The Pillars of Society by Henrik Ibsen

Persons in the Drama

Consul Bernick
Mrs. Bernick
Olaf, their son
Martha Bernick, sister of the consul
Lona Hessel, elder stepsister of Mrs. Bernick
Johan Tönnesen, her younger brother
Hilmar Tönnesen, Mrs. Bernick's brother
Rector Rörlund
Dina Dorf, a young lady living at the consul's
Krap, the consul's clerk
Shipbuilder Aune
Mrs. Rummel and other ladies, friends of the consul's family

Act I

Scene.A large garden-room in Consul Bernick's house. A number of ladies are seated in the room. Aune, who has been sent for by the Consul, is addressed by Krap at the door of the Consul's room.

Krap: I am ordered by the consul to tell you that you must stop those Saturday talks to the workmen about the injury that our new machines will do to them. Your first duty is to this establishment. Now you know the will of the consul.

Aune: The consul would have said it differently. But I know I have to thank for this the American that has put in for repairs.

Krap: That is enough. You know the consul's wishes. Pardon, ladies!

[Krap bows to ladies, and he and Aune go into the street. Rector Rörlund has been reading aloud, and now shuts the book and begins to converse with the ladies.

Rörlund: This book forms a welcome contrast to the hollowness and rottenness we see every day in the papers and magazines, which reflect the condition of the whited sepulchres, the great communities to-day. Doubt, restlessness, and insecurity are undermining society.

Dina: But are not many great things being accomplished?

Rörlund: I do not understand what you mean by great things.

Mrs. Rummel: Last year we narrowly escaped the introduction of a railroad.

Mrs. Bernick: My husband managed to block the scheme, but the papers, in consequence, said shameful things about him. But we are forgetting, dear rector, that we have to thank you for devoting so much time to us.

Rörlund: Do you not all make sacrifices in a good cause to save the lapsed and lost?

Hilmar Tönnesen (coming in with a cigar in his mouth): I have only looked in in passing. Good-morning, ladies! Well, you know Bernick has called a cabinet council about this railway nonsense again. When it is a question of money, then everything here ends in paltry material calculations.

Mrs. Bernick: But at any rate things are better than formerly, when everything ended in dissipation.  Mrs. Rummel: Only think of fifteen years ago. What a life, with the dancing club and music club! I well remember the noisy gaiety among families.

Mrs. Lynge: There was a company of strolling players, who, I was told, played many pranks. What was the truth of the matter?

Mrs. Rummel, when Dina is out of the room, explains to the ladies that the girl is the daughter of a strolling player who years before had come to perform for a season in the town. Dorf, the actor, had deserted both wife and child, and the wife had to take to work to which she was unaccustomed, was seized with a pulmonary malady, and died. Then Dina had been adopted by the Bernicks.

Mrs. Rummel goes on to explain that at that season also Johan, Mrs. Bernick's brother, had run away to America. After his departure it was discovered that he had been playing tricks with the cash-box of the firm, of which his widowed mother had become the head. Karsten, now Consul, Bernick had just come home from Paris. He became engaged to Betty Tönnesen, now his wife, but when he entered her aunt's room, with the girl on his arm, to announce his betrothal, Lona Hessel rose from her chair and violently boxed his ear. Then she packed her box, and went off to America. Little had been heard of Lona, except that she had in America sung in taverns, and had given lectures, and had written a most sensational book.

Act II

Scene.The same garden-room. Mrs. Bernick. Aune enters and greets Consul Bernick.

Bernick: I am not at all pleased, Aune, with the way things are going on in the yard. The repairs are slow. The Palm Tree should long since have been at sea. That American ship, the Indian Girl, has been lying here five weeks. You do not know how to use the new machines, or else you will not use them.

Aune: Consul, the Palm Tree can go to sea in two days, but the Indian Girl is as rotten as matchwood in the bottom planking. Now, I am getting on for sixty, and I cannot take to new ways. I am afraid for the many folk whom the machinery will deprive of a livelihood.

Bernick: I did not send for you to argue. Listen now. The Indian Girl must be got ready to sail in two days, at the same time as our own ship. There are reasons for this decision. The carping newspaper critics are pretending that we are giving all our attention to the Palm Tree. If you will not do what I order, I must look for somebody who will.

Aune: You are asking impossibilities, consul. But surely you cannot think of dismissing me, whose father and grandfather worked here all their lives before me. Do you know what is meant by the dismissal of an old workman?

Bernick: You are a stubborn fellow, Aune. You oppose me from perversity. I am sorry indeed if we must part, Aune.

Aune: We will not part, consul. The Indian Girl shall be cleared in two days.

[Aune bows and retires. Hilmar Tönnesen comes through the garden gate.

Hilmar: Good-day, Betty! Good-day, Bernick. Have you heard the new sensation? The two Americans are going about the streets in company with Dina Dorf. The town is all excitement about it.

Bernick (looking out into the street): They are coming here. We must be sure to treat them well. They will soon be away again.

[Johan and Lona enter. Presently all disperse into the garden, and Bernick goes up to Johan.

Bernick: Now we are alone, Johan, I must thank you. For to you I owe home, happiness, position, and all that I have and am. Not one in ten thousand would have done all that you then did for me. I was the guilty one. On the night when that drunken wretch came home it was for Betty's sake that I broke off the entanglement  with Madame Dorf; but still, that you should act in such a noble spirit of self-sacrifice as to turn appearances against yourself, and go away, can never be forgotten by me.

Johan: Oh, well, we were both young and thoughtless. I was an orphan, alone and free, and was glad to get away from office drudgery. You had your old mother alive, and you had just engaged yourself to Betty, who was very fond of you. We agreed that you must be saved, and I was proud to be your friend. You had come back like a prince from abroad, and chose me for your closest friend. Now I know why. You were making love to Betty. But I was proud of it.

Bernick: Are you going back to your American farm? Not soon, I hope.

Johan: As soon as possible. I only came over to please Lona. She felt homesick. You can never think what she has been to me. You never could tolerate her, but to me she has been a mother, singing, lecturing, writing to support me when I was ill and could not work. And I may as well tell you frankly that I have told her all. But do not fear her. She will say nothing. But who would have dreamt of your taking into your house that little creature who played angels in the theatre, and scampered about here? What became of her parents?

Bernick: I wrote you all that happened. The drunken scoundrel, after leaving his wife, was killed in a drinking bout. After the wife died it was through Martha that we took little Dina in charge.

To the amazement of the Bernicks and some others, Johan makes it known that he has asked Dina to be his wife, and that she has consented. To their further astonishment and annoyance, Lona declares her profound approval of this engagement. Moreover, Lona now challenges Bernick to clear his soul of the lie on which he has stood for these fifteen years. It is a three-fold lie—the lie towards Lona, then the lie towards Betty, then the lie towards Johan. But Bernick shrinks from the terrible shame that would come on him as one of the "pillars of society."


Scene. Consul Bernick's garden-room again. Krap is speaking to the Consul.

Krap: The Palm Tree can sail to-morrow, but as for the Indian Girl, in my opinion she will not get far. I have been secretly examining the bottom of the ship, where the repairs have been pushed on very fast. The rotten place is patched up, and made to look like new, for Aune has been working himself all night at it. There is some villainy at work. I believe Aune wants, out of revenge for the use of the new machines, to send that ship to the bottom of the sea.

Bernick: This is horrible. True, Aune is an agitator who is spreading discontent, but this is inconceivable.

[Krap goes out, and presently Lona Hessel enters.

Bernick: Well, Lona, what do you think of me now?

Lona: Just what I thought before. A lie more or less——

Bernick: I can talk to you more confidentially than to others. I shall hide nothing from you. I had a part in spreading that rumour about Johan and the cash-box. But make allowance for me. Our house when I came home from my foreign tour was threatened with ruin, and one misfortune followed another. I was almost in despair, and in my distraction got into that difficulty which ended with the disappearance of Johan. Then after you and he left various reports were spread. Some folks declared that he had taken the money to America. I was in such difficulty that I did not say a word to contradict the rumours.

Lona: So a lie has made you one of the pillars of society.

Johan (entering): I have come to tell you that I intend  not only to marry Dina Dorf, but to remain here and to defy all these liars. Yesterday I promised to keep silence, but now I need the truth. You must set me free by telling the truth, that I may win Dina.

Bernick (in great agitation): But just reflect on my position. If you aim such a blow as this at me I am ruined irretrievably. The welfare of this community is also at stake. If my credit is not impaired, I shall soon be a millionaire, when certain company projects mature. Johan, go away, and I will share with you. I have staked all I possess on schemes now about to mature, but if my character is impaired, my utter ruin is inevitable.

To the surprise of Bernick, Johan announces that he will go to America, but will shortly return for Dina, and that accordingly he will sail next day in the Indian Girl, the captain having promised to take him. He will sell his farm and be back in two months, and then the guilty one must take the guilt on himself.

Johan: The wind is good, and in three weeks I shall be across the Atlantic unless the Indian Girl should go to the bottom.

Bernick (involuntarily starting): Go to the bottom?
Why should she?

Johan: Yes, indeed, why?

Bernick (very softly): Go to the bottom?

They separate, and Aune enters, and anxiously asks if Bernick is positively determined that the American ship shall sail the next day, on pain of his dismissal. He replies that he supposes the repairs are properly finished, and therefore the Indian Girl must sail. A merchant steps in to say that the storm-signals have been hoisted, for a tempest is threatening. This gentleman says to Bernick that the Palm Tree ought to start all the same, for she is a splendidly-built craft, and she is only to cross the North Sea; but as for the Indian Girl, such an old hulk would be in great peril. But Bernick evades the remonstrance, and no alteration is made in the plans of procedure. The ship is to sail.

Act IV

Scene.The same garden-room. It is a stormy afternoon and growing dark.

Bernick is apprised that he is to be most honourably fęted by his fellow citizens who are about to form a procession, and to parade before his house with music. The proudest moment of his life is at hand. But the fact that the sea is running high outside the harbour is causing great agitation to the mind of Bernick. Lona looks in to say that she has been saying farewell to Johan. He has not changed his determination to sail. A strange incident happens. Little Olaf Bernick runs away from home to slip on board the ship and accompany his uncle to America.

Lona: So the great hour has arrived. The whole town is to be illuminated.

Bernick (pacing to and fro in agitation): Yes. Lona, you despise me.

Lona: Not yet.

Bernick: You have no right to despise me. For you little realise how lonely I stand in this narrow society. What have I accomplished, with all my efforts? We who are considered the pillars of society are but its tools after all. Since you came home from America I have been keenly feeling all this. All this show and deception gives me no satisfaction. But I work for my son, who will be able to found a truer state of things and to be happier than his father.

Lona: With a lie for its basis? Think what an heritage you are preparing for Olaf.

Bernick: Why did you and Johan come home to crush me?

Lona: Let me just tell you that after all Johan will not come back to crush you. For he has gone for ever and Dina has gone also to become his wife.

Bernick (amazed): Gone—in the Indian Girl?

Lona: They did not dare to risk their lives in that crazy tub. They are in the Palm Tree.

Bernick rushes to his office to order the Indian Girl to be stopped in the harbour, but he learns that she already is out at sea. But presently Hilmar comes to tell him that Olaf has run away in the Indian Girl. He cries out that the ship must be stopped at any cost. Krap says it is impossible. Music is heard, for the procession is approaching. Bernick, in an agony of soul, declares that he cannot receive anyone. The whole street blazes with the illuminations, and on a great transparency on the opposite house gleams the inscription, "Long live Karsten Bernick, the Pillar of our Society!"

Bernick (at the window, shrinking back): I cannot look at all this. Away with all these mocking words! I shall never see Olaf again.

Mrs. Bernick: You will see him again, Karsten, all right. I have got him. Do you think a mother does not watch? I overheard a few words from our boy which set me on my guard. I and Aune went in the sailing boat from the yard and reached the Indian Girl when she was on the point of sailing, and he was soon discovered hiding away.

Bernick: And is the ship under sail again?

Mrs. Bernick: No. The darkness came on more densely, the pilot was alarmed, and so Aune, in your name, took it on himself to order the ship to stay till to-morrow.

Bernick: What an unspeakable blessing.

Krap: The procession is coming through the garden gate, consul.

Rector Rörlund, at the head of the procession, makes a presentation to Bernick in the name of the committee, and expresses the public esteem and admiration for the consul's services to society. Bernick, to the astonishment of the audience, proceeds to make a full confession of the duplicity and deceit of which he has been guilty. He unreservedly places himself in the hands of the people, who quietly disperse. Bernick at once finds that, whatever the people may think, he has won the sympathy of all his own circle. Lona lays her hands on his shoulder with the words, "Brother-in-law, you have at last discovered that the spirit of Truth and the spirit of Freedom are the real Pillars of Society."