James Joyce and Henrik Ibsen: Did you know?

Washington, D.C.

James Joyce

Photo: Alex Ehrenzweig / public domain
Irish writer and literary critic James Joyce.

I recently watched a Smithsonian Associates Zoom lecture entitled “James Joyce’s Ulysses: A Fresh Look,” presented by Irish literature specialist Cøilín Parsons. I had tried once to read Ulysses, originally published in 1922, but soon gave up. Apparently, I was not alone in my inability to keep reading this great classic. By attending this session, I thought I might be able to pick up the book again and finish it.

Much to my surprise, however, what excited me the most about this lecture was not Ulysses but Ibsen. I had been listening intently to the lecture but when I heard the name “Ibsen,” I really perked up my ears and made a quick note to learn more. After the lecture finished, I immediately started a Google search, and what I discovered about Ibsen and Joyce was quite remarkable.

Joyce’s first published work was a very positive review of Ibsen’s play When We Dead Awaken (published in Norwegian as Når vi døde vågner in 1899) in a prestigious journal, Fortnightly Review, in 1900. Joyce was only 18 years old and very pleased to have had his review published. But he was in for a surprise!

When We Dead Awaken

Image: public domain / Wikipedia
Edvard Brandes’ 1906 character drawings for Henrik Ibsen’s play When We Dead Awaken.

His review had been called to Ibsen’s attention by William Archer, his English translator. Ibsen was very moved by it, and he contacted Archer, telling him to let Joyce know how much he had appreciated it. Joyce wrote Archer the following response:

Dear Sir: 

I wish to thank you for your kindness in writing to me. I am a young Irishman, eighteen years old, and the words of Ibsen I shall keep in my heart all my life. 

Faithfully yours 

Jas A. Joyce

A year later Joyce wrote to Ibsen on the occasion of his 73rd birthday:

When you were an undergraduate at the University as I am, and if you think what it would have meant to you to have earned a word from one who held as high a place in your esteem as you hold in mine, you will understand my feeling. 

Do not think me a hero-worshipper – I am not so. And when I spoke of you in debating societies and so forth, I enforced attention by no futile ranting.

But we always keep the dearest things to ourselves. I did not tell them what bound me closest to you. I did not say how what I could discern dimly of your life was my pride to see, how your battles inspired me – not the obvious material battles but those that were fought and won behind your forehead, how your willful resolution to wrest the secret from life gave me heart and how in your absolute indifference to public canons of art, friends and shibboleths you walked in the light of your inward heroism. And this is what I write to you of now.

He concludes his letter with these words: 

As one of the young generation for whom you have spoken I give you greeting – not humbly, because I am obscure and you in the glare, not sadly, because you are an old man and I a young man, not presumptuously, not sentimentally – but joyfully, with hope and with love, I give you greeting. 

Faithfully yours, James A. Joyce

Henrik Ibsen

Photo: Julius Schaarwächter / public domain
Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen.

When We Dead Awaken was Ibsen’s last and shortest play. It was not particularly well received, and it has rarely been performed. His English translator was disappointed with it and wrote the following in The Collected Works of Henrik Ibsen, published in 1911: “To pretend to rank it with his masterpieces is to show a very imperfect sense of the nature of their mastery.” 

Joyce seems to have appreciated Ibsen’s play more than its critics. As Mimmi Beck wrote in her article “Symbolism overshadows When We Dead Awaken,” published in the Feb. 26, 1991, issue of The Tech, the play wasn’t for everyone:

“Overall, When We Dead Awaken is a complex play about art and love that demands an audience willing to work to figure out its tantalizing symbolism, willing to be bombarded with irritating sounds and willing to fill slow moments with their own thoughts about the issues. It is a play that will either leave you frustrated, or up for hours of discussion.”

Joyce was surely up for the hours of discussion.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 26, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.