This analysis of The Pretenders was originally published in The Continental Drama of Today. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1914. pp. 23-6.
Although the play is founded upon incidents taken from early history, and the main facts in it are authentic, much has been added by the poet; chiefly the motivation of the leading characters. The Pretenders is a considerable advance over The Vikings, the historical play that preceeded it; the characters are more strikingly individual, the story is well told, yet more intricate. Because of its essentially dramatic form, its subject-matter, and its literary style, the play is by some critics considered Ibsen's finest dramatic achievement.
This play is concerned primarily with the characters of Skule and Hakon: Skule, the king by actual right, Hakon the king "by confidence." The author has taken an old story and put a distinctly modern theme into it. Bishop Nicholas says to Skule, "The right is his [Hakon's], for he is the fortunate one; 'tis even the summit of fortune, to have the right. But by what right has Hakon the right, and not you?" This is the central idea of the play.
Observe how the "atmosphere" is created in the opening scene. The setting, the crowds in the street, the incident of the ordeal, all combine to give the spirit in which the action is to take place.
As in practically all plays, a scene of less tension follows one of storm and stress; note how the scene between Lady Ragnhild and Margrete releases the tension created by the preceding one. Note, too, how the conversation between these two contains a good deal of exposition. This colloquy gives the audience what information it is necessary they should know in order to understand what is happening, or going to happen.
Notice how scenes are contrasted throughout the play.
The scene just referred to -- that between Lady Ragnhild and Margrete -- contains a good deal of repetition. This is done in order that the audience may not miss an important point. Scribe is said to have repeated all his important points three times, and it is safe to say that all successful playwrights have acted on the principle that to state a fact once is not sufficient. Another good example of this is found throughout Sir Arthur Pinero's The Thunderbolt.
Most plays do not actually begin the moment the curtain rises; time is necessary to introduce the chief characters and tell something of the past. In nearly every play it is easy to detect just where the action begins. Where in The Pretenders does exposition stop and the story, or action begin?
One of the commonly observed "laws" of playwriting is, Never keep a secret too long from the audience. A usual method to this end is to drop hints early in the play as to what is going to occur. In Pinero's Mid-Channel Zoe Blundell says, "You'll see, when I put an end to myself, it will be in the winter time." In Galsworthy's Justice, Falder says to Ruth, "It is too late" [to stay, i.e.]. These are examples of foreshadowing, or giving the audience some inkling of what is to happen later. Bishop Nicholas, in The Pretenders, says, "Ever on your guard, Good Dagfinn -- ever on your guard." Find other examples of foreshadowing in the present play.
It is the function of every first act -- and of every other save the last -- to throw out some hint of what is to follow in the next; very few acts can stand independently and give no clue to the story to come. It is usually toward the end of the act that such indications are found. They are in the nature of a "Continued in our next," and serve as building links in the story.
At the end of the second act of Björnson's The Gauntlet, Christenson says, "Then it is to be war? -- Well, I fancy I know a thing or two about war," and goes out. That speech and the manner in which it is delivered, arouse the interest of the audience, so that they eagerly await the next act. Another good example is at the end of the first act of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan, where Lady Windermere declares her intention of striking Mrs. Erlynne over the face if she comes to the reception. In The Pretenders, Hakon says, "At last, then, I am King of Norway," and Earl Skule replies, "But I rule the realm." If it were not for this disquieting remark, the first act might almost stand as a complete one-act play.
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