Posts Tagged ‘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, 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.

“Rosmersholm” 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 “Rosmersholm” are taken from the translation by Michael Meyer, published by Methuen

 

Rosmersholm was not the title Ibsen initially had in mind. He had considered calling it White Horses, referring to a recurrent image in the play of the mythical white horses that are said to be seen on the Rosmer estate before disaster strikes, but he eventually decided against it, possibly to avoid giving this admittedly striking piece of imagery too central a prominence in the work. Ghosts would have been a good title  as well – or, rather, the more evocative  Norwegian  title, Gengangere “something that or someone who walks again” – but that title had already been used in a previous play. Central to this play too is the burden of the past, the past that will not let us be, even when we have left it behind, even when we have outgrown it.

Ibsen eventually titled the play Rosmersholm – the House of Rosmer. For the great House of Rosmer, with its immense history, with the traditions and values it continues to represent (irrespective of Rosmer’s  own apostasy), plays in this drama a central  role. It is an austere, and gloomy house: there is not much room  here for human feelings. As Mrs Helseth, the old housekeeper of the House of Rosmer tells Rebecca:

Little children don’t cry in this house, not as long as anyone can remember … But it’s part of the  Rosmers. And  there’s another strange thing. When they grow up, they never laugh. Never laugh until the day they die.

Tears and laughter, those feelings and emotions that seem almost to represent what it means to be alive, to be human, have no part in the bleak House of Rosmer. But it is nonetheless a noble house. Rebecca West, who had initially entered the house as an outsider, can testify to its ability to ennoble:

REBECCA: It’s the Rosmer view of life – or yours, anyway. It has infected my will.

ROSMER: Infected – ?

REBECCA: And poisoned it. Enslaved it to a law which I had not previously recognised. You – being with you – has ennobled my soul –

ROSMER: Oh, if only I could believe that!

REBECCA: You can believe it all right. The Rosmer view of life ennobles. But – (Shakes her head) – but – but –

ROSMER: But – ? Well?

REBECCA: But it kills happiness, John.

Presumably translator Michael Meyer has translated whatever was in the original text as “happiness” rather than joy so as to avoid unwanted echoes of the English word “killjoy”, but this theme of the destruction of joy,  or of happiness, has appeared before: in Ghosts, the destruction of livsglad, a compound word meaning Joy in Life, is a major theme. Osvald speaks of it often, and his father, the deceased Captain Alving, was possessed with this livsglad. But, as his widow, Mrs Alving, who has no reason to feel sympathetic towards her dead husband, acknowledges, this livsglad had been killed in him. She had not shared in this Joy: her insistence had been merely on a cold, loveless sense of duty. Her husband had no outlet for this Joy, and over time, this Joy had become corrupted merely into empty hedonism. In that same play, Pastor Manders had asked:

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

( from the translation by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik)

Osvald too, returning home from Paris, comments that he never sensed back home that Joy he had found elsewhere. The cold insistence on moral duty had killed it all. And here too, in the House of Rosmer, Joy has been killed. But we are given a further twist: what has killed Joy is not a cold and  loveless sense of duty: rather,  it is something that even Rebecca West admits is ennobling. But whatever it is, no matter how ennobling it is, it kills happiness.

The concept of nobility is explicitly placed here as something that is the opposite of happiness. Earlier in the play, John Rosmer had spoken of “ennobling” the people, although what precisely he had meant by this, and how precisely he is to achieve this, he does not say. Brand, too, had sought to ennoble humanity: he had enjoined humanity to take the Truth into their hearts, and to sacrifice all, their own selves if necessary, in  pursuit of this Truth, without even thinking of earthly happiness. And Pastor Manders in Ghosts, though a very different person from Brand in every way imaginable, was also a man of God, and he too had insisted that people do their duty, regardless of human happiness; for mortals, he insisted, had no right to expect “happiness”. This insistence of Truth, this desire to “ennoble” humanity, we had seen also in Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People, and in Gregers Werle in The Wild Duck, but, unlike Brand or Pastor Manders, neither Stockmann nor Werle are religious: they do not even mention God. Brand and Pastor Manders had insisted that humans ennoble themselves by doing their duty, because this is God’s will; but Stockmann and Werle pursue Truth for its own sake. When the people turn against Stockmann, he could have argued against them in purely empirical terms: he could have denounced them for short-sightedness, for failing to see that seeing to their immediate welfare is to bring upon themselves far greater problems in the longer run. But he does not make that argument: he turns against the people because they do not have any sort of commitment to the Truth. And Gregers Werle too believes in Truth for its own sake; he believes that humans already are essentially noble, and that they must accept the Truth for its own sake because that, and that alone, could make such noble creatures happy. He believes this because he has to believe this: if it were not true, then, as he says at the end, life itself wouldn’t be worth living. Stockmann and Werle may not be religious – at least, neither mentions God – but their morality is not really too far from Brand’s: for them, Truth must be pursued, though not necessarily because God wills it (as Brand had believed) – but rather,  for its own sake.

When Rosmersholm was written (it was published in 1886), the intellectual temperature was changing. In the aftermath of the Enlightenment, religious belief was no longer a default position. That is not to say that religious belief was not possible, but, rather, it could not be taken as a given: whatever grounds there may be still to believe, belief was no longer something that was dictated by reason. Only four years before the publication of Rosmersholm, Nietzsche had famously declared (in The Gay Science) that “God was dead”. And in this state, one could no longer justify anything, not even life, by invoking an overriding divine purpose. Whatever values we choose to live by, whatever we choose to pursue, we cannot ascribe to any divine purpose, since the existence of God himself was no longer a given. So what, then, forms nobility? How then do we ennoble humanity, ennoble ourselves?

John Rosmer is, very explicitly, a man who had once believed, who had once, indeed, been a Man of God, a pastor, but who has now lost his faith. He is the last in the line of the House of Rosmer, and the immense burden of the past weighs heavily on him. The Rosmer view of life ennobles. Rosmer himself may have lost his faith in God, but retains still his faith in that which ennobles: duty, integrity – the  Truth. As with Stockmann and Werle, he believes in Truth for its own sake, and he believes, as Brand had done, that humans can be ennobled if they could but grasp the Truth, and hold it dear. But unlike Brand, he cannot justify Truth with an overriding divine purpose: he no longer believes. It is merely an abstract concept, existing for its own sake. But he is nonetheless a Rosmer, of the House of Rosmer, and though he has rejected religion, he cannot reject the concept of Truth as something that ennobles.

But when it comes to human happiness, Truth is neutral: Truth may “ennoble” – whatever we may mean by that – but it does not care one way or the other for human happiness. We may still hold on to it as a concept, and value it for what it is, but it is possible that what we value is no more than a ghost of the past, one of those Gengangere, “something that or someone who walks again”. For if there is no divine will we may appeal to, if there is no God himself, then it is hard to see what there can be more valuable than human happiness here on earth; and if Truth itself is indifferent to the very concept of human happiness, why then why should we value it?

Now, Ibsen is not saying that we shouldn’t value Truth: Dr Relling, in The Wild Duck, says this, but Dr Relling is not Ibsen. Ibsen does, however, pose some very uncomfortable questions. If we no longer believe, if we can no longer appeal to an overriding divine purpose or to an overriding divine will, then we can take nothing for granted; then we must create our own values, and they must be human values, justified in human terms. Possibly this is what Ivan Karamazov meant when he spoke those enigmatic words “If God doesn’t exist, everything is permitted”. This does not necessarily mean that the non-existence of God obviates moral values, although that is certainly a possible interpretation: more interestingly, it can mean that if God does not exist, we have nothing to guide us in creating our own values, and that we must, therefore, start from scratch. And if we do, we must question everything, even the value of Truth itself. If there can be no aim greater than that of earthly human welfare, and if Truth is indifferent to such an end, why then should we value Truth? Is it merely an emotional attachment on our part and nothing more? And here, when Rebecca West presents the Rosmer view of life as something that ennobles, but also as something that is opposed to human happiness, a deeply uncomfortable question seems to me implicit: what price nobility, what price Truth, if it makes us unhappy?

On top of this questioning of the value of Truth, in Rosmersholm, the very nature of Truth itself is questioned. Not whether there exists such a thing as objective Truth, but whether we are capable, even with the best of wills, of grasping what it is.

Such are the psychological complexities in which the principal characters of this drama are bound, the mind reels. Rebecca West and John Rosmer try to understand their past, try to understand what it has made of them, but little seems clear, and their behaviour, conditioned as it is by their psychological states, seems at times perverse. Ibsen here delves further into the inner complexities of the human mind than he had done in any of his earlier plays. Only four years earlier, in An Enemy of the People, he had presented a very public drama, with very public conflicts; in The Wild Duck, which followed, he moved towards the private sphere, presenting the depths of the mind, of the imagination, as the depth of the sea itself. Now, he moves further into the close intricacies of the human mind. Of course, there is a public life as well: the drama depicted here is very firmly set in the real world, and there is, we gather, much public conflict outside; but this conflict is, essentially, presented as noises off. We see a representative of the conservative camp – the overbearing and bullying Kroll; and we see a representative of the liberal camp, the sly and manipulative Mortensgaard, neither caring for the  Truth, and neither bearing any mark of nobility. But the action of the play never leaves the House of Rosmer, and the focus is turned inward.

Sigmund Freud, famously, wrote at length on the character of Rebecca West in his 1914 essay “Character Types”. (The essay is quoted at length by Michael Meyer in the introduction to his translation, and Meyer refers to it as “by far the most penetrating analysis of the play”.) Among other things, Freud probes the question of why, precisely, Rebecca West refuses Rosmer’s proposal of marriage towards the end of Act Two. This, after all, is what she had been working towards; why, when it is within her grasp, does she turn away from it so fiercely? Whatever we may think of Freud’s answer to this question, it cannot be denied that it is a fundamental question to ask. Ibsen has placed it at exactly the half-way point of the play; the refusal, though obscure in terms of “why?”, is tremendously powerful and dramatic, and it brings down the curtain on the second act with the utmost force. Freud’s view was that Rebecca West was haunted by her fear of incest. As a younger woman, after her mother had died, she had become the mistress of step-father, Dr West. However, Dr West had most likely been, in reality, her biological father also: Rebecca’s mother had been his lover while her husband had still been alive. And when Rebecca later enters the Rosmer household, she comes into a parallel situation: she ends up displacing John Rosmer’s wife, Beata, to win John, in the same way that she had previously displaced her mother to win Dr West. But the guilt she feels for her previous incestuous relationship Dr West prevents her from taking the final step of this act of displacement.

This may or may not be so: I am no expert of Freudian psychology. It may be argued that when Rebecca refuses Rosmer, she does not know that Dr West was her biological father: she had no idea that Dr West and her mother had previously been lovers. However, against this, it may be argued that she may, at least, have had suspicions; and that, afterwards, Dr West had certainly been her step-father, and, hence, a father figure, if not necessarily a biological father. All this may be so. It is certainly true that the situation Rebecca found herself in on entering Rosmersholm parallels the situation she had been in before. But there does seem to me a much simpler explanation: Rebecca feels guilt not because of incest, but because of Beata, the wife of John Rosmer, and the part she had played in Beata’s death.

As a liberated woman, Rebecca had not, at first, cared much about the niceties of convention, about the sanctity of marriage; but over time, as she says herself, the “Rosmer view of life” had “infected” her will. The words she uses here are significant: infected, poisoned, enslaved. She expresses exclusively in negative terms that which, by her own admission, had ennobled her. The nobility that is so defining a feature of the House of Rosmer had made her ill, had taken away her very freedom: no longer was she the liberated person she once had been. But it had ennobled. It had allowed her to see clearly her own guilt. For, even when we reject religion, reject God, the consciousness of our guilt, and the awareness of our sinfulness, are less easy to throw off: these are Gengangere, “something that or someone who walks again”.

But what really did happen with Beata? The truth is difficult even to uncover, let alone embrace. To what extent is Rebecca responsible for Beata’s suicide, for Beata’s throwing herself into the millrace? Rebecca herself is not entirely sure. But the dead continue to live with us: in performance, we hear throughout the sound of the millrace from outside the house. Beata herself may be dead, but she remains throughout a powerful presence. And it strikes me as likely that it is Beata’s unseen presence, and Rebecca’s growing awareness of her own guilt and her willingness to accept moral responsibility, that is behind Rebecca’s refusal. At the very end of the play, Mrs Helseth sees John Rosmer and Rebecca West follow Beata, and throw themselves into the millrace – a sentence they pass upon themselves in  the absence of a God they can no longer believe in – and she says: “The dead mistress has taken them”. Amongst other things, Rosmersholm may be seen, I think, as a Gothic ghost story: the ghost of Beata is rarely too far away.

But what really had happened between John Rosmer, Beata Rosmer, and Rebecca West? One thing we can definitely rule out is that Rosmer and Rebecca had been having an affair. They both make quite clear, even when alone together, that their relationship had been entirely chaste. Indeed, John Rosmer appears throughout a sort of sexless being, or, at least, as an asexual being. That he can be living under the same roof as the young and attractive Rebecca, and never even be tempted by desire, seems to indicate a man with a very low, virtually non-existent, sexual drive. (Neither is there any indication, incidentally, of homosexuality on Rosmer’s part, latent or otherwise.)  Perhaps this is in keeping with the cold, passionless ethos of the House of Rosmer, where children do not cry and adults do not laugh. If this is so, we may ask ourselves what had attracted Rebecca to Rosmer in  the first place, and here, I must confess that I am not at all sure: the fact that Rosmer was a man from a noble family (on all senses of  the word noble), and belonging to an old and respected family, and owner of the great Rosmersholm, the House of Rosmer, may in itself had been a sort of aphrodisiac. But more important, I think, is that Rosmer is a genuinely good man. He is, as Edmund says of Edgar in King Lear, a man “whose nature is so far from doing harms, that he suspects none”: he cannot see how pompous and malicious Kroll is, or how untrustworthy and conniving Mortensgaard is; and it never even occurs to him that living under the same roof as Rebecca West may give rise to gossip. He has rejected his faith, but his moral integrity, his determination to do right, to value Truth, are important aspects of his character: these, after all, are the values of Rosmersholm iitself. Rebecca herself would possibly be at a loss to explain what it was that had attracted her to Rosmer, but the fact that he was in all respects a good man is, I think, far from a minor consideration.

And then, there is the question of John’s marriage with Beata: what exactly had that been like? We can only piece it together from the very unreliable memories the participants of this drama have about her. He are given to understand that she had been mentally ill, especially towards the end: it seems likely she had been suffering from what we would now call depression. And that the depression had been brought on by, or, perhaps, exacerbated by, the knowledge that she couldn’t have children – although whether this was due to her own medical condition or to her husband’s lack of sexual interest in her remains unclear. At any rate, she had been a deeply unhappy person, imbued with a profound sense of her own inadequacy, and  her unworthiness to be the wife of John  Rosmer. And Rebecca had played upon this. She had given Beata to understand that she and Rosmer were indeed lovers, and that it was she, Rebecca, and not Beata, who should rightfully be Rosmer’s wife. Not that she had done this openly, or even deliberately: it was not something calculated, and, as she looks back, she cannot quite understand to what extent she really had been  responsible:

REBECCA (vehemently): But do you think I did all  this calculatedly, and in cold blood? No – I was different then from what I am now – standing here and talking about it. And besides – I think a person can have two wills. I wanted to be rid of Beata. Somehow or other. But I never thought it would happen. Every step that I ventured forward, I felt as though a voice cried within me: “No further! Not an inch further!” But I couldn’t stop! I had to venture another inch. Just one. And then another – just one more. And then it happened. That’s how such things do happen.

And, as Rosmer realises, if Rebecca is guilty, he is guilty too. At two strategic points in the play, in the first and final acts, the reprehensible old layabout, Ulrik Brendel, enters the scene. He had previously been John Rosmer’s tutor, and  Rosmer possibly realises that this faded old idealist, now taking refuge in bluster and in alcohol, is a sort of grotesque mirror image of himself. He too, like Rosmer, had set out to “ennoble” humanity; but whatever nobility he himself once may have had has long since disappeared. And he knows it. How can he, pathetic and absurd as he is, have anything to offer?

BRENDEL: Faewell,  Johannes! Forward to victory!

ROSMER: Are you going now? It’s a dark night.

BRENDEL: Night and darkness are best. Peace be with you. [He leaves]

                [There is a moment’s silence in the room.]

REBECCA (takes a deep breath): Oh, how close and suffocating it is here!

Rebecca and John can both seen Brendel an image of John Rosmer himself, and idealist who, being honest, must face up to what he really is, to the guilt in which he is embroiled. He can no longer believe in a God to punish him, but he still believes in sin and in atonement: he must punish himself.  Night and darkness are best, after all.

I, who was to carry my cause to victory – ! And now I have fled the field, before the battle has even begun.

And as for Rebecca, she is suffocating. The only way out for both of them is to go the way Beata had done.

But it is not the case – as I have seen in some analyses of this play –  that John Rosmer decides to atone for his guilt by committing suicide, and Rebecca decides to join him. It is, if anything, the other way round. It is John Rosmer, with the monstrous egotism typical of idealists who expects others to share their ideals, who asks whether Rebecca will have the courage:

ROSMER: Have you the courage – and the will – with a glad heart, as Ulrik Brendel said – for my sake,  now, tonight – freely and willingly – to go the  way that Beata went? … Yes, Rebecca. This is the question I shall never be able to escape from – after you are gone. Every hour of the day it will haunt me.

Rosmer means that this question will haunt him after Rebecca has left Rosmersholm: would she, who is guilty of so much for his sake, and in whose guilt he bears a great part, prove to him the depths not only of her love, but also of her awareness of her guilt? It is a monstrously egotistical thing to ask for. But Rebecca agrees. And only then does Rosmer decide to accompany her.

For now, we two are one.

And there follows the double suicide, the ultimate union in death, the liebestod – but a liebestod entirely chaste, and free of sexuality. The liberated woman who had sought to subdue the world itself to her will, but whose will now has dissipated; and the man of integrity who had sought to ennoble humanity, but who find himself embroiled in such guilt that, in absence of a God, he must himself punish, perish together. Night and darkness are best.

***

I have long delayed writing this post because, despite many years’ acquaintance with this play, I am not sure I understand it, or that I will ever understand it. Reading over what I have written, I fear much of it may appear pretentious: I have touched on elements of philosophy and psychology that I am distinctly unqualified to comment upon. However, this is a work that continues to fascinate me, and I don’t think it is possible to describe how I react to this without touching on these matters. For this is all this is: not an analysis, by any means, but simply a record of how I, personally, react to this play – of what it means to me.  I think it is among the most hypnotically captivating of all works of literature that I have encountered. The dramatist still reckoned essentially to be a social critic, a dramatist of social change, peers here into some of the most obscure and secret compartments of the human mind, into some of the deepest of human concerns, and, inevitably, the play that emerges is difficult, and endlessly intricate. I doubt I will ever come to a definitive view of a work so complex and so profound. Great though Ibsen’s previous plays in this cycle had been, it does seem to me that with Rosmersholm, he moves on to a new level entirely.