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Sunday, February 2, 2014

Shakespeare, Theatre, And Moral Principle

Henrik Ibsen is most widely known for his depictions of liberated women, especially Nora in A Doll’s House who walks out on her husband of many years saying she can no longer live with a stranger.



She leaves both him and her children in an act of determination and courage:
HELMER: To leave your home – to leave your husband, and your children! What do you suppose people would say to that?
NORA: It makes no difference.  This is something I must do.
HELMER: It’s inconceivable! Don’t you realize you’d be betraying your most sacred duty?
NORA: What do you consider that to be?
HELMER: Your duty towards your husband and your children – surely I don’t have to tell you that!
NORA: I’ve another duty just as sacred.
HELMER: Nonsense! What duty do you mean?
NORA: My duty towards myself.
There is no moral nuance here.  Nora has been subjected to the domination of her father and her husband, both of whom have treated her as a doll – a plaything, an inanimate object, someone to be kissed, loved, and put back on the shelf.

In later plays, such as An Enemy of the People, Ibsen begins to introduce the theme of individual moral responsibility and how it squares with the venal demands of society.  Stockmann believes it is his duty to expose the contamination of the town’s baths, thus saving its citizens from disease and death; but he finds that few people support him.  The Mayor is concerned about the economic damage to the town by shutting the baths and as importantly the damage to his reputation. The newspaper which prided itself on aggressive journalism, capitulates quickly to the power of the Mayor and the town council. 



Stockmann refuses to budge, but as the threats and intimidations become more serious, he considers recanting, withdrawing his scientific paper, and saving himself and his family from humiliation and disgrace.  Eventually his moral drive is restored, and he vows to fight to the end.

In Rosmersholm Ibsen introduces two new elements which complicate moral principle – psychology and Nietzschean will.  Both Rosmer and Rebekka are driven by high moral purpose – to support the progressive revolution in Norway – but fail because of common human feelings of guilt, love, and sexual passion. They are not as strong and determined as they think, and are defeated both in their political and personal ambitions.

In The Master Builder, and Hedda Gabler Ibsen takes the issue of morality one step further.  Both Hedda and Hilde are fully-realized Nietzschean characters.  They are beyond morality, good and evil.  They act for no other reason than to control others, to manipulate them to undertake acts of greatness, heroism, and tragedy.  Characters like Tesman, Hedda’s ineffectual husband, represents conventional morality.  He acts responsibly towards his friend and competitor who has written a seminal work that will overshadow Tesman’s own minor works; and when Hedda destroys Lovoborg’s great work in a cruel act of vengeance and control, Tesman vows to recreate it in Lovoborg’s name.

However, the play is dominated by Hedda, who has no time or patience for petty moral restraint.  She understands the great power that is derived from amorality and intends to use it as the greatest expression of individual purpose.  Such self-interested, amoral action is the only validation of existence.
In The Master Builder Hilde has the same amoral ambitions, and sends the architect Solness to his death simply because she can.  He will overcome his fears and heroically climb the tower of the building he has built thanks to her.  Standing on the steeple he waves to Hilde, then falls and is killed.  Hilde has won.  She has achieved her ambition, convinced Solness of his greatness and power, and it matters not to her that the object of this ambition dies in the struggle.

Solness believes he is doing a defiant and heroic act – he will finally reject God and the Christian guilt he feels over the fire that burned his wife’s house, and for the subsequent death of his two children:
SOLNESS: And when I stand there, high over everything, and hang the wreath over the vane, I will say to Him: Hear me now, thou Mighty One! From this day forward I will be a free builder—I too, in my sphere—just as thou in thine. I will never more build churches for thee—only homes for human beings.
Solness reaches for greatness and a willful independence, but is too weak to achieve it.  Only Hilde triumphs:
HILDE: [As if in quiet spell-bound triumph.] But he mounted right to the top. And I heard harps in the air. [Waves her shawl in the air, and shrieks with wild intensity.] My—my Master Builder!
Chekhov is unconcerned with morality or moral judgment.  His plays are notably lacking in dynamic conflict such as those of Ibsen or Strindberg (The Father). His women are neither strong nor determined, nor are they defined by will or purpose.  They do not attempt to influence anyone for personal gain or higher purpose and are simply trying to sort out their own displaced lives.
Chekhov’s plays move away from the focus on a central heroic figure. Instead of heroes or villains, the later plays tend to feature ensemble casts of characters who are neither particularly good nor particularly bad. In Three Sisters, the sisters are indeed heroines, but their actions are not typically heroic. Mainly, they endure….As Richard Gilman has observed, the sisters’ waiting to go to Moscow resembles the Vladimir and Estragon’s waiting in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1952), written half a century later.
Beckett’s novel, The Unnamable (1953), would end with the line “you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Chekhov sounds the same theme of endurance. At the end of Uncle Vanya, Sonya recognizes that nothing in her life or her uncle’s will change and says: “You and I, Uncle Vanya, we have to go on living. The days will be slow, and the nights will be long, but we’ll take whatever fate sends us.” (Pericles Lewis, The Modernism Lab, Yale University)
Arthur Miller brought morality to the forefront of American drama and made it the central theme.  All characters were defined by one moral or immoral act.  In All My Sons, Joe Keller made essential components for World War II fighter aircraft – components on which the proper functioning of the engines depended.  He and his partner decide to cheat the government and make engines that are below standard but cheaper to produce.  As a result, many American aviators crash and die.  Keller withholds this fact from his family; but eventually the truth comes out. 

The moral issue is complicated by many factors.  First, Joe Keller escapes prison on appeal, but his partner in the crime is convicted. Keller says nothing, and lets his friend and colleague take all the blame and the social ostracism that results.  Second, Joe’s oldest son finds out about the original conviction of his father and commits suicide because of the shame he feels.  Third, the younger son, Chris, is at first enraged at his father and determined to send him to prison; but on second thought he decides to keep the secret, let his father suffer alone, but keep the family together.  At the end of the play the father can no longer take the guilt he feels for killing the 21 airmen, and for destroying his family, and kills himself.

The Price is a more nuanced play, and one which echoes Ibsen in its presentation of a moral issue complicated by personal passions and psychological weakness.  In it two brothers have followed different moral paths.  One, Victor, has chosen to stay and care for his aged and infirm father, sacrificing career and promise for him; while the other, Walter, has gone off on his own and become a successful surgeon, contributing little to the support of his father.  It turns out that in fact the father had more than enough money to care for himself, and in Walter’s opinion, Victor has wasted his life on a duplicitous and immoral father.  Victor resents the criticism and blames his brother for being a derelict son.  His father needed Victor, money or not. Finally Walter confronts Victor with the truth – Victor needed his father more than his father needed him.

View from the Bridge is a drama of revenge, jealousy, and morality. Eddie becomes increasingly jealous of an illegal immigrant, Rodolpho; and despite having been willing to hide and protect him from the authorities, he turns him in.  Eddie pays for his treachery and blinding jealousy and is killed by Rodolpho’s friend, Marco. Once again Miller revolves the play around a moral issue – betrayal – but, like Ibsen, concludes that there is no such thing as a purely moral or immoral act.

For other playwrights like O’Neill, Albee, and Williams morality is less the issue than personal and family dynamics.  There is no moral issue in Streetcar, for example; and Blanche and Stanley are playing out familiar, primal passions of sex, domination, and fantasy.  His other plays like Glass Menagerie and Eccentricities of a Nightingale explore the theme of sexual repression and desire, fear and insecurity, and the perception of reality within a life of illusion. 

Mourning Becomes Electra is a grand guignol melodrama of murder, incest, duplicity, and ambition.  No one would ever suggest that Lavinia or Christine Mannon ever thought twice about moral principles in their jealous fight to the death.  Long Day’s Journey and other later plays of O’Neill are more restrained and less hysterical, but they also are focused around family dynamics rather than moral principle.



Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf does not explore the moral implications of George and Martha’s manipulation and destruction of their two young guests, nor does it suggest any criticism of the purely selfish motives of both characters.  It is all about survival.

Shakespeare is the most interesting of all playwrights because of his total lack of concern for moral issues. He does not challenge the limits of good and evil like Ibsen or Strindberg; nor dismiss the concept as irrelevant to ordinary, bourgeois lives as Chekhov does; or ever give a moral cast to the struggles of kings, queens, and courtiers. Even O’Neill, concerned about family destruction, does address morality indirectly (his morally deficient characters pay the ultimate price for their sins). 

Shakespeare is unwaveringly Machiavellian and pre-Nietzschean in his view of the cycle of history and the place of human events within it. None of his heroes are supremely good heroes – even Henry V sends thousands of soldiers to their deaths because of questionable claims of royal legitimacy.  Many of his characters are beyond morality, such as Iago, Edmund, Goneril and Regan, and Richard III; but most simply turn the wheel of events according to their ineluctable human nature – self-protective, acquisitive, aggressive, and brutal.



For Shakespeare the question of morality never, ever comes up.  Even Tennessee Williams at times moves beyond his familiar stage of personal and family drama and takes a moral stance.  In Orpheus Descending, for example, the Christ-like Val is brutally murdered out of narrow-minded, ignorant jealousy and hatred.  The killing of Christ is not a neutral act as the many palace beheadings, poisonings, and stabbings were in Shakespeare.



Shakespeare is forever the objective observer of human history.  Although the stories of Lear, Othello, and Hamlet are tragedies in a theatrical sense, they follow the pattern of the endless cycle of amoral historical events just as those of Henry IV, Henry V, or Richard II.

Shakespeare is the greatest playwright in literary history because he wrote 37 complex, intricate, and diverse plays – all in elegant, expressive, metaphorical verse. He explored the most persistent traits of human nature; and whether in his Tragedies, Comedies, Histories, or Romances, was unfailingly true to his personal vision – there are no heroes or villains in the world.  Only individuals following the dictates of their innate and unchangeable natures.

It is tempting to conclude that Shakespeare did take a point of view – that his ‘villains’ in their amoral pursuit of power, dominance, and control were superheroes, and that their amorality raised them above the herd – but with the exception of Iago, all had something practical to gain from their efforts, and they were simply playing out history like everyone else.

In any case, morality is an excellent lens through which to view the world. No one is exempt from moral scrutiny; and one’s own definition of moral action is in many ways the most telling aspect of character.

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