Ibsen’s Secrets

Ibsen, the Norwegian, the surly and stubborn inflamer of the sensibilities of Europe in the last half of the nineteenth century. The explosion of his arrival was in every way louder and more impressive than that of Strindberg and Chekhov, who were roughly his coevals. In a state of despair and disaffection, he moved away from Norway, moved to Dresden and to Rome, there to live in hotels, to receive honors, and to write his plays in the language of his poor country of fishing fleets and timber, the language of the sparsely populated little democracy that anxiously swayed between liberating ideas and the backward tug of local pieties.

A century has passed over the work and it is still “modern drama,” if a drama with a good many burdens that defy, in their peculiarity, fresh and “modernizing” interpretations. There is nothing new to be done with the Nordic embarrassments of a too handy and proclaiming symbolic gesture. Ibsen’s language, in English translation at least, seems often determined upon an explicitness without pause for the incongruities and tensions of speech. In the prose plays, the poetic insertions incline to attach themselves to spectacles of landscape, often the unfortunately available mountaintop. Some characters, especially those given to the steady drumming out of a single idea, are difficult to nudge from their perch by analysis or performance inspirations. Most of the monotones are men: Pastor Manders, Gregers Werle, Rosmer and his clerical innocence. Hedda Gabler is the one absolute masterpiece, a stunning concentration of tone and intention, free of the intrusiveness of instruction and windswept resolution.

How often the prose plays float above a subtemperate zone of resentment and grievance, those defining, cunning emotions, patient perhaps, but never idle. They are, you might say, the trap set by the ensnared. The source or occasion of the grievance has, most often, occurred before the play begins. The occasion is a secret to be revealed by the plot, by the one bearing the rancor, bearing it in a hidden but nevertheless lively manner animated by strategy and plans for a final accounting. Resentment is a left-handed instrument of power—and a role of some variousness, a path rich with alleyways and corners that can obstruct forward-moving intentions.

Ibsen was not interested in the resentment of disgruntled classes. He appears from his biography rather too self-reliant for the large abstractions of the reforming spirit. What he is drawn to is issues, localized and particular. Even in the plays about civic corruption, about “floating coffins” and poisoned spa waters, he individualizes the conflict as hypocrisy and cravenness. Nora in A Doll House is the most general of his social statements.

A secret is most impugning and threatening when it concerns someone, usually a man, who has position and esteem. Ibsen found the phrase “pillars of society” early in his shift from poetic to prose drama and there is no doubt he understood the temptation to default among the ambitious and privileged provincials. He saw it as socially instructive and dramatically decorative in the matter of contrast, deviousness, and wide possibility for manipulation. It was part of the spiteful familiarity of Norway, from which he fled while carrying a great store of personal grievance along with him.

Marriage, the household, the family, the generations, the shakiness of commercial fortunes: sex and money are the buried minerals in the cold, dark kingdom of these unions. We have here, as Edmund Gosse wrote, “intensely domestic fowl clucking behind a hedge.” Autumnal colors in town, thick carpets, green-shaded lamps, the great stove. Outside town the metallic fiord landscape with a good deal of steady rain—and a sense of waiting, a clamorous waiting like the footsteps of Borkman pacing up and down in the upper salon.

A fiord in northern Norway, a coastal town in southern Norway, an old manor house on the outskirts of a small town by fiord in west Norway. These watery landscapes, set apart so that there one waits for the more vivacious attachments in town to make an often unwilling visit, are locked in a static chagrin, conceived of as duty by the women, and as a challenge to the maintenance of a masculine equilibrium on the part of the men. Ibsen’s imagination was able to construct merciless dramas out of provincial hysteria, out of inflated hopes, out of lies, and above all out of a sort of clinical depression that settles into the characters’ bones like an arthritic pain. The impasse of middle age, the false dedication, the embezzlement, the consuming drunkenness, the low-burning energy of secrets withheld until the proper punishing or releasing moment: there was everything startling and unsettling to be grimly squeezed out of Scandinavian miseries—if one plotted them as carefully as Continental comedies.

As Ibsen grew older he added the destructiveness of artistic ambitions, which would include the plundering dreams of Borkman, to the origin of unyielding hatreds and depression in marriage. Old Borkman, Rubeck in When We Dead Awaken, and Solness in The Master Builder are creatures of majestic, passionate lamentation, brought on by their squandering of human feeling. Earlier and without grandeur old Werle in The Wild Duck is a grievance producer in multiplication. He has seduced his housekeeper and left one of those diverting, in the plot sense, illegitimate children who provide the useful, cyclical, retributions of fate. To that Werle has added business dishonesty of a shrewd and helpful ambiguity.

When the foolish and punitive young Gregers Werle embarks upon his mission of telling all he knows, he utters the typical source of retributive knowledge imparted from a resentful agent of bitter experience—his mother. “My poor, unhappy mother said it—the last time I saw her.” She it was who had the last word, “until she broke down and died so miserably.”1

Young women like Nora and Hedda made a desperate escape, as if they did not want to end up as an older wife in an Ibsen play, end up on the outskirts of town, waiting. In the capital, Christiania, they wait instead for the arrival each evening of the useful bachelor friend of the family. His gossip and flirtation, his presence, will make domesticity less tedious. One of the secrets of a small city is that you are bored to death and can say as much to the worldly friend and without the delay of depressing hoarding.

HEDDA: To be everlastingly together with—with one and the same person—

JUDGE BRACK (nodding in agreement): Morning, noon, and night—yes. At every conceivable hour.

Nora’s Dr. Rank is a more civilized attendant than the coarse and corrupt Judge Brack. But Rank too can sanction modest sentiments of rebellion.

NORA: I have such a huge desire to say—to hell and be damned!…

DR. RANK: Go on, say it. Here he is….

The husband enters.

Nora’s debt is not a classical, scourging secret. It is a plot device to uncover the realization that she has married the wrong man. In any case the debt is all to her credit; it is a mere misdemeanor in the management of the business interests of marriage. Helmer’s thanklessness is certainly an immense irritation, a cue for flight, and not a tragedy. But Nora is indeed enough of an Ibsen character, young and free-spirited as she is, to know that there will be no end to it. Helmer, himself, will become a resentful wife, forever on the alert reduced to worrying about her passing on to the children a disposition to spontaneity and folly.

One of the aspects of profoundly dominating secrets is that they are of the sort likely to be widely known. This in no way diminishes their strength as inner drama, their sufficiency to the brooding that animates the loneliness. The wronged and misused do not depend upon the quality of the secret and are not realistic in imagining, or pretending, it to be the unique possession of themselves. The smallness of the society, the pettiness of it has been insisted upon in the plays.

Even in Christiania, when Ibsen first went there in the 1850s, there were only 30,000 residents. Michael Meyer, his excellent biographer, tells us that there was no rail or telegraphic communication, no gas lighting in the street, even though London had had such lights for forty years. There was a layer, quite small, of well-to-do merchant families, and lingering memories and members of the old nobility, whose titles had been abolished thirty years before. So it is a small, close world in which these modern tragedies are lived out, a world of entrapment.2

Ghosts is a play of startling nastiness. The retribution is so devastating that the work lies outside the bounds of expected dramatic conventions. There is throughout a mechanistic aspect to its tight, airless construction. The hereditary blight of syphilis, morally impugning because of its relation to excess and debauchery, combines with other generational correspondences, far from necessary ones too, and makes of the whole a somewhat vulgar conception. We have had here, back in Captain Alving’s past, “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender which an age of prudence can never retract.” Except that in the case of Alving there has been no age of prudence.

Yet the action of the play rests upon a sort of asserted prudence, that is, the insistence that Captain Alving, a seducer and drunkard of long and tenacious habit, is thought of as a man of civic virtue and more or less reasonable manner of living. At the beginning of the play Mrs. Alving is busy setting up a memorial to the unrehabilitated, now dead, man in the form of the Captain Alving Memorial Home for Orphans. For this she is spending all of his money so that her adored, redeeming son will inherit nothing from his father, only from herself. It is not too much to say that Mrs. Alving is going too far. But that is the perversity of secret grievance as the definition of character and action.

Early in her ghastly marriage Mrs. Alving had run away. It turned out to be a bit like Hjalmar Ekdal’s quite short run, around the corner so to speak, when he was told his child was not his own. We feel the lack of a sustaining resolution. In Mrs. Alving’s case, it is her choice of the nitwitted Pastor Manders as her rescuer, as a romantic substitute, that makes us doubt the seriousness of her intentions. She is sent home with a lecture on her duty as a wife. The pastor, perhaps having a certain parish knowledge of the futility of the hasty flight around the corner, seemed to believe Captain Alving might be brought up short by the display of rebellion and would settle down to caution, at least. That is the most to be had. But the opposite was true. The captain seduced the housemaid, and the child of that union was passed off to the slippery Engstrand, a dissolute carpenter or handyman. After a time the daughter, Regina, is brought by Mrs. Alving into the household, as a housemaid once more, there to await her seduction, or her seducing of, the returning son, Osvald.

All is laid out in a geometric design, forming a circle of curious and foreordained patterns. Only Mrs. Alving herself is free of predestination; she is freed by her charm, her learning from experience and pondering the future. But she is the victim of the relentless patterning when her son is found to be decaying from syphilis, trying to drink away his sorrow, and also repeating with Regina the scene his father had played out long ago.

Mrs. Alving’s secret is the whole of her miserable married life on a “country estate by a large fiord in West Norway.” She has the idea that she alone knows the quite visible depth of her husband’s profligacy. This is a denial of the common sense of shrewd country people coming and going about the estate and scarcely able to escape a viewing of the dissolute man lying about on the couch all day.

The truth seems to be that it is Mrs. Alving alone who is determined to imagine the concealment of the obvious, determined in the interest of her role of intensely alive and calculating grievance. She stretches this as far as it will go, and it turns out to be quite a length of rope, long enough to include strange duets between herself and Captain Alving.

I’ve endured a lot in this house to keep him home in the evenings—and nights, I had to become his drinking companion as he got sodden over his bottle, holed up in his room. There I had to sit alone with him, forcing myself through his jokes and toasts and all his maundering, abusive talk, and then fight him bare-handed to drag him into bed.

The high-minded brilliance and thoughtfulness of Mrs. Alving are in no way tarnished by rigidity. She is too clever and sensitive an author of the drama of her own life for such narrowness of design. She experiences reversals and recognitions, sometimes quite leaping ones. As she unfolds the secret to her destroyed son Osvald she suddenly takes the burden of Captain Alving’s decline upon herself.

They’d drilled me so much in duty and things of that kind that I went on here all too long putting my faith in them. Everything resolved into duties—my duties, and his duties, and—I’m afraid I made this home unbearable for your poor father.

We begin to think it is almost fortunate that Mrs. Alving has one secret of redoubtable dimensions and that is Regina, Captain Alving’s illegitimate daughter. “That was the end,” she says. “So I took charge of the house—complete charge—over him and everything else. Because now, you see, I had a weapon against him; he couldn’t let out a word of protest.”

Curious indeed. Mrs. Alving achieves the eminence of being a negative presence in the household, but she has such natural brightness that her darkening role can only be to enshroud herself. It is hard to believe Captain Alving cared greatly about her subtle manipulation of the terms. There is gracefulness in her character and a misbegotten immensity in the elaboration of her plans for the memorial orphanage. The elaboration of her design of herself even includes a lingering sentiment for the flat, priggish Pastor Manders. As she goes back over her early flight, she sees the turning back not only as the horror of Alving, but as a “crime against us both,” that is herself and Manders unrequited. This is a saddening blindness since Ibsen has made of the pastor an irredeemable, prattling virgin. But then the scantiness of means afforded by life in the restricted landscape is very grim indeed.

In Rosmersholm unhappy Beata; in The Master Builder unhappy Mrs. Solness. Ibsen is sympathetic and has given the wives impressive credentials in the matter of grievance. At the very least both are somehow adrift and the husbands have not been attentive or imaginative, not quite. Yet in a way the two women are, in the plots, like dear house pets who have become a nuisance. They are not dominating spirits like Mrs. Alving, but, like her, their sense of restriction has turned theatrical and they are conscious of the possibilities of the role.

Parlor maids, traveling actresses, giddy little secretaries, and brilliant, liberated women from up in Finmark console the restless men, and when they are in financial trouble there is usually a brother-in-law or clerk to take the blame. And so many pleasing young girls with their knotted bloodlines to be disentangled. Ibsen looks at all this in a dour and yet reforming spirit. He thinks fresh air would be valuable. Hypocrisies are defeating to the “joy of life,” and in addition they are too slick a passage for the ambitious and powerful. Cold hearts deserve the bitter reprisals, if only the reprisal available to the negative presences whose intentions need not be in haste.

There is nothing unexplained in Ibsen’s attraction to illegitimacy, embezzlement, and the steady, dispiriting drip of resentment. He himself was resentful and unfriendly. Norway was a cesspool of envy and pettiness in his view. After experiences bitter to his pride, he ceased to participate in the practical theater, and his great prose plays were first released for publication and then produced afterward in various countries. This divorce, arising from the conventionality of standards and from his own truculence and ready flow of indignation, was to a degree a misfortune. Certain of the unlikely endings and the repetitive flatness of idea in a number of characters might have been modified in production by Ibsen’s immense knowledge of craft.

Ibsen’s father earned his son’s contempt by his debts, failures, and drunken paranoias. But this son was not one to hang on. Except for, somewhat distantly, his sister, Hedvig, he ceased to regard his family as having any special claims on him. His literary friendships were often troubled and when tranquil did not seem important to the flow of his life. There is a question about his relations with his dedicated and unsociable wife, and the alliance is seen by many as one of a rather cold, mutual dependence. On his deathbed he will make the not uncommon tribute to perseverance and the, at last, advantage of social restriction for the purposes of unremitting creative toil. “You have been my guiding star. You were the eagle that showed me the way to the summit.” On her deathbed eight years later Suzannah Ibsen remarked, “Ibsen had no steel in his character—but I gave it to him.”

Ibsen had heard as a youth the rumor of his own illegitimacy and Michael Meyer Writes, “He believed it, as would most children…if, like Ibsen, they had no respect for their father.” Ibsen himself fathered an illegitimate son. The mother was a housemaid at Reimann’s, the apothecary at Grimstad where Ibsen spent his terrible years “boiling and compounding,” and also studying, painting, and writing poetry.

The result of the meeting with the housemaid was a miserable creature named Hans Jacob Henriksen, an alcoholic wastrel who made a number of marriages, had many children, most of whom died early. The story is told that the only time Hans Jacob saw his father was when he was already forty-six years old and knocked at the door of the apartment to ask for help. The rumor, perhaps false, is that Ibsen gave him five crowns, saying, “This is what I gave your mother. It should be enough for you.” Of course, Ibsen was only eighteen and desperately poor when the child was born. He was not a pillar of society who could turn the child into an interesting secret of the household, as in The Wild Duck and Ghosts.

Civic corruption, debauchery, lies, failures of attention, ambition, and egotism are masculine demons that infect the household in a devious way, a way more galling and confusing than the threat of young usurpers or the impatience of creditors. They create the negative presence, sometimes silent and self-effacing, sometimes raging like Mrs. Borkman.

Beata in Rosmersholm and Mrs. Solness in The Master Builder are figures of domestic depression to a degree close to madness. Ibsen does not withhold pity; they have their claims, their reasons, each obscure, psychological and not polemical. Their husbands are not sure in their understanding of the form these distracted minds have taken and neither are we. In their presence attention wanders and even the audience may feel a sense of guilt on their behalf, as if they were living acquaintances who mind the disloyalty.

Beata is a negative presence who has been removed before the play begins—and this must correspond, we feel, to her final wishes. That is, to have been removed and to be ever more confusingly present. In her struggle with Rosmer and Rebecca she is driven to suicide, a suicide not unassisted by the other two. “Psychic murder,” as Strindberg called it.

The first thing we learn about Beata is that she couldn’t bear the scent or color of flowers, the happiness of nature; later we see that because of “overwrought nerves” she wasn’t a comfort-producing assistant in matters of the household. The same overwroughtness had led her to explosions of passion for Rosmer, a gentleman of abiding sexual dimness apparently the consequence of overbreeding and family custom.

Poor Beata,” as she is called, is a recessive, childlike figure, but she is not innocent and has planned her retaliation with an alarmingly acute sense of maneuver. She leaves her brilliant suicide letter which says, in effect, if you have heard anything scandalous about my husband, it isn’t true.

Rebecca is the center of Ibsen’s attention and also of Rosmer’s, Beata’s, and ours. She is a triumphant creation, with many hardships behind her and, owing to the suicide letter, no future at all. It is not clear what Ibsen wishes us to feel about Beata. There is a superficial ordering of circumstances on her behalf: childlessness, the blight of life at Rosmersholm, the town, the religion. She has been soundly overruled by Rebecca on the household battlefield. Still she is seen with such ambiguity that we too would dodge and delay just as Rosmer does when Rebecca asks if he would wish the dead Beata alive once more. Apparently Beata has seen her suicide as a measure to provide for the happiness of Rosmer and Rebecca, but this again seems to be an instrument of retaliation, a going too far, in the manner of Mrs. Alving.

Mrs. Solness inhabits her play. She has not been disposed of by herself or others. She remains to hang about, ruined, jealous, resentful, and, as always, with intriguing circumstances of justification. She voices the depressing undertakings of her life under the banner of “duty,” and the ruthless Hilda is not hesitant to see something “meant to cut” in the word. Back in the past, Mrs. Solness has suffered great losses; her family house burned to the ground and this was one of those useful tragedies for Solness, the architect, since he can now build a new one more suitable to his professional tastes. Her little boys had perished under circumstances impugning to herself: that is, she had insisted upon nursing them, as her duty, even though she was ill and her milk poisoned them. (A strange use of unsettling homely detail, here.) Thus, Mrs. Solness is depressed and seems to know that she is not enlivening. Her first line is: “I’m afraid I’m intruding.” And yes she is intruding since Solness has just been caressing the hair of Kaja, his secretary.

Solness is one of the most striking of Ibsen’s male characters. Every part of the puzzle of his being seems to fit with a psychological credibility. His dialogue is sharp, interesting, and usually honest, at least in the sense that it is the measure of his genuine vexations, his flirtations, his ambitions, his fears of competition, and his fatigue with the cloudy sky represented by his wife. He is double-edged, cynical, lifelike. He allows Kaja to be in love with him because he has a practical need for her infatuation. He allows Mrs. Solness to be jealous of this merely expedient flirting because “there’s almost a kind of beneficial self-torment in letting Aline do me an injustice.” This misplaced jealousy is “a small payment on a boundless, incalculable debt,” and can erase his genuine failings.

Again we cannot be certain what we are to feel about Mrs. Solness except that the marriage is a case, for both, of life’s unforgivable mismanagement. The grievances are given abrupt but devastating voice by the wife’s dialogue, which never lets anything pass. When Solness says that Kaja is useful to him, the wife replies, “She looks it.” Mrs. Solness is self-effacing, but watchful, and she plays her role by dressing in black. And she is unmovable, absolutely. The new house? “I feel absolutely nothing about the new house.” That’s it and her ideas are not subject to change. “Once disaster’s on the wind—then…”

In these plays of marriage and middle age the men will behave badly in love, marriage, and in matters of ambition. The women will see that, in Auden’s phrase, “Every farthing of the cost will be paid.” These farthings are somehow a self-creation, and by no means a harmless use of small, overlooked opportunities for influence.

Little Eyolf—a marriage between Rita and Alfred Allmers of profound perversity. The core of the play is so dismaying it could not be seen through to the end and thus an idealistic “upward—toward the mountain peaks” resolution is attached. The play is about a wife’s hatred for her child because its existence is an impediment to her insatiable appetite for her husband. (Rita Allmers and Maja and her bear hunter in When We Dead Awaken are the only straightforwardly “demanding” wives in Ibsen unless one would include “the wild sensual passion” of the tormented Beata. Rita and Maja come from late plays, written when Ibsen was close to seventy, and so perhaps he had learned something more tumultuous and open than the devious measures of self-sacrifice.)

The husband, Allmers, is one of those withholding men with a false dedication, the kind Ibsen knew so well. Allmers has been, as it were, purchased by the rich Rita, set up on yet another fiord outside of town, and told he is now free to love his wife and to write his book on “Human Responsibility, if you please,” as Shaw expresses it.

This cannot be called a play with secrets since both the husband and the wife know the truth: they had left little Eyolf, their infant son, unattended on a table while they were making love. The boy fell off and became a cripple. This did not appear to cause guilt, perhaps because the two were codefendants. The little boy has been brought up with dumb pomposity by Allmers and indifference by Rita.

When the play opens Allmers has gone up to the mountain to think things over. It is his first night apart from Rita in ten years. The mountain trip is a bit of self-dramatization, but with an aim of a practical, releasing kind. “Human Responsibility” is to be abandoned with a fresh-air, mountaintop joy, and at last. Since Allmers, supported by his wife, must have a new mission for self-respect he has decided to devote himself to little Eyolf. The boy is to be molded for happiness or perhaps he will one day take up where Allmers left off on “Human Responsibility.”

Rita, knowledgeable about the symbolic value of pretending to be writing a book, is not prepared to countenance the posturing mission on behalf of the boy. She says that Eyolf, as a consumer of time and attention, is “something worse” than the book. She says that she wishes the boy were dead or hadn’t been born and that if Allmers persists she will be unfaithful, offer herself to the first man around. This provincial nymphomaniac, as provincials used to call such women, is as far beyond subterfuge or duty or sublimation as Hedda Gabler.

The horror of Rita’s feeling about the boy is unbearably compounded by the hideous Rat-Wife, an exterminator, who offers her services if “your graces notice anything here that nibbles and gnaws—and creeps and crawls.” The boy follows the Rat-Wife to his death in the water, “down under, with all the rats.” The Rat-Wife seems a monstrous troll, unnecessarily repugnant as the agent of the boy’s death. (No doubt there was such a craft in Norway as in London, where Mayhew finds “Jack Black, Her Majesty’s Ratcatcher.”)

Ibsen seemed to draw back from the coarse attractions of Rita and Allmers. They are in need of redemption and he provides it as they, hand in hand amid “a Sabbath stillness,” invite the uplifting stars. This is suitable to the abstracted Allmers but would not seem to provide an arena for the astonishingly concentrated energies of Rita.

The surprising violence of resentment in the country houses and city parlors is Ibsen’s genius. Sometimes the structure is too insistent and a certain pause in the Biblical reciprocity might be welcome as an element of psychological experience. Such pauses as there are are likely to be more grandiose, less human, than the contemporary sensibility can easily assent to. Irene and her knife on the mountaintop in When We Dead Awaken—a final vision.

The social landscape of the plays is carefully chosen and filled with garden rooms, verandas, wicker chairs in expensive spa resorts. The coarseness of lower-class life in Norway is rejected in favor of the movements of the well-to-do. Even the Ekdals in The Wild Duck are known as reduced; they are fallen, passive instruments of Werle’s shrewdness. It is theatrically right, for Ibsen’s vision of things, that Alving should be rich, that old Werle should be having a dinner party with manservants in livery, a hired waiter in black, and a new female attachment ordering coffee to be served in the living room. The architect Solness is successful and seductive. Over the hill he may be in his profession, but two young girls are infatuated with him. Rosmer’s family is a kind of provincial nobility, able to set the style, moral and otherwise. Consul Bernick has his shipyard and his spacious villa.

The injured women have made good alliances, altogether better than those of Nora and Hedda. For the men, a free-floating, not very pressing guilt does not seem too much to pay for the persistence of impulse. Ibsen himself was a good alliance and, shy, work-ridden as he was, not free of pleasing interruptions that were certainly the occasion for fretfulness in the hired hotel rooms of his exile. In an epilogue, Meyer tells us that “the young girls whom Ibsen loved in his last years all lived to a ripe old age.” Miss Helene Raff, Emilie Bardach, Hildur Andersen, and Rosa Fitinghoff were among his survivors.

Beata and Mrs. Solness perplex the emotions of the audience. They are victims of a violated contract, yes, but you cannot avoid an enthusiasm for Rebecca that is an insult to Beata’s claims. Even the fantastical egotist Hilda, air, light, and death as she is, engages the mind and spirit after Mrs. Solness’s duties and mourned dolls. Old Mrs. Werle on her deathbed deputing her son to accomplish her revenge is more dampening than the dimpling, climbing Mrs. Sorby whom Werle is naturally eager to marry. Mrs. Borkman is a horror and her more pleasing sister, the wronged Ella, has perhaps been too calculating in her command of her role and too long in nourishing her resentment of Borkman’s expedient choice of her sister. Mrs. Alving, truly wronged and in possession of a complicated conscience and awareness, disappoints when she imagines she can be everything to her son and receive from him a repayment of new happiness.

So the sympathy felt by Ibsen is incomplete. It acts as an instability in the feelings of the audience. It is functional rather than emotional. In these tragedies of middle age much was promised, but the years were a scar of destructive surprises. It does not seem possible to be thoroughly admirable in the circumstances that are offered. “Talent without glamour,”Henry James said of Ibsen. Solness’s middle-aged fall from the tower cannot compete with Hedda’s pistol shot. Irene and Rubek disappear in a Bayreuth thunderous mist on the mountain, and of their life only “Pax vobiscum” can be said.

There is an eternal aspect to these grievances of marriage, and the complexity of Ibsen’s vision of the peculiar distributions of domestic power is not overwhelmed by later social history. Still, the extravagant possibilities of confession cast a dimming light on the more provincial recourse to secrecy. Harold Pinter’s Betrayal comes from another world, where the scathing and the offhand are dangerously mixed. The adulterous lovers are part of two couples who are best friends—a version of the handy parlor maid, perhaps. An affair has gone on for seven years—“seven years of afternoons”—and when it is over the lovers meet again after a separation of two years. She says: I thought of you the other day. And he answers: Good God, why?

If I understand the play, the betrayal is of the lover who has not been told that the woman’s husband, his best friend, knew of the affair for the last two of the seven years. No doubt the husband by his silence during many luncheons with his friend has been playing the subtle role so well commanded by the resentful. In Pinter the scene is cool, angular, and moving on to divorce and new love affairs. If there is a residue, it is ironical. In Ibsen irony of this forgetful, releasing kind is a medicine not yet discovered and the residue kills.

  1. 1

    Quotations are from Henrik Ibsen: The Complete Major Prose Plays, translated by Rolf Fjelde (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1978).

  2. 2

    Ibsen: A Biography (Doubleday, 1971).