The Absent Father in Modern Drama

By Paul Rosefeldt | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
QUESTIONING THE FATHER'S AUTHORITY:

Henrik Ibsen A Doll House

Henrik Ibsen Ghosts

August Strindberg Miss Julie

August Strindberg The Pelican

In the modern period Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg make use of the absent father as one means of adding psychological depth to their dramas and presenting a sociological critique of their times. The plays of Ibsen and Strindberg that focus on the absent father are structured specifically around the father's absence and his symbolic function as a representation of cultural values. But at the same time as the Absent Father represents abstract cultural codes, he also puts into question the validity of such codes. Marjorie Garber points out that "the father is always a suppositional father, a father by imputation, rather than by unimpeachable biological proof. . . . This doubt upon which paternity, legitimacy, inheritance, and succession depends is the anxiety at the root of the paternal metaphor" (133). Doubtful paternity is certainly an issue in the plays of Ibsen and Strindberg where paternity is associated with weakness, uncertainty, death, and above all, absence. In discussing cultural conditions during Ibsen's time, Wolfgang Sohlich describes a society built on the concept of a fatherless family "characterized by the erosion of paternal authority due to the historical developments which displaced the economical and societal functions of the bourgeois family onto corporate and educational oligopolies" (88).

In fact, in the world of Ibsen and Strindberg, the legitimacy of the paternal metaphor itself is questioned. Nowhere is this situation more obvious than in Strindberg The Father. In the play, the Captain tries to exert his patriarchal right to determine the education of his child and to show his wife that she has no rights over his progeny. However, the play undermines the Captain's position. From the very first scene in which one of the Captain's recruits refuses to take responsibility for impregnating the kitchen maid, to the crazed Captain's quotations of Homer and Ezekial on the inability to determine one's father, paternity is questioned and, with it, the authority of the father.

In Ibsen A Doll House and Ghosts and Strindberg Miss Julie and The Pelican, the questioning of paternity comes out in the figure of the absent father, a central figure that controls the plot, influences the trajectory and configurations of the characters, and projects his presence, often menacingly, upon the dramatic environment. In these plays, a symbolic father is usually a sick or wounded father, a deposed paternity, a god-like figure in a state of decline. He is connected with the patriarchy and its Law. However, he is both a representative of and a transgressor against the patriarchal order, an ambiguous

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