Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Great Work Begins

Usually, when I read something 'shocking' from a century or more ago, it's hard to see how it could have shocked anyone -- think of Beethoven's 'dissonant' late quartets, or try to imagine how a man could have been excited by the sight of a woman's ankle when skirts trailed the ground. Occasionally something still works. Mrs Warren's Profession, for instance, still strains against male limits on women, and Bernard Shaw's work in general goes places where drama hesitates a century later. (I think this may be one reason some people try to dismiss his work. Yes, he was a very conscious dramatist, jerry-rigging his structures and effects as methodically as a carpenter, but even his lighter work often has a visceral undertow.)

Then there's a play like Henrik Ibsen's Little Eyolf, from 1894. (Beware: Here There Be Spoylers, though it's hard to believe that anyone could care about one of Ibsen's more obscure works after 114 years.) Eva LeGallienne, whose translation I read, commented in her introduction that the play was avant-garde in its day. I can see that, for reasons I'll try to explain, but I can also see how it plays Chicken with themes that avant-garde theatre would later glory in, and I wonder what Ibsen would have done with more freedom to pursue those themes.

Little Eyolf is the name of a crippled little boy, the son of a Man of Letters and his sensual, neglected wife. Eyolf was injured as an infant, and now limps around the scenery on a crutch like Tiny Tim (or perhaps Little Lord Fauntleroy, as he later makes an entrance in what seems to be a major Foofy Outfit). His father has just returned from a rest cure in the mountains, in hopes of recovering the strength to write his masterpiece On Responsibility. Also present is his father's younger half-sister Asta. The tense family reunion is disrupted by a visit by the old Rat Woman, a Pied Piper figure who enchants rats and other crawly things into the sea, where they drown. Allmers, the father, wants to bond with his son after neglecting him for his Great Work, to the fury of his wife Rita, who doesn't want to share Allmers even with their child.

Unsurprisingly, Eyolf in his Foofy Suit follows the Rat Woman into the icy fjord and drowns; only his crutch is recovered. As Allmers sits mourning with Asta, they reminisce how, as poor orphans, they had pretended that Asta was a boy named Eyolf, to the point that Asta wore her brother's hand-me-down clothes. We learn that Allmers had shared this memory with only one outsider: his wife Rita. Asta reveals that they are not really even half-siblings, for Allmers's father, who had married Asta's mother, was not in fact her father. It seems that Allmers and Asta may run off together, since their love will no longer be incestuous, but Ibsen stops just short of this scandalous suggestion. I was half-hoping that Asta would turn out to be really a boy after all, and that they would still run away together, but of course that doesn't happen either. Then there is a great confrontation between Allmers and his wife, who plan to separate rather than live together with the ghost of their drowned son. Thus we learn another guilty secret:
ALLMERS (With sudden anger): You’re the one who’s guilty, Rita!
RITA (Rising): I!
ALLMERS: Yes, you! It was your fault that he became – what he was! It was your fault that he couldn’t save himself when he fell into the water!
RITA (As though warding off a blow): Alfred – I won’t have you lay the blame on me!
(More and more beside himself): But I do! You were to blame! It was due to your neglect; you left him lying on the table – unguarded, unprotected – a helpless infant!
RITA: He seemed perfectly safe; he was lying on the pillow fast asleep. And you’d promised to look after him.

ALLMERS: Yes, I had. (Lowers his voice.) But you came and lured me away from him; enticed me into going with you.
RITA (Looks at him defiantly): And you forgot the child, and everything else – why not admit it?
ALLMERS: (With suppressed rage): It’s true. (In a lower tone) I forgot him – in your arms!
RITA (Outraged): This is intolerable of you, Alfred!
ALLMERS (In a low voice, shaking his clenched fists in her face): So, you see, it was you who sent little Eyolf to his death.
RITA (Wildly) It was as much your fault as mine – if what you say is true!
ALLMERS: Yes – you have every right to accuse me. We were both guilty – both of us – Eyolf’s death was a kind of retribution, after all.
RITA: Retribution?
ALLMERS (With more self-control): It was a judgment on us both. We have been justly punished. I suppose that’s why we shrank from him while he was still alive; we were tormented by a secret shame – a cowardly sense of remorse. We couldn’t bear to see him dragging himself about on that – that thing
(In a whisper): The crutch.
ALLMERS: Yes. And what we call our grief, is nothing but the pangs of conscience, Rita. Nothing else.
RITA (Gazes at him helplessly) : We shall be driven to despair – driven into madness. There’s no possible way that we can ever make amends.
Yes -- Little Eyolf was crippled because his mother seduced his father, and they were married at the time! This is beyond kink; it seems more Theatre of the Ridiculous.

It didn't help that as I was reading the passage quoted above, I was also peeking from one corner of my eye at this satirical video from the Onion, which made the whole thing seem like a parody of 19th century Sturm und Drang -- despite Shaw's adulation of Ibsen, it felt like the sort of drama he mocked in his plays. In fact, it felt Wildean: one would need a heart of stone to read about Eyolf dragging himself around on that -- that thing -- without laughing. With incest, gender-bending, primal-scene trauma, and infanticide (Eyolf's death is the fulfilment of Rita's wish not to share Allmers with him, though she does nothing overt to bring it about) peeking out through the cracks, Little Eyolf almost bursts the limits of melodrama into camp, at least from the perspective of a century later.