The Wild Duck is one of Henrik Ibsen’s most important problem plays. From the time of its first appearance, it captured audiences and readers with its vitality and universality. Ibsen, known as the founder of modern drama, achieved this recognition over tremendous obstacles, not the least of which was that he wrote in a little-known language. Born into a provincial milieu in Norway, Ibsen suffered early poverty and hardships, including poor education. In 1851, he became the assistant manager of the Bergen Theater, studied stage production abroad, and in the next six years gained invaluable practical theatrical experience by putting into production 145 plays. By the time he started writing his own plays, he had a knowledge of the theater and its literature matched by very few playwrights.
In Et dukkehjem (1879; A Doll’s House, 1880), Gengangere (1881; Ghosts, 1885), En folkefiende (1882; An Enemy of the People, 1890), The Wild Duck, and Hedda Gabler (1890; English translation, 1891), Ibsen introduced realism to the stage and established it so overwhelmingly that it became the dominant approach to the stage throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Ibsen substituted middle-class protagonists for kings and queens and wrote prose dialogue rather than poetry, stating that “My plays . . . are not tragedies in the old meaning of the word; what I have wanted to portray is human beings and that is just why I did not want them to speak the language of the gods.” He introduced detailed stage directions to authenticate the background scene, and he approached his characterizations with a desire to reveal them to the audience almost scientifically, thus incorporating his age’s new discoveries of the importance of instincts, biology, heredity, and environment. In his plot innovation, he dispensed with the intrigue and trickery of then popular “well-made plays.” While maintaining his skillful manipulation of plot, he ended each act with strong, theatrical curtain scenes. Some of his innovations—as in his extensive use of light-dark imagery; his pervasive irony; his elimination of all events antecedent to the critical situation; and his use of the unities of time, place, and action—reveal his study of Greek tragedy.
The Wild Duck marked Ibsen’s turning away from realistic problem plays. From that time on his plays were complex, enigmatic studies of the human condition, and they employed expressionistic and symbolic techniques. The Wild Duck reflects some of his most important preoccupations. These include the presentness of the past; man’s search for his true identity and place in life; the effects of idealism as a social force; the conflict of reality and illusion; and the problem of man’s ultimate freedom. Ibsen himself said that the critics would “find plenty to quarrel about, plenty to interpret” in this play.
The key to the universality of the play lies in the complexity of the strong, well-rounded characters. A lesser playwright would have settled, for example, for making old Werle the villain of a melodrama. Ibsen, instead, presents his human complexity. Gregers, the son, sees the elder Werle as an unredeemable villain who ruined old Ekdal, made his housemaid pregnant, and then foisted her off on the unsuspecting son of Ekdal. Hjalmar Ekdal, however, describing what old Werle did for him and his family, sees him as a fairy godfather. The truth in Ibsen, as in life, lies somewhere in between—perhaps in old Werle’s espousal of “the attainable ideal.” Gina Ekdal, too, moves far beyond the stereotype of the fallen woman redeemed by marriage. It is Gina’s work on the photographs and her sewing, her concern for practicalities and the welfare of Hedvig and her husband, that keep the family going and enable Hjalmar to indulge in his dreams.
The two major characters, Gregers and Hjalmar, are even more complex. Both men see themselves as intellectually and morally superior to all around them; both are judged by the audience...
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