The Ottisdotter journey so far feels both ethereal and visceral: an ivy-laden path through a triad of lost loves, each wrought with its own heart-wrenching mistakes, oversights and missed opportunities. The synthesising urges of the dramaturgical mind (a mind no less brought to consciousness by Lessing himself) asks what is it that brings these three plays together; what common ground creates a lineage that unites Lady Inger, Emilia and The Feast’s Margit as a trio of enduring female characters.
Reading Act 1 of The Feast of Solhaug, however, drew me in another direction. There was something different about Margit that jumped off the page... an immediacy somehow unmatched by Inger and Emilia. Margit is there. From the beginning. Or, in our production, even before the beginning. She is the first and the last thing we see...an endurance that portrays a suffering that long precedes and, presumably, long outlasts the snapshot of her life with which Ibsen graces us.
In contrast, however, the openings of their eponymous plays see both Lady Inger and Emilia Galotti merely come through in waves. The first Inger we meet is a figure constructed through her own folklore, told not through her own words but through those of her house staff. Before we see and hear her, Inger circulates the opening of the play through gossip and song, the audience told ‘how day by day she grows thinner and paler,’ as Finn’s song tells of the ‘small peace’ that resides ‘ in that soul of hers.’ As a haunted soul, burdened by the past, Lady Inger’s reputation very much precedes her.
Similarly, we are introduced to Emilia not face-to-face, but through Conti and the Prince’s discussion of her portrait that belies her ‘love,’ ‘modesty’ and ‘female beauty.’ Before we even see her, Emilia is caught up in the maelstrom of the male desire, mediated through what we assume, in his rejection of the countess’s image, is the Prince’s fleeting lust.
Margit, however, is different. Margit comes to us not as the object of narrative or art, nor even (to begin with) as the object of desire; instead, she opens act one as a commanding and negotiating subject, subordinating the indecision of her husband whose voice is but a redundant echo of her arbitration with Knut Gesling and Erik (‘that is what I say, too’). Move aside, Marinelli... Bengt Gauteson is our new mimicking parrot.
It is once again, however, folklore and symbolic representation that tell of Margit’s undoing. Margit’s enduring difference is that, rather than being made folklore by her male counterparts like Inger and Emilia, Margit mythologises herself from the outset. ‘Lord have mercy!’ she laments, ‘I am, myself, the Hill-King’s wife!’ Fraught at her choice to marry for money rather than love, and struggling to find words that match her suffering, Margit resorts to placing herself within the defined subject positions of mythology... if she cannot come to terms with her position as a woman, she must face herself as a folkloric figure: a stock character from lore, whose choices and actions at least make sense within the formulaic narrative structure into which she projects herself.
Some might say that Margit has a ‘reasonable’ ending compared to many of Ibsen’s later women; nevertheless, her parting words to the audience still show her trapped within the myth of the hill-king and his bride. ‘I die in the Hill-King’s fastnesses!’ she cries, although her husband is dead... if she is the hill-king’s wife, why does his death not then set her free? One answer to this becomes clear... that is, because Margit’s hill-king is not only cipher for her pitiful spouse, but also represents the mythology that she creates for herself, outside of which she finds herself and her position incomprehensible and unintelligible.
10th June 2015