Ibsen Versus Strindberg

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Compare and contrast views of the family and family relationships shown in the plays of Ibsen and Strindberg, commenting on the relative importance in each case of social and psychological pressures, as well as physical environment, and showing how these are expressed in theatrical terms.

This essay will be focusing on three texts written over a three year period: Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (1890) and August Strindberg’s The Father (1887) and Miss Julie (1888) . In approaching this topic, I have decided it best to confine my study to these three plays rather than attempt an overview of either playwright’s canon. I intend to focus on the relevance of the father in these plays, specifically analysing how the role of fatherhood is explored. Furthermore, instead of trying to take into account every possible reference to ‘family’, I will be limiting my focus to what I regard as the three central family relationships in these plays: Miss Julie and her father; Hedda and General Gabler; and finally, the Captain and his daughter Bertha. Though other characters will obviously be relevant in this study, it is the dramatic significance of these three relationships that I will be studying closely.

Both playwrights present families as institutions prone to major tensions. While Strindberg chooses to place family firmly in the context of an instinctive psychological war between the sexes where the protagonists are rendered almost helpless, Ibsen stresses how the accumulation of psychological, social and environmental factors all contribute but not necessarily determine the outcome of the play. Strindberg’s characters seem trapped in a natural pattern of motivations from which they cannot extricate themselves, and the audience are made aware that the characters onstage are in some sense archetypes, illustrating a central point about life’s absurd struggle. By contrast, Ibsen’s work is deliberately produced to emphasise that the circumstances portrayed, though largely a product of universally recognisable factors, is still an individual case. Through its presentation, an audience can possibly identify the factors prevalent in the situation, and so learn what circumstances they must strive to avoid developing in their own lives.

Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and Strindberg’s Miss Julie are named after the central female characters of their respective plays. Importantly, both are daughters of fathers who, although absent from the stage, still manage to exert an influence over their children. There are a striking number of similarities in these two plays. Both Hedda and Miss Julie are daughters of families belonging to branches of the upper-class aristocracy. Moreover, this fact is of pronounced social significance in each woman’s case. Hedda, having recently married Jorgen Tesman, is still referred to as “General Gabler’s daughter” by her husband’s aunt. That Miss Tesman doesn’t naturally refer to Hedda either by her first name or by Jorgen’s surname hints at the close association of father and daughter. Ibsen stressed Hedda, “is to be regarded rather as her father’s daughter than as her husband’s wife” . The General’s daughter belongs to a different class, one associated with rank, and which still retains a sense of formality. Hence, Miss Tessman confides to Jorgen how she bought her new hat especially so that “Hedda shan’t be ashamed of me if we go out together” . Jorgen, rather than admonishing her for her servility, proceeds to congratulate his aunt on taking this measure; there exists a pronounced, mutually acknowledged class divide. Miss Julie is also defined by her father’s rank; the subject provides the main source of comment when Jean observes how she (a member of the aristocratic family of the household) is happy to dance with her social inferiors: “I just popped into the barn to watch the dancing, and who do I see but Miss Julie leading the dance with the gamekeeper” . It is thus possible to draw another...
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