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

In (The Wild Duck) and in Rosmersholm Ibsen perfected his own special power: the power to infuse the particular, drab, limited fact with a halo and a glory . . . Ibsen had suppressed the poet in himself but this suppressed power lights up all his writing, giving it not only the rich concentration of A Doll’s House, but the unifying cohesion of the symbolic—M. G. Bradbrook.

The rationalist students of Ibsen tried to pin a single meaning on to his symbols : was the wild duck symbolic of Hedvig or of Hjalmer or of Gregers? Was Gregers a portrait of Ibsen or was he not? No-one is likely to react in that way now.—M. G. Bradbrook.

[Footnotes: Quoted in The Ibsen Secret—Jeannette Lee. From a serious of quotations on the question of Ibsen’s symbolism.]

But perhaps for those who make a case for Ibsen’s use of symbolism in his prose plays, none of the works mentioned would be a main text. Such a text would almost certainly be The Wild Duck. This play, written in 1884, when Ibsen was 56, is frequently singled out by his critics as his greatest work.

Ibsen wrote of it to his publisher:

The characters, in this play, despite their many frailties, have, in the course of our long daily association, endeared themselves to me. However, I hope they will also find good and kind friends among the great reading-public, and not least among the player-folk, to whom they all, without exception, offer problems worth the solving. [1]

The play does as much as the fully naturalist play could ever do. It presents a richly assorted selection of characters, an interesting plot, and a high sgtrain of emotion. The play is very skilful, and shows the elaboration of Ibsen’s methods at this period at its most successful.

Clearly the central point for analysis is the wild duck, and its function. Now I think it is very satisfying to rebuke the rationalists for trying to “pin the symbol” onto one or other of the characters; but the quarrel one makes in this respect is not really with William Archer and his men, but with Ibsen. What is the point which Ibsen makes about the bird?

HIALMAR: She has lived in there so long now that she has for gotten her natural wild life; and it all depends on that.

The wild duck is an explicit figure for broken and frustrated lives. It is related to Hedvig:

My wild duck ; it belongs to me ;

the child who, when urged to sacrifice the wild duck to prove that she loves her father, shoots herself. Gregers tells the father, Hialmar :

You have much of the wild duck in you.

Hialmar thinks of the duck as his wife, Gina, the damaged present (the seduced maid) of the elder Wehrle :

Mr. Wehrle’s wing-broken victim.

The damaged bird is also related to the elder Ekdal, who had been ruined by Wehrle :

HIALMAR: Are you alluding to the well-nigh fatal shot that has broken my father’s wing?

It is to Wehrle that all the damage goes back :

EKDAL: He was shooting from a boat, you see, and he brought her down . . .

HEDVIG: She was hit under the wing so that she couldn’t fly.

GREGERS: And I suppose she dived to the bottom.

EKDAL: Of course. Always do that, wild ducks do. They shoot to the bottom as deep as they can get, sir, and bury themselves fast in the tangle and seaweed, and all the devil’s own mess that grows down there. And they never come up again.

GREGERS: But your wild duck came up again, Lieutenant Ekdal.

EKDAL: He had such an amazingly clever dog, your father had. And that dog—he dived in after the duck and fetched her up again.

GREGERS: [turning to HIALMAR) And then she was sent to you here.

Gregers, Wehrle’s son, becomes conscious of the debt, and sets out to pay it, in service to “the claim of the ideal.” All he does is to finish off the work which his father had begun.

Ibsen speaks of The Wild Duck as occupying

a place apart among my dramatic productions; its method of progress is in many respects divergent from that of its predecessors.

This has never been satisfactorily explained; but it would seem that the change is that the device, the “symbol”, is used at every point in the presentation. It sets the total atmosphere of the broken, frustrated people who have forgotten "their natural life”, and is the embodiment of the debt which Gregers so fatally pays. It thus covers the whole of the situation and action. In this respect it resembles the orphanage of Captain Alving or the infected baths or the unseaworthy ship. But it also does more : it is a means of definition of the main characters, who are all explicitly “revealed” in its terms. And it is this preoccupation with “character-revelation” that is the really new element of the play.

Like all such plays, the humanity it depicts is of a rather special kind. The key word, used by all its critics, is “charm.” This useful word (it can be alternated with “delicacy”) covers the two extremes of character : the pathetic, lyrical Hedvig, a charming child ; and the old caricature Ekdal, with his uniform cap and his secret drinking. There is something very conscious about this charm, an unmistakable quality of theatrical artifice. The characters laugh at each other, and we see our cue and join them. Then the laughter fades on our lips, which tremble ; a cry of pathos, a glance at the attic, and we have passed to the identity of full, lovable human beings, poised between laughter and tears. The very thing, in fact, for an evening at the theatre.

This is a difficult judgment, but I think it is true that, in spite of the substantial human emotions behind the play, the actual effect is sentimental. “We are evidently intended to accept the character’s sentimental interpretation of himself,” Mr. Eliot wrote, of the earlier sentimental drama. In The Wild Duck this process is taken further: we are evidently intended to accept the sentimental self-interpretation of all the characters in the play, the whole group. And the focus of this intention is the figure of the wild duck.

The method almost succeeds; indeed it succeeds entirely for all those who are satisfied by this essentially naturalist mode of consciousness. The difficulty is that one can see how nearly Ibsen succeeded in establishing, through the figure of the wild duck, a total form, which would achieve dramatic concentration and unity. The reason for his failure, it seems to me, is that the characters, who have, “in the course of our long daily association, endeared themselves to me,” take charge. The relaxation of judgment implied in Ibsen’s phrase made of the figure of the wild duck, not a form, within which all the emotions of the play might be controlled and valued, but simply a pressure-point for all kinds of feeling : mature and immature, genuine and calculated, precise and vague. By its very function of uniting such varieties of feeling, it prevents that process of distinction and evaluation which a play of strong, overt emotion particularly needs. The figure, that is to say, while intended to integrate the minutely observed details of the drama, integrates only at the level of theatrical effect ; its very sufficiency prevents the achievement of a more conclusive dramatic form.

1 Quoted by Archer in his Introduction (p. xviii). [—> main text]

The command to attempt emancipation from the past is insistent; it is one aspect of “vocation.” [Analysis of Rosmersholm.] But the attempt, in Ibsen, is almost certain to fail. This is the persistent pattern. In The Wild Duck, we should not have heard so much of Ibsen’s supposed repudiation of his former attitudes, if his actual work, and not merely Shaw’s exposition of it, had been sufficiently known. For Ibsen recognised, in experience, both the command to emancipation, and its consequences. Hedvig Ekdal is not the first casualty of a pursuit of truth ; there were also Brand and the Emperor Julian.

This brings me to the second part of the general revaluation. It is necessary to realise that the naturalist drama which Ibsen created was a legitimate child of the romantic drama in which he began his writing. The making of naturalist drama was, of course, a necessary thing, for the romantic drama had lost its vitality. But the naturalist drama which Ibsen fashioned out of his inheritance retained one of the very causes of the devitalisation. The over-emphasis on “action” and on “character”, which had made of them virtually absolute dramatic ends, independent of a larger form, was carried over into naturalism. This was the weakness of the new prose play, and it is a weakness which the successors of Ibsen have exaggerated. Ibsen himself, as he gained experience, tried to overcome the defect. His later work, beginning perhaps with The Wild Duck, represents an attempt to achieve a new unity of form. This is the reason, first, for the development of concepts—“symbols”, if the word must be retained—such as the wild duck itself, the pistols of Hedda Gabler, “Little Eyolf”, and the statue of the Resurrection ; and second, for the change in characterisation which may be noted from Hedda Gabler on to Little Eyolf and When We Dead Awaken. Ibsen’s purpose was the re-establishment of a total dramatic form, to replace the essential formlessness which had come about as a result of the exaggeration of parts of the former whole.

He never wholly achieved his purpose, perhaps because he retained one of the main forces which had caused the disintegration : the use of representational language. It is significant that his most successful work—Peer Gynt—is also the work in which he most fully uses a richer medium of language. But Peer Gynt was also an essay in a different kind of form.

The particular revaluations of plays which I have suggested confirm this essential thesis: that Ibsen inherited a drama essentially formless, in any important sense; that this very formlessness limited the success of his refinement of the drama ; but that he was always concerned to discover a new and adequate form, and at times came near to achieving it. Ibsen was a great artist, working in a tradition which was acutely inimical to art. That is the scope of his success and of his failure. It is very unfortunate that incidental aspects of his work should, from the beginning, have been over-valued and widely imitated. The change of emphasis which I have suggested allows us to see his work as a whole, in such a way that elements of it still stand as landmarks in our continuing search for a fully dramatic form. As for the work itself, parts of it—the fifth act of Brand, most of Peer Gynt, parts of Emperor and Galilean, much of Ghosts and Rosmersholm and Hedda Gabler, and again of Little Eyolf, John Gabriel Borkman and When We Dead Awaken—are great positive achievements. It is not the greatness of Shakespeare, or of Sophocles. But it is work as valid and as permanent as our century has. We must remember, in making any final act of valuation, that we are called upon to value something of which we are still a part ; something which, more than any other man, Ibsen created: the consciousness of modern European drama.

SOURCE: 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.

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