Published in 1899, “When We Dead Awaken” is the final theatrical drama written by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Set at a Norwegian spa during the wintertime, the story is told in three acts, and charts the existential ruminations of professor and famed sculptor Arnold Rubek as he reunites with his former muse, Irene von Satow. Desperate to recapture the glory of his past inspirations, Rubek must also reconcile his relationship with his estranged wife, Maia. Often called one of Ibsen’s most confessional works, the play touches on themes of despair, mortality, legacy, nostalgia, artistic expression, petrification, rekindled romances, and ultimately, the acceptance of death. Some scholars believe the play is a biographical blend of Ibsen’s own life with that of his contemporary, Auguste Rodin.
Act one commences at a bath spa in the Norwegian mountains. Arnold Rubek, a professor and sculptor most famous for his statue The Resurrection Day
, enjoys breakfast with his wife Maia. While peering over a fjord, Arnold and Maia sip champagne, trade pleasantries, and note the quietude of the spa. However, both hint at their own displeasures with one another. Maia laments how Arnold once promised to take her to the mountaintop to find the greatest vista but never got around to it.
The hotelier passes The Rubeks’ table, asking if they need anything. A woman in white goes by (Stranger Lady), trailed by a nun dressed in black (Sister of Mercy). Arnold is instantly magnetized to the Stranger Lady, yet cannot articulate why. Arnold inquires to about her, but the hotelier knows little. Poised to dismiss himself in a hurry, the hotelier cannot avoid confrontation from Squire Ulfheim, aka the Bear Hunter. Ulfheim orders breakfast for his hunting hounds. Upon seeing the Rubeks at the table, Ulfheim eagerly makes their acquaintance. After deeming Sister of Mercy’s passage an omen of death, Ulfheim derides the Rubeks’ plans of traveling on a cruise ship, claiming the water too befouled by human pollution. Instead, Ulfheim suggests the Rubeks should accompany him up the mountain to enjoy the solitude.
While Maia agrees to join Ulfheim watch his dogs devour breakfast, Arnold is left alone with the Stranger Lady. Arnold quickly recognizes her to be Irene von Satow, the model who inspired and posed for his most celebrated sculpture, The Resurrection Day
. Arnold asks about Irene’s life since working together, and she continually expresses how she has been dead ever since making their “child” with Arnold. She refers to the process as a form of self-murder, claiming her soul has been consigned to Arnold’s sculpture. She tells Arnold: “when we dead awaken, we find that we have never lived.”
Arnold confesses how unhappy he’s been since creating The Resurrection Day
. Arnold admits to no longer creating marble edifices, and instead paints portraits of busts. Irene hints at murdering scores of former lovers, including a South American diplomat and a Russian goldmine owner. Irene even claims to have killed her own babies, including ones that were still in the womb. When Arnold tells Irene of his imminent sea cruise, she suggests going to the mountains with her instead. Since Maia wants to accompany Ulfheim up the mountain anyway, Arnold agrees.
Act two is set at a health retreat in the mountains. After spending the morning with Ulfheim, Maia joins Arnold beside a stream. They advance their conversation about Arnold’s dissatisfaction with their marriage. Arnold confesses he would rather live with Irene than Maia, declaring Irene has the power to inspire his greatest artistic creations. Maia becomes upset, but urges Arnold to do what he wants. Maia is even open to Irene living with her and Arnold if she can’t find residence elsewhere.
When Irene enters the retreat, Maia implores Arnold to speak with her. While lofting flowers into the stream, Arnold and Irene romantically recall making their “child” together. But when Arnold refers to this as an “episode,” Irene becomes irate. She brandishes a knife, readying to plunge it into Arnold’s back. Just as Arnold turns to face her in time, Irene shrouds the knife. Arnold tells Irene she should live with him, thus reestablishing their rich work relationship. Irene retorts by saying there is no way she can unchain his artistic expression and become the inspiration she once was. Still, they agree to try anyway. As Maia passes through with Ulfheim en route to hunting bear, she beams with euphoria. Maia sings to herself about how happy and free she now feels, unburdened by Arnold’s presence.
Act three is set on a craggy mountain ridge with perilous pathways and a tattered hunting shack. Maia and Ulfheilm storm in, bickering about Ulfheim’s untoward advances. Maia voices her desire to be taken back to the retreat. Ulfheim assures Maia that she will die attempting to traverse such a dangerous path alone. Arnold and Irene ascend to the shack from the retreat, much to Ulfheim’s shock given the severity of the trail. Sensing an imminent storm, Ulfheim can only take one person down the mountain at a time. He elects to take Maia down first, insisting that Arnold and Irene rest in the shack until he returns.
Irene, afraid of rescue or being committed to an asylum by Sister of Mercy, pulls out her knife. Arnold implores her not to kill herself. Irene admits she almost killed Arnold earlier, but opted not to when realizing he was already dead. Irene expresses that their love as they know it is dead, just like they are. Arnold notes how freeing this is, and how they can now live a full life together. Irene agrees, but insists they must first ascend above the clouds to avoid the storm. As they climb the mountain to be wedded by sunrays, they stop to enjoy the view. Maia’s lullaby is heard. Then a roaring avalanche hits and crushes Arnold and Irene to death. Witnessing this, Sister of Mercy screams out a prayer. Maia’s lullaby still reverberates in the air.