The Lady From The Sea


Almeida Theatre, London (2003)

In The Lady from the Sea is one of Ibsen's most elusive plays.  Ellida, the protagonist, is a woman who has been brought up not simply in sight and sound of the sea but with waves under her feet and at her window pane...she is the lighthouse keeper's daughter.  Married to a widower with two growing girls, she seems detached from her husband and family, remote to the point of alienation.  There had been, it is revealed, before her marriage, another man in Ellida's life.  A seaman.  Memories of this man appear to be invading her with more and more domination.  Is he real?  Will he, as she says she fears, come back to claim her?

        There is something strange about Ellida Feral.  She doesn't fit in.  Her step-daughters are daunted and resentful at her seeming unwillingness to be part of their world.  Is her remoteness the result of an isolated childhood, peopled only by birds and sea creatures, to the ever-changing sight and sound of water?  Or are there psychological reasons for her state of mind?  Is she damaged - ill?  In need of treatment?

      The Lady from the Sea has been described as an early example of the influence on literature of Sigmund Freud.  Are we dealing with the nature and stresses of Ellida's subconscious?  Is she suffering from the effects of R.I.S. - Repressed Infantile Sexuality - (the basis of Freud's theories)?  It seems not.  The psychology of the play owes a great deal more to the distinguished pupil and famous usurper of Freudianism - Fritz Perls.

      Fritz Perls was a student of Freud's in Vienna.  At first devoted and respectful, he became disenchanted when, at close quarters, he perceived his idol to be a depressed claustrophobe and began to ask questions and make a nuisance of himself.  Perls later famously defected from Freudian orthodoxy.  "I abandoned" he said "Freud's shit for my own shit" - (irreverence being his persistent raison d'être.)  A Jew, Fritz escaped Austria for, eventually, New York, where he practised as a psychiatrist until colleagues had him ejected for his refusal to do lobotomies.  He went to California and helped to create the Esalen Institute which developed Group Therapy, thereby rescuing modern psychological practice from predatory commercialism and the imposition of dependency created by one to one protracted analysis.  Perls' doctrines were based on a simple phrase: "Grow Up."  He conceded that to become an adult was neither simple nor easy, that to remain in the subservient, dependant state was less arduous and less frightening - "take care of me, I didn't ask to be born."  He was scathing of "Men Do, Women Are" and of the female in the tower waiting for the prince to arrive.  "Grow up" Perls said. "Put your boots on, look around at the world - your world - decide what to do, and make yourself useful."

      All of which was said years earlier by Henrik Ibsen, art, as always, preceding science (politicians please note.)  Ibsen knew he was a genius.  He provides enough plot and action in his plays for the most literal audience.  But there is always more... strangeness, something unsettling.  He himself wrote of the influence of winter in the remote whiteness of Norway, with the ominous and ever-changing sea so close.  Those influences are overt in The Lady from the Sea.  There is a restlessness, not confined to Ellida but infecting everyone.  The play is a sea poem.

      A note.  In many productions of The Lady from the Sea one can be forgiven for wondering why Ellida stays with the boring old doctor when she could clear off with the handsome stranger.  But Dr Wangel is in the prime of life.  He is also a man with a beautiful wife who won't sleep with him.  The atmosphere in the household is Bergmannesque, to put it mildly - murderous when the Stranger's appearance completes the classical triangle.  If we are allowed to empathise with the agony of the doctor as well as the pain and bewilderment of his wife, then the play works.

        Another note.  Ibsen, in his 60s, fell in love with a 19 year old girl.  They corresponded for a year before he ended the relationship for reasons of propriety.  It may be as a consequence that the play, which is highly sexualised - everyone yearns for someone else - deals with the younger people with such affection and tender amusement.  The young ones are allowed to be mischievous, silly and to dream.  For the grown-ups, the climate is cooler.  Dreams are for adolescents.  Ellida has the choice to remain enmeshed in immaturity, etiolated by leave with the Stranger on the quest for extended youth.  Or of abandoning the girl for the woman, rejecting dream and fantasy for the complexity of the here and the now.  To grow up, to mature, means to take on responsibility.  But also to be capable of true ecstasy.

                                                                                                                                   Pam Gems