The next thing that happens is that Ibsen, after writing four plays in a row about the terrible costs of living a life full of secrets and lies, comes up with The Wild Duck (1884), in which a brave truth-teller damages or destroys the lives of everyone around him, either because they cannot act on the truth, or because they take it so seriously that they do act. The Wild Duck is undeniably, even by me, a tragedy, a shocker, but the way Ibsen punches a hole through the surface of his previous plays is hilarious.
This is just the sort of thing that leads people to cook up twelve-play interpretive schemes. If nothing else, the later plays should add some nuances to interpretations of the earlier ones. Maybe the exact nature or purpose of truth-telling matters. for example.
The other things that encourage schematism are the clear symmetries built into the plays. George Bernard Shaw and Brian Johnston break them into clusters of four. After the social realism of the first four, Ghosts and so on, the next set – The Wild Duck, Rosmersholm (1886), The Lady by the Sea (1888), and Hedda Gabler (1890) – certainly take a strange turn. The plays get weirder, and the trolls start to appear, or perhaps start to reveal themselves more clearly.
For example, Ellida, the title character of The Lady from the Sea, has a strange affinity for the wild sea which life on a fjord, part of the sea, yes?, cannot assuage. She is specifically identified as a mermaid. She fell in love with a wild sailor, who, just after murdering a man, marries Ellida in a pagan ceremony, throwing wedding rings into the sea. He never returns, and she eventually marries a doctor and leaves the untamed sea for the calm fjord.
The play begins with Ellida in crisis, yearning for the sea. She has lost a child, and her marriage is failing, so when her first “husband” reappears to claim her I actually thought that he was imaginary, an expression of her inner turmoil. The sailor, who has magic powers and appears to be some kind of sea troll, is real, though – “real,” I mean. What is strange about the play is how what seems like it should be the symbolic background of the play is in fact the foreground, the source of the action, like in a fairy tale.
ELLIDA: Once you’ve really become a land animal, then there’s no going back again – into the sea. Or the life that belongs to the sea, either. (Act V)
Obviously, this is symbolically laden, yet within the play itself it is pretty close to literal.
Ibsen is recasting A Doll House in The Lady from the Sea. Ellida might walk out on her husband much like Nora did, but her husband does not duplicate Nora’s husband’s mistakes. Nora considers suicide, and once I start looking for these patterns, it seems possible that the sea troll is offering not love but death, escape by suicide. And in fact, it is this middle set of four plays that are full of suicides, five or six in four plays. Rosmersholm introduces the bizarre and disturbing idea of people demanding suicide of others, as proof of loyalty and love, which is utterly insane, unless the person making the demand is, like the sailor, or Hedda Gabler, a troll.
My title is again from Pillars of Society.
MRS. RUMMEL: Ah, what an uplifting story!
MRS. HOLT: And – so moral!
MRS. BERNICK: A book like that really does make you think. (Act I)