Here, a disclaimer: if you have liked The Wild Duck, that is your prerogative and I respect it. If you are going to disagree with me, please do not suggest that I hate all Australian, Melbourne, mainstage, or theatre theatre, because I don’t. Also don’t bring up anything along the lines of: we must support our artists/the general audience needs no reason to avoid theatre further/I am mean and/or envious which makes me look bad. I have taken considerable time out of my schedule to write this, in hotels in Malaysia and sublets in Berlin, because it nagged at me, as an intellectual problem.
I was very disappointed with Simon Stone’s The Wild Duck (at Malthouse, on loan from Sydney’s Belvoir). After it received very positive reviews and many awards from a variety of sources, I expected a masterpiece. After Thyestes, I expected a masterpiece. The Wild Duck is a competently executed production, it is good, but I believe it isn’t even very good. Its underpinning dramaturgical logic is questionable, it talks down to the audience, it has nothing to say about Ibsen’s original, and whether it succeeds in its intended effect largely relies on the audience not having any familiarity with the play.
I suspect there are two underlying reasons why I disliked The Wild Duck. Firstly, I have not seen much Melbourne mainstage work in 2011; hence, I am not used to its largely poor level of execution. The mainstage theatre I still see I hold to as high a standard as I can muster. Secondly, I re-read the play a few nights before seeing the work. I am pretty sure that did not make me Stone’s intended audience. I did it strategically, however: I wanted to see an interpretation, not a play. since The Wild Duck has been billed as an interpretation, as done after Ibsen, I didn’t want to be distracted by the plot. This is not only a perfectly legitimate way of viewing theatre, it is also the one that is in order when we watch classics informedly.
Simon Stone, and in fact many Australian theatre directors, often explains his position within theatre as a sort of evangelist, a priest of classical prophets. He has read and found these plays, and he would love to bring them to the general public, is how he often speaks in interviews and program notes. He will do what it takes to bring them closer to the average man, because he wants to convey the beauty of the classics. But Stone appears to understand these works primarily as stories: not even moral or philosophical tales, but stories as in complex plots which, by compacting time and space, bring a story format to salient moral quandaries of their time.
However, that is not all that a classical play is.
A classical play is important because of its role in its time. Specificaly, Ibsen’s plays are important for many more reasons than pure story-telling. They are important because (in no particular order): Ibsen brought realism to theatre *, dramatising the Norwegian bourgeois class and its moral quandaries; he focused on moral quandaries that were salient in his times, particularly the many questions of equality within families (wives, children) and that of truth, and how long-held lies and secrets corrupt both public and private organisations, families and the state likewise; because many of his moral quandaries were not at all discussed at the time, and his dramatisations were speech acts in their own right; because he was a great innovator of dramatic language, simplifying and liberating the stage from oppressive, long monologues and introducing chatter and conversational language to the stage.
* Placing the Chekhovian gun on the wall, I would like to remark here that Ibsen has been a long, unsurpassed grandfather influence to much too much British (and in one remove Australian) drama: condensing the great moral questions of our time to a two-hour dinner party sometimes appears to be the only structuring logic the average (not fine, however) Anglophone playwright has known since about the 1950s.
The British theatrical tradition, to which Australia is heir, holds dearly the belief that the text contains everything, and that the director’s role is to ‘honour the text’. But this really is not, and cannot, be the case: the theatre, as we know from Peter Brook, is a moment in space and time shared between the performer and the audience. A play is of its own space and time, but the performer and the audience are often from another. The moment of theatre, the original moment that made this play an important play, cannot be recreated ad infinitum until the end of time, at any corner of the globe. This is why interpretation is such an important part of what theatre is: every staging is an interpretation, a translation/betrayal of the text, which was always only a pretext, in order to re-create the moment of mitspiel or co-play of performer and audience by any means necessary: the theatrical moment that is the essence of theatre.
Like any translation, a theatrical interpretation ages and needs to constantly evolve: there is not a definitive interpretation of any play whatsoever. Patrice Pavis, the great father of contemporary European dramaturgical theory, perhaps puts it most eloquently in his book Theatre at the Crossroads of Culture:
For a long time criticism of the classics and interpretation of mise en scene have acted as if time had done no more than cover the text with layers of dust; in order to make the text respectable, it was enough to clean up and get rid of the deposits which history, layers of interpretation, and hermeneutic sediment had left on an essentially untouched text. This phantasmatic image of the classical text could develop not only into an attempt to reconstruct archeologically the historical conditions of performance, but also into a modernization of performance style (classics in modern dress, gadgets alluding anachronistically to contemporary life). In each case, ‘dusting’ the text entails an idealist assumption according to which correcting classical language is all one needs to do to reach the level of the dictional world and of the ideologemes reduced to an objet fixe, a mixture of ancient and modern times.
Pavis, the theorist of postmodernism, remarks that dramaturgs and directors have resisted this notion:
Alain Girault has noted that ‘the dusting operation implies an idealist philosophical notion of the permanence of man. “Dusting” is finally “dehistoricizing”, denying history (reducing it to surface reflection, to “dust”).’ Refusing to ‘dust off involves an assumption of historical displacement, shocking the audience with the consciousness of a formal separation which corresponds to a separation of distinct world views, Brecht notes that, after the mise en scene of Schiller’s Robbers, Piscator told him that ‘he had looked for what would make people remark on leaving the theatre that 150 years were no small matter.’
Or Antoine Vitez:
Either one leaves the dust and continues as before – the Comedie Francaise has been gathering layers of dust for a long time and masking the dust with a new layer of wax – or one can try something else. One can do more than simply remove the dust; one can alter the object itself. A vase that has been miraculously preserved can always be useful. A play is quite different. The object itself is fundamentally transformed, even if the text remains completely intact. We can no longer read it in the same way as those readers for whom it was written. What we read is a kind of memory; this consists of making distorted elements reappear to our present life – in fact, the correspondence between individual and social body.
What appears to be important in the reading of the classical text is the ability to historicize the dust, instead of ignoring it or covering it up. This practice is quite close to translation, which provides a version of the source text in the language of the new reader, who then has a choice: between a translation-adaptation that, in order to avoid slavishly copying the text to be translated, transposes the text into its new cultural context; and a more literal translation that, at the risk of a feeling of strangeness and idiomatic shortcomings, preserves something of the rhetoric and world view of the source language. Like translation, reading the classics is always accompanied by a loss of meaning, or rather by the destruction of whole facets of signification.
A classical text contains two kinds of ambiguity or indeterminacy: those programmed into the work, the kind that brings complexity to it, and those that arise out of the unforseeable modifications in the circumstances of reception: hints about class and status and morality that don’t work anymore, because we live in a different time. The first ought to be preserved, the second not so much. Finally, Pavis gives a simple rule of thumb to interpretation:
If the mise en scene can, in a new concretization of the text, suggest new zones of intederminacy, organize possible trajectories of meaning between them, the classical dramatic text may recapture the glow tarnished by the passage of time and by banal interpretations. This phenomenon of recycling grants the classical text a perennial life by founding this life, not on permanent and unchanging significance, but on change and adaptation.
I hope this has explained both the crucial role that interpretation plays in the theatre, and why I was so keen to see The Wild Duck as an interpretation of a text.
However, Stone brushes all of this aside, and reads Ibsen as the writer of great family potboilers. His admiration of Ibsen is ex tempore, so to speak: he sees in them the themes of our time, structured by Ibsen’s dramaturgical skill into crafty stories, that have a vitality and finesse of structure that is still current today, and only need to be rescued from their 19th-century language and setting, and lo and behold, we have a contemporary play. Dusting, in other words. Vigorous dusting.
And so the contours of his approach emerge: Stone’s interpretations of Ibsen (as well as of Chekov) works have been increasingly faithful to the point of literalness (and somewhat reminiscent of the works of Thomas Ostermeier at Berlin’s Schaubuehne). This approach culminates in The Wild Duck, which has had a more thorough dusting than any Stone production so far. The play has been modernised; specifically, Australianized.
Herein lies the first problem with this production: in order to achieve the contemporary-Australianization of The Wild Duck, Stone has simply re-written the entire thing. It has not been lovingly restored, not even just bleached of every reference to Europe and the 19th-century – it has become a contemporary Australian play following the same general story line.
From five acts, it has been condensed into less than 90 minutes. New scenes have been added, with no correlation to the original. Characters have changed significantly. A great deal of characterization relies on entirely contemporary-Australian circumstances: the character of Hedvig is the typical product of the Australian private school system, and her parents quite concerned about paying for it. That kind of thing. The only thing intact is the rough outline of the story itself.
Stone has always done that, every one of his productions was a thorough re-writing, but The Wild Duck shows the crucial influence of Chris Ryan, who first collaborated with Stone as a co-writer on Thyestes. Where Stone’s work simply streamlined the dialogue and modernised the language (in an almost imperceptible way), both Stone/Ryan adaptations feature entire new scenes, of a Tarantinoesque quality: not just modern but pop-cultural, not just moving the plot along more swiftly but replacing filler scenes with specifically Australian, vernacular, urban boy banter. But Thyestes was methodical: every scene of the play was replaced by a quiet moment before or after the actual event. This was a courageous decision, it asked the audience to work for the meaning, and trusted them to do so. The Wild Duck is less systematic: most of the scenes are there, but many (especially in the second half) are purely made up. Many of the new scenes are purely expositional, explaining things that remained unsaid in Ibsen’s work: the specifics of the Ekdahl family ruin, Gregers Werle’s love life, and a post scriptum to the play. These are Stone/Ryan flights of fancy, redundant, chief vehicles by which this Wild Duck distances itself from Ibsen, and, also, inelegant.
This tactic of modernization by re-writing is really quite brutal. It purges Ibsen of everything but plot. More than an update, it is recontextualised and thoroughly made-over to comply with contemporary sensibility. It is basically a remake, of the kind practiced by Hollywood. As a strategy, it is not at all subtle, and it simply cannot be called interpretation. Nothing has been left to interpret. No evidence has remained of any interaction between a director and a text. The director has not tackled the text from any angle, because he has not had to. He has literally written himself out of having to deal with someone else’s work. The potentially difficult, unruly, resistant text, a text requiring directorial work and patience and research, has been replaced with its own pliable, submissive clone. I have previously suggested that Stone’s problems with Baal stem out of this practice of not actually reading the dramatic text, but re-writing it to suit his directorial vision, and I think, based on The Wild Duck, that it was a correct observation.
To interpret a text by making your entirely own version of it is not automatic theatrical anathema; of course not. However, the second and chief problem with this Wild Duck is that it does not simply translate the text into a contemporary Australian play, it reduces the original by doing so. Every interpretation makes choices of focus, but each good one broadens or deepens or re-focuses our view, and enriches our experience of the original in some way. This one doesn’t: it does not broaden or deepen or strengthen Ibsen in any way. It doesn’t reduce the play simply in length, number of characters, lines of dialogue. It reduces it thematically, in scope. It makes The Wild Duck narrower and shallower.
Stone/Ryan simplify or altogether remove a great deal of Ibsen’s text and subtext: the sociological complexity (key force in all Ibsen’s work); almost everything to do with class and money. Characters are simplified, and with it their relationships: Gregers Werle’s blind belief that relationships must be based on honesty is excised, bereaving of motivation the one character moving the plot. In Ibsen’s play, Hjalmar Ekdahl is a tragic anti-hero whose weakness of character only gradually becomes apparent: intellectual vanity, self-aggrandisement combined with self-pity, depressive tendencies. He is quite similar to April and Frank Wheeler from Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, people who need to be tragic, not small failures, if they cannot be great successes. Ibsen’s Gina Ekdahl treats her husband’s fury at her sort-of infidelity with an ironic, tongue-in-cheek deference, which is simply beautiful to read. Stone’s couple is largely undefined, fairly nondescript bar their Australianness. The allegorical comparison of Hjalmar’s beautiful melancholy to the defeatist behaviour of wild ducks is likewise lost.
Keith Gallasch has analysed the relationship of this dramatic text to Ibsen’s Duck in great detail already, in Real Time. I am not going to do the same work once over, so please read his analysis if you are not convinced by my short summary. I agree with Gallasch’s meticulously argued conclusion: the new play is thinner in concept, weaker. Ibsen wrote a play about the weakness of human character, about its inability to face the truth, and about the way we rely on telling ourselves lies about who we are in order to get through life. Stone and Ryan have written a play about divorce.
‘Remake’ is not the right word for this sort of appropriation, but it is closer and more correct than ‘interpretation’. Of interpretation, I saw very little. The play has been greatly simplified in order to match its time and place, and Simon Stone’s entire interpretive guiding logic seems to be modernization; making it relevant again (re-relevantisation?). Unfortunately, that is just not enough. No theatrical interpretation ever has tried to make its text anything other than relevant to its time and place: modernization cannot be the sole aim of an interpretation. That is very much confusing the bathwater for the baby.
And then, Stone achieves the modernization by removing a great deal of nuance and depth from Ibsen, most of its larger, philosophical undercurrent – effectively emphasising the melodrama. And he does it by adopting the easiest approach possible: total rewrite.
And finally the Chekhovian gun shoots: because Ibsen became the guiding spirit of so much contemporary English-language drama, with his era-unravelling dinner parties, this new text, by Stone and Ryan, becomes just another contemporary Australian play about how divorce damages children, not at all different in form from anything that might have been written afresh in 2011. Does it work? Well, people have enjoyed it across Sydney and Melbourne. It has the triple bonus of being an easily digestible contemporary play, of being well-written, funny and moving, and of somehow being a 19th-century classic at the same time, making one’s enjoyment of it vested with self-interest and perceived virtue. It shows us ourselves in full minute detail, and pulls us apart in a fine plot. This is why I prefaced this review by noting that there is nothing wrong with anyone enjoying this production: it is very consciously designed to be enjoyed, and it is skillfully executed to do so.
However, there is more to theatre than just craft. There is interpretive and artistic ethics. There is no method to this interpretation, no discernible philosophy, no systematic dramaturgical approach, nothing but the imperative of ‘making it relevant’. It makes us see ourselves in Ibsen, but at the expense of a great deal of complexity in Ibsen. It does not reveal anything new, hidden in Ibsen’s work. It does not find contemporary relevance in Ibsen – it finds Ibsen in a contemporary story. It says: Ibsen is like us. It does not say: we are like Ibsen. It does not make one understand Ibsen better.
(And I suspect it does not make one understand Australia better either, because, however well translated, it is still a story from another time and place. The plot is still gripping, but teenage suicides and bastard children, family secrets and loss of bourgeois face are not themes of our day and time.)
And as interpretation, it fails. I thought long and hard about the equivalent sort of move I could draw a parallel. It is not quite pastiche, and it is not parody either. It is a simplifying analogy, rather, driven by a certain kind of evangelical, popularising impulse (and here the second Chekhovian gun goes off!). It is this:
But it is also, in another way, this:
Both are valid things to do, but can you see my point? Neither image offers an interesting new interpretation of Christianity, even of the tradition of visual interpretation of Mary and baby Jesus, per se. To do that, we need to go at least to Leonardo da Vinci. Or Wim Delvoye.
None of this may be perceptible to a person unfamiliar with Ibsen’s Duck. They might simply enjoy the story, and their own enjoyment of it. Since there is a great dearth of well-made stories about contemporary Australia, The Wild Duck, like The Slap, provides a necessary mirror to our society, however distorting, however illusory. And it seems quite clear that this production has been designed with that kind of audience member in mind, just like those African, evangelical Jesuses.
However, a production that simplifies in order to get the audience on its side is a production that patronises its audience. To an informed audience member, it says nothing new, nor interesting, about Ibsen, Norway, or the world. In Pavisian terms, no new zones of indeterminacy have been suggested. The work has been overexplained, simplified, narrowed, betrayed beyond all requirements of translation.
It remains competently made theatre, and one that achieves what it sets to achieve: turn Ibsen’s Wild Duck into a contemporary Australian play. However, like with Thomas Ostermeier, I do not see any validity or value in this approach. In order to give it any more credit, I need to be convinced that Slapifying Ibsen is a worthwhile aim in the first place.
[…] I wish to link today to another recent essay which is not entirely unrelated, Jana Perkovic’s “The Slapified Ibsen,” a critique (“review” is too dismissive a word for it) of Simon Stone’s production […]
he calls you ‘Ms Janovic’ at the bottom 😛
Hi Jana – as promised on twitter, some responses in more than 140 characters. This is a fascinating analysis, and there are ways in which your critique is entirely fair. The Wild Duck, as you say, has very little to do with Ibsen’s play. I read it again right after seeing the show, not before, and was actually surprised by how little of Ibsen’s original remains. It’s effectively a new play, drawing on some of the themes and characters and ideas in Ibsen’s work, but reworking them completely. Hence the “after Ibsen”, which is quite a common literary trope: in poems it means something quite a lot different, something inspired by, even a tribute to, but not limited by the original (it happens a lot in poetry).
It is, as you say, an interpretation: but it’s not necessarily an interpretation of the original text, in the same way you could speak about Baal. Baal was a translation, a good contemporary translation, I thought, which was very close to Brecht’s texts; as I recall there were some cuts and edits, but the relationship between the original versions and the text that was performed was pretty transparent and traceable. (You can read Willett’s translations of Brecht’s versions of the play and pretty much compare Tom Wright’s version sentence by sentence.) You can quite legitimately critique that production, positively or negatively, on what it then makes of the text in the light of Brecht’s writing: whether it illuminates it or not, whether it gives us a “new” idea of Brecht or not, whether that text is worth doing or not 100 years later.
The Wild Duck is an entirely different phenomenon; I thought maybe two or three sentences remained from the original play. Hence the “after Ibsen”. So I guess that while it’s not unfair to compare it closely with Ibsen’s text, nor to say that it’s not as good as the original, I do think it a little unfair to closely compare it primarily expecting it to be something that exists to throw light on Ibsen’s Wild Duck. I think it’s so loosely related that it deserves to be experienced and interrogated on its own merits. You don’t read, to take perhaps a ridiculously prominent example, James Joyce’s Ulysses in order to understand Homer.
We differ markedly on the production: in my view it’s not a melodrama, not a theatrical version of The Slap, not even close, but a contemporary tragedy. The dislocations caused by its setting in an imaginary Norway/Australia do something other than naturalise it here, in the way of The Slap: they heighten its emotional narrative, making the experience of it confrontingly painful in a way that something like The Slap can’t hope to attain. This is the only way in which the production becomes “relevant”: what I most admired about this production was the subtlety and finesse of its emotional narrative, in the writing and especially in the performances, and how surely and patiently it built to its shattering tragedy. It surprised me, frankly: you don’t often see that on the Australian stage. And in this way it’s true to Ibsen, whose plays, for all their intellectual structuring, are emotionally volcanic. (You mention the Schaubuhne’s Hedda: my main problem with that was its bloodlessness, how it drained all the emotional peril and sensuality from Ibsen’s play. This production did nothing of the sort: it filleted an emotional narrative out of it. Admittedly, it’s a different emotional narrative to that which exists in Ibsen’s play: but here we turn back to that vexed phrase, “after Ibsen”).
I think it’s awfully reductive to say that “this new text, by Stone and Ryan, becomes just another contemporary Australian play about how divorce damages children, not at all different in form from anything that might have been written afresh in 2011.” I’ll be lazy here and quote from my own review: “The sinews of Ibsen’s obsessions – the past that haunts and destroys the present, inheritance and paternity, the social critique of class and gender, the plutonium-enriched explosion of truth – are boldly translated into present day forms.” It was all there, in the text and the action: and especially in the emotional movement of the play. The existence of emotional extremity doesn’t necessarily mean a work is melodrama: nor does it mean that intellectual/moral argument is entirely absent. Here the production’s dislocated naturalism and the precision of the performances, for my money, assured that it wasn’t. Melodrama (and I actually don’t have a problem with melodrama, its being something that, done well, I really enjoy) is stylised, heightened, and mannered: this wasn’t. And quite aside from the question of its relationship to Ibsen, surely those performances are a lot more than “competent”? I thought the acting was about as good as you get.
For me it was interesting having just seen Summer of the Seventeenth Doll at the MTC. I thought that Wild Duck was thoroughly melodramatic, and firmly in the Australian tradition of which The Doll is exemplary. I don’t think it’s enough to say (as Alison does) that melodrama is “stylised, heightened, and mannered”, but even if we do limit it to that, I still think Wild Duck fits.
In the same way that The Doll was hailed as “revolutionary” in its time for its contemporary “relevance” to the Australian situation, Stone’s Wild Duck seems also to be, at best, merely “relevant”. Just like The Doll, The Wild Duck has little to say about — or demonstrates little awareness of — the form in which it is presented. Such formal notices as it does post are limited, as Jana implies, to tropes like the offstage gunshot and entertaining games involving the glass wall.
Much like The Doll, the wonderful craft with which Wild Duck has been staged only serves to reinforce the prison of its genre. To gather all the cultural noise characteristic of modernity and shape it into a concise and stylish ninety-minutes is impressive. Even Lawler needed three hours. There is method here. It is not mere dusting. In order to be “relevant”, you can’t just ignore the noise; there must be a method to its presentation. I’ve seen Ibsen made contemporary before, Ibsen as merely dusted off, updated, and it doesn’t look like Stone’s Wild Duck.
What Jana calls the “Tarantinoesque quality” of many scenes is precisely this methodology. Yes, the method in Wild Duck is different to the method used in Thyestes, but it is a dramaturgically rigorous method nonetheless. But my question is, where are the moral questions that might annihilate this method, might crack it open? There is nothing in this production that seems to me capable of shattering the sheen of “relevance”.
I don’t feel as though the “inheritance and paternity, the social critique of class and gender” that Alison mentions are adequately explored. Where is the tension between Christian truth-seeking and capitalistic nihilism, the dilemma which Ibsen identifies at the cultural heart of northern Europe? These aren’t presented as problems, but as themes. Like Jana, I feel that this was a play where the only real problem was a “contemporary” one. I.e. divorce.
Tragedy is not a form — I think — that is ever “relevant” or “contemporary”. Even Thyestes, which I do think was a tragedy, though it had contemporary colour, existed in a time out-of-time. Ibsen wrote hybrids — part tragedy, part melodrama. What gives a play like Ibsen’s Wild Duck its tragic aspect is that it is incommensurable to its time. No matter that he observes his time with close, naturalistic detail, his plays, or at least the ones I know well enough (Little Eyolf, Brand, Ghosts, Peer Gynt, The Dollhouse, Hedda Gabler), do not sit comfortably in that time.
What is disappointing about Wild Duck — and I’ve heard a few people say vaguely similar things — is how easily the praise heaped on it precisely measures the event. Great storytelling and great performances and great presentation. It is a great play. With Thyestes, no matter how much praise is heaped on it, none of it is commensurate to the event. Thyestes is out-of-time and can’t be absorbed into journalistic appreciation.
So I don’t know how useful Jana’s quotes from Pavis and Vitez are in assessing the work as an adaptation of a classic, except as an entry point. To see “Ibsen as the writer of great family potboilers” is a valid act of interpretation, and great deal of thought has gone into the effecting that interpretation. Ibsen as melodrama? Why not. There is plenty which could be made of the contending traditions, the cultural connections between Australia (deeply melodramatic) and Europe (essentially tragic).
But here is why I don’t think that The Slap is an adequate comparison. Yes, The Slap is a massive melodrama, but (a) The Slap, both book and tv show, doesn’t come close to Wild Duck in terms of craft. The Slap is a badly told story. And, more importantly,(b) The Slap is a cultural critique. It does actually animate deeper cultural problems than the contemporary problem of disciplining children. I don’t think the Wild Duck contains such a critique.
Though it doesn’t pretent to be a tragedy, The Slap confronts our failings. The Wild Duck does not. No-one fails — everything slides by as “fate”. Tragic fate is a cop-out for moderns. Yes, the tragic aspect that Ibsen wrote into his play is impossible, here and now. Interpretation isn’t enough. All that is left is to perform that part which Ibsen wrote against: failure. That’s a risk which Wild Duck doesn’t take.
I completely agree Jana. For me the perfect encapsulation of the play’s atrophy was the bemusingly banal final scene, in which Hjalmar and Gina awkwardly chat as if they were characters from a daytime soap opera … ‘So, how are you doing, good? Hey, wanna get coffee? Maybe get back together? No? No. Ok. Bye.’ I sat in the audience with a horrified expression–part indignation part befuddlement … I was thinking, what the hell was that? Compare that with Ibsen, who has Gregers grapple with truth, destiny, ideals and morality… This coupled with the attention-deficient concision-obsessed chop/change timing failed to create the needed tension to catapult the audience toward the tragic climax (I did not observe a single tear in the house). Hedvig’s characterisation as a borderline half-wit instead of emphasising her role as youth’s fragile innocence also undercut my emotional response, but I guess that’s a more subjective response. I could go on, but suffice it to say … totally agree.
I’m a little horrified by this critique as it contains so much that I cannot agree with. But I’ll limit myself to two points:
1. “Teenage suicides and bastard children, family secrets and loss of bourgeois face are not themes of our day and time.” Sadly, they all are. I’m glad they’re not part of your world, then.
2. Daniel, you “did not observe a single tear in the house”? I wiped away my tears and happened to see three people on my right doing the same thing. My friend had a similar experience on his left. When I saw Peter Hall’s wonderful traditional production in London in 1990 I don’t recall many tears in the audience. Perhaps we were all just bathing in the intellectual pursuit of it all?
Hello everyone! I am on European time, so I am by necessity responding with a delay. I will try to continue at a level that matches your very astute observations. (By the way, please: I wrote this review in impossible circumstances, and I don’t think it’s the best expression of my thoughts possible. I won’t hold onto any subprime arguments, so you’ll see me distance myself from my review here and there.)
1. ON BEING MOVED
Chris, Daniel, Alison – In the glass, I saw reflections of many people behind me wiping tears. Absolutely, it moved many. No argument there. That was the guiding idea of the production. In fact, I think that was the only idea guiding the production: to move the audience. It does not draw out a single major theme, nothing like masculine hubris, money vs pride, self-centered heartbreak vs responsibilities of parenting: it is genuinely all about a (heartbreaking) divorce. This is why it enters the territory of melodrama, rather than tragedy. The only sustained dramaturgical focus of the production is on the screwdriver with which it is piercing your heart.
Sure, fine. A scan of Alison’s appraisal reveals a lot of high value placed upon this (I quote): “they heighten its emotional narrative, making the experience of it confrontingly painful”; “subtlety and finesse of its emotional narrative”; “surely and patiently it built to its shattering tragedy”; “emotional peril and sensuality”; “emotional movement of the play”; “emotional extremity”. But that cannot be the only criterium for assessing art: how high it scores on the chart of emotional pornography. What is the value of being moved? Why do Australian (because European don’t) critics and audiences hold it in such high esteem, above apparently all other effects art could have?
Is it not possible to say: it made me cry, but it wasn’t a good work? It made me cry because of its naked effort to do so.
Alison – I originally wrote a paragraph on acting, but deleted it because it was dispersing the focus of the text too much, and I thought the acting had exactly the same qualities/flaws as the writing and direction, so I was repeating myself. I thought the acting was slightly too big for naturalism it attempted – as if it wanted to look small but was worried it might not have the necessary effect if it stayed small throughout – again veering the whole show towards melodrama.
Andrew – when you say that there was dramaturgically rigorous method to The Wild Duck, can you please elaborate? I just did not see any, nothing except naked ambition to make us cry by whatever means.
Alison – this work is precisely not at all like Joyce’s Ullyses, because it stays in the exact same genre, which Ibsen innovated in, but which has solidifed into convention, if not cliche, by now. I think Andrew says something akin in his comment. This is why I said remake, African Jesus, Super Mario Jesus.
Andrew, Alison – the reason why I compare Stone/Ryan’s achievements to Ibsen’s is because they themselves already amply exploit and profit from the connection. Their work is simply not a separate work of art yet – they keep Ibsen’s name, characters, and the entire plot line. (When Alison praised how “surely and patiently it built to its shattering tragedy”, she is referring to the qualities of the plot.) You cannot take someone’s plot and characters, make a work in the same form and genre, and then demand for your work to be assessed on its own terms. Again – this is why this production is much better if you don’t know the original. But then, many copies, forgeries, remakes, adaptations, etc, are.
I brought in Pavis because he is the singlemost important theorist of interpretation in contemporary theatre, hence a good starting point. Of course, here we are not talking about a conventional theatrical interpretation, so his use is limited. But, because I think there is an ethical question underpinning our discussion, it is incredibly important to refer to and keep in mind the principles, philosophical and ethical, of theatre-making.
“The only sustained dramaturgical focus of the production is on the screwdriver with which it is piercing your heart.” — Although you have an ungenerous way of putting it, this ambition to touch the audience emotionally, and the methodical and unified way in which that ambition is pursued is basically what I mean by rigorous dramaturgy. I don’t think you can completely ignore how stylish the product is, nor how happily it achieves its ambition. That doesn’t happen by accident. No, it’s not subtle, but that doesn’t mean it is any less rigorous.
I won’t go into specific examples, because I don’t think that’s what you want, but i think stone’s duck does have a coherent and persuaisive arrangement (though, as you say, much more persuaisive if you hadn’t read it before). None of which means that I wasn’t disappointed.
“Why do Australian … critics and audiences hold it in such high esteem, above apparently all other effects art could have?” I expect this is a rhetorical question? But obviously one doesn’t update a play simply by adapting it to a new time and place, but rather to a new taste and tradition.
Fantastic reading, this.
Chris, I apologise if I denied your emotional reaction, that was not my intention. My criticism was not to ‘bathe in the intellectual pursuit of it all’, far from it. I wanted to go there emotionally, I honestly wanted to feel it. I guess I didn’t make the connection clear enough between the closing scene and my by the by comment regarding the final audience response. To put it more clearly: for me, the emotional climax of the play should have been the characters’ reaction to the tragedy–and so it is in the original. Your child just shot herself through her chest attempting to win back your love, trying to set things right with a terrible act of self-sacrifice … the trauma, the guilt, the loss, the regret, the why, the what-have-we-done, the what-should-we-have-done … these should have been the sources of tears. So what was that final scene? At that point I cared diddly-squat if Hjalmar and Gina get back together or not; I didn’t think to ask, ‘I wonder what Hjalmar is getting up to now? Is he still sad?’ If that is the final bookend to the tragedy, in my opinion we’ve missed the point. I don’t want to make a mountain out of a molehill, but I thought it was the clearest encapsulation of how emotionally and intellectually there were missed opportunities. I agree with Jana, not to say that it was bad theatre, but reading the reviews and tweets, you would think it’s the Second Coming.
Hi all – I’ve noticed that when emotional extremity is enacted on a stage, it’s often described as “melodramatic”, as if emotional extremity is not something that occurs “in real life”. (“Too big”, as you say, Jana: as if life itself were bereft of such moments. Life, in my experience anyway, is by no means so colourless.) What baffles me even more is the implication that an emotional response is incompatible with an intellectual response, as if the two things were opposite, rather than different faces of the same thing. I don’t believe art is about only creating emotion – I personally don’t have a lot of patience for work that involves only emoting, nor the idea that theatre is only about empathy – but I do think the force of feeling The Wild Duck enacted on stage can only be made with a great deal of intelligence. That’s about a lot more than “plotting”, or easy plucking at an audience’s heartstrings: it’s about nuance, generosity of comprehension, a certain courage, and most of all precision. It’s these qualities, and the questions within it, which saved it from “emotional pornography” for me; no way would I put its dramaturgy next to the kind of unearned emotional manipulations we see in so many contemporary plays (say, Joanna Murray-Smith’s Ninety). There are other things going on, and the complexity of response I felt was about more than having my feelings taken for a nice walk. (Those who weren’t moved would have a different experience, and I can’t speak to that.)
I’m not arguing that we don’t have a different play; I am arguing it is wholly within the rights of the artists concerned to make something different of it, and for those differences to be perceived on their own merits. It is, clearly, a play in dialogue with Ibsen, and it does raise questions that are not a million miles from Ibsen’s concerns. It is now an essay on bourgeois marriage: the dishonesty of the institution is exposed both in Werle’s impending nuptials (and his disastrous former marriage) and in Hjalmar and Gina’s marriage. Werle is both successful and predatory, the man on top of the heap who has won everything: wealth, a young wife, social status. Hjalmar is the unwitting victim of Werle’s predatoriness: his father has been imprisoned, taking the fall for the very criminal activities that made Werle rich and which the course of Hjalmar’s young life. As well as having some kind of breakdown and abandoning his studies, he married Gina, not realising that he was a cover for her affair with Werle. In this version the marriage has grown into a genuinely loving relationship, with its own truths: the tragedy, which is I think is what that resonated with those who responded to this production, is that this truth cannot survive the dishonesty at its heart, and the eruption that occurs when it’s exposed. Hence that final scene, which shows that healing is not possible. This dishonesty is quite clearly structured in the society that is sketched for us here, and it quite clearly emerges from Werle.
At issue is the question of familial relationship, and in particular marriage, and how it is corrupted to the core by the dishonesty of the society that produces it. The question of Hedwig’s paternity erases in Hjalmar all the lived reality of raising and loving her, just as Gina’s initial infidelity destroys the lived reality of Gina and Hjalmar’s marriage. And yet it clear to the audience, and even to Hjalmar and Gina themselves, what is more “true”. The tension is between lived relationship and the social expectations of it, when the society itself is deeply corrupt.
As the agent of this double-edged truthfulness, Gregers is again complex: he perceives the familial happiness of Hjalmar, and it raises in him a disgust, because he knows the truth and believes Hjalmar to be an unwitting victim of deception. He doesn’t have the fanatic idealism of Gregers in Ibsen’s text: he is altogether more empty. His relationships are shallow, flinching away from feeling; there’s a hint that he thinks all real feeling is a lie, and wants to bring Hjalmar into his disillusioned world. But you also get the feeling that he’s driven by a deep envy, that he is half consciously an agent of destruction, just as his father is a careless agent of the same thing.
Werle himself is like those people from The Great Gatsby, which sum up the carelessness of privilege: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…”
It may be that the emotional power of the production serves to erase these aspects in the minds of the audience, however much they feed into their responses. That’s another question, I think.
It is 1am here, and I again have to delay my proper response due to timezone issues, but I just wanted to say – sometimes I really enjoy disagreeing with you, Alison, until the discussion pushes you into clarifying and articulating your response to the work in great detail (much beyond your first review). It always feels like a beginning, not a middle or an end, of a conversation. Thank you for that.
‘Pushes’ might be too hard a word; no suggestion of calculated violence intended. Provoked? Enticed? In any case, it arrives through the discussion, and is a beautiful thing to receive.
Oh, the same to you, Jana: I find it equally enjoyable. Isn’t it what argument is supposed to be about?
I would like to thank everyone for the wonderful discussion! I have enjoyed reading it and now feel compelled to comment as well.
There is a big point in the critic that comments that this production does not address any of the bigger issues that Ibsen addresses, especially larger societal issues (I am paraphrasing). It is said that this production is too simple. I would like to challenge, that it is not that simple and addresses a very large issue that is being debated in Australia, as well as in many other parts of the world. The issue is the ‘sanctity of marriage’ and who has the right to be married.
This play challenges the myth of the sanctity of marriage. It illustrates that this issue is not only a modern day one, but one that has existed for centuries, as Ibsen addressed it. It reminds us that heterosexual people can be predatory, as Alison points out; even though homosexuals tend be portrayed as predatory, such as in the very recent political ad in Queensland.
How this play illuminates society and Ibsen, is that is provides us with historical context. Humans tend to only think in the immediate or recent past, we tend to forget the really big picture. This play demonstrates that marriage does not make everything perfect nor is it perfect, either now or in Ibsen’s time.
On the question of what the last scene is about – in my opinion it is the most real and natural one of the entire play. It is reality. It clearly demonstrates that life goes on, despite tragedy (or melodrama). It demonstrates that life is bigger than all of us. Which I also think teaches us something about Ibsen.
On a side note, Ibsen had an illegitimate child that he never acknowledged, except with child support. This fact makes the scene between Hedvig and Werle in this production all the more interesting; as well as, illuminating the broader issue of the sanctity of marriage.
Finally, in a world where we are encouraged not to feel because that would lead to thinking and reflection; a play that encourages people not just to like it, but moves them to tears is welcome. The fact that this discussion is even taking place, means that play has done its job.
I strongly object to this statement of yours: “The fact that this discussion is even taking place, means that play has done its job.”
No. This discussion is taking place because a number of people have taken a number of hours out of their day to argue about and analyse this play. These are critics, largely not artists. One could critically discuss the alignment of roads in the city (and I do). That does not automatically mean the alignment of the roads has high artistic merit. What it means is that we are bringing our critical faculties to a problem that might appear mundane, but does reveal deep implications for the world.
This is how critical thinking makes a culture.
I found this whole critique inherently flawed because it seems to work on a base assumption that in updating a play into a new context, a writer must only change the language and the literal setting.
I’d love for you to correct me on this point, so I can discuss with you those that are less pressing, but far more interesting.
Hello Jacqueline, welcome to GS.
Above your comment, you will find 3,000 words in which I tried to articulate my position in somewhat greater detail. If you are not interested in that, I really don’t see how else I can help you here.
Thank you Jana – it was such a relief to read your clever independent review . I was struck though by the absence of any discussion of the staging – I came away feeling as if I’d been watching the recording of a radio play. Coincidentally – or not – Radio National has been airing quite a good radio version of Ibsen’s play recently. I wonder too what you thought of the brutal use of recorded music. For me it was so successful in blocking any emotional engagement I might have felt that I assumed it was intended to have that effect but I don’t know why.
You are not asking the difficult questions – the criticism amounts to another form of intellectual porn 🙂
What dramaturgy would you prefer to have seen? Something more deeply philisophical? Troubling? It would have just validated you in a different way.
Your issue is with the mainstage generally, not this production in particular. The mainstage always functions to deliver pleasure, and to push the buttons which need to be pushed. That there is dramaturgy at all, in any sense, is only significant given that there is no demand for it.
You would have been better for not seeing this work and seeing something which can actually departs from the giving or denial of pleasure, which is in the end a completely bourgeois binary which should be reserved for the cinema. (Tarantino)
Theatre can and should be about different things other than this boring and mundane passtime which promotes passivity and doesn’t achieve anything other than meditation and essentially pandering. In this way it can be active and not merely a means of selling tickets and building careers.
As a critic you should be pointing the way forward, not encouraging a picking of the low-hanging fruit. In the end your analysis and the subsequent discussion only affirms the production, warts and all.
‘Melodrama’ means dialogue spoken over music, something Stone has spared us so far. ‘Thyestes’ was no marvel once you worked out its trope: each enacted scene was a conceit on the preceding surtitle: it did, however, present the most moving acting I saw that year – David and the recorded ‘phone message. Nothing as moving blessed ‘Baal’ or ‘The Wild Duck’. I had a long conversation with Nick Schlieper after ‘Baal’ in which we found out that he had achieved a multiple of an adjacent possible in the fall of the flats and the rain – I had imagined a similar collapse of the set for my dream ‘Don Giovanni’. Acting in ‘The Wild Duck’ appropriate for ‘Neighbours’ or ‘Home and Away’. Miking and set: shockers. Music at climax, after gun shot: ‘Dies Irae’ from Berlioz’s ‘Requiem’. If am wondering what recording of it Stone is using instead of being slammed by the affect of the farrago, something, I think, has buggered up. Look, I’ve spent over 20 years with Ibsen, since my VCA ‘John Gabriel Borkman’ (Archer translation) in which hardly anyone moved, mouths excepted, and an actor played with doors as with her cunt, and I have learnt that he writes as a serious satirist, even blasphemer – 13 at table in the ‘Duck’ – and you must show him as pitiless and as stark as he writes – he yields no catharsis but slams you with his granite. Schaubuehne ‘Hedda’ pissy also. I sat in row F and watched a bad movie in which the men were as one and all made for the couch. I fear we are entering the cycle of water plays, mud plays, sand plays, and furniture plays, in which ever seat must be sat in by all.
While I truly wish I could meaningfully contribute to this debate, without seeing this production or reading the “translation” I’m afraid I’m at a bit of a loss. However, I do want to point out that there are adaptations and adaptations, updates and updates. One of the most interesting of these in the recent past was the Andre Gregory/Wallace Shawn/Louis Malle film “Vanya on 42nd Street,” based upon a translation by David Mamet. Mamet, like many so-called translators, worked from a literal translation prepared by others, so if precision means anything, perhaps we should be more careful about how we bandy about words like translation and adaptation.
I also note that Gregory and Shawn are next tackling Ibsen’s The Master Builder, “which Shawn has translated and adapted”:
There is more than one way to skin a cat, or to adapt/update/translate a play, apparently.
I had hoped the ‘Bygmester’ was mine. I always work from literal translations, often to the dismay and anger of others. There’s a line in Karen Vickery’s literal translation, made for my notorious – no chairs – NIDA production of Chekhov’s ‘Ivanov’ (‘he and the Count would fuck the flaps off Babakina…’) that still haunts me – although I remember the sheer grinding power of an actor making ‘The Count hasn’t finished his tea yet. What a waste of sugar!’ into a tsunami – and angered staff members, including Gale Edwards in her leg-warmers, out of date even in 1983. That’s where she’s remained in skill and temperament. Olivier said somewhere that Ibsen was very bad for young actors: the subtext was filth and nothing else. A literal translation of Strindberg’s ‘Miss Julie’, directed by me for the MTC – a shit production – ran 5 months. An audience member wrote to the company about the right pronunciation of ‘valet’.
Guten Abend Leute! Responses follow.
It totally shows that you haven’t been going to the theatre much. If you think The Wild Duck patronises its audience, believe me, you’d be mightily, mightily offended by almost every production at the MTC.
I’m with you on the way the play changes the role of Gregers. That struck me as a disimprovement on the original (which, like you, I read shortly before seeing the performance) and an unnecessary one. But I think you’re being way too dogmatic here, selectively using evidence to support your thesis, rather than crafting a more supple (and less stentorian) thesis that embraces all the evidence.
What about Hedwig, for instance? Her character has been the most radically changed of the lot, and I think you need to address that change – surely an example of added complexity and sophistication, where the original had less – for your argument to be convincing. Gosh, Hedwig barely does anything but breathlessly exclaim “The wild duck!” in Ibsen’s version. Frankly, I can’t see a way of doing her original dialogue in a modernized version without having her sound intellectually disabled. Making her a spiky, precocious teen is a definite improvement, I reckon.
As for The Wild Duck working largely because people haven’t seen the original … It’s true that most theatregoers in Melbourne haven’t seen the version Ibsen wrote. That’s a huge problem with adaptations that rely upon a thorough knowledge of the playtext to generate their intended effects, and I sometimes wish directors would just do the classics in period with no frills, to help remedy the breach. Then they could present whatever postmodern wank they liked to an informed audience.
I AM mightily offended by almost every production at the MTC. I very rarely go. I have seen a small number of productions there, and I have walked out of probably over a half of what I have seen. To the extent to which I have some sort of critical practice, this practice in no way grows by me seeing mediocre, unambitious theatre of the MTC kind. I don’t learn anything by being angered there.
I AM mightily offended by almost every production at the MTC. I very rarely go. I have seen a small number of productions there, and I have walked out of probably over half of what I have seen. To the extent to which I have some sort of critical practice, this practice in no way grows by me seeing mediocre, unambitious theatre of the MTC kind. I don’t learn anything by being angered there.
The Archer translations of Ibsen are very important: they show the words Ibsen wrote to be stressed. Where Anglo-American authors might use italics to show stressed words, Ibsen, Scandinavian and German authors, Wedekind, Brecht, adopt a different typographical convention: they s t r e s s the keywords by spacing the letters as if each was a word. This has no immediate bearing on ‘The Wild Duck’ (from which I can’t remember one intonation) or ‘Baal’ (where I could not hear, understand the speech acts of the women or Baal himself). Last night I watched a bit of ‘Packed to the Rafters’ because an actor I have worked with frequently, Dina Panozzo – a fine classical performer – was turning in a degraded spot as someone’s Italian mother. She demonstrated even in the muck a quality of listening and attentiveness absent in Stone’s work so far: it’s weird that the fine work of David in ‘Thyestes’ was addressed to a mechanism, the answer ‘phone.
Andrew – I challenge your statement, again. I agree (I would not dispute) that the production is done with a lot of skill. I am aware that we see a lot of absence of skill on our main stages. But presence of skill does not equal presence of artistic vision. ‘Let’s make it stylish’ is not a dramaturgical decision.
This is why my question is not a rhetorical question (not at all, and I might add that I don’t think I ask rhetorical questions very often in my life more generally, so if in doubt, assume not). The only way in which you can continue defending your line of argument (that having an emotional impact on the audience at the cost of narrowing, simplifying, in-relative-terms butchering, etc, the original text, is a worthwhile pursuit) is by making a case for why having an emotional effect on the audience is a highly ambitious and valid pursuit.
Soap operas largely exist to make us emotionally involved, and sacrifice plot, character, and verisimilitude in the process. When we talk about most ‘genre’ storytelling, we talk about forms that focus squarely on satisfying a certain audience appetite, often for emotion. I am not accepting your argument that this form of emotional pornography, however cloaked in a classical realism, is self-evidently artistically meaningful.
Daniel, Chris – I am wary of entering discussions along the lines of ‘my child also killed themselves, and I cried, therefore it must mean something because I, due to my specific life experience, am entitled to judge the emotional success of this play‘ – because once we enter it, we can’t get out. The discussion cannot proceed if invalidating someone’s emotional experience risks re-traumatising them, and if every turn out of a position might be an assault ad hominem. Let’s just not do that.
I would say that many people had substantial emotional reactions. I was truly moved in exactly one moment that corresponded to an event my family has gone through. However, I was alienated by the production’s obvious need to emotionally rape me without offering anything in return. In particular, as Meredith and Peter point out, the music at climax. The need to incite audience sensually or emotionally, without then taking responsibility for this state of emotional vulnerability by trying to deliver something else, something more, some insight, some conclusion… that is pornography in its pure sense (if you read Gail Dines, she interestingly and convincingly explains how misogyny is very quickly spread via pornography, because its messages are delivered to recipients in a state of total intellectual and emotional vulnerability). Again, unless someone in the room is willing to argue why this emotional arousal on its own is such a significant artistic goal that failures of form and content may fall by the wayside, unaccounted for.
Richard, George – I completely agree that there is more than one way to skin a classic. I am operating from that assumption. But while they might all be legitimate, they are not all going to have exactly the same levels of success in exactly the same aspects. I understand that we are discussing the relative merits and demerits of a particular tactic.
Richard, I think it is precisely not my role here to be pointing the way forward. I write a lot about performances I see, in Australia and in Europe and on film, that I think point the way forward. I analyse them in detail: what they do, how they do it. It is completely outside my control if a review of a mainstage show fuels a big discussion, where the other haven’t…
Michele, Cameron and Alison, you all argue that there is something important that The Wild Duck does other than corkscrew our hearts, and convincingly, which is why I left it to the end to respond to your arguments. Also, I need to add, I am hellishly tired, and doing completely other things on the other side of the world. Not anyone’s fault, just a deterrent to this conversation.
Cameron, Hedvig. I am choosing my words very carefully here. What would you respond if I suggested that she was actually not much of a character, but a pose? That her entire character consisted of parroting faddish teacherly paroles, peppered with relatively simplistic sexuality? She was perhaps a boy, and perhaps borderline Asperger-afflicted, but, while she was among the most developed characters, she wasn’t much of one. All of her responses, to everything happening to her, were along the lines of ‘here is what we have learned about this phenomenon at school; hear me talk; admire my parrotliness; mistake it for intelligence’. I found the predictability of her character’s reactions infuriating above all else in the work. The possibilities are three: 1) all Australian teenagers are emotionally underdeveloped like this, and I am out of touch; 2) the new Hedvig was accidentally written as a boy, a particular kind of boy, possibly because the writers are male and developed female characters take skill; 3) this behaviour, what my friend Julian Novitz, who saw the play on the same evening, called ‘intellidumb‘ and not unusual, is someone’s idea of their ideal grandchild. Hedvig was in a bubble. Her response to her parents’ argument was to complain that she did badly at school because she couldn’t focus. She showed very little, if any, awareness throughout the play that other people had emotions. This was not problematised or critically framed in any way: not even the way in which the teenagers in The Slap were admonished and authorially cheek-pinched. There was no awareness in the text that her behaviour, or that of any other characters, deserved to be probed further. The production was not trying to say anything about these modern behaviours. The verisimilitude to reality was employed primarily as reality varnish, as gloss to cover 100-or-so years that have passed.
I cannot stress enough that I think this is an important topic of conversation.
Michele points out the importance of the last scene; “it clearly demonstrates that life goes on, despite tragedy (or melodrama). It demonstrates that life is bigger than all of us.”
The biggest thing missing from The Wild Duck is the complexity that Ibsen wrote into Hjalmar Ekdal’s character, which bursts out in the original ending. After doctor Relling has diagnosed him (“But then, when our dear, sweet Hialmar went to college, he at once passed for the great light of the future amongst his comrades too. He was handsome, the rascal — red and white — a shop-girl’s dream of manly beauty; and with his superficially emotional temperament, and his sympathetic voice, and his talent for declaiming other people’s verses and other people’s thoughts —”), after Hedvig is found dead, after Hjalmar and Gina are devastated, Relling and Gregers have the following exchange (which closes Ibsen’s play):
This is a very, very, very different conclusion from ‘life is bigger than all of us’; rather, it is a bigger conclusion, more complex. We all know that life is complex, and that marriages break over trauma. I don’t know that we know too much about this place where Ibsen takes us: self-pity, melodramatising one’s own life to feel it bigger, more meaningful, the allegorical relationship between Hjalmar and the wild duck. Because the bitterness on the edge of the story is lost to the Stone/Ryan production, we are left, so to speak, with Hjalmar’s view of the events, which is self-pitying, not at all Ibsenly cool-headed. Buried within the enormous plot of The Wild Duck, and the story of lifelies, is the tenacity of a man who is making lifelies as he lives, making his life into a bigger thing than it is. Ibsen sees it and exposes it; Stone/Ryan’s Wild Duck perpetuates it.
Here I can perhaps return to Alison‘s comment: “when emotional extremity is enacted on a stage, it’s often described as “melodramatic”, as if emotional extremity is not something that occurs “in real life” “. I am not sure who does this describing, so I don’t know how common it is – but I am reacting not against ’emotional extremity’, but a comfortable, safe re-interpretation of a set of relationships that are much more dubious, indeed extreme, in the original.
In Stone/Ryan’s Duck, a marriage is based on a lie, it collapses, a child dies. Everyone gasps. The music thunders, just in case. A few years later, the parents are shown as broken but doing alright, their relationship irreparable. Everyone knows what a tragedy it is to lose a child! Everyone feels sorry. Everyone sheds a tear.
In Ibsen’s Duck, the father is over-emoting the entire time. He must leave, now that his marriage is based on a lie. His wife slowly and quite cynically draws him back into the family, massaging the dialogue so that his righteousness survives unchallenged. The child dies, and, whilst genuinely devastated, he immediately embraces it as an act that re-enobles his life. The latter is not a melodramatic account, but the former is.
I enjoyed the production – but left bemused why I was so emotionally unengaged.
Other members of the audience were touched, wiping away tears,… but the production left me cold.
My response to understanding why this happened has to do with some of the production elements:
– The glass set made me consciously aware that I was ‘observing’ a play – and the reflections of other audience members that I could see further highlighted a kind of hyper-visuality – that I was watching other’s watching the play. This I think, created a sense of detached observation which in some ways is closer to the underlying aims of ‘Naturalism’ than Ibsen’s Realism – which enlists a scientific detachment and objective empiricism to observe human behaviour and where the theatre becomes a kind of laboratory to analyse human interactions.
– The use of mics to amplify the voices of the actors, including the breathing, sniffles, and the use of the sound effects (particularly in the last scene with sounds of the ‘graveyard’, the car door, and the vehicle driving off) also seemed to create a kind of ‘hyper-realism’ – again reinforcing a particular mode of viewing where I felt I was ‘peering in’ – observing and hearing a ‘slice of life’ – which again is much more akin to Naturalistic theatre than Ibsen’s Realism.
There are many other aspects of the mise en scene I could point to such as the use of the surtitles noting day and time, the blaring music, even the presence of the real duck,… all these elements I think reinforced a particular kind of objective viewing that I link to the aims of Naturalism rather than Realism.This left me cold.. feeling like a scientist observing an experiment in a theatre – rather than being caught up in the stories of the character’s and invested emotionally in their struggles.
As a consequence – it some ways it makes sense to me that a detached ‘amoral’ attitude and a focus on exteriority was what I was left with (Naturalism) as opposed to what one might expect of Ibsen with his focus on interiority and depth and the imperative that the function of art and theatre is to facilitate progress and to to ennoble the mind and uplift the spirit (Realism).
If you said Hedwig was not a character but a pose, I would ask whether, when I sit down to drink with you at the pub, I sit down with a pose and get drunk with with a character …
What is the distinction you’re trying to draw? This Wild Duck is very much about surfaces, and how opaque they can be … that’s the tragedy here, is it not? And one the glass enclosure speaks to, just as I’m sure you’re aware it speaks directly to Ibsen’s Realism – not the side of it that calls for meticulous verisimilitude in design, but the side that sees human beings through the prism of Darwinian evolution, for the animals we are.
You’ve every right to decry the characterisation as shallow, but I think taking the above into account, an evaluation like:
Hedvig was in a bubble. Her response to her parents’ argument was to complain that she did badly at school because she couldn’t focus.
is tendentious to the point of perversity.
Sure, Hedwig is in a bubble. But her response to her parents’ argument is, um, to shoot herself isn’t it? I read the brittleness of her regurgitating factoids and maxims and the Mickey Mouse quality of her intellect as defences against her own powerlessness in the situation she finds herself in. There’s obviously a lot of black shit going on in Hedwig’s mind that only gets refracted indirectly in her surface behaviour. But I think it would be unfair (and a little crass) to read the surface behaviour as the sum total of the characterisation, just as it would be to infer that a woman is a bimbo simply from her appearance. As for the gender question, I’ve never been a girl, so I can’t speak from experience, but from imagination, I can envisage the constellation of human qualities we got in Eloise Mignon’s performance converging in a girl like Hedwig.
She’s certainly more interesting than the cipher she more or less is in Ibsen’s play. I note you express no opinion on Ibsen’s characterisation. Don’t you think it’s problematic?
At this point in the conversation the old frames seem still to stretch the dusty portraits: Naturalism, Realism, and Characterization,the last the revealing through time of a certain paradigm and how that paradigm is altered by its encounter with others. The paradigmic affect is not only carried by developing or decaying mortals but also in their interplay with other soul/body paradigms, and with the often unremarked paradigms of momentary or abiding other properties of the stage or performing space: light, sound, a word, a gesture. (My first production, ‘Prometheus Bound’, took place at 5.30 am in James Birrrell’s Underground Car Park at Melbourne University: I wished to employ the space’s ‘virtual’ downward pressure and heaviness as a trope for Prometheus’s, Io’s, and Chorus’s imprisonment under the new regime of Zeus. I don’t want to be historicist but has anyone else in the field of interlocutors read Zola’s manifesto on Naturalism, even though he ties it to the incremental debilitations of the nosologically defined inheritance of syphilis through the Rougon-Macquart novels? (I am not proud of that sentence.) Has anyone else read Strindberg’s introduction to, and its machine infernale following-through in, ‘Miss Julie’. (See the actions of Kristin and what he admonishes her to do.) I am trying to make the point that both manifesto and introduction proffer stylizations, every bit as stylized as the Comedie Francaise’s Racine or an Aboriginal opera, every bit as stylized as any director’s or actor’s choice at any moment or as we choose to make in bar or bed. QWERTY is for English or US fingers a stylization. Everything we do or say is a stylization, get used to it. On the night I went to ‘The Wild Duck’ the participating audience’s (I’m fed up with the term ‘reception theory’) stylization was a deep, glowing smirk in the foyer, not lubricated with tears, to recall earlier moments in this conversation.
I believe with Brigid Brophy that art occurs when stylizations are yoked into potent designs. Some of my own work has been garlanded as ‘hyperrealism’. Ironic in that I’ve been seeking the stylization ‘hyporealism’ in works such as ‘Usurper of the Plains’, ‘Lines in the Desert’, ‘Porn Piece’, ‘The Butterfly Effect’ (Melbourne City Baths, in which ‘surface noise’ drove the principals to seek ways of living under (‘hypo’) the water. The trope for the show was simplicity itself: for the seasoned freestyle lap-trainer – as I was – there is nothing worse than another trainer employing the butterfly stroke in that the decent distances between trainers are fucked up by that halting, anaerobic stroke, thus the pool lanes become distorted, emphasized in the production by the dividers being set loose, the ceiling showers being turned on, and a mass evacuation of the pool area by swimmer-performers and audience-aping performers (they mimicked the audience directly through their bodies, not through the glass darkly of ‘The Wild DucK’) after an absolute unison gesture, leaving the trapezist Sally Forth, who had, till the closing moments, occupied aerial space with the showers, in those moments, to haltingly begin the butterfly stroke, a return to the piece’s seed of ruination: thus 6 regions were engaged: the ceiling, the void between it, the audience gallery, the water and concourses, water surface, concourses, and water depths. The show was, I think, hyporealistic in that its drivers were spatial and material levels alone, its affect was in their interplay and confusion -devoid of Naturalism, Realism, and Characterization. I’ll state something once more: sorry, Jana or Michele, ‘To be 13th at table’ is Ibsen’s last line – has no one picked up the Last Supper dig? Cameron, to whom I owe an apology for the ugliest first night in my experience: does Bernard Smith’s ‘Modernesque’ contain traces of ‘postmodern’ nuts as do some icecreams?
At this risk of going even further off topic, I recall seeing a show in the late eighties where I was so traumatised by Peter King’s programme notes that I subsequently found it impossible to engage with the show. Not quite sure what made me think of that.
I must have been in my diktat period when I believed that audiences could view performnce through ‘low-level scanning’ ie. as Abstract Impressionism (Audette, Fairweather). The works of this period were picked up and written about by international academics. All very gratifying but I was pushing words where they shouldn’t go. As if they were performers themselves. I still don’t know why gripped engagement is an essentiaI for theatre viewing at the moment. I know now I shouldn’t have published the words as they obscured the strain of figuring AI in performance. I never could match the epigone Kosky in program fervor, irrelevance, and the Yawn of Trauma. Stone hides his sources to the extent that no performer in ‘Thyestes’ knew the link, the crucial link, between the Theban tragedies and the ‘Oresteia’, the rape of Chrysippus by Laius, Oedipus’ true father. The rape brings death to Laius and the Sphinx to Thebes. A program that traumatised me was that for the STC’s ‘War of the Roses’ in that the flowering family tree in it had fuckall to do with the action: the vertical drop of gold, the upward/downward arcs of sack shot into the air by Falstaff and Hal, the usurpation of all colour by Henry V, and the horizontal emission of white and red in ‘The Contention’ or ‘Henry VI’. This directional firing was absent in ‘Richard III’, the weakest part of the lot. When we return to ‘The Wild Duck’ we are given programs that don’t divulge much, perhaps a performance-making or rehearsal diary, published in good faith, would detail the deforestation (cf. ‘A Public Enemy) and reveal the enforced shrinkage of style and import. Back to to the 13, is anyone Judas? Or is he accommodated in them all?
Unless I hated the show, I don’t read program notes. They’re usually rubbish. Besides, one of the pleasures of criticism is finding beauty in the art the artist didn’t know was there.
[…] responses from individual blogs. For recent examples, take Jana Perkovic‘s essay on The Wild Duck (however much I disagree; I was blown away by the production), or Alison’s review of The […]
[…] though, some time later, it has. For some in-depth critical analysis, and a bit of fun, check out Jana Percovic’s review-essay on her blog, Guerrilla Semiotics. The Al Crog even rushes in to defend the production within the […]