Archive for the ‘Drama’ Category

Back to Shakespeare: my latest readings of “As You Like It” and “Richard II”

It’s pointless even trying to speculate what went on in that very strange mind of Shakespeare’s: he writes As You Like It, the sunniest and most lyrical of pastoral romantic comedies – a play that, one might think, would thrive on flights of fancy – mainly in prose; while Richard II, a historical and political drama unremitting in its seriousness, he writes entirely in verse, liberally throwing in large numbers of rhyming couplets for good measure. I know that in these posts on Shakespeare I pretend to have a modicum ofunderstanding of his plays – an author, even of blog posts, should, after all, have a claim to some degree of authority – but there are times when it is best to admit that I don’t really get what he was up to.

Yes, I’ve been reading Shakespeare again. And it’s been a surprisingly long time since I had last read one of his plays. Oh, I have dipped into them often enough, and browsed passages, but, apart from his two narrative poems, his verse is dramatic verse, and demands to be seen in the context of the drama. (Even the sonnets seem to me best regarded as dramatic monologues, with the speaker and the dramatic context left to the reader’s imagination.) I know there are some who think otherwise: I have even encountered those who claim not to care at all about the drama (which, apparently, is “stolen” anyway); and who, further, tell me quite seriously that the language is all that matters. But that really won’t do: literature is the least abstract of all the arts: its basic building blocks are words, and each word has a meaning (and often more than just a single meaning) beyond itself – that is, it has a significance beyond how it sounds, and how it looks when written. Language without context is nothing. And in Shakespeare, the context is dramatic. Those who look merely for “the language” may find it hard to account for the effects produced in King Lear by such lines as “World, world, O world!”, or “Never, never, never, never, never” – effects that are well beyond my powers of articulation to describe.

So it’s back to the plays. It’s Project Back-to-Shakespeare. Why have I left it so long? Because I have taken them for granted, I think. I know they’re there. And many of these plays, I know, reside permanently in my mind anyway. But that’s really not good enough: if I am to live with these plays, I have to re-read them regularly, and re-read them with as fresh a mind as is possible. So I have decided to be a bit more disciplined: once a month, whatever else I may be reading at the time (and I am still reading Clive James’ translation of Dante), I have promised myself to re-read a play by Shakespeare at least once every month. For familiarity all too often breeds indifference, and it would be sad if I were ever to become indifferent to these works which, I think, have meant to me more than any other work of literature I know of.

So, we’re now nearly two months into this year, and I have read two plays – which isn’t bad given how bad I am at keeping promises to myself: As You Like It, and Richard II – the comedy written mainly in prose and the tragic drama written entirely in verse.

As You Like It has always struck me as a strange play. Oh, it’s clearly a great masterpiece, no doubt about that – but a play I don’t feel I’ve quite got to grips with – at least, not to my own satisfaction. Sometimes I think this is because it lacks drama, but that’s not the reason: Love’s Labour’s Lost similarly lacks drama, and I have always loved that. I think what puzzles me is that various dramas are set up in the first act, only to dissipate as we move into the second. Of course, this is clearly what Shakespeare had intended: the Forest of Arden is a magical forest – not like the forest of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where real magic is involved, but a magical place all the same, where all who enter are cleansed of their evil intent, and are reconciled.

For there is much evil that needs cleansing. There’s a Duke who usurps his place, having unlawfully deposed his brother, the rightful Duke; there’s an elder brother who hates and mistreats his younger, and plots to have him killed; and so on. Indeed, the conflicts are laid out with such clear distinction between Good and Bad, we seem to be more in the realms of folktale rather than of anything claiming to be realistic drama. Even the rightful Duke, we are explicitly told, is living in the forest with a band of loyal followers “like the Old Robin Hood”.

I think I had previously underestimated just how important folklore is in Shakespeare’s dramatic output. It’s very apparent in those three late plays that it’s very tempting to describe as a trilogy (Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest): these, indeed, are fairy stories (albeit with Shakespeare’s own individual stamp on them). But I think Shakespeare’s fascination with folklore can be traced to many of his earlier plays too, where, even within an otherwise realistic context, he is happy to introduce plot devices that seem straight out of fairy tales. I don’t know, for instance, that one could make much sense of All’s Well That Ends Well (written during a period when Shakespeare was occupied mainly with tragic drama) without considering it as a sort of fairy tale. Both this play and Measure for Measure (also written during this period) feature the much-criticised “bed trick” – that is, a plot device whereby a man has sex with a woman thinking her to be someone else. Such a contrivance is, of course, more than a bit silly, but I think it becomes less so if we can consider it in the context of folklore, or of the fairy tale – that is, in the context of a semi-magical world where the unlikely becomes the everyday. In the late play Cymbeline, Shakespeare pushed this element of folklore to its utmost limit, thus ending up with a plot which, if considered in a strictly realistic mode, fully lives up (or down) to Johnson’s famous dismissal: “unresisting imbecility”. But the mistake isn’t Shakespeare’s, it is ours: it lies in considering the work in a strictly realistic mode, when really, it is Shakespeare’s variation on the story we now know as “Snow White”. Even the mainspring of King Lear, the most unbearably terror-stricken of all his tragedies, belongs to the world of fairy tales.

And so in As You Like It. The Robin Hood like existence of a merry band of outlaws living in the forest we have had before, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and it is pure folklore. The various conflicts laid out in the first act are all the stuff of fairy tales, the stuff of dreams, and, as Prospero is later to say, they vanish into thin air. As in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the forest here is a magical place where human wrongs are put right (albeit without the explicitly supernatural agents); but Shakespeare seems to insist here that it is the forest that is real, and the outside world with all its conflicts that is the dream. Reconciliation here is real: dissension isn’t.

The Forest of Arden is both Ovid’s Golden Age from Book 1 of the Metamorphoses, and also the Garden of Eden. But not quite. The forest harbours snakes and lions, there’s hardship, there are brambles and cold winds, there’s unrequited love, and the shepherd Corin speaks of masters of “churlish disposition”. And, further, there are question marks about the deposed Duke’s right – effectively – to set up in this forest his own surrogate dukedom.

Looking forward in Shakespeare’s career, there are clear parallels between this play and the much darker later play The Tempest. In both, a rightful duke, deposed by his brother, comes to an untamed land and effectively establishes his second dukedom there. And in both cases, people from his earlier dukedom come into his later one. Prospero’s right to his new dukedom is questioned in The Tempest, and the right of the deposed Duke in As You Like It doesn’t pass with question either, despite the benign and benevolent nature of this second dukedom. And this questioning comes from Jaques, who insists that it is the humans in the forest, including the deposed Duke, who are the usurpers of nature’s realm:

Thus most invectively he pierceth through
The body of the country, city, court,
Yea, and of this our life, swearing that we
Are mere usurpers, tyrants and what’s worse,
To fright the animals and to kill them up
In their assign’d and native dwelling-place.

Even the good-natured Duke loses patience with Jaques, and at one point, has a quite surprising outburst:

For thou thyself hast been a libertine,
As sensual as the brutish sting itself;
And all the embossed sores and headed evils,
That thou with licence of free foot hast caught,
Wouldst thou disgorge into the general world.

Despite these lines, I have never seen Jaques played as a sort of monster with “embossed sores and headed evils”: I’d like to, as that would align him to Caliban (and also, intriguingly, to Thersites in Troilus and Cressida). Tony Tanner, in his Prefaces to Shakespeare, tells us that A. D. Nuttall says “it is not a waste of the imagination to consider Jaques as a Caliban who has been civilised”, although, since this otherwise excellent book lacks a bibliography, he doesn’t tell us where Nuttall says this. (It certainly isn’t in that quite superb volume Shakespeare the Thinker, the only work of Nuttall’s I have read, and I’m not enough of a Shakespeare scholar to know Nuttall’s other books.) But relating Jaques to Caliban strikes me as astute and illuminating, as they are both constant reminders of the deep flaws in our civilised states, and of how ripeness may shade into rottenness without our even noticing.

But neither the brambles and cold winds, nor the masters of churlish disposition, nor even Jaques’ latent Calibanism, can detract from this being the happiest, the sunniest of Shakespeare plays. Despite Jaques’ refusal to be part of the harmony that reigns at the end, the harmony does indeed exist: it is real, as is the reconciliation upon which it is based. A good friend of mine, and a lifelong Shakespeare lover, tells me that he imagines Heaven to be a bit like the Forest of Arden. I think he has hit it. Given our fallen human state, the Forest of Arden is indeed about as close to Heaven as it is possible to imagine. Human differences cannot be wished away, but, who knows, maybe there can be a reconciliation. True, by the time Shakespeare came round to writing The Tempest, even this hope for meaningful reconciliation had been dashed, but here it is still very much alive. I have, I admit, failed in the past to come to terms with this play, but the longer I spend immersed in its world, the more I find myself falling in love with it. At one point, Marlowe’s famous line “Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?” is approvingly quoted. Well, Marlowe was wrong, and Shakespeare was wrong in approving of it: I did not love this play at first sight, but I think I can honestly say that I love it now.

And then, last week, my second stop in my Back to Shakespeare project: Richard II, a play I have long admired, but have always found a bit difficult to love. And the problem, I think, is the central character. The flaw, I hasten to add, is not in the characterisation (which is brilliant), but in the character himself: Richard does not seem to have the stature to be at the centre of so immense a tragic drama. In As You Like It, Jaques had said that all the world is a stage, but he had meant that metaphorically: Richard appears to take it literally. All the world is a stage, and he, the king, is the star player, the actor constantly in the spotlight. Never does any protagonist in any Shakespeare play speak so much, and to so little purpose. Hamlet talks a lot, both to others and to himself, but that’s because he has much to say:  his speech is often very concentrated, because so many ideas are packed into it; and often, his mind moves so quickly from one idea to another, it is difficult keeping up. That is never the case with Richard: his is never an active mind: all too often, especially in the latter part of the play, when he seems content reflecting on what’s happening rather than directing it. Throughout, he has very little dialogue, but a great many speeches. If he is indeed an actor on a stage, he seems to be more of a Chorus than a protagonist.

There are effectively two Richards – one before going off to the wars against the Irish rebels (in what we would nowadays think of as a “colonial war”), and another when he returns. Historically, his Irish war was a success, but Shakespeare keeps quiet about that, presumably because he does not wish to show Richard in too active or too heroic a light. Before he goes, he is corrupt, venal, callous, in every way unfit to be king; and once he returns, and finds his kingdom invaded by the cousin Bolingbroke he had once banished, he is self-dramatising, self-pitying, and still in every way unfit to be king. It is hardly a surprise that he is deposed, but he speaks of deposition even before Bolingbroke has made clear his intention in that respect – even, indeed, as Bolingbroke is showing him the respect due to a reigning monarch. Of course, we may say Bolingbroke is dissembling, and that his intentions are very obvious; we may agree that the deposition is inevitable. But the truth is, I think, that Bolingbroke isn’t yet sure of his own intentions, or even of his own motivations. And there is, one might have thought, scope for resistance on Richard’s part. But Richard doesn’t show any. To begin with, his mood swings wildly from one speech to the next, but with a strange inevitability, he keeps returning to, and after a while settles upon, a melancholy contemplation of his own wretchedness. He moves from playing a reigning king to playing a deposed one. But is there any reality behind all this play-acting?

This, it seems to me, is what’s at the centre of this play. Of course, there are a great many other themes too: it’s a historical play about politics, about the divine right of kings, about loyalty and rebellion, about the conflict between keeping one’s oath (upon which one’s very souls depends) and doing what is right for one’s country. But the focal point of the drama is on the king’s identity. In the earlier acts, he had been King: a bad king, it is true, but King. That was his identity. He was God’s own anointed, God’s own minister, and whatever he did must, by definition, be God’s own wish. But once he is no longer king; even before that – once his status as King is questioned; then what is he? If his very identity is predicated entirely upon the fact of his kingship, then what is his identity once that kingship is no longer there?

Lear, in a later play, found himself facing the same question, but there, even as his own mind was falling apart, he started thinking, or trying to think at least, these question anew. Richard does not have the capacity to do this: all he can do is to pity himself. During the deposition scene in Act 4, Richard, solipsistic as ever, asks for a mirror; and, after examining his face – the face of one who is no longer a king – he dashes the mirror to the ground, shattering it in an overtly theatrical gesture. Bolingbroke, a man of fewer words, has a pointed rejoinder:

The shadow of your sorrow hath destroy’d
The shadow or your face.

The shadow of the face is obviously the reflection of the face, but what is the shadow of the sorrow? Bolingbroke had meant, I think, the dramatisation of the sorrow. As a man of few words but to the purpose, he has little time for his cousin Richard’s endless play-acting. But Richard seizes on this expression, and comes up with a quite different expression. Shadow of his sorrow? Yes, of course, it is! How can it be otherwise? What is inside us cannot find adequate expression in anything we can say or do, and so, whatever we say or do much be a shadow of the substance that is in us.

‘Tis very true, my grief lies all within;
And these external manners of laments
Are merely shadows to the unseen grief
That swells with silence in the tortured soul

Bolingbroke, a pragmatic man living in a pragmatic world, has no time for that which cannot be expressed or perceived. And he may be right. However, it raises for us an important question: if something can neither be expressed nor perceived, how can we know what it is? How can we know if it exists at all? Is there a substance behind the shadow?

I imagine that Shakespeare, as a dramatist, must have pondered this point. In the earlier play Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare had pondered the question of language – the question of whether mastery of language (of which, he must have known, he was extravagantly possessed) depicts reality, or, whether it loses itself in its own virtuosity and becomes merely a game that hides reality from us. Here, Shakespeare ponders the question of shadow and substance: if there exists inside us a substance that cannot be adequately expressed by anything we may say or do, then how can he, a dramatist, depict that substance when what we say or do is all that can be depicted? If all the world’s a stage, it must follow that there can be nothing n that world beyond what can be shown on stage. Richard insists there is more, but is it not possible that his extended self-pity really is all there is? And that beyond it, there is nothing? Right to the end, Richard is haunted by the possibility of his own nothingness:

… and by and by
Think that I am unking’d by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing: but whate’er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing. 

It is a wonderful play, but I doubt it will be too many people’s favourite, as As You Like It certainly is. Despite the various recurrent themes that one may find across the entire range of plays (A. B. Nuttall’s Shakespeare the Thinker is particularly good at teasing these out) these two plays are as different in themes and in treatment as is possible to imagine. It is hard to imagine them proceeding from the same mind. But then again, it was a very strange mind, and there is probably not much point trying to guess what went on inside. Maybe the plays and the poems that overwhelm us so is but the shadow of his genius, and the substance of that genius (should it exist of course) will always remain for us inaccessible.

“When We Dead Awaken” by Henrik Ibsen

*** SPOILER WARNING: The following post inevitably reveals some of the plot details of this play, and so, if such things are important to you (they needn’t be), it is possibly best not to read this post till you’ve read or seen the play for yourself.  

All quoted passages are taken from the translation by Barbara Haveland and Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife, published by Penguin Classics

IRENE: When we dead awaken.
RUBEK [ shakes his head sadly] Yes, and what do we see then?
IRENE: We see that we have never lived.

Ibsen subtitled his play “A Dramatic Epilogue”, but what it is an epilogue to he left unclear. As, indeed, he did so much of the play. It could be an epilogue of the series of plays he wrote after finally returning to Norway in 1891, that is, from The Master Builder onwards. It could be an epilogue to the series of twelve prose plays from The Pillars of Society onwards – the twelve plays that he had himself referred to as a cycle. Or maybe we can cast the net even further back, and include the verse plays Brand and Peer Gynt that he had written in the 1860s.

Neither is it particularly clear what precisely Ibsen had meant by “epilogue”. Did he mean a conclusion to the series? Or did he mean an addition once the series had already been completed – a sort of afterthought?

From The Pillars of Society onwards, Ibsen had published a new play every two years, regular as clockwork (the only exception being An Enemy of the People, which he had written in one year): this last play had taken him three years, and, shortly after completion, he had suffered a severe and debilitating stroke. The internal evidence of the text suggests that what we have is an unfinished play: the last of the three acts is surprisingly short, and while it wraps up the two strands of the plot, this third act, very uncharacteristically for Ibsen, takes us thematically no further than where we had been at the end of the second.  It isn’t hard to infer that Ibsen could sense his health failing, and finished it as best he could.

To my mind, this final play, unfinished as it probably is, is an epilogue in the sense that it is the conclusion of a long series, and, indeed, of a long journey.  If we think of this journey as starting with The Pillars of Society, we may see it as a passage from the hurly-burly of day-to-day life to the mysterious and elusive regions of death. But if we cast our nets back further, and see Brand and Peer Gynt as the starting point of that journey, we may see this epilogue as returning to where he had started: for much of the time here, we are not in the real, material world, but, as in his verse plays, in a world of poetry and of symbols. (Michael Meyer said that, as a translator, he would have preferred this play to have been written in verse, as so much of its content seemed to him to lend itself to poetic metre). And as in Brand, this play too ends with a seemingly divine voice of forgiveness as the protagonist is overwhelmed by an avalanche high in the mountains: it is hard to believe that this striking similarity is merely accidental.

But no matter how we may choose to view this play, it has never found much acclaim. It is rarely revived, and, as late as 1980, Michael Meyer was complaining (in the preface to his translation) that “it has never been adequately staged in London”. It wasn’t much admired at the time either: after publication in 1899, Ibsen’s English translator, William Archer, wrote in a private letter that “it is scabrous to a degree – if it weren’t like deserting the Old Man, ’pon my soul, I’d let someone else translate it”. He also said, again privately, that it seemed like evidence of senility on Ibsen’s part.

The play was, admittedly, admired at the time by Bernard Shaw, who found in it “no decay of Ibsen’s highest qualities” (although it is interesting that he felt compelled specifically to reject that criticism); and also by a young James Joyce, who thought it among Ibsen’s greatest works, “if not, indeed, the greatest”. But generally, it is a play that tends only dutifully to be admitted to the canon, a somewhat disappointing finale to whatever it is that it’s an epilogue to. It is granted almost a grudging acknowledgement as the last work of a great writer, but it seems not to have stirred the imagination as the earlier plays have done. While there is a stream of actors and actresses queuing to play Stockmann and Solness and Borkman, Nora and Rebecca and Hedda, Rubek and Irene remain, in contrast, barely known.

Perhaps it is not too hard to discern why this play is so unloved. There is, about this play, a curious lack of solidity. Even other difficult plays, such as, say, The Master Builder, for all their poetic imagery and the symbolism, are very recognisably set in a real world, and the characters are beset by real worldly concerns. But here, for much of the time, especially in the dialogues between Rubek and Irene, the dialogue is barely intelligible at all in terms of reality. Throughout the series from The Pillars of Society onwards, Ibsen had been moving steadily from a real world to one that was more poetic, more mythic, but reality had never completely disappeared: but here, that is just what it seems to do. In writing about the previous play, John Gabriel Borkman, I had suggested that in the final act, the three protagonists are already dead, and what we see played out on stage is a sort of dream of spirits set in some vague hinterland beyond life. However, it is still possible to see it as real action in a real world. But in this play, even that possibility seems to disappear – and it is perhaps not surprising that the most disappointed reactions to this play tend to come from those who try to see it primarily in realistic terms. We are in a shadowland here: Irene specifically describes herself as dead, and it is not clear that she means it merely as a metaphor; Rubek, too, is most likely dead; indeed, the very title of the play tells us they are dead. There is about the play an ethereal, rarefied, fleshless quality that seems to hold both the audience and the reader at a distance. No wonder Ibsen referred to this play as an “epilogue”: where, after all, was it possible to go beyond this?

The scene locations are always important in Ibsen’s plays. In Hedda Gabler, for instance, it is important that all four of its claustrophobic acts are set in Hedda’s drawing room. But generally, in the later plays of the series, we tend to break out of the bourgeois drawing room. In the three plays previous to this one – The Master Builder, Little Eyolf, John Gabriel Borkman – the action had moved, significantly, from the confines of the drawing room to the open, unconfined spaces outside. In Little Eyolf, there had also been a vertical movement – first, from the drawing room down to the shore of the fjord, and then, for the final act, up high above the fjord, and above the house. This descent, and then the ascent, had reflected the mental states prevalent in each of the three acts. In When We Dead Awaken, all three acts are set outside, and, once again, we have a vertical movement, but this time, we are constantly ascending. In the first act, we are, as the stage directions tell us, “outside a spa hotel”. In the second, we are “at a sanatorium high up in the mountain”. In the third and final act, spa hotel and sanatorium both disappear:

Wild, high mountain ravine with sheer precipices in the background. Snow-capped peaks rise to the right and are lost in the floating mist high above.

We are very far here from the stuffy drawing room bourgeois drama that Ibsen is still associated with. The physical movement of the drama, as implied by the stage directions, takes us away from everyday life into something far more elemental. And one wonders to what extent these stage directions describe not so much what we may see on stage, but, rather, landscapes of the mind. For, as Peter Watts points out in the introduction to his translation (in the older Penguin Classics edition), Ibsen, as a practical man of the theatre, must surely have known it would be impossible to depict on stage a stream upon which characters float leaves or flowers, or children playing in the distance. Neither could he have expected he stage directions at the end of the play to be realised in performance:

The clouds of mist sink more densely over the landscape. Rubek, holding Irene’s hand, climbs up over the snowfield to the right and soon disappears among the lower clouds. Biting stormblasts thrust and howl to the air … Suddenly, a thunderous roar is heard up in the snowfield, which slides and hurtles down at furious speed. Rubek and Irene are indistinctly glimpsed as they are hurled along in the mass of snow, and are buried by it.

Perhaps modern stagecraft can handle all this, but certainly in Ibsen’s own time, it was a tall order. Which seems rather to suggest that Ibsen was not writing with the theatre in mind, but, as with Brand and Peer Gynt, he was intent more upon creating a theatre of the mind – something to be imagined rather than realised in actuality. It’s not that he necessarily intended this to be closet drama: rather, he wanted us to imagine, to play over in our minds, that which could not be realised in reality. And it is much the same with the drama itself: it demands that we imaginatively enter Ibsen’s poetic world. If we insist on tying it down to reality, we are bound to be disappointed.

And yet, the opening scene would not be out of place in any of the earlier realistic plays. The whole thing starts off with a scene that promises a drama rather different from what subsequently unfolds. In the grounds of the spa hotel, sits Rubek, an elderly and distinguished sculptor, and his much younger wife Maja. And, in the course of what is really quite a short and naturalistic dialogue between them, the entire story of the marriage is laid out. One can understand why Shaw, no stranger himself to the art of drama, declared that this play “shews no decay” in Ibsen’s artistry: had Ibsen wanted to write a strictly realistic drama, he was still more than capable of doing so.

And yet, we don’t need to look too far into this apparently realistic dialogue to catch intimations of deeper matters. Almost he first words spoken by Maja are: “Just listen to how silent it is here!” She finds the silence “overwhelming”. Soon, their relationship is laid bare. They have been married for “four or five years” now. He is a distinguished man, honoured and feted – a sculptor, internationally renowned. She, much younger, is, in effect, almost a sort of “trophy wife”. Although there is no acrimony between the two, there is not much evidence of warmth either. They have a villa somewhere in the foothills of the Alps – which Maja insists on referring to as a “house” rather than as a “home”; and whatever it is they had been looking for in the marriage, neither has found it. The history of their marriage is laid out in symbolic terms as they speak in realistic terms of their train journey into Norway, back “home”:

RUBEK: I noticed how silent it became when we stopped at all the little stations – . I heard the silence – just like you, Maja –
MAJA: Hm – yes, just like me.
RUBEK: – and then I realized we’d crossed the border. That we really were home. Because the train would stop and wait at all the little stations, even though there were no passengers.
MAJA: Why did it wait for so long? When there was nothing there?
RUBEK: Don’t know. No passengers left the train, no-one boarded.

Four or five years of marriage, of uneventful monotony, no-one coming or going, and hearing only the overwhelming silence.

Maja is bored. She had not wanted to come “traipsing” up here, she says, and has to be reminded that it was she who had wanted to make this trip. And she has noticed that Rubek is restless, and can no longer settle his mind on his work.

As a sculptor, he had made his name with a piece he called Resurrection Day. On that, he had worked day and night. And it is a masterpiece, he insists, with a vehemence that doesn’t quite suggest confidence:

… because Resurrection Day is a masterpiece! Or was, at first. No, it still is. And it shall, shall, shall be a masterpiece!

It is acclaimed by the whole world, but the “whole world”, Rubek insists, “knows nothing! Understands nothing!” They are but the mob and the masses. Since that work, Rubek has settled for sculpting portrait busts for wealthy clients. But what they do not know is that, despite the strictly realist exteriors, Rubek had, for his own satisfaction, worked in, “under the skin”, features of animals.

The picture that emerges of Rubek is not a very attractive one. He is a man utterly immersed in his own ego, contemptuous of humanity around him, seeing others as mere beasts. And, despite the fame and fortune he has won, he is uncertain of his own worth: both his fame and fortune, after all, derives from the “mob” that he despises – that knows and understands nothing – mere beasts.

When he had married Maja, he had, she reminds him, promised to take her to the top of a mountain, and show her “the glory of the world”. He is now surprised he had said that to her, and confesses, quite unashamedly, that it was merely an old catchphrase of his, one that he had said that before to others: whatever glory of the world he had believed in, it means nothing to him now. Perhaps he had never quite believed it himself.

All this Maja hears, and, so the stage directions tell us, she looks at him bitterly. But she is far from distraught. Rubek’s honesty in admitting all this is brutal; that he can admit this so openly to Maja suggests that, in his all-consuming egotism, he doesn’t really care what she may feel. And she, having lived with him for four or five years, isn’t really surprised. When he asks her teasingly if she is offended, she (“coldly, not looking up”) answers “No, not in the least”. Why should she be?

It is at this point that the drama, somewhat abruptly, moves to a different plane. A new element is introduced almost as if it were a ghost story – and, as we soon find out, it is, in a sense, a ghost story. The previous night, Rubek had seen, or thought he had seen, at a distance, passing through the grounds of the hotel, a pale lady dressed in white, and a small dark figure behind her. The manager of the spa solves this apparition easily: it is one of the guests, accompanied by a “Diakonisse” (which as is explained in the notes of the latest Penguin edition, is “a woman in charge of the social work of a Lutheran parish”). Michael Meyer and Peter Watts refer to her as a “nun” in theor traslations, but this suggests the Catholic rather than a Lutheran church; Barbara Haveland and Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife, translators of the new Penguin edition, refer to her, no doubt more accurately though perhaps a bit more awkwardly, as a Sister of Mercy. As soon as the manager has explained the apparitions, we see them ourselves, walking across the back of the stage, crossing across the park towards the pavilion. Almost immediately, another figure enters, a figure as earthy and as physical as the pale lady had been ghostly – Ulfheim, a somewhat brash and bumptious squire, who is out bear-hunting. His presence injects into the play a rough vitality that had, till now, been missing, and Maja, fascinated by his bear-hunting stories, is instantly attracted. Soon, Rubek is left alone on stage (Maja having most happily left with the bear-hunter Ulfheim), and he is joined by the pale lady in white. The two had recognised each other.

The introduction of Ulfheim so soon after the appearance of the ghostly pale lady brings to the proceedings a somewhat schematic symmetry that warns us not to take what we see too literally: this is not a naturalistic drama. And soon, once Rubek is left on his own, the mysterious lady joins him. They had known each other before. And whatever indication of realism we had been given till now vanishes in the scene that now unfolds.

This scene, which takes up most of the latter part of the first act, is impossible to summarise: in dramatic terms, it couldn’t be more different from the realistic scene we had had seen earlier between Rubek and Maja. This lady’s name is Irene: it was she who had modelled for Rubek’s Resurrection Day, the masterpiece that had made his name, and which, he vehemently insists, is, and must be, a masterpiece. But she states quite explicitly, right at the start of the scene, that she is dead, and I am not sure we shouldn’t take her literally: she may indeed be a ghost. Since she had known Rubek, she says, she had married twice: she had driven her first husband mad, and had murdered the second (“with a fine, sharp dagger I always take to bed with me”). She had had many children, she tells us, but she had murdered them too. She had stood naked on a revolving stage in variety shows, in tableaux vivants; she had been committed to a lunatic asylum, bound in a strait-jacket. And now, she insists, she is dead.

How much of this are we to take literally? Ibsen doesn’t help us. But at this point of the play, after the naturalistic opening scene, we feel the ground very noticeably shifting beneath us, and we aren’t sure quite where we stand. Or, indeed, if we stand at all.

And, as Hilde had done to Solness, and Ella Rentheim to Borkman, Irene accuses Rubek. The love she had offered him then, when she had posed for him and let him gaze upon her naked form, he had never returned. He had never so much as acknowledged that love. He used here merely for what he needed.

RUBEK [defensively]: I never committed any sin against you! Never, Irene!
IRENE: Yes, you did! You sinned against my innermost being!

We may be remined here of Ella Rentheim’s accusing Borkman of the sin for which there is no forgiveness.

In a realistic drama, we would have expected Rubek simply to have dismissed Irene as some sort of madwoman: after all, he was an artist and she a model, and that’s all there is to it. But, for reasons we may only guess at, Rubek doesn’t dismiss her. He, like Solness, is stricken with guilt. We have seen Rubek consumed by his own ego, and locked in a loveless marriage; the humanity around him he holds in contempt – depicting others merely as beasts; in his calling, he had not so much brought stones to life, but had turned the warmth of humanity itself into stone – into something less than human. The charge he now faces, of having rejected a love hat had been offered him, of – as Ella Rentheim had put it in the previous play – killing the love in another being, he cannot now dismiss. None of this may make much sense on a strictly realistic level, but we are in a dream play now.

As the curtain goes down on Act One, we may feel somewhat disoriented: what kind of play is this, really? It seems a play divided: the realism with which it opens doesn’t so much modulate into a dream: rather, the realistic element and the dreamlike element are almost brutally juxtaposed right next to each other.

And the second act doesn’t really clarify matter either. The stage directions tell us that there are children playing in the distance, and throughout this act, we can hear their happy laughter. It seems almost like a vision of a prelapsarian paradise, or maybe the Elysian fields we may go to once we too, like Irene, are dead. We are, admittedly, a bit higher up the mountain, but are we still in the real world? The opening scene of this second act may suggest that we are (as before, the first part of this act is dominated by a realistic scene between Rubek and Maja); but the second part consists of a scene between Rubek and Irene, and here, all semblance to reality seems to vanish. We have to take this as a sort of dream play: it makes little sense to consider it otherwise.

The scene between Rubek and Maja is, however, in a realist mode, and it serves but to confirm the impression we had received of Rubek as a narcissist. He had, as we know, told Maja that he would take her to the top of a mountain and show her “the glory of the world”, but, as he had admitted, without any embarrassment at all, that was just a pat formula he had been in the habit of using: he had not meant it seriously. He had married her, effectively, to be served by her. But Maja is no mere cipher in the play: she refuses the task allotted her:

RUBEK [somewhat uncertain]: What I now feel so vividly – and so painfully – that I need, is to have someone around me who is genuinely close to me –
MAJA [interrupts him tensely]: Aren’t I, Rubek?
RUBEK [dismissively]: Not in that sense. I need to live with another human being who can complement me – complete me – be one with me in everything I do.
MAJA [slowly]: Yes, I wouldn’t be much help to you in those difficult things.
RUBEK: No, you’d make sure you weren’t, Maja.
MAJA [in an outburst]: God knows, I wouldn’t really want to be!

Rubek, self-absorbed, can see Maja only insofar as she serves him, or is capable of serving him, but Maja is having none of that. She can sense that Rubek has more of a relationship with the mysterious pale lady than he does with her, and she doesn’t in the least resent it, any more than Rubek resents Maja being attracted to Ulfheim, the bear-hunter. They are both honest about where they are: it is too late in the day for jealousy.

Rubek is aware of some deficiency in his own self, of some vast, empty chasm. His Resurrection Day sculpture had bought him fame and wealth and public acclaim, but by then, he no longer loved his own work. “Those public homages and those bouquets left me,” he says, “left me nauseated and desperate, and nearly drove me deep into the darkest forests.” But Maja has had some four or five years of hearing Rubek talk about himself: she doesn’t even pretend to be interested.

And then, as in the first act, the very realistic scene between Rubek and Maja is followed b a scene between Rubek and the ghost-like Irene, and, once again, we are in a different world, where the rules of everyday life seem no longer to apply. They speak again, as they must, of the time when Irene had posed for him, and had been his inspiration. That sculpture, Resurrection Day, Irene refers to as their “child”, just as, in Hedda Gabler, Thea had referred to Loevborg’s writing as their “child”. But this child did not turn out as Irene had thought. What she had posed for was a figure of a girl, bright and young and fresh, awakening to a new day, with a “transfiguring joy of light” upon her face: this was the Resurrection Day that she had thought of as her child: it was a sculpture of hope, of idealism. But then, afterwards, Rubek had coldly thanked her, and referred to their entire relationship as an “episode”. Which, in a realistic world, it is, but we aren’t in a realistic world any more, and we are asked to accept that in this dream world, Rubek’s cold indifference to her had sucked out her very soul, and left her spiritually dead.

We cannot be sure what exactly had occurred between the two in the real world. Ibsen is concerned here with poetic imagery, not with the mere mechanics of the plot. But whatever had happened, Irene had offered him love, and life, and he had turned them down. And after she had left, Rubek had turned against the idealism that he had initially depicted: he had enlarged the plinth, and had moved to the background the figure of the young girl  awakening to a new day with the transfigured light of joy on her face; and around this figure, he had placed others – other people, with “animal faces  concealed beneath the skin”. And in the front of what is now a group, he had placed himself, “a guilt-marked man who cannot quite free himself from the earth’s crust”.

It is at this point that Irene draws a knife, and is about to strike – to kill him as she had, so she says, killed her second husband, and all her children. And if that was metaphorical, then, perhaps, this is too: there seems no ground rules whereby we may interpret the dramatic action. But she puts her knife away. Back then, she remembers, Rubek had promised her too that he would take her to the top of a mountain, and show her the glory of the world. Perhaps, back then, before it had become but an empty catchphrase, he really had believed that. But now, Irene reminds him of that old promise, and they decide to do just that. When we dead awaken, Irene says, we shall find we have never lived.

One wonders how Ibsen had intended to write to third act. What we have now is but a few almost perfunctory pages that complete the plot, such as it is.  The second act had ended with Maja, now determined to leave Rubek for Ulfheim, singing like some Ariel of her new-found freedom. But Rubek and Irene, who are now both dead (maybe Irene did kill him after all!), head for the mountain-top, perhaps to Resurrection Day, and perhaps to see the glory of all the world.

Most of the third act, as it currently is, concerns Maja and her new partner Ulfheim. Maja has at last found the freedom she wants, and, in the brief scene between them, she shows herself more than capable of holding her own with her new chosen partner. One suspects that Ibsen had planned after this a long scene between Rubek and Irene, before they head willingly to their deaths – or, perhaps, to their resurrection, since they are already dead. But this scene is now cut to only a few lines. Although they know there is a storm coming, they head upwards, to the mountain top. And as they are inevitably overcome by the avalanche, the Sister of Mercy who had accompanied Irene speaks over their deaths a Latin benediction – “Pax vobiscum” (“peace be upon you”); and meanwhile, in the background, we hear Maja sing her song of freedom.


It is not hard to see why this very strange play has not won the acclaim of Ibsen’s earlier plays. This strange mix of the realism and the dream play, with the abrupt swings between the two modes, gives it, as it were, two dramatic centres of gravity, and the two remain in contention with each other to the very end, as the pax vobiscum blends with Maja’s singing from below. At one level, we are, with Maja and Ulfheim, very much in the land of the living; at the other, we are, even more certainly than in the final act of John Gabriel Borkman, in the company of those who are already dead. And yet, this contention between these two worlds is surely what Ibsen had intended.

More puzzling still is the content. Put simply and crudely, it concerns a man who is, in the eyes of the world, a great success, but who feels an emptiness inside, because, despite having been offered both life and love, he had rejected them; and who is finally persuaded by her whom he had rejected that he is as dead as she is, and that he may only redeem himself by looking towards a resurrection. All this is fine and dandy till we ask ourselves what all this actually means. What would have happened had Rubek not rejected Irene? A life of happy domesticity? Once we dead awaken, we find out that we have never lived; but what does it mean to truly live? For Maja and for Ulfheim, the answer is simple enough: but could such an answer have sufficed for Rubek or for Irene? In The Ambassadors, another late masterpiece by another Henry, and published only some four years after When We Dead Awaken, the middle-aged Strether, approaching old age, tells the young people around him simply “to live”, but he never quite articulates what he means by that – most certainly because he does not know himself. All he knows, and all we can know as we get older, is that there is inside us an emptiness, and a vague sense that there is something we have missed, something we have left undone, and which we cannot rectify even if we had the chance to go back and live our lives all over again, because we wouldn’t even know how to rectify it.

And what is it that Irene and Rubek so joyfully go to at the end? They speak of Resurrection. The entire play speaks of Resurrection, and is awash with religious imagery. And yet, there is no mention of God: the play had begun with an overwhelming silence, and, once the roar of the avalanche has passed, we are left again with that vast silence. Is it really redemption these two head towards? – a redemption that may finally fill that emptiness that we have carried within us? Or is it merely annihilation? The Sister of Mercy pronounces pax on them, but it is unclear whether this is the pax that follows redemption, or merely the pax of nothingness.

Perhaps even more than Rosmersholm or The Master Builder, When We Dead Awaken remains Ibsen’s most difficult and most elusive play. Despite the pax vobiscum of the Sister of Mercy, his “dramatic epilogue” does not end in peace or in harmony: it ends instead with more questions than we could possibly answer – more, perhaps, than we could even articulate.

“John Gabriel Borkman” by Henrik Ibsen

*** SPOILER WARNING: The following post inevitably reveals some of the plot details of this play, and so, if such things are important to you (they needn’t be), it is possibly best not to read this post till you’ve read or seen the play for yourself.  

All quoted passages are taken from the translation by Barbara Haveland and Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife, published by Penguin Classics

I am talking about the crime for which there is no forgiveness.

The set-up is fairly straight-forward. John Gabriel Borkman had once been an important man – a banker. But he had been caught embezzling, and, after three years in custody awaiting trial, had been found guilty, and had served another five years in prison. The action of the play takes place eight years after his release, and those eight years Borkman has spent again imprisoned, this time voluntarily: he has shut himself up in his room upstairs, endlessly pacing up and down, “like a sick wolf” as his wife puts it, never daring even to leave the house, but obsessing over how he will yet achieve the greatness he thinks he had been close to achieving those sixteen years ago.

Under the same roof, though never seeing him, lives his wife, Gunhild. Unlike Borkman, who is a miner’s son, she is from a privileged, land-owning family; and she too, like her husband, is obsessed: she is obsessed with clearing the family name, and restoring the family honour; and she is determined that it is their son, Erhart, now a young man in his early twenties, who will achieve this. It is he who will eventually redeem them by paying back all the creditors, and thus laying the matter to rest for ever. Not that she cares for the creditors: as with her husband, but for different reasons, those who have lost their livelihoods all those years ago barely enter her mind at all: what matters to her is her family name, and, more importantly (though she doesn’t openly acknowledge this), the hurt she has received from her husband.

The hurt is not merely to her family pride: it is to her personal pride also. She had loved her husband, but that love had not been returned: John Gabriel Borkman’s mind had been elsewhere. It had been obsessed, then, as now, with power – the power that, in the secular world in which they live, can come only with industry and with commerce. It is for the sake of this power that Borkman had renounced love: he had, as a young man, loved Ella, Gunhild’s twin sister, but had married Gunhild instead, for no other reason than better to pursue his dream of power. Yet, some compunction had prevented his using Ella’s money in his fraudulent schemes: she had survived the financial turmoil that Borkman’s embezzlement had occasioned, and it is her house, unaffected by the financial collapse of Borkman’s bank, in which the Borkmans now live – under the same roof, but never setting eyes on each other, year after year.

And it was Ella who, when the scandal had broken, had looked after her nephew Erhart. And now, she knows she is dying, and she wants her nephew, whom she regards as her own son, to carry on her name. But his biological mother, endlessly brooding on her hurts, and fixated on the idea of the next generation making restitution for the sins of the past, cannot allow this. So now, the twin sisters fight each other over the son, just as they had once fought over the father.

All this brings in various familiar themes – corruption in public life and betrayal in the private, the relationships between the generations, the imposition of duty upon the spontaneous joy of life, the dreams and illusions that sustain us, the renunciation of love for power, and so on. And all this promises a realistic, drawing room bourgeois drama – admittedly a turbulent one, but, nonetheless, of the kind that Ibsen is still, rather unfairly, associated with.

But this is not the play Ibsen gives us. Not by a long shot.

But what he gives us isn’t easy to describe, as not only is it unlike any other play I know of, it is also, despite certain recurrent themes, unlike any of Ibsen’s other plays either. Over these twelve plays beginning with The Pillars of Community, Ibsen had been moving way from what may be termed “realism” – that is, depictions of characters of the kind we may expect to encounter in real life, thinking and behaving in a manner that does not stretch credulity in everyday settings. In this play, he seems to take such a drastic step further away from realism, that one wonders whether, despite the realistic trappings, we should be considering it in such terms at all. The three principal characters – Gunhild, Ella, and John Gabriel – seem poised in some mysterious region between life and death: Ella knows she is dying, and, at the end, John Gabriel actually does die, but, whether they know it or not, there is no future for any of them, and the hopes they harbour about the future are, of necessity, delusional.

And these characters are much simpler, too – just as the characters in the late Shakespeare plays are simpler than their predecessors: Leontes is not as complex a character as Othello, nor Iachimo as complex as Iago, nor Miranda as complex as Ophelia; similarly, John Gabriel is not as complex as Master Builder Solness, nor Gunhild as complex as Hedda Gabler. What you see on the surface is more or less what there is: this is not a play that looks into the depths of the characters, primarily because those depths don’t really exist.

Also noticeably absent is imagery. No place here for anything like the phantom white horses of Rosmersholm, the towers of The Master Builder, or those water lilies in Little Eyolf that germinate in the depths, and then shoot suddenly to the surface. The room in which the play opens is hot and stuffy, and there is a blizzard blowing outside, and these, I suppose, could be seen as symbols, but they are quite straight-forward, and lack the resonance to be the stuff of dramatic poetry. The hot room and the snowstorm outside are introduced not to communicate those obscure matters that cannot be communicated by other means, but merely as representations of two different states of mind. Here, the characters speak directly: what they say is precisely what they mean, and we do not need to look for symbols in their words.

The handling of time is also different. Typically, an Ibsen play gives us selected scenes, as it were, with a gap of time between successive scenes (the number of these scenes determined by the number of acts in the play). Here, although there are four acts, there is no temporal gap between them – so that Act Two begins at the very point where Act One ended, Act Three at the precise point where Act Two ended, and so on. The action of the play takes up exactly the same two hours or so it takes us to watch it. This pushes the very idea of time itself into the foreground, and injects into the play a tremendous urgency: time is running out fast for all three of these characters, and, at  the edge of the grave, perhaps already in some mysterious region between life and death, there is no scope, no time, for indirectness: these characters say what they feel, what they think, without any periphrasis, any subterfuge, and with a directness that is almost brutal.

Passions are high, right from the start. The stage directions accompanying the various speeches, especially those of Gunhild, leave us in no doubt: “animated”, “tense”, “with mounting excitement”, “flares up”, and so on. Of course, acting styles have changed since then, and modern audiences probably prefer understatement, but however the actors convey this, there is clearly much passion here, and it’s not hidden.

These three characters meet for the first time after sixteen years. Gunhild and John Gabriel live in the same house, but she sits downstairs, brooding, while he paces up and down upstairs, similarly brooding (though on different matters), and never daring to leave the house. Gunhild says that sometimes she hears him come down to the hall, put on his hat and coat, but take them off and go back upstairs again. They have never spoken to each other for sixteen years – not since his embezzlement had been discovered and he was taken into custody.

Into this environment comes Gunhild’s twin sister, Ella Rentheim. Although she owns the house in which Gunhild and John Gabriel live, she herself does not live there. We discover over the course of the play why she has decided after all this time to meet her sister again: she knows she is dying, and, terrified of leaving nothing behind her, wishes her nephew to take her name. The other two, however, don’t know they’re dying: they are too wrapped in their own obsessions, and both are obsessively planning for a future that doesn’t exist.

But Ella Rentheim is right to be terrified. The death these characters face is cold and blank: there is nothing beyond it. Despite the various religious references throughout the play – not least the middle name of the titular character, that seems to speak of a power and a glory that isn’t really visible – there is no mention, nor even a hint, of a divinity. These characters may all long for something that is greater than themselves – Gunhild for her lost reputation and her pride in her self, Ella for something of her own that she may leave behind, John Gabriel for a power and a glory that was nearly his – but in each case, what they long for is of this world,  a worldfrom which they are already in the process of departing. Any hope for a future is illusory: all they have to fall back on is the past.

And they all speak of that past openly, frankly, almost as if past caring what hurt they cause in speaking of it. Neither Gunhild nor John Gabriel care about those who have lost their livelihoods. In the first act, when we hear (but don’t see) John Gabriel pacing up and down his room upstairs, “like a sick wolf”, Gunhild and Ella don’t spare each other in their recollections of the past. And in the second act, when Ella goes up to see John Gabriel, he too speaks coldly about the past, in particular about why he had sacrificed Ella whom he, as a young man, had once loved: he had his own dreams, dreams of earthly power and earthly glory, and, to achieve this, he had needed the goodwill of the lawyer Hinkel, who had also loved Ella. And so, he sacrificed his own love: he had married Ella’s sister, and had left Ella for Hinkel. And he can say all this coldly to Ella now, without the slightest pang of remorse:

ELLA RENTHEIM: But you did have what was most precious on board. Your future life –

BORKMAN: Life isn’t always what is most precious.

Borkman had been aspiring to something that was, for him, more precious even than life itself. Traditionally, that takes us into the realms of religion, but the world presented here is godless. But how can one find something even more precious than life itself in a godless world? And what does one sacrifice to achieve this? John Gabriel Borkman had sacrificed Ella, without a thought, and now, years later, He can tell her this without any remorse. Ella’s response is deeply religious:

ELLA RENTHEIM:  … at the time, I didn’t know about your great, horrific crime.

BORKMAN: What crime? What are you talking about?

ELLA RENTHEIM: I’m talking about the crime for which there is no forgiveness.

Ella goes on to explain what she means by this:

You have killed the vital capacity for love in me.

 The word used in the original, the notes of my Penguin edition tell me, is “kærlighedslivet”, a compound word joining together the words meaning “love” and “life”. Michael Meyer (Methuen) translates that line simply as “You have killed love in me”. I’d guess the Penguin translation by Haveland and Stanton-Ife possibly gets closer to what Ibsen had intended, but it is at the expense of succinctness. The meaning, I think, is fairly clear: there is no symbol or poetic imagery here to decipher. John Gabriel Borkman has destroyed in Ella the ability to love; he has compelled her to live a loveless life; and for that crime, there is no forgiveness.

The reference here is to a somewhat enigmatic verse in the Bible:

Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men; but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men.

– Gospel According to Matthew 12:31

Even a charge such as this, made so directly, appears to make no impact at all upon John Gabriel. He is in grip of something that is, to him, even more powerful.

When we first see him, at the start of Act Two, a young local girl, Frida, is playing the piano to him – the Danse Macabre by Saint-Saëns. The exchange that follows – more monologue than exchange, really, since Frida does not really understand what he says, and nor does it matter to him whether she does or not – is, to put it mildly, strange:

BORKMAN: Can you guess where I hear notes like this, Miss Foldal?

FRIDA [ looks up at him]: No, Mr Borkman?

BORKMAN: It was down in the mines.

FRIDA [ does not understand]: Really? In the mines?

BORKMAN: I’m a miner’s son, as you probably know. Or perhaps you didn’t?

FRIDA: No, Mr Borkman.

BORKMAN: A miner’s son. And my father sometimes took me down the mines with him – . Down where the metal ore sings.

FRIDA: Oh, does it – sing?

BORKMAN [nods]: As it’s being loosened. The hammer strokes that loosen it are the chimes of midnight; they strike, and set it free. That’s why the ore sings – it sings with joy – in its own way.

FRIDA: why does it do that, Mr Borkman?

BORKMAN: It wants to come up to the light of day, and serve people.

Borkman’s vision of the ores under the ground longing to come up to “serve people” seems almost religious in its fervour, and, in the absence of a God, somewhat demented. But, given that absence, what can that religious fervour be directed towards? Borkman speaks of “serving the people”, and yet he never once shows any feeling or understanding of people, of their needs or their desires. The people he himself has ruined with his embezzlement he is happy to dismiss as insignificant. There is a fervour there all right, but directed towards what? The play doesn’t answer this, but it’s hard to resist the obvious answer that it is power. This is the dream that animates Borkman – the power and the glory, associated with Gabriel, but of distinctly an earthly, workmanlike variety. This is what he had sacrificed Ella to, and what he later cold-bloodedly tells Ella is more precious than life itself.

This renunciation of love for power, and this desire to master the elements of the earth with the aim of obtaining this power, bring to mind what many may regard as the single most powerful work of art of the 19th century – Wagner’s mighty Ring Cycle.  Ibsen was in nearby Munich when these operas were first performed in Bayreuth, but, despite being urged by his compatriot Edvard Grieg, he did not go to see them: he was not particularly musical, and the thought of sitting so many hours through these works put him off. No doubt he would have heard about the Ring, but it seems to me unlikely that this would have had any significant influence on him: we shouldn’t, after all, be surprised when major artists living in the same era hit upon similar themes. It is more fruitful, I think, to look for connections in Ibsen’s own earlier work.

As a young man of twenty-three, Ibsen had written a poem on precisely this theme:

Deep in the mountain’s desolate night
The rich treasure beckons me.
Diamonds and precious stones
Among the red branches of gold.

And in the darkness there is peace.
Peace and rest for eternity.
Heavy hammer, break me the way
To the heart-chamber of what lies hidden there…

[From the translation by Michael Meyer]

In The Pillars of Society, written some twenty years earlier, and the first in the series of twelve plays of what may be termed a cycle, Bernick too had dreamed of mastering the elements of the earth:

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.

[Translated by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik]

And Bernick too had considered himself above the law to achieve his ends. But he lacked the quasi-mystical fervour of Borkman.

More recently, there was Master Builder Solness, who had also come from humble origins and had worked his way up, and who had also ruthlessly used those around him to gain his worldly success. He is in many ways a close match to Borkman. He too speaks of serving people (or, at least, of building houses “for people to live in”) but shows little concern for people in any other aspect of his life. Both Solness and Borkman have a self-regard that is at times blasphemous: both say of themselves, as the voice of God had said to Moses out of the burning bush, “I am what I am”.

But of course, this man who “is what he is” is also a man afraid to leave his own house. The dreams and visions that sustain him are merely rather pathetic comfort blankets. He is flattered in this by Frida’s father, a rather pathetic little man, Villem Foldal. Foldal too has his life-sustaining illusion: he is, both at home and outside, a downtrodden little man, but he had written once a tragic drama, and he is convinced that, one day, the greatness of this drama will be recognised. He had been one of those insignificant little men who had been ruined by Borkman’s fraud, but he comes to Borkman regularly, both to assure and to be assured: he assures Borkman that his dream of once again attaining power isn’t really dead; and Borkman, in turn, keeps alive Foldal’s own dream of some day being recognised as a poet. A comic pair, perhaps more suited for a play by Molière than one of Ibsen’s darkest tragedies. But their mutually supporting relationship cannot last: Foldal is injudicious enough to bring up the rather unpleasant truth that Borkman cannot have access to the financial world again given his conviction, and Borkman, stung by the ray of reality breaking in upon him, bluntly tells Foldal that he is no poet. After all, how can someone who does not recognise the poetic beauty of Borkman’s dreams be a poet? And this Molièresque scene of comedy ends, as Molière’ own scenes often do, on a surprisingly poignant note. But despite the break, both Foldal and Borkman cling on to their respective illusions.

There is one further element to the play: youth – those characters who, unlike the principal characters of this drama, do have a future. There Frida, the 15 year-old who comes over to play the piano for John Gabriel; there’s Fanny Wilton, a beautiful young lady (in her early 30s, we are told) who presents herself as widowed, but who is most likely divorced (divorce carried a huge social stigma in those days); and, of course, there’s Erhart himself, from whom so much is expected. Once again, compared to characters in Ibsen’s earlier works, these are simple characters: there is not much more to them than what one sees on the surface. What unites them – at least, the two older ones – is simply a desire, as Erhart puts it, to “live, live, live”. And there are no metaphysical complexities involved in what they mean by this: they mean the pleasure of the moment.

Fanny Wilton is an outgoing and assertive personality: it was her former husband, and not herself, who had been unfaithful, and in those days, it must have required a quite uncommonly self-assertive character in a woman to seek divorce and to accept the social stigma that went with it. It is she who decides to travel south, towards the sun (and there is an obvious symbolism here in the comparison between the sun she goes to, and the snowstorm she leaves behind). She takes with her the others of this league of youth – Erhart and Frida, in the sleigh-carriage with its tinkling bells.

The image of Youth simply walking away from the failures and unhealthy obsessions of their elders is an attractive one, but it’s not quite so straight-forward as it may seem. Fanny Wilton’s unashamed explanation for taking the 15-year-old Frida with them can, even now, or, perhaps, especially now, seem rather shocking:

Men are so fickle, Mrs Borkman. Women too. When Erhart has finished with me – and I with him – it would be good for both of us if, poor thing, he has someone to fall back on.

There is nothing moral about the rebellion of Youth. The duties and the responsibilities the older generation expect from Erhart are almost casually discarded, and the rebellion is not intellectual or philosophical in any sense. Erhart and Fanny Wilton are not even going off together because they love each other: they are going away with each other for no other reason than that they want sex – sex in the southern sun. It really is that simple.

But the departure of Youth for the southern sun is not where the play ends. We have one further act, in which are left behind not merely the dying, but, one suspects, those who are already dead. And the blizzard that has been raging outside till now comes now to the forefront: we now leave that over-heated house, and find ourselves right in the cold blankness of the snow. If we had suspected that the previous three acts weren’t quite taking place in the real world, we can have no doubts about it now. We are now in an imaginary world, a visionary world, not perhaps quite in the realms of death, but not quite in the land of the living either.

And the three protagonists in this drama go into death without any new understanding of themselves, without any conciliation with the past. Borkman finally leaves his house, and he and Ella, though as yet unreconciled, and the crime for which there is no forgiveness still unforgiven, tramp off together into the snow. But first, we are reminded of another corpse left behind: Villem Foldal, the downtrodden man who thinks himself a poet.

And in a sense, though not in the sense he had thought, he is a poet. He has been knocked down by a sleigh, has lost his spectacles, and has hurt his foot: he is more absurd and insignificant and downtrodden than ever. But when he hears that this carriage that has knocked him down had in it his own daughter, who is heading for the sun, far from being anguished, he is overjoyed. One cannot help feeling that this strange joy is the only pure ray of sunlight in the entire play: he is happy – happy that his daughter may find something of a joy that it has never been his privilege to have had. And this holy simpleton leaves the stage in a state of happiness that we fear none of the other characters in the play have ever known, or ever will know.

Certainly not the three remaining corpses. The one hope that Gunhild had nursed for some sixteen years now is shattered: her son Erhart was never the person to carry on his shoulders that great burden she had wanted to place on them, and she is in despair. Ella too now realises that, with Erhart’s departure, there will be nothing left of her; and she accepts this final defeat with grace. But as for Borkman, defeat is something he cannot even contemplate: this time, he finally plucks up the courage to come outside his house, though as deeply immersed as ever in his illusions.

Borkman and Ella together walk up through the snow, to a bench over a view of the world below: this was a place they used to come to in their younger days, but where we might expect this circumstance to awaken in Borkman’s mind the more tender feelings he once had for Ella, we see him enmired still in his dream of power. Dead men cannot develop, after all, and Borkman is already dead. And he intones what is in effect a hymn to the power and the glory he had dreamed of:

BORKMAN: Ella, can you see the mountain ranges there – far away? One behind the other. They rise. They tower up! There lies my vast, infinite, inexhaustible kingdom!

ELLA: Oh, but there’s an icy blast coming from that kingdom, John!

BORKMAN: That blast is like the breath of life to me. That blast comes over me like a greeting from my spirit subjects. I sense them, the trapped millions; I feel the veins of metal ore stretching out their arms to me, branching, beckoning, coaxing. That night when I stood in the bank vault holding the lantern in my hand, I saw them before me like shadows come to life. You all wanted to be liberated then. And I tried to do it. But I lacked the power. The treasure sank back into the depths. [with outstretched hands] But I will whisper to this in the still of the night: I love you, as you lie there in the deep of the darkness with the look of death! I love you, life-craving riches – I love you, and all your blazing retinue of power and glory! I love, love, love you!

It is in this state of religious ecstasy that Borkman dies. He gives his life to that which, to him, is more precious than life itself. At the very end, he feels a cold hand grasp his heart. Not a hand of ice, but a hand of iron. He sacrifices himself to the gods whom he had loved. And at the end, the two women, the twin sisters, themselves dead, hold hands over the dead man.


The late plays of Ibsen are notoriously obscure, and it is hard to know just how to interpret this. Given Borkman’s transcendent longing for power, he has been linked, naturally enough, to Nietzsche, and this play has been seen both as a Nietzschean play, and also as a play critical of Nietzschean ideas. I don’t know that either will do: these plays weren’t written, after all, to demonstrate any specific or even any general point. Rather, I see it as a bleak and ferocious and unforgiving winter landscape, a depiction – as Ibsen himself put it – of “the coldness of the heart”. It is a world balanced between life and death: often, especially in the final act, we feel as if we are already in the icy realms of Death, an icy and unforgiving region into which we carry, unrepentant, all the coldness and delusions that have lived with, all our crimes unatoned. And, especially, that crime for which there is no forgiveness, which, as Ibsen interprets it, is the murder of love within our beings.

Perhaps only a Holy Fool like Villem Foldal may escape.

What Shakespeare may (perhaps) have thought about

“Never trust the teller, trust the tale,” D. H. Lawrence famously said, adding, rather interestingly, that it was the critic’s job “to rescue the tale from the teller”. Given how far just about every major writer falls short of their creation – some, admittedly, more than others – I have always found this a useful thing to bear in mind: it’s the work we have to deal with, not the author, and if what we know of the author’s personal defects and shortcomings gets in the way of our appreciation of the work, it is indeed the critic’s job to focus the reader’s attention on what really matters.

But it is no more than natural curiosity to want to know something, at least, of the person who could create those works that we admire so much, and, when it comes to Shakespeare, we are for ever at a dead end. We have a few scraps of facts about his life, but nothing, really, that tells us what kind of person he was. And while part of me thinks that just as well, there’s another part that can’t help questioning what exactly was going on in that strange mind of his. And all we are reduced to on this point is, I think, conjecture.

Not that this has stopped people from making claims on this matter. I don’t think there’s a single religious or political or social orthodoxy, or, for that matter, heresy, that has not claimed Shakespeare as a fellow-traveller. Even leaving aside partisan accounts of Shakespeare’s ideologies (assuming he had any), there seems no shortage either of commentators who seem also to know for sure what Shakespeare had intended for his plays, as far as performance is concerned. He had, apparently, intended his plays to be seen and not read: that mantra is repeated with such tiresome frequency that I have now given up arguing against it: it is, in practice, simply an excuse not to read the plays. He had also, apparently, intended his texts to be no more than blueprints for performance, and had fully intended them to be adapted with more or less complete freedom. And if this means the kind of adaptation we seem to be witnessing all too frequently these days, with those long boring speeches cut out and long boring scenes cut and spliced together so as to accommodate audiences who find that sort of thing tedious, then, yes, Shakespeare had intended that also. The question “How do we know?” never seems to arise. We may, I suppose, point to historical evidence that suggests that adaptations, sometimes even radical adaptations, were common practice in the Elizabethan and Jacobean playhouses, but I doubt even that takes us too far: for how can we tell whether Shakespeare had approved of such practice? If, as is generally agreed, Shakespeare had an extraordinary mind, is it not one of the attributes of extraordinary minds that they could look beyond the mores of their own time?

That is not to say that we slavishly follow the texts: we couldn’t even if we wanted to, as the existing texts, where they exist in more than one version, often vary quite considerably, and are, further, bedevilled with printing errors: all of this has kept armies of scholars busy for a few centuries now. Of course the texts are to be adapted for performance; but if certain kinds of adaptation turn what is a miracle of the human imagination into something that, frankly, isn’t, then the question “why bother?” most certainly comes to mind. Shakespeare may indeed, for all I know, have approved of such adaptations; but, then again, he may not. As ever, we can never know what was going on in his mind. We have to examine the texts ourselves, and use our own judgement. And, comparing the texts I read to some of the adaptations I have seen, I can’t help wondering what judgement would step from this to this.

But none of this answers the question that continues to press upon us: what did Shakespeare actually think about? While awareness of the cultural and political background of Shakespeare’s times certainly helps, we must, I think, rely primarily on the internal evidence of the plays themselves. In short, those dreaded texts. But here too we have problems: rather inconveniently, he was a dramatist, and spoke through different people, and we have no idea whether he used any of his characters as mouthpieces for his own views. There are the sonnets, of course, with which, Wordsworth claimed, Shakespeare unlocked his heart. Perhaps. But, given the endless interpretations and speculations regarding these sonnets, they seem to complicate rather than clarify matters. I personally tend to see most of the sonnets as, as it were, dramatic monologues, spoken by specific characters who may or may not be the poet himself, and the whole sequence, rather than a set of personal confessions, as more an extended and varied meditation on love, sex, and death. Such a way of looking at these sonnets may or may not have been what Shakespeare had intended, but, as ever, we can never know. The texts are there, and we interpret them as best we can; as to what they tell us about Shakespeare as a person – well, who knows?

There are, however, some points where Shakespeare clearly speaks as a poet. We know, for instance, that Shakespeare may well have felt constrained by censorship (“And art made tongue-tied by authority”, from Sonnet 66). And also that Shakespeare knew well just how good he was. For instance:

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme…

(Opening lines of Sonnet 55)

That Shakespeare knew well the value of his writing does, incidentally, make it all the more unlikely that, as is sometimes contended, he wouldn’t have cared too much about how his works were adapted. But leaving that aside, these little glimpses tell us little of what kind of person he was, of what he actually thought. And this, I don’t think we can ever know. However, in observing the themes and motifs that recur in his work, we can, I think, reasonably infer at least some of the matters that preoccupied his mind.

He seemed, for some reason, to be taken with the idea of a guiltless woman falsely accused of infidelity. This occurs most spectacularly in Othello, of course, but it had also occurred earlier in Much Ado About Nothing, where it had drawn what had appeared till then to be a sunlit and happy play into a more tragic direction. It had appeared again in two of his very late plays, Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale. And it had appeared in a comic key in The Merry Wives of Windsor. That Shakespeare kept coming back to this does indicate that it was a matter of some importance to him, but when we wonder why, we, as ever, draw a blank.

Another of his favourite themes was that of brotherly hate – of brother overthrowing brother to take, or usurp, his place. We see this in Richard III, As You Like It, Hamlet, King Lear. But once again, when we ask ourselves why Shakespeare kept returning this matter, we run up into that brick wall: we simply don’t know, and there’s little point trying to conjecture.

There is a third recurring theme that I can spot, and here, enquiry is, perhaps, a bit more fruitful, and that is the theme of reconciliation, both in terms of people thought lost now restored, and, also, in terms of the healing of past breaches. One of his earliest plays, The Comedy of Errors, ends with people reconciled who had long been thought dead. Of course, reconciliation is the traditional end for a comedy, but Shakespeare, it seems to me, went much further than merely the demands of the comic form; in particular, even while depicting reconciliation, he depicted also its impossibility. What sort of reconciliation can there be when there are those who will not, cannot, be reconciled? Or when the breaches of the past are so vast that they cannot be healed? Shakespeare seemed to consider this matter so seriously that he would unbalance the harmony of comedy rather than be untruthful: the fall of Shylock in the fourth act of The Merchant of Venice is so seismic, that all else seems, to me at least, to become unsettled. For Shylock cannot be reconciled: the breaches made are too wide to be smoothed over, now or ever.

In his next comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare kept his villain, Don John, a relatively minor figure, and had him conveniently removed from the dramatic action before the end, so that his downfall is, in dramatic terms at least, off-stage, and not something that interferes greatly with the general reconciliation at the end. But this reconciliation remains problematic for different reasons. Can reconciliation really be complete given what has happened? Given how Claudio has behaved, even while under a misapprehension? Shakespeare parked this particular question for the while, but was to return to it again in The Winter’s Tale. In As You Like It, Jaques, the man who cannot be reconciled, withdraws voluntarily from the reconciliatory celebrations, thus avoiding the question; but there’s no evading the issue in Twelfth Night: Malvolio is urged to forget all that has happened, and when he refuses, Olivia sends after him to ask him to return; but the very fact that the characters on stage can’t see why a man who has been sexually humiliated in public cannot return tells us all we need to know about why the reconciliation is impossible. These characters on stage may be able to forget about Malvolio in time, but we, the audience, cannot.

This discrepancy between, on the one hand, our profound desire for reconciliation, and, on the other, the impossibility of achieving it, seems to be present just about everywhere one looks in Shakespeare. Prince Hal is reconciled with his father, but that reconciliation necessitates a breach with Hal’s other father, Falstaff: the drama ends not with reconciliation, but with the cruellest of rejections. Prince Hal’s more neurotic Danish cousin, Hamlet, is not reconciled to his father, much though he longs to be: his father had died while he had been at university in Wittenberg, and when he meets his father’s ghost, there seems to be no expression of love or of tenderness on either side. Hamlet is tormented with questioning that the meeting with his father’s spirit does nothing to allay, but he must learn to live with those questions unanswered. Even at the end, there is no answer to these questions, no resolution: once life has ebbed away, the rest is mere silence.

Othello does not even look for reconciliation by the end. Though Desdemona has miraculously forgiven him, seemingly even from beyond death, Othello cannot believe there can be any reconciliation given what he has done. His despair is not merely for this world:

… when we shall meet at compt,
This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven,
And fiends will snatch at it.

And even the reconciliation between Lear and Cordelia, ineffably moving though it is, is not beyond questioning. Lear imagines spending the rest of his life happily in prison with Cordelia: this may be fine for him, but hardly the life that Cordelia, for all her forgiving nature, may want for himself. And as Lear ecstatically describes the joy of spending the rest of their lives together in prison, Cordelia remains tantalisingly silent. But even Lear’s vision of happiness in a prison does not come to fruition. Lear dies knowing that Cordelia is gone, and will never come again – “never, never, never, never, never”: no reconciliation then, either in this world, or in the next.

This theme of reconciliation unmistakably comes up to the surface in the three plays often regarded (quite reasonably, I think) as Shakespeare’s last dramatic testament – Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest. Cymbeline is essentially a fairy-tale, and the ending, appropriately, is a fairy-tale like ending, with the good people united and happy, and the malefactors punished (and since these malefactors are mere fairy tale villains, their punishments don’t really cast any significant shadow over the happiness of others, as the fate of Shylock had done in the earlier play). But matters are considerably more complicated in the next two plays.

In the final scene of The WInter’s Tale, miraculous in all respects, we are given what is, essentially, a vision of the Resurrection itself. As with the reconciliation scene between brother and sister towards the end of Twelfth Night, time itself seem to stand still as those who had been thought dead are restored once again to life. I find it hard, even when reading it at home, not to feel here a sense of solemn awe. And yes, there is, indeed, forgiveness, as the play that had contained so much turbulence comes to a glowing and serene end. But what sort of reconciliation is this? It is very subdued. This is not the occasion for torchlit processions of triumph through the streets. Mamilius remains dead; the years of separation and of grieving cannot be called back; all losses aren’t restored, and neither do sorrows end. But this is the best we may hope for, even with the promised Resurrection: the breaches in nature we have made in the course of our lives cannot entirely be healed.

And in The Tempest, there is no reconciliation. Prospero “forgives” only in the sense that he decides not to punish: he has clearly not, nor cannot, forgive the man “whom to call brother would even infect my mouth”. And neither is there contrition on the other side: the evil has not been defeated, and nor can it be – it continues to exist, maybe to erupt again some later day. If this is the resolution of the tempest that had raged in Prospero’s mind, then the resolution is bleak. And if this is indeed, as is often claimed, Shakespeare’s final message for posterity, I can see nothing in that message in which we can take any kind of comfort.

So what kind of man was he? What did he think about? I’m not sure any of us is sufficiently qualified to answer such questions, not even the greatest of Shakespearean scholars. Even when we think we are familiar with his work, we find ourselves, on re-reading, taken quite unexpectedly into quite unfamiliar areas. At least, I do: I freely confess that I can’t keep pace with the workings of this man’s mind. But I do think that he pondered long and hard on the question of reconciliation, on whether the brokenness of life can ever be put right, either in this world or in the next. And, if his last plays are anything to go by, I don’t think he was too optimistic on that score. There is no assurance.

Or maybe there is, and we remain most ignorant of what we’re most assured. But if there is, such assurance is beyond even Shakespeare’s vision.

“Little Eyolf” by Henrik Ibsen

*** SPOILER WARNING: The following post inevitably reveals some of the plot details of this play, and so, if such things are important to you (they needn’t be), it is possibly best not to read this post till you’ve read or seen the play for yourself.  

All quoted passages are taken from the translation by Barbara Haveland and Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife, published by Penguin Classics


In 1958, the London premiere of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof coincided with a revival of Ibsen’s 1894 play Little Eyolf, and critics were quick in comparing the two, much to the disadvantage of Williams’ play. In New Statesman, T. C.  Worsley wrote about Little Eyolf:

Its subject is a marriage and it takes that marriage apart as frankly and twice as truthfully as, say, Tennessee Williams … and it is (written though it was in 1894) just as modern if not more so …

John Barber in Daily Express thought it made Tennessee Williams “look like pap for infants”, while Alan Brien in The Spectator wrote “[Little Eyolf] wipes the smile off your face and puts the fear of God into your heart before you can say Tennessee Williams”.

All this is undoubtedly most unfair on Tennessee Williams – who, after all, did not set out to compete with Ibsen in the first place – but I think I can understand the critics’ reactions. Tennessee Williams, after all, had the reputation of being shocking, of pushing the envelope of what could be expressed on stage; while Ibsen’s image (one which still,  I think, persists) was that of a staid and stolid bourgeois dramatist, writing rather stuffy plays set in middle class drawing rooms. (Brecht had, rather condescendingly, said of Ibsen’s plays  that they were good for his times, and for his class.) And yet here was an Ibsen play – and not even one of his better-known ones – that shocks more deeply than what was reckoned at the time to be cutting edge drama, and which, as Alan Brien put it, “puts the fear of God into your heart”.

I can certainly vouch for the effect it has in performance. I have been to two productions, both performed (as it ideally should be, I think) in a small, intimate space; and both times, even though I knew the content, I was left shaken. My wife said to me on coming out of the first of these performances that she needed a stiff drink: I have never heard her say this before or since. She declined the suggestion that she accompany me to another performance of this play, so emotionally harrowing and draining did she find it, and it was only my own obsession with Ibsen, coupled, I guess, with a strong streak of masochism, that persuaded me to repeat the experience. And I remember taking the train back home afterwards, and thinking: “Did Ibsen really expect people to pay to spend an evening having their souls harrowed in this manner?” But I suppose that, by this stage of his artistic career, Ibsen was writing primarily for himself, and using drama, that most public of literary art forms, to express his most private of thoughts. This is not to say that he was writing autobiography: but it is to say, I think, that he was not prepared to compromise, to sweeten the pill, or to any way dilute the strength of his moral and artistic vision. Little Eyolf is a short play – much shorter than works such as, say, A Doll’s House or An Enemy of the People: but, remarkable though those earlier works were, Ibsen had now developed ways of saying much more with much less: the unyielding and almost ruthless concentration of Little Eyolf is in itself terrifying.

The play actually opens in middle class surroundings – “an elegant, lavishly appointed conservatory”, says the stage direction – with a view of the fjord through the French  windows. In the second act, we are outside, in the open air, by the shores of the fjord, and the dialogue seems to return almost obsessively to the depths of the waters, in which the child Eyolf had drowned, and from which the powerful undercurrents had carried his body out into the open sea. In the third and final act, we climb upwards: we are once again in the open air, and we look down upon the fjord below. This movement from indoors to the open air, and the vertical journeying – first downwards towards the depths, and then upwards towards the peaks – reflect the emotional temperature of the various parts of the play. The bourgeois certainties that seem implied by the “elegant, lavishly appointed conservatory” seem blown away by the end of Act 1, and in the middle act, we are forced to look into the darkest depths of the human soul. But towards the end of this act, an unforgettable image develops – of water-lilies that shoot up from the unfathomed depths of the waters and bloom suddenly and unexpectedly upon the surface. This image refers to all sorts of things. It refers to thoughts and perceptions hidden deep within our unconscious, that suddenly, and without warning, manifest themselves; and it also refers, I think, to the possibility of our rising from the depths. It is this possibility – possibility, nothing more – that the play settles upon in the beautiful but deeply uncertain final act, set high above the fjord. This final act is difficult to bring off, and many have found it disappointing. Viewed superficially, it may even seem that Ibsen is copping out – that, having presented us with the profound agony of the soul, he is merely suggesting a simplistic way out for these characters. Rita Allmers speaks of running an orphanage for homeless children, and her husband, Alfred, asks to join her. It may seem facile, perhaps even sentimental. But it is dangerous to look at anything in this play merely on the surface. When, after the first performance of the play, someone had said to Ibsen that they couldn’t imagine Rita running an orphanage, Ibsen had seemed surprised, and had asked: “Do you really think she would?” Ibsen was not depicting moral redemption in the final act; but he was depicting, I think, the possibility of these people, who, for all their flaws, are not evil, recognising the emptiness within themselves, and, at least, searching for something with which to fill that emptiness. Rita says this quite explicitly:

You’ve created an empty space inside me. And this I have to try to fill with something. Something resembling love of a sort.

Something resembling love of a sort. This is one of the most haunting lines that Ibsen ever wrote. Here are people, aware of the emptiness inside them, and knowing that, to continue to live as humans, they need to fill that emptiness with human love; but also knowing that this is precisely what they cannot do. So they try to fill that space with something – something resembling love. The means to climb higher isn’t there – not yet, anyway – but the aspirations are, and that is what matters. Brecht’s play The Life of Galileo had ended with the magnificent line “We are only at the beginning!” And at the end of Little Eyolf, that is precisely where we are: only at the beginning. As with Raskolnikov at the end of Crime and Punishment, or Levin at the end of Anna Karenina, Rita and Alfred have a long and uncertain journey still to undertake.

This final scene is difficult to bring off in performance, but I know from having experienced it that it can be done, and that when it is, the effect is unlike anything I think I have experienced in the theatre. It doesn’t wipe out the terror and the pity we had experienced earlier: one still leaves the theatre somewhat traumatised. But one does not leave in utter despair either.

But, to get to this point, where Rita and Alfred come to an understanding of the emptiness of their souls, and to an understanding of their need to fill that emptiness at least with “something resembling love”, we, like the characters, have to make a long journey. And it is this journey that forms the action of the play.

It all starts innocuously enough, in a wealthy middle class household. At the start, we see Rita, seemingly delighted that her husband Alfred had arrived home unexpectedly early the previous night from some trip he had undertaken. We see also Asta, Alfred’s half-sister: she and Rita appear to be on good terms. The only fly in the ointment appears to be Rita’s and Alfred’s ten-year son, Eyolf, who, disabled, can only hobble on his crutch. But otherwise, we appear to see a close-knit, loving family.

Eyolf, naturally, would like to be able to play with the other children, but, because of his disability, he cannot. Little Eyolf wants to be a soldier, but the other boys tell him this is impossible. “How this gnaws at my heart,” says Alfred softly to Rita. This “gnawing” becomes a sort of leitmotif in the rest of the play: we hear it often. And, soon after it is first mentioned, we have the emergence of the mysterious “Rat Maid”, a woman who rids houses of rats.  “Would your lordships have anything a-gnawing here in the house?” she asks.

The appearance of the Rat Maid at just this point, repeating the image of “gnawing”, warns us that we are not inhabiting the very strictly realist world Ibsen had presented in the earlier plays of this cycle. In a sense, all plays involve the use of co-incidence: for a satisfying arc of action to play itself out in some two hours on the stage, the various incidents that define the arc, the various comings and goings, have to be carefully co-ordinated, creating co-incidences that novelists writing in the same realist tradition would normally try to avoid. The skill of the dramatist often lies in camouflaging these co-incidences, so the audience doesn’t notice the breaches in the naturalistic surface. But Ibsen, in his late plays, seemed to go out of his way to point them out. So in The Master Builder, say, immediately after Solness had spoken about the younger generation toppling the older, and of how youth will come “knocking at the door”, we hear Hilde’s knocks. Dr Herdal even points this out. Similarly here. Soon after Eyolf hears about the Rat Maid from his aunt Asta, and finds herself fascinated by her;and soon after Alfred speaks of his son’s disability “gnawing” at his heart; the Rat Maid appears in person, and asks if there is anything “a-gnawing” in the house. We do not need to examine the text closely to pick up the reference.

The consequence of pointing out rather than trying to hide the breaches in surface realism is to move the play away from a strictly realist plane, and to focus our minds on matters more abstruse. The Rat Maid has come to rid the house of that which is gnawing: she may mean rats, but we know what is gnawing at Alfred’s heart. The Rat Maid  then proceeds to explain how she gets rid of the gnawing rats: she  walks around the house tree times, and then plays the Jew’s harp; and  when the rats hear her, they come out of the cellars, and they follow her. And she leads them to the water, sets sail in her boat, and the rats, following her, drown.

THE RAT MAID: … All those creeping, crawling creatures they follow us and follow us, out into the waters of the deep. Aye because they must, you see.

EYOLF Why must they?

THE RAT MAID: Simply because they don’t want to. Because they’re so mortal afraid of the water – so they must go out into it.

EYOLF: Do they drown then?

THE RAT MAID: Every last one.

We seem very far now from the bourgeois drawing-room realism that the opening of this play may have suggested.  The Rat Wife seems (like the Button Moulder in Peer Gynt) to be a figure out of folklore. Parallels with the Pied Piper of Hamelin seem, and are no doubt intended to seem, obvious. First, the Pied Piper had rid the town of rats; and then, he had rid the town of children. That which gnaws at the heart will soon be got rid of, rats or chikdren: they’ll go because they don’t want to.

So it comes as little surprise when, by the end of this first act, Eyolf really is drowned in the fjord: the Rat Maid had played her Jew’s harp, and Eyolf had followed, presumably because he didn’t want to. And, being disabled, he could not swim. He was doomed by his disability.

But before this happens, Ibsen, perhaps rather unexpectedly given the almost dreamlike scene with  the Rat Maid that had preceded it, plunges us into a scene between Alfred and Rita – a scene of the most utmost and violent passion. Alfred, we learn, had returned the previous night from a trek across the mountains, and he had had some sort of experience there – the true nature of which he does not spell out. But he has returned from the trip with a new resolution. Till now, he had devoted himself to what he felt would be his life’s work – a philosophical treatise, “On Human Responsibility”. But now, he feels, he knows what his own true responsibility is: not his writing, but his son, Eyolf. From now on, he will devote his time, his entire life, to the welfare of his poor, crippled boy.

But Alfred had not thought about Rita. Indeed, despite having been married for so many years, he barely knows her. But Rita knows herself – perhaps too well:

ALFRED [softly, eyeing her steadily]: Many’s the  time when I’m almost afraid of  you, Rita.

RITA [ darkly]: I’m often afraid of myself. Which is exactly why you mustn’t rouse the wickedness in me.

And then, in a scene of quite shocking frankness, it all comes out: Rita cannot keep it in. She desires Alfred – physically. And he is unable to return her passion. The previous night, when he had returned unexpectedly, she had brought out the champagne: but he had not drunk from it. It hardly needs spelling out further. Alfred has either become sexually uninterested in her, or has become impotent: either way, he is unable to respond to her still flaming sexual desire.

RITA: … And there was champagne on the table.

ALFRED: I didn’t drink any.

RITA [eyeing him bitterly]: No, that’s true. [Laughing shrilly] “You had champagne, but you touched it not,” as the poet says.

Rita says openly she wants Alfred for herself, and is not prepared to share him with anyone. She sees Asta, Alfred’s half-sister, as coming between them. And she sees her own child, Eyolf, also as a barrier.

RITA: Oh, you have no idea of all that could rise up in me, if –

ALFRED: If – ?

RITA: If I felt that you no longer cared about me. No longer loved me as you used to.

ALFRED: Oh, but Rita, my dearest – the process of human change over the years – this is bound to take place in our life too. As it does in everyone else’s.

RITA: Not in me! And I won’t hear of any change in you either. I wouldn’t be able to bear it, Alfred. I want to keep you all to myself.

And those who she feels comes between them, with whom she feels she must share her husband, are Asta, and her own son Eyolf.

Alfred is shocked – even more so, when, soon afterwards, Rita refers to “a child’s evil eye”. And it is at this point the tragedy happens – the tragedy that had been so clearly foreshadowed earlier. Ibsen, highlighting the mechanics of the drama rather than attempting to camouflage them, ends the act with a hubbub from the fjord: a boy has drowned. And yes, we know who boy is: Eyolf had slipped out unnoticed, and that which had gnawed at the heart has been taken away by the Rat Maid. Little Eyolf is dead.

The middle act of Little Eyolf is possibly the darkest, most harrowing thing Ibsen ever wrote. We are at the bank of the fjord. Alfred and Rita haven’t spoken to each other since their child’s death, and Alfred is sitting on his own, staring out at the sea, but he knows his son’s body does not lie in the depths: there is a powerful undertow, a hidden current, that has carried Little Eyolf away. Alfred tries to make sense of what has happened, but cannot find any pattern to anything: it all seems to him entirely random, utterly pointless: reason has no part to lay, for there is no reason to anything. It just happens.

Asta appears, and they find themselves reminiscing about their past together. After their father had died, they had lived together, half-brother and half-sister. It had been a hand-to-mouth existence, but it seems, in retrospect, like some prelapsarian paradise: they had been happy. They remember how Asta used to dress up in men’s clothes, and how she used to call herself Eyolf. It is clear how fond they had been of each other, and how fond they remain; it is equally clear that their feelings  for each other had been more than merely that of brother and sister – indeed, in that detail of Asta dressing up as a man, there are more than hints of a certain homo-eroticism. But their relationship, as siblings, had been chaste. And for this reason, they can look back on it as, essentially, innocent.

But suddenly, Alfred pulls up short: while they had been reminiscing, he had forgotten about Little Eyolf.

ALFRED: Here I was living in memories, and he wasn’t part of them.

ASTA: Oh yes, Alfred, Little Eyolf was there behind it all.

ALFRED: He wasn’t. He slipped out of my mind. Out of my thoughts.

Alfred is horrified at himself: how could something such as this, even momentarily, slip out of his mind? And neither is this the first time this has happened. He admits to Asta that as he had been sitting there, staring out at the fjord, he had found himself wondering what they would be having for dinner that night. Alfred vaguely senses that he may not truly have loved his son, and the very possibility horrifies him.

The main section of this act is taken up with Alfred and Rita. They had been avoiding each other, but there’s no avoiding anything now. They must face the truth – about each other, about themselves. Rita tells Alfred how, when Eyolf had first fallen into the clear water, the other boys playing there had seen him lie at the bottom, his eyes open, and Alfred responds

ALFRED [rising slowly, and regarding her with quiet menace]: Were they evil, those eyes, Rita?

RITA [blanching]: Evil – !

ALFRED [going right up to her]: Were they evil eyes, staring upwards? From down there in the depths?

RITA [backing away]: Alfred – !

ALFRED [following her]: Answer me that! Were they evil child’s eyes?

RITA [ screaming] Alfred! Alfred!

Rita seems to crumble under the weight of Alfred’s accusation. She has no answer to this: her grief is compounded by her guilt. Alfred remarks bitterly that it is now as she had wished – that little Eyolf will no longer come between them. But Rita knows better: “From now on more than ever, maybe.”

But Alfred is hardly innocent himself. Rita accuses him of never really having loved Eyolf either. He used to spend all his time writing his book on “human responsibility”, of all things, and had no time for his son. He protests that he gave the book up for little Eyolf’s sake, but she knows her husband well:

RITA: Not out of love for him.

ALFRED: Why then, do you think?

RITA: Because you were consumed by self-doubt. Because you had begun to wonder whether you had any great vocation to live for in the world.

Alfred finds he cannot deny this. It is true, and Rita had noticed. But Alfred has one further accusation to fling at Rita: Eyolf’s disability,  the reason Eyolf couldn’t save himself when he had fallen into the water, was Rita’s fault. When he had been a baby, they had left him sleeping soundly on the table, lying snugly among the pillows.

ALFRED: … But then you came, you, you – and lured me to you.

RITA [eyeing him defiantly]: Oh why don’t you just say you forgot the baby and everything else?

ALFRED [with suppressed fury]: Yes, that’s true. [More softly] I forgot the baby – in your arms!

RITA [shocked] Alfred! Alfred – that’s despicable of you!

Alfred accepts his part in his guilt too. So there may have been a pattern to it after all, he reflects grimly: Eyolf’s death may have been “retribution”. But this is merely posturing. As the scene progresses, and the two torture each other and themselves, and they strip away from each other all the lies they had surrounded themselves with, until they face their naked unadorned souls. They had, neither of them, truly loved Eyolf: he had been a stranger to them both. Alfred asks Rita if she could leave behind all that is earthly, if she could make the leap to that other world and be united with Eyolf again, would she do so? After hesitating a while, she finds that she has no option now but to be honest with herself: no, she would not. Alfred too has to be honest with himself: he would not either. They are both creatures of this earth – this world, not any other world.

And Alfred has one final terrible truth he has to acknowledge. He had married Rita not for love of her, for security – security for himself, and, more importantly, security for his beloved Asta. It is for her sake that he had married Rita, and had come into possession of her “green and gold forests”. Between him and Rita, there had been sexual attraction, yes, but not love, not really love.

Throughout this remarkable scene, Ibsen weaves various motifs and images, that all appear to mean far, far more than what they ostensibly signify: the powerful undercurrent that sweeps all away; the open eyes of the drowning child; the floating crutch; the insistent and implacable “gnawing” at their hearts; the green and gold forests; and, finally, the beautiful and mysterious image of the lilies that shoot up from  the dark and mysterious depths of the water and bloom upon the surface. For all the harrowing nature of the content, this act is also very deeply poetic, and, in a certain sense, beautiful.

There is one further revelation before the act ends. This is something Asta had been trying to tell Alfred before, but couldn’t. However, when Alfred, convinced that he and Rita could no longer carry on living with each other, proposes to Asta that the two of them depart and live together as they used to, she has to tell him: they cannot live together as they used to: Asta has recently discovered that her birth was the consequence of an affair her mother had had, and that, hence, there is no blood tie between her and Alfred. Their past days of seeming innocence had not really been so innocent after all, and those days can no longer be recaptured.

Having reached the very bottom, there is nowhere further  for Alfred and Rita to go. The last act remains for many problematic, but I find myself agreeing with translator and biographer Michael Meyer that, in this act, Ibsen achieved precisely what he had wanted.

Alfred and Rita, now frightened of being left alone together, beg Asta to stay, but she too is frightened. She had previously rejected the proposal of Borghejm, a gentle and pleasant man who is clearly besotted with her. Borghejm is an engineer, a road-builder, and, for him, life is simple: when you have obstacles in road building, you get rid of the obstacles. It’s straightforward. And so in life. Not for him the tortured doubts and mental lacerations. Now, faced with the possibility of staying on with Alfred and Rita, Asta changes her mind about Borghejm, and accepts his proposal. And she leaves behind Alfred and Rita, alone with each other, and both aware of their incapacity to love, and of the essential emptiness within themselves; and aware also of the need to fill that emptiness with something.


I find Little Eyolf the most terrible, and yet, in some ways, the most beautiful and poetic of Ibsen’s plays. He examines once again human lives lived on lies, on self-deceptions; he examines once again the cold emptiness within us – those “ice-churches”, as he had characterised it in Brand. He takes us through the most harrowing and traumatic of journeys. When Alfred Allmers had been trekking through the mountains, he had strayed from the path, and had become lost in the wilderness. Death, he says later, seemed to him, as it were, to be a travelling companion. He had, eventually, found the path again, but his brush with death had compelled him to re-examine himself: he would now discard his precious writing, and spend all his time with Little Eyolf. But this too was yet another lie, yet another self-deception: after Little Eyolf’s death he is forced to admit that he had been motivated not by love for the child, as he had tried to persuade himself, but by doubts about his own ability. But now, with no more illusions, he has to try to understand what his experience in the mountains had really meant. And he sees within himself the same emptiness that Rita sees within herself: in this, at least, the two are united. And he, too, sees the need, as Rita puts it, of filling that emptiness with something resembling love.

“Macbeth” in performance

Macbeth seems to me particularly difficult to bring off in performance. At least, I have never seen a version on stage that I have found satisfactory – even productions featuring renowned Shakespeareans in the principal roles have disappointed. Of course, I haven’t seen them all, and I am sure there have been many fine productions that I have missed, but limiting myself (as I must) to what I have seen, far from being overwhelmed, as I should be on seeing a great Shakespeare tragedy, I have all too frequently found myself barely whelmed at all. The film versions I have seen haven’t frankly been much better; and the BBC Shakespeare version (from the early 1980s), despite starring eminent actors Nicol Williamson and Jane Lapotaire in the principal roles, was distinctly disappointing.

I have often wondered why this is. After all, it is dramatically very compact (it’s one of Sheakespeare’s shortest plays), and is crammed full of murders and battles and witches and ghosts and all the rest of it. Part of it, I think, is to do with the pacing. The tension builds powerfully and unremittingly over the first two acts, but after that, although we get a series of extremely memorable scenes (the banquet scene, the sleepwalking scene, etc.), the tension can sag quite alarmingly in the scenes in between. (This is particularly true of the long scene in Act 4 set in England.) Of course, Shakespeare was, certainly by this stage of his career, a master of pacing, and the rather awkward pacing of this play rather inclines me to think that what we have is an edited version of a text that had initially been longer. Be that as it may, it does present some problems in performance.

Another problem, I think, lies in the dramatic content being too exciting. This may seem a rather perverse thing to say, but the “greatness” of any drama we think of as “great” (whatever we may mean by that) lies not so much in the plot – i.e. the sequence of events – but in matters that go deeper; but, with this play, the plot itself is so very exciting on the surface, it becomes difficult for a production to peer beneath that surface: all too often, we find ourselves horrified by what the Macbeths do to others, whereas the heart of the tragedy lies, I think, in what they do to themselves. And if a production fails to bring to the fore this particular horror, this terrible damnation of their souls that they inflict upon themselves, then, no matter how exciting the plot may be, I don’t know that the production can count as a total success. But piercing through the excitement of the plot to see the dark horror at the heart of things is not an easy thing to do. And this, I think, is why so many productions of this play have left me unmoved: the horror of what we see on the surface seems all too often to obscure the even greater horror beneath.

Of course, I am sure there have been many very fine productions of Macbeth: it’s just that stagings of this particular play have disappointed me more often than that of any other major work by Shakespeare. It may, of course, be that I have been unlucky in the productions I have seen. But there is one production I have seen (sadly, not on stage) that seems to be one of the finest of any production I have seen, of any play. And this is the 1978 Royal Shakespeare Company production, directed by Trevor Nunn, and featuring Ian MacKellen and Judi Dench in the principal roles. Fortunately, we have a record of this: the production was filmed for television, and broadcast in 1979. And it is available nowadays on DVD. I saw it again a few days ago: and yes, it was every bit as powerful as I had remembered. Suddenly, all the reservations I have had about the pacing of this play seemed to vanish.


Ian MacKellen and Judi Dench as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth

And this was done not through butchering the text: apart from the scene involving Hecate (which is almost certainly a later addition, and not written by Shakespeare), the text presented, a few minor cuts apart, was virtually complete. Even the scene featuring the witches speaking to each other about the latest spells they have cast – a scene all too often excised these days, as modern audiences aren’t taken in by all that superstition – was retained. But what impressed was the way the entire play was conceived.

Although it features battles, witches, murder, a state banquet, and all the rest of it, it eschews spectacle completely. It is staged throughout in a profound darkness, from which the characters emerge at times into a murky kind of light, and into which, their parts done, they vanish again. The lighting is extraordinary. I can but guess at what the effect must have been like live in performance, but, watching it on my television screen, it seemed like a production designed specifically with the screen in mind, rather than a straight filming of a stage production.

Most of the shots are in close-up: some in extreme close-up. The characters, brightly spotlit against a blanket of the dark, are all we can see on screen. Props are kept to a minimum: even in the banquet scene, they appear to be sitting on crates. All this creates a tremendous sense of claustrophobia. (The production was staged in a small theatre, rather in in the main RSC theatre in Stratford, thus ensuring the audience was close to the actors.) After a while, it starts to feel genuinely oppressive, as, indeed, it should.


Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth

None of this would have mattered, of course, if the cast weren’t up to it, but there’s no danger of that. The supporting cast (featuring two actors who were themselves notable Macbeths later in their careers – Bob Peck and Greg Hicks) is uniformly excellent; but in this play, it is the two principals who dominate. And here, Ian MacKellen and Judi Dench give performances that, even on repeated viewings, freeze the soul with terror. We see the most terrible things on stage, of course: at one point, a child is murdered before our very eyes. But at the heart of the tragedy is what these two people do to themselves. In the great banquet scene, Ian MacKellen presents Macbeth as a man who is already mentally unhinged: the sight of him literally foaming at the mouth in sheer terror is not something I’ll forget in a hurry. And in the sleepwalking scene, Judi Dench presents a Lady Macbeth who, while still on this bank and shoal of time, is already a damned soul suffering the torments of Hell. And we can’t but ask ourselves “What have these people done to their immortal souls?”

Ian Mckellen - Macbeth

Ian Mackellen as Macbeth

I saw this production again last weekend, and it remains a nerve-racking experience. Somehow, not even the most frightening of horror films can quite match the intensity of horror projected here.

“Upon such sacrifices…”

The final scene of King Lear starts with Lear and Cordelia, defeated in battle, brought in as prisoners. Cordelia asks whether she can see her sisters, whose wickedness has brought her and her father so low. Lear’s response to this is extraordinary:

No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.

Magnificent though this is, I am not quite sure how I should take it. It is certainly all too easy simply to revel in the beauty of Shakespeare’s blank verse, in that verbal music he produces that is simultaneously both exquisite and sublime. And certainly, if Shakespeare has chosen – as he obviously has here – to burst into such splendour at this point, then clearly he intended dramatic significance of this splendour to register with the audience. And yet, this dramatic significance is troubling. Does Lear really imagine that he and his daughter could live out the rest of their lives happily in prison? Even if that were possible, would it be desirable? For Lear, possibly: he is an old man, has suffered unimaginable agonies, and would like nothing better than to withdraw from life; but it is hardly desirable for someone like Cordelia, who is still young. And indeed, Shakespeare soon confirms that the heaven Lear imagines for himself and his daughter is illusory: far from living happily in prison with Cordelia for the rest of his life, Lear enters towards the end of this same scene in the utmost despair, with Cordelia dead in his arms.

But if Lear’s glorious lyrical outburst here is simply the deluded imaginings of a man who has lost whatever grasp he had once had of reality, why does Shakespeare make the passage so ethereally beautiful? Is it merely to accentuate the horror when these illusions cruelly shattered? That is certainly one way of looking at it, but that has never seemed very satisfactory to me. The presentation of something so beautiful merely to highlight its pointlessness seems to me a sort of gloating cynicism, a scoffing nastiness, that are quite at odds with the very rich and complex emotions I experience when I see or read this play.

Certainly, immediately after Lear delivers this speech, Edmund brings us down to earth with a very curt “take them away” (these three words completing the line that, in terms of metre, Lear had left unfinished). But then, Lear comes out with the most extraordinary lines of all:

Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The gods themselves throw incense.

It is a remarkable idea. In a play that has shown us the extremes of human brutality, Lear now suggests that the gods themselves praise and worship certain aspects of humanity. The implication of this is that humans can rise to a level even higher than that of the gods; and further, that the gods themselves acknowledge this.

Now, if we consider these lines in their specific dramatic context, they are meaningless. It is not possible, even if it were desirable, to detach oneself from life in the manner Lear envisages, to wear out one’s years in a wall’d prison while packs and sects of great ones ebb and flow by the moon. But the very striking nature of these lines seems to me to demand that we also consider them beyond their immediate dramatic context. If regarded solely in the immediate context, the “sacrifices” Lear refers to relates to withdrawing from life; but if we try to see it in a wider context, if we try to see what these sacrifices may be that even the gods themselves acknowledge and worship, we may glimpse, at least, something that may, in some way, mitigate the horror – the horror both of what had happened before, and the horror of what is yet to come. This is not to say that it is wrong to see King Lear as, essentially, a nihilist work; but it is to say, I think, that, despite appearances, there may just be a possibility of redemption.

And if there is such a possibility, it comes not from the gods, but from humanity itself. Lear, earlier in his speech, speaks of being like “God’s spies”. (The play is set in pagan times, but, unless the existing texts are corrupt at this point, it is certainly God rather than the gods Lear refers to here.) There seem to me at least two ways of interpreting this. One is that we must set ourselves the task of spying on God – the implication here being that God is not trustworthy. The other one is that we should spy on God’s behalf, and the implication here is that God himself does not know all that is happening in his creation. Either way, the picture is presented of a God whose capabilities are limited – who is either not wholly good, or not wholly powerful. But when humanity itself can offer up such sacrifices, then the gods themselves (Shakespeare has, rather curiously, switched back to the pagan “gods” now) feel it worthy of worship.

But what are “such sacrifices”? It is clearly not a withdrawal from life that Lear speaks of. But one needn’t look too far. This play depicts, certainly, the most bestial atrocities of which humans are capable; but, in Edgar, in Kent, in Cordelia, and even in Gloucester, it depicts also a human goodness that is equally extraordinary. Are these the sacrifices upon which the gods themselves throw incense? Perhaps. If the gods exist at all, that is. But sadly, we have no assurance of that. This is a play that suggests everything, even redemption; but ultimately, it confirms nothing.

Rosmersholm, after Ibsen

The production of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, currently playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London’s West End, has received almost universal acclaim, and deservedly so. It is, indeed, a splendid evening’s theatre. The production is of a very high standard, with very striking sets and lighting; the acting, from all concerned (Hayley Atwell,  Tom Burke, Giles Terera, Lucy Briers), is of the highest level; it is superbly directed by Ian Rickson; and the play, intelligently adapted by Duncan Macmillan, makes s huge dramatic impact. At a time when so much of mainstream West End theatre is intent merely on putting on light-hearted fare that makes little if any demands of its audiences, it is indeed a pleasure to see something that sets out deliberately to challenge. And yet, for all its undoubted merits, I found myself coming out of the theatre at the end feeling somewhat uneasy. And this unease was more than the unease one invariably feels when coming into contact with a demanding work of art. For, although it was advertised as a play “by Ibsen”, albeit in an “adaptation”, I couldn’t help wondering how much of what I had seen was actually Ibsen’s play. For the script had been extensively re-written.

I am, of course, aware of the various arguments for doing so. Neither am I such a purist as to demand a slavishly literal approach: any performance is, after all, an interpretation, and a work as complex as Rosmersholm allows for a wide range of legitimate interpretation. But to be a legitimate interpretation of Ibsen’s play, it must surely interpret Ibsen’s text; and if the text is so radically altered as it is here, then, no matter how fine the results, one wonders whether it can still be described as Ibsen’s play without violating the Trades Description Act.

Oh, the outline was the same. We had a whole household of servants who weren’t mentioned in Ibsen’s text, but they weren’t given any lines here, and it is quite believable that a house as large as Rosmersholm would have so many people working there. The other characters are more or less as depicted by Ibsen. The structure of Ibsen’s play is faithfully maintained, with the same entrances and exits, the same scenes, the same incidents. If one were to summarise what happens in Ibsen’s play and what happens in the adaptation, there is unlikely to be any but the most insignificant difference between the two summaries. The problem is that in a play such as this,  the interest lies not in what happens, as such: it lies in why it happens; it lies is what is going on in the characters’ minds; it lies in the various themes and issues – moral, philosophical, psychological – that come to the fore as the action, such as it is, unfolds. The adaptation by Duncan Macmillan, is, I agree, fascinating in its own right: indeed, it is enthralling, and fully engages with the audience at a level that is nowadays sadly rare in West End theatres. But is this Ibsen’s play?

When I tried some months ago to write about this play, I described it as work in which the politics, though present, were essentially “noises off”: the focus, I felt, was on the interior workings of the mind. In this adaptation, the politics is brought very much to the foreground, and much that Ibsen had merely implied or adumbrated is stated explicitly. Thus, Kroll is made to outline the nature of his conservatism, and delivers a Burkean speech about tradition as an important force keeping society together; and Rosmer, later, is given a speech expressing anger at the social and economic inequalities. Neither is in Ibsen’s text. Rosmer goes further: at one point, he gathers his domestic staff together, and, expressing his guilt for having been “master” of people who should be free, tells them all to go. I’m afraid I did not recognise Ibsen’s John Rosmer here: this was more akin to Tolstoy’s Nekhlyudov. Towards the end of this adaptation, Rosmer tells Rebecca in despair “I want my God back!” This is certainly a striking line, and undoubtedly theatrical, but once again, this is not Ibsen. Yes, Rosmer, both in Ibsen’s play and here, has lost his faith; but in Ibsen’s play, it is a question of interpretation to what extent, if any, he longs for the faith he has lost. I don’t really see what – apart from a moment of theatricality – is gained by explicitly interpreting it in this manner, and, further, by stating this interpretation so unambiguously. This is a play where ambiguity is, after all, important, because the various themes of this play are, by their very nature, ambiguous. Does Rosmer regret his loss of faith? If so, is he sufficiently self-aware to realise this? And even if these  two questions can be answered in the affirmative, is Rosmer the kind of person who would state this so explicitly? The Rosmer in Ibsen’s play doesn’t. The Rosmer here does, and, hence, becomes a somewhat different character from the one Ibsen had depicted.

If anyone hasn’t seen this production, please don’t let me put you off. As I said, it is an enthralling evening’s theatre. But I suppose that Ibsen as an author has come to mean so much to me personally, I feel, in a strange way, protective of him. I certainly do not object to Ibsen being interpreted in ways I disagree with. I don’t even mind Ibsen’s plays being adapted, as it is done here. But I do find myself demurring when a play advertised as being “by Ibsen” when, frankly, it isn’t. This is not Rosmersholm, by Ibsen; this is Rosmersholm, after Ibsen.





“The Master Builder”: a postscript

My last post was a long one, and given I have already spent over four and a half thousand words on it, I really shouldn’t need to add a postscript. But on reading my post over again, there seems to me that something important is missing. At no point do I address the question “What do I, personally, think the play The Master Builder is about?”

The standard answers come easily. It is about a very great number of things, not all of which can  be articulated; to state directly what “it is about” is necessarily reductive, because if “what it is about” can be directly stated,  Ibsen wouldn’t have employed such intricate indirections; to insist on one single interpretation is to deny a host of others; that even one’s personal perspective on a work so profound and so complex as this changes over time, often from reading to reading; and so on, and so forth. All of which is true, but since I do not aim to give an objective overview of any work I discuss here on this blog, I really should be obliged to offer at least my own subjective perspectives. Not insist upon them, but merely to offer them, such as they are.

In an article on this play that appeared some nine or so years ago (and which I had not seen till only a few days ago), distinguished Ibsen scholar Toril Moi (whose book Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism I most warmly recommend) speaks of Hilde being fascinated by and longing for sex, and yet, at the same time, being afraid of it. She compares Hilde to Hedda Gabler, who used to listen fascinated to Loevborg’s accounts of his various debaucheries, but who threatened him with a gun when he had made an advance on her. (I must admit this is not a parallel that had occurred to me.) And in Solness, Toril Moi sees a man who, underneath all the various complexities – the various neuroses, the various pieces of myth-making about himself – is afraid simply of death.

Moi has interesting things to say also about Aline Solness, who, far from being a desiccated old woman in her sixties, is someone who had borne children only thirteen years earlier, and is most likely in her mid-to-late thirties. It is surely her relative youth that makes her living death so much more terrible.

For me, the marriage of Aline and Halvard is among the greatest mismatches in drama. Aline’s greatest sorrow is not the loss of her children, traumatic though that had been: it is the loss of her childhood, the violent break from the only world in which she had been happy; it is her dislocation into a world that feels forever alien. She has nothing of her husband’s energy and vigour, her husband’s zest for life and longing for joy: if Halvard feels chained to a corpse in being tied  to a woman who is incapable of moving on from her emotional attachment to a vanished past, she, on her part, cannot live in a present that has nothing to offer her but regretful memories of what has been forcibly wrenched from her.

Hilde, on the other hand, wishes to escape her past, but where she is to escape to is not certain. She describes her home as a cage, and herself as a wild bird; and when she is asked if she may wish to return to her childhood home – that one thing that Aline Solness desires more than anything else – Hilde replies that wild birds do not fly back into their cages. When she had been about twelve or thirteen – when, like  Juliet in Shakespeare’s play, she had been in the early stage of her journey from girlhood to womanhood, and was becoming aware of her sexuality – she had seen the vigorous and charismatic Solness, then, perhaps, in his early forties, climb up to the top of the tower; and she had found it thrilling beyond anything she had ever experienced, or had experienced since. From then on, her family home had been merely a cage from which she had to escape. So deep is her longing to escape the domesticities of home, that at times she becomes almost masochistic – as at that rather shocking moment when she speaks of the ancient Vikings, and of her excitement not at the thought of carrying away others (as Vikings used to do), but of being carried away.

And there’s Solness himself, of course. Yes, he is afraid of death. But I think he is afraid of something even more than that: he is afraid of nothingness. He is afraid of the possibility that nothing really matters. To me, the crux of the whole play, the climactic point of the drama, occurs during Solness’ final duologue with Hilde in the third act: he tells her of his defiance of God – even though he cannot bring himself even to speak God’s name; he tells her that from moment on, he had determined to build no more churches for God, but houses – houses for people to live in. From that moment, his world was to be people-centred rather than God-centred: he would embrace what we would nowadays describe as “humanism”. But it was no good: he has found no fulfilment in this either. All he has found was nothingness. And it is this nothingness he fears, more than anything else.

That first time he had climbed up the tower despite his fear of heights, he had done so to express his defiance of God whom he had believed in. Now, he climbs the tower again, but this time, he does so in defiance of nothingness, which he now also believes in. If nothingness is all that reality has to offer, then the greatest castles that can be built, the only castles that can be built, are “castles in the air”.

I have, in the above, refrained from citing passages from the text to support what I am saying. This is partly because I have done enough of that in my last post, and also because what I am offering here is, without apology, my own personal view of the play.

And of course, the usual caveats apply: I am not insisting upon my view of the work; there are a great many other valid ways of seeing it; I am sure I will see things differently again the next time I encounter it; and so on. But, for the moment at least, this, I think, is what lies at the centre of all the various complexities and profundities of this inexhaustible work – the fear that, at the heart of it all, there is simply a vast nothingness.

“The Master Builder” by Henrik Ibsen

*** SPOILER WARNING: The following post inevitably reveals some of the plot details of this play, and so, if such things are important to you (they needn’t be), it is possibly best not to read this post till you’ve read or seen the play for yourself. 

All quoted passages are taken from the translation by Barbara Haveland and Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife, published by Penguin Classics


The Master Builder continues to puzzle and bewilder audiences and readers. When watching a performance in the theatre, or reading the text at home, one can hardly miss its intense, life-and-death seriousness. But what is it all about? All kinds of possible interpretations have been put forward – that it is a political allegory, a representation of Man turning against God, a dramatisation of inter-generational conflict, an exploration of Nietzschean concepts of morality, and so on. Ibsen himself, when asked about its interpretation, replied that he simply wrote about people, and that he didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Of course, he was being disingenuous, but perhaps that is not a bad way of approaching this inscrutably obscure drama. It’s not that the play is not about a great many different themes and ideas, but, perhaps, none of that makes too much sense unless we engage first with the people – the characters on stage who carry the drama.

The setting seems realistic enough. In the first scene, we are in an office in the house of master builder Halvard Solness, and we see his employees at their work. This could easily be the setting of a realistic social drama, such as The Pillars of Society. And indeed, in the course of the drama, nothing happens that is unrealistic – in the sense that nothing happens that is physically impossible. But yet, it becomes impossible to take this drama on purely realistic terms. At the heart of the drama are a number of scenes between Master Builder Solness, and his young visitor, Hilde Wangel (whom we had seen in the earlier play The Lady From the Sea), and the duologues between them seem to make little sense if considered from a strictly realistic perspective. From such a perspective, we could say that they are both, in essence, mad – that they are both locked into their own personal fantasies, and that these fantasies somehow feed off each other. We could say that, on occasion, the reality of the lives around them enter into their fantasies; but equally – and, by the end, fatally – their fantasies also obtrude into the real world.

But to leave it there is to relegate this drama into the realms of nonsense: what interest could there possibly be in the fantasies of two crazy people? The reviews of the first London performance did, indeed, see the play in such terms (there’s a wonderful collection of quotes from these reviews in Michael Meyer’s biography of Ibsen): “… a play written rehearsed, and acted by lunatics”; “… platitudes and inanities…”; “… the most dreary and purposeless drivel … pointless, incoherent, and absolutely silly…”; “three acts of gibberish…”; “dull, mysterious, unchaste”.

It is easy to look back on such uncomprehending early criticism, and congratulate ourselves on our greater understanding, but it remains true, I think, that if we fail to enter imaginatively into the fantasy worlds created by Solness and by Hilde, and if we fail to see these fantasies as important counterpoints to the very real and solid world with which they overlap, then the criticisms quoted above may be seen as entirely reasonable, and “dull, mysterious, unchaste” may appear an entirely reasonable summary. Ibsen did, indeed, as he insisted, portray people, but to understand the nature of the people he portrayed, we must prepare ourselves to enter into their fantasies, and take them as seriously as the reality which, throughout all the dramatic complexities, never quite go away.

The opening scenes are very realistic indeed: Ibsen needed a strong, solid base on which to build. Master Builder Solness (Bygmester Solness, as the Norwegian title proclaims) is described in the stage directions as being in his “late middle age”: I think we can take that to mean he is in his 50s – hardly in the first flush of youth, but far from descended into the vale of years: we see him as vigorous, energetic, masterful, exerting his personal power over people around him; and, if the drama that unfolds is to make sense, he is charismatic, and still sexually attractive. Certainly Kaja, his bookkeeper, is completely in thrall to him: he is, naturally, fully aware of the power he exerts over Kaja, and is happy to take advantage of it.

Kaja’s intended, Ragnar Brovik, and Ragnar’s father Knut, also work in the office, as architects and designers. Old Knut Brovik once had his own construction business, but that had failed, and we see him merely an underling of Solness. Now, obviously old and ill, he would like to see his son succeed in the business, and he asks Solness to recommend Ragnar’s design for a commission, but Solness, terrified of the thought of being supplanted by a younger generation (as he, as a young man, had supplanted Knut Brovik), angrily refuses.

BROVIK: Am I to depart this life so poor?

SOLNESS [appears to be  struggling with himself; at length he says quietly, but firmly]: You will have to depart this life as best you can.

BROVIK: Well, so be it. [He walks away.]

SOLNESS [going after him, almost despairingly]: But I can’t do otherwise, you see! I am the way I am, after all!

Like God Almighty, he is what he is.

This opening exchange lays bare the essential character of Solness. He can be cruel, he can hurt people; but cruelty is not something that comes to him naturally. He has to struggle with himself before he utters those immensely cruel words “You will have to depart this life as best you can”. And afterwards, he has to try to explain himself. As the scene continues, we see him pour out a glass of water for his employee, and seeing that he is ill, advises Ragnar to take his father home. He is not amoral: he has a sense of what is right and what is wrong, of what is kind and what is cruel, but he cannot do otherwise: he is what he is.

So far, so realistic: this could still be a play from Ibsen’s earlier years. But in the scene that follows between Solness and the doctor, Solness comes out with the most extraordinary paranoia: has not Aline, Solness’ wife, asked the doctor to keep an eye on him? Has not Aline confided to the doctor that she thinks he is … mad? The doctor denies this, but Solness doesn’t quite believe him.

Because to some extent, you see, she – she might have reason to think such a thing.

Solness changes the subject quickly after this, but if we had thought this a realistic play, we are, perhaps, a bit less sure of our ground now. The ground shifts even further as Solness tell the doctor that he feels that he has certain supernatural powers: his deepest desires, he feels, though unspoken, somehow communicate themselves to others, and these others, unbidden, serve him: he can, he is convinced, bend the will of others to his own merely by desiring.

And then there comes a most extraordinary exchange that seems to confirm Solness’ suspicions concerning his own sanity. Contrary to the doctor’s suspicions, he is not, he insists, having an affair with his bookkeeper Kaja, but he allows his wife to suspect that he is:

Because I feel there is a kind of – kind of salutary self-torture for me in simply allowing Aline to think unjustly of me … it’s like paying off some portion of some vast and bottomless debt …

The doctor at this point throws up his hands and says he doesn’t understand a word of this, and we in the audience may start feeling the same. But Solness goes further: he is frightened. Yes, he has been successful in his career, “but at some point, the turn will come”. The younger generation will rise up, he says, and will overthrow him. Youth will come knocking at the door. And, as if to underline how far we have strayed by this point from the strict realism with which the play had begun, there is indeed a knock on the door at this precise point, and it is indeed youth who is knocking. But not the youth that Solness had been expecting: it is a young lady, a stranger, Hilde Wangel, who seems to have known Solness, but whom he cannot recognise. Having laid the basis of the drama in these few short but densely packed scenes that start with strict realism, but which, in Solness’ conversation with the doctor, drift towards what seems like madness, Ibsen now introduces Hilde, the final character of the drama. The prologue, as it were, is now over.

Hilde had appeared in a play Ibsen had written some four years earlier – The Lady from the Sea. There, we had seen her a teenager, living with her elder sister and her father, both gentle and loving souls, and with her stepmother, from whom she feels alienated. The play does end with a promise of renewal, but Hilde herself had emerged a not entirely sympathetic character: she is fascinated by the fact that a neighbouring young man is, unknown to himself, terminally ill, and, while others are kind to him despite his foolish and conceited nature, she teases him mercilessly. There was, in that play, something predatory about her, a certain failure of human empathy. Ibsen presumably felt that given the supporting role she had played in that drama, there wasn’t room to develop her character as he might ideally have wanted; whether he did or not, he brings her back here, and allots her a more prominent role. There is still an element of the predatory about her: though it is not explicitly stated – virtually nothing is explicitly stated in this play – she has certainly come to take Solness away from his wife. But there is more. She is, we find out, also locked into her own personal fantasies, although how much of her fantasy is also real is, from the beginning, uncertain, and open to question.

Solness does not recognise her at first. She has to remind him: some ten years ago, when she had been about twelve or thirteen, Solness had gone up north to Lysanger, Hilde’s hometown, to build a church. And, on that occasion, to consecrate the new church, Solness had climbed up the high tower and had placed upon it a wreath. Hilde describes the scene in almost ecstatic terms:

… it was so splendid and so terribly exciting. I couldn’t believe there was a master builder in all the world who could build such an enormously high tower. And then the fact that you were standing up there yourself, at the very top! In person! And that you weren’t the slightest bit dizzy. That was the most – kind of – dizzying thought of all.

But there is more. Hilde goes on to claim that afterwards, he, Solness, had found her alone, and had told her she looked beautiful, like a princess. Solness has no recollection of this, but Hilde continues. He had promised that in ten years’ time he would return like a troll; that he would carry her off; and that he would buy her a kingdom, and a castle. Solness feels uneasy: he doesn’t remember this, but doesn’t contradict her. But then, Hilde says, he had bent her back and had kissed her, passionately, many, many times.

In our own times, with our greater awareness of child abuse, we are likely to find this narration deeply shocking. I think it is intended to be shocking. There can be no excuse for any man behaving in such a manner with a twelve-year-old girl. And indeed, at this point, Solness himself is very deeply shocked by the accusation, and he vehemently denies it. But, very disconcertingly, she is not accusing him: she has come, she says, to claim what she had been promised – her kingdom and her castle. The ten years, she says, are up, and since he hadn’t come to her, she has had to come to him. And in a tone that seems both joking and serious at the same time, she claims from the Master Builder the promised kingdom.

Solness first claims that all this is something she may have dreamed, but then seems to halt in his tracks: “Wait, though,” he says, “there’s something here that goes deeper…” Could it be that the memory of actually having done all this now resurfaces? Or could it be that he thinks that he had communicated to her his unspoken desire, and, as he is convinced he has the ability to do, he had, through some supernatural power, bent her will to his? We never do find out whether the story Hilde tells is indeed true – whether Solness really had done all this. But true or not, Solness, though remaining puzzled as to her true motive in seeking him out after all these years, is happy that she had come: he seems to find in her someone who is, if not necessarily a kindred spirit, someone he could talk with openly, in the hope of being understood. He invites her to stay in his house, in one of the three empty rooms, the nurseries that have never been used.

In the course of the play, a series of quite extraordinary duologues develop between Solness and Hilde, as each invites the other into their own fantasy, and they find these fantasies, in effect, complementing each other. If we are to look at it purely from a realistic perspective – and while this is not the only perspective, it is one always worth bearing it in mind – regardless of whether or not Solness had made advances towards the then twelve-year-old Hilde, she had been drawn to him; and now, a grown-up woman, she has come to take him away from his wife. And he – again regardless of whether or not the reported incident had actually happened – had secretly desired her then; for how could he have communicated his desire to her if he had not desired in the first place? And he continues to desire her now. But that is only a very partial view of the drama. To get to the mysterious and elusive heart of the play, we must enter into their fantasies, which develop on a related but somewhat plane from reality. We seem, in some ways, to be back in the world of Peer Gynt, where reality and fantasy seem to exist and develop side by side, interpenetrating and reflecting each other, but never quite touching.

There is, of course, a third point in the triangle: Aline, Solness’ wife, to whom Solness feels he owes a “vast and bottomless debt”. In the first two acts, she seems a pallid, almost a ghostly, presence, solicitous of her husband, but very unlike her husband: she is retiring and self-effacing, and almost entirely passive. When she says she will help Hilde settle in, she adds it’s her “duty”. The emptiness of duty devoid of love had been a theme in many of Ibsen’s earlier work – in particular, Ghosts – and this sense of emptiness strikes Hilde forcibly. Why had she not said she would help Hilde because she wanted to? This emphasis on duty has such a coldness about it.

But before this, there had been a brief but remarkable scene between Solness and Aline, which, like so much else in this play, seems almost impossible to summarise. Solness, we know, feels guilty towards his wife, although we do not yet know why. In this scene, she surprises him by expressing her own sense of guilt. “I should have hardened myself. Not let the shock get hold of me.” We cannot be sure at this stage what she is referring to. Solness tries to assure her that things would be better for them once they move into their new house, but she can see no such hope. Eventually, Solness gives up trying to persuade her, and vents his frustration:

SOLNESS [clenching his hands and crossing the floor]: Oh, but this is all so hopeless! Never a ray of sunshine! Not so much as a glimmer of light falling into this house!

MRS SOLNESS: This is no home, Halvard.

SOLNESS: No, well may you say that. [Heavily] And God knows you could be right – maybe things won’t get any better for us in the new house either.

MRS SOLNESS: They never will. Just as empty. Just as desolate. There as here.

The worst is that these two, caught in their joyless life together, are actually solicitous for each other, and have for each other a kind of love, even in their mutual misery. Later in the play, Solness describes his marriage in startlingly vivid terms:

And now she’s dead – for my sake. And I am chained, living, to the dead. [Frantically] I – I – who cannot live a joyless life!

The soul within Aline seems dead. At the start of the third and final act, Hilde has a scene with Aline, after which she says “I have just climbed out of a tomb … I am chilled to the bone…” In Ghosts, Ibsen had depicted a world stripped of human joy by insistence on duty – unquestioning duty that is to be carried out for its own sake, without love. Here, similarly, Solness, who cannot live without joy, feels he is chained to a corpse. But if Aline is indeed a corpse, Solness knows it is he who has killed her. This is the “vast and bottomless debt” he feels for her, and he is caught hopelessly between this immense sense of obligation he feels for her, and an overwhelming desire to break free.

The past that has led to this present is related in Act Two – but then again, only through Solness’ narration, which is not necessarily the most reliable. He has, in his career, been successful, but that success had only come at a great cost. His wife’s family home had burnt down, to the ground. This had given him the opportunity to divide the estate into small plots, and build houses on them. And that fire he had willed. He had noticed a fatal crack in the flue of the old house which, if not seen to, could cause a catastrophic fire; and every day, he would look at that crack, willing the disaster to happen. And yet, when the fire did happen, it wasn’t because of that crack: it was proven that the fire had started elsewhere. However, he had willed it: that, for Solness, was enough:

SOLNESS [confidentially]: Hilde, don’t you too believe that there are certain special, chosen people who have been granted the blessing and the power and the ability to wish for something, desire something, want something so deeply and so – so inexorably – that they’re bound to get it in the end? Don’t you believe that?

In Solness’ mind, there are, as he calls them, “helpers and servants” – supernatural beings who are summoned merely by the fact of his desire. And so, because he had willed it, the house had burnt down, and the entire family had had to evacuate into the freezing cold night. And the price paid was even greater than the house: their newborn infant sons, twins, had died shortly afterwards. But for this, Solness refuses to accept responsibility: he claims that Aline had caught a chill that night, and that her breast-milk had become infected; but that she had insisted that it was her duty to carry on breast-feeding them.

Now, this part of Solness’ narrative I, personally, would take with great scepticism. First of all, there is no evidence, either in medicine or in popular folk belief, that this can happen. And secondly, even if this really did happen, one may justly ask how Solness, in those days before full post-mortems, could be so sure of it. I would guess that this is another of Solness’ fantasies, part of the mythology he has created around himself. He is prepared to invent the mythology of his “helpers and servants” to justify the immense sense of guilt he feels for his wife, but to accept responsibility for the death of his children was too much, even for him; and here, I think, he had to transfer the guilt to his wife, and, significantly, to that particular aspect of his wife’s character that he finds so intolerable – that sense of loveless duty.

Later, at the start of the third act, Hilde speaks with Aline, and, like her husband, Aline finds herself telling things to Hilde that she is unlikely to have told anyone else – certainly not to her spouse. To Hilde’s surprise, Aline feels no remorse for the death of the children: that was God’s will, and it is her duty to accept. But it’s the smaller things that hurt more – things that to most other people may appear insignificant: in that fire, her childhood dolls had been burnt, and that she cannot come to terms with. Her connection with the past, her childhood, had been destroyed.

We are not told this, but we may infer that, after the fire, after the death of their children (of which the symbolically empty nurseries stand as a permanent reminder), she had suffered some sort of mental breakdown. Which, of course, would have been untreated in those days. In an earlier scene with her husband, she blames herself not for the death of the children (that story about the infected breast milk is, I think it is safe to assume, entirely Solness’ fantasy), but for not being strong enough after the tragedy had struck. And so she remains, a living corpse to whom the still vigorous Solness finds himself chained. This is what he has willed – this is the desire his “helpers and servants” have brought to fruition.

This is what folk call having Fortune on your side. But let me tell you how that Fortune feels! It feels like a large, raw patch here on my chest. And the helpers and servants, they go around tearing chunks of skin off other people in order to close my wound. But sill the wound won’t heal.

Hilde diagnoses him: he has an “ailing conscience”. This is not the Master Builder she had pictured. She had pictured a man with a robust conscience, a man unafraid to strive for what he desired. That was the man whom she had seen those ten years ago, on the tower, unafraid, not dizzy. And she had heard “harps in the air”. Soon afterwards, Hilde hears from Aline that Solness is actually afraid of heights, and dare not climb up towers any more. Hilde is outraged. Is it true that “my master builder dare not – cannot – climb as high as he actually builds?” Does he, after all, have a “dizzy conscience”?

It would be easy to see Hilde as merely a harpy, compelling Solness to leave behind his moral obligations. And while there is certainly some truth in this, this is not the entire truth either. After all, it is she who persuades Solness to do the right thing with Ragnar Brovik, and to approve his design. And, after speaking with Aline, she seems to lose her own will: her conscience, too, is not as “robust” as she had thought.

I cannot hurt someone I know! Cannot take away something that belongs to her.

Solness, too, acknowledges his moral  obligations:

HILDE: That a person doesn’t dare to reach out and seize his own happiness. His own life! Simply because someone they know is standing in his way!

SOLNESS: Someone they’ve no right to pass by.

HILDE: Who’s to say one doesn’t, in fact, have the right to do that? But, then again – Oh, if only one could sleep through the whole thing!

Hilde’s hopes seem dashed. Claims of moral obligation, which she had once thought dispensable, now assert themselves. As Rebecca West had found in Rosmersholm, the Rosmer way of life ennobles, but … but it kills happiness. It makes impossible the joy that Solness cannot live without.

And now, Solness, in the final duologue between them, tells her of what he had actually done when she had seen him on that one occasion, defying his fear of heights and actually climbing that tower. It had been ten years ago, shortly after the death of his children.

Solness had, he tells Hilde, come from a “religious home from a small village”. And he had believed that building churches was the finest thing he could do.

SOLNESS: I feel he ought to have been pleased with me.

HILDE: He? Who’s he?

SOLNESS: Him – the one the churches were for, of course! The one they were meant to glorify and praise!  

Solness cannot even bring himself to speak God’s name. But that day, on top of that tower that he would usually be afraid to climb, he had rebelled against God, whose name even now he is unable to articulate. He had said to God that he shall no longer build churches. He shall build houses – houses for people to live in. But it was no good: for at the centre of Solness’ own house remain those empty, desolate rooms. John Rosmer, having rejected the God he had once believed in, but unable to shake off the God-given guilt, had to pass judgement on himself; Solness, similarly having rejected Him whom he cannot even name, and similarly weighed down by guilt, now faces the horrifying fact of nothingness:

So you see, that’s what it all amounts to, no matter how far I look back. Nothing built, basically. And nothing sacrificed to be able to build anything either. Nothing, nothing – all of it.

This contemplation of nothingness is the bleakest point of the drama – its moral and spiritual nadir. But there is a coda. Solness and Hilde, from this point onward, both appear to retreat completely into the fantasy worlds they have created for themselves. Solness will give his princess the castle he had promised her, and it will be the finest castle that may be built – a castle in the air. He will, once again, defy his dizziness: he will climb the tower, and prove himself free. To Aline Solness, living in the real world and terrified for her husband’s safety, he is foolishly endangering his life for no reason; but on a different dramatic plane, this is his victory, and this is Hilde’s victory: she sees him great again. Of course, he crashes to the ground, and dies: from the perspective of the real world, it was madness. But Hilde, by this stage, is completely locked in her fantasy.

HILDE [in a sort of quiet, bewildered triumph]: But he got to the very top. And I heard harps playing in the air. [She waves her shawl above her head, and cries with wild rapture] My – my master builder!

The master builder that others see – their master builder – fell to his death in a foolhardy escapade. But her master builder finally dared to climb as high as he builds: he got to the top.


What are we to make of this strange play? I have tried in this post to give as lucid an account as I can of how I see the play, but reading over what I have written, I can’t help but feel that my interpretation simplifies matters, smooths out too many complexities. Perhaps that is the fate of all interpretations. Great works of art are all, despite possible interpretations, ultimately inscrutable, and do not give up their secrets. In this dizzyingly enigmatic and elusive play, Ibsen takes us into realms of the human mind which even he had not entered before. It is a play that continues to fascinate my imagination, even as I struggle to articulate why.