Let's imagine a little family living together on the top floor of an apartment at the turn of the 20th century. The father is a sweet guy who likes his beer, his cheese, his wife and his daughter, not necessarily in that order. Actually he likes his daughter best of all, and she utterly adores him. Gina, the wife, is a terrific domestic manager who keeps the household together while her husband muses on his great invention, which he is sure to perfect very soon. And in the evenings after dinner, they all gather around the stove while daddy plays the flute. They are not a rich family. They are not well dressed. They are not important. But they are content with one another and happy with their time.
So what could possibly go wrong? Well, it's true the daughter is losing her eyesight— but not rapidly. All they need is a little help—their Uncle Scrooge, perhaps, turning up with a large turkey and offers of medical assistance. And in fact, unexpectedly, a fellow does knock on their door, the son of a wealthy tycoon, and he wants to help too. He was the father's best friend long ago, and when he offers to rent the spare room and takes a personal interest in the family it seems he will only enhance the general welfare. But since this is a play by Henrik Ibsen and not a Christmas story by Charles Dickens, you might have your doubts about his contributions. And you would be right to have these doubts, because this friend turns out to be almost as helpful as that notorious good old boy named Iago.
Writing a hundred years ago, when more people saw Shakespeare on the page than on stage, the great critic A.C. Bradley said of Othello that "the reader's heart and mind are held in a vise, experiencing the extremes of pity and fear, sympathy and repulsion, sickening hope and dreadful expectation." I've seen exactly this response to Iago's malevolent manipulations in our own theater. Many years ago I saw a friend, a judge, on his way out of our production at intermission. Why was he leaving, I asked? He said he couldn't stand it. "That bad?" I asked. "No— I've just seen too many guys like that in my courtroom. It's too much for me."
When I last saw The Wild Duck (in London seven years ago) I had the same degree of intense reaction the judge and Bradley had to Othello. The play begins rather slowly; Ibsen is famous for taking time establishing his characters and past history. His web is meticulous and complex. But almost imperceptibly the play's dreadful momentum is upon us. I remember sitting in the first row of the balcony in the fourth act, leaning forward, gripping the rail, and having to restrain my urge to jump on stage and say, "STOP!" Really, not even in Shakespeare had a play gripped me so tightly. It was wonderful.
So The Wild Duck is a thrilling play; a thriller. A crime is going to be committed, a monstrous crime, perpetuated by a villain as determined and almost as persuasive as Iago, and we watch as he puts his victims in his vise and turns. They are held and squeezed, nearly suffocated, and so are we. But Ibsen's perpetuator is not, like Iago, a gleefully malevolent villain. Gregers Werle would never confess so much of himself. He comes to the house to save the Ekdal family, not to destroy them. He is the opposite of a cynic; he's an idealist and a crusader in the cause of truth. In his own mind, he is the hero.
As always in Ibsen—and perhaps in most families—there are secrets. Gradually we learn this happy little family is floating on a muddy sea of deception that has been long suppressed. Gregers Werle is determined to bring these buried truths into the light of day, thinking in the end their revelation will only provide the Ekdals with a firmer foundation for their future. But this is a family whose capacity for the harsher light of day is limited. They prefer group denial to group therapy. Instead of facing facts, even the less pleasant facts of daily life, grandfather, father and daughter escape to their magic kingdom, a play forest they have created in their attic, filled with trees and animals, books, lost treasure and God knows what. They have a great time there, and go as often as they can, especially to look after the kingdom's most precious inhabitant, a wild duck they rescued after it was shot and wounded.
This duck is no ordinary duck; it is, as you might have guessed, A VERY IMPORTANT SYMBOL. Ibsen made sure we understood this since about every three minutes someone happens to mention THE WILD DUCK living in her basket in the next room. When I met with the play's excellent recent translator, David Eldridge, I asked him if and how he changed the original script. He said very little, apart from deleting maybe 37 of the 52 references to the bird in question. So perhaps we’d better consider this wild fowl, which our playwright thinks so much of.
In the play, we learn the duck was shot by Greger's father. The bird was only wounded, and it did what we are told wild ducks always do in these circumstances: it dove to the bottom, and hung on to some seaweed, never to rise again. But the hunter's ferocious dog went down after it and fetched it back up again. And now the duck lies quietly in state, doted on by Hedwig, who has claimed the bird as her own.
I will leave to you to work out the symbolic permutations— they are manifold. You might also guess, if you know your Ibsen, that this duck is a goner. But she will not be the most terrible casualty of our idealist's ferocious crusade for truth. Indeed the entire Ekdal sanctuary of escape and illusion will soon become a barren and lifeless pile of debris—a mere attic you might say.
Ibsen was of many minds about truth and its consequences. Three years earlier he had written An Enemy of the People, featuring another idealist, a chemist who wants to warn his town their water supply is polluted. In that play, the truth is also not welcome, since it threatens the town's material prosperity. But the truth-teller himself is clearly a man to be admired. In a final moment the hero, the enemy of the people, asserts, "the strongest man in the world is he who stands alone."
Gregers Werle is also a strong man standing alone and apart, standing for Truth. Or is that actually true? Could there be something less wholesome than the “claim of the ideal” driving him doggedly on? In The Wild Duck, truth hits home in the hardest imaginable way. Gregers in some ways reminds us of his great Viennese contemporary, Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, who also believed the truth could set us free. And while Freudian theories are still hotly contested, this basic presumption now has the force of received wisdom: face reality, and move on; you may be battered but you will be stronger. That may not be the case with Gregers’ hapless patient, Hjalmar Ekdal, who may arouse both your sympathy and fury during the course of his “treatment.”
It’s just a quiet little play, really, about ordinary people. But it’s a masterpiece, and more than that, it’s a knockout. You are likely to leave both stunned and angry—and not quite as confident in the necessity of dragging the truth, the whole truth and nothing but, into the cold light of day. Welcome to Norway. When the play begins, at a tycoon’s supper party, you will hardly know you are putting your heart in a vise, but I predict you will soon find yourself full of sickening hope and dreadful expectation. It’s a terrible thing. It’s absolutely stunning.