Quacking of The Wild Duck

Gregers Werle’s Symbols

To its first audiences, The Wild Duck (1884) was utterly baffling. “Publikum ved verken ud eller ind,” the Norwegian writer Henrik Jæger noted, “og af den Kritik som fremkommer, skal det ikke blive klogere, thi den ene Avis siger det ene og den anden det andet” (The audience doesn’t know which way to turn, and from the current reviews it will get no wiser, for one newspaper says one thing and the other another) (HU 10, 29-30).

Foreign audiences did not find the play any easier to understand. “Browning was obscure. . . . But Browning at his worst is nought compared with Ibsen,” one British critic complained when the play opened in London in 1894. The problem seemed above all to be the so-called “symbolism” of the wild duck itself. In Paris members of the first audiences at Antoine’s 1891 production quacked like ducks every time the poor bird was mentioned.

The respected French critic Francisque Sarcey summed it up: “Oh! that wild duck, absolutely nobody ever, no, nobody, neither you who have seen the play, nor Lindenlaub and Ephraim who translated it word for word, nor the author who wrote it, nor Shakespeare who inspired it, nor God or the Devil, no, no one will ever know what that wild duck is, neither what it’s doing in the play, nor what it means.”

As derision ceased and The Wild Duck became generally acknowledged as one of Ibsen’s greatest plays, critics went to the other extreme. Far from declaring the duck to be meaningless, they now uncovered ever more subtle layers of meaning in what they took to be Ibsen’s profound symbol. But as Errol Durbach points out, this is simply to repeat Gregers Werle’s attitude towards the wild duck. “Ibsen, at the height of his power as a symbolist, assigns no portentous symbolic value whatever to the duck,” Durbach writes. “He merely presents it as the vehicle for the ridiculous duck-symbolism of Gregers, for whom all surface reality is a system of transcendental referents.

Kilde: Moi, Toril. “Language, Metaphysics and the Everyday in The Wild Duck“. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/nlh/summary/v033/33.4moi.html. Hentet 10.12.19