Essay written for the production by Kimberly Kenny, Senior Lecturer in Norwegian at the University of Chicago.
The Wild Duck, the fifth in his prose play cycle of twelve, introduced a new phase in Ibsen’s drama. The first of Ibsen’s psychological plays, it followed Enemy of the People, which concluded the so-called social plays. Ibsen himself noted the singularity of this drama, saying that “it occupied a place of its own” and that its method was “in many respects a departure.” Still, The Wild Duck was hardly Ibsen’s first foray into innovation. In A Dollhouse, he set the theatrical world on its ear when he subverted the concept of the well-made play, denying the expected resolution of conflict and, instead, had Nora slam the door on her way out. His subsequent offering, Ghosts, ruthlessly depicted a corrupted family and a hypocritical clergy; while Enemy of the People, a quasi-comedy, provided a protagonist who characterized his fellow men as ill-bred mongrels. Repeatedly, Ibsen sought to challenge his audiences both in terms of form and content. Yet even in this larger context of provocation, Ibsen insisted on the newness of The Wild Duck, “I think that The Wild Duck may possibly lure some of our dramatists down new paths, which I would consider desirable.” What did Ibsen mean by “new paths”? Clearly, he meant a new mode, a new type of drama, one that resisted the labels of comedy or tragedy; and, certainly, there are both tragic and comic elements in the play, but what is the effect of this combination? The poignancy of the tragedy derives immeasurable power from the use of comedy, while the sharp contrast between light humor and terrible distress contribute to the pathos of the final climax.
Still, Ibsen meant more by “new paths” than this blending of tragedy and comedy. Already in Enemy of the People, he had signaled philosophical changes, revealing an increasingly contemptuous attitude toward humanity. In The Wild Duck, Ibsen shifts focus to the individual soul and a new type of psychological interaction. The central event is not, as was previously, the revelation of past sins or secrets, although there are, of course, secrets. Rather, it is the way in which Gregers bonds with Hedvig and asserts control over her mind that provides the basis for drama. Utilizing the wild duck as his verbal instrument, as symbol, he promotes her equation of herself with the wild duck. Her sacrifice is the predictable substitution of one quantity for another. Hedvig and Gregers connect via one old-fashioned, poetic phrase, “in the depths of the sea.” (på havsens bund). Here, as with the wild duck, Gregers relies on verbal magic to establish a bond with Hedvig, who is vulnerable, caught between childhood and adulthood, between literal and symbolic meaning.
Indeed, symbolism nearly overwhelms the play, asserting itself as the most significant difference in Ibsen’s dramatic technique. It is hardly new for Ibsen to choose a title of symbolic weight—A Dollhouse or Ghosts, for example–but the wild duck, proves to be a remarkably plastic symbol, lending itself to any number of equations. In terms of a broad category, the wounded duck gathers together all of the defeated dreams of the household. In addition, the tale of the wild duck corresponds neatly with Gregers’s mission to bring the Ekdal family up from the mire, just as Old Werle’s dog retrieved the wounded wild duck. Potential symbolic value for the wild duck does not end there. Perhaps it represents the enfeebled state of the modern imagination. Consider the potential pun—vildand (wild duck) versus vild aand (wild spirit). In fact, some have argued that the wild duck is so potent a symbol that it forces the action of the drama away from the realism of Ghosts and in a new direction. Earlier, symbols had served as points of reference or to underscore a central theme, now Ibsen extends his metaphoric structure, allowing it to pervade the stage sets and the scenery.
Ibsen acknowledged these tactics, referring to them as “galskap” (crazy tricks). Consider the looming symbol, which is the Ekdals’ home. Ibsen’s stage directions situate them in “a loft… with great panes of glass.” The changing light corresponds to the various moods of each act. Below them are found Relling and Molvik, who are occupied with drinking, etc. (Hjalmer will at one point descend to their level.) The Ekdals’ living space is divided between the photography studio in the foreground and the attic, the “natural refuge,” behind. Furthermore, the symbolic value of the home’s occupants demands attention; the paradigm is Christian. Gregers, like Dr. Stockman before him, is a strongly parodic, Messianic character, and, like Stockman, an unsuccessful truth-bringer. If Gregers is the apparent Messiah, then Old Werle is the supreme power in the world of the play. A mysterious figure, operating in the shadows, Werle rules both the lower world of the Ekdals and the world of Høidal (high valley), the higher world, from which his son descends to raise up the Ekdals. But where is the Holy Spirit? Could Hedvig in the form of her double, the wild duck, fill this role? Finally, rounding out the party and serving as counterpart to Gregers, we find the Dr. Relling, the satanic figure of deception and purveyor of the “livsløgn” (life-lie), who operates in tandem with the priest-candidate, Molvik.
Eventually, however, we have to set aside Gregers and Relling, and ponder the real struggle, between the ideal of truth and the usefulness of the life-lie. No longer on a “new path,” we find ourselves in familiar Ibsen territory, reminiscent of the closing scenes in A Dollhouse and Ghosts, grappling with questions which defy resolution.