Originally titled Vildanden
in Norwegian, The Wild Duck
is an 1884 play by Henrik Ibsen. It had its debut in Norway in 1885, and its first production in English opened on Broadway at New York City’s Plymouth Theatre in 1918. Ibsen is considered to be the “father of realism
” and was a major force in bringing modernism to the theater. His most famous play, A Doll’s House
, was the most performed play worldwide by the start of the twentieth century.The Wild Duck
begins at a dinner party at the home of HakonWerle. Werle is a rich merchant and a man of industry. Those in attendance include his son Gregers, who has been away from his father’s house for some time. Gregers finds out that Hjalmar Ekdal, who had once been a classmate of his, has recently married Gina, a servant in HakonWerle’s home. Hakon was instrumental in the couple being married, as he had given Hjalmar a job as a photographer and a place to live. Greger’s late mother had thought that her husband and Gina had been involved in an affair. Thus,Greger is angered by the thought that Hjalmar does not know the truth about the life he has entered.
The rest of the action of the play unfolds in the apartment of Hjalmar. Hjalmar and Gina seem to be happily married. Hjalmar’s father works for Hakon doing copying jobs. At the apartment, Hjalmar is the proprietor of a portrait studio. In addition to handling the domestic affairs of the couple, Gina assists Hjalmar with his business. They both lovingly care for their fourteen-year-old daughter,Hedvig. Gregers goes to their home from the party. There, he learns from Hjalmar that Hedvig is gradually losing her eyesight. He also is shown a loft in the apartment where the family raises animals and birds including rabbits and pigeons. The creature they value the most is a wild duck that they rescued. The duck had been wounded by Hakon who, coincidentally, also has failing eyesight. The duck received its wound when it was shot in the wing, leading it to dive to the bottom of a lake. Hakon’s dog retrieved the duck, and although it was in very poor shape, the Ekdals were able to help it recover.
Hjalmar and Gina have an extra room, which Gregers decides to rent from them. Soon he begins to realize that besides the affair of Gina and his father, other secrets exist in the apartment. Hjalmar does not allow Hedvig to attend school because of her eyesight, but he also does not find the time to educate her himself. This has the girl losing herself in her imagination and being inspired by pictures in books. While Gregers is speaking with Hedvig, shots are heard coming from the attic. It is explained to Gregers that Old Ekdal, Hakon’s former partner in business, keeps himself occupied by hunting in the loft. Hjalmar frequently partakes in this himself. This apparently helps Old Ekdal stay connected with the life he once had as a great hunter. Hjalmar refers to what he calls his “great invention,” but never explains what it is, only that is has something to do with photography and will bring him enough wealth to be free from debt and to become independent.
A lunch takes place where the attendees include Gregers, Hjalmar, and friends Relling and Molvik. Hakon shows up with the hope of convincing Gregers to return to his home. Gregers refuses and suggests that he will tell Hjalmar the truth. After Hakon leaves, Gregers goes for a walk with Hjalmar and tells him of Gina and Hakon’saffair. Once back at home, Hjalmar remains distant from Gina and Hedvig. He shuts his wife out of his photography business and from her role handling the family finances. She and Hedvig tell him that his new way of doing things will keep him from working on his invention and from spending time in the loft with the wild duck. Hjalmar is angered by what he learned from Gregers and would like to be rid of the duck. He confronts Gina, who admits to the affair but also professes to be deeply in love with Hjalmar.
Gregers returns during the argument. News arrives that Hakon is to marry Mrs. Sorby, his housekeeper. It is also learned that Old Ekdal is receiving one hundred crowns per month as a pension that will go to Hedvig for the rest of her life once Ekdal dies. Hjalmar infers from this that Hedvig might be Hakon’s daughter. Not wanting to be around Hedvig, he goes drinking with Molvik and Relling. Gregers tries to sooth Hedvig by telling her to sacrifice the duck to make her father happy. Hedvig, wanting to return to her father’s good graces, agrees that her grandfather will kill the duck the next morning. Following a series of events, including Hjalmar paying no mind to Hedvig, a shot is heard, which the family assumes is Old Ekdal hunting in the loft. Gregers knows the shot to be the sacrifice of the duck. As it turns out, Hedvig has fatally shot herself. Filled with remorse, Hjalmar begs that she live so that he might show his love for her. Gregers says her death was not for naught, as it will release greatness in Hjalmar.