Hunting The Wild Duck
I first got into Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck while reading Shyness & Dignity by Dag Solstad (I’m sure you all remember my review – 3 out of 4 people find it useful on Amazon!) which begins with the main character having a moment of true insight about the play, leading to further epiphanies about his life and a sort of existential breakdown. I freely admit that I was totally unfamiliar with the play, which is considered his masterpiece in Scandinavia, but much less well known in the English speaking world. Ibsen’s always been on the wrong side of one of those (perhaps false) dichotomies that anchor my critical thinking – sort of as the Beatles to Strindberg’s Stones, but when I was genuinely moved by the movie version of The Wild Duck I thought I might have to reassess that opinion and, who knows, maybe the whole Hegelian dialectic way of thinking.
Fortunately, my rickety conceptual edifice remained intact, thanks to the fortuitous find at the Kiwanis rummage sale of The Modern Ibsen by Hermann J. Weigand. In his essay on the play Weigand writes:
"The Wild Duck" is an instance of the most remarkable self-discipline imposed on a dramatist upon a very active part of his self. The moralist is for once put under lock and key, securely gagged and bound…
The operative phrase for me is "for once" – in other words, even the Beatles could come up with a good song, even if they’re not fit to carry Keith Richards’s guitar strap. It is the oh so P.C., social reforming, issue oriented Ibsen that’s celebrated in the Anglo world, while it’s these very tendencies, in what I admit is a brilliant act of self-examination, whose destructive consequences are exposed in the play.
I’ll also admit that I saw the movie before I actually read the play, but that’s not as bad as a high schooler watching The Tale of Two Cities instead of reading it – plays are meant to be performed, after all, and I usually don’t enjoy reading them. The 1983 production of The Wild Duck packs an emotional punch, despite the murky set looking like it was light by candle light. The cast is very good, especially Liv Ullmann, who plays earth mother Gina. The usually excellent Jeremy Irons is unfortunately miscast as Hjalmar (here called Harold) – he’s just too lean and hungry to play a complacent, flabby blowhard. (UBU much more resembles the part!)
I finally did read the play in the handy Dover Thrift Edition ($2.00 in USA), and it made me appreciate the job the film makers did in adapting it and opening it up. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great play and a competent stage production would probably blow me away, but on the page Ibsen’s programmatic nature and idiosyncracies come through, and the necessary compression of the stage piles the conflicting emotions on a little too quickly.
Here’s one of my favorite parts, the good lines given, as usual, to Doctor Relling:
Oh, individuality – he! If he ever had any tendency to the abnormal developments you call individuality, I can assure you it was rooted out of him while he was still in his teens.
And, to bring me back to the beginning, it’s Relling, a minor but pivotal character who is the focus of the obsession of Elias Rukla, the protagonist of Shyness and Dignity, and the subject of his shattering insight, which, now that I’m actually familiar with The Wild Duck, doesn’t seem all that brilliant to me, folding back in turn to lay another level of irony on Solstad’s work.
Dag, this literary stuff can get pretty heavy, huh?
For another psycho-biographical look at The Wild Duck check this rave out:
This is the kind of Academic that’s teaching your children, people!
While UBU’s just sitting here – watching the river flow…