Pillars of Society / Henrik Ibsen

Over at A Year of Feminist Classics, March’s book is Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. So last month I checked out The Oxford Ibsen, Volume 5 from the Seattle Public Library. It contains Mr. Ibsen’s Pillars of Society, A Doll’s House, and Ghosts. According to editor James Walter McFarlane, Mr. Ibsen considered the three plays to be a loose series. In a letter to American producers, Mr. Ibsen suggested putting the three plays on in order of their publication because A Doll’s House and Ghosts form a progression of criticism of Norwegian society. So I started reading Pillars of Society rather than jump right into A Doll’s House.

Henrik Ibsen about 1869
Henrik Ibsen about 1869

Pillars of Society takes place in the the house of Consul Karsten Bernick in rural Norway. At the time, Norway was joined with Sweden in a political union under the King of Sweden, I suspect much as Wales and Scotland were part of the the United Kingdom. Norway had it’s own parliament, but the Swedish King held ultimate power. I am not sure if a consul was a local designation, a representative of the Norwegian government, or a representative of the Swedish king. Possibly Mr. McFarlane’s translation uses the word simply because it sounds respected and official.

That is the point of the designation though, respect and authority. Bernick is a pillar of society in the town. According to Karen Larsen in A History of Norway as quoted by Wikipedia, Norway was dominated by the aristocracy of professional men who filled most of the important posts in the central government. Norway was a conservative society that prided itself on its tradition and moral values. Bernick is the epitome of that.

Despite the on stage action occurring entirely in one room of Consul Bernick’s house, there are a number of plots to track. Characters enter and relate portions of the action that occurs off stage, who then leave ushering in other story relators. First, Bernick’s shipyard is repairing a couple of ships, one of Norwegian flagging and one of American flagging. As a proponent of progress, Bernick instituted new machines to the yard that threaten the livelihoods of his workers, who resent their possibly replacement. The town is also considering instituting a railway, which Bernick is secretly behind after being in the forefront of opposition to a previous railroad project. He also stands to make quite a bit of money from the project through land concessions.

Domestically, Bernick’s wife is the former Betty Tönnesen, who Bernick married a decade earlier for her family’s influence and money. Her brother Johan ran away to America about the same time in a scandal. He was suspected of schtupping and fathering a child by a married itinerant actress. The child, Dina Dorf, now lives with the Bernick’s after her mother died and father disowned her. Not only was Johan a skirt chaser, everyone in town assumed he helped himself to the funds of Bernick’s family business.

So here’s the conflict: Johan Tönnesen is back in town to visit. After all the years, he’s figured the scandal would have died down and he’d be welcome in town again. Here’s the rub: he’s innocent. He never did the horizontal boogie with Dina Dorf’s mother, and he didn’t take any money. Consul Bernick was the guilty part in the former case, and his soon to be brother-in-law took the heat to spare Karsten Bernick the ignominy. The latter incident never happened either. Rather, the company’s finances were in tatters from years of mismanagement and when some assumed that Tönnesen made off with the money, Bernick used the rumor to deflect attention away from family mismanagement. Karsten Bernick’s entire reputation is based on two giant lies. If these lies come to be known, Bernick’s railway deal is kaput along with his reputation.

Mr. Ibsen appears to be criticizing the conservatism of Norwegian society and its insistence on appearances. The standard can’t be lived up to, so it’s nature is inherently hypocritical. The result is what I’ve called a sitcom plot: rather than be honest and open, the characters maintain an elaborate charade. The drama uses the tenuous nature of the subterfuge to provide both dramatic tension and to highlight the falsity of society.

Unfortunately, such a sitcom based plot is well known these days and perhaps was at the time, limiting it’s effectiveness. The ending neatly wraps up everything in a nice pretty package, where everyone comes out happily ever after. I think Mr. Ibsen recognized the hollowness of that ending which is one reason why A Doll’s House and Ghosts take a different tack. I think a comedy could succeed at potent criticism, but it requires a much different technique. Perhaps the character’s taking the conservatism to an absurdity. I am not enough of a dramatist to know.

This ending leaves intact the social structure of Norway with the admonition that its Norwegian participants cannot get ahead in it by lying. That is an entirely admirable goal, but had been a moral precept taught (with varying degrees of sincerity) since the advent of Christianity. Pillars of Society is obviously the weakest of the trio of plays for that reason.

Strictly as entertainment, it’s all right but not spectacular. Today’s readers/spectators have seen hundreds variations on the outline, particularly in aforementioned sitcoms. Because of that, I found the story to be fairly routine, though I’m sure an inventive producer could put on an entertaining adaptation. I can’t say how I would have felt at the time though, because I don’t have enough knowledge of what theater-goers of the 1880s were used to.

Image of Henrik Ibsen from about 1869. Works created prior to 1891 are public domain in the United States.

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