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George Bernard Shaw's The Quintessence of Ibsenism was first published in 1891, fifteen years before Ibsen died in 1906. Shaw was Ibsen's most fervent champion in England, but his essay perhaps tells us more about Shaw himself than about Ibsen. Shaw conflated Ibsen's social realism with his own Fabian socialism, ignoring the poetic and psychological aspects of the older playwright's work. Also, Shaw presented Ibsen as chiefly a playwright of ideas, but the social content of Ibsen's plays is propelled by dramatic situations, not by the cerebral discussions characteristic of Shaw's own plays. As a result, Shaw's portrayal of Ibsen is skewed.

On the one hand, Shaw's high praise and the efforts he made toward the success of Ibsen production in England might have gratified the Norwegian dramatist. On the other, he might have been taken aback at the misrepresentation of his work. But these hypothetical reactions presume that Ibsen was aware of Shaw's efforts. What evidence do we have, if any, that Ibsen knew of Shaw's interest in his work? Particularly, did The Quintessence of Ibsenism come to Ibsen's notice? If so, what was his reaction to the essay?

Shaw, George Bernard. The Quintessence of Ibsenism. London: Walter Scott, 1891. Accessed at archive.org 26 January 2024.

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  • This letter by Ibsen is considered to be discussing a lecture Shaw gave that "formed the basis of his book The Quintessence of Ibsenism". I'm too lazy to make that into an answer, and there's some doubt as to whether it's actually about Shaw.
    – CDR
    Commented Jan 27 at 22:26
  • @CDR Thanks, those were interesting references. You're right, there is some doubt about whether the letter is about Shaw or Eleanor Marx, so more research is needed. If you end up feeling more energetic and decide to write a full-fledged answer, great! Otherwise I hope someone else does the needed research and posts an answer.
    – verbose
    Commented Jan 28 at 4:52
  • @verbose From the links, I don't see which letter by Ibsen you (and @CDR) are referring to. Is it letter 215? Commented Feb 1 at 16:04
  • @ClaraDiazSanchez yes, see footnote 1 on p. 431
    – verbose
    Commented Feb 1 at 23:48

1 Answer 1

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The Quintessence of Ibsenism was based on a lecture that Shaw gave to the Fabian Society in July 1890. This lecture (although not The Quintessence itself as such) was brought to Ibsen's notice by the London newspaper the Daily Chronicle, and Ibsen made a brief response to it. Feeling he had been misquoted however, he issued a later clarification of his remarks, and during this process Shaw contacted Ibsen, via an intermediary, to try and clear up the problem. The process finally concluded with Ibsen reassuring Shaw that although he had been "infuriated" it was with the "Chronicle fellow" who had interviewed him, and not GBS or his lecture.

To keep track of the various events, it is useful to construct a chronology.

18 July 1890: Shaw gives a lecture, “Ibsen”, which he later expanded to become the book The Quintessence of Ibsen.

The lecture was the last in a series of talks on socialism and literature that featured Sydney Oliver on Zola, William Morris on Gothic Architecture, and Hubert Bland on socialist novels. Pease, in The History of the Fabian Society noted that:

This last may perhaps be regarded as the high-water mark in Fabian lectures. The minutes, which rarely stray beyond bare facts, record that "the paper was a long one," nearer two hours than one, if my memory is accurate, and add: "The meeting was a very large one and the lecture was well received." In fact the lecture was the bulk of the volume "The Quintessence of Ibsenism," which some regard as the finest of Bernard Shaw's works, and it is perhaps unnecessary to say that the effect on the packed audience was overwhelming.

19 July: The Daily Chronicle published a brief account of the talk. Shaw described it as "a half column or so of sensational extracts from my lecture” (1).

In the talk Shaw made a number of connections between Ibsen and socialism, and in consequence the Daily Chronicle sent its Munich correspondent to interview Ibsen on the matter.

13 August: The Daily Chronicle publishes its interview with Ibsen, "Ibsen and Socialism" (2), a 200 word article, unsigned.

In consequence of the continued efforts of the Social Democrats to represent Henrik Ibsen as one of their party, and especially on account of the abuse of Ibsen's name made by certain new moral philosophers in England ever since A Doll's House was performed in London, The Berlin correspondent of the Chronicle has interviewed Ibsen who, since his return from Italy, resides with his family permanently in Munich. Ibsen declared he never was nor ever would be a Social Democrat. He was surprised to find his name used as a means for the propagation of Social Democrat dogmas. If a mere accidental coincidence with certain tendencies or principles involved in his book Nora with regard to the matrimonial or woman question are identified with or cover planks of the Social Democrat platform, his Nora is not, he explained, an abstract hypothesis conceived to demonstrate certain party dogmas, but was taken from life. Nora existed; but he never intended to lay down a hard and fast rule that all women in a similar situation should or must act like Nora.

[I have bolded some text to emphasise the main claims made here, that caught Shaw's attention and that Ibsen would later correct.]

17 August: Surprised by the column, Shaw asked Archer, the drama critic now famous as the editor and translator of Ibsen, to contact Ibsen on his behalf, to let him know that, in contrast to the the Chronicle's claim, he had not been trying to claim Ibsen was a Fabian socialist (2).

If you go to see Ibsen I wish you would explain a matter to him which concerns me. The Daily Chronicle published a half column or so of sensational extracts from my lecture; and its Munich correspondent thereupon went to Ibsen and told him that the London Social Democrats had been claiming him as one of themselves, and exploiting his reputation to bolster up their theories. Naturally Henrik was infuriated, and declared that he had nothing to do with the dogmas of the Social Democrats. Will you tell him if you get the chance that the true state of the case is that an eminent socialist critic made his plays the text for a fierce attack on the idealist section of the English Social Democrats, comparing them and their red flag to Hilmar Tonnesen and his “banner of the ideal.”

...

I set great store by the setting-right of Ibsen about this matter; and even if you don’t see him I wish you would drop him a line to say that his interviewer got hold of the wrong end of the stick, and that any hasty strictures of his on Social Democracy, based on the assumption that it is as dogmatic and unpractical in England as in Germany, will be represented here as repudiations of the very section which is trying, and so far with remarkable success, to rid socialism of the dogmatism, sectarianism, and absolutism of which he complains.

[again, the bolding is mine.]

The letter ended on a characteristically Shavian note:

You may add, if you please, that I am extremely sorry that my total ignorance of Norwegian prevented my calling on him during my stay in Munich to explain his plays to him.

According to Shaw’s Ibsen: A Re-Appraisal by Joan Templeton, Archer indeed met Ibsen in Munich, and in a "reassuring post card" reported that although Ibsen was “infuriated”, it was not with Shaw but with the “Chronicle man”. Ibsen decided to clear up the matter, and did so in a letter to his friend Consul Braekstad, who translated it and got the Chronicle to publish it.

28 August: extracts from Ibsen’s letter to Braekstad were published in the Daily Chronicle. The letter can be read in Letters of Henrik Ibsen (3).

To Hans Lien BRAEKSTAD.

Munich, August 1890.

[I have had my attention called to a letter from Berlin relating to myself in the Daily Chronicle of August 13 ; and as several of the statements in this letter seem susceptible of misconstruction — have, in fact, been already miscontrued in the Scandinavian papers — I shall be very much obliged by your having some of the expressions attributed to me corrected. It appears to me that certain of them are not exact and complete reproductions of my utterances to the correspondent of the paper.]

I did not, for instance, say that I have never studied the question of Socialism — he fact being that I am much interested in the question, and have endeavoured to the best of my ability to acquaint myself with its different sides. I only said that I have never had time to study the extensive literature dealing with the different socialistic systems.

Where the correspondent repeats my assertion that I do not belong to the Social-Democratic party, I wish that he had not omitted what I expressly added, namely, that I never have belonged, and probably never shall belong, to any party whatever.

I may add here that it has become an absolute necessity to me to work quite independently and to shape my own course.

What the correspondent writes about my surprise at seeing my name put forward by socialistic agitators as that of a supporter of their dogmas is particularly liable to be misunderstood.

What I really said was that I was surprised that I, who had made it my chief life-task to depict human characters and human destinies, should, without conscious or direct intention, have arrived in several matters at the same conclusions as the social-democratic moral philosophers had arrived at by scientific processes.

What led me to express this surprise (and, I may here add, satisfaction) was a statement made by the correspondent to the effect that one or more lectures had lately been given in London, dealing, according to him, chiefly with A Doll’s House.

[Here you have, briefly, what I wish explained to my friends. Please make such use of these lines as you yourself consider best]

The final remark about A Doll's House is a little mysterious. Clearly from context, the Chronicle's Munich correspondent must have been talking about Shaw's lecture - and the description of "the abuse of Ibsen's name made by certain new moral philosophers in England" in the "Ibsen and Socialism" article surely can only refer to Shaw. Henderson, Shaw's biographer, noted that "The latter statement appears to be in error; although the correspondent may possibly have had in mind some lectures, delivered by Eleanor Marx, I believe, on A Doll’s House." (4).

So in summary, Ibsen was indeed informed of material which would later be published as The Quintessence. He appears to have not been offended by it, instead only being concerned with his comments being misquoted, and he and Shaw seem to have remained on good terms.


  1. Shaw's letter to Archer, August 17, 1890: Bernard Shaw (collected Letters 1874-1897), pp 157-159, Max Reinhardt, London.

  2. "Ibsen and Socialism," The Daily Chronicle, August 13, 1890, p.3.

  3. Letter 215, Letters of Henrik Ibsen by Henrik Ibsen, John Nilsen Laurvik, 1905.

  4. George Bernard Shaw: His Life and Works, Archibald Henderson, 1911.

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  • Brava! Excellently researched and argued as always.
    – verbose
    Commented Feb 3 at 22:25
  • Gracias solete! Commented Feb 4 at 0:59

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