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life-lies

The Theatercompagnie's rendition of Henrik Ibsen's 'De Wilde Eend' ('The Wild Duck', 1884) is an unflinching and crystal clear psychological drama with convincing acting all around. The play's fundamental dilemma could be summed up as whether it is better to live your life in the ignorant bliss of lies or in the harsh light of truth.

Ibsen's craftfully structured story centers around a family - husband, wife and daughter - whose lives are built on lies, though in those lies they have found a status quo of happiness. As a wry symbol of their situation, the daughter keeps a wild duck in the attic. It is characteristic of wild ducks that when they are in danger they will dive to the bottom of the sea and hold on there until they die.

The family's status quo is disrupted by Gregers (Mike Reus), the son of a dominant father who - without giving away too much of the plot - is responsible for the entire family's situation. As a consequence, Gregers is determined to remedy his father's mistakes. With zealous idealism he forces the members of the family to look the awful truth in the eye, hoping they will then be able to make a clean slate in one grand, cathartic sweep.

De Wilde Eend

On the opposite end of this dilemma is Dr. Relling (Sieger Sloot), a lonely, cynical man who has not only lost all faith in the "truth", but has been actively encouraging the family to indulge in their own lies. From Relling comes the crucial statement: "When you deprive an ordinary man of his life-lie, you rob him of his happiness."

(The concept of the life-lie was introduced by psychologist Alfred Adler, not long after Ibsen's play, to describe a "fictitious, uncomprehended and logically contradictory guiding idea" that people use to deceive themselves. Adler said of neurotics that they were "nailed to the cross of their own fiction" - a fitting description of many of Ibsen's characters.)

Indeed, Gregers' experiments with truth have disastrous consequences for the family. People can handle only so many skeletons in their closet, but Gregers throws them all out in the open, destroying their lives and happiness. By the end of the play, the remaining family members seem to have found a new equilibrium, but at great cost. The question remains whether the truth was worth all their suffering.

However, Ibsen's discussion of this theme has another dimension. Both Gregers and Relling are like puppeteers in their ideologically inspired meddling in the family's affairs. While they have contradictory aims, both are convinced they know what's right for other people, and both turn out to be wrong, blinded by their own dogmatism. Once again the wild duck provides an apt symbol, because just as the family creates a make-belief microworld (a "wilderness" in the attic for the pet duck), so too Gregers and Relling - each in their own, opposite way - create a microworld (the family they meddle with) to justify their own existence. The play's abstract backdrop, by the way, beautifully visualizes this idea of a fantasy world behind the world of appearances.

Thus all key characters in the play, while they talk of their "life task", really live in a life-lie. Ibsen's ultimate irony is to cloak Gregers' and Relling's life-lies in their condescending meddling in other people's life-lies. And what's more, the result - a family picking up the broken pieces of their former life - is ambiguous enough to affirm the life-lies of both of them.

While in all the family drama the wild duck seems all but forgotten, it still survives, clutching on at the bottom of the sea...

See also the Theatercompagnie's trailer for the play (in Dutch).

Recommended:

a delicate balance

'Wankel Evenwicht', a Dutch rendition of Edward Albee 's ' A Delicate Balance ' by Carver and Onafhankelijk Toneel at the Toneelschuur , provided captivating acting all around. But it also proved the difficulty of getting the right … Read the full post »

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