The Wild Duck is the most complex and thought-provoking play of our season, and it has raised more than a few questions from our audience members. Many of these cannot and perhaps should not be answered with complete certainty, but here are two things you might want to know.
What's all this about "the thirteenth man" at the table?
This turns out to be a very old superstition, dating at least as far back as Jesus when Judas was notoriously the 13th disciple at the Last Supper. Since ancient times, 12 has always been a good magic number: the 12 Gods of Olympus, the 12 Knights of the Round Table, etc. Adding another is not only odd, it upsets dining arrangements (a large table will comfortably seat 5 on each side and 1 at each end). But more than this, the addition of a 13th person in a group of 12 was seen as a portent bad luck, and even of death. An old Norse legend tells how the gods sat down to dinner and a 13th uninvited god (Loki) turned up, which led to a series of apocalyptic unprecedented very bad disasters.
So Hakon Werle, at the beginning of the play, is distressed to find there were 13 at the dinner party he gave for his son and fiancee. He is an old man, going blind, with a guilty conscience, very aware of his imminent mortality. He implies that it is son's guest, Hjalmar Ekdal, who is the 13th man. But at the end of the play, we learn the 13th man is someone else entirely.
What's the big deal about "sacrifice"?
Gregers Werle, the play's crusading idealist and the man with a mission, tends to talk about the importance of making a sacrifice at critical moments in the play. According to Arnold Weinstein, the author of the fine book Northern Arts, the source of this can be found in Kierkegaard's most influential work, Fear and Trembling, which discusses the radical significance of Abraham's decision to sacrifice his own son-- a decision which Kierkegaard suggests was deeply irrational, unnatural, and made in immense anxiety in defiance of all standard codes of behavior.
Rembrandt van Rijn, "Sacrifice of Isaac," 1635
Yet such a radical commitment is exactly what real faith demands, and radical behavior is what is required if we are to annihilate old forms that close us in and keep us from being truly free. When Gregers invites young Hedwig to sacrifice what is most precious to her to demonstrate her love, he is following in the philosopher's footsteps. So yes, it is a big deal, none bigger!