Sunday, June 8, 2014

Ah, what an uplifting story! - the middle 4 Ibsen plays - sea trolls and suicides

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)


  1. In The Wild Duck, Ibsen is not in the "truth teller's corner" but presents him as a foolish and dangerous object of ridicule. In fact, he is a thinly disguised Strindberg -- Ibsen's arch-enemy. Well, there you have some food for thought.

  2. Ibsen was a wildman. He just doesn't look like it.

  3. Fun fact: Little Eyolf was the basis for that Lars Von Trier movie, Antichrist.

  4. Strindberg, you don't say? Shaw actually identifies that character as Ibsen, or a parody of the perfect Ibsenist created by the first four play. Robert Brustein does the same, following Shaw, I suppose.

    Shelley - he really is wonderfully wild. In these last twenty or really thirty years of his life, he was somehow unleashed in all his wildness.

    I did not know about the Von Trier movie. Reading Little Eyolf, I often thought something like "No wonder this one is so seldom produced - who would want to see this enacted?" But of course, who else.

  5. I cannot claim originality for the idea that Gregers Werle is inspired by Strindberg. I read it somewhere, and now I cannot remember where. So, the source remains a mystery in my swiss-cheese memory. Ibsen could not stand Strindberg's bizarre, self-righteous idealism. Those qualities are a thumb-nail description of young Gregers.


  6. The Lady by the Sea is full of good things. Like these lines that explain the unease we feel in the middle of even the most prosperous and joyful times:
    "That joy is, I suppose, something like our joy at the long pleasant summer days -it has the presentiment of the dark days coming. And it is this presentiment that casts its shadows over the joy of men, just as the driving clouds cast their shadow over the fjords. It lies there so bright and blue-and then, all of a sudden".

    Or the conversation between poor Bolette and her former teacher, the much older and richer Arnholm. Arnholm has offered to provide Bolette with enough money for her to travel the world, to not have to work as a servant, or some other menial work, and to not have to marry someone she does not love in order to survive.

    Bolette is very grateful. But then Arnholm explains the bargain, she must make herself sexually available by marrying him. Bolette is devastated, she refuses, she doesn't love him that way. Arnholm then says that he would still like to give her the money, as a 'steadfast' friend. Bolette reflects:
    "To think -to know- one's self free, and to get out into the strange world, and then, not to need to be anxious for the future -not to be harassed about one’s stupid livelihood. That’s a good thing. Indeed it is. That is certain"

    But then she refuses the 'free' money: "No, no, no! Never that, for that would be utterly impossible now"; she'd rather marry him. Because she might sell herself for money to one she doesn't love, but at least she would not cheat her 'John' out of her end of the deal, she's a decent woman, you see.

  7. Lady must have the richest sub-plots of any of them. It even supplies a character to another play, which only happens once, I think.

  8. For me, Gregers Werle is neither Strindberg nor Ibsen: he is Brand. Brand and Peer Gynt are never far away.

  9. Maybe RT is referring to something else, but it's young Ekdahl who was identified with Strindberg - by Strindberg himself, a furious, delusional Strindberg.

    Brand begins a whole series of destructive truth-tellers who culminate in Werle.

    You left a comment (that I can't figure out how to publish) mentioning that the character Aslaksen in Enemy of the People had previously appeared in The League of Youth. Is that one good? I skipped it, and look what happens.

    1. Sorry - I should read more carefully before commenting.

      The League of Youth is a fairly middling work. Nothing particularly wrong with it, but I doubt we'd remember it were it by some other writer.I read it once many years ago: I didn't dislike it, but have never felt the urge to return to it.

    2. No apologies - you read what was right there in the text.

      What a relief to read your description of League of Youth. It's the sort of thing that gnaws at a neurotic reader - did I skip the wrong thing?