“The Lady from the Sea”: a rich, rare Ibsen

19th century work about a married woman? File under “Trapped Inside a Marriage”. Emma Bovary, Hedda Gabler, Isabel Archer, Anna Karenina, Dorothea Brooke, Lady Dedlock … They’re all much of a muchness, aren’t they? “Trapped inside a marriage” – that’s what 19th century writers did awfully well.

And if it’s Ibsen, they’re definitely trapped inside marriage! In fact, you don’t even need to read or to see the play. Ibsen, after all, was a past master at this Trapped-Inside-a-Marriage malarkey: if it’s “Trapped Inside a Marriage” you want, then Ibsen’s your man!


The Lady From the Sea is among Ibsen’s finest works, written at a time in his career when he seemed incapable of writing anything other than masterpieces. It features at its centre one of the finest and most demanding roles ever written for an actress. And yet, while actresses queue up to play Nora in A Doll’s House, or the title role in Hedda Gabler, The Lady From the Sea is comparatively little-known, and rarely performed. I have been, for several years now, trying to catch on stage as many Ibsen plays as I can, but I only caught up with The Lady From the Sea on stage a couple of weeks ago – in a quite excellent production at the Rose Theatre in Kingston-on-Thames, with Joely Richardson in the central role, and superbly directed with characteristic clarity by Stephen Unwin.

It is hard to understand the reason for this neglect. As Unwin’s production demonstrated, it can hold the stage triumphantly. But, although Ellida Wangel is among the finest of all Ibsen roles, this is, essentially, an ensemble piece, with at least half dozen or so characters holding the stage equally: this is unusual for Ibsen – especially late Ibsen, in which the spotlight usually falls with a disconcerting intensity on only two or three characters at the most – and brings it in many ways closer to Chekhovian drama: but the themes, and the haunting poetic imagery, are unmistakably Ibsenite.

To get the obvious out of the way, Ellida Wangel is, indeed, trapped inside a marriage. But she is very different either from Nora (in A Doll’s House), who had preceded her by about nine years; or from Hedda, who was to follow immediately afterwards. Nora is an intelligent woman who plays the role of a helpless scatterbrain utterly dependent upon her husband because this is the role that is expected of her: she wears the mask that her particular social environment has created for her, but is intelligent enough to arrive at the realisation that the mask doesn’t fit. Hedda, on the other hand, is self-lacerating from the very start; she is also intelligent, but her intelligence merely serves to increase her disgust with herself: she has walked into her soul-destroying marriage with her eyes fully open, almost, one suspects, to punish herself. Ellida is quite different from either Nora or Hedda: she is a woman who remains, for reasons she herself cannot herself quite fathom, alienated from her kindly husband, and from her step-daughters, and longs for a freedom that she knows she has never had.

The respective husbands of these three ladies are also very different from each other. Nora’s husband, Torvald, is a self-deluding egotist, who, like his wife, is also wearing a mask that refuses to fit; Hedda’s husband is merely a nincompoop. But Ellida’s husband, though ageing, is a kindly, decent man. These ladies may all be trapped within their marriages, but  the marriages are all, nonetheless, very different from each other; and the ladies themselves are very different from each other. And, not surprisingly, these three marriages are resolved in very different ways. Nora famously walks out on her husband, but despite the apparent decisiveness of her action, she remains curiously uncertain: she is uncertain as to who she really is beneath her mask, and is determined to discover for herself; Hedda’s energies, on the other hand, become merely destructive, and turn in upon herself in one of Ibsen’s bleakest endings. But in The Lady From the Sea, against all expectations, the ending is joyous and radiant, as sunlight floods the stage. If only those who characterise Ibsen merely as a doom-and-gloom merchant would read or see this play: it is one of the most startlingly moving finales in all drama.

Ellida Wangel herself, the eponymous Lady From the Sea, I can’t help seeing as a sort of corollary to Isabel Archer: in A Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer finds herself having the luxury to choose, but the choice she makes is disastrous; nonetheless, because the choice has been made freely, she faces up heroically to its consequences. Ellida Wangel, on the other hand, has made a good choice; however, the choice had not been freely made, and, for this reason, Ellida cannot accept its validity. Despite her husband’s kindness and gentleness, Ellida has remained aloof: she is alienated not merely from her husband, but also from her step-daughters, who have come to despise her.

Into this naturalistic situation, Ibsen introduces his own brand of poetic imagery, which, in this play, hints at the demonic and the supernatural. Ellida had grown up in the far North, by the sea: even now, she is drawn to the sea, and to all it represents – openness, freedom, even terror – everything that is closed to her in her stolidly middle-class bourgeois marriage. And she is haunted by a memory of the past: she had betrothed herself to a sailor, and, despite this sailor being very likely a murderer, had solemnised the betrothal by tying together two rings, and throwing them into the sea. This sailor had said he will return for her, but he hadn’t: now, it appears, he may be dead. But, precisely half way through the play, this man, who may be dead, returns, and claims her. Ellida, significantly, does not recognise him at first, but when she does, she finds the claims of this ghostly man and all that he represents irresistible. But at the same time, she hates herself for what she desires.

There is a strong element of folklore in all this: Ibsen makes use here of the same legend that had inspired Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” – of the Lady from the Sea who comes to the land, grows land-legs, and finds herself unable to return. But while the Little Mermaid’s failure to return to the sea is tragic, Ibsen considers other possibilities: human beings, after all, are capable of growth, of development: they are capable of “acclimatisation”. In his earlier masterpiece, Peer Gynt had been happy to let his face grow to fit whatever mask happened to be the most convenient at the time, but when he tries to find out who he really is, he finds himself to be like an onion – merely layer upon accumulated layer, with no real centre; but his opposite is Brand, the absolutist, the utterly inflexible, the man who is prepared to destroy what is most dear to him rather than compromise. Here, in a naturalistic setting, Ibsen ponders upon the possible meanings of the story of the Little Mermaid: is developing land legs necessarily a bad thing? Is not the ability to compromise among mankind’s most remarkable features, and possibly even its saving grace? In short, is the story of the Little Mermaid necessarily tragic?

The subplots – unusual in an Ibsen play – are fully but unobtrusively developed. There’s the younger daughter, Hilde, whom we will see again in the later play The Master Builder: in that play, when it is suggested that she return home, she says “Wild birds do not fly back into their cages”. Here, we see the cage for ourselves, and to be frank, it doesn’t seem so bad. But she is a wild bird, all the same: we see her here fascinated by a young man who is absurdly foolish and self-obsessed, and who doesn’t realise that he is dying; Hilde, however, knows, and, fascinated by his impending death, teases him mercilessly. The older sister, Bolette, is much gentler, but she too has dreams of breaking out of the backwater which is the only world she knows, and coming to terms with the world outside. But the only way she can leave her native backwater is to accept the proposal of Arnholm, who had formerly been her tutor. She does not see him as a husband, but what choice does she have? Earlier in the play, Ellida had told her husband  that he had “bought” her: her husband had been shocked and hurt, but could not deny the justice of the accusation. And now, we see the same pattern repeating itself: Bolette is being “bought” by her prospective husband. But things are not quite so simple as such a bald summary might suggest: Arnholm, like Ellida’s husband Wangel, is a decent and kindly man: possibly, in time, Bolette may “acclimatise” as well.

But acclimatisation cannot, and must not, be taken for granted. Wangel had been hurt when his wife had told him that he had “bought” her, but he must accept the truth of this. And he is duty-bound, as an honest man, to set her free. And this he does in the climactic scene of the play: it is a heroic effort, and such heroism is unexpected in a character who has been presented in generally unheroic terms. But nonetheless, he does set her free: whatever choice she makes now is her own, freely made. Ellida is taken aback, “With all your heart?”she asks in astonishment. Yes, her husband replies replies in pain, “with all my suffering heart”. And at this point, Ellida knows what her choice is, and it is not what she had expected. She has, despite everything, “acclimatised”.


In Ibsen’s very next play, Hedda Gabler, we are back in a human hell. No  longer are we out in the open air by the fjords and mountains: we are stuck, claustrophobically enclosed, in a bourgeois drawing room, in which all passions turn hellish and destructive. This is not because Ibsen had changed his mind about marriage: he was, as ever, exploring new and different facets. But Hedda Gabler , powerful though it is, does not negate this rich, rare play in which Ibsen considers the possibility that we humans may, despite everything, pull through together after all.

6 responses to this post.

  1. I saw a marvellous production of this some years ago. Never forgot it.


    • For me, there’s nothing quite so satisfying as a good production in the theatre of a great play. Much as I love novels and poems, if I had to choose, it’s drama that, of all literary forms, I lovethe best.


  2. Posted by Sue Gedge (Klara Z) on March 30, 2012 at 3:48 pm

    Fantastic play. I saw it at The Rounhouse, almost thirty years ago, I think, with Vanessa Redgrave in the lead.


    • The role of Ellida is something of a family tradition, I think. Vanessa redgrave’s performance of this was very famous, and the late Natasha Richardson had also made a success of it on stage. And now, Joely Richardson.


  3. Posted by alan on April 1, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    Good piece – it makes me want to see the play – I’ve not been disappointed by your other Ibsen recommendations.
    Perhaps some acclimatisation and compromise does involve growth – but growth into what ? What is this ‘identity’ that we cling to ? Is it just whatever will require a state, a bank and an employer to recognise us?
    If someone from an earlier part of your life tried to lay claim to you and some commitment that you had made, then how important would that commitment be? – is a marriage recognised by the state or a church more important than a freely entered into commitment that had no other witnesses? For the sake of your sense of self, isn’t the less externally enforced commitment a greater test of your worth ? Or, is it the case that as one grows up one realises that commitments made without sufficient knowledge or maturity have less power and should not be adhered to, or that the wider community should be a judge of these things ?
    It is dangerous territory to suggest that some people choose a captivity that they can blame for their failings, because I do think that there are villains and victims in this world, but the ambiguity of a dramatist like Ibsen helps us to explore ideas without making prescriptions.


    • Hello Alan, I agree with you fully that Ibsen was not a prescriptive writer, though he is frequently mistaken for one. In this play, as in all his plays, he is exploring issues rather than prescribing solutions.

      The questions you raise are all important questions, and are pertinent to this endlessly fascinating play. Given how rarely performed this play is, and how unlikely it is to come upon good productions, I’d certainly recommend you just go ahead and read it: I read it long before I saw it, and the impact it made even on reading was tremendous.


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