Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck & Other Works:
A Select, Annotated Bibliography

Compiled by Ralph Dumain

Adorno, Theodore W. “Aldous Huxley and Utopia,” in Prisms, translated by Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1982), pp. 95-117.

Ever since Ibsen’s invention of Gregers Werle and Stockmann, actually since Hegel’s philosophy of history, bourgeois cultural politics, claiming to survey and speak for the whole, has sought to unmask anyone who seeks to change things as both the genuine child and the perverse product of the whole which he opposes, and has insisted that the truth is always on the side of the whole, be it against him or present in him. As novelist, Huxley proclaims his solidarity with this tradition; as prophet of civilization, he detests the totality. It is true that Gregers Werle destroys those he seeks to save, and no one is free from the vanity of Bernard Marx who, in raising himself above the general stupidity, thereby imagines himself untainted by it. But the view which evaluates phenomena externally, in a detached, free, superior way, deeming itself above the limitations of negation and the arbitration of the dialectic, is for this very reason neither one of truth nor one of justice. A just reflection should not delight in the inadequacy of things which are better in order to compromise them before things which are worse, but should draw from inadequacy additional strength for indignation. The forces of negativity are underestimated in order to render them impotent. But it befits this position that what is set up as positive and absolute against the dialectic is no less powerless. [pp. 106-107]

________________. Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (1951), translated by E. F. N. Jephcott. London: Verso, 1987. See #56 (Genealogical research), #57 (Excavation), #58 (The truth about Hetta Gabler), #99 (Gold assay), #113 (Spoilsport), #115 (Coming clean).

#56 compares some of Ibsen’s characters to Struwwelpeter.

#57 focuses on the condition of women then and now. “The admittance of women to every conceivable supervised activity conceals continuing dehumanization.” And on the question of whether Ibsen is outdated:

But perhaps this is the way of all outdatedness. It is to be explained not only by mere temporal distance, but by the verdict of history. Its expression in things is the shame that overcomes the descendant in face of an earlier possibility that he has neglected to bring to fruition. What was accomplished can be forgotten, and preserved in the present. Only what failed is outdated, the broken promise of a new beginning. It is not without reason that Ibsen’s women are called ‘modern’. Hatred of modernity and of outdatedness are identical.

#58 is comprised of an analysis of the struggle against “goodness” as social appearance and the role of beauty in bourgeois society, concluding:

Anti-morality, in rejecting what is immoral in morality, repression, inherits morality’s deepest concern: that with all limitations all violence too should be abolished. This is why the motives of intransigent bourgeois self-criticism coincide in fact with those of materialism, through which the former attain self-awareness.

#99 traces the preoccupation with authenticity from social critique to fascism.

In the identity of each individual with himself the postulate of incorruptible truth, together with the glorification of the factual, are transferred from Enlightenment knowledge to ethics. It is just the critically independent late-bourgeois thinkers, sickened by traditional judgements and idealistic phrases, who concur with this view. Ibsen’s admittedly violated verdict on the living lie, Kierkegaard’s doctrine of existence, have made the ideal of authenticity a centrepiece of metaphysics.

There is only a passing reference in #113: “It is not ecstasy but socially approved love that is followed by disgust: it is, to use Ibsen’s word, sticky.”

#115 is about malicious informers, concluding with this example:

More frequently he comes forward as the appointed mouthpiece of public opinion, and by his very dispassionate objectivity lets the victim feel the whole power of anonymity to which he must bow. The lie is manifest in the unnecessary concern for the honour of the injured party ignorant of his injury, for everything being above board, for inner cleanliness; as soon as these values are asserted by the Gregers Werles of our contorted world the contortion is increased. By dint of moral zeal, the well-meaning become destroyers.

________________. Problems of Moral Philosophy, edited by Thomas Schröder, translated by Rodney Livingstone (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001), Lecture 16 (23 July 1963), pp. 157-166.

Lecture 16 is devoted to an analysis of The Wild Duck, which is used mainly for the purpose of contrasting Kant and Hegel. Adorno comments on Gina: she “is by no means unsympathetically portrayed.” Also, Gina’s action of passing off her child as Gregers’ was shocking in the 1880s but would not be so today. Gregers illustrates the fatal flaw of Kantian morality. Ibsen also refrains from identification with the cynic Relling, but instead shows the conflict between two moral concepts to be unresolvable. We see also that Gregers’ moralism is fueled by less than pure motives, specifically resentment. Here we find a similarity to Ibsen’s contemporary Nietzsche, but Adorno thinks that Ibsen goes beyond Nietzsche. Adorno concedes that Gregers is unsympathetic in many respects but nonetheless sees Greger as a representative of justice and integrity. Relling’s ethics of responsibility—that is, attention to consequences of one’s actions—is also seen to be morally compromised. As Ibsen takes neither side, he is likened to Hegel. The Hegelian conception of the rationality of the real, which can be degraded into a principle of conformity, is also not a satisfactory resolution, which given the prevalence of conformity, tilts us back to Kant.

COMMENTARY: While the use of The Wild Duck to illustrate the limitations of Kantian morality is instructive, Adorno’s commentary is not very useful for understanding The Wild Duck itself, particularly in the undeserved albeit limited credence given to Gregers, but generally in its inattention to the totality of the play.

 ________________. “Trying to Understand Endgame” (1961), in Notes to Literature; Volume One, edited by Rolf Tiedemann, translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), pp. 241-275.

Adorno discusses The Wild Duck on p. 261. Note:

Freud’s hypothesis that all our experiences “have a sense” translates the traditional dramatic idea into a psychological realism in which Ibsen’s tragicomedy about the wild duck rekindles the spark of form. When symbolism is emancipated from its psychological determinants it becomes reified and turns into something that exists in itself; the symbol becomes symbolist, as in Ibsen’s late work—when, for example, the bookkeeper Foldal in John Gabriel Borkman is run down by “Youth.” The contradiction between this kind of consistent symbolism and a conservative realism is responsible for the inadequacy of Ibsen’s last plays. But by the same token it becomes a leavening agent for the expressionist Strindberg. His symbols tear themselves free of empirical human beings and are woven into a tapestry in which everything and nothing is symbolic because everything can mean everything. Drama has only to recognize the inevitable ridiculousness of this kind of pan-symbolism, which abolishes itself, and make use of it, and Beckettian absurdity has been reached through the immanent dialectic of form.

COMMENTARY: Adorno’s remarks on symbolism are suggestive but too abbreviated. They add an essential ingredient not found in his comments on Ibsen elsewhere.

________________. “Veblen’s Attack on Culture,” in Prisms, translated by Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1982), pp. 73-94.

There are two passing mentions. The first:

Veblen, who has much in common with Ibsen, is perhaps the last thinker of note who does not avoid the woman question.

The second:

What other norm is there that is to be lived up to than that given in the aggregate range of propensities that express themselves in the sentiments of this generation, including the hereditary strain of prowess?’ Here, with a grin not unlike Ibsen’s, Veblen follows his reasoning to the point where it is in danger of capitulating to the world as it is, to normal barbarism.

Crompton, Louis. “The ‘Demonic’ in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck,” The Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 4, No. 1, Sept. 1959, pp. 96-103.

Taking off from a remark from Relling, this article is about the absurdity of claiming the demonic, esp. on the part of Hjalmar Ekdal, who, it is suggested, is playacting his various postures. Gina brings him down to earth. Both Relling and Gregers misread Hjalmar’s inner conflict. On interpreting the duck: one path taken is to see it as a satire on symbol-mongers, i.e. Gregers. But as Crompton sees Hjalmar as the central character, he is not satisfied with Weigand’s linkage between him and the duck.

Weigand's mistake seems to have been in regarding the qualities associated with the duck as fixed in some concrete reality outside of the drama rather than as subjective creations in the minds of the characters. The duck is not really wild and free, or rather the reality of its wildness and its freedom is not at issue; what is important is that Gregers has projected these qualities upon it. They represent the very qualities of abstract moral purity he himself lusts after. The phrase “a wild goose chase” would communicate the idea of his quest in idiomatic English, with the same connotation of the poetic, the illusory, and the absurd. To say, moreover, that the image of the wild duck as Gregers conceives it is “grotesquely inept” when related to Hjalmar is to miss the potent irony in the fact that it is just this incongruity that is significant. Given Hjalmar’s nature, we might expect that any image of himself he entertains would be “grotesquely inept” in some fundamental fashion.

By this reasoning, the incongruity of the actual duck with its symbolic role in fact matches Hjalmar.

Crompton concludes:

Despite the poignancy of the drama enacted around it the wild duck remains at the end of the play unscathed. Ibsen seems to be saying that man’s illusions are invulnerable, no matter how roundly shaken.

COMMENTARY: I disagree with the conclusion. I also cannot see Hjalmar as the central character. The correlation of Hjalmar with the duck is quite different from my own perspective and that of others, but it must be considered. Even if Crompton is right, the duck still symbolizes idealist illusions. The wildness of the wild duck would constitute its dissociation from its own tamed reality.

Durbach, Errol. “A Century of Ibsen Criticism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen, edited by James McFarlane (Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 233-251.

This overview is divided into these sections:

Marxism, Propaganda and Shaw: Varieties of Ibsenite Criticism
Joyce and the Symbolists: Varieties of Modernist Criticism
Freud and the Analysts: Subtextual Criticism
‘The Poet in the Theatre’: Textual Criticism
Ibsen and the History of Ideas: Supertextual Criticism
Ibsen on Stage: Performance Criticism Subtext or Supertext?
A Smörgĺsbord of ‘Contemporary Approaches to Ibsen’

Eleanor Marx was a fervent Ibsenist in the cause of socialism, but according to Durbach she misunderstood Ibsen’s message, as borne out by her husband Edward Aveling’s betrayal of her. William Archer saw Ibsen as purely imaginative, not an intellectual. Shaw had a far better understanding of Ibsen, but the Shavian penchant for absolute declarations removed the irony and hesitancy in Ibsen’s work. The subsequent sections of this review reveal subsequent trends in Ibsen interpretation.

Holtan, Orley I. Mythic Patterns in Ibsen's Last Plays. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1970.

Note the chapter: The Wild Duck and Rosmersholm: The Re-Entry of the Mythic. Holtan highlights ambiguities, emphasizes Gregers’ selfish motives. Each character except Gina interprets the meaning of the duck symbolically, but Gregers’ is the lowest level symbolization. Holtan does justice to Gina. Note the importance of nature in the loft containing the animals and paraphernalia. Note discussion of Gregers as parody of savior, but an exact analogy with Christianity is not sustainable.

If The Wild Duck includes any kind of metaphysical statement, it is that the lot of man is a precarious and sorry one but that, despite the inadequacies of existence, he can get on well enough if left with his illusions. There are, of course, people who can manage to live with naked truth. In this play they are, ironically, Old Werle and Berta Sorby. They realize the true marriage based on absolute frankness with each other which Gregers would like to establish for the Ekdals. For most of mankind, however, Ibsen seems to endorse Relling’s prescription — the sustaining “life-lie.” [49]

Other symbols are discussed, but what about the duck?

She has power to evoke the imagination that exceeds and transcends the simplest levels of symbolism, and only Gregers sees her in such simple terms. Her very power as symbol resides exactly in the inadequacy of drawing simple connections and interpreting her as standing for anything specific.

COMMENTARY: I agree with Holtan’s specific observations but disagree vehemently with his conclusion. Even if Ibsen holds that truth is only for the elite, I see no indication that he agrees with Relling viz. the masses. And then, beyond Ibsen’s own conception of what he is up to, there is an objectivity to this scenario that suggests that the entire social schema and all the choices within it are flawed. Ibsen eventually abjured any role as a social reformer, yet, in his portrayal of the role of his female characters in the world of the bourgeoisie, there lies a hidden truth that upends the bourgeoisie.

Mehring, Franz. “Ibsen’s Greatness and Limitations” (1900), translated by A. S. Grogan, in Ibsen, edited by Angel Flores (New York: Critics Group, 1937).

COMMENTARY: A masterful analysis, with much truth in it, but Mehring misses The Wild Duck.

Lunacharsky, Anatol. “Ibsen” (1934), translated by Jenny Covan, in Ibsen, edited by Angel Flores (New York: Critics Group, 1937).

COMMENTARY: As inadequate as bourgeois criticism is, Lunacharsky disappoints here. He is smarter than a Stalinist, but he falls short with The Wild Duck. Of course Ibsen was a bourgeois author rebelling against the bourgeoisie. You cannot understand Ibsen without understanding that, but if persist in treating artists as failures from a revolutionary standpoint, and you miss the underlying conceptual logic of play, what good are you?

Lukács, Georg. “Marx and the Problem of Ideological Decay” (1938), in Essays on Realism, edited and introduced by Rodney Livingstone, translated by David Fernbach (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1981), pp. 114-166.

In addition to the two pre-Marxist essays listed separately, there is one paragraph in Lukács’ pre-Marxist Theory of the Novel), and smatterings of references to Ibsen in Lukács’ various Marxist works.

Ibsen’s Rosmersholm gets a whole page (125) in The Historical Novel. Lukács sees this as not a true drama, but really a novel in disguise.

There are a few pages apiece discussing Ibsen in the chapters on Wilhelm Raab (269-271) and the later Fontane (308-311) in German Realists in the Nineteeth Century.

In Studies of European Realism one will find some interesting comments (131-136) in the chapter “Tolstoy and the Development of Realism,” including remarks on the development of capitalism in Scandinavia and Engels’ defense of Ibsen. Of particular interest: while drama was otherwise deteriorating, Ibsen was outstanding, and he delved deeper than his western European counterparts, as did Russian literature. “To what extent the Ibsenian drama was problematic in the deeper sense, how imperfectly its formal perfection concealed the inner instability of Ibsen’s conception of society and hence of his real dramatic form—to elucidate all this would require a special and longer analysis.” (133) In more than one place Lukács mentions the total estrangement of literature and life in late Ibsen.

In addition to scattered references in Essays on Realism, we finally hit pay dirt in the essay “Marx and the Problem of Ideological Decay” (1938). (See pp. 159-163) Here Lukács focuses on The Wild Duck, contrasting it to Ibsen’s earlier plays. Interestingly, Lukács compares Gregers to Don Quixote and argues that Ibsen failed to reinvigorate his ideals, now passé, and so he resorted to symbolism and aristocratism.

COMMENTARY: This essay is fascinating, because Lukács’ argument might well fit what is known about Ibsen’s intent or at least the logic of his trajectory. In a larger historical context, Lukács sees this play as a failed Don Quixote in an epoch of bourgeois decadence. Lukács, like many critics, locates the heart of the play in the ideological struggle between the idealist Gregers and the cynic Relling to be. Many conclude that this represents an impasse. Yet how can we take Gregers’ idealism at all seriously or entertain Relling’s cynicism about human nature as the last word?

If we examine the play’s objective logical structure without supplementary knowledge, without an assessment of Ibsen’s probable subjective intentions, without preconceived notions of any kind, we can view it completely differently. What is Gina’s role in the marriage of convenience?  She is not a rebel, she is not the protagonist, nor does she appear to get a great deal of attention from critics. But Gina’s place in the bourgeois world holds the key to everything about it. While Lukács is correct in noting that Ibsen could find no way out of his impasse, if we attend to the objective structure of the play, we might discern an exit strategy beyond the bourgeois assumptions of the society portrayed in it. For this, we need to attend to Gina, for whom the duck is just an annoying duck.

Lukács, György [Georg]. “Peer Gynt” (1903), in The Lukács Reader, edited by Arpad Kadarkay (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), pp. 112-119.

_____________. “Thoughts on Henrik Ibsen” (1906), in The Lukács Reader, edited by Arpad Kadarkay (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), pp. 97-111.

Kadarkay’s introduction to the section on drama and tragedy in this anthology (pp. 65-69) highlights the centrality of Ibsen in Lukács’ pre-Marxist existence. Ibsen was a role model and an inspiration for Lukács’ co-founding of the Thalia Theatre in 1904. Lukács even visited Ibsen. Lukács translated The Wild Duck.

Ibsen’s bitterness is characteristic of the writers of his age—Baudelaire, Flaubert, Schopenhauer. They were all born too late, as Romanticism, a flash in the pan, was on its deathbed and rationalism dominated the scene. There are both external and internal reasons for the fate of Romanticism. The Romantics wanted to incorporate everything, but they could not complete their task. Everything becomes subordinated to Art. Ibsen is seen as the great realist, but Ibsen started out as a Romantic. His irony is Romantic and expresses his hatred of the bourgeoisie. Self-irony is also present.

Initially, Ibsen’s self-irony is also artistic (for example, Peer Gynt, Act V), and, as he becomes more disillusioned, this irony turns completely inward. And then Ibsen begins to persecute his sacred ideals lest anyone should notice or laugh at his own sufferings (Gregers Werle in The Wild Duck).

Ibsen “hates everything petty and bourgeois, and yet seems indifferent towards every so-called sin.” Ibsen proves himself a Romantic in his late works.

“Every genuine dramatist aspires to write a tragedy.” He reaches for the deeper sources of conflict, to the point where the causes are mysterious.  Social drama was late to develop because writers could not “locate the essence of human struggle” in external causes. “However, this tendency removed the very possibility of tragedy.” Rationalism sought reform via enlightenment, but could not account for human psychology. Early Ibsen manifests the impetus to social improvement. “Ibsen had to assume that the individual is capable of self-realization.” But Ibsen eventually turned against this assumption.

But as Gregers Werle [The Wild Duck] soon learned, truth and ideals belong to the privileged few. In the play, the character Relling observed:

Take away the life-lie from the average person, and you take his happiness along with it.

Perhaps it is impossible to remove oneself from life-lies. For Gregers truth turns into a lie, and individuality is no more than a pose (Hjalmar Ekdal). The individual must therefore give up the struggle, because few possess the ability to become a personality. The individual becomes the aristocrat.

Lukács analyzes the treatment of the Ibsenian hero and the female characters throughout Ibsen’s oeuvre, noting Ibsen’s shifts of perspective. Ibsen proceeds from the emancipation of woman to the separation of man and woman, with the conclusion that the artist must stand outside life. “Ibsen is the first dramatist to give voice to the victims of ascetic tyrants.” The artists destroy their women, but they destroy themselves as well.

COMMENTARY: As a bourgeois rebel against the bourgeoisie himself, Lukács confirms the torment of the bourgeois chokehold of the 19th century. I do not know if he realized it himself, but it appears to me that Lukács’ words condemn Ibsen’s perspective or at least reveal its fatal limitations. It is too confining a mental universe to accept. I have not yet attempted to trace what remarks Lukács may have made about Ibsen as a Marxist, but it seems to me that he never really developed as he should have after breaking with the bourgeoisie, as his Bolshevization trapped him within another sort of confinement. Even with all this, it is difficult to discern Ibsen’s intentions viz. The Wild Duck, I see no reason to conclude that Ibsen advocates either Gregers or Relling. The play embodies an objective structure beyond Ibsen’s subjective intentions. Gregers is not really a truth-teller in any profound sense, nor is Relling. The truth remains hidden in the structure of the play.

May, Keith M. Ibsen and Shaw. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985.

The Wild Duck should not necessarily be seen as a repudiation of Ibsen’s earlier advocacy.

I suggest, however, that Ibsen’s actual development at this point in his career was from social lawgiver to student of individual psychology. He had always been both in some degree, but from now on the emphasis would be overwhelmingly upon the latter. Nor would his psychological observations generally obliterate distinctions of value among persons in the way that humanism encourages and science demands. But it is true that The Wild Duck itself, the transitional play, does take that lenient or morally uncertain form. He wrote in a letter of 1884 that ‘long daily association with the persons in this play has endeared them to me, despite their manifold failings.’ Nevertheless, his notes and jottings at this time often display the same old contempt for the bulk of mankind. The great thing now was to realise oneself. In 1884, while working on The Wild Duck, he wrote to Frederick Hegel, ‘I believe that none of us can do anything other or anything better than realise ourselves in truth and in spirit?’ Ibsen’s increased tolerance probably amounted to a belief, first, that no one, not Christ Himself or Saga hero, should be the universal model, and secondly, that even self-realisation was beyond the reach of most people. Just the same, to resist or cast off a false self was an achievement, possibly a kind of heroism. The Wild Duck is a tragedy which faintly foreshadows the late twentieth-century mode of piteous comedy, about a group of people most of whom cannot breach a structure of ego-defences. But to rid oneself of such a structure was to Ibsen, as to Freud, a proper goal. In future plays the person who manages this stands forth as hero, admirable despite failings, and more often than not, the discovery of self necessarily coincides with death. That is not modern humanism but more nearly ancient tragedy. [p. 68]

May also repudiates the notion that Ibsen endorsed Relling’s viewpoint, which goes against Ibsen’s lifelong favoring of exceptional individuals.

Hjalmar is a poseur in all his actions; Gina is the exact opposite.

The author continues with his psychoanalysis of Ibsen.

The duck “is the nicest conceivable image of the wounded psyche held fast in fantasy or madness.”

COMMENTARY: There is too much psychoanalysis in this book, but there are some insightful analyses, e.g. the contrast between Shaw and Ibsen revealed in Shaw’s ideological treatise The Quintessence of Ibsenism (that chapter which see).

Moretti, Franco. “The Grey Area: Ibsen and the Spirit of Capitalism,” New Left Review 61, January-February 2010, pp. 117-131.

“No other writer has focused so single-mindedly on the bourgeois world.” No class conflict here: “No workers, because the conflict Ibsen wants to focus on is not that between the bourgeoisie and another class, but that internal to the bourgeoisie itself.” Ibsen has intuited something intrinsic to bourgeois life: “what’s characteristic of Ibsen’s wrongdoings is that they inhabit an elusive grey area whose nature is never completely clear.” The grey area is, of course, that which is not unambiguously illegal, but not ethical or moral either. “And there is no redemption, for Ibsen’s defeated: the victims of capitalism, yes, but its bourgeois victims, made of exactly the same clay as their oppressors.” The Wild Duck is discussed among other plays. Ibsen’s world is characterized as claustrophobic. All there is is bourgeois life, and there is no resolution to its contradictions. Adorno and Joyce are cited. From the characters Moretti moves to Ibsen’s metaphors. Moretti persistently poses the question: “What has the bourgeoisie brought to the world?” The belated arrival of capitalism and the sudden, clear ascendancy of the bourgeoisie in Norway accounts for Ibsen’s penetration into its contradictory essence, the early rationality of capitalism and its subsequent “creative destruction.” The conclusion: “Recognizing the impotence of bourgeois realism in the face of capitalist megalomania: here lies Ibsen’s unforgettable political lesson.”

Oppenheim, Jonathan. Finding the Poem Inside the Play: Robert Brustein’s Theory and Practice of Ibsen’s Drama. Master’s thesis, The Centre for Ibsen Studies, University of Oslo, Spring 2008.

Criticism has overlooked the American contribution to Ibsen in theater. Brustein’s emphasis is on staging and performance as well as the reading and interpretation of the plays. Brustein is a devoted Ibsenite, interested in apolitical revolt from an individualist perspective rather than social revolution. Brustein opposed Arthur Miller, another self-proclaimed devotee of Ibsen, differing with him on the nature of causality in Ibsen. Brustein’s quasi-mentor Eric Bentley incorporated Marxism into his criticism and urged Brustein to follow suit. Brustein was also influenced by Joseph Wood Krutch at Columbia University. Another influence was Lionel Trilling.

Oppenheim reviews Norwegian scholarship. Brustein goes along with a development in this line in which the critic highlights the presence of nature of Ibsen’s plays and endeavors to liberate Ibsen from the confines of realism. There was a Norwegian debate whether to view Ibsen’s plays as idealistic or ironic. Brustein leans toward the idealist perspective. Brustein rejected the attribution of any Christian perspective in Ibsen. Brustein also attacked the perspective of guilt and expiation, which he found also in Miller.

Productions of seven of Ibsen’s plays are reviewed in this thesis, one of which is The Wild Duck. The play was staged naturalistically until Ingmar Bergman’s 1972 production. Reviewing this, Brustein had not yet rejected the notion of causality in Ibsen, noting Ibsen’s use of symbolism and notions of heredity. His view had changed by the time he directed The Wild Duck for the Yale Repertory Theater in 1978. His watchword to his cast was “All the Ibsen plays have a poem. We must find the poem in this play.” Brustein’s approach was different from that of both Bergman and Peter Zadek’s Marxist interpretation in his 1975 production in Hamburg. Brustein was influenced by Susan Sontag’s On Photography. Brustein wrote: “The kind of realism he [Ibsen] had invented for his “modern” plays was itself a form of photography in that it imposed a documentary surface over an essentially poetic vision.” Brustein’s staging of the play is described in detail. The acting was also tailored to Brustein’s vision. Brustein had changed his central interpretation of the play from causality and hereditary blindness to a critique of certainty. Brustein had to preserve ambiguity despite his own opinion of the “facts” of the drama, e.g. Haakon Werle’s guilt and the source of Hedvig’s blindness. The staging of the loft where the duck resides and Hedvig’s suicide are also significant.

COMMENTARY: There is not much to go on viz. the interpretation of The Wild Duck without reading Brustein’s writings. The only thing I know about him is his antagonism to August Wilson. While I would avoid shallow politicization of both artistic works and criticism, Brustein’s overall world view looks reactionary to me and not adequate for expanding on Ibsen’s significance.

Plekhanov, G.V. “Ibsen, Petty Bourgeois Revolutionist” (1891, published 1908), translated by Emily Kent, Lola Sachs, & Pearl Waskow, in Ibsen, edited by Angel Flores (New York: Critics Group, 1937).

COMMENTARY: Plekhanov is very good here, but there is one thing missing. Especially noteworthy is his attack on symbolism, which happens to be key to what I am after. And he is partially correct about symbolism. Read in full what he says; here I note this passage:

The history of literature shows that man has always used one or the other of these means to transcend a particular reality. He employs the first (i.e. symbols) when he is unable to grasp the meaning of that particular reality, or when he cannot accept the conclusion to which the development of that reality leads. He resorts to symbols when he cannot solve difficult, sometimes insoluble problems; when (to use Hegel’s happy expression) he is not able to utter those magic words which bring to life a picture of the future. Thus the ability to utter those magic words is a sign of power, while inability to do so is a sign of weakness. And so in art, when an artist leans toward symbolism it is an infallible sign that his thinking – or the thinking of the class which he represents, in the sense of its social development – does not dare penetrate the reality which lies before his eyes.

But symbolism needs to be unpacked, and the objective content of a work, when released from the bondage of the author’s limitations, may reveal something beyond the author’s subjective intentions. Specifically to this case, the question is whether the inadequacy of symbolism pertains to Ibsen’s characters or to Ibsen himself. The Wild Duck is a key test case for these issues. It is seen as symbolic, yet when I saw the play I concluded that objectively it is a denunciation of mythical thinking, of symbolism itself.

Shaw, (George) Bernard. The Quintessence of Ibsenism; Now Completed to the Death of Ibsen. New York: Hill and Wang, 1963. 3rd ed., orig. 1922. (1st ed., 1891; 2nd ed., 1913). See Preface to the Third Edition (1922).

Here is how Shaw’s analysis of the play begins:

The household to which we are introduced in The Wild Duck is not, like Mrs Alving’s, a handsome one made miserable by superstitious illusions, but a shabby one made happy by romantic illusions. The only member of it who sees it as it really is is the wife, a good natured Philistine who desires nothing better.

COMMENTARY: I saw a few other Ibsen plays, decades ago. My only prior engagement with his body of work as a whole was reading Shaw’s book 40 years ago, which stuck in my memory for Shaw’s condemnation of idealism (to which he would later regress) and his demonstration of Ibsen’s opposition to same. The wife, Gina, is indeed the only one who sees it as it really is. Perhaps due to the way the character was played in the performance I attended, I did not get the impression of Gina being a Philistine per se, though she was no intellectual. I thought she was wonderful. I had no emotional reaction at all to the play until the moment when she realized she was in danger of exposure. She had been manipulated into what for her and her former employer was a marriage of convenience, but the deceptive nature of the arrangement resulted in something that looked authentic to me; that is, she was not merely an opportunist, but a genuinely caring woman making the best practical decisions that could be made under prevailing conditions. And, let me add, not a bourgeois.

Van Laan, Thomas F. “The Novelty of The Wild Duck: The Author’s Absence,” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Fall 1986, pp. 17-33.

Ibsen himself emphasized the divergence of The Wild Duck from his earlier plays. He also predicted that the play would keep the critics busy attempting to determine its meaning. Critics tended to focus on one or another striking aspect of the play: symbolism, rebellion, tragicomedy, the use of questionable characters, or violation of theatrical conventions. Hermann J. Weigand noted that sympathy for the ostensible protagonist Gregers Werle is withdrawn and asserted that, the symbolism of the wild duck was mainly intended to portray Gregers, in Van Laan’s words, as “the symbol-mongerer who is the essential source of the duck’s very status as a symbol.” Van Laan sees a major novelty in Ibsen’s deliberate erasure of his own views from any expressed by the characters. The device of the raisonneur—a character voicing an author’s views—is not identifiable in The Wild Duck, though the critic Maurice Valency judged the cynic Dr. Relling as the raisonneur. Van Laan argues that it is impossible to side with either Relling or Gregers. Another major innovation of this play is that the ostensible protagonist shifts in the course of the drama. John Chamberlain concludes that the play has no protagonist. Van Laan turns his attention to the discourse of the characters. Then there is the question of genre: the play is “the first modern tragicomedy.” Ibsen also achieves disorientation through shifts in setting.

Finally, there is the question of symbolism, particularly the status of the wild duck as symbol:

The duck, in other words, is not a symbol in the proper sense but a kind of Jamesian central reflector, itself remaining opaque while—like the attic that houses it—vividly reflecting the sensibilities of the various characters who view it. In fact, because the symbolizing of the duck comes from Gregers, we are cautioned that symbolization is not the play’s method but his, and therefore a method we should be suspicious of. Even worse, Gregers’ penchant for symbolizing, as it transfers to Hjalmar, and as Gregers imposes it on Hedvig, is the primary cause of the disaster in the play; and for this reason, symbolizing is defined not only as dubious but as evil.

However, there are other symbolic elements, not all of which emanate from the characters. Van Laan:

Thus, some signals in the play warn us against symbolization, while others encourage it, and this can only bewilder. It makes it impossible to know how to respond to apparent symbols, especially what seems to be the ultimate symbol of the play, the highly visible parody of the Christian narrative that has been spotted by several commentators, in most detail by Brian Johnston.

There is uncertainty even about the basic facts of the situation.

The Wild Duck contains no such certainty, about either the basic facts of the initial situation or some of the major facts of the action arising from it. As several commentators have shown in detail, all important facts concerning the past remain shrouded in ambiguity and uncertainty […]

The pattern of action established by Ibsen in previous plays is undercut in this one.

In sum, Ibsen’s subversion of all dramatic conventions, his previous ones as well as general conventions, lead toward an “open vision,” beyond Ibsen’s previous consolidation of dramatic realism. Even with mythical elements added, Ibsen actually deepened the realism of his drama.

In his previous plays, Ibsen had tended to create actions designed to expose and disable certain “transcendental essences” that he felt to be invalid. In The Wild Duck, he created a fully “open” action that is bound to expose and disable any and all transcendental essences that its viewers—both those within the play and the subsequent commentators on it—might be disposed to read into this action.

Endnote 2 cites some key critical viewpoints. One suggestion is that, while Ibsen absents his own perspective from the play, the uncertainty built into it actually reinforces the drawing of attention back to the author. The symbolism of the duck itself has drawn the lion’s share of attention in attempting to determine Ibsen’s attention. Various critical viewpoints cited assert that the duck is a focal point for the different perspectives of the characters rather than holding a specific meaning in itself. Note Robert Brustein’s contention that “it is the only play in which Ibsen completely denies the validity of revolt.”

COMMENTARY: Key points made here confirm the conclusions I drew from watching the play without previous exposure to the critical literature. The one absence I detect in the treatment of all the characters, including the question of the protagonist, is precisely that character that I found central to the play: Gina. The only comment made about Gina, that she is incapable of thinking symbolically, is crucial, but the implications of that fact as well as her character are not explored.

Williams, Raymond. Drama, from Ibsen to Eliot. London: Chatto & Windus, 1952. Part I: Chapter I: Henrik Ibsen; pp. 41-97. Extracts: pp. 73, 75-78, 81, 96-97. Written and/or revised between 1947 and 1950.

Williams argues against the tradition of Ibsenism popularized by George Bernard Shaw and others. He sees a continuity and unity in Ibsen’s oeuvre rather than breaks or stages, the basis being the notions of debt and vocation. Williams also sees expressionism as an outgrowth of naturalism, which in turn came about because of the deficiencies of Romanticism. The changes in Ibsen’s playwrighting are linked to a search for the perfection of dramatic form, which Williams sees as only partially successful. Note the extracts substantively addressing The Wild Duck.

______________. Modern Tragedy. London: Chatto & Windus, 1966. See the chapter “From Hero to Victim: the Making of Liberal Tragedy, to Ibsen and Miller.”

Williams sets the stage for the development of bourgeois theater with the decline of feudalism, and how it morphs into the lone heroic individual against a corrupt society, individualistic but also socially oriented. This gives historical context to the development of Ibsen’s drama, which itself ends in an impasse. The Wild Duck is not mentioned. The conclusion to the treatment of Ibsen:

[When We Dead Awaken: Epilogue:] It is the final tragic recognition: that the self, which is all that is known as desire, leads away from fulfilment, and to its own breakdown.

From this recognition, there is no way out, within the liberal consciousness. There is either the movement to common desire, common aspiration, which politically is socialism, or there is the acceptance, reluctant at first but strengthening and darkening, of failure and breakdown as common and inevitable. In one way or the other, a total condition is asserted, and the differentiated self becomes dramatically rare. It is true that Shaw, in Saint Joan and elsewhere, could retain the simpler pattern, of the heroic and liberating individual destroyed by a false society. Numerically, many other plays have repeated this, but, at least in European drama, this pattern has commonly failed to include any of the deepest human energies and problems. The heroic individual, as in Shaw, survives only as a romantic portrait, emptied of personality so that the positive role can be played without complications. The act of liberation, correspondingly, is in the narrow sense historical or political; it is not an absolute human demand, but a limited cause here and there. The problem of the frustrated individual is masked by his theatrical transformation into a movement, leaving all the deeper problems, of history and personality, untouched.

The mainstream of tragedy has gone elsewhere: into the self-enclosed, guilty and isolated world of the breakdown of liberalism. We shall need to trace this through its complicated particular phases. But, with Ibsen in mind, it is worth looking briefly at the plays of Arthur Miller, who represents, essentially, a late revival of liberal tragedy, on the edge (but only on the edge) of its transformation into socialism. What distinguishes Miller from the majority contemporary drama of guilt and breakdown is the retained consciousness of a false society, an alterable condition.

______________. The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists, edited and introduced by Tony Pinkney. London; New York: Verso, 1989. See the essay “Theatre as a Political Forum” (1988), pp. 81-94. See esp. pp. 85-86.

To understand the rejection of naturalism, one must see how bourgeois theatre developed, what was innovative about naturalism, and why naturalism had to escape beyond the confines of the bourgeois living room.

Young, Robin. “Ibsen and Comedy,” in The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen, edited by James McFarlane (Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 58-67.

Despite some recent attempts to represent it in this light, The Wild Duck (for example) cannot in any acceptable sense be described as a comedy — no play which ends with the death of a child could. Yet it contains characters and situations which are unmistakably comic; and the play’s hybrid form challenges all conventional assumptions about the nature of both tragedy and comedy. Hjalmar (obviously) and Gregers (perhaps less so) are both ridiculous: the one a weak, vain self-deceiver, the other a neurotic hero-worshipper and prophet of self-knowledge whose awareness of other people and of his own inner motives is fatally skewed. Each character in his own sphere — Gregers up at the ironworks brooding on family wrongs and presenting the Claims of the Ideal to the startled peasantry; Hjalmar lording it over his womenfolk, nourishing the self-delusions which sustain him and stunt Gina and Hedvig — is relatively harmless. But their individual weaknesses, combined, have the power to exert enormous pressure on those around them. The nonsense Gregers spouts has a terrible plausibility to the vulnerable Hedvig; and the special disturbing power of the play derives from the complexities of the audience’s response to a process which is, at different levels, both tragic and absurd.

Gregers’ self-deception is funny; its consequences are not. It is the particular task of the Ibsen-interpreter, in the study as in the theatre, to hold these two modes of seeing in balance. Even the temptation to play Hjalmar for laughs must be avoided scrupulously, as Ibsen himself emphasized: ‘This part must definitely not be rendered with any touch of parody . . . His sentimentality is genuine, his melancholy charming in its way...’ Genuine, charming, dangerous - at least in conjunction with Gregers, for it is Hjalmar’s innocence that makes him so apt and malleable an instrument for his friend’s destructive neuroses. ‘The ringing laughter grows harsh and hollow, and notes of ineffable sadness escape from the poet’s Stoic self-restraint’ — C. H. Herford’s comments on Love's Comedy have unmistakable relevance for the significance of the comic in Ibsen’s drama as a whole. In each of the later plays the relationship between tragic and absurd is subtly different. But it is always present, a vital determinant of the play’s mood, a touchstone of the playwright’s sceptical, questioning view of the world. Any production or interpretation which does not keep this in mind must fail to take the measure of his dramatic method. [pp. 65-66]

Other offsite web pages:

The Wild Duck - Wikipedia

Ibsen Society of America

Annotated Ibsen Bibliography, 1983-2009, from Ibsen News and Comment

18-Year-Old James Joyce Writes a Fan Letter to His Hero Henrik Ibsen (1901)

The Quintessence of Ibsenism, Preface to 3rd edition
by George Bernard Shaw

Ibsen & the problem of ideological decay
[extract] by Georg Lukács

Raymond Williams on Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck (1952)

The bourgeois living room drama: from Naturalism to Expressionism (1988)
by Raymond Williams

Anti-Nietzsche (5)

Ibsen & Hitler?

Georg Lukács’ The Destruction of Reason: Selected Bibliography

Theodor W. Adorno & Critical Theory Study Guide


On George Bernard Shaw
on R. Dumain’s Reason & Society blog

The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1913 ed.)
by George Bernard Shaw

Drama, from Ibsen to Eliot
by Raymond Williams

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