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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.

  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).

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