Summary – Act One
The setting is described as ‘a handsomely and comfortably furnished study in Werle’s house’. The lamps are lit and this gives a soft light.
Werle's servant, Pettersen, is in livery and he and the hired waiter, Jensen, are ‘setting the study in order’. The noise of guests in the dining room can be heard. Pettersen refers to them, and to how the ‘old man’ is up making a long speech ‘to propose Mrs Sörby’s health’. Jensen asks if he thinks it is true what people say, that there is something between them. Pettersen answers ‘goodness knows’, but agrees the dinner party is in honor of Werle’s son who came home yesterday. Pettersen adds that ‘he sticks up at the works at Höidal’ and has not been in town for years.
Old Ekdal appears and speaks to Pettersen. He is dressed in ‘a weather-worn greatcoat’ and is wearing a reddish-brown wig and has a small grey moustache. He says he wants to get in the office; Pettersen lets him in, but tells him to go out by the ‘proper’ way as they have guests.
When Ekdal goes in the office, Pettersen tells Jensen he does odds jobs of copying and he was ‘a fine fellow in his day’ and had been a lieutenant. It is also said that he (Ekdal) played Werle ‘a remarkably dirty trick once’ and they had been in a partnership. Jensen asks if he went bankrupt and Pettersen says it was worse than that as he went to prison.
The guests get up from the table and Mrs Sörby asks for coffee in the music room. Some of the guests talk and one says he hopes she does not make them dance to a tune they do not like.
Werle says to his son, Gregers, that there were 13 at the table, but does not think anybody noticed. He looks at Hjalmar Ekdal (son of Ekdal) and says they are accustomed to having 12. He leads the way out and Hjalmar says to Gregers that he should not have invited him. Gregers questions this and says the party is supposed to be in his honor and so why should he not invite his ‘best and only friend’.
Gregers also says he wanted to speak to him as he is going away again soon and they have not met for 16 or 17 years. Hjalmar says how a ‘disastrous blow’ has fallen on him and his family since they last met and Gregers asks after his father. Hjalmar says he lives with him and has no one else to ‘cling to’.
He changes the subject as he says it is torture to talk of it, and asks how Gregers has been getting on his works. He says it has been lonely and they sit and talk. Hjalmar says he is glad he has invited him as it shows he no longer bears a grudge. Gregers is astonished and asks why he thinks this. Hjalmar explains it was ‘perfectly natural’ for him to have been like this ‘after that miserable affair happened’ and explains further that Werle, Gregers’ father, told him he (Gregers) bore a grudge, and Gregers is startled by this news.
He realizes that this is why he has not heard from him, even when he became a photographer. Hjalmar agrees and says Werle said he had better not write to him.
Gregers asks if he is ‘tolerably content’ and Hjalmar says with ‘a slight sigh’ that he is, although it was difficult at first as he had no money and so could not continue in his studies. They also had debts and most of these were owed to Werle. He also explains that it was Werle who advised him to go into photography and set him up in a studio.
Gregers says he knew nothing of this and his father did not write and tell him of it as he told Hjalmar he had. Hjalmar says it is also due to Werle that he was able to marry. Gregers is surprised, but says he is pleased and adds that this shows his father has a conscience, which Hjalmar queries. Gregers does not explain but says he is pleased for him.
Analysis – Act One
The rift between father and son, between Werle and Gregers that is, is introduced and emphasized as Act One progresses. Furthermore, as Gregers and Hjalmar talk it is strongly implied that Werle has lied to Hjalmar about Gregers bearing a grudge against him. In this conversation, it is possible to see then that Werle has been manipulative of both his son and the son of his supposed enemy, Ekdal.
Werle may be seen as a representative figure of capitalism working, and his wealth is made apparent by the dinner party, the rooms on display and the servants in attendance. By portraying Werle as controlling of those around him, it is also an easy step to take to see that the play criticizes the workings of capitalism through him.
Summary – Act One continued
Hjalmar explains that his wife is Gina and Gregers cannot remember her at first. He then asks if he means Gina Hansen and Hjalmar agrees. This Gina ‘kept house’ for Gregers’ family the last year when his mother was ill. Gregers asks how he made her acquaintance and Hjalmar explains that she returned to her mother’s home and he took a room in her house. Werle put the idea in his head and they ended up falling in love. Gregers asks if they were engaged when his father suggested he take up photography. Hjalmar says they were and fortunately ‘Gina had taken some lessons in retouching photography’. Gregers agrees it was ‘extraordinarily lucky altogether’ and Hjalmar is pleased and says how Werle did not desert his old friend’s son.
Mrs Sörby enters the room on Werle’s arm and says the light was bad for his eyes in the other room. Some of the guests laugh and joke together until Graaberg the bookkeeper peeps in from the private door and asks Werle if he may come through the room to leave as he has been locked in the office (from the other exit).
He says he has someone with him and Werle tells him to come along. However, Werle ‘gives an involuntary exclamation of disgust’ when he sees he is with Ekdal senior. Hjalmar starts and turns towards the fireplace, and his father looks down and asks to be excused. Two of the guests do not recognize Ekdal, and Gregers and Hjalmar do not explain. Gregers asks in a low voice if it was ‘really he’ and Hjalmar says yes. Gregers is critical that he did not acknowledge him and Hjalmar begins to ask if he would in his place.
Other guests join them, but when they leave Hjalmar says he must go and Gregers asks if he might come to his home. Hjalmar says he must not as it is a sad one and they can always meet in town, and slips out.
Mrs. Sörby asks Pettersen if he gave Ekdal anything, as she had asked him to, and he tells her he gave him a bottle of brandy. She questions the usefulness of this, but he assures her he did the right thing. Werle and Gregers are left alone when she agrees to play some music for the guests.
As the father and son talk, music can be heard in the background. Gregers asks how he could have let the Ekdals come to so much grief and asks if Ekdal was the only guilty one. Werle asks who else could be and Gregers points out that they were both in partnership ‘over that big purchase of timber’. Werle blames Ekdal for making a misleading map and for being responsible for the illegal felling of timber. He adds that he had no knowledge of this. Gregers says that Ekdal appeared to have no knowledge either and Werle replies ‘maybe’, but says he was found guilty and he (Werle) was acquitted.
Werle says he could have done no more for the family, as this would have aroused suspicion. He says he has Ekdal doing some copying at the office and pays him more than it is worth.
Gregers says he does not doubt this, and also talks of expenses and how it is better to not enter certain ones in one’s accounts. He explains and asks if he has entered the costs of having Hjalmar taught photography. Werle asks why he wants to know about this and Gregers lowers his voice and says how he (Werle) was especially interested in Gina at one time. Werle is angry and denies what he suggests.
Gregers tells him his ‘poor unhappy mother’ told him this on the last occasion he saw her, and Werle says he might have known (he would react in this way): ‘It was she from the very first who drew you apart from me.’ Gregers denies this and says it was the ‘suffering and humiliation’ she had to undergo, and Werle tells him he should not be raking up these ‘ancient rumours and slanders’ about him.
He goes on to question him working like ‘the merest clerk’ on ‘ordinary wages’ and says he presumes he does this to be independent. He tells Gregers he can have this independence and has called him back home to offer him a partnership in the firm. He says he has to be careful of his eyes and he could go up to the works and Gregers could stay in town. He adds that ‘circumstances might make it desirable’ for him to live up there.
Gregers looks at him coldly and wonders if there is something more to this, and if Werle intends to make use of him. Werle says he wants him to stay home for a while as he wants his companionship. As they talk, Gregers realizes his father is interested in marrying Mrs Sörby and believes he wanted him home ‘to make a pretence of family life’ for her ‘edification’ and the rumors of what his mother endured will be silenced.
Werle says Gregers sees him through his mother’s eyes and Gregers ignores this point and speaks of Hjalmar being ignorant of Gina’s former relationship with him (Werle). He refers to Hjalmar as ‘a big unsuspecting child’ and says how looking back at what his father has done, ‘is like looking at a battlefield strewn on every side with ruined lives’.
Werle says he is beginning to think the gulf between them is too wide to be bridged and Gregers agrees. He says he is leaving and adds that at last he has ‘some object to live for’ and tells his father to go in the other room as Mrs Sörby is playing blind man’s bluff with his guests. Werle mutters scornfully, ‘poor chap – and he says he is not sentimental’.
Analysis – Act One continued
Act One ends with the further breakdown in relations between Werle and Gregers, and this has been explained in more detail by Gregers’ revelations that Werle has had a special interest in Gina since the time when she worked for the family. The audience and readers learn that Werle has been both sexually and criminally transgressive, and his son is morally indignant on behalf of his mother and friend.
Gregers sees that Werle’s power to corrupt runs through the orchestrated relationship between Gina and Hjalmar as well as the way Ekdal was found guilty while he remained rich, powerful and innocent according to the law. Now Gregers sits in judgement on him and in keeping with the pre-Oedipal stage, he continues to bond with the mother while treating the father as a rival.