Directing Ibsen's Little Eyolf

It has been implied that Little Eyolf is an ambiguous drama. "Mis-productions" have approached the drama as melodrama, as being Romantic, as a "murder play," or as a play entirely about sex. These misinterpretations have led Meyer to write quite strongly how not to produce the drama.43 If these are shortcomings in the production or, as I believe, the analysis of the text, what is a more appropriate interpretation? In this chapter, I will discuss my analysis of the text using Hornby's structuralist approach and Ball's cause and effect methods. 

I began my analysis with the obvious structuring of the text, i.e., the number of acts, the number of pages of each act44, and the number of "scenes," which, coincidentally, were "French" scenes. It should be noted that the use of French scenes can be contradictory to Hornby's ideas; however, he does state that French scenes are valid as long as they ". . . reveal something beyond themselves, some hidden pattern of genuine significance."45 Little Eyolf utilizes a three-act structure, each in descending order in terms of pages per act. Act One incorporates forty-four pages; Act Two, thirty-two pages; and Act Three, twenty-three pages. When graphed, this produces a downward slope. (See Figure 1)

Figure 1

A graph of the number of scenes per act produces a similar slope. Act One consists of nine scenes, Act Two of six scenes, and Act Three of four scenes. (See Figure 2) The shape of this inherent structure led in two directions in terms of what is happening in the text. One is that the motion of the play is downward, thus going from high to low, or, more to less, i.e, structure being taken away as the play progresses. This structure could be interpreted, for example, as the structure of relationships and/or the structure of time. From this analysis, it becomes noticeable that loss, or losing, is a strong idea/facet of the drama. Barriers are wiped away throughout the drama, from the death of Eyolf, to the truth about Asta, to the leaving of Asta and Borgheim. The idea of taking away, or of loss, became a point of interest in the production. 

Figure 2

Having looked at the obvious structure, I next looked at the structure of the action of the drama. One of the challenges of Ibsen is the playwright's practice of writing vague stage directions. These stage directions, quickly passed over or "blacked out" by many theatre artists of today, were as vital in interpreting the action of the play as the dialogue. 

Act One begins with, according to Ibsen, Rita standing with a portmanteau and Asta entering carrying a portfolio. This was immediately questionable - what is the significance of Ibsen beginning the play with two characters both carrying bags? The next questions were "Why is Rita standing with a portmanteau? What is she doing as she stands with the portmanteau? And why was Asta entering, especially since she had not been to visit Rita in several weeks? Why would she enter with a portfolio full of letters that she only wants to show Alfred when Alfred is not due back home for another two weeks?" The answers to these questions were found within the text. After Alfred enters, with Eyolf, for the first time, Rita is quickly ostracized by Alfred and Asta. This is noticeable through Rita's scattered attempts at becoming a part of the conversation. One of these attempts was a clue for the beginning. Alfred tells Asta that he has not written during his journey to the mountains, much to Asta's surprise. Rita retorts "Oh! So that's why I found all those blank sheets of paper in your bag."(447)46 This became Rita's action at the beginning of the act - searching for clues about what Alfred did while away. The action of Asta's entering was also found within the text. The question that arose was this - why would Asta bring the portfolio with her to Alfred's house if she knew Alfred wasn't going to be home? Remember, Alfred came home two weeks earlier than expected; at least, that is what Rita states. And, having entered, why does Asta badger Rita as to whether or not Alfred wrote home before he came. 

Asta: . . . But hadn't he written to say he was coming? A postcard, even? 
Rita: Not a word. (444)
Having been told twice that Alfred has not come home, it seems that Asta should have accepted the fact. However, she does not.
Asta: Not even a telegram? 
Rita: Yes - it arrived an hour before he did. (444)
Why does she keep asking the same question? And why did she bring the portfolio that only Alfred, who was not supposed to be present, could see? Because she knew Alfred was home. Alfred, as we learn later, has always found it easier to talk to Asta than to Rita about everything. So why wouldn't Alfred write to her first to say he was coming home? If Asta did not know, she would not have brought the portfolio with her; she probably would not have come out to the house at all! In addition to this, Ibsen writes the first scene as a series of questions and answers. Thus, Asta's action at the beginning of Act One was, like Rita's, searching, both for Alfred, in order to show the portfolio, and for answers from Rita.

Act Two begins with a searching as well. Alfred is found at a table in a glen on the Allmers' estate, supposedly lost in his thoughts. Asta then enters. 

Asta: I've been looking for you for such a long time. 
Allmers: Thank you. (471)
Again, Ibsen has Asta searching for Alfred. Throughout the ensuing dialogue, Alfred attempts to find the reason for Eyolf's death.

The next scene begins with more searching. This time Rita and Borgheim enter. 

Allmers: Why have you come down here? 
Rita: Only to look for you. What are you doing? (480)
Every remaining scene in the act begins with a question, with someone looking, asking for an answer.

The first three scenes of Act Three begin with searching also. In the first scene, Borgheim enters to a sitting Asta. 

Borgheim: Ah, here you are. 
Asta: I thought I would sit here and look out over the fjord for the last time. 
Borgheim: How lucky for me I came here too. 
Asta: Have you been searching for me? 
Borgheim: Yes. . . . (493)
In the next scene, Allmers happens upon the couple and asks for answers immediately. In fact, Allmers' first six lines are questions.
Allmers: Is Rita down there in the summer house? 
Borgheim: No, there is no one here but Miss Asta. 
Asta: Shall I go down and look for her? And get her to come up here? 
Allmers: No, no, no - don't bother. (To Borgheim) Did you hoist the flag? 
Borgheim: Yes. Your wife asked me to. That was why I came up here. 
Allmers: And you're leaving us tonight? 
Borgheim: Yes. Tonight I am really leaving you. 
Allmers: You have found a good travelling companion, I trust? 
Borgheim: I am travelling alone. 
Allmers: Alone? 
Borgheim: Quite alone. 
Allmers: Oh, really? (498)
Ibsen brings all four remaining characters together in the next scene with a question, this time with Rita asking "Why are you all leaving me?" (499). Interestingly, Ibsen does not begin the final scene, with Allmers and Rita now alone together, with a question. However, he does not lose the searching motif. This time he disguises it as a command to look.
Allmers: Here's the steamer, Rita. Come and look. 
Rita: I dare not look at it. (501)
In the final moment, Ibsen employs the searching motif, ending the drama in the same way he began it.
Allmers:. . . Perhaps now and then we shall catch a glimpse of them. 
Rita: Where shall we look, Alfred? 
Allmers: Upwards. (509)
Another strong motif in the text was Ibsen's "Law of Change," which became a visual element of the production. Keys to this idea were word choices made by the playwright, the more obvious "Law" that is preached during the drama, and the changes of character relationship.

In the first scene, Rita tells of Alfred's apparent transformation on his return. Inherent in "transforming" is the idea of change. The definition of transformation is "To change markedly in form or appearance; to change in nature or condition."47 In the second scene, Asta questions Alfred's change in appearance. "You look so happy and - contented. We don't often see you like that. . ." (447) Change again appears in the dialogue of the scene; however, it concerns another character. As Asta, Allmers, and Eyolf discuss the Rat Wife, Eyolf states, "Then perhaps it may be true after all that she turns into a werewolf at night." (449) To the surprise of all, the mysterious Rat Wife enters upon the lives of the Allmers. She, too, discusses change in her dialogue, telling Eyolf twice that he will change his mind about her dog Mopsemand. 

It is useful to note that in the next short scene between Allmers and Asta that the word or notion of change does not appear. Only by knowing what is to come can one know that change is a part of this scene. However, as soon as the next scene begins, with Rita's entrance into the room, the word and idea of change comes about immediately. 

Asta: What has happened to you, Alfred? 
Allmers: Happened? 
Asta: Something has happened. You're changed. Rita knows it, too. 
Rita: Yes. I knew at once. But that's good, isn't it, Alfred? 
Allmers: I hope so. Something good must come from it. 
Rita: Something happened to you while you were away. Don't deny it. I can see it. 
Allmers: Nothing happened to me. But - 
Rita: But - ? 
Allmers: In me, something happened. A kind of transformation. (455)
Later in the act, Allmers tells Borgheim that Eyolf will no longer be made to study all the time. "I'm going to change all that now." (462) Soon after, Rita says that she has noticed a change in Asta's behavior, ". . . almost as though she'd become a stranger to me." (462) This, however, is only a precursor to Rita's tirade on change. Shrieking that she was only meant to bear Eyolf but not be a mother to the child, Rita exclaims, "I want you - all of you - to myself - the way it used to be in those first, few, unforgettable years - . . ." (465) Allmers retorts that people must change with the years, including themselves. Yet Rita refuses the idea.
Rita: Not to me. And I won't have any change in you either. I couldn't stand it. I want to keep you all to myself. 
Allmers: Your jealousy is terrible - 
Rita: I can't change. I am what I am. (467)
Then, at the end of Act One, a grave change takes place. A small boy drowns in the fjord below, only to be discovered that the boy is Eyolf. This is learned through the words that will haunt Rita and Allmers for the remainder of the play, "The crutch is floating." Now, one of two major changes has taken place between Rita and Allmers - a "wall," as Rita has referred to Eyolf earlier, has crumbled, changing the structure of their relationship. What holds them together, and keeps them apart, is now only one link long - Asta. The act ends with Allmers running to save, or keep, Eyolf.

Act Two opens with Allmers refuting the change that has occurred as he attempts to win Asta's sympathy and companionship. 

Allmers: Has it really happened, Asta? Or have I gone mad? Or am I dreaming? Oh, if only it were a dream! How beautiful if I could wake up now! (472)
Soon after this, after Asta asks Allmers if he has talked with Rita about Eyolf's death, Allmers replies, "I seem to find it easier to talk to you about it. As about everything else." Asta quickly changes the subject. However, Allmers attempts again to win her over. This time the change occurs in the story of Asta's previous transvestism. In the discussion, it is learned that Asta changed clothes, and gender, by putting on Allmers' old Sunday clothes in order to satisfy Allmers' dissatisfaction with not having a brother. Soon after this, Asta again begs Allmers to return to Rita. And, again, Allmers refuses, wanting instead to return to Asta.
Asta: Go up to Rita. I beg you. 
Allmers: No, no! Don't ask me to do that! I can't, don't you understand? I can't! Let me stay here with you. (479)

After a brief scene between the two couples, Allmers and Rita are left alone. Immediately, Rita tells Allmers that the story of Eyolf's drowning has changed. Alfred, true to character, is unable to accept the fact and begins a cruel mind game with Rita in order to get even. It is during this tumultuous scene that Ibsen has Allmers voice what has been the underlying motif in almost every scene so far - "It is the law of change." (484) Though this "law" is never formally defined, it becomes the phrase that is most debated throughout the rest of the drama. Allmers tells Rita that his love for her has burned out, telling her that it had to end at some time. 

Finally, learning that Borgheim and Asta are not speaking, and that Allmers and Rita have said enough to last them ". . . for the rest of [their] lives," Asta and Allmers are left alone for the ultimate changing scene. Allmers tells Asta that he cannot go on living with Rita and must leave her. After Asta says that is impossible, Allmers tells Asta that he wants to "come home" to her. With Allmers pressuring, Asta finally acquires the ability to tell Allmers the truth - that their relationship has changed. Allmers again is unable to accept the change. 

Asta: You are not my brother, Alfred. 
Allmers: Well? What difference does that make? None at all. 
Asta: It changes everything, Alfred. Our relationship is not that of brother and sister. 
Allmers: But it is still sacred. It will always remain sacred. 
Asta: Now it must obey the law of change. (491)
And, as the act ends, Allmers runs off chasing another "wall" that has been stripped away - this time, Asta.

Act Three begins with the obligatory scene between Asta and Borgheim, the first and only time that Ibsen has the two characters alone together on stage. This time, change is shown more than discussed. This can be seen through the number of times that Ibsen has the characters suddenly changing the subject. In the first twenty-four exchanges (which, in the Meyer translation, is only a page long), Ibsen has the characters change subject four times, with two segments only consisting of four exchanges. Change becomes part of the dialogue toward the end of the scene, as Borgheim first asks why Allmers married, and then refutes, like Allmers before, the idea of and ability to change. 

Borgheim: All the same, how could he? Marry, I mean. When he could have gone on living with you. 
Asta: The law of change, I suppose. 
Borgheim: The law of change? 
Asta: It's Alfred's phrase. 
Borgheim: Pah! A stupid law. I don't believe in it. 
Asta: Not now, perhaps. You may come to believe in it in time. 
Borgheim: I? Never! (496)
Ibsen has Borgheim keep his word at the end of the scene when he refuses to change and share Asta with anyone else.
Asta: Would you be content with only half of me? 
Borgheim: No. I must have all of you. 
Asta: Then I cannot. 
Borgheim: Then goodbye, Miss Asta. (498)
Before the two can part, Allmers and Rita enter separately, and subsequently beg Asta to stay with them, both not wanting to lose the last "wall", both unwilling to accept the changes that are occurring. Finally, Allmers exclaims the ultimate denial of this change as he tells Asta to remain with him. "Stay - and share our life, Asta. With Rita. With me. Your - brother." (500) This is enough for Asta to realize that she cannot hold on to her old life any longer, and she, with Borgheim, leaves.

The remainder of the play shows Allmers and Rita searching for the answers to enable them to cope with the weighty changes that have occurred. Several times, Rita and Allmers discuss the fact that a change has occurred in them or between them. Alfred suggests that maybe the "law of change" will keep them together. Rita states that a change, "like a birth," is taking place in her. Alfred tells Rita that a change must have taken place in her if she is truthfully willing to bring the poor children up to the house. 

Thus, using Hornby's method of analysis, it becomes apparent that searching and change as motifs play a large role in the story of the drama. Each character is, at some point, searching for an object or an answer; each character is, at some point, unable to accept the "law of change" in its many manifestations. 

Ball's analytic method aided my understanding of specific moments within the text that previously had been vague. Since this paper is merely an overview of the process, I have selected a particular segment within the text that was deciphered. 

In Act Two, during the first scene between Allmers and Asta, there were several moments that seemed to not follow the pattern of cause and effect. One of these moments occured just after Asta asks Allmers if he had told Rita about the transvestism. 

Allmers: I believe I mentioned it to her once, yes. 
Asta: Oh, Alfred! How could you? 
Allmers: You know how it is. One tells one's wife everything - practically everything. 
Asta: I suppose one does. 
Allmers: Good God! How can I sit here and - ! 
Asta: What is it? (476)
The question to me was "Why does Alfred exclaim 'Good God!' at this moment?" There was an abrupt change of subject. Why? Even Asta did not know why Allmers was acting like he was. Using Ball's method, the answer was revealed. 

Before this moment, Allmers controlled the subject of the discussion. Several times, Asta had been obviously disturbed at Allmers' talk; Allmers seemingly ignored her. However, at this moment, Allmers lost control. Based on the dialogue heard, there was no reason for Allmers reply, or effect, after Asta's line, or cause, "I suppose one does." Thus, the effect must be motivated by another sense. In this case, the cause was motivated by sight. After Allmers told Asta that he had told Rita about the transvestism, Asta worried about what else Allmers told Rita about his and Asta's past. Allmers saw that he was losing control of Asta, that she was now thinking about something or someone other than him, and quickly changed the subject in order to control her once again. 

As I continued to work in reverse, I found a repeating pattern in the first scene of Act Two. Many times Allmers' dialogic effect does not concur with Asta's cause. This led to the question "Why does Allmers not respond to Asta?" Having found the answer later in the text, it became apparent that Allmers was entirely self-serving, that he cared less that Asta was upset. 

Having deciphered these motifs from the structure of the text, the next task was to utilize this knowledge. The following chapter will discuss the application of this analysis into the design of the production. 

Chapter 4  |  Table of ContentsHome 


     43 This has been expressed in Meyer "Introduction to Little 
Eyolf".  I agree. 

     44 This number is based on the number of pages per act as 
found in the typed text used for the production. 

     45 Hornby, 25.  In order to note the significance of the 
French scene as used by Ibsen, it was necessary to look at 
the text using another approach.  To do this, I used my 
understanding of Bernard Beckerman's ideas in his work The 
Dynamics of Drama, looking for the segments within each act 
as well as the crux of these segments and each act. 

     46 All references to page numbers are taken from Henrik Ibsen, 
The Plays Of Ibsen, trans. by Michael Meyer, vol. 4 (New 
York: Washington Square Press, 1986), and all subsequent 
references will be denoted as (page). 

     47 The American Heritage Dictionary (Houghton Mifflin Company; 
IBM, 1990). 

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