IBSEN'S FOREIGN CONTAGION: HENRIK IBSEN, ARTHUR WING PINERO AND MODERNISM ON THE LONDON STAGE, 1890 - 1900 by T. Carlo Matos, Reviewed by
 

IBSEN'S FOREIGN CONTAGION: HENRIK IBSEN, ARTHUR WING PINERO AND MODERNISM ON THE LONDON STAGE, 1890 - 1900
By T. Carlo Matos
(Academica 2012) xiv + 220 pp.
Reviewed by on 2012-05-17.

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T. Carlo Matos is not a virologist. Nevertheless, the playwright and professor has identified a new disease, or rather an old one, which struck a highly select populace of critics and dramatists in 1890s London. In this book, Matos introduces the "Ibsen Strain," which attacked reviewers in three phases, "the pathetic, the pathological and the pathogenic" (119).

In the "pathetic" first phase, "critics respond with visceral emotion to Ibsen's form and content" (119). In the "pathological" second phase, "critics begin to fear that these plays, more than merely transgressing the bounds of good taste, are actually signs, or rather, symptoms of a pathological--diseased--mind" (120). In the final phase, they "become convinced that the plays do not merely dramatize disease but actually, in a socio-cultural sense, transmit it" (120). Of course, as relatively few people could attend the private performances of Ghosts, these critics, Matos argues, became the new vectors by which the Ibsenite infection could seek and find fresh carriers. Unhappily for these critics, Matos proposes no cure.

Matos makes one strong and intriguing (if not wholly unfamiliar) argument and then a series of more tenuous ones regarding Ibsen's impact and influence in late nineteenth century England. Taking as his main matter the critical furor generated by the London debut of Ghosts in March of 1891, Matos aims to show how the discourse of epidemiology shaped the construction and reception of late 19th-century drama. Paradoxically, he contends, the violent critical reaction to Ibsen's plays (the most prominent symptom of reviewers' infection with the Ibsen strain) actually drew the public to them. Rather than driving theatergoers away from his work, critical attacks on it excited popular interest in Ibsen, disseminating his ideas and his dramaturgy while increasing curiosity about his plays.

The Ibsen strain is also said to have infected other playwrights. After usefully examining the reception history of Ibsen's work, playfully and cleverly reading some of the most vituperative responses to it, and considering--somewhat less satisfyingly-- Ibsen's other "disease play," An Enemy of the People, Matos contends that the Ibsen strain infected the popular playwrights Arthur Wing Pinero and Henry Arthur Jones. But Matos supplies no evidence that either one thought himself inspired by Ibsen (indeed, Pinero explicitly denies it), and scarcely any evidence that either critics or contemporary audiences found the Ibsen strain in either playwright.

So Matos himself must find it in their work. But in his readings of Pinero's The Second Mrs. Tanqueray and Jones's The Masqueraders, his arguments for a direct inheritance (or, as Matos might have it, a continued contagion) appear unconvincing. Furthermore, barring a brief acknowledgment in the introduction and the epilogue, Matos ignores the plays of George Bernard Shaw, who avowedly and explicitly adopted much of Ibsen's project (if not his voice and style) and who had, I believe most scholars would conjecture, a far more immediate and lasting influence on British theatrical modernism than Pinero or Jones could claim.

Critical reaction to Ghosts is of course not a new topic. On April 8, 1891, just a few weeks after the first reviews of its English debut appeared, the critic and Ibsen apologist William Archer quoted them in "Ghosts and Gibberings," and in The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891) Shaw too cited them, particularly the long anonymous review in the Daily Telegraph popularly ascribed to the conservative critic Clement Scott. Using language better suited to an incurables ward than to a private theater, Scott called the play "An open drain; a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly; a lazar-house with all it doors and windows open" (Shaw [1891] 4). While these tropes ooze pathology, Matos also shrewdly locates disease in less obviously medical passages, teasing out terms such as "infect," "inoculate," "germ," "dose." With words like these and tropes like those quoted above, Matos concludes, Ibsen's detractors disseminate the "Ibsen strain." Though they may have meant to "quarantine" his ideas (68), the force of their condemnation suggests that Ibsen has somehow infected them and--through them--their readers as well.

This very droll notion was first entertained by Archer. In "Ghosts and Gibberings" Archer suggested that the play had infected the critics with an illness akin to that of Osvald, who--at the close of Ghosts-- suffers a kind of fit and regresses to childish prattle. Likewise, Archer claimed, the production had plunged critics into "convulsions" and "moral epilepsy"; their reviews expressed little more than "the babble of their delirium" (William Archer on Ibsen [1984] 25-26). Since Archer's time, the reception of Ghosts has been amply considered in many biographies and studies of Ibsen, such as those by Michael Egan, Michael Meyer, Toril Moi, and Frederick J. Marker and Lise-Lore Marker. But Matos brings to the reception history of the play a particular and dynamic focus on the discourse of epidemiology.

Instead of thoroughly investigating contemporary debates on epidemiology, however, Matos mostly gestures toward them. In the introduction he promises to offer "a brief history of European epidemiology" in chapter one (4). Though he does discuss prophylactic measures against disease and mentions the rise of germ theory, he has little to say about beliefs and attitudes surrounding disease in the late nineteenth century. Nor does fully situate Ibsen amid the epidemiological debates of his day. He clearly sees that "Ibsen's timing--on the cusp of the bacteriological era--puts him squarely in the middle of public discussions concerning the true nature of disease, the effective containment and prevention of epidemics and the problematics of foreign influence" (27). Yet this chapter treats only the latter subjects. Regarding "the true nature of disease," Matos briefly mentions the miasmatic construct as well as germ theory, but he never examines the era's competing model of disease, the constitutional theory, which posited that an individual's physicality and character predisposed him or her to certain diseases. Since this implies that anyone struck with disease has somehow earned or deserved it, the constitutional theory may have helped to explain some of the more vociferous reactions toward Ibsen's plays.

Sometimes Matos uses pathology well. To help explain why An Enemy of the People was much better received than Ghosts, for instance, he effectively contrasts cholera with syphilis in a paragraph of chapter three. But he could have strengthened his argument by more rigorously probing the social and epidemiological history of both diseases. This book lacks a thorough exploration of syphilis, particularly as presented in Ghosts. Why--we are left to wonder--did Ghosts cause such uproar while A Doll's House, which also features a syphilitic character, was much better received? Why did so little outrage greet other disease plays of the era, such as those featuring tubercular characters or Enemy itself? (This is especially striking as Matos makes the somewhat shaky claim, drawing on stage directions and a comment of Archer's alone, that syphilitic infection is not frankly portrayed in Ghosts and that Enemy, which shows no ill people, stages disease more brazenly.) Matos suggestively contrasts Ghosts with Enemy: whilst Ghosts "couple[s] disease and sex," Enemy met with better notices because it "connects disease and commerce" (105). But without a thorough consideration of attitudes toward the diseases depicted in these plays, this contrast is not completely persuasive.

Likewise less convincing are Matos's concluding chapters, which try to show that both Pinero and Jones were infected with the Ibsen strain. As I have already noted, neither the playwrights themselves nor the critics who saw Pinero's Second Mrs. Tanqueray or Jones's Masqueraders thought this way. Matos himself furnishes evidence to the contrary. Though he claims in his introduction that "[w]ithout the influence of the Ibsen scandals [Pinero] could never have produced [his] important plays" (3), he later admits that those plays began with The Profligate (1889), which Pinero wrote before A Doll's House and Ghosts had appeared in London. Pinero himself affirmed that he had not "been influenced in the smallest degree by his [Ibsen's] works" (118). While this alone does not prove him exempt from Ibsen's influence, contemporary reviewers agree with him. Even those Matos cites in his discussion of Tanqueray more often find analogues in French or German plays. (They might just as well have probed homegrown melodramas such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon's novel Lady Audley's Secret [1862], from which Pinero borrows.) With no external evidence of Ibsen's influence on Tanqueray, Matos nonetheless finds the play itself haunted by Ghosts, but he never firmly links the two plays and sometimes seems to hear Tanqueray echoing Hedda Gabler instead.

In the last chapter, devoted to Pinero's rival Henry Arthur Jones, Matos treats a second playwright who disclaimed Ibsen's influence. "[O]ne cannot help regretting," wrote Jones in May of 1891, "that Ibsen's colossal intellectual power should be employed in the research, not of beauty, and health, and strength, but of disease and moral deformity" (165-166). Critics likewise declined to link Jones to Ibsen or Jones's plays to epidemiology. Rather than scenting illness in Masqueraders, they find it "fresh," "vigorous," "consoling" (168). So if Jones denies the influence of Ibsen and critics say nothing of it, Matos must once again demonstrate it--this time with the aid of Pinero. Compared with his chapter on Pinero's Tanqueray, a play he satisfyingly links to The Masqueraders, this one more sharply and convincingly shows how disease--both manifest and latent--informs the latter play. But Matos admits that this is the only play of Jones that features disease, and its presence in just one work out of a considerable oeuvre hardly makes Jones a disciple of Ibsen or a modernist. Proving that claim would require both a more extensive discussion of dramatic modernism and a more convincing argument for the influence Ibsen on Pinero. (The case for the Pinero's influence on Jones is made very well here.)

The tenuousness of these final chapters makes the absence of Shaw all the more troubling. Matos does gesture to him, and to Wilde, in the epilogue, but he left Shaw out, he says, because Shaw "would not exert a true influence as a dramatist" (190) until Arms and the Man of 1894: too late--Matos implies--for inclusion in this genealogy of Ibsen's influence. Yet this book's very title defines its scope as extending to 1900, and Jones's The Masqueraders was first staged in the same year as Shaw's Arms and the Man. Perhaps Shaw, who was born--like Wilde--in Ireland, also falls under the rubric of a "foreign contagion," but this is not an argument Matos makes. Though Shaw was one of the intellectuals who took a firm stand against germ theory (even going so far to populate one of his plays with a wronged microbe), I believe he would have readily admitted his infection with "the Ibsen strain," for in The Quintessence of Ibsenism he clearly aimed to communicate it to others. In a book on Ibsen, epidemiology, and London theater, Shaw is conspicuous by his absence.

Alexis Soloski is a post-doctoral lecturer in Humanities at Columbia University and a drama critic for The Village Voice.


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