Posts Tagged ‘Ibsen’

“When We Dead Awaken” by Henrik Ibsen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

“John Gabriel Borkman” by Henrik Ibsen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BORKMAN: What crime? What are you talking about?

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

Ella goes on to explain what she means by this:

You have killed the vital capacity for love in me.

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

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

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

– Gospel According to Matthew 12:31

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

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

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

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

BORKMAN: It was down in the mines.

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

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

FRIDA: No, Mr Borkman.

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

FRIDA: Oh, does it – sing?

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

FRIDA: why does it do that, Mr Borkman?

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

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

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

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

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

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

[From the translation by Michael Meyer]

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


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

[Translated by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Perhaps only a Holy Fool like Villem Foldal may escape.

“Little Eyolf” by Henrik Ibsen

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EYOLF Why must they?

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

EYOLF: Do they drown then?

THE RAT MAID: Every last one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RITA: … And there was champagne on the table.

ALFRED: I didn’t drink any.

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

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

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

ALFRED: If – ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RITA [blanching]: Evil – !

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

RITA [backing away]: Alfred – !

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

RITA [ screaming] Alfred! Alfred!

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

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

RITA: Not out of love for him.

ALFRED: Why then, do you think?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Rosmersholm, after Ibsen

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

“The Master Builder”: a postscript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Master Builder” by Henrik Ibsen

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

BROVIK: Am I to depart this life so poor?

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

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

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

Like God Almighty, he is what he is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MRS SOLNESS: This is no home, Halvard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solness, too, acknowledges his moral  obligations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HILDE: He? Who’s he?

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Changes

Like wines or whiskies, we all age differently. As we alter physically with age, so our perceptions also change, the way we view the world alters – imperceptibly, but, over the course of years, often quite dramatically. And it leaves one wondering whether there is any unity underneath it all – whether there is an underlying me that has remained constant through all the alterations; and if so, what that me really is.

And if not, whether there is a me at all.

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you leaf, the blossom, or the bole?

Some time back, I ruminated here on my loving the symphonies of Bruckner a few decades ago (I am at an age where I think of these matters in units of decades rather than merely of years), but finding them frankly rather boring these days. I hastened to add, as I do now, that this does not indicate that Bruckner’s music is not worth liking, or that my tastes have necessarily changed for the better: it is not so much a critique of my changing tastes that nowadays occupies my mind, but, rather, a fascination with the fact of the change itself.

What the changes betoken, I do not know, but the changes themselves I can at least record. Perhaps I should begin with that which is constant – those works of literature (let us restrict ourselves to literature here: otherwise this post will degenerate very quickly into a tedious series of lists) that I loved in my youth, and which I continue to value: King Lear, L’Education Sentimentale, Anna Karenina, “The Wreck of the Deutschland”, and so on. Even here, I find, I value these works now for reasons different from the ones that swayed my judgement all those years ago. I first read L’Education Sentimentale when I was eighteen, I remember, and was much affected by the disappointments and disillusions of its protagonist Frédéric Moreau; now, in my sixtieth year, I see in the dashing of Frédéric’s youthful illusions not merely the specific disappointments of one specific individual – the sort of individual I was then determined not to be – but, rather, a reflection of the general sadness of life, in which, however great one’s achievements, or delightful one’s joys, there remains in the midst of it all a lingering sense of emptiness. The novel still strikes in me a powerful chord: but the chord is different. Or, more accurately, the chord is the same, but I now hear certain notes in that chord more clearly than I used to. And, no doubt, there are certain other notes that I used to hear prominently that have now receded into the background.

Back then, I loved the novels of Zola. I read as many as I could that were then available in (what were then) modern translations, since the older translations, I was reliably informed, were often bowdlerised. By my count, I read eight of those novels, and much regretted that all twenty titles of the Rougon-Macquart series were not then available in reliable English translations. Now, they are, and, as I understand from Twitter, many book-bloggers are embarking on a group-read of Zola. Some twenty or so years ago, I would have been enthusiastic, but I cannot, I’m afraid, summon up much enthusiasm for this now. I do not mean, of course, that Zola is an inferior writer: quite clearly, he isn’t. It is just that the riches he has to offer do not mean as much to me as they used to. His strengths – his descriptive powers, his keen awareness of social and economic trends, his skill in organising vast amounts of material into coherent structures, the extraordinary vividness of his narratives – are as impressive now as ever they were. Are my tastes merely jaded with age? I don’t think so, as there is still much that I love and value dearly. It is just that what Zola has to offer, wonderful though it still is, is no longer something that attracts me: the focus of my interests has become narrower.

And at the same time, I find myself being called back to works that continue to resonate in my memory – works that I know I will see from different perspectives were I to revisit them now. I have recently been re-reading – and writing about on this blog at no doubt tedious length – the plays of Ibsen, and, recently, I have been immersing myself in the very late plays. And they strike me with an intensity even greater than what I had experienced in previous readings. They strike me as the works of a visionary. That, I realise, is a vague term, but I do not know how else to put it. His piercing vision in these works seemed to look through the solidities of the everyday, and penetrate into regions of the mind and of the spirit in ways that resist summary, and make a mockery even of any attempt at explication. Which leaves me in a quandary: how the hell do I write about them? What should I write? I have already written long posts on several plays by Ibsen, and I suppose I really should finish this series of posts, and, little read though they undoubtedly are  – I am writing for myself, I keep saying – I would like to finish the series as best I can. But the world of late Ibsen is one that is difficult to penetrate, and perhaps impossible completely to understand. I suppose I am at a stage where I feel that, in the immortal words of the late Magnus Magnusson, I have started so I’ll finish: I can but try my best, safe in the knowledge that, after all, not too many people will read these posts and witness my inadequacy.

And there are some other works toothat seem to beckon. I have long given up any hope of being well read: better, I now feel, to know a few works well, then many works superficially. So while I have not given up entirely on further broadening my horizons, I find myself more frequently attracted to re-reading what I have read before, from my now inevitably older perspective. And what I find beckoning particularly strongly these days are the late novels of Henry James – The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl – the last of these, especially, possibly the most elusive and enigmatic novel I think I have encountered. As with the late plays of Ibsen, the late novels of Henry James are also works that I would describe – for want of a better word at my disposal – as “visionary”. Given the extreme difficulty of these novels, and given also the slow pace of my reading, it may well take me a year or so to read them: but surely, it would be a year well spent.

In the meantime, I suppose I should gird my loins – however one girds one’s loins: I never quite understood what that meant – and get started on writing something on Ibsen’s The Master Builder. These late plays of Ibsen are, after all, more or less permanent fixtures of my mind, so I might as well examine them more thoroughly, if only to try to understand why they mean so much to me.

“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.

“The Lady from the Sea” 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 from “The Lady from the Sea” are taken from the translation by Michael Meyer, published by Methuen

Looking through the mature plays of Ibsen, I am frequently left with an impression of terror, but it is not always easy to pinpoint where this terror comes from. If pressed, I would say it comes from his various depictions of what I, at any rate, would term fanaticism – a single-mindedness that refuses to be deflected, that rejects any form of compromise. Often, perhaps always, this fanaticism is in a good cause: it is on the side of Truth; it looks with fresh eyes at all that custom has dictated, and re-examines without fear or favour; it refuses to live a life based upon a Lie. And it is perhaps for this very reason that I find myself all the more terrified by where such single-mindedness leads us. For it is easy to identify the flaw of that which is based upon a lie, and reject it for that very reason; but when one cannot accept the logical consequences of something based upon Truth, the earth itself seems to open at our feet.

And Ibsen’s plays offer us no respite, no consolation: they are deeply uncomfortable works, and, I think, less overtly didactic than is often thought. For while the Lie is rejected, the Truth is often seen as something that most humans cannot live with. And Ibsen populates his plays with characters who make us uncomfortable, who, indeed, terrify us, with their unflinching adherence to what they know, or believe, to be true. Take Nora in A Doll’s House, for instance: at the end, she famously walks out on her husband and children, and the last sound we hear before the final curtain is the slamming of the front door. This slam, predictably, outraged Ibsen’s audiences. We moderns, on the other hand, are more likely to cheer, and pat ourselves on the back for being so much more enlightened than our predecessors. Both reactions seem to me to underestimate the complexity of what Ibsen presents. For while it is true that Nora’s logic is impeccable; and while it is true that her refusing to live a Lie is admirable; it is also true that deserting her beloved children will cause her immense pain, and that the children themselves, deprived so suddenly of a loving mother, will be traumatised. Pursuing the Truth at all costs may indeed be admirable, but there is also about it something that is inhuman, something not consistent with what we generally think of as human values. It is like the “ice church” in which Brand meets his end – holy and beautiful and pristine, but cold, bloodless, and remote from the warmth of humanity.

We may see this pattern repeated throughout Ibsen’s plays. Dr Stockmann stands up for an important truth, but does not stop to think what this will mean for the townspeople. Of course, he could have argued against the townspeople on purely utilitarian terms – by pointing out, for instance, that failing to address immediately the issue of the polluted waters will mean storing up even greater problems for the future; but he does not make this argument. Instead, he reviles the people for failing to accept the Truth, which, for him, is by definition absolute, and sacred. In The Wild Duck, the truth-seeker is Gregers Werle, who, with the best of moral intentions, effectively plays the part of Iago, destroying what had till then been a contented marriage, and creating an environment that drives the innocent Hedwig to despair and to death. And, so certain is he of his moral righteousness, that even at the height of the tragedy he does not stop even to question his actions. Is this really the price we need to pay for Truth? – depriving small children of their mother, driving teenage girls to suicide? Ibsen’s plays are populated by characters who would insist that it is – that the price for Truth, however high, is worth paying. And since this blog claims to be no more than a record of my own subjective impressions, I must admit that this terrifies me.

So what is the alternative? I think we may dismiss Dr Relling’s view that we might as well live by lies, since that is the only way we may lead lives that can at least be contented. Whatever we may think of Gregers Werle, I find it hard not to agree with him when he says that if Relling’s view were true, life really would not be worth living. But what about a middle way? What about compromise? What about accepting the importance of Truth, but stopping before we exceed the point where we harm ourselves by pursuing it? Ibsen had touched upon this theme of compromise before: in Ghosts, Mrs Alving, long before the dramatic action we see on stage, had been persuaded to return to her dissolute husband, and live a Lie: that is, she had been persuaded to do that which Nora (despite having been in a very different kind of marriage) had refused to do. And the results were catastrophic. In The Lady from the Sea, Ibsen returns again to the possibility of compromise, and, while the dark clouds are by no means completely banished, he finds in this a possibility, at least, of redemption: at the end of this play, very unusually for this author of deeply troubled dramatic visions, the stage fills with hope, with sunlight. But, just as the heroic and seemingly admirable refusal to stray from the Truth is fraught with immense and possibly insuperable difficulties, compromise is no easy path either: nothing can be straight-forward given our infinitely complex natures.

In the series of twelve plays stretching from The Pillars of the Community to Ibsen’s last play, When We Dead Awaken – which we may think of as a cycle – The Lady from the Sea seems to me to mark something of a turning point. Although set, realistically enough, in a small town by the fjord, we seem far from the hurly-burly of public affairs, which, even in the previous play Rosmersholm, was present, albeit off-stage. We may even question to what extent the action presented may be seen as entirely realistic: elements of folklore, and of the supernatural, never seem too far away. On top of that, this is the first play in this series of plays where we find scenes outdoors. This may seem a trivial consideration, but it isn’t: the setting of the scenes is always important in Ibsen, and it contributes to the feel of this play – its atmosphere, its texture, as it were – that four of its five acts are set outdoors. No longer do we feel the claustrophobia of those stuffy bourgeois drawing rooms: we are out by the fjord, in the fresh air, in the natural light of a northern summer.

In the first act, the young consumptive Lyngstrand tells of an event that had taken place some three years earlier, involving a man who, unknown to him, had played an important part in the life of the one of his listeners. Such outrageous coincidence to help the plot along had long been staple stuff of the creaky old dramaturgy that Ibsen, in the previous plays in this series, had been trying to move away from: that he is happy to include this here should really warn us that the world we are now in is not quite realistic.

In the opening scene, Ballested, a sort of Jack-of-all-Trades in the town, speaks of a picture he is painting. “The Dead Mermaid”, he calls it. It depicts a mermaid who haa become stranded on land, and has died. Ibsen here is alluding to the same folk take that had inspired Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”: a creature from the sea comes to land, and, unable to acclimatise, perishes. Ballested himself speaks of how he had acclimatised after the theatrical company he had been working for had broken up. He stutters on the word “acclimatise”, thus drawing attention to it: it is an important concept in this play. This ability we have to adapt ourselves, to change in order to accommodate ourselves to our circumstances, allows us to live, and not perish like the mermaid: it may even be our saving grace. But this capacity to adapt – more importantly, perhaps, this willingness to adapt – is a quality generally in short supply in Ibsen’s plays, populated as they are with unbending fanatics.

The identity of the mermaid in this play is obvious – Ellida Wangel, the Lady From the Sea herself. Like Rebecca West in Rosmersholm, she is an outsider: and, again like Rebecca, she is originally from the far north – not from the banks of a narrow fjord, as here, but from the shores of the vast, open sea. She cannot keep away from the sea: even here in the fjord, she bathes regularly, and has come to be known locally as “The lady From the Sea”. But how she longs for that open sea from her younger days!

ELLIDA: Fresh? Dear God, the water here is never fresh. It’s lifeless and stale. Ugh! The water is sick here in the fjord.

ARNHOLM: Sick?

ELLIDA: Yes – sick. I mean, I think it makes one sick. Poisonous too.

Of course, by this stage, we all know a symbol when we see one. Ellida’s current environment is as poison to her, and she longs for the open sea of her childhood. But what exactly does that open sea represent? This is a question not even to be asked. Seeing Ellida so obviously unhappy, her husband, the kindly Dr Wangel, offers for her sake to move north, away from the environment in which he had lived all his life; but he mistakes the symbol for that which it symbolises. The narrow fjord, the open sea – these are but symbols: the underlying malaise lies deeper.

Ellida is the second wife of Dr Wangel, a man much older than her. He had been a widower when he had first met her, and when he had proposed to her, she had agreed, because, as she later explains, for no better reason than that she had not been in a position to refuse. But Ellida has never settled into life in her new home, with her husband, and with his daughters from his first marriage: she has remained detached from them all, and, while her husband is pained and concerned by her detachment, the two daughters are resentful: the elder, Bolette, not much younger than Ellida herself, generally tries to keep her dislike hidden under her polite exterior, while the younger daughter, Hilde – who, as her sister correctly intuits, secretly longs to be close to her stepmother – frequently comes close to expressing her dislike openly. Dr Wangel’s first marriage had been happy, and Ellida has never come close to replacing the first Mrs Wangel in the family’s affection. Nor, frankly, has she tried to: she has throughout remained remote and distant. As with Rebecca West in Rosmersholm, her new surroundings have changed her up to a point; she has, as Ballasted might put it, “acclimatised”; but it is precisely this acclimatisation that troubles her:

ELLIDA: … I’ve grown so very fond of him. That’s what makes it so dreadful.

When she speaks these enigmatic words in the first act, it is hard to see why she should find this acclimatisation “dreadful”, why she should keep herself aloof so as not to acclimatise herself further. But before the reason unravels, we find ourselves in a strange world where the real and the unreal seem to mingle. For Ellida is, quite literally, haunted.

Back in the north, where she had grown up, she had once promised herself to an American sailor. He was a mysterious figure, and, most likely, a dangerous man: he had disappeared after the captain of his ship had been found murdered, and it had been generally assumed that it was he who had been the murderer. Indeed, as Ellida reveals later, he had admitted to her that he had killed the captain, and, although he did not go into the details of the matter, gave her to understand that he had not been at fault. But he had to leave. And before he left, he promised Ellida that he would come back for her. They were, in a sense, already married: they had put their rings together on a keychain, and had thrown it far into the sea. They were married themselves to the vast, mysterious sea itself.

And he seemed to exert a strange power over her. His eyes, she claimed, changed colour with the sea itself. And this strange, dangerous man, with eyes the colour of the sea, continued to haunt her.

Three years earlier, this American sailor had, most likely, died in a shipwreck. Lyngstrand, the young consumptive who visits the Wangels, had been a sailor, and had nearly died as well in that same shipwreck. Not knowing of Ellida’s connection with this man, he tells her about this American sailor they had taken on, who used to read through Norwegian newspapers, because, he said, he wanted to learn the language. But one day, he found in the papers a wedding announcement: the woman he loved has married another man. Lyngstrand had heard his howl of despair. But later, the American sailor had told him in a calm voice:

“But mine she is, and mine she will always be. And she will come to join me, even if I go as a drowned man to claim her.”

And Lyngstrand, who fancies himself a sculptor, imagines a work he will create, with the deceiving woman lying asleep in bed, dreaming, while standing over her was a ghostly drowned man, still wet from the sea, returning to keep his promise.

This story naturally resonates with Ellida. For, we find out later, three years ago, when the shipwreck had happened, and while she had been pregnant with her husband’s child (the child had not lived long), this ghostly drowned man did indeed come to her. And he has been visiting her ever since. And he terrifies her.

WANGEL: To think that for three years you have been in love with another man! Not with me.

ELLIDA: I don’t love anyone else. Only you.

WANGEL (in a subdued voice): Then why have you refused to live with me as my wife all these years?

ELLIDA: Because I am afraid. Afraid of the stranger.

WANGEL: Afraid?

ELLIDA: Yes, afraid. The sort of fear that only the sea can give you.

We are very far now from the very realistic dramatic world Ibsen had been presenting till now. We are far even from the world of Rosmersholm, with its mythical white horses that presage doom. The setting here is realistic enough, but we have entered the realm of ghost stories, of folklore. And suddenly, all possibilities, possibilities that don’t exist in strictly realistic drama, become available. As with perhaps the most famous ghost story of all, The Turn of the Screw, we must ask ourselves whether this ghost is real, or whether it is not, perhaps, an emanation of Ellida’s own troubled psyche, a resurgence of her repressed desire. Of course, others too see the ghost (if ghost he is): but the creation of the mind taking on real, physical form should not surprise us from the author of Peer Gynt, a play in which reality and unreality prove infinitely malleable.

The Ghosts of Ibsen’s earlier play, Gengangere – literally, “those who walk again” – had been no more than metaphorical; but here, the past takes on a palpable physical form, and the ghost literally walks again. The past cannot remain repressed: it will out. Here, that stranger with eyes like the sea does not merely haunt Ellida at nights: he keeps his promise, and comes to the town claim her. He may be a ghost; or he may be a physical manifestation of a creation of Ellida’s mind. Or, more prosaically than either, he may be a living man who had, against expectations, escaped the shipwreck. In a play such as this, in which reality and unreality meld into each other, it hardly seems to matter.

Ellida is not the only one who sees the stranger. Her husband, to whom she confides, also sees her. Lyngstrand and the others see him too. Wangel’s reaction is to protect her: he is her husband, after all, and, whatever the state of the marriage, it is the husband’s duty to protect the wife. But things are more complicated. In the fourth of the five acts, husband and wife speak openly to each other, much as Nora and Torvald speak openly to each other in the final scene of A Doll’s House. And, as in the earlier play, the wife cannot continue to live a lie, and has some serious things to say to her husband that are painful.

ELLIDA: Wangel, it’s no use us going on lying to ourselves.

WANGEL: Lying?

ELLIDA: Yes. Or hiding the truth. The real truth of the matter is that you came out there and bought me.

WANGEL: Bought! Did you say bought?

ELLIDA: Oh, I wasn’t any better than you. I agreed to the bargain. Left home and sold myself to you.

WANGEL: Ellida!

ELLIDA: Is there any other word for it?

And we begin to understand why Ellida had considered her acclimatising herself to become fond of her husband so “dreadful”, for it was acclimatising herself to living a lie. We begin to understand also why she had remained so aloof, so detached: Ellida is at heart another of those terrifying Ibsen characters who cannot bear to live a life based on a lie. And the truth that must be acknowledged is that she had been bought, that her decision to accept Dr Wangel had not been a free decision.

WANGEL: Then have these five or six years we have lived together meant nothing to you at all?

ELLIDA: Oh no, Wangel, no! I have had everything here that anyone could wish for. But I didn’t come to your home of my own free will.

The man she had promised herself to, of her own free will, is a ghost. Or maybe not. He has come to claim her. She knows nothing about him – not even, perhaps, whether he is alive. And he is most likely a murderer. It is utterly irrational for Ellida to choose such a man over a kind, loving husband like Dr Wangel. But, as with Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, Ellida would rather choose the irrational, the demonic, if only to assert her freedom to do so.

WANGEL: What do you know about him? Nothing. Not even who he is – or what he is.

ELLIDA (to herself): I know. It’s just that that is so – demonic.

WANGEL It certainly is.

ELLIDA: That’s why I think I must go to meet it.

WANGEL (looking at her): Because it is demonic?

ELLIDA: Yes.

WANGEL (comes closer to her): Ellida, what exactly do you mean by demonic?

ELLIDA (pauses): The demonic – is something that appals – and attracts.

Or, as she had said earlier, it inspires “the sort of fear that only the sea can give you”.

And as they wait for the stranger to come again to claim his bride, Wangel’s elder daughter Bolette too is being “bought”. Arnholm, Bolette’s former tutor and some twenty or so years older than her, proposes to her – but it is a strange sort of proposal. Throughout the play, he had been viewing her almost as if their future marriage was a given, and when Bolette speaks despairingly of being such forever in the dreary backwater, he tells her that he would be happy to prevent that happening. Bolette misunderstands him at first: she could never accept such generosity, she says. But then she realises: he is actually proposing to her. She is taken aback, and is, indeed, quite horrified by the suggestion. But he calmly goes on to explain: if she does not accept him, what future would she have to look forward to? What prospect does she have but to remain for ever in this provincial backwater, merely becoming older and lonelier? So she agrees. As with Ellida and Wangel, Arnholm buys her, and she agrees to the bargain. And we may ask ourselves, what price compromise now?

In an essay in The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen, Janet Garton speaks of a production in which Arnholm, having been accepted, strips Bolette to see what he has bought. I haven’t seen this production, but this strikes me as utterly misconceived. For what Arnholm tells her is nothing but the truth. Bolette is coerced not by male brutality, but by reason – the very reason that Ellida cannot reconcile herself to. To put it bluntly, how can we claim to be truly free if our freedom must submit constantly to reason? – to that tyrant reason that brooks no dissent? Maybe, in time, Bolette too will learn to compromise; she too may acclimatise. But a union on terms so unequal that only one party needs to acclimatise is not really a proper marriage at all.

Meanwhile, the younger sister, Hilde, is fascinated with the consumptive Lyngstrand. Lyngstrand is dying, though he doesn’t know it. Bolette, aware of his condition, does her best to be kind to him, even despite his comical foolishness and self-regard, and his unshakable belief that he has it in him to become a great sculptor. He tells Bolette at one point that it is a wife’s duty to accommodate herself to her husband, but that the husband has no reason to reciprocate: it is the husband’s part to develop his talent, and the wife’s part to help him do so. (Bolette is not to know that she herself would shortly agree to just such a bargain.) But Hilde shows no such compunction with Lyngstrand. There is in Hilde a strong streak of cruelty: she is fascinated by the fact that Lyngstrand is dying, and teases him mercilessly. We haven’t seen here the last of Hilde: she reappears as a major character in The Master Builder, written in 1892, just four years after The Lady from the Sea.

Marriage, Lyngstrand declares somewhat smugly, is a “miracle”. Perhaps even he is not quite sure what he means by that word, but this is the very word used in the final scene of A Doll’s House: in that play, Nora had said that only a “miracle” could save their marriage; and, as Torvald muses on what that word may mean, we hear the famous slam of the front door as Nora walks out. What the miracle might be, we do not know, any more than Torvald does. But in this play, a miracle does occur. The ghostly stranger re-appears, as he had said he would. Dr Wangel tries at first to protect his wife, but he knows it is no use; and, in one of the most moving moments in all dramatic literature, he gives his wife the freedom she had so long yearned for – complete freedom, to choose, as she wills. “With all your heart?” she asks him, astonished. “Yes, I mean it,” he replies, “with all my heart.” With all his suffering heart. “Who chooseth me shall give and hazard all he hath,” said the leaden casket in The Merchant of Venice, and Dr Wangel, the stolid, respectable, bourgeois doctor, becomes the most unlikely of dramatic heroes: he gives and hazards all he has, and it is indeed heroic. And this is the miracle that Nora did not find, and Ellida did not expect. But once she has the freedom, she knows what her choice is. The ghostly stranger now loses his power over her: no longer can he terrify. It is as if a weight from Ellida’s troubled psyche has been lifted, and she is troubled no more. The ghost’s exit is almost an anti-climax. And, in the closing moments, the play fills with light. Wangel has given her freedom; he has offered not merely to compromise, but to give up everything he has, everything, for her sake. So now, she can reconcile herself to “acclimatising”: it is no longer a “dreadful” thing. Ibsen is not an author we normally associate with joy, but here is little in all dramatic literature to match the what we find at the end of this play.

But this is not, of course, by any means Ibsen’s last word. In the course of the journey to this ending, some very dark clouds have been seen, and they aren’t going to go away. There is a long way to go yet. Only two years after The Lady from the Sea, Ibsen brought us back down to earth with the uncompromisingly grim and claustrophobic Hedda Gabler. But let’s keep that one till later.

Reading symbols

It may be mere idle speculation, but I can’t help wondering why it is we so clearly recognise Ibsen’s Wild Duck to be a symbol, and, equally clearly, recognise Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles not to be a symbol. Is it simply that we go to these works with different expectations, and that these expectations colour our responses? That’s certainly part of it, I think. It is also, perhaps, that The Hound of the Baskervilles makes perfect sense without the symbolism, but The Wild Duck doesn’t.

But this may be disputed. Why shouldn’t The Wild Duck make perfect sense if we see the wild duck as no more than the physical entity that it is? I think I’d argue that to see it as such wouldn’t be a particularly satisfactory way of looking at the work. The wild duck itself is not central to the plot, in the way the Baskerville hound is: if we were to see the wild duck but as a wild duck, we would be left wondering why so much attention is paid to something that the mere mechanics of the plot don’t really need. The introduction of the wild duck; the attention given to what is, merely in terms of plot, no more than an incidental detail; and also, in this case, the title itself indicating its importance; are all sufficient to convince us of an importance attached to this duck that quite transcends the plot.

Of course, it may be maintained that the Hound, too, is symbolic of something or other. But this would, I guess, strike most readers as foolish. Seeing the Hound purely for what it is, without any symbolic overtones, does not in any way diminish the impact of the novel; indeed, it may be argued that seeing the Hound as possessing more significance than the plot allows is to detract from the thing. I’m sure that hasn’t prevented over-zealous interpreters: I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were to exist learned papers and theses pontificating on the symbolical significance of the Hound from Hell. But be that as it may, I think I’m on fairly safe ground when I say the Wild Duck is a symbol, and the Hound of the Baskervilles isn’t.

But now comes the tricky bit: if the Wild Duck is indeed symbolic, what is it a symbol of? This question is tricky not because it is difficult to think of plausible symbolic interpretations of the Wild Duck, but because identifying the symbol, or symbols, seems to diminish the richness of the work. It appears to insist on a single meaning, or a single set of meanings, when, before interpretation, a far greater wealth of possibilities seemed available. And even when we may come up with multiple interpretations of a symbol, the sum of the various interpretations seems less than the symbol’s potential. Ibsen’s Wild Duck seems a prime example of this. There are other examples too. As soon as you pin a meaning on the White Whale, on the Scarlet Letter worn by Hester Prynne, on Krook’s spontaneous combustion or on Kafka’s Castle, the potential of what these things may mean seems diminished.

Of course, there are exceptions. Sometimes, symbols can mean one thing and one thing only, and that meaning is fairly obvious. Bunyan, for instance, used to spelled it out: Giant Despair symbolised despair, the Slough of despond symbolised despond, Vanity Fair symbolised … Well, you get the idea. These symbols are intended not so much to suggest what isn’t explicitly stated, but to underline, and clarify, the author’s ideas. I suppose we may class these as “allegory”. But leaving aside such allegories, we are left with a problem: how should we, as readers, respond to symbols and to symbolism? Treating a symbol as something that signifies no more than what it physically is seems inadequate; and yet, various interpretations of what the symbol may mean seem reductive.

Perhaps – and I use the adverb advisedly, as I am not at all sure of what now follows – perhaps, I think, it might help if we were to think of symbols themselves in a different way. Perhaps we should accept that a symbol may carry various resonances, but at the same time, refrain from pinning the symbol down to anything, or any group of things, specific. Perhaps we should allow a symbol to gather different associations as the work proceeds, and try to see the connections and relationships between these various things that have been gathered upon this single symbol, but not insist upon any specific meaning for the symbol itself. Is that possible? Is it possible to see Kafka’s Castle as an obscure and distant presence; as an authoritarian and bureaucratic institution that may contain some great wisdom at its heart, but to which we are denied access; as a seemingly sinister and oppressive power; and so on, and so forth; but not think of this Castle as a symbol for God?

At this point, it seems reasonable to ask why writers employ symbols in the first place. That is not an easy question to answer, but I think we can answer the question of what writers don’t set out to do: they don’t set out to create a puzzle for the reader to solve. That is the realm merely of the whodunit. If symbols serve any purpose at all, it is to help the author communicate matters that language, by itself, cannot communicate.

At least, this is how it seems to me, immersed as I currently am in the late, symbol-rich plays of Ibsen. Much of literature, it seems to me, is an expression of that which words are not designed to express. For there are limits on what we may communicate with words: Sibelius had famously said that “Music begins where the possibilities of language end”. But that seems to imply that, as a mode of expression, music is superior to literature – that literature can only get us so far, but that beyond that point, it is to music that we must turn. But things are not, I think, so simple. The best authors are capable of communicating far more than words, unaided, can: they can force words to convey far more than merely their dictionary meanings. If Kafka had merely intended his Castle to represent God, he could simply have told us; that he didn’t tell us doesn’t mean he was playing games with us, but, rather, that what the Castle means is not something that can be put into words. It goes beyond “where the possibilities of language ends”.

And it is in this spirit I am trying currently to read Ibsen. The last twelve plays of his, the “Ibsen Cycle” as they are sometimes known, are often considered the epitome of dramatic realism, but that hardly begins to do them justice. For Ibsen was always a poet, even when writing in everyday prose, about everyday people, in everyday walks of life. Increasingly, as we go through the cycle, poetic images abound – symbols, pointing to that which cannot be expressed directly in words. And the symbols, after a while, become real, concrete. In The Master Builder, say, we find that Master Builder Solness is afraid of heights, and cannot climb as high as he builds. This is an everyday matter (fear of heights), but is treated symbolically: in some way that Ibsen doesn’t make clear, Master Builder Solness cannot live up to what he professes. But Hilde seems almost distraught by this. What she is presumably distraught at is Master Builder Solness’ moral pusillanimity, but she expresses her anger in more concrete terms: is the Master Builder afraid to climb up the ladder? Is he afraid to climb as high as he builds? And the symbol becomes a reality: Master Builder Solness, to prove himself to her, must physically climb up a physical ladder to the top of a physical tower. Is this “realism”? If so, one would need to stretch the definition of “realism” considerably, I think, to accommodate it.

And this is the world which the later plays of Ibsen seem to inhabit – a strange world in which metaphor and concrete reality seem to merge, and become one. We are invited to feel the resonance of the images, of the symbols, but as soon as we try to tie these images and symbols down to any specific meaning, they seem to fall apart. These plays are rooted in reality: Solness owns and runs a building firm, is unhappily married, and finds himself attracted to a young girl; and he is afraid of competition from the younger generation. All this is real enough, and could easily provide the basis for a television soap opera. But Ibsen’s vision seemed fixed elsewhere, and he could only express these visions through the use of poetic imagery, and of symbols. And when we read these plays, what we make of this vast array of symbols is crucial. I am still not sure how best to read these symbols: perhaps it varies for each different reader. But what we mustn’t do, I think, is to tie them down to anything specific: if Ibsen could have said in a few words what these symbols symbolise, he would, I think, have done so.