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The Lady from the Sea: The drama that signalled a sea change for Ibsen

The writer's happy endings were scarce – but there was one

Ask most people for their image of Ibsen and the caricature will come back of a Scandinavian dramatist steeped in remorseless gloom. So it may come as a surprise to come across a play by Ibsen with a very different atmosphere. The Lady from the Sea (1888) takes place over a few days towards the end of a long summer. Most of the action – in essence, three counterpointed love stories – is set outdoors and the dialogue has a conversational, almost Chekhovian quality to it. What's more, the play has a positive ending. The English novelist and Ibsen champion Edmund Gosse remarked: "After so many tragedies, this is a comedy... The tone is quite unusually sunny, and without a trace of pessimism."

Following the marital crisis of A Doll's House, the dark secrets of Ghosts and the double suicide in Rosmersholm, Gosse's surprise is pretty understandable.

It's possible, however, that The Lady from the Sea isn't so exceptional. Ibsen was a child of the scientific movement and – like Marx and Darwin – believed that the hidden laws of society and the natural world could be rationally explained. His real subject – like that of his younger contemporary, Freud – was the human psyche, and throughout his cycle of 12 realistic plays, he asked how people could find their true selves and become fully-rounded human beings. In a letter to a friend he wrote: "I believe that none of us can do anything other or anything better than realise ourselves in spirit and in truth."

Ibsen knew that the search for self-realisation causes a struggle between our duty to ourselves and our duty to those around us. With a powerful instinct for the tragic, he understood that this can lead to disaster for all: the cult of the untrammelled individual can be just as dangerous as repression.

But Ibsen also recognised that self-realisation – what Freud was to call "becoming a person" – is fundamental to psychological well-being. And he observed that it was especially challenging for the women of his time, for whom the opportunities for self-realisation were limited while the obligations of duty were enormous – which is why he placed women at the heart of so many of his greatest plays.

Ellida Wangel, the "lady from the sea", is one of Ibsen's most complex creations. She loves her husband but can't shake off the memories of another man to whom she promised herself. Challenging the contention that most people live happy, productive lives, she says: "That isn't true. It's like the happiness we feel on a long late summer's day – we can sense the dark winter days ahead. And that casts a shadow over us... just like driving clouds cast shadows over the fjord. It's all so bright and blue – and, then, suddenly..."

Mercurial, distracted and restless, she yearns for a broader horizon, for the furthest reaches of freedom, for an experience that is both liberating and dangerously self-destructive. Ellida knows that she is ill, and eventually it is her own husband who discovers that the only medicine that can cure her: a release from her duties and the gift of absolute freedom.

In The Lady from the Sea Ibsen provides an answer to the challenge that he set 11 years earlier in A Doll's House: under certain conditions of absolute honesty, where free will is respected, happiness in marriage is possible. But Ibsen goes deeper than that. He shows that human beings do not have to be wedded to self-destruction, that there is such "a thing as society", and that it's just conceivable, as the puckish Ballested argues, for even the most damaged "to acclimatise" themselves to sharing their lives with other people. Ibsen offers a brave example to our own fragmented and atomised world.

Stephen Unwin's staging of 'The Lady from the Sea', starring Joely Richardson, opens tonight at the Rose Theatre, Kingston (08444 821 556)