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Some further thoughts on “The Wild Duck”

It is no original or startling revelation that Brand, Dr Stockmann (An Enemy of the People), and Gregers Werle (The Wild Duck) are cut, as it were, from the same cloth: all three insist that their fellow humans accept the Truth; all three make moral demands that humans aren’t, on the whole, capable of living up to. However, the family resemblance between the three should not be pushed too far, as there are salient differences between them also; and exploring these differences gives, perhaps, some insight into the way Ibsen’s thought was developing.

Of the three, Brand is the only one who is explicitly religious. He demands that humans accept the truth because God wills it so, and because God’s will is paramount. The question of human happiness barely enters into it. The God that Brand envisages loves Man, but he is, in Geoffrey Hill’s translation, “imperious in his love”.

My God is the great God of storm,
absolute arbiter of doom
imperious in His love!

your God can hardly move;
he’s weak of mind and heart,
easy to push about:
but mine is young, a Hercules…

To follow Brand’s God is to forswear earthly comfort; it is also perhaps to forswear happiness, joy. It is to engage in endless struggle. For Brand’s view of the world is God-centred rather than Man-centred: human contentment, human comfort, human joy, all mean nothing when placed next to God’s will, and if carrying out God’s will is to forfeit happiness and comfort, so be it. In this, though in little else, Brand’s vision corresponds with the views of Pastor Manders in Ghosts:

What right do we mortals have to happiness? No, we must do our duty, madam! 

Pastor Manders is very unlike Brand because he has neither the strength of character nor the unflinching and uncompromising intelligence to follow through his premise to its rightful conclusions; but their starting points are perhaps not too different.

Stockmann and Gregers Werle are different. Dr Stockmann is, specifically, a man of science: for him, the Truth is not something that is divinely revealed, but rather, something that Man arrives at by exercising his own intellect. And Gregers Werle never mentions God: he never even refers to him indirectly.

But Gregers’ moral code is very Christian: he places great emphasis upon sacrifice, and upon forgiveness. (It may be argued indeed that in his emphasis on forgiveness, he is more Christian than Brand: Brand’s God is “imperious in his love”, and unforgiving.) But Gregers’ reason for making such moral demands of his fellow humans is not to carry out the will of God: rather, it is to make men happy. For once man discovers his innate nobility and learns to sacrifice and to forgive, then the whole of mankind can, he believes, live together in harmony and happiness and joy. This is a consideration that is as alien to Brand as it is to Pastor Manders: “What right do we mortals have to happiness?”

It is Dr Stockmann’s insistence on Truth that is perhaps the most puzzling. He certainly makes no mention of God, but neither does he seem an idealist concerned with human happiness. In purely scientific terms, yes, the water in the spa is indeed polluted, and, unless the fault is corrected, people will suffer. But is his motivation ultimately to prevent human suffering? It hardly seems so:

It’s of no consequence if a lie-ridden community is destroyed. It should be razed to the ground, I say! All those who live a lie should be eradicated like vermin! You’ll bring a plague upon the entire country in the end; you’ll make it so the entire country deserves to be laid to waste.  And if it comes to that, then I say from the depths of my heart: let the entire country be laid to waste, let the entire people be eradicated!

So what does motivate Dr Stockmann? Truth for its own sake, yes: but why? Why should a man who, speaking from the depths of his heart, is happy to see the “entire people eradicated”, care whether or not these people grasp the Truth?

And for that matter, why should Brand be so tortured by the end? Yes, he is rejected and reviled; yes, he has lost everything that he has loved – his wife, his child. But had he not rejected the concept of earthly human happiness in the first place? Had he not told himself that carrying out the will of God is a hard task, and that those who set out to carry out the task must have no expectations of earthly comfort?

These are not easy questions, and these inconsistencies perhaps indicate no more than that we, as humans, are complex, and not perfectly rational creatures. But the most intriguing of the three, perhaps, is Gregers Werle, who, though clearly mad, seems to me particularly interesting. He does not mention God or religion, but his moral code is nevertheless Christian, and he acts by it because he genuinely believes that this will bring about human happiness. And even after his convictions bring about tragedy, he refuses to let go of them. At the start of the play, there had been thirteen at dinner, and, at the very end of the play, Gregers declares his destiny: to be thirteenth at table – that is, to be the odd one out, the one who refuses to abide by what the rest of the world thinks. For he cannot let go of his convictions, regardless of what people think, regardless even of what happens: for to give up his convictions is to accept Dr Relling’s formulation that humans need to live with lies and illusions, simply to make life bearable. But to Gregers, such a life is not a life worth living. This is why he has to adhere to his principles, no matter what: life cannot be worth living without them – there can be no reason to exist.

Ibsen was writing in the post-Enlightenment era: belief in God was still possible, but was by no means a default position, dictated by reason. And the question of how can justify life once we no longer take as given (as Brand had done) a divine overriding purpose is not an easy question. Without belief in an overriding divine purpose, the focus falls on what makes us humans happy.  And the realisation that the Truth does not necessarily make us happy is a terrible realisation: how can we live with that? And it’s not even that there exists a middle ground between Gregers and Dr Relling: either humans are noble beings capable of accepting truth, or they are not. And if we are to reject Gregers’ idealism, what option do we have but to accept Dr Relling’s cynicism, and the contempt for humanity that goes with it?

There still seems to be an image of Ibsen as a purveyor of bourgeois drama – reassuring, comfortable, and perhaps a bit stodgy. All I can say is that this is far from how I see them.

 

 

[The passages from Brand quoted above are taken from the translation by Geoffrey Hill. The passages from the other plays are from the translations by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik. All translations are published by Penguin Classics.]

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“The Wild Duck” 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, 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 Michael Meyer, published by Methuen

HEDWIG: It’s only a loft.

GREGERS (looks hard at her): Are you sure?

HEDWIG (astonished):  That it’s only a loft?

GREGERS: Yes. Are you quite certain about that?

It is hard either to read or to see The Wild Duck, and not be aware of its various symbols. Of course, Ibsen had used symbols in his earlier plays too: if, as I increasingly think, the point of serious literature is to force language to communicate matters language is not primarily designed to communicate, then symbols becomes virtually unavoidable, and all serious writers, to some extent or other, use symbols to refer to that which cannot be stated directly. But in The Wild Duck, we seem so firmly enmeshed in a network of symbols, we can barely move without running into them.

The loft, for instance. It’s a strange concept in what is still a “realistic play” – by which I mean a play that takes place in the world we inhabit rather than in some dreamscape, features characters from walks of life familiar to us, and tells a story that we can believe could conceivably happen in our real world. This loft, which in performance is just offstage and can be just tantalisingly glimpsed, is a dark place, done up like a forest with what Meyer’s translation refers to as “Christmas trees”, and populated by chickens, pigeons, and rabbits. We don’t need to be told that this loft represents more than a mere literal description can convey.

And what’s more, the characters know this as well. But to each character, it means something quite different. For instance, to Ekdal, once a fearless bear-hunter in the great forests but now reduced to a pathetic shell of a man, it is an image of the forests he used to love, but which he now does not have the nerve to go to. Once he went into the forest to hunt bears; now, he goes into the loft with his gun to shoot rabbits. He speaks of the forest “taking its revenge”, and when the final tragic act of this drama unfolds in this loft, he returns to this theme: “The forest has taken its revenge,” he says quietly. So to Ekdal, the loft is a symbol of the forest, and the forest itself is a symbol of some mysterious impersonal force that punishes humans for their encroachments – though why, we do not precisely know.

Meanwhile, the teenage girl Hedwig associates the loft with the “vasty deep” – the depths of the sea, where a former lodger, a sea captain, is now drowned. And this “vasty deep” she associates with the world of the imagination, a magical world removed from the solid, quotidian concerns of real life.

And inside this loft, this mock-forest, this “vasty deep”, there resides, amongst the pigeons and the rabbits and the chickens, the wild duck of the title. And, of course, this too is a symbol for something. But it’s perhaps best not to try to interpret these symbols too precisely, or too rigidly: the play is, after all, a play about humans interacting with each other, and not an abstract interplay of theoretical symbols, or some intellectual crossword puzzle to be solved. But the preponderance of these various symbols, and the various different interpretations that are attached to each of them (often by the characters themselves), create in this play a powerful poetical dimension: alongside the reality – the  real world that Ibsen by now was so expert in depicting on stage – we are shown another world, a mysterious and poetic world of the imagination, or, as Hedwig would call it, of the “vasty deep”. And these two worlds co-exist, each inter-penetrating the other, on the one hand giving the real world a poetic depth, and, on the other, anchoring the flights of poetic fancy to the solid and the everyday. While, in the four earlier plays of this cycle, we had mainly inhabited the real world of solid things, with The Wild Duck, I get the impression that Ibsen was moving into new directions: we are now in a world that is increasingly suffused by the poetic, by the mysterious and inscrutable powers of the imagination, by the “vasty deep” itself – by all those things that language unaided by the poetic sensibility is so ill equipped to communicate. And, however solid the real world had been that Ibsen had presented to us in his previous four plays, he was – as Brand and Peer Gynt should remind us – as much a poet as he was a dramatist. If his previous play, An Enemy of the People, was, as I had suggested, a sort of step back, then we can see it in the light of the subsequent plays as a sort of consolidation, a restatement of what Ibsen had already achieved, before setting out on a new and adventurous direction.

But to say we shouldn’t be too rigid in interpreting these symbols doesn’t mean we shouldn’t interpret them at all: we need merely to remember that each interpretation is at best partial – that these symbols can mean all sorts of different things simultaneously, and that what they mean at bottom is as elusive and as intangible as the workings of the human mind itself.

The wild duck, for instance, also means different things to different people. It is Hedwig’s pet, and she loves it; and Gregers, the fanatic, knowing how much it means to her, suggests she sacrifice it in order to prove her love for her father – an act of pure symbolism to demonstrate that which is real. But Gregers himself sees the duck as something else. This duck had been winged by his father (from whom Gregers is now alienated); it had fallen into the lake, and had gone down to the “vasty deep”; and from there, it had been retrieved by his father’s dog. And now, wounded and flightless, it resides in the loft that is at the same time real and symbolic. In one sense, this duck is Hedwig’s mother Gina, once violated by Gregers’ father, and now living her life in quiet, unassuming domestication. But that “vasty deep” into which the duck had sunk means to Gregers something other than what it means to Hedwig: to Hedwig, it represents the world of the imagination; but to Gregers, it represents a world of lies, of delusion. And he sees Hedwig’s father, Hjalmar, as the duck that has sunk into this world of delusion; and he sees his own self as the dog who is to bring him back to the surface, into the clear light of day.

There are other symbols too – weaving its way in and out. There’s the recurring image of vision (or the lack of it), and of light; there is the image of hunting; and so on. We can quite easily get to the stage that we start looking for symbols in everything. So, for instance, when Gregers fails to light his stove properly and the room fills with poisonous fumes, and he throws water over the stove to put it out and floods his room, we can’t help wondering what it symbolises. I personally think it is no more than a comic episode, and, far from symbolising anything, merely demonstrates Gregers’ inadequacy in dealing with the real world of solid things – an inadequacy that, in a different context, leads to devastation. But if we wish to tease symbolic meaning here too, I’m sure we’re entitled to: as long as we do not allow this interplay of symbols obscure the very human drama that Ibsen presents with such clarity. For the play does not merely inhabit a poetic world of the imagination: it is as firmly rooted in reality as is any of Ibsen’s earlier plays in the cycle.

And it has a very well-defined plot. The principal protagonists of this plot are two young men who used to be schoolfriends, but who are very unlike each other. There’s Hjalmar Ekdal, good-looking and vain (he speaks admiringly of his own curly hair), indolent, self-obsessed and self-dramatising, and living a blissfully contented life. And there’s Gregers Werle, who is (we are told) physically ugly; he is son of a very wealthy local businessman, but he is not on good terms with his father: his father had been a philandering type, and he cannot forget the misery this had caused his late mother. He has tried to stay away from his father, and on returning to his home town, finds he cannot forgive him:

WERLE: Gregers – I believe there’s no-one in the world you hate as much as you do me.

GREGERS (quietly); I have seen you at close quarters.

WERLE: You have seen me with your mother’s eyes.

Their respective fathers had been in business together, but Hjalmar’s father, Ekdal, had been found guilty of business malpractice, had served a prison term, and is now a broken man. Gregers’ father had been indicted too, but he had been found not guilty: Gregers does not believe his father had been innocent, although we, the audience, never know the truth of the matter. As far as Gregers is concerned, his father had merely used Ekdal, letting him go to prison while he himself had thrived.

And old Ekdal has a further reason for shame: when found guilty, he had a gun in his possession, and honour demanded that he turn the gun on himself; but he, the fearless hunter of bears in the forest, had proved (in his own mind, at least) a coward. And now, he is utterly broken, reduced to doing some menial copy-writing work given to him by his former business partner, and shooting rabbits in his own loft.

Hjalmar speaks sentimentally about his father, and speaks of rehabilitating him once again in society; but in reality, he is ashamed of him, and fails even to acknowledge him in public. He is married to the submissive Gina, who does all the work – and even, we find out, runs his business, as Ekdal is too lazy to run it himself. (He has been set up by Werle as a professional photographer.) And Ekdal is blissfully unaware that his wife Gina, when she had been housekeeper at the Werles’, had been Werle’s mistress; and Hedwig, the girl he thinks is his own, is, almost certainly, Werle’s.

It is into this atmosphere that Gregers intrudes. Unable to live under the same roof as his father, he becomes a lodger with the Ekdals. And he is determined that his old friend Hjalmar must not live with his delusions; he must know the truth about his wife, and accept that Hedwig, who loves him unconditionally, is not his own daughter. And Gregers is convinced that once Ekdal’s eyes are open, he will forgive, and that they will all live happily in perfect understanding of each other, and with perfect love – that a new life will open for them, based not on lies and illusion, but on Truth, which is the most important thing of all.

Gregers is quite clearly a fanatic, as Brand and Dr Stockmann had been; and he is also, quite clearly, mad. While it is possible to see his forerunners Brand and Dr Stockmann as heroic, it is hard to discern anything at all heroic about this strange character who insists on seeing life in terms of ideals, and who is so much at odds with the rest of humanity that he cannot what really is so blindingly obvious – that a man as shallow and as self-dramatising as Hjalmar Ekdal is not capable of living with the Truth, however valuable that Truth may be.

But the principal conflict in the drama is not between Gregers and Hjalmar: the weak and indolent Hjalmar is not really strong enough character to carry the burden of such a conflict. The conflict is between Gregers and Dr Relling. Dr Relling, unlike Gregers, takes a much dimmer view of humanity: humanity, he feels, cannot live with the Truth, and it is better for them to live contentedly with whatever illusions they need to get through life. So he has convinced Hjalmar that he has the talent to be an inventor; and he convinces the rather pathetic drunkard Molvik that there is actually something “daemonic” about his character. Contrasting as he does with Gregers’ lunacy, it is tempting to see Dr Relling as the voice of sense – the chorus, as it were, commenting sensibly on what is happening, but unable to prevent the tragedy. But this won’t do.  At the very end, after the almost unbearably tragic outcome (which, seen in a good production, really does tear the heart apart), we get a brief scene between Gregers and Relling, where Relling says that, despite the uncontrollable grief of Hjalmar’s, he will not be ennobled by his experience, that he is incapable of being ennobled – that he will continue to be the indolent, self-dramatising and self-pitying man he always has been. Gregers’ can’t accept this:

If you are right and I am wrong, life is not worth living.

And while we may agree with Relling on this specific point, we would be wrong to dismiss Gregers: if life does indeed consist, as Relling insists, merely in drowning ourselves in illusion so as to avoid facing truths, then life really isn’t worth living. Gregers may be mad, but in this, he is surely right.

In An Enemy of the People, it was Dr Stockmann who held the people in utter contempt: this is because he saw them incapable of being the noble searchers for Truth that he feels they should be. But it is not just the idealists who can become enemy of people: here, it is Dr Relling who holds humans in contempt; it is he who knows Molvik to be merely a pathetic drunk, and Hjalmar a self-deluding fool. Can the case not be made that it is Dr Relling, so contemptuous of his fellow humans, and, indeed, of himself, who is, indeed, the Enemy of the People here?

To understand the drama in realistic terms rather than as an abstract clash of  theories, we need to try to re-create something of these characters’ past. Gregers had been quite devoted to his mother. When Hjalmar speaks of his feelings when his father had been indicted and sentenced to prison, of how the world seemed at the time to collapse around him, Gregers is immediately reminded of how he had felt when his mother had died. It does not require too great a psychological insight to deduce that Gregers blames his father for his mother’s unhappiness, and that his present actions may be (albeit unknowingly) motivated by this hatred. But the nature of his parents’ marriage is not easy to unravel. Towards the end of the first act, we get the following exchange between Gregers Werle and his father:

WERLE (lowers his voice a little): But you should remember her vision was sometimes a little – blurred.

GREGERS (trembling): I know what you are trying to say. But who was to blame for that? You were! You and all those – ! And the last of them you palmed off on Hjalmar Ekdal, when you no longer – oh!

WERLE (shrugs his shoulders): Word for word as if I were listening to your mother.

The vision being “blurred” is a reference to the image of sight and of blindness that runs through the play: old Werle is going blind, as is the young Hedwig, presumably through some hereditary defect. And here, this reference to blurring is also, quite obviously, a euphemism: Gregers certainly understands what his father is driving at: though it is never made clear, we may infer that she was becoming mentally unbalanced. And that, at least as far as Gregers is concerned, it was his father who had driven her to madness. Now, it could be that Werle was simply an unprincipled and ruthless sybarite, who was cruel to his wife; or it could be that their marriage had already broken down for other reasons. We cannot really tell. We see Werle now as a successful and respectable businessman, but of course, that means nothing. We see him also as a man who is careful to do his duty: he may have escaped prison (rightly or wrongly), but he spends his own money to set up his disgraced partner’s son in business, and later, makes sure his illegitimate and unacknowledged daughter Hedwig will be more than adequately provided for. And we certainly don’t see him as dissipated: he is clearly living with his housekeeper, the very self-possessed independent minded widow Mrs Soerby, and in the course of the play, announces his engagement with her. Dr Relling and Molvik go out boozing  together, and often visit a certain establishment run, we are told, by a Madame Ericsson: Werle is not the type of person to frequent such places. Now, it could be that with age, and, possibly, under the good influence of Mrs Soerby, Werle has grown out of his past habits; but it could equally be that, though far from morally pure, he was not quite the monster his son thinks him to be. We cannot be sure.

But Gregers has, for better or worse, taken after his mother. And so disgusted is he by what he sees as his father’s moral depravity, he is determined to see other humans as essentially noble beings. Or, at least, as the noble beings they would be if only they were to perceive the Truth. He is certainly a fanatic, and in this, he recalls Brand, but the differences are important: for one thing, Gregers does not mention God. Brand had insisted on the highest moral standards for humans because that is what God wants from Man: it’s not as a means of achieving happiness, but rather, to carry out God’s will, for only in carrying out divine will can the soul be purified. Pastor Manders too, in Ghosts, had asked why we humans should search happiness: we have our duty, given us by God himself, and that is sufficient.

But if God is no longer part of the equation, then what can we live for? How then can we justify life at all? Gregers may not mention God; he may not even believe in God; but his moral compass is very firmly rooted in Christianity all the same, and is centred, as Christianity is, around the concepts of forgiveness and sacrifice. Search for Truth, take this Truth to our hearts, forgive, and sacrifice for the sake of those we love; for only through that can we achieve for ourselves happiness and joy, and make life worth living. We may think all this hopelessly naïve, but before we dismiss it as such, we should consider Dr Relling’s position: live in delusion, he says, for we are not good enough or strong enough to live with the Truth; and, far from searching for happiness and joy, take solace instead in drunkenness, and in the joyless pleasures of Madame Ericsson’s establishment. Is this really any better than Gregers’ naivety? If Dr Relling is right and Gregers is wrong, then is life really worth living?

The Wild Duck addresses some of the most fundamental of questions about our lives: how should we live? How can we justify our lives, and make our lives worth living? But there is nothing abstract about the drama: it is a very human story, peopled with weak and fallible people who nonetheless demand our sympathy and understanding; and it culminates in a tragedy that really does break the heart. Hjalmar may be weak and self-dramatising, but seeing him weep over the body of one who had loved him unconditionally, but whose love he had in his moral blindness rejected; and to see also the equally helpless tears of the mother Gina, who saw the terrible tragedy unfold before her eyes, but who was helpless to prevent it; is among the most heart-rending of all scenes in drama, and even brings to mind the final scene of King Lear.

And interfused with this tragedy is the poetry – the deep and resonant imagery of the loft, which is at the same time the forest and the “vasty deep”, and whatever associations the forest and the vasty deep may have; and of the wild duck itself, winged, brought up from the vasty deep, and now, wounded, residing in the mock forest in the loft. The point is not to identify what these things mean, but, rather, to allow this world of dreams and of the imagination to intermingle with the worldly solidities, and reveal to us some of  the most hidden compartments of our consciousness.

Ibsen in his later plays was to go much further in using theatre, the most public of all art forms, to delve deeply into our unconscious: The Wild Duck is only the beginning.

“An Enemy of the People” by Henrik Ibsen

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

Konstantin Stanislavsky’s production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, with Stanislavky himself playing the protagonist Stockmann, was a sensation. The year was 1905, a rather significant year in Russian history: there was great social and political unrest, mutinies, attempted revolution, and a disastrous military defeat at the hands of Japan. Near the very start of the year, in Petersburg, soldiers fired on unarmed protestors, killing 96 people according to Tsarist official records: the actual toll is likely to have been much higher. Feelings were running high, and Ibsen’s play, written some 23 years earlier, and depicting a heroic individual speaking truth to power, struck a powerful chord. Even in its inevitably censored version, with censors actually attending performances to ensure unauthorised passages were excised as ordered, the effect, to judge from Stanislavsky’s autobiography, was electrifying. Stockmann’s speeches were enthusiastically applauded, and, at times, members of the audience actually came on to the stage to shake Stanislavsky’s hand, or to embrace and kiss him.

It is easy to see why this play, at this particular time, should make such an impact. At a time when truth was suppressed by tyrannical authorities, here was an individual standing up for this very truth in the face of everything that may be thrown at him – a man who insists that truth matters above all else. And it is tremendously theatrical. It is, perhaps, a bit difficult to stage, given that the big scene in the fourth act requires a crowd – and the bigger the crowd, the more effective the drama – but even on reading it at home, the theatricality of the various dramatic confrontations seem virtually to leap out from the page. Not surprisingly, the play has proved one of Ibsen’s greatest hits, and, despite the difficulty of staging the big crowd scene in the fourth act, has been frequently revived. It has also been filmed several times, and adapted in all sorts of ways. The opening half of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is effectively a re-tread of this play; and Satyajit Ray’s Ganashatru placed the action in Bengal, with the Bengali version of Dr Stockmann finding dangerous pollution in holy temple water. (Sadly,  Ray made this film soon after a major heart attack, and in defiance of doctor’s orders not to return to work: for understandable reasons, this film isn’t among his best.) Dr Stockmann, in his various manifestations, has become the very epitome of the courageous individual who stands up alone for what he knows to be right, for what he knows to be true.

But while this heroic and inspiring stand for truth defines the principal tonality of the work, there are some very troubling dissonances throughout that frequently threaten to overwhelm this tonality. I can’t help wondering, for instance, how well the Petersburg audiences appreciated the profoundly anti-democratic nature of Stockmann’s stand, and, perhaps, of the play itself. Quite early in the play, for instance, we get this exchange between the newspaper-man Billing and the sea captain Horster:

BILLING: Still, we all have to vote, at least.

HORSTER: Even those who understand nothing?

BILLING: Understand? What do you mean? Society is like a ship; everyone must come together at the helm.

HORSTER: That might be all right on land; but it would come to no good on a ship.

Dr Tomas Stockmann himself is presented as a loquacious man, a dynamic personality, never still, forever brimming with energy and optimism. He is clearly highly intelligent, but in terms of judging the political temperature, or of judging the people around him, hopelessly naïve. He has made the discovery that the water in the spa, the very spa on which the entire economy of the town depends, is dangerously polluted. And he knows also the solution: the pipes carrying the water need to be re-laid. But he never gives a thought to the financial implications of this. He is certain that, in making this discovery, he is saving the town itself, and that he will be lionised for doing so; he is certain that he has the “solid majority” behind him.  Certainly, the liberal press is on his side, but he cannot see what the rest of us can – that they are supporting him not out of any love for truth, but merely to score political points. The points they want to score are against the town’s conservative mayor, Peter Stockmann, Dr Stockmann’s own brother, and chairman of the spa’s board. And it never even occurs to Dr Stockmann that a person in such a position is not likely to welcome his scientific findings: his belief that the truth is something that everyone would welcome is simultaneously touching in its naïvety, and also somewhat alarming. For how can someone with so inadequate an understanding of human behaviour cope with humanity as it really is?

It doesn’t take long for the expected to happen – especially as Ibsen moves the drama forward with virtually every line, barely pausing for breath. Dr Stockmann’s brother, the mayor, consummate politician that he is, goes to work behind the scenes. He puts forward a proposal for some minor changes that will, he personally assures everyone, solve all the problems; and he lets people know how much Dr Stockmann’s solution will cost: it will require not merely a huge rise in taxes, but also the spa closing down for two years while the work is carried out. In short, the town will effectively be deprived of an income for two years. Dr Stockmann, still as naively optimistic as ever, continues to believe that the “solid majority” will continue to support him: how, after all, can any rational person, when faced with the truth, fail to acknowledge it? It is impossible! But others know better. Those who had previously expressed support for him now change their minds: after all, isn’t the mayor proposing a solution that would cost far less? Only a fanatic, after all, would propose depriving the town of its income for two whole years while hiking up taxes. Even the liberal press backs out: it’s not that they’re against the truth, as such – of course they aren’t – but they cannot, obviously, back Dr Stockmann’s dangerous fanaticism.

Ibsen spares no-one, not even the “centrists”, the men of sensible moderation: the printer Aslaksen (who had appeared in Ibsen’s earlier play The League of Youth), always preaching temperance and moderation, always warning of the dangers of fanaticism, also deserts the man  he now comes to see as a dangerous fanatic: when it comes to it, his “centrism” is no more than pusillanimity, a craven failure to back radicalism when radicalism is what is needed. This frankly makes for uncomfortable reading for political moderates such as myself, and that is, undoubtedly, as Ibsen had intended. While this play is still seen (as A Doll’s House often is) as a comfortable work that flatters our sense of our own honesty and integrity, it is, in truth, a deeply uncomfortable work that turns the spotlight very disconcertingly on to our own selves, and reveals things that we would perhaps prefer not to see. I must confess that if I saw myself at all in this play, it was as the cowardly and self-justifying Aslaksen rather than the heroic Dr Stockmann. And that is far from comfortable.

If things are beginning to become uncomfortable by the end of the third act (where Dr Stockmann is threatened by his own brother with losing his job should he refuse to see reason), the remarkable fourth act goes even further. Stockmann, denied a public platform, has decided to hold a public meeting where he could speak to the “solid majority” he still reckons will back him. No public hall would accept his booking, so the meeting is held in the large front room of the sympathetic sea captain Horster.

The public, even at the start of the meeting, is hostile to Stockmann: the powers ranged against Stockmann, while denying him a platform, have already let the public know how much Stockmann’s solution would cost, and has further let them know that the patches proposed by the Mayor will solve whatever problem there is. It is easy for us to take sides against the public here (as Stockmann himself does), but a simply dichotomy of Good vs Bad serves but to weaken the drama: the public’s position is surely understandable, and I, for one, find it easy to sympathise: it is, after all, their livelihoods that are at stake. Even at this meeting, against Stockmann’s wishes, a chairman and moderator are appointed, and they quickly rule that Stockmann is not entitled to speak about the water pollution. And then the dam breaks: the anti-democratic seeds that had been planted early in the play now blossom, and take on frankly grotesque forms.

Of course, since this is, after all, an Ibsen play, we know that the pollution of the public water is a symbol for something else. And now, Dr Stockmann clearly and explicitly sees it as a symbol, and explains what it is:

DR STOCKMANN: I have some great revelations to make  to you, my fellow citizens! I  want to report the discovery of a very different scope than the trifling matter of the water supply being poisoned and our Health Spa built on  plague-infested ground! … I’ve said I wanted to talk about an important discovery I’ve made over the last few days – the discovery that our spiritual wells are being poisoned, and that our entire civic community rests on a plague-infested ground of lies!

Readers of Ibsen’s earlier work should have no difficulty identifying Dr Stockmann here: he is Brand, the unyielding idealist and stern moralist, insisting that his fellow humans must accept the truth at all times without compromise – insisting on moral imperatives that human beings are, on the whole, incapable of following. The heroic Stockmann then goes on, in his rage, to articulate a number of things that are, frankly, hard to stomach. The broadside against democracy continues:

The majority never have the right on their side, never I tell you! That’s one of those lies in society against which any independent, thinking man must wage war.  Who is it that constitutes the greater part of the population in a country? The intelligent people or the stupid ones? … The might is with the many – unfortunately – but not the right. The right is with myself, and a few other solitary individuals.  The minority is always in the right.

Then, he draws a parallel between humans and dogs, coming in the process close to advocating what we would nowadays describe as eugenics:

First, imagine a simple, common dog – I mean the kind of vile, ragged, badly behaved mongrel that runs around in the streets fouling the house walls. And put one of these mongrels next to a poodle whose pedigree goes back several generations, and who comes from a noble house where it’s been fed with good food and had the chance to hear harmonious voices and music. Don’t you think that the poodle’s cranium has developed quite differently from that of the mongrel?

Michael Meyer, arguing that the poodle has associations in English that aren’t present in Norwegian, changed the breed to greyhound in the above passage in his own translation, but its meaning is unmistakable either way. Not that Stockmann is favouring the aristocracy: the “mongrels” he is referring to are, as far as he is concerned, from all social classes. But even so, those of us who had been cheering on Stockmann so far, and who remain convinced that he is in the right (as he surely is), can but grit our teeth. But Stockmann is now unstoppable:

It’s of no consequence if a lie-ridden community is destroyed. It should be razed to the ground, I say! All those who live a lie should be eradicated like vermin! You’ll bring a plague upon the entire country in the end; you’ll make it so the entire country deserves to be laid to waste.  And if it comes to that, then I say from the depths of my heart: let the entire country be laid to waste, let the entire people be eradicated!

The mayor, the press, Aslaksen, weren’t wrong: Stockmann really is a dangerous fanatic. He is declared by the meeting to be “an enemy of the people”. And if Stockmann is Brand in his unbending integrity and his fanaticism, he is also, it seems to me, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, who, also in a public meeting, is declared an enemy of the people and exiled; and who, again like Stockmann, remains unbowed, and vents his fury upon the populace that repudiates him, banishing them even as they banish him:

You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate
As the reek of the rotten fens, whose love I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air: I banish you.

The  play ends not with victory, but on a note of defiance. Stockmann has been attacked by the mob, and the windows of his house smashed; he has, predictably, lost his job, and so has his daughter:  not that her employer wanted to dismiss her, but, like everyone  else,  they dare not keep her. No-one in the town dares: the weight of public opinion is too strong. The Stockmanns are evicted by their landlord: once again, he dares not do otherwise.  But Stockmann, like his predecessor Brand, is determined  to fight on, to stand up for the Truth, no matter what the cost to himself or to his family. And we are left not entirely sure whether to admire or to deplore him.

***

In the context of the twelve plays beginning with The Pillars of Society, which may loosely be termed a “cycle”, this play, the fourth in the series, is, in some ways, a step back. After having used the very public medium of theatre to explore inner lives of his characters in A Doll’s House and, even more, perhaps, in Ghosts, we are, in this play, back in the very public world of The Pillars of Society: the inner lives of the characters here are not addressed; the characters are only really important here in terms of their public function. Of course, Ibsen was soon to delve more deeply into the inner lives of his characters in his subsequent plays:  in some of these works, he delved as deeply into the recesses of the human mind as is perhaps possible. But this play stands apart somewhat from the others: it is, in a sense, simpler, in that its content can be fairly adequately summarised, in a way that the contents of plays such as Rosmersholm or The Master Builder, say, cannot. But it is still very much a part of the cycle: its themes – the nature of truth, our human capacity for accepting and acknowledging the truth – are every much themes that Ibsen explored from different perspectives in this and in other plays.

The truth here, despite Wilde’s famous epigram, is both pure and simple: in literal terms, the spa water is indeed dangerously polluted, and, in symbolic terms, our human society, as in The Pillars of Society, is indeed built upon lies and corruption. What is at issue here is not the nature of Truth (Ibsen was to explore that later), but, rather, our human capacity to accept and acknowledge the Truth, and also the inhuman fanaticism to which an entirely admirable devotion to Truth all too often gives rise. For the title is not ironic: Dr Tomas Stockman is, quite literally, an enemy of the people. That he is a man of the utmost integrity, and heroic and admirable, does not alter this fact. It is a play that should make us all feel uncomfortable.

“A Doll’s House” and “The Maltese Falcon”

It occurred to me while taking a morning walk earlier today that Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which I was blogging about only yesterday, is surprisingly similar to The Maltese Falcon –  both Dashiell Hammett’s novel, and John Huston’s film version. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of this similarity before, but now it’s in my head, it seems quite obvious really.

No, please, do bear with me. Let me, at least, explain.

In A Doll’s House, the principal theme (the relationship between Nora and Torvald, and the state of their marriage) is introduced quite early. But then, Ibsen introduces new strands of the drama – forged signature, blackmail, and all the rest of it. And he develops these new elements, ratcheting up the dramatic tension in the process. And then, suddenly, almost too easily, these elements are resolved. And once they’re resolved, the true central theme of the work, which had been introduced right at the start but which had been allowed to simmer away only below the surface, emerges, bringing with it a shift in tonality. And we realise, to our surprise, that this had been at the centre of the drama all along, and that the shift in tonality,  though perhaps unexpected, is perfectly in order, because this seemingly new tonality had never really been too far away.

And I couldn’t help wondering: I knew there was another work in which something similar happened, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. And then it came to me. Of course! It’s The Maltese Falcon!

[ At this point, I suppose I should issue a spoiler warning for those who have neither read Dashiell Hammett’s novel, nor seen John Huston’s film. And issue also a recommendation either to read the book, or to see the film, or, better, do both, as both book and film are absolute dynamite. ]

At the start of The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, is killed while on a case. But then, Spade finds himself embroiled in all sorts of shenanigans, with a wonderfully colourful cast of crooks and villains and murderers all in search of the fabled, jewel-encrusted statuette of Maltese Falcon. It all builds up superbly towards a tense climax. But then, the tension just seems to dissipate: the issue of the Maltese Falcon is resolved, almost too easily. And once that’s out of the way, we come to the real thing – the murder of Miles Archer. Sam didn’t particularly like Miles, but he was a partner, and, as Sam says, when your partner is killed, it doesn’t matter whether you liked him or not, you’re supposed to do something about it. And we realise that this is what it had all been about, all along. Sam has to do something about the murder of his partner, even if he has to sacrifice what is dearest to him.

***

Now, I don’t know whether this similarity between these two masterpieces has ever been commented on before. I somehow doubt it. Unless someone tells me otherwise, I flatter myself that this is my unique contribution to the field of literary criticism. Now, some may tell me I’m talking rot, and they may well be right. But, rot or not, I offer it, free, gratis, and for nothing, to any literature student out there searching for a theme for a dissertation. No fees charged: just a little mention in the acknowledgements will do.

Thank you for your attention.

“A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen

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

Ibsen once denied that A Doll’s House is a “feminist” play, claiming he did not even know what feminism meant. He was being disingenuous, of course: he knew fine well what he had written, and he meant every word of it, but I think I can understand his frustration: while his very specific intentions were eagerly seized upon, his more general themes seemed obscured: the play was seen as primarily didactic rather than as exploratory. That is probably the case even now: although we are no longer shocked by the play’s feminist manifesto – indeed, we tend nowadays to nod along in agreement with its didactic flow – we still think of it primarily as a social play, a play in which the hypocrisies of society are denounced, and social change demanded. And since the society it depicts has largely changed in the direction that Ibsen had advocated (at least in the western world), far from being perturbed by it, we may even find it comfortable, vindicating as it does our liberal values.

For A Doll’s House is surely Ibsen’s “greatest hit” (closely followed, I’d guess, by An Enemy of the People and by Hedda Gabler). Nora is still the part that our leading stage actresses queue to play. One can see why: it is a terrific part – although, I’d venture, Ibsen wrote a great many roles for leading ladies that are at least as challenging (Mrs Alving, Rebecca West, Ellida Wangel, Ella Rentheim, Gunhild Borkman, etc.) But it is this role, and Hedda Gabler, that has captured our collective imagination more than the others.

The overall plot is well-known – so much so that I don’t think I need to put up a spoiler warning” before I summarise it (and if a “spoiler warning” is required, it’s possibly best not to read on): a seemingly happily married middle-class woman, with three children, discovers that her marriage is a sham, and walks out on her family. Contemporary audiences certainly found it deeply shocking (as was intended), but perhaps we moderns should not be entirely shockproof on the matter: a parent, of either sex, walking out on parental responsibilities should rightly shock. Our failure to be shocked, or, possibly, our determination not to be shocked, can but rob that extraordinary final scene of its dramatic edge.

A Doll’s House has always been the English title of the play, although the Norwegian dukkehjem, literally translated, means “doll home”; it is Ibsen’s own coinage, and refers not to a toy house that a child may play with, but to a real home where the lady of the house is no more than a mere doll. Towards the end of the play, Nora says:

[Father] called me a doll-child, and he played with me, just as I play with my dolls. And then I came into your house … I went from Daddy’s hands over into yours.

First her father’s doll, and now her husband’s: the one person she has never belonged to, the one person she has never been, is herself, and, as a consequence, she does not even know what her true self really is. When her husband Torvald, in desperation, asks if she has moral sense, she, far from replying in the affirmative, can only say:

Oh, Torvald, that’s not easy to answer. I simply don’t know. I’m in such confusion over these things.

And yet, only a few lines later, when Torvald claims she is ill and feverish, she replies:

I’ve never been so clear and sure as I am tonight.

There’s actually no contradiction between Nora’s two statements. She does not know whether she has a moral sense or not because she does not know herself; but she is perfectly clear and sure about the fact of her own ignorance.

Peer Gynt, for different reasons, does not know himself either: always choosing to be whatever had been most convenient at the time, he finds he is like an onion, layer after accumulated layer, but with no real core. And it may be that Nora, having been what first her father and then her husband had wanted her to be, has no core either: but she is determined to find out for herself. Having been forced to be a Peer Gynt all her life, she now shows the steely, uncompromising determination of a Brand.

This famous final scene always takes me by surprise, even though I know full well what it contains. Its tonality is very different from the rest of the play. We had been led to believe that the play was essentially about blackmail: Nora, for the noblest of motives (to save her husband’s life, and not to worry her dying father) had imprudently forged a signature, and now, an employee in her husband’s bank on the verge of being sacked tries to blackmail her. Her desperation rises almost to fever pitch: at the end of the second act, she dances on stage a wild tarantella, and she dances with such intensity that Torvald can’t help commenting “You’re dancing as if your life depended on it”. And, without realising it, he is not far off the mark: she is indeed desparate, and has already contemplated suicide. But the crisis set up by the end of the second act isn’t really what the play is about: for the theme that was lying underneath all the while, even if we perhaps didn’t notice it at the time, was the state of Nora’s and Torvald’s marriage itself, and the terrible lie upon which that marriage had been based.

Here, we see the continuation of themes from The Pillars of Society: that play had focussed on the lies underpinning social respectability and prosperity; here, Ibsen considers the same theme, but in a domestic sphere, within the sanctified institution of marriage itself. Even that which we hold most sacred is based on lies, and we would see that for ourselves if only, with a Brand-like insistence upon truth, we determine to look upon it without equivocation, without compromise.

By the end of the play, Nora has become a sort of Brand: the absolute truth must not merely be faced, it must also be acted upon, without compromise. But this is certainly not as she had appeared at the start. When we see her first she is a scatterbrain, extravagantly spending her husband’s money (and being told off for it), eating macaroons secretly despite her husband’s wishes. And when husband and wife talk, it is not the talk of two mature adults:

TORVALD:  When did my squirrel  get home?

NORA: Just now. … Come  out Torvald, and you will see what I have bought.

TORVALD: … Has my little spending bird been out frittering money again? … we can’t be extravagant.

NORA: Oh but Torvald, we can be a little extravagant now, surely. Can’t we? Just a teeny-weeny bit. After all, you’ll have a big salary now and be earning lots and lots of money.

And so on. Nora is the scatter-brained child, to be gently admonished if need be; and he, Torvald, is the responsible adult, indulgent up to a point, but making sure, for her own good, that his wife is not too naughty. We soon see that Nora, though not conversant with the ways of the world outside (having never had the opportunity to be part of it), is far from unintelligent. So why does she speak to her husband in that manner? She speaks to no-one else like that. Why does she behave like a child? Why does she allow herself to be reprimanded?

The answer is surely that she is playing a role. She is wearing a mask that gives her an appearance that is acceptable in society. She plays the child to allow her husband to play the adult. To enable him to play the protector, she must play the part of the creature who needs protecting. She wears this mask not because, like Peer Gynt, it is necessarily a convenient mask to wear, but because, in her position in society, this is the mask she is expected to wear. And, at this point of the play at any rate, she sees no reason not to wear it. And if she wears the mask expected of her, so does Torvald: he is the man, the protector. And Nora takes this at face value. And we have to wait till the very final scene for this issue to be dramatically resolved.

But until then, Ibsen adroitly directs our attention elsewhere. He introduces the blackmail theme. Nora is terrified – not so much because her husband will discover her secret, but because she is so utterly convinced that when he does, he, her protector, will protect her, and take the blame upon himself; that he will accept shame and disgrace and ruin, all for her sake. The thought that he will do so almost drives her mad: Nora believes in the mask her husband wears: she thinks it his real face.

But the resolution of the play is not the resolution of the blackmail plot; that is resolved quite unexpectedly, and with surprising ease. And then the real theme, which had been introduced in the very first scene between husband and wife, and which has been simmering beneath the surface while Nora’s attention (and ours) had been distracted by other things, establishes itself again centre stage. And when it does take centre stage, we realise that it had been there all along. For when the crisis does break, Torvald’s mask falls: he is no protector. He cannot even think of such a thing. The idea of protecting his wife by sacrificing himself does not even occur to him. Instead, he turns on her, and speaks the cruellest, most hurtful things a wife could ever expect to hear from a husband.

But then, suddenly, everything is all right: the crisis has passed, and the threat of blackmail no longer hangs over them. And, as far as Torvald is concerned, they can go back to being as they were. But Nora had seen the mask fall, and she cannot believe in it any more. And, far from the baby talk she had put on for his benefit, she speaks clearly, adult to adult: there is, as she says, a “reckoning” to be made.

We have been married now for eight years. Doesn’t it occur to you that this is the first time the two of us, you and I, man and wife, are talking seriously together?

No, it hadn’t occurred to him. It occurs to her, for she is the more intelligent of the two, despite her having acted otherwise. Once his mask is off,  there’s no putting it back on again, and she must unmask herself also.

Torvald, in this final scene, is, of course, shocked, but he does accept what she says. For, like Nora, he too has been wearing a mask that had not suited him, and he too does not know who or what he really is. After eight years of marriage, after eight years of living on lies, lies about their marriage, lies about their own selves, they, for the very first time, speak to each other. And it is deeply moving. So used have they become to the masks they wore, now that these masks are off, neither knows who they really are.

Some productions make Torvald the villain of the piece. This is wrong. He is simply an ordinary man, not too bright perhaps, but a man who, like, perhaps, most of us, does not question the values of the society he lives in. He is no villain. In one production I have seen, Torvald, when he loses his head, actually strikes his wife. This is a grotesque misjudgement. Nora is leaving not because of domestic violence: she is leaving for reasons far more complex, and the introduction of physical violence is not only uncalled for in Ibsen’s text, it detracts from the true motivations. Nora leaves not because she has been physically abused (she hasn’t): she leaves because she has to know the truth. As with Brand, living a life based upon lies is not an option, and, no matter whom she hurts in the process – her husband, her children, even her own self – it is the Truth that has to take precedence. In that final, solemn scene, there is no room for further subterfuge.

It has perhaps become too easy nowadays to nod away in agreement with Nora in the final scene. That was the way society used to be, but we are so much more enlightened now. We may even congratulate ourselves on it. But Ibsen had intended that scene to be uncomfortable, and the production would fail badly if this scene serves but to reassure us in our modern certainties.

For that final scene, even in our more enlightened times, genuinely is shocking. The masks we nowadays find ourselves wearing may not be the ones worn by Nora and Torvald, but it is not possible to live in any sort of society without wearing some mask or other, and allowing our faces to grow into them. Inevitably, all our lives are based on lies or deceptions of some sort or other: we wouldn’t be able to live in peace with our fellow human beings if we were to be uncompromisingly our own selves: like Brand, we would have no choice but to exile ourselves from society, and, perhaps, find our own pristine Ice Church, untouched by human corruption.  To live amongst our fellow humans is to compromise, that is, to lie, to deceive – at least up to a point. And what becomes of our true selves then? Is it then even reasonable to talk of such things?

This is not to say that Ibsen had not written a social drama, a feminist drama advocating – indeed, insisting upon – independence and autonomy for women. Despite anything he may have said to the contrary, this is an accurate description of A Doll’s House.  But if we see no more than this, we tame the play, as it were, we domesticate and make palatable that which, I think, retains still its power to disturb.

Perhaps thankfully, most of us are not Brand. We aren’t Nora either. We do not insist on the Truth at all costs, however much we may like to think we do: we compromise ourselves as individuals to be able to live in peace with our fellow humans; and, since we have to compromise, since we have to deceive ourselves a bit in  the process, we find ways of justifying it to ourselves. (That is, if we notice  it at all.) Perhaps that is the sensible thing to do. But Ibsen couldn’t allow matters to rest there: in his very next play, Ghosts, published just two years after A Doll’s House, he presents an unflinching look at the consequences of living our lives upon convenient deceptions. The vehement slamming of the door as Nora walks out on her husband and children at the end of A Doll’s House marks the end of one story, but there are many others still to be told.

Down the rabbit hole, through the looking glass

I can’t honestly remember whether I have read Lewis Carroll’s Alice novels before. I think I may have read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when I was about ten or so, but I have never returned to it: it wasn’t among my childhood favourites, as were, say, Treasure Island or The Hound of the Baskervilles. And Through the Looking Glass, I don’t think I have read at all. But these are books one thinks one has read, even when one hasn’t. One recognises the scenes and characters – the Cheshire Cat whose grin remains after it has disappeared; the Mad Hatter’s tea party; Humpty Dumpty explaining the meaning of “portmanteau words”; and so on: these are all iconic. The poems – “Jabberwocky”, “The White Knight’s Song” – are standards in just about every anthology of English verse, and rightly so. One even recognises the allusions: when Eliot writes of “the door we never opened into the rose garden”, it is inevitably Lewis Carroll who comes to mind. (Well, my mid, at least.) When so much about these books is so well known, we frankly can’t help wondering whether they need to be read at all.

Well, in the recent heat, with the mind too hot and bothered to be focussing on books that stretch the brain further than it is willing to be stretched these days, I thought I’d give them a try. And I am glad I did. They did not surprise: I found them every bit as charming, as funny, and as delightful as their reputation would suggest. I was surprised also at the depiction of Alice herself: stereotypes might suggest that a seven-year-old girl, intended to be delightful in English novels written in the 1860s and 70s, would be sweet, gentle, well-mannered, and respectful of her elders and betters; but Carroll presents instead a girl with a mind very much of her own, who is capable of losing her temper, who can at times be obstinate, who has not always paid the greatest of attention to her lessons, and who is prepared to talk back … in brief, a girl well short of the standards of what a Good Well-Behaved Girl should be. And best of all, while she finds what she sees distinctly odd, she never seems unduly put out by anything: she takes it all within her confident stride.

And yes, it is very funny. At least, I laughed a lot. Carroll was himself a mathematician, and well versed, presumably, in the rules of logic, and the ingenuity with which logic is constantly turned on its head is delightful. When the Red Queen speaks of having seen hills “compared to which that is a valley”, we know there is something not quite rational about this, but it is not entirely easy to explain where precisely the absurdity lies.

Carroll touches on a great many philosophical conundrums, but he is careful always to remain playful: never is the narrative in any danger of becoming heavy-handed. For, whatever delight an adult reader may take in these books, they are written for children, and Carroll never forgets this. But can a descriptive feature of a subject exist independently of the subject itself? The Cheshire Cat’s grin remains for a while when the Cat itself has gone, and the fact of a grin, Carroll insists, remains meaningful even in the absence of the grinner. In Through a Looking Glass, Alice at one point wanders into a wood in which she forgets the name of things – including her own name. And with this forgetting of names, she forgets what everything is – her own self included. Does existence itself depend upon our ability to identify, and to classify?

And so on. I am sure those versed in philosophy would have a whale of a time identifying all those allusions to various philosophical problems. But those of us who, like myself, are not versed in these matters, can still find themselves intrigued by the subtle questions implicit in all the absurdity and the nonsense. And never for a moment does Carroll lose his lightness of touch: these books are primarily intended for children, and whatever delight generations of adults may have taken in them, it is by its ability to delight children that they stand or fall.

Like every great comic writer, Carroll has a fine ear for the rhythms of language. A stand-up comedian can get laughs with the timing, but in writing, the timing is more up to the reader than the writer: what a comic writer must have is mastery over the rhythms of prose. All great comic writers – Austen, Dickens, Wodehouse – had this mastery, and Carroll certainly does not disappoint. For instance:

`Once upon a time there were three little sisters,’ the Dormouse began in a great hurry; `and their names were Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie; and they lived at the bottom of a well–‘

`What did they live on?’ said Alice, who always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking.

`They lived on treacle,’ said the Dormouse, after thinking a minute or two.

`They couldn’t have done that, you know,’ Alice gently remarked; `they’d have been ill.’

`So they were,’ said the Dormouse; `very ill.’

Now, there’s nothing particularly comic about the content of that: three sisters live down a well, they eat only treacle, and are very ill: not, frankly, the greatest flight of comic fancy. But Carroll’s phrasing is so perfect, his ear for the rhythm of the language so sharp, that he gets a laugh even where, one might have thought, there isn’t one.

Throughout these books, we are challenged to interpret, but even to make the attempt is folly. Carroll’s primary interest seems to me language, and what it signifies. There are games with language throughout. Words are signifiers: they exist as labels for things that are not words. A “chair” is, after all, simply a monosyllabic sound, consisting of five letters when written: but we use this sound to signify the piece of furniture we sit on. The word itself is a symbol for something other than itself, and we are happy with this kind of symbolism, because it works, and serves our purpose. But Carroll was neither the first nor the last to detect something slippery about words, and, throughout, he exploits this slippery quality, forcing words to signify all kinds of unexpected things. In the famous virtuoso poem “Jabberwocky”, he uses nonsense words – word that are utter gibberish – to tell a story that we can nonetheless understand.

Humpty Dumpty knows all about words: he explains at one point the various possible meanings of the word “impenetrability”, and when Alice comments “That’s a great deal to make one word mean”, the words suddenly become real entities in themselves:

“When I make a word do a lot of work like that,” said Humpty Dumpty, “I pay it extra.”

And soon, he is describing words coming round to him on Saturday night to get paid.

He then proceeds to interpret the opening lines of the poem “Jabberwocky”, and it makes sense … of sorts. And that in itself is worrying …

I am not sure why it took me so long to get round to reading these iconic books (if, indeed, I haven’t read them before: I can’t quite remember), but it was a sheer pleasure. And part of the pleasure too were John Tenniel’s illustrations: others have illustrated these books since, and often very well, but none has superseded Tenniel.

Possibly, Carroll runs out of steam a bit towards the end of Through the Looking Glass: the chapter about the Lion and the Unicorn isn’t among the most memorable, and while the White Knight’s Song is a masterpiece, the running gag about the White Knight constantly falling off his horse seems a bit forced and uninspired given the brilliant flights of comic fantasy in the rest of this work. But it’s wrong to cavil. These two books deserve all the praise that has been heaped on them over the years.

“The Pillars of Society” by Henrik Ibsen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rørlund: In what way, sir?

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

Rørlund: Yes, that is only too probable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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