slowly evolving within her to announce itself at the end of the act.
Rebekka despairs over the “inherited doubts, inherited fears, inherited scruples” (slekstvil, slektsangst, skektskupler) that “lie in the Rosmer blood itself.” As Rosmer leaves to take his walk, again superstitiously avoiding the footbridge, Kroll enters and in the following duologue presents Rebekka’ history in its ugliest light. It is, he charges, the history of a ruthless power from outside working without scruple or consideration upon a more sensitive, civilized tradition. Rosmer’s and Rebekka’s pasts, he tells her, are absolutely different (himmelvidt forskjellige) revealing Rebekka’s to be lawless in its origins and lawless in its later history. He claims she is the natural daughter of Dr. West with the strong hint this has led to incest with him. She bewitched and infatuated Beate as well as Kroll and Rosmer and her relation to the latter, he tells her, needs to be ‘legalized’. The series of scandalous and lurid disclosures establishes her as entirely alien to the house of Rosmer and all it stands for and it is this idea of herself that, on Rosmer’s return, prompts her devastating confession.
However, Rebekka’s confession of plotting to infiltrate Rosmersholm and her virtual murder of Beate, given to reveal her guilty alienation from Rosmer, ironically reveals the opposite; demonstrating the extent to which she has absorbed the Rosmersholm tradition. The conscientious desire for atonement the confession represents derives from his tradition, not from hers. Though it leads to Rosmer’s departure with Kroll from the house suggesting an irreparable rupture, the dialectic in fact has evolved to make their reconciliation and final union possible.
Act IV closes off the vistas that were confidently opened up in Act I, We find the details of that first act reappearing in a darker key, emphasizing the circular nature of the play’s action. Once again it is evening, a shaded oil lamp burning on the table. Rebekka now prepares her departure from the house in which she previously had seemed so well established. This flight, she learns from the housekeeper, will be misinterpreted by the people who will gossip that Rosmer is getting rid of her to avert disgrace over her presumed pregnancy. The “pure and beautiful friendship” is collapsing into lurid scandal that will make impossible Rosmer’s raising the people to a new nobility, The enlightened Rebekka is now closest to the superstitious housekeeper, agreeing “we are only human” and not the spiritual aristocrats of Rosmer’s mission. When he returns to the house, she completes the confession she previously started; but not, as before, to explain her past but to illuminate her present condition. When she first came to Rosmersholm to secretly carry out her political program she had been stricken with a “fierce, uncontrollable passion” for him. This passion was crushed by the alien Rosmersholm tradition and gradually evolved into love, bringing about “a great transformation” reaching to the depths of her soul. But this sapped her spirit and crippled her willpower. The Rosmersholm tradition “may make us nobler...but it kills happiness.”
Rebekka has related her conversion to the Rosmersholm way of life, but marriage with Rosmer she insists, despite his protest, is impossible. Her new spiritual identity makes her confront her past actions as an insurmountable barrier. The past, represented by the resurgent spirit of Beate, now overwhelms the present. Because of her past deviousness, Rosmer cannot be convinced of Rebekka’s conversion nor believe he has any future in the world. He can be convinced of his power to effect change in others only if he could have proof of Rebekka’s willingness to die for him as Beate had done. While he broods over this unspoken demand and the pair’s thought hovers over this appalling aporia, there is a knock on the door followed by the appearance of Ulrik Brendel. In Act I. Brendel appeared at the moment when Rosmer was hesitating to tell Kroll his apostasy and it seemed to give Rosmer the courage to speak out: now Brendel’s rhetorically expressed despair will impel Rosmer to make his terrible demand of Rebekka. Brendel declares he has become “homesick for the great Void” and that he is “ bankrupt, a deposed monarch on the ash-heap of his burnt-out palace” who has discovered that the world, of which the opportunist Mortensgaard is the king, has no need of him. He then gives voice to Rosmer’s unspoken thought when he warns his old pupil not to build his hopes upon the “fascinating mermaid” unless
The lady who loves him go gladly out into the kitchen and chop off her dainty pink little finger – here – just here at the middle joint. Likewise, that the aforementioned loving lady, just as gladly, slice off her incomparably formed left ear. (Lets go her hand and turns to Rosmer) Farewell, John, my victorious one!
This, in fact, is a rewording of a crucial speech in Emperor and Galilean. At a moment of disillusion over his ambition to restore the pagan world in all its glory against the Christian conquest, Julian compares his half-hearted followers to the commitment-to-death of their Christian opponents:
These Galileans, you should know, have in their hearts something I earnestly wish you should strive for. You style yourselves disciples of Socrates, of Plato of Diogenes. Is there even one among you who’d go gladly to his death for Plato’s sake? Would our Priscus sacrifice his left hand for Socrates? Would Chytron, for Diogenes sake, suffer his ear to be cut off. You most certainly wouldn’t! I know you, you whited sepulchers! Be gone from my sight.
Without such sacrifice, Julian insists, the spiritual cause is not seriously undertaken. Rosmer cannot be convinced of Rebekka’s conversion unless she shows she adheres to his cause as passionately as Beate had done to him. The idea might seem morbid, but it is undoubtedly part of the mental landscape of the author of Brand and Emperor and Galilean.
Brendel’s departure “into the dark night” with the blessing, “Peace be with you,” leaves the pair alone in the now claustrophobic scene. Brendel’s ‘satanic’ quality is here suggested in an otherwise entirely inexplicable little quotation. Rebekka, exclaiming the room is “close and sultry” opens a window to the outside darkness. This comment and action repeats a vivid moment in Goethe’s Faust, Part One. Immediately after Mephistopheles and Faust have left her room, Margarete enters, opens a window and exclaims “Es ist so schwüll, so dunpfig hier” (It is so close and sultry here) . Rebekka’s exclamation is “Aa, hvor her er kvalt or lummert” (Ah, it is close and sultry here) ‘Kvalt’ and ‘lummert’ exactly translates ‘schwüll’ and ‘dumpfig’. In a production of the play the opening of the window would allow the sound of the millrace to accompany the concluding dialogue of the doomed couple..
Rebekka reveals to Rosmer the process of her transformation: how Rosmersholm broke her ruthless will. Rosmer’s belief in his cause requires proof of this and, as in Act I, it is Brendel’s appearance that impelled him to speak out. His ability to do so and to accompany her, step by step, over the footbridge, marks to what an extent he has been transformed too and has absorbed something of Rebekka’s courageous will. In the world of external action that Kroll and Mortensgaard will inherit, Rosmer had experienced “a dismal, pitiful defeat” and Rebekka’s will has been broken. However, Rosmer and Rebekka are given the tragic dignity of the spirit raised to a height that they alone can pass judgment upon themselves. “There is not judge over us. Therefore we must pass judgment on ourselves”, Rosmer asserts as he decides to join Rebekka in death. As they go to die, in the high Roman fashion, their death is absorbed in the folk consciousness of the housekeeper whose last words act as a form of chorus to the tragic close
The dialogue of Rosmersholm's concluding moments closes off one vista after another of the protagonists’ previous consciousnesses as it narrows down to a search for a new precision of motive and moral awareness which the audience is invited to share:
ROSMER: Husband and wife must go together.
REBECCA: Just to the footbridge, John.
ROSMER: And onto it as well. As far as you go - I'll go that far with you. For now I dare to.
REBECCA: Are you sure beyond all doubt - this is the best way for you?
ROSMER: I know it's the only one.
REBECCA: What if you're deceiving yourself. If this is only a fantasy? One of those white horses of Rosmersholm.
ROSMER: It could well be. We can never escape them - we of this house.
REBECCA: Then stay, John!
ROSMER: The husband shall go with his wife as the wife with her husband.
REBECCA: Yes, but tell me first: Is it you who follow me? Or is it I who follow you?
ROSMER: We can never get to the bottom of that.
REBECCA: I want so much to know.
ROSMER: We follow each other, Rebecca. I, you - and you, me.
REBECCA: I believe that could be true.
ROSMER: For now we two are one.
REBECCA: Yes. Now we're one! Let's go gladly!
The lover-reformers who wished to unite and transform the world were driven inward to isolation, each from the other, each closed within his and her brooding, ever-more-narrowly circling obsessions. The wide world of opposing political factions, of cultural war between extremists and their followers, and of an envisaged new order transforming the world, has contracted to this couple's final mutual interrogation of the play's whole wide-ranging dialectic. The audience's alerted attention focuses closely on each mental move by the protagonists. The theatrical notations are as precise as in music and are meant to be appreciated as art, as aesthetic control. The darkness within is reflected in an external darkness; the sparsely lit room and beyond the open window, the night with its fatefully awaiting millstream. The pair's suicide signals the closing off of the world they envisaged as transformed by their actions. Instead, the protagonists' painfully gradual emancipation from their pasts has been closing in on them from the beginning. But in their finally purified identities, Rosmer and Rebecca achieve the marriage that eluded them. In Rebecca's words as she prepares to end her life, "I am bound by the Rosmer view of life. If I have transgressed, I must atone." The plot has rendered this outcome of the story inevitable. And, as in all tragedy, the death of the protagonists leaves behind a world diminished by their absence.
Like protagonists of Greek tragedy, Rosmer and Rebekka have been both vehicles and victims of universal forces. Ibsen’s method recovers within the terms of local, modern and realistic events huge historical/cultural events that went into the making of our modern condition - and on the scale necessary for an adequate tragic art.