Monday, 27 April 1998

Henrik Ibsen: The Wild Duck (1884)

Translation: Michael Meyer (Methuen, 1961) /Una Ellis-Fermor (Penguin, 1959)
Edition: Methuen, 1961 / Penguin, 1959
Review number: 35

The Meyer translation of this play is one of his poorest, and leaves it quite difficult to understand what it is about at all, even when familiar with several of Ibsen's plays. Ellis-Fermor makes it much clearer, partly because the Penguin Classics translations are principally intended to be read rather than performed.

The Wild Duck tells the story of two families, the Werles and Ekdals. The Ekdals are poor, Old Ekdal having been ruined in business by Haakon Werle. The young, idealistic Gregers, son of Haakon Werle comes to stay with the Ekdals after a quarrel with his father. He is aware, though the Ekdals are not, that Gina, wife of his contemporary Hjalmar Ekdal, was previously his father's mistress and that is why Hjalmar was provided with the funds to enable him to set himself up as a photographer. He reveals his knowledge, for he believes that no true marriage can be based on a lie as this one has been, and this causes the destruction of the household.

One of the strange things about the Ekdal household, and the idea with which The Wild Duck stops being a naturalistic play similar to the plays that had immediately preceded it, is that they have an attic containing all sorts of animals, and in particular a wild duck rescued from the hunting of Haakon Werle, unable to fly because of the injuries it received from his dog.

The other member of the household is Hjalmar and Gina's young daughter, Hedvig, who is going blind. The symbols of the wild duck and of Hedvig's blindness (due to a hereditary complaint, a common theme in Ibsen's work) are crucial to an understanding of the play. The wild duck symbolises something to do with freedom, which Old Ekdal has lost in his disgrace and which his son's household can never have because of his economic dependence on Werle. The bird has been crippled by Werle, and in its company Old Ekdal seeks his former happiness, as he carries out mock hunts, killing rabbits in the attic instead of the bears he once sought in the forest.

One thing is clear even in Meyer's translation: Ibsen was being distinctly critical of the idealistic view that ends justify means, and of insufficiently thought-out idealism. that places principles above psychological understanding. Gregers' revelations, made with excellent intentions, destroy the Ekdal family, particularly bringing misery to the innocent and doomed Hedvig, who cannot understand why her father is suddenly repulsed by her; she is too young to be told that he has just discovered that he might not be her father. The play is her tragedy, and her story is a powerful one.

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