The Lady from the sea / Michael Meyer

The Lady from the sea

Introduction à sa traduction de la pièce, par Michael Meyer, dans Ibsen Plays: Three, Methuen Drama, 1961

The Lady from the Sea represents an important turning-point in Ibsens work. He wrote it in 1888, at the age of sixty ; it was the twenty-first of his twenty-six completed plays.

Twenty years before, having explored the possibilities of poetic drama in Brand (1865) and Peer Gynt (1867), and of historical drama in a string of early plays culminating in Emperor and Gafilean (begun in 1864 and finished in 1873), he had turned to the business of exposing the vanities and weaknesses of contemporary society. The League of Youth (1869) attacked the hollowness of radical politicians; The Pillars of Society (1877) attacked with equal vehemence the hollwness of conservatism. Then, turning his attention from the hypocrisy of politicians to the hypocrisy of social conventions, he wrote A Doll’s House (1879), Ghosts (1881) and An Ennemy of the People (1882). The three plays that followed, The wild Duck (1884), Rosmersholm (1886) and The Lady from the sea (1888) were less studies of social problems than of the sickness of the individual; and this is also true of the five mighty dramas of his old age, Hedda Gabler (1890), The Master Builder (1892), Little Eyolf (1894), John Gabriel Borkman (1896) and When We Dead Awaken (1899).

The Lady from the Sea, more than any other of his plays, impressed lbsen’s contemporaries as signifying a change of heart. Within a few days of its publication Ibsen’s earliest champion in England, Edmund Gosse, wrote: « There is thrown over the whole play a glamour of romance, of mystery, of landscape beauty, which has not appeared in Ibsens work to anything like the same extent since Peer Gynt. And moreover, after so many tragedies, this is a comedy…. The Lady the Sea is connected with the previous plays by its emphatic defence of individuality. and its statement of the imperative necessity of developing it; but the tone is quite unusually sunny, and without a tinge of pessimism. It is in some respects the reverse of Rosmersholm; the bitterness of restrained and baulked individuality, which ends in death, being contrasted with the sweetness of emancipated and gratified individuality, which leads to health and peace ».

Later, in a speech delivered in Norway in 1906, the year of Ibsen’s death, the Danish critic, Georg Brandes, recalled a conversation he had had with Ibsen shortly before he began to, write The Lady from the Sea. « I remember that, after Ibsen had written Rosmersholm, he said to me one day: ‘Now I shan’t write any more polemical plays’. Good God, I thought, what will become of the man ? But, as we know, he kept his word. His last plays are not polemical, but are plays about families and the individual. The différence between these two groups of (prose) plays is shown by the fact that of the first six (The Pillars of Society, A Doll’s Ilouse, Chosts, An Enemy of the People, The Wild Duck and Rosmersholm), only one, An Enemy of the People, is named after its chief character, while all the plays in the group beginning with The Lady from the Sea, except the last (When We Dead Awaken), have as their title the name or nickname of a person. »

To understand the reasons for this change of heart, we must go back three years from, the time Ibsen wrote The Lady from the Sea, to 1885.

In the summer of that year he had returned to Norway from his self-imposed exile in Italy and Germany for only the second time in twenty-one years. His previous visit (to Christiania in 1874) had not been altogether happy; but on this occasion he travelled beyond the capital to the little seaside town of Molde, high up on the north-west coast. Although he had been born by the sea, in the port of Skien, and had spent all his vouth and early manhood withim sight of it, he had since 1864 been living in Rome, Dresden and Munich and, apart from that one brief visit to Christiania, had not seen the ocean; for he did not count the quiet waters of the Mediterranean as such. Molde brought back to hom memories of Grimstad and Bergen, and it is related that he stood for « hour after hour gazing down into the fjord, or out at the rough waters of the Atlantic.

People in Molde told him strange stories about the sea, ans the power it had over those who lived near it. Two tales in particular remained in his mind. Onte, told him by a lady, was a Finn who, by means of the troll-powers in his eyes, has induced a clergyman’s wife to leave husband, children and home and stayed away for many years, so that his family believed him dead ; suddenly he returned, and found his wife married with another man.

The first story must have reminded Ibsen of his own mother-in-law, Magdalene Thoresen, who had fled from her native Denmark to escape from a love affair with an Icelandic poet, and had married a widowed cergyman seventeen years her senior. In one of her letters she has left a vivid account of what happened. « While I was studying in Copenhagen I met a youg man, a wild, strange, elemental creature. We studied together, and I had to yield before his mounstrous and demonic will. With him I could have found passion and fulfilment ; I still believe that… Now I have never regretted that he let me go, for as a result I met a better person, and have lived a better life. But I have always been conscious that he could have nurtered into flower that love of which my spirit was capable. So I have lived my life oppressed by a feeling of want and longing. » Of her husband she said : « Thoresen was my friend, my father and my brother, and I was his friend, his child… He was a man to whom I could openly and unhesitatingly say anything to be understood. » She had already told him of « a tragic incident in my restless life. But I bade him regard the past, those year when I had been ignorant, helpless and unprotected, years which I found it impossible to explain either to myself or to anyone else, as a closed book. I begged him to accept me as I was as the result of that struggle and, ir he thought me worthy of it, to let the rest be blotted out. He accepted me.

Magdalene Thoresen was powerfully affected by the sea and could hardly live away from it. Even in old age she had to go down every day to bathe in the surf. « People in Norway, Ibsen said to a German friend while he was writing The Lady from the Sea, are spiritually under the domination of the sea. I do not believe other People can fully understand it. »

During the winter of 1885, after his return from Molde, Ibsen was occupied with planning Rosmersholm. As usual, he did not put pen to paper until the summer, and completed the play in September 1886. Certain traits in the character of Rebecca West in Rosmersholm am plainlly influenced by Ibsen’s stay in Molde. She is obsessed by the sea; Ulrik Brendel calls her « a mermaid » and she compares herself to the sea-trolls which, according to legend, clung to ships and hindered their sailing.

Ibsen had determined to revisit the northern su again the following summer, but in the meantime there occurred a chain of events which, though unconnected with the sea, were also to leave their mark on his next play.

In December 1886, shortly after he had completed Rosmersholm, Ibsen was invited by Duke George II of Saxe Meiningen to visit Liebenstein for a theatrical festival, in the course of which, among other plays, Ghosts was to be performed. Duke George was the patron and inspirer of the famous Meiningen troupe which, under its director Chronegk, so influenced theatrical managers all over Europe during the eighteen-cighties (including Antoine, Otto Brahm, Stanislavsky and Henry Irving, who was much impressed by their lighting and grouping when he saw them in London in 1881). It was not the first time Ibsen had been a guest of the Duke, for as long ago as 1876 he had visited Meiningen to see a performance of The Pretenders – a performance which may possibly have influenced his subsequent writing. This time, however, the Duke showed Ibsen signs of especial favour which evidendy left a deep impression on him. In his letter of thanks Ibsen speaks of « a long and deeply cherished dream » having been fulfilled, and says that the memories of his stay at Liebenstein will remain with him to enrich his remaining days. During the next few months his plays were performed with success in town after town throughout Germany; he was repeatedly feted, three books were published about him, and eminent German authors praised him, and wrote poems in his honour. In France, too, and even England, people were beginning to take serious notice of him at last. He had attracted attention in these countries through A Doll’s House and Ghosts, but hitherto his reputation outside Scandinavia had still largely been that of a revolutionary. Now lie was beginning to be looked upon as an altogether larger and more permanent figure; and Ibsen, like most revélutionary writers, was much gratified at being at last accepted by what is nowadays known as « the Establishment ».

Next summer (1887) Ibsen retumed apin to the north; but this time lie chose, not Norway, but Denmark. At first he went to Frederikshavn, but « I was frightened away froin that town, which has become a colony for artistic coteries, » and lie moved after ten days to the little town of Sæby, on the east coast of north Jutland. He found this much more to his liking and, as at Molde two years before, spent hours each day gazing out to, sea. A nineteen-year-old Danish girl nanied Engelke Wulff, who was also staying at Sœby, noted on the beach « a little, broad-shouldered man, with grey side whiskers and eyebrows. He stood staring out across the water, with his hand shading his eyes. He had a stick with him with which lie supported himself while lie took a book out and wrote something in it. From where I sat and watched him, I supposed him to be drawing the sea. » Ibsen saw her, too, as she sat doing her handwork, and after a time got into conversation with her. She told him of her longing to see the world, and of her love of the theatre, and he promised that he would put her into his next play. One thinks immediately of Bolette; but in fact, when they met by chance in a street in Christiania some years later, lie called her « my Hilde », and one must assume that some of Hilde’s lines in The Lady from the Sea, if not her character, stemmed from his conversations with Engelke Wulff on the beach at Sæby.

Another young lady from Sæby imprinted herself on Ibsen’s memory, though he never met her, for the good reason that since 1883 she had been lying in Sœby churchyard. Her name was Adda Ravnkilde; she was a talented young writer who had killed herself at the age of twenty-one, leaving behind her several stories and a novel, which was later published with a foreword by Georg Brandes. One theme recurs throughout her writings; the unsuccessful efforts of a young girl to free herself of her obsession for a man who she knows is not worthy of her. Ibsen read her writings, and visited her home and her grave. Her story, like the one he had heard in Molde, must have made him think of Magdalene Thoresen; Magdalene had succeeded in escaping front her obsession, but if she had not she might have suffered the same fate as this young girl.

On 12 September 1887 Ibsen made a speech at Gothenburg, in the course of which he said that his polemical interests were waning and, with them, his eagerness for battle. Twelve days later, in a speech in Stockholm, he startled his audience by describing himself as an « optimist, » declaring that he believed the world was entering a new epoch in which old differences would be reconciled and humanity would find happiness. On 5 October he attended a dinner in the Copenhagen home of his publisher, Hegel. In bis address of thanks Ibsen said that this summer, in Denmark, he had discovered the sea; that the smooth and pleasant Danish sea, which one could come close to, without feeling that mountains cut off the approach, had given his soul rest and peace, and that he was carrying away memories of the sea which would hold significance for his life and his writing.

In addition to, bis rediscovery of the sea, and the international recognition that was now being accorded him, a third mollifying influence should be mentioned. During the eighteen months that clapsed between the completion of Rosmersholm and the beginning of The Lady from the Sea, Ibsen held a number of conversations with Henrik Jæger, who was preparing the first authorised biography  for publication in 1888, in honour of Ibsens sixtieth birthday. In the course of these conversations Ibsen recalled many old memories, to help Jæger with the early chapters. These memories included some which Ibsen had tried to forget; but now, when he dragged thent out into the daylight, he found that they no longer had the power to frighten him. Consequently, as Professor Francis Bull has observed, Ibsen must have felt impelled to ask himself whether it did not lie within a man’s power to drive away « ghosts » and « white horses, » of whatever kind, provided he had the courage to look his past in the face and make his choice between the past and the present, a choice taken « in freedom and full responsibility. » In Rosmersholm a potentially happy relationship between two people is destroyed by the power of the past; in The Lady from the Sea Wangel and Ellida overcome that power, and il may be that Ibsens conversations with Jæger gave him a new confidence, if only a temporary one, in man’s ability to escape from the terror of his own history.

A fourth influence, though scarcely a mollifying one, was the increasing interest of scientists during the eighteeneighties in the phenomena of hypnosis and suggestion. Throughout Europe during this decade writers were being infected with this interest; Ibsen’s preliminary jottings for The Wild Duck in 1884 contain references to « the sixth sense » and « magnetic influence, » and Strindberg’s Creditors, written in the same year as The Lady from the Sea, is closely concerned with « magnetism » and hypnosis.

It was Ibsen’s practice to allow eighteen months to elapse after the completion of a play before beginning to write another; he would meditate long on a theme before putting pen to paper. Consequently it was not until 5 june 1888 that he made the first rough notes for Rosmersholm‘s successor, which he provisionally entitled The Mermaid. Five days later he began the actual writing. It look him nine weeks to complete his first draft, and since in his manuscript he dated each act we can tell exactly how long the various stages of the play took him. Act I is dated zo-16 june; Act Il, 21-28 june; Act 111, 2-7 july; Act IV, 12-22 july; and Act V, 24-31 july. Early in August he began to revise the play, and by 18 August he had corrected the first two acts to his satisfaction. Two days later he began to revise the third act, and on 31 August he started on the fourth. We do not know when he finished his revision, but on 25 September he posted his final manuscript to Hegel, and on 28 November 1888 the play was published by Gyldendal in Copenhagen under the new title of The Lady front the Sea, in a first printing of 10,000 copies. It was first performed on 12 February 1889, simultaneously at the Christiania Theatre, Christiania, and at the Hoftheater, Weimar.

When The Lady front the Sea first appeared, most of the critics were puzzled, especially in Norway, and apart from a production at the Schauspielhaus in Berlin in 1889 the play seems never fully to have succeeded in Ibsen’s lifetime. Its psychology struck his contemporaries as fanciful and unconvincing, although Kierkegaard had long ago asserted, as Freud was shortly to assert, the importance of aflowing someone who is psychologically sick to be faced with some kind of choice and to make his own decision. When, however, The Lady from the Sea was revived in Oslo in 1928, on the centenary of Ibsen’s birth, Halvdan Koht wrote: « It was a surprise to find how fresh the play seemed…. What especially impressed everyone was how closely the whole conception of the play was related to the very latest scientific psychology, both that which Pierre Janet had originated in the nineties, and the ‘psycho-analysis’ which Sigmund Freud had founded at the same time, and which became universally known shortly after the beginning of the twentieth century. The Lady from the Sea instantly acquired a new meaning and new life. Science had in the meantime seized on all morbid activities of the soul, had penetrated into all its borderlands, and had tried to follow all the suppressed impulses in their subconscious effect, the strife between original, suppressed will or desire, and acquired, thought-directed will. With poetic insight Ibsen had seemed to foresee all this. He envisaged a woman who felt hampere and bound in her marriage because she had married, not for love, but for material support, and in whom there consequently arose a series of distorted imaginings which gripped her nünd like witchcraft. She needed a doctor, so Ibsen made her husband one–he had at first intended to make him a lawyer. Morcover, Ibsen discovered the remedy for Ellida; he gave her back her full sense of frecdom…. As early as Love’s Comedy (1862) he had declared war on all marriage which was not built upon full freedom, and now he wished to picture a marriage which, from being a business arrangement, became a fre and generous exchange. Ellida was to experience what Nora (in A Dolls House) missed «  the miracle ».

Ibsen’s rough notes and draft of The Lady from the Sea provide some interesting revelations of the dramatist’s mind at work. At first, as already explained, he intended to make Wangel a lawyer, « refined, well-born, bitter. His past stained by a rash affair. In consequence, his future career is blocked. » But he abandoned this conception, and Wangel became instead a kindly and understanding doctor. His wife first appears as Thora (perhaps after Magdalene Thoresen), but Ibsen changed this to Ellida. In the Saga of Frithiof the Bold there is a ship named Ellide, « which, » Halvdan Koht points out in his biography of Ibsen, « there means something like ‘the storm-goer.’ Such a name gave a stronger suggestion of storm and mysterious troll-powers; the ship Ellide in the saga was almost like a living person fighting its way against evil spirits that tried to drag it down ». Ibsen originally intended that Ellida should have broken her engagement with the seaman because of social and moral prejudices derived from his upbringing; but, significantly, he discarded this motive, and the conflict between Wangel and the Stranger became instead a struggle to gain control over the subconscious powers of her soul. Ibsen also planned at first to have an extra group of characters who would represent the outside world and be contrasted with the inhabitants of the little town, but he scrapped this idea, presumably to achieve stronger dramatic concentration.

Lyngstrand, the consumptive sculptor, had made a phantom appearance four years earlier in Ibsen’s first notes for The Wild Duck. Bolette and Hilde seem to have been present in Ibsen’s mind while he was planning Rosmersholm, since his early notes for that play contain mention of Rosmers two daughters by his dead wife, the elder of whom « is in danger of succumbing to inactivity and loneliness. She has rich talents, which are lying unused, » while the younger daughter is « sharply observant; passions beginning to dawn. » Among the characters Ibsen considered putting into The Lady from the Sea, but subsequently discarded, was «an old married clerk. In his youth wrote a play, which was performed once. Is continually touching it up, and lives in the illusion of getting it published and becoming famous. » This character, who appears to have been based on a friend of Ibsen’s youth named Vilhelm Foss, turned up four plays later as Vilhelm Foldal in John Gabriel Borkman. Hilde Wangel was to reappear formidably in The Master Bailder.

The early notes for The Lady from the Sea also contain mention of a « strange passenger », visiting with the steamer, who « once felt a deep attachment to her [Ellida] when she was engaged to the young sailor ». This character was clarified into Hesler, a civil servant; then Ibsen altered his name to Arenholdt, Askeholm and, finally, Amholm, and turned him from a civil servant into a schoolmaster.

The « young sailor » does not figure in Ibsen’s first castlist, and Ibsen seems to have intended that he should not appear; then he hit on the notion of making him, and not Arnholm, « the strange passenger » or, as he finally called him, « the Stranger ». The Stranger is (unless one reckons Ulrik Brendel in Rosmersholm as such) the predecessor of those intruders from the Outside World who enter so importantly into Ibsen’s later plays: Hilde in The Master Builder, The Rat Wife in Little Eyolf, Mrs Wilton in John Gabriel Borkman, the Nun in When We Dead Awaken.

After several productions had failed to portray the Stranger satisfactorily, Ibsen issued a directive that this character « shall always stand in the background, half concealed by the bushes; only the upper half of his body visible, against the moonlight. » In a letter to Julius Hoffory he stressed that the Stranger « has come as a passenger on a tourist steamer. He does not belong to the crew. He wears tourist dress, not travelling clothes. No-one knows what he is, or who he is, or what his real name is. » At Weimar, where he thought the production « quite admirable », though Wangel and Lyngstrand were disappointing, he allowed himself an unusual luxury in the way of praise. « I cannot wish for, and can hardly imagine, a better representation of the Stranger than the one I saw here. A long, lean figure, with a hawk face, black, piercing eyes and a splendid deep, quiet voice. »

The incident of the rings which Ellida and the Stranger throw into the sea as a token of betrothal was borrowed from Ibsen’s own experience. Thirty-five years before, in his early days as an apprentice at the theatre in Bergen, he had fallen in love with a fifteen-year-old girl named Rikke Holst, and they had betrothed themselves to cach other in just this way. Rikke’s father had broken off the match and, three years before he wrote The Lady from the Sea, Ibsen had reencountered his former fiancée, now married to a rich business man and surrounded by numerous children. That meeting, too, left its mark on the play.

The objection most commonly raised against The Lady from the Sea is the difficulty of making the climactical moment of Ellida’s choice seem convincing. In this connection Dr Gunnar Ollèn has written: « No one who saw theproduction in Vienna in the spring of 1950, with Attila Hörbiger as Wangel and Paula Wessely as Ellida, will share the opinion that Ellida’s choice is implausible. The way Hörbiger played the scene in which he gives Ellida her freedom, her choice seemed utterly natural. He became red in the face, and had difficulty in enunciating his words, standing absolutely motionless and upright, with tears streaming down his cheeks. Quite simply, a stronger emotional power emanated from her husband than from the sailor. She … stared at Wangel as though seeing him for the first time, and then walked slowly across to him as though magneticaIly drawn. It was as if two hypnotists were fighting to gain control of a medium »

Pirandello particularly admired The Lady from the Sea, and Ellida was Eleonora Duse’s favourite role among the many of Ibsens in which she excelled. She chose it both for her « farwell performance » in 1909, and for her come-back twelve years later. In 1923 she played it in London, at the New Oxford Theatre, and James Agate bas left a memorable description of her performance:

« This play is a godsend to a great artist whose forte is not so much doing as suffering that which Fate has donc to her. With Duse, speech is silver and silence golden…. The long second act was a symphony for the voice, but to me the scene of greatest marvel was the third act. In this Duse scalled incredible heights. There was one moment when, drawn by every fibre of her being to the unknown irresistible of the Stranger and the sea, she blotted herself behind her husband and took comfort and courage from his hand. Here terror and ecstasy sweep over her face with that curions effect which this actress alone knows, – as though this were not present stress but havoc remembered of past time. Her features have the placidity of long grief; so many storms have broken over them that nothing can disturb again this sea of calm distress. If there be in acting such a thing as pure passion divorced from the body yet expressed in terms of the body, it is here. Now and again in this strange play Duse would seem to pass beyond our ken, and where she has been there is only a fragrance and a sound in our ears like water flowing under the stars. »

Duse’s interpretation remained unchallenged for over half a century. Then, in 1976, Vanessa Redgrave played Ellida in a production of The Lady from the Sea by Tony Richardson at the Circle in the Square, New York. Her performance was unanimously admired. Two years later, she acted the part again in a new and even better production by Michael Elliott at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, transferring (16 May 1979) to the Round House in London, amid further acclaim. « She combines» wrote Michael Coveney in the Financial Times, « animal passion and suffocating doubt in a marvellous expression of Ellida’s inner struggle »; and Francis King prophesied in the Sunday Telegraph: « I suspect that one day we shall be reminiscing about Miss Redgraves Ellida as fondly as gaffers now reminisce about Duse ». It was indeed one of the great Ibsen performances and productions.