by Ernst Schoen-René

In what remains my favorite Ibsen play, Peer Gynt (1867), Peer is a
man without a self. He gets on by imitating others—a slave trader, a
great lover, a woodsman, a troll, a married homesteader, an emperor, a
businessman—all of them illusory, and all of them ending in failures.
Toward the end of his life, Peer is confronted by the “Button Molder,”
who carries with him a giant ladle in which he melts men without
selves into the indifferent stuff out of which future men will be
made—much as a contemporary Norwegian wife might have melted down a
metal button in order to make a new one.
The Button Molder challenges Peer to find his essential “self,” but
Peer cannot. And he can no longer escape into his idle dreams. So he
picks up an onion and, reciting the many “selves” he has put on, peels
away its layers, looking for its central kernel. However, an onion
has no central kernel—just as Peer has no true self, and, at the
play’s end, Peer hovers on the edge of disaster.
Ibsen was sick of the stupid, illusion-driven, self-absorbed stuffed
shirts he saw around him in Norway. So he left Norway for Germany and
Italy, and turned to writing “realistic” fourth-wall dramas like A
Doll’s House, Ghosts, An Enemy of the People, and The Wild Duck
(recently on the boards as part of Bard’s SummerScape Festival).
However, his concern with empty selves continued.
The plays leading up to The Wild Duck all deal with
self-illusions–each one from a different angle
In A Doll’s House (1879), probably Ibsen’s best-known play, a woman
walks out on her stuffy, oppressive fool of a husband This was an
unthinkable action at the time, and one that made what Ibsen liked to
refer to as the “upright” members of proper Victorian society so
furious that most theaters refused to stage the play. Even Ibsen was
forced to re-write its ending.
So, in the next play, Ghosts (1881), Ibsen responds to the “upright”
people who attacked A Doll’s House—this time by depicting a woman who
does what such people would have had her do and stays married—only to
discover that her (now dead) husband has been a womanizer, that the
local vicar (her former suitor) is a moral windbag, that her maid is
her husband’s bastard daughter, and that her son has inherited
syphilis from his father (Ibsen thought this was possible) and has
come home a dying, “worm-eaten” (Ibsen’s term) shadow of his former
Syphilis—on a stage, perhaps in front of young women? Not on your
life! And so Ibsen continued to scandalize and to attack those who
wore false fronts and preached social conformity.
Ibsen’s next play, An Enemy of the People (1882), takes a
proto-muckraker not unlike Ibsen, one Doctor Stockmann, a health
officer who tries to tell the citizens of a small provincial town that
the very tourist hot springs on which their livelihood depends are
poisonous. In return, Stockmann’s house is stoned by the “upright”
people of the town, his children are attacked, he is publicly declared
an “enemy of the people,” and—at the last—he learns that his own
prosperity is based on stocks his family owns in the hot springs
Finally, in The Wild Duck (1884), Ibsen takes the realist/reformer
Dr. Stockman and turns him into Gregers Werle, a man who has made
“truth-telling” his own self-illusion, and whose actions destroy all
that is good in the lower-middle-class family to which he attaches
The play is dated, and making it succeed on a contemporary stage is
no easy task. This is partly because the very characters Ibsen (and
others) invented to attack society’s foolishnesses have come down to
our own time as the common stuff of family dramas and sitcoms,
characters such as the out-of-it father, the sensible wife, the
precocious child, the doddering grandparent, the drunken neighbor, the
crazy man down the street, the meddling busybody, and the contented
older couple.
So, while in Ibsen’s day the play was much more nearly a tragedy,
today, it comes at one as if it were a comedy. Indeed, Bard publicity
referred to it as a “comic tragedy.”
Despite the challenges, translator David Eldridge, director Caitriona
McLaughlin, and a fine crew of actors pulled off an absorbing and
effective production, one made all the more impressive when compared
to the poorly received over-modernization of “A Doll’s House”
currently playing in New York.
They also succeeded in finding that middle ground in Ibsen
characterization—someplace between realistically human and satirically
exaggerated. Playing with a Nixonian hunch, Sean Cullen made a fine,
easily led Hjalmar Ekdal; Mary Bacon, a perky, feet-on-the-ground
Gina; Liam Craig, a world-weary philosopher/skeptic Dr. Relling, and
Rachel Cora, an excellent 14-year-old Hedwig. And further praises
could go to practically any other member of the cast—truly an
impressive show.
And finally, one must note Ibsen’s brilliant use of the Ekdal attic,
filled as it is with remnants of the sorts of the forest Grandfather
Ekdal (Peter Malony) used to hunt in—and the unable-to-fly titular
wild duck. This attic represents the Ekdal psyche and, as such, the
illusion of freedom—for people who, like most of us, possess fragile
outer selves and cannot take too much truth. Old Ekdal spends most of
his day there, daughter Hedwig (who is still innocent) visits the wild
duck there, and the illusion-destroying “realist,” Gregers Werlel
(Dashiell Eaves), wants nothing more than to destroy it.
Does this brilliantly realized play have anything to say to today’s
world? I mean, do we have any among us who are boxed in by the
“selves” they have chosen to put on? Of course not. Here, in
21st-century America? Unimaginable!
–Ernst Schoen-René

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