Death, and more importantly, its relationship to life, plays a major role in all of the works that I intend to discuss here. As we shall see, Ibsen, Chekov and Strindberg treat the subject in a remarkably similar way whilst at the same time displaying subtle differences in artistic style and philosophical outlook.
Vera Zubarev (1997) suggested that Chekov’s Uncle Vania (1959) is the “Iliad of domestic scope” (Zubarev, 1997: 73), a notion that points to the play’s mythopoetic intentions; Chekov’s story of the decline of a Russian intellectual can, in other words, be read as the story of everyman or everywoman. Throughout the play, the stilted dialogue and repressed sexuality constantly recall a past that has been wasted (in the case of Serebriakov) or a present that is in the process of being so (as in Sonia). The opening Act is, in many ways, a metonym for the entire play and for the lives of the characters in it: the dialogue is backward looking and regretful and the sense of life, of momentum, is nonexistent, as in the memories of Marina and Astrov that form the play’s opening scene.
As Ronald De Sousa (2003) suggests, the lives in Uncle Vanya only gain tragic meaning when held in comparison with their deaths, a point that is exemplified in Sonia’s last words:
“Sonia:…You’ve had no joy in your life, but wait, Uncle Vania [sic], wait…We shall rest…[Embraces him] We shall rest!” (Chekov, 1959: 245)
Here death not only provides a relief from the privations of life but also serves as a counterpoint to the ennui that characterises the rest of the play; the character’s lives are made all the more futile and wasteful when seen in relation to their inevitable deaths, a situation that can be seen to be endemic in the human condition. Each character, whether it be through unrequited love, missed opportunities or just life’s small distractions, is pictured as merely waiting around for death, for the time that they can rest.
The treatment of death in Strindberg’s Miss Julie (1998) is subtly different and yet remarkably the same. Strindberg too sees it as inextricably linked to the end of life’s suffering and a cessation of pain, but for Jean and Miss Julie herself, death is a noble pursuit, one to be taken at the height of passion, as in the former’s attempted suicide under the elder bush (Strindberg, 1998: 83) or the latter’s suggestion towards the end of the play:
“Miss Julie [dully]: Oh, never mind the siskin!--Do you see any way out of this? Any end to it all?
Jean [ponders]: No!
Miss Julie: What would you do in my place?
Jean: In yours? Wait, now.--A woman of noble birth who'd-sunk? I don't know--or yes, maybe I do.
Miss Julie [takes the razor and makes a gesture]: Like this?” (Strindberg, 1998: 107)
As Michael Robinson (1998: xi) details, Miss Julie concerns itself with the claustrophobic life of nineteenth century womanhood and, in light of this, death becomes a noble release, a final seizing of control by the powerless.
In Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (1954), we recognise again this sense of female entrapment and the release that death can bring. There are three deaths in the play, all of which are different and yet inextricably linked: Aunt Rina dies “very peacefully” (Ibsen, 1954: 347), Ejert dies accidentally “”With a discharged pistol that had gone off in his breast pocket” (Ibsen, 1954: 358) and Hedda commits suicide in order to avoid both the ensuing scandal and the resulting blackmail by Brack. For Ibsen, there are many ways to die but each leaves their mark on the living.
For some contemporary reviewers, as Kirsten Shepard Barr (1997) details, Ibsen’s drama was melodramatic, pessimistic and was “made up of motives, characters, and situations that are taken not from life but from the author's dreams of what life might be if all his pessimist theories of it were sound.” (Shepard Barr, 1997: 100). This sense in the play is, undoubtedly linked to the inevitability of the character’s deaths, each one providing some of the impetus for the next. Ibsen’s characters seem to be unavoidably caught within their collective fates until even the suicide of the eponymous heroine has an inevitability about it, as if her suicide serves not to negate but only to highlight her powerlessness.
In his play John Gabriel Borkman (1958) Ibsen gives us yet another aspect of death, this time curiously linked to the kinds of treatment we have already identified as existing in Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. The lives of Borkman, his wife, their son Erhart and Ella Rentheim are similar to those of Serebriakov et al. in terms of their repressed sexuality, the sense of a life wasted and the constant longing for the release of death. In Ibsen’s drama, however, this is tinged with a psychological treatment of ‘a death whilst still living’, a condition that psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan was to call the state of being “between two deaths” (Lacan, 1992: 270) where life has ceased to offer any function or meaning and yet the actual release of physical termination of life has yet to come. This situation is clearly suggested by the final lines of he play:
“Ella Rentheim [with a sad smile]: A dead man and two shadows - that’s what the cold has done.
Mrs Borkman: Yes, cold at heart. And so we two can take each other’s hands Ella.
Ella Rentheim: I think we can now.
Mrs Borkman: We two twin sisters - over the man we both loved.
Ella Rentheim: We two shadows - over the dead man.”
(Ibsen, 1958: 370)
The sense here is that the playwright is depicting three deaths, Borkman’s actual physical demise and the symbolic, psychological deaths of the two women he leaves behind.
As we have seen, there are remarkable consistencies in the treatment of death by all three of these playwrights; each sees the end of life as both a cause of tragic reflection and a release of the privations of existence. There is also the sense in all four of these plays that we are dealing not with isolated narratives but with mythopoetic explorations of what is means to be human, what it means to live a life and what it means, ultimately, to have to face death.
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