The Tragic and Comic Elements in The Wild Duck.
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.’’
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...
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