The following article is reprinted from Iconoclasts: A Book of Dramatists. James Huneker. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1907.
Henrik Ibsen's The Wild Duck followed An Enemy of the People and preceded Rosmersholm, and is linked by similar inner motives, so these plays really can be grouped as a trilogy. Stockmann, the energetic denouncer of public dishonesty, is now Gregers Werle, just as earnest and sincere in his claims for the ideal and in his strictures upon the erring. But from what a different point of view, with what different results! If Stockmann is a public-spirited reformer, Werle is a sneak and a nuisance. Yet the two men's ideals coincide. Why this shifting position on the part of Ibsen?
A period of depression, consequent upon his uninterrupted labours and their seeming futility, may have been one reason; the other is probably because Ibsen, charged with the spirit of bitter mockery and in a pessimistic humour, wished to show the obverse of his medal. From Brand to Stockmann his idealists had been heaven-stormers. Well, here is a heaven-stormer, an idealist, who is a dangerous man because he tells the truth. Is it well to blurt out the truth on all occasions? The result of this thesis is one of the most entertaining, one of the most tragic, of Ibsen's plays.
The Wild Duck has several drawbacks, the chief being the confusing mixture of satire and tragedy; the satire almost oversteps the limitations of satire, the tragic emphasis seems to be placed at the wrong spot. The two qualities mingle indifferently. And the act ends are not satisfying; they lack climax, especially after the catastrophe. But the dialogue, as in The League of Youth, is an admirable transcript from life. Each character speaks; nothing sounds as if written. The glory of The Wild Duck is its characterization. Even the implacable Dr. Nordau praises Gina Ekdal, calling her a female Sancho Panza. The comparison is a happy one, for her husband, Hjalmar Ekdal, is a Don Quixote of shreds and patches, a weak, vain, boastful, gluttonous, shiftless fellow, and, of course, an idealist. He raves of the ideal, and he is kept to an insane pitch of cloudy self-exaltation by Gregers Werle, who, discovering that Gina was a former mistress of his father, tells Ekdal with dire results. The little Hedwig, the most touching in Ibsen's gallery of children, is also worked upon by the mischief maker, so that she kills herself from a spirit of sacrifice--more of Werle's idealism.
Ekdal talks grandiloquently about shattered honour to Gina, who bids him eat bread, drink coffee--he has been out all night airing his woes to the storm. The woman's homely wit, solid common sense, and big heart are given with satisfying ferisimilitude. Gregers' father, and his housekeeper, Mrs. Sörby; the garret of the photographer Ekdal, where his disgraced, old drunken father has rigged up a mock forest in which he hunts the "wild duck" and other tame fowl; the character of Relling, Ibsen again masked, whose sardonic humour, cruel on the surface, is in reality prompted by a kind heart--he makes people believe they are grander than they are and therefore makes them happier; all these figures in this amazing Vanity Fair are handled masterfully. The World-Lie is here in microscopic proportions. Every one, except the stolid, unimaginative Gina, swaggers about in the sordid admosphere of deception. Werle always makes matters worse, and on a painful note of tragedy the curtain falls. The tyranny of the ideal is clearly set forth.
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