Ibsen, Lawrence, Galsworthy

Naturalist Drama and Environmental Influences. How the plays of three early modern authors show the influence of the environment on the quality of human life

by Catherine Cooper
For more on Lawrence see The D H Lawrence Page >
Any psychologist, psychiatrist or indeed anyone who knows anything at all about human nature will agree that environment has a great influence on an individual's personality which will, in turn, influence their actions. As Naturalist writers were intending to create 'true to life' plays, it was almost inevitable that the strength of environment must often be evident in the plays if the playwright was to be successful in his aims. Plays of the early modern era pay varying degrees of attention to environment; in some, such as the plays of Galsworthy and Lawrence, its influence is a major issue, whereas in others it is merely touched upon and other topics are dealt with more thoroughly. In this essay I intend to discuss some of the plays in which the environment is clearly a major factor in the various problems of the characters.  

Henrik Ibsen: Hedda Gabler

Ibsen's Hedda Gabler is a play in which the contrasting past and present environments of the various characters cause tension throughout the play and eventually lead to Hedda's suicide. From the very beginning of the play it is made evident that Hedda is in a class above the Tesman's. The Aunts seem extremely conscious of this fact and are anxious to impress her, Aunt Julie has even bought a new hat. They are looking forward to welcoming her into the family. Conversely, Hedda is extremely aware of the fact that she was once regarded by these people of a lower class with awe, and seems to wish to keep it that way. She has no desire to become part of their family and is deliberately condescending towards Aunt Julie. This is evident in many instances throughout the play. She pretends to think that Aunt Julie's new hat belongs to the servant and refuses to do simple things such as addressing Aunt Julie as 'Aunt', but also refuses more meaningful things such as visiting the dying Aunt Rina. She obviously feels she has lowered herself by marrying Tesman and will therefore never be entirely content in the marriage.

The audience might wonder why she married Tesman when it is made clear that she was a rich and much-sought-after woman, and also that she is clearly discontented now. She explains to Brack, who also wonders:

I had simply danced myself out, my dear sir. My time was up. [1]

She also gives other reasons, such as that she thought Tesman was going to become rich and eminent. However, it appears that one of the main reasons that she married him was because she wanted to live in the villa. She says philosophically to Brack:

. . . it was through this passion for the villa of the late Mrs Falk that Jorgen Tesman and I found our way to an understanding. That led to our engagement and marriage and wedding trip and everything. Well, well. As one makes one's bed one must lie on it, I was just going to say. [2]

As can be seen, because she is materialistic and spoilt due to her childhood environment, she entered into a marriage for entirely wrong reasons and has now found herself in a middle-class world in which she feels unhappy. For her it is an unnatural environment.

It is not just class which makes Hedda feel unhappy and a misfit in her environment. In an environment there are certain to be other people, and certain people in Hedda's make things more uncomfortable. One of these people is Lovborg. For her he brings back many memories of the past about which she seems to have many regrets. Hedda believes they had a kind of comradeship, something she and Jorgen do not appear to have. Hedda broke off her relationship with Lovborg when it threatened to become something deeper and, it is implied, something sexual. The main reason she did this appears to be that it would not be 'the done thing' to have had a relationship of this kind with him. Because of the environment in which she grew up, Hedda always feels the need to follow conventions, although it is made clear at various points that she has a deep down desire to break these conventions, but never quite has the courage. Her cowardice and her realisation of it is made most evident in her conversation with Lovborg about their past. She had threatened to shoot him and did not have the courage because she is 'as terrified of scandal as all that.' [3] However, she then admits:

That wasn't my worst piece of cowardice that night. [4]

These words make it clear that she wished to enter into a relationship with Lovborg, but because of the indoctrination of her environment she did not have the courage. This perhaps also caused some of the dissatisfaction and frustration she now feels; she gave up the comradeship of Lovborg for a boring, middle-class life with the more 'suitable' Tesman. She also seems to be jealous of the seemingly much more timid Thea, who actually has the strength to go against convention and disregard what people think. Whilst Hedda does absolutely nothing about her passion for Lovborg, apart from set him up as an icon representative of freedom in her mind (with vine leaves in his hair), Thea leaves her husband in order that she can be with him. On hearing of this, Hedda's reaction is:

One doesn't do that kind of thing. [5]

Because she is so bored in the middle-class environment of which she does not really feel a part, and because she does not have the courage to do anything drastic about it (a legacy of her previous, stifling environment), she tries to gain her excitement through the actions of other people, such as by trying to encourage Lovborg to commit the 'beautiful act' of suicide. When this goes wrong, she eventually has to take her problems into her own hands and escape from her environment in the only way which she sees as possible, by killing herself. The final words of the play reiterate the fact that these people must play out their lives in the manner which is expected of them, however disagreeable they might find it. On discovering Hedda's suicide, Brack exclaims, echoing Hedda's earlier words:

One doesn't do that kind of thing! [6]

The reasons for Hedda's suicide are fairly clear, she realised she could not live in a middle-class environment under the threat of Brack revealing the fact that she gave the pistol to Lovborg whilst her husband is wrapped up in a project which does not involve her and it is clear that he is not going to provide her with the attention or standard of living which she was hoping for. Her first environment, materialistic and prestigious, led her to choose her second environment purely on material values. She soon found that she could not move from one environment to the other, and with the added problem of people within her environment who reminded her of her own failings, she simply found she could not cope. It is clear that in another environment, probably a more wealthy one and one in which she received more attention, she could have been happier.

D. H. Lawrence: The Daughter-in-law

Many of Lawrence's plays also show the great influence that environment has on the lives of the characters. A particularly good example of this is The Daughter-in-law. The environment in this play is entirely different to that of Hedda Gabler and so, unsurprisingly, presents the characters with an entirely different set of problems.

As in many of Lawrence's works, one of the major forces of influence within this particular environment is that of the mother. It is made clear from the beginning that Mrs Gascoigne always has and still does play a very important part in the lives of her sons Luther and Joe which causes problems for both of them. Almost as soon as the play opens Mrs Gascoigne is seen having to cut up her son's food because he has broken his arm and is therefore unable to do it himself. She comments that she used to do this when he was a child, but appears to enjoy being placed back in this truly maternal role again. Joe, despite being twenty-six, has never left home and it is suggested that he can never really see himself doing so. He makes half-hearted comments about going to Australia, but later on in the play admits that if he did so, that is, left his mother to face the world on his own, he 'should be a husk of a man' [7] and that he always has been, obviously meaning that the 'best part' of him is his mother and he has no real character of his own. He says himself:

There's not much of a man about me. [8]

Joe delights in flirting with Minnie, but as she herself realises (pg 136), this is only because she is already married and so Joe knows that there is no chance of him forming a serious relationship with her. He realises the hold which his mother has over him but does not appear to have any desire to do anything about it.

Although Luther is now married, the effects of Mrs Gascoigne can still clearly be noted. Minnie points out at the end of the play that Luther is more his mother's son than the husband to her which he is supposed to be. Small incidents throughout the play show this to be true; he does not like having to get washed and changed after returning from the pit but before eating because he did not do it that way when he lived at home. When Minnie asked him to marry her he told her she could either marry him or not as she pleased. He probably left such an important decision to her not because he had no preference either way but because he had always been used to the woman in his life (his mother) making all the decisions for him. Minnie also states the effect which his mother had on him in the first act of the play:

You'll be a day-man at seven shillings a day till the end of your life - and you'll be satisfied, so long as you can shilly-shally through. That's what your mother did for you - mardin' you up till you were all mard-soft. [9]

Because their mother has stifled them to such an extent they have problems living their own lives. However, it is not only the sons who experience problems because of their environment. In a similar way to in Hedda Gabler Minnie experiences problems because she is slightly wealthier than the community into which she has married. However, despite the fact that Minnie only married Luther because she could not find anyone better to marry her, Minnie makes much more of an effort to fit in to the community than did Hedda. In fact, the roles are somewhat reversed; in Hedda Gabler the community were extremely anxious to make Hedda feel welcome, whereas in this play, the community regard Minnie with a certain amount of contempt. They sneer at her furniture which is beautiful but impractical, seemingly not out of jealousy but merely because it is different. In this community practicality is of utmost importance, aesthetics and pleasure are clearly secondary. This can be seen in many instances throughout the play, such as the very unemotional way in which Mrs Purdy and Mrs Gascoigne discuss compensation for Bertha's pregnancy. Mrs Purdy has already done some research and discovered that forty pounds is an acceptable price. This parallels Joe seeking compensation for his injury which occurred at work. Other examples can be found, such as Mrs Purdy's comment that she would rather have the money than the expensive ornaments which Minnie owns.

Because of the environment in which they live it is necessary for them to have these very practical, frugal values, and because Minnie does not share them, because she values beauty and comfort over practicality, she is not fully accepted. They seem to expect everyone in their community to do everything in the 'correct' way and ostracise anyone who does not. Minnie eventually has to fritter her money away on things which she does not need and does not even seem to want, merely to lower her wealth to the same as everyone else's in order to be accepted by the community and even by her husband.

The tragic thing for Minnie is that once she is in this environment in which she is unhappy, she cannot really leave it. She and Luther clearly married for the wrong reasons and were therefore unlikely to be happy. When Luther suggests her leaving she replies:

What's the good of me leaving you? Aren't I married to you, tied to you? [10]

Because of the situation she is now in, as a married woman who now has no money of her own, she cannot leave her husband. Even if she could, it would be seen as shameful. She has chosen this environment for herself, and now cannot leave it. It is clear that she would rather be unhappy in it than be left without it. She says that if Luther leaves her:

It leaves me so - with nothing, not even trouble. [11]

Sylvia Sklar describes their decision to stay together as, 'a tragic submission to the inexorable force of circumstance' [12] because, due to the environment in which they live, they had no other viable choice.

D. H. Lawrence: The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd

A similar situation occurs in another of Lawrence's plays, The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd. Lizzie Holroyd only married so that she could get away from the unbearable life she was leading previously, as marriage was the only way out for women. As she has got herself into this marriage, she seems to accept that she is going to be unhappy. In this environment women accepted that men could do as they pleased and women were expected to put up with it. She says to herself, weeping:

Why should I put up with it all? - He can do what he likes. But I don't care, no, I don't. [13]

She has to convince herself that she does not care because it is the only way she can cope. However, it is suggested in this play that her unhappiness is not entirely the fault of environment and circumstance. It is suggested, particularly by the children, that if she did not nag her husband so much he would not spend so much time at the pub or bring other women home. Minnie says to her mother:

'Appen if you said something nice to him, mother, he'd happen to go to bed and not shout. [14]

However, her son Jack shows the other side of the story by saying:

Well, he's always comin' home and shoutin' an' bangin' on the table. [15]

It appears that because they went into this loveless marriage of convenience they can never really be happy together. This is confirmed at the end of the play when Mrs Holroyd speaks to her husband's dead body thus:

I never loved you enough, I never did. What a shame for you! It was a shame. But you didn't - you didn't try. I would have loved you - I tried hard. What a shame for you! It was so cruel for you. You couldn't help it - my dear, my dear. You couldn't help it. And I can't do anything for you, and it hurt you so! [16]

Sylvia Sklar describes the world in which the Holroyds live as, 'a self-contained world which conditions even the innermost feelings of the people within it. [17] This is undoubtedly true. Blackmore offers her a way out, but she is unwilling. He offers to take her and her children to Spain, where he claims he can get a job anytime. Despite the fact she has just wished her husband dead, she nonetheless declines to go with him, claiming her reason is that he does not love her, although this appears to be a rather feeble excuse, as her husband does not appear to love her either. Like Minnie, she sees marriage as an inescapable tie.

The main reason that the two Lawrentian women, Minnie and Mrs Holroyd, are unhappy in their environment is that they have gone into marriage for the wrong reasons which, in turn, is due to the environment in which they grew up. Marriage provided escape and security and was seen as the only option and therefore a necessity. Once in their new environments they had to accept the values of the community (for Mrs Holroyd, men doing as they pleased and women suffering in silence, and for Minnie, mainly material values.) Going against the norm is not really an option, and so the only real option is to conform, as Minnie did by getting rid of her money. Luther and Joe were under the influence of an entirely different but equally strong influence in their environment, their mother. All four suffered difficulties which were almost entirely due to their environment and circumstances, in one form or another.

John Galsworthy: Strife

The problems discussed so far which have been inflicted by the environment are mainly due to social conventions, the necessity of fitting in with the community, an unhappy marriage or the influence of one person over another. The influence of the environment which is shown in the plays of John Galsworthy is entirely different. In his play Strife the factor which influences and differentiates between the characters to the greatest extent is that of wealth. The characters are divided into two clear groups: the rich and the poor. The poor are objecting to their circumstances, and the only way they can do this is to go on strike in order to make their employers suffer. However, because of the circumstances of the poor, it is they who end up suffering the most. The rich are sufficiently wealthy that a decrease in their wealth will not cause them to go hungry; this is clearly not the case with the poor. This is shown in many ways throughout the play, for example, the first act opens in the home of the rich where the fire is too hot. Act two opens in the much poorer Roberts' household, where they are all shivering because they do not have enough fuel to feed the fire. The differences in lifestyle are continually highlighted; Wilder complains that if they do not get the strike sorted out soon he will not be able to take his sick wife to Spain, whereas Roberts does not even have enough money to keep his much sicker wife warm and properly fed. Whereas to the board 'going without' means perhaps forgoing luxuries like holidays, to the workers it means going without food and heat even to the point of starvation, in the case of Mrs Roberts, or keeping children in bed because they do not get so cold or hungry as they would if they were up and moving around.

As Enid discovers, these class barriers cannot be crossed. She appears to be the only one of the rich who feels compassion for the workers. However, her attempts to help are all refused. Roberts refuses to let Enid give his wife food because of his sense of pride. They appear to greatly resent her presence. Madge accuses Enid of spying on them. Because of the great class divide in their society, any attempts to close this gap are rebutted. Enid is obviously being rather naive in thinking that she can change things or even help. Because in their environment the class divide is so set, particularly in a time of a crisis such as a strike, when the differences between the classes become even more notable, her presence is bound to cause resentment and hostility. She ignorantly dismisses this attitude to Madge as:

You hate us and can't bear to be beaten. [18]

She, in her privileged world, cannot understand that, for them, being beaten could mean starving to death. She does not understand that they do not hate their class for the sake of it, they hate the way their class forces the workers to live by underpaying them. The problem is summed up by Anthony who says:

Do you know what trying to bridge such a gulf as this is like? Filling a sieve with sand! [19]

Enid comments at another point in the play:

It's not my fault I was born better off than you. [20]

Both of them are right. It is a fact of life that some people are richer than others. The gulf between the two classes obviously causes resentment but there is little that can realistically be done about it, it is bound to exist.

One thing which further illustrates the difference between the two classes is Roberts's discovery of a new process. He was paid a certain amount for this, but if he had been of a higher class and better educated he could quite possibly have made more from it.

The general hostility in the environment as a whole seems to have made most of the characters rather more cold and unfeeling than they would perhaps have been otherwise. Just as compensation for Bertha's pregnancy in The Daughter-in-law is treated in an extremely businesslike manner, the death of Mrs Roberts is treated as an event of political rather than emotional significance.

The play as a whole effectively illustrates the great differences between the two classes and their very different lifestyles. Once a person is born into one class it is difficult to be accepted by or even understand the problems of another. Even though the workers are staving they have to continue with their strike, both for reasons of pride and the fact that they need, rather than want, more money. As Edgar points out, the problem is not so much that they do not sympathise with the workers as the fact that they do not understand their problem or know how much they are suffering.

There's nothing wrong with our humanity. It's our imaginations. [21]

The extremely class-divided society creates problems for both classes as one cannot do without the other. The workers are having to starve hoping to improve their environment in the future, which as a result is becoming cold and unfeeling.


It therefore seems fairly true to state that a lot of Naturalist drama places great importance on the environment, and how this influences people's actions and their reactions to others. However, it is not only the influence of the environment itself which is studied, but also the influence of certain people within the environment and circumstances such as wealth. Almost all the problems dealt with in the plays discussed above arose due to environment and circumstance, or to a character being unable to reconcile him or herself to a change in an environment. Naturalist plays were intended to be realistic, and they therefore reflect in a realistic kind of way the manner in which people naturally react to the environment around them.

Galsworthy, John. Five Plays, Methuen. (1984)
Ibsen, Henrik. Hedda Gabler and other Plays, Penguin Classics. (1961)
Lawrence, D. H. Three Plays. (1960)
Saari, Sandra E. Hedda Gabler: The Past Recaptured. Modern Drama, 20 (1977)
Sklar, Sylvia. The Plays of D. H. Lawrence. Vision Critical Studies. (1975)

Hedda Gabler
1. pg 299
2. pg 304
3. pg 318
4. pg 319
5. pg 276
6. pg 364

Lawrence, Three Plays
7. pg 137
8. pg 137
9. pg 104
10. pg 121
11. pg 145
12. Sklar pg 128
13. pg 156
14. pg 183
15. pg 183
16. pg 198
17. Sklar pg 83

Galsworthy, Five Plays
18. pg 28
19. pg 44
20. pg 47
21. pg 51

© Catherine Cooper, April 2001


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