The Tragic and Comic Elements in The Wild Duck.

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1595

In comparison to current esteem for Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, the play was vastly underappreciated upon its initial appearance on the stages of Europe. In Scandinavia, the play was somewhat successful but drew little interest from critics. While its Berlin audience applauded it, the play was booed in Rome, disliked in London, and received with indifference in Paris. The criticism it drew in the first few decades after its publication and performance was, generally, negative. Edmund Gosse wrote in an 1889 collection that it was ‘‘the least interesting’’ of Ibsen’s plays to date. In years since, however, The Wild Duck slowly came to be regarded as one of Ibsen’s more important works. Only a few decades after it first appeared in theaters, scholars and critics began to study and better understand the play, and thus appreciate it. As early as 1919, Smith Ely Jeliffe and Louise Brink asserted in The Psychoanalytic Review that ‘‘Ibsen’s power and genius for touching the finer intimate realities of life close at hand, are perhaps most evident in The Wild Duck.’’

Illustration of PDF document

Download The Wild Duck Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The play also ushered in the final period of Ibsen’s career, signifying his shifting interest from social realism to symbolism and characterization. Ibsen portrays the self-deceiving Ekdal family with psychological insight and compassion. At the same time, his play reaches both the heights of tragedy and comedy. Indeed, Ibsen asserted that he had written a ‘‘tragi-comedy,’’ an appraisal that has since been accepted by most scholars. The tragedy was as important as the comedy, Ibsen wrote, otherwise Hedvig’s death would become ‘‘incomprehensible.’’ Indeed, this incoherence was one of the elements against which many early critics railed. Maurice Valency notes that amidst a backdrop of caricatures and melodramas, ‘‘Only the child suffers.’’ Her death is the one tragic note in a ‘‘distinctly comic situation.’’

The Wild Duck is, at once, serious and farcical. The characters in particular manifest the comic elements. Old Ekdal charges around the attic, wearing his lieutenant’s cap and dirty toupee and shooting pigeons and poultry and pretending that he is shooting bears. The wild duck, confined to the attic, has instead of a lake for swimming and diving, a water trough for splashing. Hjalmar, who has just terrified his daughter and is in the process of leaving his wife, still throws his overcoat on the sofa and complains about ‘‘All these exhausting preparations!’’

In Hjalmar Ekdal and Gregers Werle, the opposing elements that make up comedy and tragedy are most clearly demonstrated. Each man strongly maintains his belief and his system of ideals, not realizing that his overwrought and overblown opinions appear ludicrous to onlookers. Hjalmar talks quite earnestly of a photographic device he will invent. ‘‘Sure, of course I’m making progress,’’ he answers in response to Gregers’s question. ‘‘I grapple every single day with the invention, I’m filled with it . . . But I simply must not be rushed; . . . The inspiration, the intuition—look, when it’s ready to come, it will come, and that’s all.’’ Everyone around him understands this truth, what Relling calls Hjalmar’s ‘‘life-lie.’’

Hjalmar’s foolishness is more comically revealed when he returns home to pack his belongings after his night of drunkenness. He says to Gina, ‘‘I must have my books with me. Where are my books?’’

Gina: What books? Hjalmar: My scientific works, naturally—the technical journals I use for my invention. Gina [looking in the bookcase]: Is it these here that there’s no covers on? Hjalmar: Yes, of course. Gina [puts a pile of unbound volumes on the table]: Shouldn’t I get Hedvig to cut the pages for you?

This exchange eloquently demonstrates how little involvement Hjalmar actually has with his ‘‘project.’’ It is only a prop—a distracting toy, even.

In her article ‘‘The Will and Testament of Ibsen,’’ Mary McCarthy notes the comical connection between the two men; ‘‘Hjalmar’s pretended ‘purpose in life’ is a sort of parody of Gregers’ ‘purpose to live for.’’’ The reverse is true as well; Gregers’s belief that he can effect a meaningful difference in other people’s lives can be seen as his life-lie. In truth, his interference has no positive purpose and seems to mask his own emptiness more than it fulfills any other function. Gregers has spent the past fifteen years up at ‘‘the works,’’ where he found life ‘‘Delightfully lonely.’’ Though he had ‘‘Plenty of opportunity to think about all sorts of things,’’ he never arrived at any project to which he could devote his life—much in the same vein as Hjalmar and his ‘‘invention.’’ The project of revealing the truth about Hakon’s involvement with the Ekdals, however, gives him ‘‘an objective to live for.’’ That Gregers should take upon himself the responsibility of opening Hjalmar’s eyes is both tragic and comic. His sense of self-importance makes it tragic—he cannot help but try and inflict his ideals on those around him—as does the ultimate outcome his interference has on the family. At the same time, his self-importance, which leads to his ill-conceived plan, is comical, for clearly Gregers has no justification for his actions—truly he seems to enjoy meddling and he has nothing else on which to spend his time. At the end of the play, he mournfully but with acceptance verbalizes his role— what he calls his ‘‘destiny’’ in life: ‘‘To be the thirteenth man at the table.’’

Unfortunately, the rest of the Ekdal family is as ignorant to the intermingling of seriousness and foolishness—reality and illusion—as are Gregers and Hjalmar. Though Gina Ekdal immediately senses the danger that Gregers poses to her family and to the protected world she has created for Hjalmar, her recognition is based on her dependency on Hakon’s economic help, thus she fears losing her reality, not her illusion. She protests letting Gregers rent out their extra room: ‘‘But can’t you see there’s something the matter between them again, since the younger one is moving out? . . . And now maybe Mr. Werle will think you were behind it . . . he could take it out on Grandpa. Suppose he loses the little money he makes working for Graberg.’’ Gina also distrusts Gregers because, unlike her husband who is lost in his own world and concerns, she pays attention to Gregers’s words and nuances.

Gregers: She’s going look to like you in time, Mrs. Ekdal. How old might she be now? Gina: Hedvig’s just fourteen; it’s her birthday the day after tomorrow. Gregers: A big girl for her age. Gina: Yes, she certainly shot up this last year. Gregers: The young ones growing up make us realize how old we ourselves are getting. —How long is it now you’ve been married? Gina: We’ve been married already fifteen years-just about. Gregers: Imagine, is it that long! Gina [becomes attentive; looks at him]: Yes, that’s what it is, all right.

Only Hjalmar’s careless interruption ends the flow of conversation, but the exchange gains much significance because it shows Gina’s wariness at Gregers’s questions. She understands the implications in his unspoken words and takes care to answer him honestly if cagily.

Despite Gina’s initial sense of foreboding, she is unable to recognize the depth of the threat he poses, for her focus, as befits her role in life, is on the practical rather than the symbolic and emotional. For instance, she questions Gregers’s assertion that he would like to be a clever dog, the ‘‘kind that goes in after ducks when they plunge and fasten themselves in the weeds and the tangle in the mud’’ because she mistakenly interprets his statement literally.

Though she is only a child, Hedvig understands that Gregers speaks symbolically:

Gina: . . . Wasn’t that crazy talk, wanting to be a dog? Hedvig: You know what, Mother—I think he meant something else. Gina: What else could he mean? Hedvig: Oh, I don’t know. But it was just as though he meant something different from what he was sayingthe whole time. Gina: You think so? Well, it sure was queer though.

Her tragedy, however, arises because she takes words too seriously. First, she believes Gregers’s words—that sacrificing the wild duck is the best way to demonstrate her love for her father. More importantly, she takes Hjalmar’s rejection utterly seriously. When he calls her an intruder, Hedvig grabs the pistol and escapes into the attic. She overhears him speak of her ‘‘manipulation’’ of him, rhetorically stating: ‘‘If I asked her then: Hedvig, are you willing to turn your back on life for me? [Laughs scornfully.] Thanks a lot-you’d soon hear the answer I’d get!’’ In response and in despair, Hedvig kills herself.

Her parents’ reactions further underscore the tragic-comic elements of the play. Upon discovery of Hedvig’s body, Gina reacts as would a normal parent. She bursts into tears and cries out, ‘‘Oh, my baby! My baby!’’ Hjalmar, in contrast, describes how Hedvig must have ‘‘in terror . . . crept into the attic and died for love of me.’’ He dramatically clenches his hands into fists and berates the heavens. ‘‘Oh, Thou above . . . ! If Thou art there! Why hast Thou done this thing to me? . . .’’ In the midst of his overdramatizing, however, the serious undercurrent remains ever apparent, for even at this moment of Hedvig’s greatest loss—the loss of her life—Hjalmar cannot see past how it will affect his own life.

Source: Rena Korb, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 2001.

Comparative Drama

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6484

In 1906, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to Clara Rilke about his cultural activities in Paris and noted:

But the most remarkable part of this very long day was the evening. We saw Ibsen’s Wild Duck at the Antoine. Excellently rehearsed, with a great deal of care and shaping—marvelous. Of course, by reason of certain differences in temperament, details were distorted, crooked, misunderstood. But the poetry! . . . all its splendour came from the inside and almost to the surface. There was something great, deep, essential. Last Judgement. A finality. And suddenly the hour was there when Ibsen’s majesty deigned to look at me for the first time. A new poet, whom we shall approach by many roads now that I know of one of them. And again someone who is misunderstood in the midst of fame. Someone quite different from what one hears. . . .

That the image of the Last Judgment should flash through Rilke’s mind suggests that Ibsen’s audacious supertext did well up ‘‘from the inside and almost to the surface’’ as it seems to have done for Robert Raphael too who, in a sensitive account of the play, observed of the strange Ekdal attic and its menagerie:

Hedvig and her grandfather approach their world with a devotion and ritual akin to religious reverence, for the attic with the duck and other treasures may be considered a metaphor for the Christian paradise: it performs in their lives exactly the same function as does a traditional church for many people. Existing on the top floor of the Ekdal microcosm, the attic is the summum bonum in their lives; it provides them, just like heaven, with a world of pure value, a realm of nearly perfect orientation. The Ekdals keep returning to this private religion for sustenance just as people do with any traditional illusion that is sacred to them.

In The Ibsen Cycle (1975), I outlined how The Wild Duck recreated the Christian phase in the long history of the human spirit explored by Hegel and, I claimed, recovered in Ibsen’s own imaginative and independent terms in his cycle of twelve realist plays. The Wild Duck inaugurated at the same time the second part of Ibsen’s three-part cycle. The sequence in which Hegel acts out the spirit’s long travail from the time of the Roman empire through the myth of the Fall and the sacrifice of the ‘‘natural world’’ up to the pre-Enlightenment period of the ‘‘sun king’’ and his court is perhaps the richest in the Phenomenology. It is a sequence, like the others in the Phenomenology, that has shaped our modern identity and that therefore, if we are fully to know ourselves, must be relived imaginatively by a present act of remembrance. In this essay I want to examine the interplay of competing levels of dramatic metaphor, verbal and visual, in Ibsen’s drama: the highly conscious intertextuality of his art— those moments in Ibsen’s text when the supertext momentarily wells up through the language of everyday life. A struggle takes place between text and supertext for the play’s dominant language, and it is the struggle itself, the way in which the spirit invades and infuses a despiritualized everyday reality, that constitutes a major conflict of the play.

In The Wild Duck the struggle is especially rich because of the unusual number of competing voices and visions that contribute to the struggle, with the messianic (Gregers) and the diabolic (Relling) at the lingual extremes. Gina’s language is literal, lapsing into malapropism; old Ekdal’s a language of superstition and of the world of nature: ‘‘Der er hævn i skogen’’ (‘‘there’s vengeance in the forests’’). His son Hjalmar has evolved a sentimentally evasive and self-deluding rhetoric under the promptings of Relling, who himself introduces to the discourse of the household the deceptive language of the ‘‘livsløgnen’’ (‘‘life-lie’’). Gregers Werle infuses this lingual brew with a potent language of parable, symbol, and metaphor in the service of what he believes are truths transcending the quotidian world of the senses and at war with the lies of his father and Relling.

The still unformed child consciousness of Hedvig, assailed by these disparate voices, responds to this strange new language of Gregers, a secret language of ‘‘på havsens bund’’ (‘‘the depths of the sea’’) where ‘‘Tiden er altså istå’’ (‘‘time has stood still’’) and where the attic might not really be an attic. At the end of Act II Gregers declares he wishes to be ‘‘en riktig urimelig flink hund; en slig en, som går tilbunds after vildænder, når de dukker under og bider sig fast i tang og tære nede i mudderet’’ (‘‘an extraordinarily clever dog. One that goes to the bottom after wild ducks when they dive and bite fast to all the weeds and waste down in the mud’’). Gina, the literalist, is merely stupefied by this declared ambition, but Hedvig early on tunes in to Gregers’ mode of discourse: ‘‘det var ligesom han mente noget andet, end det han sa—hele tiden’’ (‘‘it was as if he meant something different from what he was saying—all the time’’). She detects that Gregers talks in parables, that he inhabits something like a medieval world of marvelous correspondences between the God-created Book of Nature waiting to be interpreted and the human condition, where the history of the wild duck, its wounding and rescue, exist in an allegorical dimension to be decoded for hidden spiritual truth. In one odd passage Relling tells Gregers, ‘‘Men De tar så skammelig fejl af de store vidunderfluerne, som De tror at se og høre omkring Dem’’ (‘‘But you’re preposterously wrong about the great marvelous presences you believe you see and hear around you’’). I will claim that Gregers’ is a quintessentially Christian consciousness and mode of discourse sustained in the play by both its scenography—its overall story and action— and its pervasive imagery. That is, it is by recognizing the congruence of the play’s verbal imagery with its scenography, action, and metaphorical topography that a distinctly Christian dimension of the play with its attendant dualisms powerfully emerges.

The scenography of the play is notably vertical: from the heights of Høydal (High Dale) to the ‘‘havsens bund’’ (‘‘depths of the sea’’)—a macrocosm whose vertical structure is recreated, as Robert Raphael saw, in the microcosm of the Ekdal home, with the attic world above and the realm of Relling and Molvik below. This scenography, which is supplemented by character types, actions, and verbal and visual imagery, supplies the medieval Christian dimension of the play. It is not the only dimension but is the richest source of the play’s poetry.

On 12 June 1883 Ibsen announced to his friend Georg Brandes that he was working on the plot of a new dramatic work that was to be The Wild Duck. He added, ‘‘Jeg går i denne tid og tumler med udkastet til et nyt dramatisk arbejde i 4 akter. Der ansamler sig jo gerne mellem år og dag diverse galskaber i en, og dem vil man gerne have et afløb for’’ (‘‘At the moment I’m setting about revolving the plot of a new dramatic work in four acts. A variety of wild ideas are inclined to gather together in one’s mind, and one needs to find an outlet for them’’). The variety of wild ideas (‘‘diverse galskaber’’) in The Wild Duck is of a formidable audacity: as an example to which I shall return later, I will mention the trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Duck.

The realistic story of the play goes as follows: at the time when Merchant (Grosserer) Werle is about to marry his mistress, Mrs. Sørby, his son Gregers is invited to descend from Høydal after a fifteen-year exile and attend a feast in his honor. Gregers invites his old friend Hjalmar Ekdal to join him. Hjalmar is humiliated at the party: Merchant Werle pointedly observes that Hjalmar’s presence has meant they were an unlucky thirteen at table; then Hjalmar’s incongruously shabby father disturbs the sumptuous feast. Gregers becomes convinced that his father has brought about the Ekdals’ fall and also has arranged that Hjalmar should marry the merchant’s discarded mistress. He decides to make right his own conscience by revealing the truth of how the Ekdals were betrayed.

When he visits their attic studio and dwelling, he finds them more or less comfortably reconciled to their fallen condition, against which they have compensated by constructing a fantasy world of the attic and its menagerie—an escape from unhappy reality. Here, Gregers encounters an old opponent, Dr. Relling, living below the Ekdals with a companion whom Relling describes as ‘‘demonisk’’ (‘‘demonic’’). Whereas Gregers believes in bringing saving truth, Relling believes humanity needs ‘‘livsløgner’’ (‘‘life-lies’’) to survive. . . .

Gregers’ truth-bringing creates a crisis in the Ekdal family which, he convinces Hedvig, can be overcome through sacrifice—the sacrifice of what she holds most dear, the wild duck. When the parents believe Hedvig has sacrificed the duck, it is important to note, they are reconciled, as Gregers predicted. But something goes wrong. Hedvig kills herself. The parents show ‘‘noble grief,’’ but Gregers and Relling, resuming their old quarrel, dispute the value of this grief.

This summary of the plot inevitably has left out much, but it covers the main action. However, this action can be retold as much more than a homely domestic tragedy, and I now would like to superimpose upon the realistic story, like an enlarging grid, the story retold from the archetypal dimension.

A Son descends from on high (Høydal) to undo the actions of his Father, whose victims live in a fallen condition of deceit and escapist fantasy. He will free these victims by bringing the Truth, and he uses the imagery of Light to describe this action. He sees this humanity as in the clutches of a Deceiver, living below with a demonic companion, indulging in drunken orgies. This fallen family has constructed a miniature landscape and menagerie in the attic which compensates for the lost world of nature, so that the stage is divided, as in familiar Christian iconography, between the humble family in the foreground and a space with animals in the background.

The Truth-bringer’s action causes great anguish, and, when he urges sacrifice, tragedy ensues. After the catastrophe, the Truth-bringer and the Deceiver resume their dispute over whether humanity can be redeemed. The Son (who does not expect to live long) asserts it is his destiny to be, as if at a perpetual Last Supper, ‘‘at være trettende mand tilbords’’ (‘‘thirteenth at table’’).

The world of the play is drastically divided between an idea of reality created by the past actions of the Father, powerfully presiding over the fall of the play’s chief inhabitants (and abetted by the lies of the Deceiver), and an idea of reality envisaged by the Son, seeking through present actions and through the Truth these inhabitants’ redemption. Like the medieval mystery cycles, therefore, The Wild Duck is divided between Old Testament (of the Father and Law) and New (of the Son and Salvation).

The second archetypal story runs parallel with the first (‘‘realistic’’) one and in fact is the same action looked at from another perspective. (In Ibsen the symbol is always the real seen from another perspective.) Textually, the two stories continually intersect. Each by itself would be inadequate as a drama of human consciousness. The archetypal story alone would have the remote and abstract quality of, say, The Castle of Perseverance. The realistic story alone would be as confined and parochial in reference as most modern dramatic realism. The intersection of the two dimensions of action and language creates difficulties both for interpretation and for performance, but they are the difficulties of a major dramatic art and are worth solving. To evade the multidimensionality of Ibsen’s texts is to settle for only a fraction of his intention. To cut him down to the size of one’s psychological, moral, or political agenda instead of opening oneself up to the immensity of his intention is to create that idea of him—a man ‘‘misunderstood in the midst of fame’’ (to recall Rilke’s words)—which, in the United States, practically reduces his theatrical output to only two purportedly feminist plays, A Doll House and Hedda Gabler.

The Wild Duck, as noted above, is the first play of the Cycle’s second group, and it inaugurates the profoundly dualistic aspect of this second phase of the Cycle. This dualism is visually present on stage in the division, in the Ekdal home, between a foreground space of reluctant work and a background space (the attic) of compensating fantasy—a stage division also present in the Werle household. This dualism continues in the strongly vertical imagery of the play with its extremes of heights and depths, in the social division between the haves and have-nots in the ideological division of Gregers’ and Relling’s agendas, and so on. How thoroughly Ibsen has visualized this dualism can be seen in two striking uses of an incongruity between character and setting: the shabbily dressed Ekdal emerging to interrupt the sumptuous feast of Grosserer Werle, and the appearance of the splendidly dressed Werle interrupting the shabby feast of the Ekdal home.

I would argue the Ekdals’ fantasy attic stands for a realm of the human imagination, of memory of loss which within two-dimensional modernity usually is rendered impotent as fantasy and escapism— e.g., in the trivial diversions of the modern media — but which contains potent hidden, unconscious forces that can awaken and explode into the contemporary world. It is under Gregers’ prompting, I believe, that Hedvig awakens these dangerous but liberating powers. That invisible denizen of the attic, the Flying Dutchman, is just such a potent figure of liberating death to the Norwegian girl Senta in Richard Wagner’s opera. The Flying Dutchman, I am convinced, is one of the identities of the Stranger from the depths of the sea in The Lady from the Sea, a play in which the miniature enclosed landscape of The Wild Duck’s attic now explodes, through Ibsen’s theatrical magic, into the expansive Romantic scenography of mountains and fjord. The strange symbolism The Wild Duck —the secretive realm of the attic, its trees, treasures, and menagerie, with the wild duck at its center—is both new in the Cycle and unique to this play. Such a symbolic or allegorical dimension to art, where the world must be ‘‘read’’ as a system of signs to be decoded, is most typical of medieval Christian art. And it is Gregers who reads the world in this way.

Profoundly connected to the Christian themes, action, and imagery of the play is the juxtaposition of the humble and the exalted. This is Ibsen’s only play focusing on the ‘‘insulted and injured’’—the only play exploring so humble a condition of consciousness. Of all world religions or ideologies, in both its story and its iconography, Christianity above all emphasizes the humble and the homely— in strong contrast to the emphasis on the heroic and the beautiful of the Hellenic tradition, whose recovery was envisaged in the first four plays. Such iconography (encountered in medieval drama) as the stable, the humble family in the foreground, the animals in the background, the angels appearing to the simple shepherds in Palestine, and so on, at the same time is coupled with the most extravagant claims for humanity (for whom specifically the entire cosmos was brought into being) ever made by a religion. Much of this imagery and iconography is repeated in The Wild Duck.

The eruptions of Christian themes and imagery are so remarkably frequent when linked with the plot and the characters’ situations, conflicts, and actions and with the visual imagery and setting that I cannot see how such a dimension, as an insistent intertextuality, can be denied. In fact, the author of Brand, Peer Gynt, and Emperor and Galilean creates in the Realist Cycle, with intricate subtlety and delicacy, a multidimensional dramatic work on the most immense scale.

Ibsen’s method is an incremental interplay of both visual and verbal suggestion in which the archetypal story gradually seeps through the modern realistic texture, as in the opening scene of the play. That is, instead of creating an overtly Symbolist or allegorical drama, Ibsen infiltrates his supertext into his realistic text little by little. It is only at the close of this incremental process that the full supertext emerges.

In the following excerpts from the play, this incremental process stands revealed. At many points, the allegorical references are self-evident; still, I have noted particular points at which close readings and exact translations clarify the archetypal supertext. I begin with the stage direction describing Merchant Werle’s house in Act I. . . .

The opening scene ushers in the first cluster of Christian images—the Fall, hard labor and penance, the descent of the Son, the Last Supper—without disturbing the requirements of the dramatic text to render a plausible modern reality.

Ibsen was being more than unusually disingenuous, I believe, when he assured his publisher, Frederik Hegel, that the play could not ‘‘possibly give offense to anyone.’’ The ‘‘galskaber’’ which plays all through the text, as we will see below, is the expression of a creative impulse audacious to the point of genial blasphemy. First there is the Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy (‘‘velsignede’’) Duck.

Birds frequently are emblems of spiritual forces. The Holy Ghost traditionally is of course depicted as a dove. Ibsen maintains this avian iconography for the spirit from early in his career to the end. The idealistic lovers of Love’s Comedy are named after the falcon and swan. The hawk and dove are crucial spiritual emblems in Brand. Talking birds accompany Peer’s encounter with the Bøyg and with Memnon’s statue in Peer Gynt. Hilde Wangel in The Master Builder is a ‘‘rogfuglen’’ (‘‘bird of prey’’). The last words of the Cycle juxtapose Maia’s ‘‘Jeg er fri som en fugl! Jeg er fri!’’ (‘‘I am free as a bird, I am free!’’) with the words of the Deaconess—‘‘Pax vobiscum!’’ The idea that a wild duck might be an emblem of the free (wild) spirit, now trapped and tamed, is strongly reinforced by Gregers Werle’s own forceful application of this idea.

The Norwegian term for ‘‘duck’’ is ‘‘and.’’ The word for ‘‘spirit’’ is ‘‘ånd.’’ (The Holy Ghost is ‘‘den hellige ånd.’’) There is only a slight dissimilarity in both the sound and the appearance of the two words. Gregers, the Son, declares he wishes to be an extraordinarily clever dog and save wild ducks who have sunk to the bottom among what Ekdal calls ‘‘alt det fandenskab’’—‘‘all that devil’s mess’’. To reinforce its archetypal dimension, the wild duck—and its realm, before and after captivity— is presented to Gregers, and to the audience, in the most striking manner.

In Act II, Gregers consoles Old Ekdal for his loss of the natural world, the world of forests and lakes that the wild duck also inhabited. Ekdal, he says, has nothing in the world to connect him to his more free, natural life, and this rouses the old man to reveal the world of the attic and its central denizen. The disclosure of the duck to Gregers—and to the theater audience—is a solemnly reverent, step-bystep revelation paced for maximum effect:

Ekdal. (staring astonished at him). Nothing in the world to—!

Gregers. Of course, you’ve got Hjalmar. But he’s got his own family. And a man like you, who’s always felt drawn to what is wild and free, is—

Ekdal. (Strikes the table). Hjalmar, now he’s got to see it!

Hjalmar. But father, is it worth it just now? It’s so dark—

Ekdal. Nonsense. There’s the moonlight. Come and help me, Hjalmer.

Hedvig. Yes, let’s do it, father!

Hjalmar. (getting up). Oh, very well.

Gregers. (to Gina). What is it?

Gina. You mustn’t think it’s anything so very special.

(Ekdal and Hjalmar have gone to the rear wall, and each slides one of the double doors aside, Hedvig helping the old man. Gregers remains standing by the sofa. Gina sits unconcerned and sewing. Through the door-opening can be seen a large, long, irregularly shaped attic with recesses and a couple of freestanding stove pipes. There are skylights through which bright moonlight falls on some parts of the room while others remain in deep shadow.)

Ekdal. (to Gregers). Come right over here.

Gregers. (walks over to him). Just what is it?

Ekdal. Take a look and see. Hm.

Hjalmar. (rather embarrassed). All this belongs to father, you understand.

Gregers. (at the doorway, looking into the attic). So you keep poultry, Lieutenant Ekdal.

Ekdal. I should think we do keep poultry. They’ve flown up to roost just now. You’ll need to see the poultry by daylight.

Hedvig. And then there’s—

Ekdal. Shh, shh. Don’t say anything just yet.

Gregers. And you keep pigeons, too, I see.

Ekdal. Ah, yes. You could certainly say we keep pigeons! They’ve got their boxes up there under the rafters. Because pigeons like to roost high up, you know.

Hjalmer. Some are not just ordinary pigeons.

Ekdal. Ordinary! No, you can be sure of that! We have tumblers. And a pair of pouters, as well. But come over here. Can you see that hutch over there by the wall?

Gregers. Yes. What do you use that for? Ekdal. That’s where the rabbits lie at night, young fellow.

Gregers. No! So you’ve got rabbits as well?

Ekdal. Yes, you can be sure as the devil we’ve got rabbits. He’s asking if we’ve got rabbits, do you hear, Hjalmar? Hm. But now comes the real thing, just wait. Here it is! Move away, Hedvig. Now come and stand here, just so, and then look down there. Can you see a basket with straw in it?

Gregers. Yes. And I can see a bird lying in it. Ekdal. Hm.—‘‘a bird’’—

Gregers. Isn’t it a duck?

Ekdal. (offended). Yes, of course it’s a duck.

Hjalmar. But what kind of duck, do you suppose?

Hedvig. It’s not just any ordinary duck—

Ekdal. Shh!

Gregers. And it isn’t a turkish [tyrkisk] duck, either.

Ekdal. No, Mr.—Werle. That’s no turkish duck. It’s a wild duck [en vildand]. . . .

In the iterations of this identity that follow, the term ‘‘en vildand’’ goes through three forms. Ekdal says simply ‘‘en vildand.’’ Gregers separates the two parts of the noun and repeats ‘‘En-vild-and,’’ emphasizing the strange wild/free aspect. Ekdal finally says ‘‘vildanden,’’ which conjoins the article and the two parts of the noun. It would seem that the term has lost its strangeness for the Ekdals, and therefore the duck its challenging identity.

The ensuing story of the duck is told against our memory of its moonlit disclosure, like a parable glossing the strange revelation. The audience is bound to remember, all through the following narration, the strange vision it has just had.

The story of the wild duck (‘‘and’’) and its fate is sufficiently poetic to magnify the Ekdals’ story— a supertextual enlargement of it that does not compromise its subtextual pathos. The imagery of the lost natural world, presented visually in the miniature moonlight disclosure, now verbally invades the stage through the dialogue’s imagery, serving as a gloss to convey the dimension of the loss. The extent of this loss, and its consequences for the human spirit (‘‘ånd’’), will be the theme of the quarrel between the Truth-bringer Gregers and the Deceiver Relling. A broad hint of the messianic connotations of Gregers’ identity comes at the conclusion of Act III, which gathers up a cluster of preceding themes:

Gregers. . . . if you once have to carry the cross of being called Gregers [Men når en har det kors på sig, at hede Gregers]—‘‘Gregers’’ and then ‘‘Werle’’ on top of that! Have you ever heard anything so revolting? Hjalmar. But I don’t think that at all.

Gregers. Ugh! Isch! I’d like to spit on a fellow with a name like that [a reference to the experience of the original bearer of the Cross]. But once you’ve borne the Cross of being Gregers Werle in this world the way I have—

Hjalmar. (laughing). Ha-ha! If you weren’t Gregers Werle, what would you like to be?

Gregers. If I could choose, I’d like best to be a clever dog.

Gina. A dog!

Hedvig. (involuntarily). Oh no!

Gregers. Yes, an extraordinarily clever dog. One that goes to the bottom after wild ducks when they dive and bite fast to all the weeds and waste down in the mud. . . .

Here Gregers has taken over and expanded his father’s metaphor about the wounded Ekdals from Act I and has reversed it from adverse Judgment of hopeless loss to an image of Redemption—the New Testament compared to the Old Testament version of the Fall. Ekdal, describing the behavior of the wounded duck, merely reports its natural behavior, but Gregers blends Old Werle’s and Old Ekdal’s accounts to make a form of prospective parable. This is a language to which Gregers will get Hedvig to respond.

The strangest commentary on the duck’s identity and its link with Gregers’ messianic action in the play emerges from one of Gina’s many malapropisms, occurring at the end of the following conversation about the duck:

Hedvig. (going to Gregers). Now you can really see the wild duck.

Gregers. I’m looking at it. She’s trailing a little in one wing, I think.

Hjalmar. Well, that’s hardly surprising. That’s where she was shot.

Gregers. And she’s dragging a little on one foot. Isn’t that right?

Hjalmar. Perhaps just a little bit.

Hedvig. You see it was in the foot the dog bit her.

Hjalmar. But she’s hale and healthy otherwise. And that’s really remarkable for one who’s had a charge of shot in her body and who’s been held in the jaws of a dog—

Gregers. (with a glance at Hedvig). And has been in the depths of the sea—for so long.

Hedvig. (smiling). Yes.

Gina. That blessed wild duck [Den velsignede vildanden]! There’s more than enough crucifying over her [Den gøres der da krusifikser nok for; alternate translation: Enough crucifixes have been made for her]. . . .

Here Gina’s comment strays into wild and telling Christian malapropism. The Father has winged the duck, preventing its free flight, whereas the extraordinarily clever dog, whose action the Son wishes to emulate, makes difficult its terrestrial life. Gregers’ messianic identity is further irreverently evoked, I believe, in a very Joycean form of punning ‘‘galskab.’’ Relling derisively terms Gregers a ‘‘kvakksalver’’ (‘‘quacksalver’’). ‘‘Kvakk’’ not only designates ‘‘charlatan’’: it is also the Germanic word for the cry of a duck. (OED: ‘‘quack [kwæk] sb. Imitative: cf. Du. Kwak, G. quack, Sw. quak [of ducks or frogs], Icel. kvak, twittering of birds.’’) Although in Dano-Norwegian the word for a duck’s cry is ‘‘skræpper,’’ the Swedish, German, and Icelandic equivalents are close enough. And what of ‘‘salver’’? ‘‘Salve’’ and ‘‘save’’ derive from the same Latin root (as ‘‘salvation’’ attests). One entry in the OED notes that ‘‘salver,’’ ‘‘One who salves or heals,’’ is ‘‘applied to Christ or the Virgin Mary.’’ Is a ‘‘kvakksalver’’ a charlatan healer or savior of ducks or of souls? Again, it is Gregers who gives himself this dual (and-ånd-salver) identity. When he declares he wishes to be the clever dog who dives to the bottom to save wounded ducks, we, like Hedvig, know he is not discussing canine and avian identities. We know a parable when we hear one.

The play, as noted above, contains some intriguingly parallel and repeated images and actions. The sumptuous feast in the Werle household is paralleled by the humble feast in the Ekdal home. Both feasts are interrupted by an unwanted guest from the ‘‘other house,’’ and each intruder is visually incongruous to the alien surroundings. The intrusion of Ekdal into the Werle feast leads to the breakup of the Werle family; the intrusion of Werle (and later Mrs. Sørby) into the Ekdal household leads to the breakup of the Ekdal family. Each intrusion of the Werle household into the Ekdal realm follows the resumption of the old quarrel between Gregers and Relling. This quarrel predates the action of the play, and the last lines of the play imply it will continue as if the two are in eternal conflict. . . .

The first interruption from the Werle household, exacerbating Gregers’ quarrel with his father, alienated Hjalmar from his wife; the second will alienate him from his daughter. The Werle realm thus forcefully and destructively intrudes into the subordinate Ekdal realm. Gregers, in Act I, described his father’s actions as a ‘‘slagmark’’ (‘‘battlefield’’) with the ‘‘menneskeskæbner’’ (‘‘smashed human forms’’ [IV, 243]) strewn all around—a description that implies more than the Ekdals have suffered, lifting the quarrel between Father and Son to a universal conflict, whether the Father is a supreme capitalist power (as is Grosserer) or a celestial one.

In Act V we learn that Hjalmar has temporarily descended into the Relling realm of drunken orgy. His reaction to the experience, once he returns home, is strangely excessive:

HJALMAR (talking to himself, half aloud and bitterly, as he empties the table drawer) You’re a scoundrel, Relling!—A villain, that’s what you are! Ah, you fiendish tempter! If only I could get someone to get rid of you on the quiet. (He sets some old letters to one side and discovers the torn piece of paper from the day before. He picks it up and looks at the two pieces, putting them down quickly as Gina enters.) (IV, 305)

The words Hjalmar uses are ‘‘skurk,’’ ‘‘keltring,’’ and ‘‘kændige forfører,’’ which, denoting ‘‘scoundrel,’’ ‘‘villain,’’ and ‘‘tempter’’ (forføre is ‘‘to tempt or seduce,’’ as in Genesis 3.13), clearly suggest Relling’s satanic identity. When Gina suggests that Hjalmar temporarily lodge with Relling and Molvik, Hjalmar explodes: ‘‘Don’t mention the names of those creatures. It’s enough to make me lose my appetite just thinking about them. . . . [T]hose two scum, they’re capable of every vice’’. . . .

In a strictly realistic play one would be led to lurid speculation as to what it was that Hjalmar had witnessed between Relling and Molvik below. Here, I believe the intensity of his reaction and its vice and tempter imagery is used to establish Relling’s abode as the diabolic location in the world of the play. By now the reader should be aware that neither the messianic nor the diabolic identities in the play carry their solemn traditional valuations.

Gregers counters the diabolic aspect of Relling’s influence upon the Ekdal world with his own overstrained messianism. He urges upon Hedvig the supreme spiritual action of the sacrifice of what she loves most. When he suspects her of faltering, he exclaims, ‘‘I can tell by looking at you that it’s not fulfilled [fuldbragt],’’ employing the same solemn words of Christ that Ibsen uses at other supreme moments in the Cycle (e.g., Hilde Wangel’s ‘‘For nu, nu er det fuldbragt!’’ [‘‘For now, now it is fulfilled!’’] as Solness climbs his tower). Too frequently, Gregers is seen as the villain of the play and Relling its wise therapist adjusting fallen humanity to unhappy reality. This ignores the fact that Gregers’ strategy does succeed: when Gina and Hjalmar believe Hedvig induced her grandfather to shoot the duck they are reconciled. Nor is it certain that Hedvig’s suicide, like her near namesake Hedda’s, is only negative. Estrangement and escape from an intolerable world can signal spiritual awakening. The Ekdals could just as well be seen as the victims of the manipulations of Gregers’ opponents, Werle and Relling. (The play itself, of course, resists onesided endorsement of either Gregers or Relling.) When Hedvig retreats from her resolve to sacrifice what she loves most, Gregers will blame the environment in which she grew up:

Hedvig. Last night, at the time, I thought there was something so beautiful about it; but after I’d slept, and thought about it again, I didn’t think so much of it.

Gregers. No, you can’t have grown up here and not have been damaged in some way.

Hedvig. I don’t care about that. So long as father comes back up here, then—

Gregers. Ah, if only you had your eyes opened to what really makes life worth living, if you had the true, joyful, and brave spirit of sacrifice, then you’d see how he’d come back up to you. But I still believe in you, Hedvig. .

. .

The play ends on the swift conjunction of the Last Supper and the Devil.

Were we discussing James Joyce’s realist textuality, none of this would astonish. It will seem strange to many Ibsenists because of the received ideas about the realistic method devised by Joyce’s chosen mentor. The passages above and many others might be seen as coincidences (though so many in one text would be bizarre) were it not for the ways in which they fit the rest of the play’s pattern of scene, character-confrontation, plot and story, action, and visual and verbal imagery. Taken together they establish the presence of a huge archetypal story behind the foregrounded modern realist story— a larger, richer, and more imaginative space for the poet to inhabit than the discourse of modernity would seem to permit. It might well be that audiences will not comprehend the references any more than they will detect, for example, multiple parallels and references in Ulysses or the elaborate Manichean structure and texture Samuel Beckett self-avowedly built into Krapp’s Last Tape. The mythopoetic procedure allows the poet imaginatively to grasp and shape his or her world, to make imaginative sense of it. The almost dizzyingly complex conscious intertextuality of The Master Builder, for example, lets the dramatist bring his major archetypal forces into aesthetic play, to make his art adequate to his imaginatively apprehended cosmos. This, and not the audience’s comfortable and easy comprehension of what is going on, is the major artist’s concern. As Ibsen adjured Georg Brandes, ‘‘There actually are moments when the whole history of the world reminds one of a sinking ship; the only thing to do is to save oneself.’’ Nevertheless, when the artist employs an elaborate referential system this will give coherence to the art which the audience may enjoy even without understanding exactly what is going on. Though it be galskab, yet there’s method in it.

I have discovered when teaching the play that students find the presence of Christian archetypes in the text obvious and even insistent, so it is necessary to point out that Ibsen’s method actually is subtle enough to have gone undetected. There is a parallel here with T. S. Eliot’s use of Euripides’ Alcestis for the plot of The Cocktail Party —a source that Eliot found himself obliged to point out to readers. Once pointed out, it becomes ‘‘obvious.’’

A good exercise would be for the reader to take a representative text from an accredited realist dramatist— e.g., Harley Granville-Barker, John Galsworthy, or Arthur Miller—and compare theirs with Ibsen’s procedure. The out-and-out realist will be concerned primarily with establishing the everyday plausibility of characters, their situations and their speeches and actions, and not with building up any archetypal dimension: the speech habits will be far less ‘‘loaded,’’ extravagant, and histrionic, more univocal, less emphatically identifying by repetition (the ‘‘claim of idealism,’’ etc.), and, at first sight, more fluid and familiar than Ibsen’s method. But any visit to ‘‘The Best Plays’’ of the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, etc. that received the acclaim of sophisticated reviewers who believed Ibsen ‘‘dated’’ by comparison will find those plays’ shelf-life, and that of the reviews, was short indeed, whereas the dialectical architecture of Ibsen’s work, his welding together the contemporary and the timeless, has proved triumphantly durable. Certainly these plays are doing odd and unfamiliar things, none more so than The Wild Duck. But that is in the nature of a major art.

Ibsen’s procedure, then, is to look closely at modern reality to discover its hidden archetypal content. This does not make Ibsen’s procedure allegorical, nor are his texts unremittingly archetypal. The text has a dual loyalty: to the realistic and plausible modern story which must be convincingly and movingly rendered by the playwright and performed by the actors, and to the equally imperative archetypal realm—that larger human identity that modernity at all times is in danger of betraying but which for Ibsen justifies human existence.

The astigmatic nature of Ibsen’s art is something it has in common with Greek literature from Homer to Euripides, in whose fictional universes events are simultaneously human and divine, local and universal, and where both perspectives are equally insistent, giving to the human condition in Greek epic and drama its extraordinarily numinous quality. It is this quality, I believe, that Ibsen wanted to recover for modern drama. Adrian Poole compares Ibsen’s method to the art of Euripides. He points out how it finds an uncanny parallel in what seems to have been Ibsen’s actual optical astigmatism and the astigmatism of his art. He quotes from the artist Stephan Sinding who painted the dramatist’s portrait and asked Ibsen to remove his spectacles:

He laid them aside and looked at me. I have never seen two eyes like those. One was large, I might almost say horrible—so it seemed to me—and deeply mystical; the other much smaller, rather pinched up, cold and clear and calmly probing.

Poole notes how this is true of the two aspects of Ibsen’s art, ‘‘one, as it were, short-sighted, with a keen grasp of the local, immediate and everyday, the other long-sighted, with a view to remote mythic or psychological vistas.’’

The Wild Duck, while making its modern characters speak the language of modern consciousness, refuses to abet modernity’s attempt to erase the mythopoetic/spiritual past from human memory. Our authentic human identity is at stake in this art of anamnesis or unforgetting; this is its redemptive purpose, which cannot be served by insisting, in our interpretations, only on the vision of the smaller eye.

Source: Brian Johnston, ‘‘‘Diverse Galskaber’ in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck,’’ in Comparative Drama, Vol. 30, Spring, 1996, p. 41.

Ibsen's Tragicomedy: The Wild Duck

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4409

Tragicomedy is an exceedingly slippery genre that can incorporate the tragic and the comic, the melodramatic and the farcical, the romantic and the satiric in a variety of combinations. It can boast antecedents in Euripidean, Terentian, and medieval drama and cognates in sentimental comedy, the drame (serious drama that is neither tragic nor comic), melodrama, savage farce, and so on. But the dramaturgical and emotional fusion of tragic and comic elements to create a distinguishable and theoretically significant new genre, tragicomedy, has developed only twice in the history of drama. Controversial in the Renaissance, tragicomedy has in modern times replaced tragedy itself as the most serious and moving of all dramatic kinds.

In the modern age it is almost impossible to write tragedy, especially within the realistic convention, which emphasizes ordinary human beings from the middle or lower classes speaking unexalted language and possessing failings that often seem more embarrassing than lethal. Any attempt to write tragedy today is likely to produce melodrama instead. But though the dramatic form tragedy no longer exists, what is tragic in human experience has found its aesthetic home in tragicomedy, where it is simultaneously subverted, protected, and rendered more painful by its peculiar relation with the comic. Ibsen seems to have realized this paradox in writing The Wild Duck. As the first modern tragicomedy of any importance, as a tragicomedy written in the realistic convention, and as a paradigm for later tragicomedies, The Wild Duck is central to any understanding of this genre—of both the ways in which the modern form shares in the dramaturgy of its Renaissance counterpart and the ways in which it departs from it.

Ibsen remarked as early as 1875 that his plays were concerned with ‘‘the conflict between one’s abilities, between what man proposes and what is actually possible, constituting at once both the tragedy and comedy of mankind and of the individual.’’ But in The Wild Duck (1884), a self-proclaimed departure from his earlier dramatic method, Ibsen goes further in creating a dramaturgy that more precisely embodies his tragicomic theme and produces in the audience the inextricably mixed tragic and comic responses described by Shaw: ‘‘To sit there getting deeper and deeper into that Ekdal home, and getting deeper and deeper into your own life all the time, until you forget that you are in a theatre; to look on with horror and pity at a profound tragedy, shaking with laughter all the time at an irresistible comedy.’’

Frederick and Lise-Lone Marker argue that in referring to his new method in The Wild Duck (in a letter to his publisher, Frederik Hegel) Ibsen includes ‘‘the subtle mingling of comedy and seriousness in word, action and visual image’’ and a ‘‘deliberate diffuseness of focus.’’ The play’s multiplicity of emotional effects and perspectives derives in part from Ibsen’s orchestration of the voices and attitudes of his ensemble of characters in a manner that was to become characteristic of Chekhov. But the single most important element in Ibsen’s tragicomic dramaturgy is his conception of the play’s central character, about whose representation he expressed some anxiety in a letter to Hans Schrøder, the head of the Christiania Theater. Ibsen urged that it was extremely important that the actor of Hjalmar Ekdal should in no way create a parody or show any awareness of the comic contradictions in his language and behavior. But this advice does not mean that the audience also should remain unaware of what is ludicrous in Hjalmar. In fact, it is precisely because Hjalmar is unconsciously comic that he is also tragic.

Simply put, Hjalmar is a comic character caught in a tragic situation that he does not understand. His circumstances are potentially tragic. He has suffered a loss of social position and honor because of his father’s disgrace, and he has been duped into marrying the cast-off, and probably pregnant, mistress of the author of his family’s misery. His contribution to the suicide of his beloved daughter is undeniably the stuff of tragedy. Hjalmar certainly sees himself in a tragic light both in the early acts of the play when he tells Gregers that he has ‘‘felt a terrible blow from fate’’ and that ‘‘That pistol, there—the one we use to shoot rabbits with — it’s played a part in the tragedy of the Ekdals’’ and later in his responses to Gregers’ revelation about Gina’s past and to Hedvig’s death. But Ibsen provides the audience with a much more complex view of Hjalmar than Hjalmar has of himself. In the contrast between his idealized self-image as breadwinner, artist, and tragic hero and his actual selfishness and laziness, Hjalmar represents the tragicomic ‘‘conflict between one’s aims and one’s abilities.’’ Using techniques drawn from comic characterization, Ibsen continually subverts Hjalmar’s tragic pretensions and thus his status as a tragic protagonist. And yet at the same time it is through his comic qualities that Hjalmar engages the audience’s sympathy and is able to elicit a response that incorporates pity and even terror along with laughter. The absurd juxtaposition of the two functions of the pistol, for example, is typical of how Ibsen undercuts Hjalmar’s rhetorical presentation of himself as a tragic hero while simultaneously safeguarding what is tragic in his situation against the audience’s potential annoyance with his pomposity, lack of self-knowledge, and selfishness.

Throughout the play Ibsen comically underscores the exaggeration and shallow emotional base of Hjalmar’s rhetoric by exposing his contradictions and self-deceptions and by playing his self-idealizing protestations against his selfish behavior. In the early acts, for example, Hjalmar variously describes his father’s hair as ‘‘white’’, ‘‘gray’’, and ‘‘silver’’ when actually Old Ekdal is almost bald and wears a ‘‘reddish-brown’’ wig. His inability to make up his mind about the color of his father’s hair in each of his sentimental references to the ‘‘poor old’’ man shows that he is thinking more about the effect of what he is saying than about Old Ekdal himself. Hjalmar’s rhetorical imprecision becomes a running joke that both undercuts his supposed tragic melancholy and mitigates his self-centeredness. (Later in the play he has to cut himself short in saying that he will not hurt a ‘‘hair’’ of the wild duck’s head when even he remembers that ducks have feathers.) Similarly, the repeated contradiction between Hjalmar’s pretence of self-sacrificing abstemiousness appropriate to his poverty or his fatherhood of a child who is going blind and his willingness immediately thereafter to indulge in ‘‘lovely cool beer’’, offered by Hedvig, or a ‘‘crust’’ with ‘‘enough butter on’’ pits the physical man enamored of his comforts against the spiritual sufferer that he proclaims himself to be. In Act Three Ibsen even edges towards farce in his presentation of Hjalmar’s laziness. Hjalmar dithers between helping Old Ekdal in the attic when he thinks he can get away with it and ‘‘hurriedly sitting again’’ to work on the photographs whenever he thinks Gina or Hedvig might be watching. Because Hjalmar has no conception of his own selfishness or incompetence (there will be no photographic invention), he remains an essentially comic and thus endearing character. He possesses sufficient charm, after all, to make Gina and Hedvig happy simply by being himself.

But even in the early acts the comedy associated with Hjalmar has a painful edge. His comic gluttony covers over the fact that he has forgotten to bring Hedvig a treat from Werle’s dinner party, and his laziness leads him to permit her to touch up the photographs at the expense of her eyes. In the latter part of the play Hjalmar’s continuation in the habits we have previously laughed at produces a degree of uncertainty in our response to the sequence of events that leads to Hedvig’s death and weakens any sense of tragic inevitability. For example, just as Hjalmar cannot make up his mind about the color of his father’s hair, so he proposes a variety of ‘‘sole’’ rewards for which, he says, he is working on his invention: to allow his father to wear his military uniform again, to make Hedvig’s future secure, to leave Gina a ‘‘prosperous widow’’, and to pay back Werle for all the money that the Ekdal family has had from him over the years. Hjalmar hits on this last plan when he realizes that the money Old Ekdal has been paid for copying has probably been payment to Gina as Werle’s former mistress. But Hjalmar’s determination to repay Werle is the fourth exclusive purpose he has proposed for his work on the invention, and the audience cannot take it very seriously, especially as for Hjalmar the expression of intention is equivalent to the deed itself: ‘‘now I’ve got that pressing debt off my hands’’. (The idea of getting something off one’s hands, too, is several times repeated in the play and in this instance carries with it the resonance of earlier comic contexts, as when Gina urges Hjalmar to finish the retouching so that the photographs will be ‘‘off your hands’’.) Perhaps the most brilliant use of the reprise of an earlier comic motif occurs in act five as practical Gina uses the lure of bread and butter and hot coffee to persuade Hjalmar to remain in his home a little longer, at least until he can make plans for the future and buy a new hat. Ibsen sets off Hjalmar’s clichéd rhetoric against Gina’s literal-mindedness, producing, in effect, comic cross-talk:

HJALMAR I can’t shoulder all these burdens in one day.

GINA No, and not when the weather’s like it is out. . . .

This cross-talk reinforcing Hjalmar’s comic inability to rise to his own rhetoric occurs just minutes before he is called upon to respond to Hedvig’s death. In clumsier hands than Ibsen’s, Hedvig’s death might very well have been melodramatic, especially as the shot is heard exactly on Hjalmar’s cue (‘‘Hedvig, are you willing to give up life for me?’’). Ibsen, however, preserves what is tragic in Hedvig’s death, as in Hjalmar’s life, by presenting both as tragicomic. Hedvig’s suicide itself, of course, is in no way comic. But it takes place off stage, there is a delay before it is discovered, and what the audience is primarily called upon to respond to is not the death itself but the reaction of the other characters to it, and especially Hjalmar’s.

Ibsen orchestrates the characters’ multiple voices to produce a complex emotional effect. Both Gina’s simple language of heartbreak—‘‘Oh, my child, my child!’’—and Relling’s coldly factual diagnosis are counterpointed with Hjalmar’s melodramatic expression of his grief: ‘‘And I drove her from me like an animal! And she crept terrified into the loft and died out of love for me. (Sobbing.) Never to make it right again! Never to let her know—! (Clenching his fists and crying to heaven.) Oh, you up there—if you do exist. Why have you done this to me!’’. Hjalmar is deeply moving here, in part because Hedvig’s death is an appalling event for the audience as well, but at the same time his characteristically flamboyant and self-regarding rhetoric draws attention away from Hedvig and the weeping Gina and reminds the audience of what is facile in Hjalmar himself. The focus and mood of the scene are further diffused by Old Ekdal’s visionary note (‘‘The woods take revenge’’), Gregers’ metaphorical contribution (‘‘In the depths of the sea’’), and the ‘‘demonic’’ Molvik’s drunken attempt to assume his priestly function (‘‘The child isn’t dead; she sleepeth’’), which grotesquely underscores the emptiness of Hjalmar’s own rhetoric, especially as Molvik has earlier been set up as a parallel figure to Hjalmar. The conclusion of the sequence is Relling’s acerbic response to Molvik: ‘‘Rubbish!’’

These multiple voices pull the audience in different directions and block a fully tragic response to Hedvig’s death. But what we are left with is something harsher than tragedy because there is no justification of a moral order, no resolution, no closure. Instead the play ends with (in Shaw’s term) a discussion between the representatives of a neurotic tragic idealism and a flawed comic skepticism. (Their voices indeed have from the beginning constructed the polarities of Ibsen’s tragicomedy.) Gregers wants to believe that ‘‘Hedvig did not die in vain’’ and that ‘‘grief freed the greatness’’ in Hjalmar. But Relling, more plausibly in view of what we have seen of Hjalmar in the rest of the play, says that within a year Hjalmar will ‘‘souse himself in conceit and self-pity,’’ will, in effect, construct for himself another life-lie about ‘‘‘the child torn too soon from her father’s heart’’’. Hedvig’s death has been rendered absurd, and Shaw is right in saying that Ibsen ‘‘established tragi-comedy as a much deeper and grimmer entertainment than tragedy.’’

The importance of the comic elements in Hjalmar’s make-up and in the play as a whole can be seen if we look for a moment at the 1983 film adaptation of The Wild Duck, in which Liv Ullmann and Jeremy Irons play Gina and Hjalmar. Gone in this version is the comic quality of Hjalmar’s (Harold’s) contradictions because the film’s omissions blunt their immediacy and obscure their frequency. Gone too is the comic exaggeration of Hjalmar’s rhetoric. The result is a Hjalmar who is weak and tearful, possessing considerably less charm and vitality than his original. Gina, whose practicality should provide a comic foil to Hjalmar’s effusions, becomes instead in the film a sensitive soul, and the comedy of Old Ekdal is similarly lost in pathos. Hedvig dies on screen, and the immediate cut to her funeral entails the omission of most of the responses of the other characters. There is no hyperbolical protestation from Hjalmar and no comment from Relling about his short-lived sorrow. The film ends sombrely enough with Hjalmar’s silent grief and Gina’s tentative attempt to comfort him, but it totally lacks the complex discomfort of Ibsen’s rough-edged tragicomic irony. Rather, Ibsen’s tragicomedy has been transformed into a beautifully acted and moving melodrama because of the excision of most of the comedy.

If it is revealing, therefore, to contrast The Wild Duck with melodrama in order to clarify Ibsen’s contribution to modern tragicomedy, it is also instructive to distinguish the play from the drame. The drame originated in the eighteenth century (especially in France under the auspices of Diderot), developed into the social drama of the nineteenth century, and culminated in the early realistic works of Ibsen. The drame is essentially realistic in its maturgy, domestic and/or social in its orientation, and focused on a controversial issue of contemporary significance, a ‘‘problem’’ that is aired though not necessarily resolved during the course of the play. Ibsen’s earlier realistic plays such as A Doll’s House and An Enemy of the People are, in fact, drames that deal with contemporary social problems. But Ibsen stressed that The Wild Duck is different in that it ‘‘does not concern itself with political or social questions.’’

The difference, however, does not have to be stated solely in negative terms. Of crucial importance is the play’s use of symbolism. Critics have noted in particular Ibsen’s new use of a central pervasive symbol that implicates the metaphysical in the mundane: the endlessly suggestive wild duck is metaphorically related to all of the major characters, while the loft full of junk that is like the ‘‘depths of the sea’’ evokes the recesses of the mind. In general, tragicomedy is distinguishable from the drame in that it deals with metaphysical rather than social issues, it produces a double vision of human experience, and its emotional effects, to adopt Karl Guthke’s useful distinction, ‘‘embrace’’ both the tragic and the comic whereas those of the drame lie between the two polar genres. Nora, for example, calls for neither a tragic nor a comic response; debate over A Doll’s House tends to deal intellectually with Nora’s options rather than concerning itself with the kind of emotional response called for by her plight. Hjalmar, by contrast, evokes both a tragic and a comic response simultaneously; critics ponder what to make of the play rather than what to think about it.

Even Ibsen’s use of realistic conventions in The Wild Duck can be distinguished from his use of the same techniques in earlier plays. Modern tragicomedy is distinguished from the drame and linked with Renaissance versions of the same genre by its tendency to be in some degree metatheatrical. Metatheatre (or theatrical self-consciousness) is related to tragicomedy’s mixed emotional effects, for artifice recognizable to the audience creates distance and thereby blocks without entirely destroying our emotional participation in the characters’ experiences. Ibsen’s attention to realistic detail in The Wild Duck is as great as ever. In a letter to his son, Sigurd, he remarked, ‘‘I keep putting in more and more details all the time.’’ And in a letter to Schrøder he said, ‘‘In both the ensemble acting and in the stage setting, this play demands truth to nature and a touch of reality in every respect.’’ The dense realistic details in The Wild Duck root Ibsen’s comic effects in a believable social and psychological context so that the audience cannot dismiss the characters’ pain even when we laugh at the way it is communicated (Old Ekdal’s drinking, Hjalmar’s flowery rhetoric). The audience thus remains to an important degree emotionally engaged with the characters. But though the actors, particularly the actor of Hjalmar, should demonstrate no awareness that some of their lines are funny, as they might if they were acting in a comedy, Ibsen’s utilization of comic techniques in a serious drama in itself at times detaches the audience’s attention from the characters to the way they are presented. In this respect Ibsen anticipates Brecht’s V-effeckt by constructing a perspective other than the characters’ own from which the audience is required to view them.

The metatheatrical element in Ibsen’s dramaturgy in The Wild Duck is both embodied and rendered realistic in his self-dramatizing central character. Ibsen motivates Hjalmar’s theatricality naturalistically by providing a cultural explanation for it: he was brought up by two idealistic or hysterical maiden aunts (depending on whether we believe Gregers or Relling) and was popular in his youth as one who could declaim other people’s lines in an affecting manner. Small wonder that his expression of even the deepest pain is full of rhetorical clichés. Because self-dramatization is second nature to him, the metatheatrical element in Ibsen’s presentation of Hjalmar actually feeds into the audience’s sympathy for him even as it distances us enough so that we may also laugh at him. Engagement and detachment are held in a particularly fine balance in The Wild Duck.

The use of metatheatre to create dramatic distance is an important feature of both modern and Renaissance tragicomedies. However, the relationship between the two states of tragicomedy has been little understood and sometimes even denied. It is not necessary to posit a genetic connection but rather to observe ‘‘family resemblances’’ between tragicomedies that make it possible, as Alastair Fowler puts it, to discuss ‘‘widely divergent works’’ in terms of generic features of the kind to which they may be supposed to belong. In the case of The Wild Duck a fruitful comparison may be made with Measure for Measure, one of Shakespeare’s socalled ‘‘problem plays’’ that is, like Ibsen’s play, better characterized as an ironic tragicomedy.

Renaissance tragicomedy, to be sure, is formally closer to comedy than to tragedy in that it presents difficulties overcome and ends happily. (In the famous formulation of Giambattista Guarini, it presents the ‘‘danger but not [the] death’’ and is governed above all by ‘‘the comic order.’’ In Measure for Measure the manoeuverings of Duke Vincentio, a metatheatrical figure who in some respects functions as a surrogate dramatist within the play, save Claudio from death and bring about the multiple marriages with which the play ends. Modern tragicomedy is structurally much more diverse than its Renaissance counterpart, but its final effect is often closer to tragedy than to comedy (Hedvig dies in this case), even though the play as a whole may have been more evenly balanced between the two.

However, whether they are ostensibly ‘‘comic’’ or ‘‘tragic,’’ the endings of both Renaissance and modern tragicomedies are characterized by ambiguity and discomfort for the audience. Both Measure for Measure and The Wild Duck ironically subvert the audience’s likely generic assumptions about what constitutes a comic or a tragic dénouement. In Shakespeare’s play a conventionally happy ending is modified in the direction of tragedy, while in Ibsen’s a conventionally tragic ending is modified in the direction of comedy. Measure for Measure concludes with a set of arranged marriages whose inappropriateness bodes ill for the unwilling partners in them. Angelo, for example, is compelled to marry the long-suffering Mariana, whom he first abandoned and then had sex with in the belief that she was Isabella; and Isabella, who wished to become a nun, is asked to marry the Duke. At the end of The Wild Duck Hedvig’s death, as we have seen, evokes from Hjalmar a tragicomic posturing that is little different from his melodramatic manner elsewhere in the play and from Relling a cynical prophecy that Hjalmar’s sorrow will be short-lived and soon comfortably sentimentalized. The discomfort aroused by the endings of both plays is an important part of tragicomedy’s aesthetic.

The shared means by which Shakespeare and Ibsen create their tragicomic effects extend to the ways their protagonists combine within themselves tragic and comic possibilities that are represented in purer form by other characters. Duke Vincentio and Hjalmar Ekdal each stands between a tragic idealist (Angelo, Gregers) and a comic skeptic (Lucio, Relling). Vincentio and Hjalmar have self-images that are grotesquely reflected in, respectively, Angelo’s self-proclaimed incorruptibility and Gregers’ adherence to the ‘‘Summons to the Ideal’’ and undermined by the sardonic commentary of the skeptics as well as by the central characters’ own behavior. Hjalmar sees himself as called upon to restore his family’s honor but is actually quite comfortable in his reduced circumstances, as Relling is quick to point out. The Duke regards himself as a wise and virtuous ruler, but he gets involved in an unsavory bedtrick and is unable to control either sexual corruption in Vienna or even Lucio’s scurrilous attacks on his reputation.

Shakespeare, no less than Ibsen, uses the relations between his three characters to dramatize the tragicomic ‘‘conflict between one’s aims and one’s abilities.’’ The disparity in both plays between aspirations and what is actually accomplished is worked out in terms of the traditional duality of soul and body. Traditionally, the needs of the body have been associated with comedy, while the soul has proved the ground of tragedy. Conflict between the two occurs in other genres, but in tragicomedy the duality is of the essence. In Ibsen’s play, as we have seen, the tension between soul and body, tragic and comic, is classically embodied in Hjalmar. In Measure for Measure it is represented in the constant subversion of the Duke’s moral and spiritual aims by the intransigence of other people’s flesh: the sexual corruption of characters such as Pompey, Lucio, and even Angelo and the unwillingness of Claudio and the drunken Barnardine to give up the life of the body and ‘‘Be absolute for death’’ when the Duke, disguised as a friar, urges this spiritual advice upon them. There are times when even the intellectual Duke himself is, like Hjalmar, comically reduced to the physical. He sustains the indignity of hearing himself accused of lechery and drunkenness and finally of being manhandled by Lucio, who pulls off his friar’s hood, and with it his spiritual persona, at the end of the play.

Embedded in Measure for Measure, and in Renaissance tragicomedy in general, is the optimistic pattern of fall and redemption that characterizes medieval drama. Though Duke Vincentio and Hjalmar Ekdal both have tragicomically inaccurate self-images, the Duke is the more competent of the two and he does have some control over the play’s events. As an inherently serious and dignified individual, the Duke could be a tragic figure, but he is placed in a situation that makes him appear comic, and he inhabits a universe that allows second chances, even though nothing is ever quite as the characters would like it to be. The play’s inherited comic contours, however, are obscured by its incorporation of psychological and sociological realism. The resulting incongruities complicate and at times subvert the underlying redemptive pattern so that this Renaissance tragicomedy participates also in the dark irony of modern versions of the genre.

The comparison should be made; it should not be stretched too far. Ibsen in The Wild Duck negates altogether the possibility of either tragedy or redemption. In attempting to be ‘‘tragic,’’ Hjalmar simply underscores the comic basis of his nature. But since he is placed in an irremediable situation, The Wild Duck as a whole is a bleaker tragicomedy than Measure for Measure. Its dramatic universe appears indifferent to the claims of individuals. If The Wild Duck contains any vestige of a redemptive pattern, it lies in Relling’s prediction of Hjalmar’s recovery from the grief of Hedvig’s death. But such consolation is bitter indeed. In its painful confrontations of tragic and comic effects, its presentation of a central character whose comic insufficiency renders his situation the more tragic, and the terrible indeterminacy of its ending, The Wild Duck stands as a paradigm for the line of modern tragicomic masterpieces that includes Uncle Vanya, Juno and the Paycock, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Waiting for Godot. In comparison with Hamlet or King Lear, a tragicomedy like Measure for Measure, disturbing though it often is, may look like comedy. In the modern drama tragicomedy takes the place of tragedy. Hamlet becomes Hjalmar, and Cordelia is driven to Hedvig’s pointless suicide.

Source: Verna A. Foster, ‘‘Ibsen’s Tragicomedy: The Wild Duck,’’ in Modern Drama, Vol. 38, Fall, 1995, p. 287.

Review of The Wild Duck

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 815

At the Arena Stage, Lucian Pintilie’s version of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck is a genuinely new look at the play, which pulls it out of canvas realism into a world of poetic metaphor and savage farce. The opening act in old Werle’s house is not altogether promising, but then it’s a fearfully difficult piece of exposition (the second act of this five-act play is largely expository too). Pintilie tries to distract our attention from the two servants who provide Ibsen’s background material by using strained devices behind a transparent Mylar mirror, including a sumptuous banquet and an anachronistic slide show of vacation photographs, conducted by Mrs. Sorby while the Chamberlains sing ‘‘Harvest Moon.’’ (Even in the twenties, the setting of this updated production, Kodak color carousels had not yet been invented.) Here the director appears to be forcing visual interest on a talky drama.

When the scene changes to Hialmar Ekdal’s lodgings, however, the play begins to develop a cumulative power. Pintilie’s setting is much too spacious to suit the humble means of the Ekdal family—it has the dimensions of a fashionable loft in Soho—while the metal stairway leading to the ‘‘attic’’ containing the denizens of Old Ekdal’s simulated forest, wild duck included, is high enough to suggest they own the whole piece of real estate, substantial holdings for such impoverished people. (Pintilie is said to have made architectural modifications in the Kreeger in order to accommodate this ambitious design.) Still, the furnishings of this enormous room are gritty enough, including a metal desk and filing cabinet, a clothesline, and a huge arc lamp used for Hialmar’s photography. And the squalor is enhanced, despite Gina’s heroic efforts to keep the place clean, by eggs periodically splattering on the floor from the atic above.

For all his concern with grandiose environments and visual punctuation, Pintilie keeps us focused on the theme of The Wild Duck, which is the malignant effect of utopian idealism om those who need illusions in order to survive. In his effort to lead the Ekdals toward ‘‘a true conjugal union,’’ Gregers Werle exposes Gina’s adultery with his father, old Werle, and the dubious paternity of their daughter, Hedwig. It is astory that concludes morbidly with Hedwig’s suicide, but Ibsen nevertheless realizes it is an occation for ferocious satire, even farce, especially since Gregers (played by Christopher McCann with flatop haircut, Trotsky whiskers, and mealymouthed self-righteousness) is such a priggish wimp and Hialmar (played by Richard Bauer with the flamboyance of a road company Cyrano) such a histrionic poseur. The confusion of styles is precisely what gives the play modernity, and the way the director treats the climax adds postmodern touches as well.

Despite prophetic warnings from Dr. Relling (played with sardonic brilliance by Stanley Anderson, looking like a squashy, whiskey-soaked Anthony Hopkins), Gregers’s meddling has destroyed the entire family. While Hialmar vacillates between abandoning the household and completing his breakfast, Hedwig commits suicide in the attic to the accompaniment of screeching barnyard animals. Her body falls to the floor like another splattered egg. The arc light begins to turn in circles around the room. Old Ekdal stands babbling on the stairs. Hialmar, in an orgy of self-pity, shouts hysterically at the ceiling (‘‘How could you do this to me?’’) and turns to Gina for comfort. She shrinks at his touch. The spoiled priest Molvig starts praying. Dr. Relling hurls a drink in his face. Relling then drags Gregers the length of the stage to the couch and, shaking him like a puppy, forces his face into the dead body of his victim. Rising, Gregers pulls violently at Relling’s nose, Relling pulls Gregers’s hair, and with the two locked in a clumsy grapping match, Hedwig’s body falls slowly off the couch. Gregers runs from the room, hitting his head on the door frame, as Relling shouts after him, ‘‘Go to hell’’ (adding, with a grin, ‘‘See you tomorrow’’).

This inspired scene, during which the audience is alternately juggling pathos, laughter, and surprise, is in retrospect the moment toward which the whole production moves, and it redeems whatever casting flaws, longueurs, or directorial excesses occasionally plague it. Using his own free stage version based on a translation by David Westerfer, Pintilie has made the work entirely contemporary and immediate without altering its essential structure. And that, of course, has been the major contribution of our expatriate Rumanian friends to our perception of the classics: to make us see them as fresh works of art rather than anthology pieces or curatorial artifacts. Ciulei, perhaps daunted by the critical atmosphere of New York, has momentarily flagged in his approach; but his protege, Pintilie, has picked up the fallen pennant and waved it proudly aloft.

Source: Robert Brustein ‘‘The Wild Duck,’’ (review) in The New Republic, Vol., 194, April 14, 1986, p. 27.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial
Previous

Critical Overview