Thursday, June 5, 2014

I lay tossing and turning all night, half asleep, dreaming I was chased by a hideous walrus. - Ibsen's Pillars of Society

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.


  1. Since you have read Shaw and the plays, what do you think of Shaw's book? Is it accurate, insightful? Does he get to the core of Ibsen? Or does he terribly misread him?

  2. I think I should do a post on Shaw separately. Great book, is what I think. Yes, accurate and insightful. He bends Ibsen to his own purposes but does not break him. To the extent that he misreads - or, really, narrows, Ibsen - it is productive.

    Of course Shaw was also able to put his strong misreading int practice.

    1. I've never been a fan of The Quintessence of Ibsenism. Shaw, as you say, bends Ibsen to his own purposes, and "narrows" him. However, Shaw's reviews of early London productions of Ibsen plays - collected in a volume called "Our Theatre of the Nineties" - seems to me far more perceptive. Which seems to indicate that in the later book, Shaw was misreading Ibsen intentionally.

      Or maybe he forgot his earlier writings. Or maybe he changed his mind. Who knows...

    2. Intentionally, I think that's right.

  3. I am in my broken-record mode, so I will say again that understanding Ibsen's characters -- especially the male-female dynamics -- can be enriched by good familiarity with Ibsen's personal life. His experiences with his mother and sister, his lover (mother of his illegitimate son), his wife (who would refuse the "conjugal" life after the birth of their child), and his young women (who may or may not have been lovers) all tends to show up one way or another in the plays. Yes, biographical criticism is full of pitfalls, but in Ibsen's case, it is also illuminating and useful.

  4. And you call yourself a New Critic! Do you have a recommended Ibsen biography, or does Templeton cover the subject sufficiently?

  5. Alas, I am a corrupted New Critic. And Templeton is my preferred source. She handles the biography and the plays in a most provocative and informative way. She should pay me a commission for so often recommending Ibsen's Women to readers.