I’ll try to stick with a single play here, Pillars of Society (1877), the first of the so-called “Realist” plays.
Karsten Bernick is the pillar, here, the owner of a prosperous shipping company who is about to go into the railroad business as part of an insider trading scheme. A paragon of moral rectitude in public, he is also thoroughly corrupt. He has an illegitimate daughter, Dina. He successfully spread rumors that his brother-in-law, who had just left for America, was the actual father. He tossed in, to protect his own financial sleight of hand, another rumor that the brother-in-law had robbed Bernick’s firm. In a dramatic scene, he wrestles with the idea of murdering said brother-in-law, to keep him from spilling the beans, by the novel means of improper ship repairs. So, incidentally, the entire crew and any other passengers will be killed, too. The result of his moral agony is: yes, let the unsafe ship sail.
Several points. First, Bernick could easily be portrayed as a sociopath, but that is not Ibsen’s game, although I support any reader, director or actor who remains suspicious.
Second, once the ship launches, by means of other plotty stuff unknown to Bernick, both his daughter Dina and his beloved young son are likely on it, too. I thought the subsequent scenes were genuinely tense – just how horribly ironic is the ending of this play going to be?
Third, Dina is running off with the brother-in-law, who, remember, is thought by almost everyone to be her father, so we have a shadow or parody of an incest plot. Dina is a great character, however minor. This is Shaw: she “wants to get to America because she hears that people there are not good; for she is heartily tired of good people” (from the “Pillars of Society” chapter in The Quintessence of Ibsenism). Ibsen is terrific with his women. He may have more “types” of women in his imagination than of men, which is unusual.
Fourth, the murder scheme, and the son on the doomed ship, and various secrets that are revealed by, for example, old letters, may seem overtly theatrical, artificial and even a bit ridiculous. Is it ever. Pillars of Society is a well-made play. On stage, we see the moment when everything goes smash. I will try to stop being so amused that this tense and unlikely contraption acquired the label of “realism.”
I think Pillars is one of the two or three weakest of the final twelve plays, actually, although I now have no doubt that they are all worth reading. It does have my single favorite line from any of them.
MRS. BERNICK: Didn’t you sleep well last night?
HILMAR: No, I slept miserably. I took a walk last evening for my constitution and wound up at the club, reading an account about an expedition to the North Pole. There’s something exhilarating about human beings battling the elements.
MRS. RUMMEL: But it obviously didn’t agree with you, Mr. Tønnesen.
HILMAR: No, it upset me. I lay tossing and turning all night, half asleep, dreaming I was chased by a hideous walrus. (Act I, p. 20)
I am going to go on and on in the next few posts about Ibsen’s repetitions and variations; it is his greatest artistic failing that this is all we ever hear about this walrus.