What is it that has drawn David Auburn, winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award and one of our greatest contemporary playwrights, to The Wild Duck by Henrik Ibsen? The play is rarely staged and the challenges it poses to an adaptor are potentially vast. It was written in 1884, after the career-changing success of Ibsen’s political “tetralogy”—The Pillars of Society, A Doll’s House, Ghosts and An Enemy of the People—had made him the most famous playwright in Europe. Unlike those preceding works, The Wild Duck has no convenient “social problem” hook on which to hang its shingle, such as women’s rights, political corruption or press censorship. The focus here is something altogether more personal and abstract. The main character, Hjalmar Ekdal, is a photographer, and Ibsen seems to be preoccupied with the nature of seeing itself—ruminating on sight and blindness, the truths that are too dangerous to acknowledge and the particular blind spots that make life livable.
As a result, the play does not so much trumpet a social theme as pose anguished, unresolvable questions: How much truth is necessary to living well? How much illusion is necessary to living at all? These questions are timeless ones, as attested vividly by their reappearance almost verbatim in acknowledged modernist masterworks such as Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (1946) and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1964). Like his descendants, Ibsen gives us no easy answers.
The play is perhaps best characterized by a series of ambiguous oppositions, ones which Ibsen seems loath to choose between. In Act 1 the comfortable bourgeois home of the wealthy old industrialist Haakon Werle is immediately punctured by the frightwig appearance of Old Ekdal, the demented old forester who trundles about the stage like a theatricalized ghost, or a Norsemen lost in the woods. Typical Ibsenian themes of financial bankruptcy, illegitimate offspring and “true marriage”—bourgeois preoccupations of the Dollhouse world—collide with new and less easily parseable preoccupations such as spiritual bankruptcy, the “life-lie,” the instability of marriage (and indeed all social relations) as well as the difficulties of personal and artistic self-actualization. In the duo of Gregers and Hjalmar—the manic idealist and the childlike artist—Ibsen returns to two character types he made famous in his romantic verse epics, Brand (1866) and Peer Gynt (1867). Returning to the mythic symbolism and romanticism of his earlier writings, Ibsen uses them to endow his realistic technique with a new and miraculous depth.
The ultimate example of this newfound symbolic richness—the flipside of Ibsen’s preoccupation with literal seeing—is the title character and central image of the play, the wild duck itself, whom old Ekdal hunts in the mysterious attic above the Ekdals’ photography studio. The duck seems to somehow function both as a realistic stage prop and a symbolic image, simultaneously real and unreal. A creature equally at home on land, in air, and diving into the shadowy depths of the swamp, the duck is never actually seen in the play, but it plays a profound role in the spectacular ending, one in which Ibsen’s various dualisms all collide.
“Where,” writes George Bernard Shaw in 1897, “shall I find an epithet magnificent enough for The Wild Duck?” Despite the mountains he would climb in years to come, Ibsen never wrote anything remotely as radical again. As farcical as it is tragic, the play is an astonishing new form, employing a tremendously wide range of dramatic techniques, and it is vividly rendered in David Auburn’s new version, the most playable I have ever read. Like the works it would directly inspire—Strindberg’s Miss Julie (1888) and Chekhov’s The Seagull (1895)—The Wild Duck is a founding text of modernism in which a stupid freaking bird functions as a multi-sided, irreducible symbol for the complexities of our modern divided existence.