Archive for July 22nd, 2018

“The Pillars of Society” by Henrik Ibsen

All quoted passages are taken from the translation by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik, published by Penguin Classics

After the soaring poetry and the mythic imagery of Brand and Peer Gynt, the scrupulously realistic portrayal of citizens of a small provincial town seems inevitably a bit of an anti-climax. Not that The Pillars of Society had come immediately after these two verse dramas: Ibsen had taken a curious route from those earlier heights of poetic imagination to this doggedly earthbound depiction of ordinary people living their everyday lives. He had written that vast and exotic two part historic drama Emperor and Galilean, and also a comedy, The League of Youth, the latter generally judged by posterity (correctly, I think) as being diverting, but, perhaps, a bit slight. The Pillars of Society is, however, far from exotic, and, despite its focus on the quotidian, far from slight. It is the first of a sequence of twelve plays that Ibsen, nearly twenty-five years later, referred to as a “cycle”. It seems, however, highly unlikely that Ibsen had any thought of composing a cycle of plays when he embarked on this: if cycle it is, then its cyclical elements, at least to begin with, were accidental. But accidental or not, the thematic connections linking these twelve plays seem to me apparent, despite Ibsen’s stylistic development over the years during which these plays were written, and despite also the often radical new directions in which he took his art. And similarly apparent are the thematic connections with Brand and with Peer Gynt: the break with those earlier poetic dramas was not as thorough as it might seem.

But whatever poetic instincts Ibsen had – from the evidence of Brand and Peer Gynt, and also of his later plays, they were substantial – seem almost deliberately suppressed here. The scene here is not the high mountains and ice-vaulted crevices we see in Brand, nor the mythic, phantasmagoric landscapes of the mind that we find in Peer Gynt: it is, instead, a small, provincial town, all too real and too solid, all too subject to the hard laws of business and of economics: it is a thriving shipping port. And the characters populating this drama do not have the stature and the larger-than-life presence of Brand or of Peer Gynt: these are all, in comparison, small people, and their poetic vision, should they exist, are well hidden away beneath the unexciting pressure of earning a daily living. At the centre of the drama, but by no means dominating it (as it is in essence an ensemble piece), is Karsten Bernick, solid and respectable, the chief pillar of this society. He owns the shipyard on which the prosperity of the entire town depends. He runs it with a ruthless efficiency characteristic of capitalism untrammelled by considerations of social conscience: and yet, at the same time, his ruthless efficiency has brought wealth and stability to a kind of society that, as we had seen in Brand, used regularly to suffer from famine. As the drama progresses, we see Bernick as, morally, a most reprehensible character: his standing and his reputation, both public and private, are built on lies; his entire existence, his status as a pillar of society, is one of utter hypocrisy. The very base on which this society is built is morally rotten. And, on one level, this drama may be seen as an exposure of this moral rottenness, a demand – such as Brand might have made – that we face the truth and confess it, whatever the cost. But, at a deeper and somewhat subtler level, I don’t think things are quite so easy.

But before we try to plumb its depths, the surface demands exploration, as it is fascinating in itself. In many ways, it corresponds to the popular image of Ibsen: here is Ibsen the social reformer, hitting out at the lies and hypocrisies on which respectable society is built, pointing at us the finger of moral indignation: this is Ibsen as dramatist for social change. Somerset Maugham once mischievously characterised the plots of Ibsen’s plays as, essentially, an outsider entering a stuffy room, opening the window, and everyone, a consequence, dying of cold. This is no doubt unfair, but there is some truth in this caricature, and nowhere is this caricature more apparent than in The Pillars of Society. The society depicted in the first act is indeed unbearably stuffy, and the air is heavy with hypocrisy and with moral self-righteousness; an outsider does indeed enter, and, at the end of the act, literally opens a window. But this literal act is also, very obviously, a symbolic act, and the symbolic cold air let in proves devastating.

The play deals explicitly with what was, at the time, a theme of burning topical relevance. Ships allowed to sail even when known not to be seaworthy was a notorious scandal of the time, especially in a seafaring nation such as Norway. As Michael Meyer says in his introduction to his own translation, British Member of Parliament Samuel Plimsoll had been fighting for years against “the cold-blooded and unscrupulous sacrifice of human life by sending men to sea in rotten ships”, merely to allow the owners collecting on the insurance afterwards. In British Parliament, Plimsoll openly called these owners “murderers”. A number of such instances of this occurred in Norway also, and they were much publicised. But that a play dealing explicitly with so topical a theme can still even now triumphantly hold the stage does indicate that there is more to this play than merely a Drama of Social Reform. And if we wish to discover what more there is, we need to look a bit deeper. And once we do, we discover Peer Gynt enjoined by Brand to acknowledge the Truth – the Truth, at all costs.

For, from Brand’s perspective, it is only when one acknowledges the Truth and lives by it that one can find one’s inner self – that same inner self that Peer Gynt discovered at the end he does not possess. But acknowledging the Truth is painful in the extreme; and, what is more, it does not guarantee us happiness. For Brand, such a consideration is irrelevant: Truth must be acknowledged for its own sake, for it is an end in itself. But for the Peer Gynts among us, this is far from obvious.

Bernick is, effectively, Peer Gynt in the real world: that is, the “real world”, as opposed to the world of the poetic imagination that Ibsen had previously given us. The lies in which Bernick has become entangled, and on which his entire life, both public and private, is now based, had not come about out of an evil nature: they had merely been the easiest way of getting what he wanted. When obstacles had come his way, he simply, like Peer, went around. But that is all in the past now, and he is a success. And on his success has depended the success of the entire town: he is indeed a pillar of society. In the very first scene, Bernick’s chief clerk tells Aune, the shipyard foreman:

You are first and foremost foreman of Consul Bernick’s shipyard. You have first and foremost a duty towards the community which is Consul Bernick’s company; because it’s what we live by.

Whatever the lies and the hypocrisy, the community is Consul Bernick’s company. If the company falls, the community falls. Exposing the lies may be morally the correct thing to do: it is what Brand would have insisted upon – not as a means to some end, but because the Truth is not something that may be compromised. But for us ordinary mortals, the dilemma is real.

In a stage of brilliantly staged scenes, the lies upon which Bernick’s reputation has been built, and also upon which his company has been built – which, we are reminded, is what the entire community lives by – are brought to light. But what should Bernick do? On the surface, it is clear-cut: he should tell the truth. But below the surface, the moral waters are murkier. It may be said, with justification, that when Bernick talks of the good of the community, he is only making excuses. But even if that were true, if Bernick’s company goes under, the entire community would go under too. Is Truth really worth so great a price? Are the moral demands of Brand at all reasonable?

But then, if we reject Brand’s moral imperatives, what are we left with? Bernick at one point considers allowing a ship to sail he knows not to be shipworthy, because the man who could bring down his entire business kingdom would, he knew, be on it. In short, he contemplates murder – and mass-murder at that. And he tries to justify even this – seemingly to the schoolmaster Rørlund, but, ultimately, to his own troubled conscience:

Bernick: When one stands at the threshold of a far-reaching enterprise which aims at the improved well-being of thousands – , if this thing were to require one single sacrifice – ?

Rørlund: In what way, sir?

Bernick: Suppose, for example, that a man is considering building a large factory. He knows for certain – since experience has taught him this – that sooner or later during the running of this factory human life will be lost.

Rørlund: Yes, that is only too probable.

Bernick: Or a man embarks on a mining business. He takes family men and youngsters in the prime of life into his service. It can be said with absolute certainty, can it not, that they won’t all come out of it alive?

Rørlund: Yes, unfortunately, that’s probably so.

Bernick: Well. Such a man knows beforehand, then, that the enterprise he wants to set in motion will undoubtedly cost human lives at some point. But this enterprise is for the common good; for every human life it costs, it will just as undoubtedly further the welfare of hundreds.

Whatever Bernick’s motivation, this is true. Even if the Truth may be discerned (and Ibsen was to question even that in later plays), is it necessarily desirable? It is this terrible question that creates a terrible and terrifying undercurrent beneath the seemingly simple confrontation on the surface between Truth and Falsehood. And it is because of this undercurrent that the play remains still so a thrilling a piece of drama: without this undercurrent, it would merely be a call for social reform which, once the reform is implemented, ceases to be of any but historical interest.

But what had been Bernick’s motivation in setting up his business kingdom in the first place? It seems unlikely that he had been motivated by the welfare of the town’s citizens: that had been, at best, a by-product. Bernick himself says that he had tried to salvage his family business, which, when he was a young man, had been in danger of going under. He had saved that business, and, as a consequence, had save the entire community of which he is now so estimable a pillar. And as we see him break less than entirely honest deals, it seems clear that his true motivation had been power – power not merely among his fellow-citizens, but power also over Nature itself, which he feels he can harness:

Imagine what a powerful lever [the railway will] represent for our entire community. Think of the enormous tracts of forest that’ll be made accessible; think of rich seams of ore that can be worked; think of the river with one waterfall after the other. Just imagine all the industry that can be established there.

In a much later play, John Gabriel Borkman, Borkman too had been entranced by the possibility of subduing Nature to his will, but Borkman, in his single-mindedness, had more resembled Brand: Bernick, for all his desire, remains Peer Gynt, for ever seeking the easy way around. But now, the man who had sought power, who had sought to harness Nature itself, becomes fully aware of the moral depths he has suck to as a consequence of pursuing his desires. He realises a curse is upon him, and hopes his son will one day grow up to redeem, and to lift the curse:

The inheritance I am giving him is a thousand times worse than you know. But the curse must lift some day surely. Then again – Perhaps –

Such a figure recalls another figure from that era: Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, the last instalment of the mighty Ring Cycle, had been premiered in 1866, just one year before the premier of The Pillars of Society, and it is not too far-fetched, I think, to draw parallels between Ibsen’s Bernick and Wagner’s Wotan. Ibsen would certainly have known of the Ring Cycle – his friend and compatriot, Edvard Grieg, tried to persuade him to go and see it at Bayreuth – but Ibsen, who never cared much for music, had resisted. But it seems unlikely that Ibsen would have found his themes from what he had known of Wagner’s work: we should not really be too surprised when major artists living through the same times hit upon similar themes. This was, after all, the Age of Capital: faster than ever before, Nature and its resources were being harnessed to enhance human power. It would be surprising indeed for intelligent and perceptive artists not to wonder at what the consequences of all this may be. But their foci were different: where Wagner was concerned – amongst other things – with the question of redemption, Ibsen’s focus was on the nature of Truth, and of the all too human compromises we make with it.

This play ends, seemingly, on a moral triumph: after his own son is found to be in imminent danger, Bernick relents, publicly confesses, and all, apparently, ends well. But while the play itself ends on a bright major key, far too many issues remain unresolved. Bernick doesn’t, after all, reveal the whole truth: the most incriminating part of it, including the attempted murder, he holds back. Will that ever come out, we wonder? Will he have the moral courage? And even if he does, should he? Would not his company fall, and the entire community with it?

The play is rounded off satisfactorily as far as the dramatic presentation was concerned, but there remain too many unresolved questions. Possibly because these questions cannot be resolved satisfactorily. Ibsen was to return to these questions with even deeper vision in subsequent plays of the cycle. Indeed, many of the themes broached here return. Among the subsidiary themes in this play, for instance, is the position of women – intelligent people, but whose aspirations and energies are crushed under society’s structure: in A Doll’s House, the very next play in the cycle, Ibsen focuses on this. The theme of the past haunting the present, with terrifying consequence, returns in Ghosts; and in the next play, An Enemy of the People, Ibsen again returns to te theme of the Truth, and public good.

In A Wild Duck, he questions the extent to which we may live with the Truth; while in Rosmersholm, he explores our ability even to recognise it. And so on. With The Pillars of Society, we are only at the beginning.