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December Comedy:

Studies in Senior Comedy and Other Essays

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Everybody in Minnesota loves Scandinavia—and loves to make fun of it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ibsen was accused of idealism, adultery, and insanity, but hardly of comedy. 

 

 

 

 

The humor of Peer Gynt is essential for our understanding of all of Ibsen's later plays.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One could call Peer Gynt one long Norwegian joke. 

 

 

 

 

Peer represents more than Norwegian folk heroes.  He represents Norway itself.  And here the humor gets darker.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peer Gynt is something of a Kierkegaardian joke:  he was a true shuffler, walking consistently with uncommitted feet.

 

Salvation is the color of snow.

 

 

 

Peer Gynt's humor reveals much of the Norwegian character—a fierce loyalty to motherland coupled with a compulsion for self-deprecation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pillars of Society exposes the stalwarts of a small Norwegian town to be frauds, profiteering from the ignorance and prejudice of those around them.

 

 

 

Pillars of Society continues the scathing exposé of Norwegian provincial pride and self-satisfaction which Ibsen began in the troll scenes of Peer Gynt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lona, a Norwegian emigrant, tells us that it’s OK to laugh at all these people because she does.

 

 

 

 

 

Lona lives with laughter and deals with it.

 

 

At the same time that Lona brings truth and honest living to Bernick, she brings laughter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rosmersholm does not present itself as funny.

 

 

 

 

 

 

At Rosmersholm no one laughs. Laugher and pain are two sides of one emotional reality, and Rosmersholm kills both with its ethereal ideals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nobody escapes Ibsen’s satiric pen.

 

 

 

In Master Builder, Ibsen was building castles in the air and a rather large, ethereal joke with his audience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Master Builder unveils all the past in the first act and then tempts us to believe it.

 

 

 

Hilda’s sexuality is the fulfillment of male dreams.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ibsen seems to have played a dramatic joke, perpetrated against his audience.

 

Chapter 1

 The Humor Grim of Henrik Ibsen

 

Presented at the Eighth International Conference on Humor

Sheffield, England, 1990

Edited for web publication

 

[Editor’s note:  Since the presentation of this paper in 1990, Ibsen has been played increasingly more for laughs.  The Commonweal Theater located in Lanesboro, Minnesota, in the heart of Uff-da country, performs one Ibsen play a year, recognizing Ibsen’s grim humor in such severe plays as Ghosts. The trend probably speaks  to a growing understanding of Ibsen as well as a general interest in the power and function of humor in our society.]

 

 I’m from Minnesota, and Minnesotans take their Scandinavian heritage very seriously.  Every good Lutheran pastor tells at least one lutefisk joke a year.  Scandinavian jokes abound during  election season. And each May 17 on Sittende Mai, Norwegian Americans dress up in silly little costumes to dance in the streets, and Lutheran church choirs sing in Norwegian under duress.  As anyone familiar with Garrison Keillor might guess, Norwegian humor is a major industry in Minnesota. 

 

            A few years ago a book came out which was marketed heavily through Lutheran college bookstores called Scandinavian Humor and Other Myths.  The cover features two dour-faced octogenarian Scandinavian women who look like they drink their coffee strong out of principle.  Half of Minnesota on looking at this book, says, “Those are my great aunts!” Everybody loves Scandinavia—and loves to make fun of it.  Ole and Lena jokes in Minnesota are big business.

 

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            Despite concerted attempts at open-mindedness, cross-cultural exchange, and tolerance, there is still a strong belief that everything good comes from Norway—and that anyone with any sense will leave for America.  But the biggest joke is that everyone wants to go back—even if they never came from there—to buy little blue jackets with red and white trim and kiss the ground still frozen in July.

 

            Perhaps it was because of this self-deprecating narcissism—and my own Norwegian heritage (my husband is ¼ Norwegian)—that I decided to study Henrik Ibsen.  Now Ibsen is not generally portrayed as a comic.  Cartoonists of his day caricatured him as dour, irascible, and downright belligerent.  The theatre reviews said things like he shocked all of Europe, he was doomed to fail, or he ought to grow up, but not that he had them rolling in the aisles.  I believe Ibsen is now being played more for laughs, but the criticism is lagging behind.  Ibsen was accused of idealism, adultery, and insanity, but hardly of comedy.  Yet—and perhaps this is because of my own Norwegian background—as I read Ibsen, I found myself laughing.  Not big belly laughs or even loud guffaws.  But snickers and smirks and here and there, sly wry smiles.  As if I were seeing the roots of all the self-deprecating humor that lightens and brightens the dreary Minnesota winters.  (Did you know that Minnesota has only two seasons?  Winter and road construction.) Reading Ibsen criticism, however, has lead me to believe that my sense of Ibsen humor places me in a minority.

 

            From the start, we must admit that Ibsen is complex and thus a critics’ playground.  There seems to be general agreement that Ibsen’s writing can be divided into three phases:  an idealistic phase epitomized by and probably ended by Brand; a realistic phase, typified by Doll’s House and Hedda Gabbler; and a fantastic phase, starting with Wild Duck or Master Builder, which Ibsen himself described as building castles in the air.  At the same time there seems to be a critical aversion to letting go of idealism.  Much criticism, particularly of the later plays, insists on seeing realistic plays in idealistic terms, finding idealistic unions in joint suicides and sensitive spirits in people who can not live in the real world.  I believe Ibsen was both a realist and an idealist and that the key to holding these two perspectives is Ibsen’s humor.  It must be remembered that there were two plays that established Ibsen as great and made his dramatic and philosophical mark on European minds:  Those two plays are Brand and Peer GyntBrand is highly idealistic. Peer Gynt is satirically realistic and dramatically fantastic. Unfortunately Peer Gynt is often ignored as an oddity in the Ibsen canon.  I would contend, on the contrary, that its humor is essential for our understanding of all of Ibsen’s later plays.

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For the Love of Norway:  Peer Gynt

 

            Ibsen’s sense of humor is most obvious in Peer Gynt.  The play is full of wry one-liners.  One of the most memorable occurs in the middle of the last act, when a ship-wrecked Peer is hanging for life onto a keel and a strange passenger, explained by critics as the devil, Peer’s alter ego, Kierkegaardian dread, or Lord Byron (Fjeld’s notes, Ibsen, Peer Gynt  225) assures Peer that no one ever dies in the middle of the last act. 

 

            But more typical of the play is the self-deprecating Norwegian humor.  In fact one could call the play one long Norwegian joke.  Peer himself is a joke, an epic embodiment of a legendary Norwegian folk hero.  There’s really no plot to speak of.  Peer wants to be Emperor of the World, but he has no life principles, self-knowledge, or self-control, and he wanders through life from trouble to trouble.  Yet even his life wanderings have a mythical quality.  A Norwegian farm boy making a bundle selling slaves and then fending off monkeys who are pummeling him with fruit is about as real as the Peer Gynt who rode a reindeer off the ledge into a fjord.  And we witness a good Ole and Lena joke when Peer polishes off his dramatic soliloquy by walking into a rock and knocking himself out.

 

            But Peer represents more than Norwegian folk heroes.  He represents Norway itself.  And here the humor gets darker.  Peer is hardly a compliment to Norway.  He doesn’t know the difference between reality and fantasy.  He is reckless, unstable, sexually abandoned.  He frequently quotes the Bible—and quotes it wrong.  He made his wad trading slaves to the Carolinas and idols to China.  And in Gyntian spirit, he has tried to mitigate his evil by shipping missionaries with the idols, one for one, and by keeping the last load of slaves for himself and treating them well.  We laugh at the mathematics of his moral logic, but underneath the indictment of Norwegian character is clear—the average Norwegian, according to the play, is a shuffler, holding to his faith as long as it is convenient, moving “with uncommitted feet” (99).  Peer attributes his life philosophy to “something I’ve inherited from the people of my childhood” (99).

 

            Ibsen also takes several lighthearted jabs at Norwegian narrow-minded self-satisfaction in the trolls, those distinctly Scandinavian mythical beasts that symbolize the dark side of man. When Peer wants to marry a troll princess, her father makes three demands:  Peer must “never care/ For the world beyond our frontier” (54), a jab at Norwegian provincialism. He must “learn the value of/ Our simple, domestic way of life’’ (55)—a jab at Norwegian narrow self-contentment.  And Peer must “to yourself be— enough” (55). The troll plays on a popular reduction of St. Augustine’s formulation of man’s fundamental sin as self-sufficiency.  Ibsen saw Norway guilty of a national moral complacency and spiritual self-satisfaction.  The portrayal of the common people is really not much different from that presented in Brand.  But in Peer Gynt Ibsen uses humor and satire to drive home the charge of self-righteousness.

 

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            If Norway looked only to itself, Ibsen did not.  In fact, in the fourth act he took international pot shots, satirizing England, Prussia, France, and Sweden, in a power quadrangle which Peer seeks to involve in a business deal to squelch the Greek independence movement.  Mr. Cotton, representing the economic interests of England, is practical and profane, keeping his eye on the bottom line.  Mr. Ballon, a Frenchman, is full of hot air.  Mr. Eberhopt of Germany effuses preposterous philosophical verbiage, coins wondrous agglutinated words like "verdcenborgerdomsforpagtning" (world-historical-fellowship), and reveres military power.  Mr. Trumpeter-straale, a Swede, perhaps takes the biggest rap for his boasts about Swedish steel and his cult worship of Charles XII.  No deal is struck, however because Peer would rather invest in the powerful Turk than take the risk of backing a fledgling revolution, and his would-be cohorts are revolted.  The Norwegian character takes the most brutal assault.  True to Ole and Lena humor, the quadrangle steal Peer’s ship laden with gold while his back is turned.  And true to Ibsen’s poetic justice, the ship explodes and sinks in the Mediterranean. Ibsen’s idealism is not dead.

 

            The nineteenth century Norwegian Lutheran Church, at the center of Norwegian social and political fabric, is also the butt of Ibsen satire. Lutheranism professed that salvation was not by works but by faith alone, a free gift from God. Critics, however, charged that that the Norwegian Church hierarchy had ensconced the faith in a  formalism which covered for hypocrisy and spiritual deadness. Thus in Peer Gynt the troll king can assure Peer that he need not renounce his Christian faith to become a troll:  “No, you can keep that under your breath./ Faith is free; we impose no tax.” (57).

 

            On a grander theological scale, however, Peer Gynt is something of a Kierkegaardian joke.  In Brand, Ibsen had created a quintessential hero of the popular Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard—a hero who sacrificed all to a subjective calling to God’s service.  Brand was true to himself.  But so was Peer. Peer was a true shuffler, walking consistently with uncommitted feet, seeking his immediate self-interest in every case.  He was Gyntian all the way.

 

            Yet the greater joke is that Peer’s salvation is found in Norway.  Solvig, who loves Peer throughout and to whom Peer should have turned to avoid all his troubles, is identified with white.  She wears a snow-white apron and carries her prayer book in her kerchief.  Solvig comes to Peer “across the snowfield on skies” (74) and waits for him in the mountains.  White is the color of Norway’s unmerciful mountains and also the color of Brand’s ice church.  Salvation is the color of snow.

           

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            For all Ibsen’s barbs hurled at his motherland, he has a fondness for Peer Gynt.  Scoundrel though he’s been, we do not want to see him melted down by the botton-moulder of eternity any more than Ibsen does.  Yet one can hardly miss the bitterness.  Ibsen’s rancor may have been partly politically inspired. He was very disheartened by the failure of Norway and Sweden to defend Denmark from Bismarck’s attack in 1863.  Or perhaps Ibsen was thumbing his nose at his motherland.  He had succeeded as a Norwegian dramatist only after leaving Norway for Rome.  In either case, his explosion into humor represents a hard-headed realism, couched in fantasy, breaking into an idealistic mind set.  But it also reveals much of the Norwegian character—a fierce loyalty to motherland coupled with a compulsion for self-deprecation.  Ibsen had to make fun of Norway.  He wouldn’t be Norwegian if he didn’t.

 

            In Peer Gynt Ibsen moved away from the idealism of Brandt, establishing himself as  a satirist and a national humorist.  But we also see in Peer Gynt the roots of social humor, cosmic humor, and dramatic humor which surface in later plays.  Ibsen's critical perspective wedded by humor to idealism provides the basis for a fuller understanding of Ibsen’s later works.

 

The Laughter-Life Connection: Pillars of Society

 

            The national humor of Peer Gynt has sweeping scope and vision.  In Pillars of Society (written 14 years later), Ibsen specializes in social humor, bringing his satire home, right into the Norwegian family. It is in this play that Ibsen not only reaffirms his satiric vision but also establishes himself as a  realist who sees through pretensions of all sorts.

 

            Pillars of Society exposes the stalwarts of a small Norwegian town to be frauds, profiteering from the ignorance and prejudice of those around them.  Mr. Bernick, the town’s leading citizen, has maintained his position, morally and financially by having foisted the blame for a past embarrassing incident upon his younger brother-in-law, Johan. Johan has emigrated to America, along with Bernick’s spurned love, Lona, who  has raised Johan in the New World.  When she and Johan return to Norway for a visit, their intrusion into a tightly controlled society eventually exposes the dishonesty, the low ethical standards, and the disregard for his family on which Bernick’s position is based.  In the end Bernick confesses all and asks his wife’s forgiveness, which she grants; Lona stays in Norway to build a new life with her friend Bernick; and Johan returns to America with the attractive and lively Dina, who, having been looked down upon for her family background, has found the courage to break off her unofficial engagement to Røland, a stuffy, self-righteous, and  patronizing school master.

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            Pillars continues the scathing exposé of Norwegian provincial pride and self-satisfaction which Ibsen began in the troll scenes of Peer Gynt.  Ibsen satirizes a steady resistance to progress and even excitement.  Anyone who in the late 19th century says “Last year we came within a hair of having a railroad built in our town” (18) deserves to be laughed at.  And anyone who, as schoolmaster Røland does, wants to call out the police to stop a circus parade in order to keep his community pure must be laughed off-stage.  And in a sense, Røland is:  Johan gets the girl.

 

            In Pillars Ibsen further extends his satiric attack to the role of women in Norwegian society, a theme which surfaces often more seriously in his later plays.  Women in Pillars have a vital role in keeping their community “pure” (17) (that is, ignorant, prideful, and backward).  They, according to Røland, are the “Nursing order, the sisters of mercy, winding the bandages of "moral cripples” (18).  It is never clear who the victims are or what they do, but these women meet regularly as the Society for the Morally Disabled where they listen to Røland read to them from a book called Women, the Servants of Society, and sew or fold or  do something with linens.

 

            Women are also supposed to be ignorant and quite uninvolved in business affairs.  From a modern perspective it’s hard not to laugh a bit derisively when  Bernick repeatedly dismisses his wife with put-downs like, “Betty, you can’t be interested in this”  or  “This is nothing for ladies” (31).  As it turns out, Betty "can’t" be interested because her husband can not afford for her to know anything.  In contrast, Lona, who has made her way in America, can be quite interested and shrewd about business affairs. By that point in the play, however, the drama is intense enough that we can afford only a wry smile.

 

            Ibsen also satirized Norwegian family life.  The Society for the Morally Disabled extols the Bernick home as a “fine, decent home, where family life shows itself in the highest form—where peace and harmony rule” (19) at the exact moment that arguing in the next room has become so loud the ladies can not continue their discussion.

 

            But is all this satire really meant to be humorous?  From the middle of the second act on, Pillars moves into the intense drama Ibsen is well-known for and closes with heavy moralism.  Are my chuckles really just American provincialism and 20th century female assertiveness?  Ibsen himself answers the question of whether it is fair for an American woman to laugh—by bringing in an American woman.

 

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            Lona is a Norwegian emigrant, of course, but she returns to her homeland from America like a fresh western sea breeze blowing away all the pomposity of the Rølands and the voluntary ignorance of the Society for the Morally Disabled.  She has a direct rhetoric which, in contrast to her relatives, is refreshingly frank and invokes the laughter of relief.  But it also tells us that it’s okay to laugh at all these people because she does.  Lona tells it like it is:  “All this moral linen reeks of decay”  (38).  She insists on calling Røland a pastor, and when Lona invites herself to the next meeting of the Society and Røland asks pointedly, “What can you do for our society,” Lona closes the curtain of Act I with, “I can air it out—Reverend” (39).  Lona must bring laughter with applause.

 

            Lona continues her routine in Act II:  As a matchmaker for Johan she is quite to the point.  “Johan, listen, have you had a good look at Dina?  Well, just go feast your eyes on her.  That’s something for you!” (60)  Even Dolly Levy had a little more finesse.  Lona 's American directness, as in “to hell with that stupid story” (61),  stands in humorous contrast to Norwegian euphemism, primness, respectability, and reserve.

 

            Generally speaking from the middle of Act II on, the play gets more serious.  Yet laughter continues to play an important role.  Lona is seen as one who lives with laughter and deals with it.  Johan says that to keep him alive she “sang songs in coffee houses, gave lectures that people made fun of—and she wrote a book that she’s laughed at as well as cried over” (55).  Lona can laugh at herself.  And Lona can survive the laughter of others.  “They can’t rake me over with their laughter,” she asserts of her old community.  “I’ve got a thick skin” (65).  The funny thing is, they weren’t laughing.  They were tisking and uffing and shishing.  But when her own countryfolk were mistaking her for a circus master’s wife, Lona responds with “a gale of laughter” (37).

 

           Lona's is the laughter of honest living without pretension, of humility with self respect. At the same time that Lona brings truth and honest living to Bernick, she brings laughter, not a derisive destructive kind, but a healthy constructive laughter.  And this Norway needed a lot. The central role of laughter for healthy living in Pillars of Society must cast doubt on the health of any Ibsen society or dramatic resolution that excludes laughter.

 

            The moralistic, almost sentimental ending of Pillars is a bit bothersome and seems incongruous with the earlier satire.  I think it is best seen as an imperfect attempt to combine an idealistic hope for the family with a satiric realism about society.  Looking through these two lenses, joined—please excuse me—by the binoculars of humor, we can laugh at the foolish pride of a small town and at the same time appreciate Mrs. Bernick’s almost supernatural forgiveness that creates hope for the future.  And it is looking through both lenses, remembering the importance of laughter—dramatically and philosophically—that we must approach Ibsen’s later plays.  Without both lenses, we bog down in morbidity or an inflated idealism.  Rosmersholm is a case in point.  Rosmersholm is not a funny play.  In fact, it is brooding and grim.  So it is with some trepidation that I discuss it at all.

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The Extinction of Laughter:  Rosmersholm

 

            Rosmer is a blue-blooded aristocrat, a pastor in a long line of pastors, whose function in society is to maintain orthodoxy and respectability by keeping out of the political fracas and keeping his ancestors’ pictures on his wall.  He no longer preaches.  Rebecca West, an upstart from Finmark on coming to Norway decides she wants to take control of Rosmer.  So she wheedles her way into his home, mesmerizes Rosmer with newfangled ideas of liberalism and atheism, and subtly convinces Rosmer’s wife Beata that she ought to jump off the millrace bridge to leave her husband happy with a new philosophy of atheism and a new wife in Rebecca.  Rosmer, being of noble mind and sensitive conscience, is unaware of Rebecca’s acquisitiveness.  As the play opens Rosmer is about to be forced out of his atheist-liberal closet by the political powers of the town.  The ensuing events force Rebecca to confess her desire to control Rosmer and her role in Beata Rosmer’s suicide.  She calls for her trunk, insisting she must leave but that Rosmer can go on ennobling minds—there’s a lot of high flown talk about ideals and ennoblement without any of the rubber ever hitting the road—he can go on ennobling minds because he knows now that he is innocent of his wife’s death and that he’s had the success of ennobling Rebecca’s mind.  When Rosmer wants proof of that success, she agrees to jump off the millrace bridge, just like Beata.  Rosmer decides to come too, and in the dark they embrace on the bridge and fall off.

 

            As noted earlier, the play does not present itself as funny.  It is scathingly critical of both liberal and conservative, but the characters are so vicious as not to be funny.  Even more important  to the point of humor and laughter, however, is that Ibsen in Pillars established laughter as essential to healthy living.  At Rosmersholm no one laughs.  The housekeeper reports to Rebecca that at Rosmersholm children never cry, and “when they grow up they never laugh, never—as long as they live” (551).   The housekeeper has made a scathing indictment. Laughter and pain are two sides of one emotional reality, and Rosmersholm kills both with its ethereal ideals, its excessively sensitive conscience or none at all—which practically come down to the same thing—and its total unwillingness to get its hands dirty. We must be skeptical of any ennobling of minds that must exclude laughter.

                       

            Thus we must question the notion that some critics have put forth that  the double suicide at the final curtain represents some great spiritual union, impossible in life because of human frailties, glorified in death in the union of two great spirits.

 

            Rebecca is a cool, intuitively calculating power-player who wants, more than to further a cause, to control a man.  And she wins.  It is arguable that what Rebecca really wants is to get Rosmer on the footbridge (a morbid variant on Harold Hill’s goal in The Music Man).  In the opening scene, she watches Rosmer return to the house by a very extended detour rather than cross the millrace bridge, the scene of Beata’s suicide.  Rosmer’s willingness to cross that bridge will symbolize Rebecca’s total victory.  So in the final scene, what Rebecca wants most is not to free Rosmer for some high calling but to get him on the bridge.  In this she more than succeeds.  But it will not vitiate the absence of laughter.

 

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         If we as an audience are taken in by Rebecca’s protestations of idealism, we are forgetting the hard-headed realist-humorist-satirist of Peer Gynt and Pillars of Society.  We are forgetting that nobody escapes Ibsen’s satiric pen—not the left nor the right, not foreigners, not the poor, particularly not pastors, especially not Scandinavians, and not idealists either. And we are forgetting that idealism which shuts out laughter is highly suspect.

 

The Master Jokester:  Master Builder

 

            In Master Builder Ibsen moves out of satire and into the Twilight Zone.  Ibsen himself said he was building castles in the air.  He was also building a rather large, ethereal joke with his audience.  The hints of dramatic humor in Peer Gynt—remember how nobody ever dies in the middle of the fourth act?—have become full-blown.  And this dramatic sense of humor, as well as his satiric vision, remain essential for a balanced critical interpretation.

 

            Master Builder is the story of Halvord Solness, a highly successful self-made architect who in late middle age is suffering from guilt, self-doubt, a failed marriage, lack of career direction, and fear that the next generation will defeat him.  Suddenly in walks Hilda Wangel, a robust, lusty young lady who claims that ten years earlier after Solness had hung a wreath in the church he built in her town, he had kissed her passionately, many times, and promised her a kingdom ten years hence.  Hilda has come for her kingdom.  Solness remembers meeting Hilda as a child, though not the sexual encounter or the promise of a kingdom ten years hence, but he finds Hilda enchanting and her account something of a dream come true.  Hilda inspires Solness to redirect his career into building castles in the air and to strive to overcome his fear of heights by once more climbing the spire on a new home he has just built for himself.  Solness climbs, falls, and dies.  Hilda has her master builder.

 

            The primary dramatic joke of Master Builder is that Hilda is a character from another play, Lady from the Sea, written four years earlier. And she is not just another person by the same name, but a grown-up version of the audacious teenager of the earlier play.  Ibsen followers must have gotten a chuckle out of reading her name in the playbill and discovering how she had grown up. The grown-up Hilda can easily  be played for laughs, her tantalizing sexual confidence contrasting sharply with Solness' over-the-hill self doubt.

 

            But the joke runs deeper.  There is a real question whether or not Hilda is for real.  Solness agrees that he built a church in her town and hung the wreath on the spire.  He even remembers seeing a girl wave her handkerchief—she was dizzying, he says.  But did he really sing up on the spire, as she claims?  Did he really kiss her?  Many times?  He accedes  finally to it all, saying “Whatever you please” (807), which is good enough for Hilda but hardly good enough for us.

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            Ibsen audiences would be used to history unveiling itself through the second, third, and fourth acts, the characters making their accommodations to it in the final scene.  But Master Builder unveils all the past in the first act and then tempts us to believe it.

 

            Hilda is in a sense too good to be true.  She says what Solness thinks but is afraid to say, and she dreams his craziest dreams.  And she is way too good to be real sexually.  Just when Solness is down, in walks a well-built young lady with no trunk—and no change of clothes—who puts herself at the disposal of a middle-aged Victorian man.  Hilda’s sexuality is the fulfillment of male fantasies .

 

SOLNESS:  In the sagas it tells about Vikings that sailed to foreign countries and plundered and burned and killed the men—

            HILDA:  And captured the women—

            SOLNESS:  And carried them off—

            HILDA:  Took them home in their ships—

            SOLNESS:  And treated them like—like the worst of trolls.

            HILDA:  (looking straight ahead with half-veiled eyes). I think that must have been thrilling.

            SOLNESS:  (with a short, deep laugh).  Capturing women, hm?

            HILDA:  Being captured  (832).

 

It would be hard for the Victorian male not to wonder if  such a creature could exist.

 

            The play ends with Solness’ death and Hilda’s triumph, and nobody’s laughing.  The question seems to have become not whether or not Hilda is real but whether she is bad or good, and on this point the critical wars rage.  But the history of Ibsen humor would suggest that this is not the critical point.  It’s a question, all right, but we have to keep it in perspective.  The blurring of reality and fantasy which pervades Master Builder, Hilda’s irresponsibility, her searching for a kingdom, and her strong sexual desire—all of this is not new in Ibsen.  We saw it in Peer Gynt.  Remembering Ibsen’s healthy sense of humor and his respect for laughter as necessary to human health—developed in Pillars of Society and underlined in as grim a play as Rosmersholm—we must hold lightly the idealistic question of whether Hilda is, as Solness thinks, a “dawning day” or as she suggests, a “bird of prey” (833)  Ibsen seems to have played a dramatic joke, perpetrated against his audience.  Frustrated by reviewers over-idealizing and over-philosophizing his plays, he has dared his middle-aged Victorian audience to face their own sexual fantasies.

 

            As Ibsen’s dramatic career closed, he seemed to drift further from reality, so much so that a close friend accused him of having his mental breakdown before rather than after completing his last play.  But we should not let Ibsen criticism drift into mushy idealism.  Ibsen was—as everyone agrees—quintessentially Norwegian.  And that means, like the Vikings, looking for a kingdom.  But it also means telling self-deprecating Norwegian jokes.  You know, when Ole died aboard ship, Lena drowned trying to bury him at sea.

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Works Cited

 

Anderson, John Louis.  Scandinavian Humor and Other Myths. New York : Perennial Library, 1986.

 

Ibsen, Henrik. The Complete Major Prose Plays. Tr. Rolf Fjelde. New York:  New American Library, 1978.

 

Ibsen, Henrik.  Peer Gynt. Tr. Rolf Fjelde. Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 1980.  

 

 

 

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