Archive for the ‘Drama’ Category

“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.

A sense of longing

The internet is so full of banalities attributed to various luminaries – some of these banalities so simple-minded and so poorly articulated as to be thoroughly embarrassing – that I try never to introduce a quote into this blog without mentioning its source. However, try as I might, I cannot find a source for the following quote that is widely attributed to Vladimir Nabokov:

No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.

Maybe Nabokov never said this – who knows? But I’m quoting it nonetheless because, at the very least, it isn’t banal; and, further, it is so well articulated that one could easily believe that Nabokov had actually said it; and, most importantly, the state of mind it describes – “a longing with nothing to long for” – is one I find fascinating.

There is, it seems, a similar word in Portuguse – saudade. And its import is rather well described by singer-songwriter Nick Cave (and in this instance, I can pinpoint the source, as a friend of mine, who is a fan of Nick Cave, pointed this quote out to me):

‘The love song is the sound of our endeavours to become God-like, to rise up and above the earth-bound and the mediocre. I believe the love song to be a sad song. It is the noise of sorrow itself.

We all experience within us what the Portuguese call saudade, an inexplicable longing, an unnamed and enigmatic yearning of the soul, and it is this feeling that lives in the realms of imagination and inspiration, and is the breeding ground for the sad song, for the love song. Saudade is the desire to be transported from darkness into light, to be touched by the hand of that which is not of this world. ‘

  • Nick Cave, “The Secret Life of the Love Song”

Once again, the longing is “inexplicable” – inexplicable because, as with toska, it is a longing with nothing to long for.

In doing a Google search on saudade, I find that it is believed by some to be characteristic of the Portuguese and Brazilian people. I am not sure about that. For while it is certainly curious that some languages have a word for this and others don’t, this vague sense of an intense longing for that which cannot even be named seems to me common to all people, of all times. At least, I know of no culture that hasn’t, somewhere along the line, expressed what I understand to be toska, or saudade. This inexplicable yearning seems almost the hallmark of Romanticism, but the Romantics did not invent it. How can one not find it in, say, the songs of John Dowland? Or, say, in Twelfth Night (which, sadly, is too often presented on stage as little more than a knockabout comedy), in a passage such as this?


Why, what would you?


Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out ‘Olivia!’ O, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me!

For whom is Viola longing? Not Olivia: neither in her real person, nor in her assumed role, does Viola love Olivia. Perhaps it’s an expression of her love for Orsino, whom she secretly loves, but this seems unlikely: although Viola has indeed fallen in love with Orsino (“Even so quickly may one catch the plague?”), he is too self-absorbed and too insignificant a figure to be a worthy object of such ardent lyrical pining. No – this yearning has no object that is nameable: it is indeed the “unnamed and enigmatic yearning of the soul”.

In ages more religious than ours, this longing was often (though not always) identified as longing for union with God, and, indeed, presented as such. But we found, much to our surprise, that even when belief in God declined, this longing didn’t. Generally, this longing had to be tied to some identifiable object for it to make some semblance of narrative sense, and that object, usually, is one’s beloved; or, more usually, one’s lost beloved. That seemed to make sense. But the whole point of this longing is that it doesn’t make sense. Thus, all too often, we come across longing the intensity of which far transcends its ostensible object. Is the protagonist of Schubert’s Winterreise, or of Schumann’s Dichterliebe, longing merely for the girl who rejected him? Would the longing of Tristan and Isolde be stilled if they were to get together, marry, and settle down as Mr Tristan and Mrs Isolde? The very idea seems absurd. But if their longing seems to be for more than merely union with their beloved, what precisely are they longing for?

This is a mystery at the heart of things that the Romantics, far from smoothing over, actively embraced. The popular conception is that they embraced this mystery in reaction to the rationalists of the 18th century who had rejected the very concept of mystery, but nothing ever is so simple as such broad-brush summaries may suggest: each age is so multi-faceted that any such sweeping statement can very easily be demonstrated as absurd.

However, there is good reason for the 18th century to be thought of as the “Age of Reason”: more than ever before, and, perhaps, more than ever since, the universe was seen as perfectly ordered, and all effects traceable to causes. What could be more ordered than, say, a Bach fugue? Or a Haydn string quartet – even those of his Sturm und Drang period? But it will never do to constrict great artists by such pat formulae: even in the Age of Reason, there were artists subverting it. In Gulliver’s Travels, say, Swift presents us with a society ruled entirely by reason – the land of the Houyhnhnms – but which is, for that very reason, a monstrosity: as Orwell commented, it is a state of totalitarianism so advanced that the Thought Police isn’t even required; and this perfection of reason, paradoxically, drives Gulliver mad, and fills him with a genocidal rage.

And then, there’s Mozart. It escapes me how anyone could fail to find that quality of saudade in his music, but they have done, and, in many cases, still do.  In Cosi fan Tutte, he and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte took on what was essentially a trivial and rather misogynist little anecdote: two young men, to prove that their beloved young ladies were faithful to them, woo each other’s girls in disguise; and the girls, being but women, and hence, fickle, fall for it. Cue crude, knockabout comedy, cynical guffaws, and all the rest. But, as Shakespeare had done in Twelfth Night, Mozart takes this unpromising framework of a story, and, alongside the comedy (which he does not ignore), imbues it with such profound melancholy, such ineffable longing – such pain at the absence of something that these four young people desire beyond anything else in the world, but which they cannot name – that the base metal of this rather objectionable little anecdote is miraculously transformed into the pure gold of a great work of art that seems to express the inexpressible.

The Romantics, somehow, didn’t get it: they thought it trivialised feelings which should be sacred. Beethoven thought the opera was a slander of Eternal Womanhood, and was immoral. Wagner went further: even the music, he thought, wasn’t up to standard, and Mozart had failed to provide good music for this precisely because he knew the dramatic content was poor. Only in the twentieth century did the opera come back into the standard repertoire, but, just as it was dismissed in the previous century because it was deemed too slight and artificial, it was those very decorative qualities that seemed to appeal to even perceptive commentators: Sir Thomas Beecham, an eminent Mozartian, praised it as “a long summer day spent in a cloudless land by a southern sea”.

In our own time, perceptions about this work have changed yet again. We seem to sense that, bursting out of the seemingly ordered framework, there is a tangle of human emotions that no purely rational view of humankind could ever accommodate. And at the centre of this tangle is that anguished longing for something that is not. Mozart, that archetypal Classicist, knew about this agonised longing at least as well as any of the Romantics did. Why should he not? It has, after all, always been with us. Like Viola, we are still calling upon our “soul within the house”.

Journey’s end

Hamlet and Twelfth Night were written, it is believed, very close to each other, and, although one is a tragedy and the other a comedy, they often have very similar themes. One issue that seems central to both dramas is the question of how we should mourn our dead. How should we mourn so that we can honour those who have died, and honour also the lives the we, the survivors, must continue to live?

Twelfth Night is a play I love deeply, but one I find very elusive. More so even than the other plays, it never seems to be the same on any two readings: it seems to be made of that changeable taffeta that Feste recommends Orsino to wear. In one of my earlier posts on it, I made it out to be a very dark play – closer in spirit to Hamlet than to, say As You Like It. Perhaps I was going over the top there, but even in my less lugubrious moods, its darker notes seem to me undeniably present. In the few years after writing this play and Hamlet, Shakespeare went on to write a sequence of intensely tragic dramas the likes of which have not been seen since the ancient Athenians. And there seem to me strong connections between Twelfth Night and these dark, tragic dramas: as well as the thematic overlaps with Hamlet, a new verse of the song Feste sings at the end of Twelfth Night appears in, of all places, the storm scene of King Lear. And the final verse of Feste’s song (“A great while ago the world begun, With hey, ho, the wind and the rain…”) is, as a Shakespearean friend of mine recently pointed out, about as desolate as anything in English literature. Has ever a comic drama ended like this?

Now, I wonder if there is also a correspondence between Twelfth Night and Othello – another of those great tragedies written in this period. In one of his other songs, Feste sings:

O Mistress mine where are you roaming?
O stay and hear, your true love’s coming,
That can sing both high and low.
Trip no further pretty sweeting.
Journeys end in lovers’ meeting,
Every wise man’s son doth know.

“Journeys end in lovers’ meeting.”

Now, Othello, at the most intense point of his tragedy, when he realises what it truly is that he has lost, says “here is my journey’s end”. Was Shakespeare, I wonder, thinking back here on Feste’s song, that he had written only about two years earlier? Of course, the “s” at the end of “journey” in Othello indicates possession, while in Twelfth Night it indicates plurality, but an ear as finely tuned as Shakespeare’s to the music of words would certainly have been aware of the echo. And if this echo was indeed intentional, it seems to me almost unbearably poignant. In Twelfth Night, however dark and melancholy we may take the play to be (and I know opinions vary on this matter), there was still the hope – the expectation, even – that lovers would be united at journey’s end. But Othello, at his journey’s end, has no such expectation: “When we shall meet at compt, this look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven, and fiends will snatch at it.” He has lost not only Desdemona: he has lost his own soul, for ever. For what he has done, there can be no forgiveness, no atonement: nor does he even hope for it.

Whichever way I look at it, Twelfth Night foreshadows Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. Which is not to say Twelfth Night is itself a tragic play: it clearly isn’t. But it does seem to me to point towards a traumatic tragic journey, a journey that finds its end only with those mysterious and deeply ambiguous dramas Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest – plays which, even after some forty and more years of acquaintance, I still feel I do not adequately understand.

“Hedda Gabler” by Henrik Ibsen

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

 All quoted passages from “Hedda Gabler” are taken from the translation by Michael Meyer, published by Methuen


Surveying Ibsen’s last twelve plays – those plays stretching from The Pillars of Society to When We Dead Awaken, which occupied Ibsen for most of the last quarter of the 19th century, and which he himself referred to towards the end of his life as a “cycle” – it is tempting to see in the sequence a sort of progression. Certainly, the later plays in this cycle are very different in nature from the earlier ones: they appear to be set in a world more dreamlike than real, are more accommodating of oneiric symbols and images, and less insistent upon the solid reality of the world they seemingly inhabit. By the end of the cycle, we seem to have returned to the poetic world of Brand and of Peer Gynt. But perhaps “progression” is the wrong word to use in this context, as that implies the later works are greater than the earlier (although, I suppose, a good case could be made that that is indeed the case); better, I think, to speak of movement. However, that movement is not consistent across the range of plays. In The Lady from the Sea, the play Ibsen had written immediately before Hedda Gabler, Ibsen seemed to have moved quite radically from the very realistic milieu he had presented us with in earlier plays: for one thing, there was a movement away from the stuffy bourgeois drawing rooms into the more bracing fresh air of the fjords and mountains; and the action of the drama itself was informed by symbols and images drawn from folklore, by dreams and fancies, and by more than a hint of the supernatural. But in Hedda Gabler, we are very much back in the real, solid world. The setting, as in A Doll’s House, is that stuffy, stifling, bourgeois drawing room, and, again as in A Doll’s House, the scene doesn’t change through the play: we are stuck, as Hedda is, as Nora had been, in this claustrophobic setting. The elegant French windows open sometimes, but there’s little evidence of fresh air. And whatever dreams Hedda may have remain in their domain: they do not permeate into the real world, as they had done in the previous play. In many ways, Hedda Gabler seems a step backwards: the progression, if such it is, seems suspended, at least for a while, as Ibsen revisits the unrelentingly solid world of Nora and of Torvald.

Yet, a more detailed comparison of this play with the earlier A Doll’s House gives an indication of the extent to which Ibsen’s dramatic art has developed. For one thing, it seems to pack far more in, despite being shorter: Ibsen had now fully developed the art of saying more with less. There’s not a sentence that doesn’t add something to the dramatic picture. Even the stage directions are important. For instance, in the first act, Hedda, on entering her new house, comments that the piano doesn’t look right where it is. It isn’t just a throwaway line to establish a realistic milieu; for, in the stage directions at the start of the second act (set only a few hours after the end of the first), we find this:

The same as in Act One, except that the piano has been removed and an elegant little writing-table, with a bookcase, stands in its place.

Hedda is a woman who knows her own mind, who has a highly developed sense of aesthetics, and who is very much, it seems, in control – although precisely what the extent of that control is becomes very much one of the major concerns of the play.

For Hedda, like so many of Ibsen’s heroines, has married because she really didn’t have much of a choice. But this is not entirely true, as Hedda herself realises. She did have a choice: she could  have chosen not to marry Tesman, and to embark upon the world independently, on her own account, as Nora does at the end of A Doll’s House. Of course, in a society in which women did not generally have the financial means to live independent lives, and where, in addition, such independence would have been frowned upon, this would have required tremendous courage, and such courage Hedda, despite her aristocratic pride, does not have. And she recognises this pusillanimity in herself, and she despises herself for it. And when a person naturally proud despises herself, she can find it easy to transfer this hatred for one’s self on to someone else. And for Hedda, this “someone else” is close at hand: it’s her husband, and his elderly maiden aunts.

Not that her husband, George Tesman is despicable. (Michael Meyer has chosen to translate the name in its Anglicised form, presumably so that it doesn’t sound too alien or foreign in those two important passages where Hedda addresses him by his Christian name.) He is an academic, with, we gather, a promising career ahead of him. But we are also made to understand that his professional reputation rests upon painstaking collation and organisation of material rather than upon any brilliant or original thinking of his own. He is a kindly, gentle person, brought up by his maiden aunts, to whom he remains very deeply attached. He is still, in many ways, a child, at home in the warm and comfortable domesticity he has grown up in, and somewhat in awe of this aloof and aristocratic woman Fate appears to have landed him with. He would love nothing better than to bring Hedda into his pleasant and comfortable world, but it is precisely this world that Hedda despises, mainly, one suspects, because she did not have the courage to have avoid contact with it.

We are not told why Hedda had married into a household she so looks down upon, but it is not hard to infer the circumstances. She was a general’s daughter, an aristocrat. (A picture of Hedda’s father hangs on the wall throughout the play, looking down upon the action.) Tesman and his aunt Juliana remember seeing her as a young girl gallop by on her horse: she had seemed then far above them all. But her father had died presumably without the means to allow his daughter continue the kind of life she had become accustomed to, and the door to a marriage with a fellow aristocrat was most likely closed. So when a reasonable offer of marriage came along, she accepted; and she hated herself for accepting. And now, having married, she finds herself, like Ellida in The Lady from the Sea, in an environment to which she is not accustomed, and which she cannot accept as her own. And, also like Ellida, she bears at the back of her mind an awareness that she had had little choice in the matter; and this awareness fills her with a deep and burning resentment. But where Ellida had recognised and respected the essential decency of her husband, Hedda feels merely contempt. But much of this contempt is but a reflection for what she feels for her own self. For, while her choice had not been entirely free, it had not been entirely coerced either: all it had needed to have avoided this was a modicum of courage on her part – a courage that she did not have.

Such complex psychology – a psychology far more complex than anything we had encountered in the superficially similar A Doll’s House – is enough material for a full-length novel, but Ibsen was, by this stage in his career, so much in control of his material, that he could communicate all this (and more) in merely a few short scenes. I have, in describing above the situation Hedda finds herself in, deliberately avoided citing passages from the play in support, and this is principally because no single excerpt in isolation gives us the entire picture: each line, though naturalistic in context, is charged with meaning, and the full picture only really emerges when we take a step back, and observe the fuller picture created by all the small pieces of the mosaic.

The play opens early in the morning. One of George Tesman’s elderly aunts, Juliana, has come to visit her nephew and his recently married wife in their new house. The newlyweds had returned the previous night from a long honeymoon in Europe, and Juliana, still somewhat in awe of the new member of the family, wishes to welcome her. Accompanying her is Bertha, previously a maidservant in the Tesmans’ household, but now assigned to the new house; and she, too, feels uncomfortable about having to serve Hedda. George Tesman she had tended to virtually all his life, but in that household, she had been effectively one of the family. Here, it will all be different, and Berha expresses the nervousness that Juliana too feels:

BERTHA: … There’s another thing. I’m frightened madam may not find me suitable.

MISS TESMAN: Oh, nonsense, Bertha. There may be one or two little things to begin with –

BERTHA: She’s a real lady. Wants everything just so.

MISS TESMAN: But of course she does! General Gabler’s daughter! Think of what she was accustomed to when the general was still alive.

It is interesting that Juliana confirms rather than contradicts what Bertha says. They share similar apprehensions.

Husband and wife are both in bed when Juliana arrives, and it is George who is up first. The warmth of their conversation is unmistakable: these are two people who are, emotionally, very close, and they had clearly been missing each other. George’s speech is childish in many respects: he has clearly picked up many of the homely and naïve expressions used by his aunts. A picture is presented of a warm and close-knit relationship; of, indeed, a warm and close-knit household, a household of which even the maidservant Bertha feels herself to be a part. In the original text, George addresses his aunt as Tante Julle. Michael Meyer has translated this as “Auntie Juju”, because, as he says in a note following the text, Tante Julle is, and is intended to be, a childish expression: it is probably something George had called his aunt as a child, and it has stuck, anomalous though it is coming from a fully grown adult. Hedda winces every time her husband uses this name, and puts her foot down very firmly when her husband requests her to call his aunt by this name also. (Her husband, still somewhat in awe of his wife, doesn’t press the point.)

Michael Meyer continues:

To render this name as Auntie Julie, as has usually been done, is completely to miss the point; it must be a ridiculous name such as Juju.

Tesman’s gentle afection and warm-heartedness, which could be viewed either as childlike or as childish, depending upon one’s perspective, could almost be Dickensian, but Ibsen not afraid to introduce a dissonant note:

MISS TESMAN: Yes! And the enemies who have tried to bar your way have been struck down. They have been made to bite the dust. The man who was your most dangerous rival has had the mightiest fall. And now he is lying there in the pit he has dug for himself, poor misguided creature.

It is hard not to imagine the satisfaction this kindly old lady takes in the downfall of the man who has had the temerity to stand in the way of her adored nephew. This rival is Eilert Loevborg, a brilliant man, but a notorious, self-destructive alcoholic, and a man of dissolute habits – a man who, even were it not for the rivalry, would have been most unwelcome in the Tesmans’ cosy world. To Tesman’s credit, he is, and continues to be, generous to his rival talents. But however generous Tesman may be, Loevborg is a man from outside his world: Tesman has spent his entire life in an environment of comfort and warmth, and Loevborg, as we soon see for ourselves, is not a person to impart either.

And neither, for that matter, is Hedda. She is not entirely happy seeing her husband’s elderly aunt in her home first thing in the morning, but she is too polished in her aristocratic manners to say so openly. However, when she sees a hat lying on the sofa – a hat that the aunt had bought specially so that Hedda would not feel ashamed to be seen with her – she cannot resist:

HEDDA: Tesman, we really can’t go on keeping this maid.

MISS TESMAN: Not keep Bertha?

TESMAN: What makes you say that, dear? What?

HEDDA (points): Look at that! She’s left her old hat lying on the chair!

TESMAN (appalled, drops his slippers on the floor): But, Hedda – !

HEDDA: Suppose someone came in and saw it?

TESMAN: But Hedda – that’s Auntie Juju’s hat!

Later, Hedda narrates this incident to Judge Brack (who is very much someone of her own class, and, consequently, someone she can talk to), and admits that she had known all along this was “Auntie Juju‘s” hat. The domestic bliss of her husband’s former home is driving her mad, perhaps quite literally. She cannot view it with anything other than contempt. And yet, this bed she is lying in is the bed she has made for herself, through her own lack of courage.

It is into this highly charged environment that two outsiders appear – first, Thea Elvsted, an old schoolfriend of Hedda’s; and, soon afterwards, Judge Brack. Somerset Maugham once said that all Ibsen plays essentially have the same plot: a number of people inhabit a close, stuffy room; an outsider comes in and opens the window to let in the fresh air; and everyone does of cold. It is a mischievous observation, all the more so because, to a great extent, it is true. In this case, the outsider who opens the window, albeit, in this instance, unintentionally, is Thea. Thea had been a quiet girl at school, and Hedda used to look down upon her; but even while looking down on her, she had envied Thea’s luxuriant hair. This same Thea is still someone Hedda looks down upon, but once again, Hedda envies her: for she has something Hedda knows she lacks herself – courage.

Thea had been engaged to a wealthy household to look after the mistress of the house, who had been ill, and, after her mistress’ death, the master of the house had proposed to her. And, as with so many other women in Ibsen plays, Thea had not really had much of a choice: what else was there for her to do with her life? She had accepted. But this same Thea, this same quiet, timid girl, has now – it emerges – taken a step that is unthinkable to Hedda: she has left her husband. She has left her husband in search of her stepchild’s tutor – one Eilert Loevborg, the once notorious alcoholic and dissolute, and Tesman’s erstwhile academic rival.

While Loevborg had been in her rich husband’s employ, Thea, it seems, had had a calming effect on him; and, under her influence, and, indeed, as Hedda worms out of her, with her help, Loevborg had written finally the great book he had been capable of. Thea knows something of his past, but not all. She knows that he had once been close to some woman, but that their tempestuous relationship had come to a close, and she had threatened him with a pistol. But she knows no more about it than this. What concerns her now – what, indeed, is all but driving her mad – is Loevborg’s present state: he has walked away from the Elvsteds’, and has come in to the big city (presumably Kristiana, now Oslo), and Thea is distraught by the thought that the man to whom she had been closer than she ever had been to anyone else may now be returning to his drink.

As for Hedda, she knows full well who this woman was who had pointed the gun at Loevborg. That is what she once had been. And from that, she has come to this – settled in a comfortable domesticity, married to a big baby of a man, with only homely maiden aunts for company. Meanwhile, Thea, quiet, gentle Thea, whose luxuriant hair she used to pull at school, has tamed this Loevborg; and for his sake she has done what Hedda lacks the courage to do herself: she has walked out of her marriage, uncertain of her future.

We soon see Loevborg himself, but before that, Ibsen introduces us to the last major figure of the drama: Judge Brack. He is from Hedda’s own background: they understand each other immediately, and Hedda can speak to him with an openness that is quite impossible when speaking to her own husband. Brack is successful, well-established, extremely polished, and utterly confident of himself. His long conversation with Hedda at the start of the second act is an extraordinary combination of tact and of outrageousness: nothing is said openly, but every single sentence is loaded with meaning. To put it crudely – in a way that these two very polished and elegant individuals would never dream of doing – he, knowing how bored she must be with her husband, asks her to become her mistress, and she, politely but firmly, refuses; he, however, is not disheartened, because he knows well the rules of the game, and is something of an expert in gaining power over others. Indeed, this is what he lives for in his otherwise bored life: Hedda, to him, is just another challenge.

But Hedda can no more have an affair than she could walk out on her marriage, despise it though she might. Hedda Gabler is often classed with those other famous bored housewives of fiction – Emma Bovary Anna Karenina; indeed, I once saw an eminent writer class them all together as “adulterous heroines” of 19th century literature. But Hedda is far from being adulterous: if anything, she is more likely to be frigid. Though bored to death with the stuffy conventions of bourgeois life, sex is not a way out for her: she seems to have a horror of physical contact. It is suggested throughout this play that she may be pregnant, and “Auntie Juju” is, to Hedda’s disgust, particularly keen that she should be so; but the very thought of pregnancy fills Hedda with revulsion. When she had been with Loevborg, we find out later, she would listen, fascinated, to Loevborg’s accounts of his debauchery: but however tempestuous their relationship had been, she had stopped short of physical contact.

When Loevborg does finally make his entrance, in the middle of the second act of a four-act play, he perhaps confounds expectations. Far from the demonic hellraiser we may have been expecting, we see a quiet, polite man, seemingly in control over himself, and even refusing an offered drink. But then Hedda goes to work, and now, even those of us who had been following matters closely may find ourselves puzzled. Why does Hedda behave as she does? Even the worldly-wise Judge Brack finds himself saying at the end of the play “But, good God! People don’t do such things!” In terms of popularity, Hedda Gabler possibly ranks with A Doll’s House and An Enemy of the People as Ibsen’s greatest hit, but the psychology of the characters in the earlier plays had not been too difficult to follow. Here, however, although, superficially we may seem to be in the more realist world of those earlier plays, Ibsen’s art had moved on. Precisely what motivates Hedda, what makes her do what she does, is more open to interpretation and debate than the motivations, say, of Nora or of Dr Stockmann, and is certainly more difficult fully to account for; but, however little we may understand of it all, Ibsen holds us in his grasp, and we have little choice but to look on with mounting horror.

Why, say, does Hedda knowingly goad Loevborg back to drinking? One apparent motive is envy: Hedda is envious of Thea, and of her achievement in taming the seemingly wild and untameable Loevborg; and, out of pure spite, she wishes to undo Thea’s work. There’s certainly an element of that, but Hedda, I think, has other motivations too – motivations that go deeper.

In seeing Loevborg so tame and so domesticated, Hedda’s aesthetic sense, I think, is hurt. All this homely domestication, these endless meetings with Auntie Juju in her silly hat – it’s everything Hedda despises. She has an image of something greater than that – something that transcends all this absurdity and triviality. Seeing Loevborg, of all people – Loevborg, whom she had once threatened with her pistol – reduced to being but a pet dog on Thea’s leash, hurts Hedda’s aesthetic sense. She wants Loevborg to rise above Thea’s pathetic domestication: she wants him to achieve the greatness that she herself is too cowardly to aim for. For, just as Hedda projects her own self-hatred on to others, so she also projects her sense of what is beautiful. Like Solness in Ibsen’s next play, The Master Builder, Hedda is afraid to climb as high as she builds: trapped by her own lack of courage in a life of pettiness that she disdains, she wishes others to reach a state of glory that she herself cannot even aim for. Loevborg, she is sure, will conquer. He will defy timid little Thea; he will go that the party that Thea so fears, and he will return triumphant. He will return, Hedda says with self-conscious self-mockery, “with vine leaves in his hair”. That will be his victory over Thea’s domestication; and that will be Hedda’s victory also.

At least, that, I think, may be part of Hedda’s motivation. Why exactly she acts as she does remains open to debate.

While the men are away, we remain in the same house, in the same room, with Hedda and with Thea: however stifled these characters may feel in this closed, claustrophobic setting, we are made to feel it too. We piece together what had happened that night from the various reports that emerge the next morning. Loevborg had, predictably, returned to his boozing with a vengeance; and, on his way to the “boudoir” of a certain Mademoiselle Danielle, he had lost the manuscript of his masterpiece, the work Thea had inspired him – and, indeed, helped him – to write. When he returns, he does not return “with vine leaves in his hair”: he returns instead a broken, distraught man. Rather than tell Thea the truth, he tells her that he has destroyed his work – their “child”, as Thea puts it. All they had worked towards is now gone.

And now, at this point, Hedda’s actions become even more bizarre than before. The manuscript has ended up in her possession, but she doesn’t mention this. Instead, she hands one of her duelling pistols – one of General Gabler’s pistols – to the suicidal Loevborg, and, in one of the most chilling moments in all drama, tells him to “do it beautifully”. Then, once she has the stage to herself, she brings out the manuscript, and sits in front of the stove.

HEDDA (throws one of the pages into the stove and whispers to herself): I’m burning your child, Thea! You with your beautiful, wavy hair! (She throws a few more pages into the stove.) The child Eilert Loevborg gave you. (She throws the rest of the manuscript in.) I’m burning it! I’m burning your child!

Not even the most grotesque physical violence of, say, Titus Andronicus, fills my heart with such terror as does this scene.

I’m not sure how Ibsen manages to maintain the dramatic tension after something like this, but, somehow, he does. Eilert Loevborg does indeed end up dead, but he didn’t do it “beautifully”. Far from it. He had returned to Mademoiselle Danielle’s “boudoir”, and had created a scene, accusing her of stealing his manuscript. Judge Brack tells the story, with his customary tact. They had found his body in the brothel: the gun, in his pocket, had gone off, seemingly accidentally. The wound was not in the breast, as Hedda had thought, but “in the – stomach. The – lower part – ” Or, to put it crudely, Loevborg had accidentally shot off his own genitals.

HEDDA (looks at him with an expression of repulsion): That, too! Oh, why does everything I touch become mean and ludicrous? It’s like a curse!

Hedda had tried to rise above the mean and the ludicrous, but it was no good: she could not climb as high as she built. And here she was still, still a prisoner in an absurd marriage that she had knowingly stepped into; and, worse, she was now in Judge Brack’s power.


The grim, concentrated dramatic power of Hedda Gabler (the whole action take place in just two days) seems in stark contrast with the almost other-worldly atmosphere of its predecessor; and, while the previous play had ended with a rare burst of sunlight, this play moves with a seemingly inexorable logic into the bleakest and darkest of conclusions. In some senses, we are back in the world of A Doll’s House, but in other senses, we aren’t: Hedda is far, far more than a victim merely of a patriarchal society; the roots of her doom lie deep within her own troubled psyche. Alongside Ghosts, Hedda Gabler is perhaps the darkest play Ibsen ever wrote.

In 1891, a year after the first performance of Hedda Gabler, Ibsen returned to his native Norway. He had left some 27 years earlier, a minor and little-known provincial writer; he returned a Grand Old Man of Letters, famed throughout Europe. He was now 63 years old, but he was far from finished. For in the four plays he wrote between his return and his debilitating stroke some ten years later, he seemed to move into a new level of artistry, perhaps even surpassing all that he had achieved earlier. These are difficult plays: at times, I get the impression that Ibsen, at this stage of his life, was writing primarily for himself rather than for an audience. Not surprisingly, his audiences found these plays – and still find these plays – hard to follow, and to understand. But full understanding is not perhaps to be expected in any major work of art. These late plays, for all their difficulties, are worth the effort, as they seem to me the works of a visionary.

“Perchance I will ne’er” go home”: the role of Emilia in “Othello”

When we speak of past productions we have seen of Othello, we remember who played Othello, Desdemona, Iago. We rarely remember who played Emilia. Emilia is seen merely as Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s maidservant, whose sole purpose in the play is to nudge the plot along, and help unravel it in the last scene. Even Verdi and Boito, in their opera, reduced Emilia’s part to only the odd line here and there. She is not, in short, regarded as one of the major players in the drama. This increasingly strikes me as unfair. She seems me nowadays one of the drama’s principal actors, and not merely in terms of the plot.

It is, of course, in the final scene that she comes into her own, expressing a distress at the tragic events of the drama that makes the reaction of everyone else on stage seem merely lukewarm. And she sacrifices her life for what she understands to be the truth. She is utterly unafraid. Even when, on her own, she faces the fierce Othello, who has just murdered his wife and is openly threatening to murder her also, she is unafraid: “Do thy worst!” she dares him. And then she speaks a line that has resonated in my mind for many years now:

Thou hast not half that power to do me harm
As I have to be hurt. 

Where did this come from? It’s an extraordinary line, indicating that the willingness to suffer hurt is in itself a “power”, and, in this instance at least, a power greater even than the power to inflict hurt. It is a line that only a saint could speak and actually mean. And what we have seen of Emilia, she is no saint. She is not above a bit of petty thieving (even from Desdemona), and a bit of lying too. On a number of occasions, her earthiness is contrasted with Desdemona’s other-worldly virtue:


I will be hang’d, if some eternal villain,
Some busy and insinuating rogue,
Some cogging, cozening slave, to get some office,
Have not devised this slander; I’ll be hang’d else. 


Fie, there is no such man; it is impossible. 


If any such there be, heaven pardon him!


A halter pardon him! and hell gnaw his bones!

Desdemona’s forgiveness is not of this world, but Emilia’s rage is.  That is precisely the way that those of us who aren’t saints would react. Similarly in a later scene, when Desdemona says, with a childlike naivety that that does not quite belong to this world, that she cannot imagine why any woman would commit adultery, and that she herself would not do it “for all the world”; Emila’s response, once again, is very much down-to-earth, of this world:


The world’s a huge thing: it is a great price.
For a small vice.


In troth, I think thou wouldst not.


In troth, I think I should … I should venture purgatory for’t.

So how could this very worldly, this-earthly woman suddenly turn into a saint, into a heroic and self-sacrificing woman, unafraid of death? Perhaps there is no definitive answer to this – human good is as mysterious as is human evil – but addressing this question takes us, I think, into the very heart of the play itself.

For what Emilia does in this scene is purely out of love.  It’s not that she is suddenly transformed: and neither has she undergone a change over time. This is still the same Emilia who does not see the point in the Christian concept of forgiving one’s enemies, or in refraining from adultery if the prize is great. But Desdemona, whom she loved, has been murdered, and she suddenly realises what power her love has given her: she has the power to be hurt.  When she realises soon afterwards the part her husband has played in all this, she determines to tell the truth, knowing, once again, what she is risking. Iago angrily tells her to go home, but she replies with another line that stops me in my tracks:

Perchance, Iago, I will ne’er go home.

What does she mean by this? This is usually interpreted as a premonition of her own death, a mystical understanding that for her, too, this is her journey’s end. This is certainly possible, but if this really is what she means, she is taking “home” to mean no more than what Iago had meant by that word – that is, the physical place where one lives. But “home” has other meanings too. “Home” is a place where one is at ease, where one is comfortable. Emilia, till now, had been at ease with the way things were: she had been at ease with her imperfect self in an imperfect world. But that is a “home” she cannot now return to. The world is more wicked than she, with her limited imagination, had ever thought (“I’ll kill myself for grief!”). There is now no going back: the world in which she had been at ease is no longer a world in which she can find a “home”. And so she sacrifices herself, one of the most heroic and most tragic of all Shakespearean figures.

In a later play, Shakespeare found sublimity in the irresponsible and drunken Antony, and in the frivolous and selfish Cleopatra. Here, too, he finds sublimity in ordinary humanity, in someone who is comfortable with the world as it is, who is not above a bit of thieving and lying, and who would quite happily commit adultery if the price is right. No other writer I know of has found such sublimity in ordinary humanity. No other writer I know has even looked.

[Edit: since this post went up about an hour ago, someone challenged me on that last sentence, and asked “What about Leopold Bloom in Ulysses?” I can only hold up my hand. I do get a bit carried away at times, I must admit.]

The plays of Sheridan

I wonder if Sheridan’s literary reputation is on the wane these days. Revivals of his plays are not, I think, so common now as they used to be. We still hear of Edith Evans’ splendid Mrs Malaprop, for instance, or of Laurence Olivier’s exuberant performance as Mr Puff (a role which he seemingly alternated with Sophocles’ Oedipus!), but contemporary luminaries of the stage rarely if ever list Sheridan roles in their credits. And in all the years I have spent here in London, I cannot recall a single performance of a Sheridan play. No doubt I have missed a few, but it’s hard to escape the impression that these plays simply aren’t performed that much these days as they not so long ago used to be. Or read either, for that matter. This is in great part due, no doubt, to that questionable dictum that has gained ground that plays are meant “to be seen, not read” – a dictum that has resulted in the undervaluing of a great many dramatists in preference to authors of prose fiction – but it could also be, I think, that our age is out of sympathy with Sheridan’s dramatic ethos.

I was contemplating this matter only quite recently, when it occurred to me that I had never read Sheridan’s plays either. 18th century writers of prose fiction, yes: the novels of Defoe, Fielding, Sterne, Smollett, and even the intimidatingly long Clarissa by Samuel Richardson, have all been duly ticked off the list, and, in many cases, greatly admired and loved; but Sheridan I knew only by reputation. Well, there was only one way to put that right: Penguin Classics do a very useful volume containing his three greatest hits – The Rivals, The School for Scandal, and The Critic – and, while Sheridan is not these days a big enough name for this volume to be readily available in the local bookshop, it is still in print and is easily ordered.

However, on reading these plays, I did, I confess, have a sneaking sympathy with the “meant to be seen, not read” crowd. Imagine never having seen your favourite sitcom, and knowing it only through the script: how much of it would we laugh at? If I had never seen, say, Andrew Sachs’ performance as Manuel in Fawlty Towers, would I have laughed at seeing a mere “ ¿Qué? ” in cold print? The impact of comedy undoubtedly depends to a very great extent on the comic skills and timing of the actors. However, as I was unlikely to see any of Sheridan’s plays any time soon; and, further, as I have gained much merely from reading comic plays (I am an aficionado of Molière, after all); I wasn’t going to let this stop me. After all, reading the lines and trying to imagine how good comic actors would deliver them is in itself great fun.

All this resulted in a very entertaining week’s worth of reading. (Yes, I know … but I’m a slow reader.) In The Rivals, we have all the appurtenances of romantic comedy – young lovers, impossibly eccentric elders, lovers’ tiffs that are lunatic storms in tiny teacups, disguises, misunderstandings, and all the rest of it. It’s the sort of thing that Oscar Wilde wrought to a pitch of perfection in The Importance of Being Earnest, and which Wodehouse later seized upon (albeit as prose fiction rather than as stage drama). If I am to be entirely honest, both Wilde and Wodehouse improved upon Sheridan here: but it is hardly Sheridan’s fault that those who later took up the genre developed it to such an extent. The Rivals still stands up as a fine comedy even on reading: I’d love to see a good comic cast let loose on this.

The tone in The School for Scandal is somewhat darker. Here, Sheridan presents us with a society where gossip, scandalmongering, hypocrisy, gratuitous and mendacious denigration of one’s fellow humans, are virtually social graces: it is almost impossible to be part of society without being part of all this. The world Sheridan presents here is not too dissimilar to the world presented by Molière in possibly his greatest work, Le Misanthrope. There, Molière puts at the centre of his play a man of integrity, Alceste, who deplores all he sees about him, but who is nonetheless hopelessly in love with Célimène, an attractive young lady very much at home in this world that Alceste so deplores.  But ultimately, Alceste refuses to compromise his integrity, leaving himself lonely and isolated, and, in the midst of all the comedy, almost a tragic figure. But this is not the direction Sheridan wants to go in. He gives us delicious characters, a fine farcical plot (involving that famous scene in Act 4 with various people hidden behind screens on various parts of the stage), and a happy ending where all is resolved, although, given the nature of the dramatic world he presents, a completely happy resolution should be well nigh impossible: even if individuals do reform, the nature of the society they inhabit is too inherently corrupt to change even in the slightest: any man of genuine integrity in such a society must, at best, compromise, as Alceste’s friend Philinte does, or, at worst, end up lonely and isolated, like Alceste himself. But this is not Sheridan’s concern. The corruption of society is not here a representation of the fallen nature of Man: it is, rather, a backdrop with great comic potential. And Sheridan exploits this potential brilliantly, squeezing as many laughs out of it as he can with considerable ingenuity.

The Critic seemed to me the funniest of the lot. After all, which other play features as a character an author named Sir Fretful Plagiary? In this play, Sheridan dispenses almost entirely with plot. Most of the play consists of a rehearsal of another play, an absurd “tragic drama” about the Spanish Armada, with comments by the exuberant Mr Puff, author of this play, an enthusiast of the theatre, Mr Dangle, and a dramatic critic, Mr Sneer. That’s it. No young lovers, no-one hiding behind screens, no disguises and misunderstandings to be smoothed out at the denouement. Indeed, no denouement at all, for that matter.

Without anything resembling plot, everything stands or falls by the quality of the gags, and, even seen only in print, they are hilarious. The play within the play is extraordinarily bad, but Puff is nonetheless delighted by his own invention, and is not in the slightest bit put out by any criticism. When it is pointed out, for instance, that one of his lines is straight out of Othello, he blithely responds:

Gad! now you put me in mind on’t, I believe there is, but that’s of no consequence: all that can be said is, that two people happened to hit on the same thought, and Shakespeare made use of it first, that’s all.

Puff is particularly proud of the “mad scene”, and proudly reads out his stage direction:

‘Enter Tilburina stark mad in white satin, and her confidant stark mad in white linen.’

Puff patiently explains to the various objectors that, yes, the confidant as well as the heroine must become mad. Stark mad. And once the scene ends, Puff turns to his audience in triumph:

There, do you ever desire to see any body madder than that?

(I must confess this is a line that has run through my mind after reading many a chapter by Dostoyevsky…)

Now that I have read these plays, I don’t know that I’ll be returning to The Rivals, or even to The School for Scandal: it’s not that I didn’t enjoy them – I did – but I’m not sure there’s enough substance in either play to warrant revisiting (although I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing them performed on stage). The Critic I shall most certainly be returning to: it’s one of those instances we sometimes encounter (Don Quixote is another) of a parody that remains funny even when that which it is parodying has vanished from sight. This play alone should be enough to cement Sheridan’s reputation as one of the great comic authors.