Wednesday, 20 June 2001

Henrik Ibsen: The Pillars of the Community (1877)

Translation: Una Ellis-Fermor, 1950 (Buy from Amazon)
Edition: Penguin, 1964
Review number: 844

Also known in English as The Pillars of Society, this play is really the start of the series of plays with social messages which so scandalised nineteenth century Europe. It is a vicious attack on the complacent hypocrisy of Norwegian small town society, especially on the "it couldn't happen here" attitude taken towards the scandals of the wider world.

Karsten Bernick runs a shipping firm in a coastal town, an important business as the railway doesn't yet pass through it. His wealth and eminence is based on a lie; by pretending that his family's rumoured hidden wealth (in fact non-existent) had been stolen by his brother in law Johan T&oumlaut;nnesen, who emigrated to the US, he was able to persuade creditors that he was suffering only a temporary loss and compound with them until his business became more healthy. No one, not even his wife, knows the truth, but now T&oumlaut;nnesen is returning to Norway. At the same time, two other scandals seem to be about to break; the railway is coming, and Bernick has bought the land along its route cheaply, standing to make a huge profit; and he has accepted work at his shipyard that cannot possibly be done in the time allowed, which means that shoddy repairs are likely to lead to loss of life.

It is not just Bernick who is a hypocrite; all of this around him who might be considered pillars of the community, are really as bad. The only honest adult among the characters native to the town is Bernick's foreman Aune, and he is forced by the threat of dismissal to make the poor quality ship repairs against his better judgment.

One of Ibsen's themes is the passing of corruption from father to son, and it can be seen in a mild form in this play in Olaf, Bernick's son, who is keen to travel, to take part in the modern world, and at one point is thought to have stowed away on the dangerous ship.

The main purpose of the play is the attack on the complacent superiority of the relatively unsophisticated Norwegian bourgeois, and it succeeds admirably, paving the way for the greater plays to come.

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