January 24, 1998: Ibsen, Little Eyolf

Barbican Pit. Matinee

Translation by Michael Meyer. An intense, painful drama about marriage, married love, and its lack. Naming the play after the nine-year-old son of the central couple, Alfred Allmers and his wife Rita, gives him, and what he represents, a thematic centrality that provokes much thoughtfulness. The play makes clear that there are two Eyolfs — the little one, the boy, and a big one, Asta Allmers, Alfred’s half-sister; in their youth, Alfred had given Asta the imaginary name of Eyolf, and a certain relationship hinting of incestuousness had developed. The play begins with the return, after some weeks’ absence, of Alfred, who has been trying to write a great moral treatise on the responsibility of men. But we find he has given this up, in favor of a new agenda: fathering his nine-year-old son, who fell from the table as a baby and injured his leg and who now walks with a crutch. The son, well played (by either Nicholas Robinson or Dominic Kraemer), becomes fascinated by the Ratwife, a strange woman who rids households of things that “gnaw” by leading them into the sea, where they drown, at the end the first act, leaving the adults to make the best, or the worst, of their intense feelings. Little Eyolf seems a kind of living reminder of neglect — Alfred and Rita argue over whose fault it was that the baby was injured — and therefore a powerful incitement of guilty feelings. Those feelings become only more intense when, after he has drowned, the bereft husband and wife must find a way to go on. Asta is drawn into their relationship in some neurotic and self-destructive way, but in the end she breaks free and decides to go off with Borghejun, a civil engineer and friend of the family who has just won a commission to build new roads up in the mountains. To Asta the choice is an extremely clear one, and she has the courage, finally, to make it. Rita and Alfred, left to themselves, determined to open their house to the wayward boys who play on the seashore.

The character of Rita is an authentic Ibsen female character, and her case is generalizable. Like many women, she is not one who is drawn to child-rearing, feeling herself unfit for the task and finding that her child comes between her and her passion for the man she loves. She has a large libido and constantly finds herself frustrated because of Alfred’s distraction and preoccupation with larger issues. The truth of the matter is that Alfred does not really love her; he has married her for her money, in order to provide for himself and for Asta also. In Act I, Asta brings him a portfolio of letters containing a revelation (letters of their father) to the effect — we find out later in the play — that they are really not brother and sister. But Alfred insists on reverting to the brother-sister relationship, and wants her to stay on in his household, making a neurotic triangle (that would end up satisfying no one). It seems almost uncharacteristic of Ibsen that he would allow one of his characters (here,Asta) to break free of such a doomed, self-destructive relationship, but he does.

This is an extremely powerful, intense, and tightly focused play, very well acted all around. The set was reminiscent of the sea, and of ice. The walls were of a mottled deep blue, as was the perimeter of the floor. The main acting area was a platform about eight inches high, square, and fissured, as if a great slab of ice had been struck at some point and had cracked into a hundred pieces, the pieces all connected to the one point of breaking. In Acts II and III, set outdoors near the sea instead of in the Allmers’ parlor (as in Act I), one of the jagged pieces upstage had been removed, to reveal a fjord-like inlet. The constant presence of the sea in this play helps to give it its peculiar, telling quality of proximity to great, unnameable, powerful forces that control human lives. The character of the Ratwife is crucial in this respect. She brings to the play early on an aura of mystery, of the unnameable, of magical and mysterious forces that only she can command. Her task, we find, is to read human lives of “the things that gnaw.” But in fact the guilt that gnaws at these rather pitiful human beings cannot be so easily expunged. The intensity of the acting was sometimes a little hard to take — too much shouting and quivering with lips — and I missed some of the dialogue as a result — but overall this was a very powerful production that evokes intense feelings in its audience; certainly it did so in me, though my feelings are very likely to be engaged whenever the play presents a child whose life is lost — as here, and as in Albee’s A Delicate Balance.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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