“The Lady from the Sea”: The utopia of a reality

1. The highlighting of the function of the hidden laws that apply to the social co-existence of the individuals, as well as the commitments concerning individual freedom posed by the bourgeois society, are some of the commonest topics in Ibsen’s works that, every time, are approached from a different angle.

Some indicative cases are those of the “vital falsehood” in “The Wild Duck”, the social hypocrisy as well as the character’s (Doctor Stockmann) equivalent vigorous reaction in  “An Enemy of the People”, the subject of women’s emancipation in “A Doll’s House” and “Hedda Gabler” (with Nora and Hedda respectively) and so on. Apart from that, of equal importance is the playwright’s interest as well as his engagement with issues concerning the human (especially women’s) psychology and the interpretation of its scenic presence and action, based on motives of such nature that sometimes are latent and at other times are obviously recognized. (“Rosmersholm”, “When We Dead Awaken”).

“The Lady from the Sea” is perhaps a synopsis of all the conditions and factors that define and orientate the action as well as the behavior of the central female character and regulate the course of the dramatic conditions and relations in the play. However, under no circumstances can one presume that it is a representative case of social confrontation and conflict of the acting subject with the existing structures of the system, without of course fully refuting the social background that causes the action and shapes the relationships between the characters. Nor is the issue of women’s emancipation presented and commentated to such an extend and with such intensity, that the central heroine (Ellida Wangel) can stand next to Nora or Hedda and be compared with them. What finally remains to be seen (which might be closer to the creator’s intentions, as well as the expectations of the modern audience), is the psychographic interpretation of the personality, as well as the quest for motives that are not based on social, objectively counted and interpreted causes, but mostly on disguised and at times undisguised powers that come from the Unconscious into the Conscious and therefore define the heroine’s choices. The repressed Past that lives boxed into the Present and shapes the Future, clashes with the objective reality. The Utopian/Imaginary element is juxtaposed with the Realistic/Real one and whereas -for a moment- it seems that it can predominate over the idealistic overcompensation of the Present, eventually, its unfeasibly utopian content is proved. And this is exactly what drives Ellida to take her final decisions and freely chooses the Present instead of the Past.

2. It is unquestionable that Ibsen belongs to the category of the Modern Drama founders. However, the question posed here is the following: up to what extend are the messages carried through his plays still timely in today’s society of postmoderninty? Without us supporting their characterization as “out of date”, they highly demand a different, more contemporary interpretation, which will offer them the necessary timeliness and equivalence with the circumstances existing in today’s world that will enable them to be transported into the present day. This may be achieved, not only by exploiting the immaculate architectural construction as well as the almost mathematic development of the plot and its dramatic action, but also by presenting the psychographic predisposition and outlining of the characters. In contrast with Strindberg, who proceeds to a full revelation of his characters’ inner world by bringing hidden psychic passions and ulterior subconscious conditions to the surface, Ibsen’s heroes and especially his heroines insinuate rather than reveal the oppressed feelings that torment them, along with the repressed circumstances that cause their specific choices. This is the reason why the director’s intervention for an up-to-date interpretation of Ibsen’s works should be considered almost obligatory- of course, under the condition that the dramatic structures and the internal speech that support the action, have been suitably preserved.

“The Lady from the Sea’, is an excellent example of a characteristic case of a play, in which the symbolic content of the title (“Lady from the Sea”) may function in a revealing sense for the full understanding of the play, in combination of course with the folktale element, as well as its psychoanalytic interpretation (not only the image and the parameters of the “mermaid” as a mythical creature, but also the allegory of the Subconscious). The sea with its rich symbolism and everything that derives from it (serenity, calmness, vastness, charm, challenge), surpasses the specification of the heroine’s name and displaces any sociological specification, in favor of an interpretation of  psychological nature, as the one that the meaning of the word “Sea” may contain.

Likewise, one might claim the same about the “Stranger”, who is also not presented as an individual in his social reality, but mostly as an anonymous power that wields some magnetic attraction on Ellida deriving from the ideas of the Past and the Sea. Therefore, being unable to “leave in the sea”, or “leave with the sea”, Ellida prefers to stay at home with her husband gazing at the sea, thus remaining its “loveless lover” (“A Virgin Pure”) forever.

3. Ibsen is a playwright that “loves” his characters and expresses understanding for their passions and weaknesses, by being limited to a detailed reference of their behavior as well as an indirect outlining of the reasons that cause it. There is always the Past that functions as “the power that instigates the action”. This specific action intervenes dynamically in the Present, by “ramming” the complacency of its heroes and therefore causing the conflicts that arise after the revelations brought to the Present- i.e the scenic time and space, in which the plot develops (such characteristic examples are those of “Ghosts” and “John Gabriel Borkman”).

In “The Lady from the Sea” the sequence of all these parameters is indeed determinant, in the sense that the action cannot only be interpreted as boxing of the Past into the Present. A Past that has not been irreversibly lost but emerges from the mnemonic oblivion, thus substituting the Present. For a while, the Repressed from the Conscious (-and here the necessity for a psychoanalytic dimension of the scenic presentation of the play is obvious-), displaces the objectively real over an illusive, utopian reality, which is simply proved to be a kind of the heroine’s misguided consciousness frolic.

It is exactly this frolic spirit between the Present and the Past, the Conscious and the Unconscious, the Imaginary/Utopian ant the Realistic/Real, that constitutes the charm that Ibsen’s works appeal to the 21st century spectator.