The Pillars of Society by Henrik Ibsen.

Ms. Betzonick as Lona Hessel.
1890 edition.
The Pillars of Society (Samfundets støtter; also known as The Pillars of the Community) is a play by Henrik Ibsen and was written in 1877. It's a play in four acts and it tells the story of the hypocrisies of those who are highly respected and appear to be upstanding members of the community but are in fact anything but.

The pillar of society is Karsten Bernick, essentially a big fish in a little pond: a wealthy business man and owner of a shipyard. He is revered by his fellow townsmen (this play is based in a small town on the Norwegian coast), and he has plans to sink his money into a railway building scheme that will link his town to the main line. We learn, however, that his marriage to Betty (they have a son together: Olaf) nearly didn't take place: he was in fact to marry Lona Hessel, Betty's elder half-sister, however he jilted her in favour of Betty's more generous inheritance. Furthermore, during his engagement to Betty he had a mistress and was even caught in bed with her. To save face, Bernick managed to put the blame on to Johan Tønnesen, Betty's younger brother, who was due to emigrate to America, and what's more, Bernick also spread a rumour that Tønnesen had stolen a large sum of money from the business to excuse the fact that it was failing. Once Tønnesen was in America Bernick was essentially able to carry on his life and indeed lies and become this pillar of society. However, unexpectedly, Tønnesen returns along with Lona.

From here Bernick's moral failings begin to come to light: not only his lies about Tønnesen and his jilting of Lona, but other important factors relating to his business, showing that he is far from trustworthy and deserving of public reverence. I wouldn't go as far to say this is Ibsen's finest (my favourites so far are A Doll's House, which I'm planning on re-reading soon, and Hedda Gabler), but it is a great play and a great character study on a man who has managed to get away with so much and yet has managed to almost delude himself that he is worthy of his high position. Ibsen presents a very keen character study of such a man, as well as criticising social morals and the lies behind public life, and even industrial ethics. I haven't read a great deal of Ibsen but I have a lot planned for this year, and from The Pillars of Society I have a feeling I'm in for some truly outstanding reads and, unlike quite a few recent plays I've read of late, I do think it's possible to read and enjoy The Pillars of Society.

'Pillars of Society'. Act II as played in New York 1910.

Comments

  1. i've read the two biggies, but never have heard of this one; it sounds like it would be applicable to today's events...

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