The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Wild Duck, The
WILD DUCK, The. Henrik Ibsen, in his ironic play ‘The Wild Duck’ (‘Vildanden’), published in 1884 and performed the year following, sought to exhibit the folly of obedience to any mere formula of conduct, a doctrine already propounded in his early poetic drama, ‘Brand.’ Incidentally, he made clear the dangers of a shallow idealism, and challenged his admirers to decide each case of conduct on its own merits, rather than according to some nicely worded law discovered in his plays. In ‘The Pillars of Society’ and ‘An Enemy of the People,’ Ibsen had insisted that truth and freedom are essential to social welfare; and in ‘A Doll's House’ he had declared for perfect confidence between husband and wife. Yet in ‘The Wild Duck,’ he lets us understand that there are instances when “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” may work more harm than good.
A busy-body reformer, sincere though short-sighted, finds that his former classmate in college has been wedded to a woman with a past. He discovers that it is his own father who has disgraced her, and feels in duty bound to enlighten Hjalmar Ekdal and convince him of the necessity of beginning life afresh with Gina on a basis of mutual understanding. But no sooner does Hjalmar learn from the idealist reformer that his Gina has once been the mistress of another than he rebuffs her and the innocent child he had thought his own, and proposes to forsake them both. The little girl, having been taught by the meddling idealist the doctrine of self-abnegation, accepts it literally, and, instead of sacrificing only her pet duck to win back Hjalmar's love, sacrifices her dearest possession, life itself. Thus the idealist — Gregers Werle — with the best of intentions, has wrought havoc in a family hitherto happy, though in part deluded.
Quite aside from its central meaning, the play is of interest as depicting with minute fidlity a curious group of characters. Of especial note are the Ekdals, all victims of old Werle. There is the lieutenant, once his partner in a dishonest business, serving in prison as his scape-goat, and emerging to find his only pleasure in hunting pretended game in a pretended forest in an attic. There is the lieutenant's son Hjalmar, ostensibly a photographer, but in fact an idle dreamer assuming poses to deceive himself and others, mouthing conventionally when informed that old Werle has married him to Gina to conceal her fault and his. There is little Hedvig, cursed by her inheritance from old Werle with weak eyes, straining them unduly in touching up negatives for the lazy Hjalmar, for whose sake she mistakenly lays down her life. And there is Gina, loyal and industrious, the embodiment of common sense, little troubled by remorse for her past, yet unconsciously atoning for it by devotion to her husband and her child. Not the least enigmatic characters are the minor folk Molvik and Relling, the latter proclaiming the need of every creature for some life-lie, some delusion to make him happy.
Technically, the piece is noteworthy for its decorative and incidental symbolism, an insinuated parallel being drawn between the bird that was shot by old Werle and sunk in the marsh until retrieved and further lamed by his dog; and the Ekdal family, injured by Werle and hurt even more by the efforts of Gregers to redeem it. English versions of ‘The Wild Duck’ have been made by Mrs. E. Marx-Aveling, Mrs. F. E. Archer and R. F. Sharp.