A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 5 - Winter 2012-13

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T. Carlo Matos, Ibsen’s Foreign Contagion: Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Wing Pinero and Modernism on the London Stage, 1890 – 1900 (Palo Alto, CA: Academica Press, 2012); Pp. xiv + 220; ISBN: 978-1936320325

reviewed by Petra Dierkes-Thrun, Stanford University, U.S.A.

T. Carlo Matos’s new study does not focus on Ibsen, Pinero, or stage modernism per se, as the title would suggest, but rather on the reception of these authors in the late-Victorian press and specifically the reviewers’ striking use of metaphors of contagion and disease. Following the 1891 London premiere of Ibsen’s scandalous syphilis play Ghosts (discussed in chapter 2), Matos argues, the English reviewers - and later even Pinero and Jones themselves in some of their plays - strategically employed metaphors of disease and contagion to reject Ibsen as a dangerous foreign influence on English culture. While it is a well-known fact that Ibsen received a generally hostile press reception in England (Ibsen’s principal defenders Shaw, Archer, and Gosse found plenty to argue against, after all), Matos’s extended close readings of the English press reviews, and his argument that they can best be accessed through an awareness of the cultural role of actual contagious diseases like cholera and smallpox in the 19th century, are original contributions.

Matos’s overall aim is “to show how epidemiology influenced not only the subject matter of late nineteenth-century English plays [by Pinero and Henry Arthur Jones], but also how the reviewers of the major London papers received those plays.” In the process, he argues, the critics paradoxically “became vectors for spreading the very ideas they wished to contain” (1). Victorians would naturally have read the critics’ pathological language with the 19th century’s national and international health disasters in mind, but this increased rather than spoiled the public’s appetite for risqué modernist drama, Matos argues. Ibsen’s influence spread not only despite but because of the vitriol of prolific conservative writers such as Clement Scott and his “disease-laden epithets” (2), i.e. “the very people who were trying to with all their might to eliminate him” (98).

After Joseph Donohue’s useful overview in the Foreword, Matos’s first chapter lays out the historical and medical-epidemological background, before turning to Ibsen’s Ghosts. “[A]n entire century’s experience of contagious disease and the terrible social calamities it visited on an unknowing, vulnerable, and susceptible public” (xi), including several devastating cholera and smallpox outbreaks that killed millions, was responsible for the dominance of such metaphors. But the sexually risqué nature of the disease that Ghosts “treats” so pessimistically (syphilis) made this Ibsen playmore offensive to reviewers than another disease-focused one produced shortly thereafter at the Haymarket Theatre under Herbert Beerbohm Tree, An Enemy of the People (1893), Matos writes (chapters 2 and 3). One wonders about the larger implications of the contagion metaphor across Ibsen’s work in the Norwegian context in which it originated, as well as its relevance for modernism.  Here Matos seems to have missed a logical opportunity for connections or comparisons of the contagion metaphor in Norway and England.

If one believed Ibsen’s hostile critics, “Ibsenility” was spreading like “an epidemic, where a germ (of an idea as of a pathogen) with limited direct access to receptive hosts nonetheless manages to wield an almost unlimited direct influence” in late Victorian England (98). As evident in the last sentence, Matos’ own analytical language seems to become infected with the very contagion metaphors he diagnoses at times, so that the object and tools of analysis blur. Nevertheless, Matos’s study unearths a new, interesting perspective on the war between Ibsen’s detractors and fans in 1890s England. As Matos points out, Ibsen’s staunchest English critics were paradoxically united with his most vocal supporters--William Archer, Bernard Shaw, and Edmund Gosse—in treating Ibsen as a crucial touchstone for English drama but never really examining him on his own cultural (Norwegian) terms: while the attacking critics feared for English national drama’s health because of Ibsen’s contagious influence, the supporting ones saw him as the antidote, “a remedy for the ills of English drama” (13), medicalizing and nationalizing him in both cases.

In the final two chapters, Matos shifts his attention from Ibsen’s reception to Pinero and Jones. He traces the disease metaphors in Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Second Mrs. Tanqueray and The Notorious Mrs.Ebbsmith  (chapter 4), which reacted to “Ibsenility” partly by imitating it, and partly by Anglicizing it, making Pinero a darling of those critics who were pining for an English dramatist who could eclipse Ibsen. Chapter 4 makes the case that despite Pinero’s claim that Ibsen played no role for him, “[w]ithout the influence of the Ibsen scandals, Pinero could never have produced these important plays,” The Second Mrs Tanqueray and The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith (3) and would not have echoed such obviously recognizable pathological language, especially since Ibsen and Pinero shared the same London audience. Some critics Matos mentions introduce interesting distinctions for “characterizing the Pinerotic as something wholly different from the Ibscene.” However, Matos does not examine that direction for long (135), even though it would be crucial for establishing his counterclaim that Pinero - the writer of poplar farces and light comedies - was, in fact, heavily influenced by Ibsen and had a “talent for crossing over, for bringing ‘modern’ ideas to the theater public at large” (153).  This chapter also offers an interesting excursus into Nordau’s and Lombroso’s pathologizing Decadence discourses. Chapter 5 examines Jones’s surprising (but short-lived) inclusion of disease metaphors in The Masqueraders (1894) after publicly vilifying the same trait in Ibsen in 1891, probably as a brief attempt at rivaling Pinero’s popular use of such pathological metaphors on the English stage. 

Overall, the final chapters feel less organically integrated with Matos’s actual focus, the close reading of the English press coverage. But with Matos’s interest in the contagion metaphor and the relations between Ibsen, Pinero, and Jones, it is perhaps understandable that no fuller picture emerges of Ibsen’s importance to the English stage of the time. The Epilogue briefly mentions Wilde, whose “radical aesthetic ideas seem to have led him in other directions, away from the hyper-seriousness of the Ibsen drama” (189), without further mentioning Wilde’s parallel importance for the theatrical development of modernism or William Archer’s description of Salomé as “an oriental Hedda Gabler.”  Another somewhat uneasy quasi-absence in this study is George Bernard Shaw, England’s chief explainer of The Quintessence of Ibsenism, whom Matos excludes, somewhat surprisingly, from his argument about the Ibsen contagion and presents, instead, as Ibsen’s worthy successor, who “would carry the London theater to its next logical step into a more recognizable form of theatrical modernism” with Arms and the Man (4). Wilde and Shaw evidently saw a very different Ibsen than Scott, Pinero, and Jones did.

Matos’s close readings of the1890s London press reviews for their jingoistic rhetoric and nationalistic ideology are a welcome and important addition to our knowledge of Ibsen in England: collectively, they provide an important piece to the puzzle of theatrical history and England’s love-hate relationship with Ibsen in the 1890s.