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The "Life-Lie"

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In The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891), George Bernard Shaw explains the principle of what Henrik Ibsen saw as the “life-lie” and its relation to reality and idealism. Ibsen and Shaw both believed that many of us find reality so unpleasant that we try to cover it up with a mask of idealism, creating an alternative, unreal “life” for ourselves that is essentially a “lie.” They see this as dangerous, for the further we move away from reality, the more damage we cause to ourselves and others in our efforts to maintain that idealistic mask. They are both realists in that their plays tend to strip away the masks their characters create for themselves and force the audience to see the true nature of such characters. Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller bring a recognition of this tendency to hide from unpleasant truths into American drama. While some may carry on by living the lie, others are drawn to face reality with varying repercussions. For some, this awareness is productive, but for others, it is ultimately destructive.


Ibsen and O’Neill both question the nature of truth and ask if truth is indeed reflective of reality. They wonder if truth telling is always necessary or even wise, and consider if it may be better for some to continue to live the lie. It seems that there are some kind of deceits that can be condoned, especially if no one is being hurt in the process, although there are others that must always be condemned. Miller may appear more idealistic, for he comes down more heavily on the necessity of truth, whatever the cost.


In The Wild Duck , Henrik Ibsen attempts to create characters who are psychologically real and who convey the idea that truth is relative to the individual and his/her particular personality and emotional needs. In this he presages the naturalism of Anton Chekhov. Both the Werles and the Ekdals live lives full of deceit. Some of that is external but much is internal, and Gregers’s attempts to bring in the light of truth only damage everyone that truth touches, although it is the child, Hedvig, who pays the heaviest price, with her life.


The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill takes place in a bar filled with people who are unable to face the truth, who insist on living “pipe dreams,” which are O’Neill’s version of Ibsen’s “life-lie.” O’Neill suggests that everyone lives with these types of dreams, and to try to live without them is inherently dangerous. The dreams may be unattainable, but they at least offer hope. The titular “iceman” represents truth and death, which for some becomes one and the same thing. Theodore Hickey jokes about his wife having an affair with the iceman, but it turns out to be he who is the adulterer, and, in a sense, the iceman. The truth is rarely pretty or satisfying, and it is wrong for Hickey to try to force his friends to face it. His attempt is not selflessly motivated, but is a means of justifying the murder he has committed. But murder is a crime for which he must pay, and his attempt at justification only confirms what a selfish person he has been all along. Hickey represents a false prophet, bringing spiritual death to his followers, and this is reflected in his name. Theodore means “gift of God,” suggesting a likeness to Jesus, just as the “iceman cometh” echoes the biblical description of Christ as bridegroom in the phrase the “bridegroom cometh.” Yet the name Hickey counters this, suggesting “hick man”—someone who is easily fooled and the victim of delusions.


The play was completed by 1939, though it was not produced until 1946, but O’Neill sets the play in 1912 to show that disillusionment with society was already rampant in America before both world wars. The full text approaches five hours in performance and has fairly static staging, as people rarely enter or leave; but the play’s impact mounts as we grow to really know these people. O’Neill has characters pass out or fall asleep rather than exit, so as not to break the flow of conversation and to allow for smooth transitions within the various groupings of speaking characters. Some of this is done with humor, which underscores the camaraderie of the characters and the warmth they offer one another; as the “iceman” approaches, the atmosphere chills to tragedy.


Arthur Miller’s All My Sons , with its tale of a family torn apart by secrets and lies, portrays many discordancies that arose within American families during the 1940s. World War II helped drive a wedge between many fathers and their children; in some cases this was a physical or psychological wedge, but in the case of the Kellers, the wedge is an ideological one. The task was to redefine the role of the father in light of the changes taking place in society; the inability to achieve this accelerated the complete breakdown of the family unit, which is just what happens in the Keller household. Men like Chris and Larry Keller who had gone to fight were changed by their experiences; deeply affected by the sacrifices they saw their comrades make, they developed a heightened sense of social responsibility. This leads Larry to kill himself in shame at what his father has done, and it prompts Chris to set himself impossibly idealistic standards by which to live. Shaken by the horrors of World War II, society recognized the need for change, but the soldiers who fought often   held different views from those who stayed at home about how to initiate that change. What Miller shows is that both parties are living a lie of sorts.


The Wild Duck begins with a dinner party at Werle’s home. Werle is estranged from his son, Gregers, and attempts to reconnect with him prior to remarrying. Gregers remains adamant in his dislike of his philandering father, blaming him for his mother’s death, and becoming further incensed upon realizing from what his naïve old friend, Hjalmar Ekdal, tells him about what has been going on in his absence, that Werle has been taking cruel advantage of the Ekdals. Werle set up Hjalmar’s father to take the fall for an illegal business deal and married off his pregnant mistress to an unwitting Hjalmar. The Ekdals are blissfully ignorant of both these realities, but Gregers understands what has truly been going on and determines to enlighten Hjalmar, disinheriting himself and becoming the Ekdals’s lodger. Hjalmar leads a comfortable life, in which he emotionally bullies his family to make up for his ineffectiveness in the real world. It takes time for the truth to make an impact on him, but when it does, he turns on his daughter, Hedvig, whose response is to sacrifice herself out of love for her father.


The only truly selfless character in the play is Hedvig, who openly loves her thoughtless father. At Gregers’s suggestion, Hedvig decides to kill her wild duck to prove her love and ends up shooting herself. Her life is fairly empty, and she strongly identifies with the duck as an individual who is being restricted in a dark world and whose background is a mystery. Hedvig is going blind, by which her world will be further reduced. It is this hereditary condition that makes Hjalmar understand her true parentage, for Werle suffers from the same condition.


Werle may appear to be a monster, with his lascivious nature and grasping ways, but he becomes more sympathetic than those he has offended. He tries to make amends, offering his son a partnership and Old Ekdal and Hedvig a regular income. His marriage to the widow, Mrs. Sörby, is based on truth, since each has told the other about their pasts. Werle’s past disreputable behavior is somewhat ameliorated by the officious rectitude of both wife and son under which he had clearly suffered. He was also tricked into marriage, just as Hjalmar was, by the expectation, in his case, of a fortune that never materialized. Werle only wounds people, as he did the duck, from which they can recover, but Gregers and Hjalmar are killers.


Gregers’s unrelenting condemnation of his father and his constant meddling make him the villain of the piece, even though he is motivated by good intentions and only wants to bring out the truth. The truth can evidently be destructive, and should be handled with greater circumspection. Gregers views Hjalmar as “an unsuspecting child … without the slightest idea that what he calls his home is built on a lie” (233). But that is all Hjalmar’s home could ever be built upon, since Hjalmar is incapable of facing reality.

While Hjalmar initially seems like the victim, with the naive blindness by which he has been led, any sympathy is swiftly lost on witnessing how he treats his family. If the family had to rely on his efforts alone, they would be destitute. His wife Gina’s careful household management and running of his photography business and the money Werle pays Old Ekdal for copying services allow them to lead a comfortable, though frugal, existence. Hjalmar loves to exaggerate the inequities of his position, but he lives his life as he wants, avoiding work by pretending to be developing some grand invention and playing hunter with his father in the attic, where they keep a variety of birds and rabbits.

After the early death of his mother, Hjalmar had been raised by two doting aunts to believe that he should be the center of attention and need do little for himself. So he lords it over his family to puff himself up and repeats the words of others to make himself sound witty and profound, but his mind is as shallow as his father’s. Nevertheless, his daughter idolizes him even though he is a superficial man—all words without action, all show without substance. For all his professed love of his father, he pretends not to know him at Werle’s house, and he treats his supposedly beloved daughter even more dismissively, forgetting the treats he had promised, ignoring her need for diversion, keeping her home from school supposedly to save her eyes, then letting her do his photographic finishing, which harms her eyes, so he can go out and play. His rejection of her near the close becomes all the more brutal by its evident insincerity; he is not hurt, but sees another chance to play the martyr.

Hjalmar’s neighbor, Relling, tries to make Gregers see how pointlessly idealistic he is by suggesting how few marriages could happily exist without some deceit. In Relling’s view, the world is a troubled place and the only treatment is “to keep up the make-believe of life” (293). Ideals, he asserts, are the true falsehoods, because they are so impractical. “If you take away make-believe from the average man, you take away his happiness as well” (294). Therefore, Relling plants the invention idea in Hjalmar’s head to give his life apparent purpose, just as he allows Molvik to believe he is demonic to assuage his guilt over drinking. Mrs. Sörby has the same practical outlook as Relling, which is why she chooses to marry Werle over Relling, because Werle is wealthy and has no drinking problem. She insists that she and Werle tell the truth to each other before they commit to marriage and they do, which tells us that it is possible to live with the truth, but it is an unwise proposition for people like Gina and Hjalmar, for whom the truth can only be destructive.

Most of these people live a lie, but their lives are made more livable by that fact. Some avoid the truth by drinking, like Molvik and Gregers’s mother; others construct elaborate fantasies, like Hjalmar and Hedvig, which allow them to live more contentedly. Most people are too cowardly to face reality head on; even Gregers stood quietly by while Ekdal was set up and does not try to reveal that truth. His mission to open Hjalmar’s eyes is also selfishly motivated, to ease his own conscience and to boost his false image of Hjalmar,  through whom he tries to live vicariously. Having never committed to life himself, always staying on the periphery, he is hypocritical to assume the right to tell others how to live.

Each sees the wild duck as representative of their own take on reality. For Ekdal it symbolizes his love of the freedom of the outdoors; for Gregers it represents the truth; and for Hedvig, her isolation and sense of restriction. While the attempted slaying of the duck reunites Hjalmar and Gina, it comes at a high price. Gregers tries to insist that Hedvig did not die in vain, but Relling will not allow him this comforting illusion. He disgustedly points out that Hjalmar could never truly grieve, since he loves no one but himself and will use Hedvig’s death as another opportunity to wallow in “emotional fits of self-admiration and self-compassion” (305), a concept that appalls Gregers, but that he finally accepts as true.

In The Iceman Cometh , Harry Hope runs a boardinghouse full of the flotsam of society. In the attached saloon, residents sleep off the night before, while Larry chats with the barman and speaks of “pipe dreams.” The characters variously wake up and reveal their individual dreams, as they wait for Hickey to show up and enliven them. Hickey arrives but seems different, and tries to persuade them to give up their dreams as he has. They initially resist, but when they do break down and try, each fails, making them more downhearted than before. Hickey tries to understand what went wrong, and in so doing reveals the fact he has just killed his wife. Inspired by his confession, Parritt confesses to Larry about informing on his own mother. As the police take Hickey away, and he claims a defense of insanity, the residents use this to persuade themselves that what he had them do has been invalidated and was not real. All make this assertion except for Larry, who can no longer be detached as he had hoped and condemns Parritt, leading him to commit suicide in contrition.

O’Neill’s cast of characters does not represent all of society, but rather the rejects of society, those people who have once had meaningful lives but for various reasons (mostly rooted in disappointment or disillusionment) have lost touch with them, leaving them with nothing except their “pipe dreams.” These dreams sustain them, as Larry explains: “To hell with the truth! As the history of the world proves, the truth has no bearing on anything. It’s irrelevant and immaterial, as the lawyers say. The lie of a pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober” (9-10). Larry denies that he maintains any dreams, insisting that he is the detached exception to the rule, but this desire for detachment is Larry’s pipe dream, for he cannot help but be involved.

The landlord, Harry Hope, who runs the boardinghouse/saloon, helps keep his residents alive and will always give them a drink when he sees they need it, although his motivation is selfish: he wants them around to boost his own sense of self-importance. It is he who immediately picks up on the possibility of Hickey’s insanity, which will allow them all to resurrect their sustaining dreams. These people’s whole lives are contained in this one building. No one ever wants to leave, and the windows are so full of grime that no one can see through them, which ensures their isolation from a society with which none of them can cope. This is a decayed building containing decayed people, yet they still have “Hope” to keep them going and their various “pipe dreams” to get them through each day. They respect each other’s dreams and uphold them, for without them they truly will cease to exist, as we see when Hickey momentarily explodes them.

The run-down appearance of each of these characters shows the toughness of the lives they have led. While some have always been fairly disreputable, others have made their mark in the past, but have lost touch with those glory days. What remains is a group of ex-professionals, and ex-practitioners of life. Ed Mosher sold tickets at the circus, Pat McGloin was a cop on the take, Willie Oban a lawyer whose father turned out to be a major criminal, Joe Mott an African American gambler who wants to be white, Piet Wetjoen an ex-Boer commander, Cecil Lewis an ex-British commander, Jimmy Cameron an ex-war correspondent, Hugo Kalmar a worn-out political editor, Larry Slade a disenchanted anarchist, Hickey a loose-living salesman, and there are the grasping bartenders Rocky and Chuck, who also act as pimps for the bored prostitutes Pearl, Margie, and Cora. Most use alcohol to escape the past or obliterate the present and any need for a future.

Larry is disillusioned, having realized that any sociopolitical movement must fail because men are too selfish. He tries to take “a seat in the grandstand of philosophical detachment” (11), where he drinks to remain detached. However, he begins to realize that this cannot work since he likes people too much and always has time for them. We see this through Don Parritt’s remembrances and Jimmy’s declaration: “You pretend a bitter, cynic philosophy, but in your heart you are the kindest man among us” (44). Larry suffers because he sees people as collectively rotten but still loves them on an individual level.

It might seem that these people can go no further down than this empty existence in the “No Chance Saloon,” but Hickey proves that they have further yet to fall. “Pipe dreams” allow these people to recreate either past or future, even while living in a dire present, which at least gives them the strength to keep living. These people are separated from the outside world of “greedy madness” (29) by their dreams. Hickey at first seems out of place, but we eventually discover that he is the worst off of them all. He has just killed his wife, Evelyn, mostly because of his own guilt at continually disappointing her with his drinking and philandering, and his need to be free. He has dreamed this into an act of kindness, but, ironically, is made to see the truth in the end that he hated her rather than loved her as he had imagined, because she constantly made him feel resentful, having expected too much of him.

Hickey has made a living off other people’s dreams as a salesman, and it is not his place to try to dispel anyone’s dream. He tries to stop the saloon regulars from drinking (which helps them dream), so that they might face their dreams   to explode them and get on with their lives, as he thinks he has done. It takes a while for him to realize that those dreams are their lives, and all they really have. In ignorance, he nearly destroys them by trying to “help.” Facing truth threatens to pulls them all apart and take away even the comfort of these shallow friendships. But they are resilient, and once Hickey’s power is deflated by his admission of insanity, they begin to build new dreams for themselves—such as Harry Hope pretending he nearly got run over by a car to make his life sound more interesting. However, for a while they sit like dead men during the period Hickey will not allow them to dream. At this juncture they cannot even get drunk anymore. In one way they all want to see each other fail, as it gives them tacit permission to fail as well without having to feel bad that they did. Essentially, these people are rather unpleasant, and it is only their dreams that make them acceptable, by keeping them from seeing the miserable failures that they all truly are.

Hickey and Parritt are very similar: both destroy others to help themselves, and both pay the price. Hickey has to die because he has no dream left by which to live. “He vas selling death to me, that crazy salesman” (249), Hugo declares, after Hickey has been taken away, and it was true. All end up back to normal, except for Larry. Parritt has killed himself, largely because of what Larry has said to him, and Larry realizes that he cannot remain detached, as he has hoped. Earlier he had jokingly commented that he was ready for death, but with the realization that he cannot avoid suffering as a result of witnessing the terrible things others do, he truly wishes for the release of death, and he ironically embraces what Hickey had sought—a life without illusions.

In All My Sons Joe and Kate Keller live a lie, pretending that Keller is innocent of shipping out faulty airplane parts to the Air Force and that their son Larry is alive. To keep this lie going, Kate tries to block their other son Chris’s engagement to Larry’s old girlfriend, Ann Deever, and the family pressure Ann’s brother, George Deever, into silence when he discovers the truth. But the truth cannot be hidden, and we learn that Keller knowingly shipped those parts to keep his business alive and avoided punishment by placing the blame on Steve Deever. Also, Larry is dead, having crashed his plane in an act of suicide for shame at what his father has done. As the truth comes out, Chris disowns his father and drives Keller to commit suicide to avoid facing his guilt.

Joe Keller is a “man among men” because he has “made it” in this society, and that, to many, is cause for respect and admiration. His regard for his sons is undeniable and his belief in the sanctity of fatherhood is clear as he cries, “A father is a father” (136), and in this cry affirms his belief that blood should always be put before outside concerns. He tells Chris: “What the hell did I work for? That’s only for you, Chris, the whole shooting match is for you!” (102), and is eager to include Chris in his business. This desire to bond with his son is, in a sense, what frees him from moral responsibility and allows him to ship those faulty parts with a clear conscience. But he is guilty of the “life-   lie.” For most of the play he avoids the truths he innately knows will destroy him, and when he finally does acknowledge them toward the close, he destroys himself rather than face the consequences.

Keller shows pride in the ability he has to pass on such a thriving business firm, and it worries him deeply that Chris may not accept his gift. He revels in his financial and, therefore, social superiority. Having faced the accusations against him boldly, his boldness won him the case. But he has been morally misled by the mores of an unsavory society; a society Chris comes to describe as “the land of the great big dogs” (167). Keller has been taught that it is the winner who continues to play the game and society can turn a blind eye to moral concerns as long as the production line keeps rolling—this is the essence of capitalism. It is what he tries to teach his son, but it is something his son does not want to hear. It is not until the end of the play that Keller sees what his sons saw all along: we have social responsibilities beyond the immediate family and to deny these is to live a lie. Keller cannot survive the rejection of his sons, and he literally ceases to exist once this occurs, as he commits suicide.

Keller’s wife, Kate, is the real kingpin of this family. It is Kate whom they must all please, and it is Kate to whom everyone turns for advice and comfort. Yet Kate is a woman who ignores realities of which she disapproves, such as the likelihood of Larry’s death, and Chris and Ann’s relationship. She focuses instead on anything she can adapt to her version of reality. Kate feels the guilt of what her husband has done, and throughout the play she threatens to burst with the pressure of keeping his dark secrets. Her insistence that Larry is alive is intrinsic to her ability to continue supporting Keller.

Chris has been set up as a moral idealist by his friends and neighbors, which is a hard role to fulfill, especially as he begins to question his own complicity in his father’s lie. Many others look to him to determine how they should behave—he inspires their neighbor Jim Bayliss to want to become a medical researcher, and the Deever children to believe in Keller’s innocence and their own father’s guilt. But Chris is unsure as to what he wants to do for himself.

Chris feels torn between keeping his father happy by staying in the family business and refusing to get caught up in the morally suspect world of commerce. Chris’s character is summed up in his military epithet “Mother McKeller.” He is both “mother” and “killer”; he has a desire to protect and destroy almost simultaneously, and this conflict finally burns him out. Chris tries to take responsibility for his fellow man in opposition to his father’s evident lack of responsibility, but, ironically, without the support of his father he finally crumbles and returns to the safe inertia of his mother’s arms. Larry Keller’s rebellion was better sustained, in that at least he died for something he believed.

Like Chris, Ann is cautious, which may be why she and Chris are so well suited. Also, like Chris, in her firm rejection of her father (and her later request that Chris reject his father), she seems to be a fierce idealist. However, because of Larry’s letter she knew from the start about Keller’s guilt, yet kept quiet until she saw no other alternative to getting what she wanted, which compro-  mises her idealism. This is a compromise Chris will have to make if he is ever to be happy. Even though Ann will be marrying into the family that destroyed her father, she knows that the worst thing to be in life is alone, and she is desperate to hold onto Chris. It is uncertain by the end of the play if she will succeed in this or not, as Kate, who has been trying to keep them apart throughout the play, seems to have reclaimed her son and holds him tightly in her arms.

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