The Wild Duck by Henrik Ibsen.
|1884 edition of Vildanden.|
The Wild Duck (Vildanden) is a play by Henrik Ibsen which was first published in 1884. It's a play in five acts and it begins in Håkon Werle's house: he is a wealthy merchant and the father of Gregers Werle, who has recently returned home after a fifteen year self-imposed exile. Werle's servant Pettersen and a hired waiter, Jansen, set the scene:
Pᴇᴛᴛᴇʀsᴇɴ: [lighting a lamp on the mantelpiece and putting on the shade] Just you listen, Jensen: there's the old man on his feet now, making a long speech - a toast to Mrs. Sørby.Jᴇɴsᴇɴ: [moving an arm-chair forward] D'you think it's true, what they say - that there's something between 'em?Pᴇᴛᴛᴇʀsᴇɴ: Lord knows.
Jᴇɴsᴇɴ: Of course, he's been a lad in him time, all right.
Jᴇɴsᴇɴ: But they say it's for his son, he's giving this luncheon party.
Pᴇᴛᴛᴇʀsᴇɴ: Yes. His son came home yesterday.
Jᴇɴsᴇɴ: I never knew before that old Werle so much as had a son.Pᴇᴛᴛᴇʀsᴇɴ: Oh yes, he's got a son. But he just buries himself up there at the Høydal works. He's never been to town all the years I've been in service here.
They are interrupted by a guest, Old Ekdal (a former partner of Werle's who has spent time in prison and now works as Werle's copyist), who is dressed rather shabbily. We later learn his son is Hjalmar Ekdal, a once friend of Gregers. Hjalmar is now married to Gina, and the match was facilitated by Werle, who also provided a photography studio for Hjalmar. Gregers meanwhile has not married, unable to find a wife he claims he has "a fine, solitary life. A good opportunity to think things over - all sorts of things". He is an idealist, and he is well aware that Werle had an affair with Gina before he married her to Hjalmar; her child is not Hjalmar's but Werle's.
It's not until the second act that we meet the wild duck, a prize won on a hunting expedition. The duck is kept in the attic and cared for by Hedvig, Hjalmar and Gina's daughter. It's wounded, shot by Werle:
Gʀᴇɢᴇʀs: How did you manage to catch it, Lieutenant Ekdal?
Eᴋᴅᴀʟ: I didn't catch it. There's a certain man in this town whom we have to thank for it.
Gʀᴇɢᴇʀs: [starts slightly.] That man was not my father, was he?
Eᴋᴅᴀʟ: You've hit it. Your father and no one else. H'm.
Hᴊᴀʟᴍᴀʀ: Strange that you should guess that, Gregers.
Gʀᴇɢᴇʀs: You were telling me that you owed so many things to my father; and so I thought perhaps —
Gɪɴᴀ: But we didn't get the duck from Mr. Werle himself —
Eᴋᴅᴀʟ: It's Håkon Werle we have to thank for her, all the same, Gina. [To Gʀᴇɢᴇʀs] He was shooting from a boat, you see, and he brought her down. But your father's sight is not very good now. H'm; she was only wounded.
Gʀᴇɢᴇʀs: Ah! She got a couple of slugs in her body, I suppose.
Hᴊᴀʟᴍᴀʀ: Yes, two or three.
Hᴇᴅᴠɪɢ: She was hit under the wing, so that she couldn't fly.
Gʀᴇɢᴇʀs: And I suppose she dived to the bottom, eh?
Eᴋᴅᴀʟ: [sleepily, in a thick voice] Of course. Always do that, wild ducks do. They shoot to the bottom as deep as they can get, sir — and bite themselves fast in the tangle and seaweed — and all the devil's own mess that grows down there. And they never come up again.
Gʀᴇɢᴇʀs: But your wild duck came up again, Lieutenant Ekdal.
Eᴋᴅᴀʟ: He had such an amazingly clever dog, your father had. And that dog — he dived in after the duck and fetched her up again.
The duck becomes the central metaphor for the play: Gregers identifies with the duck locked away in the attic, and sees similarities with Hjalmar and his marriage, as though he were submerged in the poisonous marsh. Furthermore, he also sees himself in the dog who saved the duck. Ekdal meanwhile sees himself as the duck, literally shot down, whereas Ekdal was symbolically shot down by Werle, his former business partner. The play becomes more complex as the conflicts come to the surface.
It's a tricky play, subtle, and, as with the other plays I've read by Ibsen the tensions slowly but surely rise to the surface, and I see why some refer to Ibsen as "the father of realism". Gregers, the idealist, is the catalyst: had he not have returned all would have continued as it was, but his meddling brought up all the lies buried, like the duck I suppose in the marsh, and brought up by that dog Gregers saw himself in. His idealism, as his friend Relling warned, undid them all and brought about tragedy. It's an excellent play, and very impressive. I'm looking forward to more Ibsen - the next play I plan to read is A Doll's House (1879), though I dare say I might not get to it until March.