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Mad Men: Three Ibsen Plays

Matt Weiner in a former life

Dramatic Literature was my first English credit at college and I remember thinking that it was really fun but totally useless.  When was I ever going to use it?  Apparently, it was a concept waiting for an application.

Decades later, Matt Weiner created Mad Men.  I started watching Mad Men in the second season, just before the episode The Mountain King.  It took me a few days to catch up (continuously down loading from iTunes).  And then I saw the method in his Madness.  Weiner is recreating at least three plays by Henrik Ibsen.  Here is RD’s Ibsen Theory of Mad Men:

Ibsen play #1: Don Draper is Peer Gynt

Run away! Run away!

Peer Gynt is an adventurous dreamer.  He is a creative and gifted storyteller.  But his whole life is one of avoidance.  Early on in the play, he runs off with the rich farmer’s daughter, but then dumps her and becomes an outlaw.  There is a beautiful young woman named Solveig who encounters Peer throughout the play.  Peer’s adventures take him to the home of the Mountain King, a troll,  where he engages in an existential discussion about what separates man from troll.  The Mountain King tells him that man says, “To thy self be true” while trolls say, “Be true to yourself-ish”.  Peer meets a Green Woman who turns out to be the Mountain King’s daughter.  She’s beautiful on the outside but really a troll under her skirts.  They have some kind of relationship.  She says she’s pregnant, he says he never touched her. He returns home and finds Solveig waiting for him.  She says she knows all about who and what he is and she is willing to stay with him warts and all.  Peer welcomes her into the house he built for them.  They are happy for about a split second because the Green Woman shows up dragging a crippled child with her.  The child is the product of their illicit affair.  Peer denies this but the Green Woman curses him and says that the evidence of Peer’s infidelity will always come between him and Solveig.  Peer decides to run away.  He has more adventures, wins and loses fortunes, is pressured to sign some tricky contracts, engages in some shady and disreputable business careers (advertising, anyone?) and in the end is forced to confront his life and whether he has been true to himself.

Ok, I don’t think there is any question that Don Draper/Dick Whitman is the Peer Gynt storyline.  If you’ve been following the show, you’ll see the existential struggle as the main event.  Who is Don Draper?  What kind of man is he?  But the current season focuses on his relationship with Solveig and the Green Woman or Betty and Suzanne.  Betty is the idealized woman to Don.  She is beautiful, sophisticated and pure.  He feels most sexually attracted to her when she pretends to be someone else, as in her flirtation with him when they went to Rome together in the episode Souvenir.  Otherwise, Betty is the mother figure to Don and therefore untouchable, which is frustrating and confounding Betty.

In the last couple of episodes, Betty finds out Don’s true identity and confronts him.  Realizing that divorcing him without clear proof of infidelity might leave her penniless and force her to give up her children, Betty appears to have decided to accept Don/Dick.  The mysterious Don Draper is suddenly starting to make sense to her.   The last few moments of the last episode are the most touching of the series.  Don wakes up after his confession, not knowing what to expect from his wife or life.  She stands in the kitchen, calm, clear eyed and less tense than we’ve ever seen her.  She asks him if she can get him something for breakfast.  He answers no, they look at each other knowingly, he gently touches her cheek but does not kiss her.  She greets him at the end of the day in the same manner, offers him the rest of her hot dog and they go trick or treating with their children.  This is as good as it gets as far as marital bliss.  It is a simple tableau of coming home to warmth and acceptance. They start fresh from this point.

BUT, the Green Woman is still out there.  In Peer Gynt, the Green Woman seems to symbolize eroticism and infidelity.  We’ve seen Don’s struggle with both.  It’s a fight he often loses.  Usually, Don keeps his little forays in tight little compartments.  He doesn’t boff the secretaries and he doesn’t covet his neighbor’s wife.  This time is different.  Suzanne is his daughter’s former teacher.  Early on, she asks him if he really wants to dally so close to home.  Don’s having some issues at work and feels under pressure to sign a contract (ding!, ding!, ding!) and he gives into his attraction to her.  He first sees Suzanne dancing under a Maypole, a symbol of nature and fertility.  But each encounter after that is darker, shadowed.  The sun is eclipsed, he meets her running in the wee small hours of the night, he visits her in her dark, poorly lit over-the-garage apartment.  Could it be that all this darkness is obscuring Suzanne’s true nature?  Does the darkness allow him to touch the animal, erotic nature at the core of the sexual experience?  We can only speculate.  Don appears to see something about Suzanne that eludes the rest of us.

However, one thing is certain.  Suzanne is getting closer to her target.  The boundary between Don’s erotic world and the home that he is trying to protect is being breached.  The Green Woman is moving from public sphere- the school, to neighborhood -as a nocturnal runner, to Don’s public image- encountering him on his morning commute on the train, to right outside his house- when he leaves her in his car to go in to get some clothes for their rendezvous in Connecticut.  There are two episodes left for her to finally physically come between Don and Betty.  The season’s ending is going to coincide with the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  Weiner says that he will not focus on the assassination.  That territory has been covered. (Update:  He lied.  I guess it was unavoidable.  Nevertheless, he’s gotten it out of the way, leaving the last episode open for the final confrontation.)   But the parallels between the end of Camelot, that perfect tableau of domestic bliss, and the end of the Draper’s marriage are pretty clear.  Peer and Solveig are going to be separated.  They won’t get back together for a long time.

Ibsen Play #2: A Doll’s House or Betty is Nora.

What *do* women want?

Nora Helmer is a woman who has it all.  Three children, a well respected husband, Torvald, and soon the financial security that will allow her the kind of lifestyle her family has waited a decade to enjoy.  Early in the marriage when she was pregnant with her first child, her husband’s doctor tells her that Torvald will die from consumption if he does not spend time in a warmer, drier climate.  Because they are poor, and because her father is dying (or recently dead), Nora forges her father’s signature on a promisory note from a disreputable lawyer.  Women do not have the right to take out loans in their own names so she has broken the law.  But she reasons that she has done this for a noble cause and that if Torvald ever finds out, he will come to forgive her.  After Torvald’s recovery, Nora secretly takes on work in order to pay off the lawyer.  She is almost finished paying back the loan when Torvald is made manager of the bank where the lawyer now works.  Torvald vows to fire the lawyer because of the lawyer’s past transgressions.  Torvald’s tragic flaw is his intense preoccupation with appearances and propriety.  He doesn’t want the lawyer’s past blotting his own reputation.  Torvald also treats his wife as a child.  She is his lark, his little squirrel, his little wife, play acting as a grown up.  When Torvald finds out about the loan, he is immediately concerned with his own reputation and sets about disciplining his wife.  He forbids her from raising her own children.  She finally comes to realize that she has been living in a dream world.  She has been a doll in her father’s and then her husband’s houses.  She has no identity or rights except that which they have given her.  She decides that she is incapable of loving her husband or raising her children because this was not freely her choice.  She decides to leave her family in order to exercise her free will and become the person she is meant to be.

Betty Draper, nee Hofstadt, is a woman trapped by convention.  She is a beautiful, well educated, poised, pampered suburban housewife.  She is also bored out of her gourd.  A couple of episodes ago, we found out that Betty was an anthropology major at Bryn Mawr and she says she never uses it.  But we have seen Betty paying very close attention to the social confines of her world and have even witnessed her knowledge of human nature to manipulate her friends into cheating.   Betty may not be the wittiest person in the world and her emotional restraint, something she blames on her Nordic heritage, makes her appear cold and humorless.  But Betty knows that something isn’t right with the constructed environment in which she lives, which strips all agency from her and other housewives and infantilizes them.  Betty reads.  We’ve caught her reading Ship of Fools, The Great Gatsby and The Group.  It’s only a matter of time before she reads The Feminine Mystique.

Throughout this season, we have seen Betty’s own struggle with identity.  She has dreams of her mother telling her to be happy with what she has and to keep her mouth shut.  But Betty longs for an emotional connection with her husband and an intellectual connection with the rest of the world.  She is conflicted about the birth of her third child (there is some overlap here with Hedda Gabler, see below).  She’s depressed.  She snaps out at her children and can’t connect with her daughter Sally, who shows some evidence of misbehavior due to neglect. Unlike Nora, Betty’s problem is not necessarily that her husband is infantilizing her, although he does make a big deal about “showing her off” as the beautiful trophy wife she is.  It is the culture of the early, pre-sexual revolution 60’s that is hemming Betty in.  It is the obstetrician who tells her she is pregnant and then when he sees she is unhappy about it tells her to let her husband take on the burden of worrying.  It is the small town atmosphere that insists that her conduct remain above reproach.  It is the hospital where she goes to deliver that straps her down during labor and administers drugs to her without her consent.  It is the lawyer who tells her she doesn’t have the right to divorce in New York state unless she can prove conclusively that her husband is an adulterer.  It is the whole construct of the 60’s American experience that has defined the rigid confines of the box she is in, one that she entered into willingly, trained by her mother and her social caste, and which she finds to be artificial and empty.

She has been flirting with Henry, a Republican political operative.  But instead of giving into Betty’s desire to be swept away and rescued, Henry stands firm and tells Betty that she will have to come to him of her own free will.  She will have to decide if a relationship with Henry is what she wants and if she is willing to break with convention to have it.  She is also confronted with her role in Don’s life when she discovers his true identity.  She wants to confront him immediately but he eludes her.  When she has a chance to talk to him, he interrupts her anger and tells her to get ready for a dinner where he is to be honored as a humanitarian.  His respectability in the society is rising and he uses her as a status symbol, much like his new Cadillac.  She is a possession to him.  As she gets ready for the dinner, we see her in her gown in the bathroom, struggling to resume her role in her story, burying her anger, arranging her face.  She knows now that she is a doll and she sees the reality of her world.

What will be the trigger to cause her to reevaluate her life and take control of it?  What will Betty become after Camelot’s brief, shining moment is over?

Ibsen play #3: Joan Holloway Harris is Hedda Gabler

Hedda Gabler is one of the most complex characters in Ibsen’s repertoire.  I think Weiner has mixed some of Hedda with Betty and some of Nora with Joan.  Betty’s facility with shotguns and fascination with fainting couches come to mind.  Hedda’s complicated interior monologue can be shared with several female characters including Peggy as well.  Hedda is a product of her time.

But does it go with Danish Modern?

Hedda Gabler spent her youth having a good time and then began to realize that she was in danger of becoming a spinster.  The social stigma of becoming an old maid spurs her to find a marriageable partner.  She was once in love with Eilert Loveborg but Eilert, an intelligent man from a good family, is reckless.  He ruins himself with too much wine and women.  On a whim, she marries Tesman.  Tesman is a good man but not the brightest bulb in the pack.  He is a scholar studying for his PhD and hoping to get a position at the university.  It is his intention to give Hedda everything that is good in life: a beautiful villa, servants, horses and financial security.  But he hasn’t secured the position yet.  Hedda and Tesman return from their wedding trip, a trip they took on borrowed money, and live in the lovely villa that Tesman has secured without any visible means of support.  More complications ensue.  Eilert has gotten his act together and has written a brilliant book that makes Tesman’s work pale in comparison.  Also, Hedda *may* be pregnant.  This is not absolutely clear in the play but she doesn’t deny it when others infer this about her.  Eilert is now competition for Tesman for the same position at the university.  It turns out that Eilert has a research assistant, Thea, who was once a schoolmate of Hedda’s.  Thea loves Eilert and helps him reform his life.  She helps Eilert write his book.  Hedda is jealous of Thea’s ability to influence Eilert’s life.  Eilert comes to Hedda and confesses that although he owes a great deal to Thea, Hedda is his only love of his life.  Hedda rejects him and then provokes him to prove he is a man by drinking more than he should over Thea’s protests.  Eilert goes partying with Tesman and some other friends and ends up disgracing himself at a whorehouse.  He loses the second book that he has been writing with Thea’s help.  Thea is upset but vows to help Eilert get himself together.  She goes in search of him.  Meantime, Eilert’s second book falls into Tesman’s hands.  He debates what to do with it but in the end decides to return it to Eilert.  Too late!  Hedda has burned Eilert’s book.  Eilert returns to Hedda in despair over his missing book.  He feels guilt because he finally realizes that it is Thea who is the source of all of his strength and inspiration.  Hedda gives him a pistol and tells him to die beautifully.  He goes out to another whorehouse to drown his sorrows and accidentally shoots himself with Hedda’s gun and dies.  The fact that it is Hedda’s gun make her a target of blackmail.  Hemmed in by her domestic circumstances and the loss of the love of her life, she commits suicide while Tesman and Thea work to reconstruct Eilert’s book.

Whew!  That was long.

Joan is paralleling the Hedda story pretty well.  She doesn’t have Hedda’s confounding personality but her goals mirror Hedda’s.  Joan had her fun in Manhattan and was the person who held the Sterling-Cooper office together.  But in her early 30’s, she looked around for a marriage partner and not seeing one at Sterling Cooper, she married the next best thing- an up and coming surgeon.  She dreamed of a life of ease in the suburbs.  Except, it turns out that her husband, aside from being a rapist, is not a very good surgeon.  He was hoping to become chief resident.  Instead, he ends up losing his surgical residency.  Joan doesn’t know this when she quits her job in anticipation of living her suburban dream with her doctor husband who promises to provide for her.  She finds out about their sudden change in circumstances on the eve of her last day of work.

Meanwhile, Roger Sterling, the dissolute scion of one of the agency’s founders, has divorced his first wife and married one of his secretaries, Jane.  But Roger and Joan were once an item.  Roger clearly loved Joan but was married to Mona at the time and Joan didn’t see a future for them.  Now that Jane is in the picture, Roger seems to be settling down.  Ok, he still does really offensive things, like singing in blackface at the country club.  But in general, Jane seems to be having a stabilizing effect on Roger.  There is no love lost between Jane and Joan.  Joanie is clearly more intelligent and sympathetic.   Jane is too young for Roger and a gold-digger but for some peculiar, unfathomable reason, Jane gets Roger.

Joan’s storyline is the most uncertain.  She has to get a new job.  Greg has joined the army to practice surgery.  He doesn’t see Vietnam in his future but we do and, Ok, we’re kind of hoping he doesn’t make it.  Joan?  She’s gone to the one person she trusts and feels closest to in order to find a job- Roger.  He is trying to hook her up with a friend.  What happens to her after this season is a mystery.  Will she disappear forever?  Will she come back?  Will she end up an army wife?  Is this a suicide or a homocide by Weiner?

Ok, here’s your chance to tell me I’m all wrong about this theory.  Weiner may have never read Ibsen in his life and this is all original material.  Ehhh, even Shakespeare got his plots from other sources but the language was all his own.  If Weiner is going for Ibsen here, it would make perfect sense.  Ibsen was writing in the Victorian era, which pigeonholed the individual into roles for life.  His plays were all about self-discovery and self-actualization against the mind set of the collective, the consensus reality.  Mad Men is a chronicle of the 60’s and how American culture shook off the stifling conservatism and conformity of the post WWII era.  But the forces of conformity are strong.  In a sense, we are back to that era after having passed through a period of social unrest and sexual revolution.  As we learned to our horror last year, women still do not have the same opportunities to succeed as men.  We have watched confident, capable women reduced to charicatures.  They  are bitches or Caribou barbies, aggressive  or bubble headed.  Our country is also going through an identity crisis.  Are we the land of the selfish or the country of the more perfect union, striving for domestic tranquility and providing for the general welfare? Do we want to nourish creativity or harness it to the ruling class? Where do we go from here?

Your turn…