Depth Probe

I'M HAUNTED BY images from the movie Titanic. They bob inexorably to the surface as I wash dishes and shovel snow: Mostly, it's that gigantic ship, chopped in half and shooting straight down into black water. The scene is the pure antithesis of another archetypal film image--the rocket ship lifting off the ground. Both are pretty obvious phallic symbols (as acknowledged by Kate Winslet in Titanic), both tokens of men's ambitions to master the elements through technology. Like the exploding space shuttle, this ship's destruction shakes viewers to the core; it makes us cringe and quiver, and we don't quite know why.

It's a profoundly Freudian film, and--silly as this may sound--reminds me of two water-obsessed Freudian feminists, Henrik Ibsen and Virginia Woolf. I imagine Woolf's body wafting underwater, her pockets filled with stones. In letters, Woolf revealed that she feared the water and loved it too. Just look at some of her titles: The Voyage Out, The Waves, To the Lighthouse. The first, written in the years around the Titanic disaster (1912), is about a young woman's sea journey to the New World. Like Winslet's character, Rose, Woolf's heroine finds her limited sense of reality shattered by the voyage. Ibsen also indulged in water-as-metaphor with The Lady From the Sea, which was considered incomprehensible and widely panned when it debuted in 1888 and currently receives a thoughtful production from Minneapolis's 15 Head. Like Woolf's novels, and Titanic, the play is preoccupied with the fluidity of gender roles around the turn of the century and with that era's conflict between the "facts" of business and technology and the deeper "truth" of the spirit, art, and the subconscious. (In Titanic, Rose appreciates Picasso: His works contains "truth, but no logic"; her businessman fiancé doesn't understand.)

When Ibsen first started brainstorming for The Lady From the Sea, he jotted down notes: "The sea's magnetic power. The longing for the sea. Images of the teeming life of the sea and of 'what is lost for ever.' The sea can hypnotize. She [the heroine, Ellida] has come from the sea." Ellida is an intelligent, passionate woman who is unhappily married to a Freudian doctor. He diagnoses her as an hysteric, in part because of her obsession with the ocean. We discover that when she was younger, Ellida fell in love with an American sailor. He was lost in a shipwreck; she married the analyst. Now her sailor has returned alive, and he wants Ellida to sail off into the sunset with him. She must choose between water and land, between the thrill and responsibilities of passion and equality on one hand and the sureties of Victorian marriage on the other--basically the same setup as Titanic.

Both these works speak to contemporary issues: self-determination, mutating gender, the intimate influence of science and technology. Nevertheless, as groovy as they are, both these works prove vaguely unsatisfying. They're more Alan Alda than Gloria Steinem in that they tell a woman's story through a man's eyes. For one thing, both blithely gloss over the economic realities for women at the turn of the century. Rose joyfully risks her own ruin, and her mother's, for the love of "freedom" (like Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House), and we're supposed to applaud her. It's telling that Winslet's character in Sense and Sensibility--written by a woman--decides that love is not reason enough to live in poverty, and that poverty can, in fact, poison love.

Where these works really triumph is in their re-examination of masculinity, and the way it changes when men and women become partners. My male friends and I continually comment on how androgynous we feel of late: Thanks to modern science I may never need to rely directly on a man in order to conceive, and a man will never have to support me financially (or so I would hope). That changes everything--for both of us. The deal is a mutual one: "You jump--I jump," becomes the lovers' mantra in Titanic. And that basic shift--a declaration of interdependence--lies at the core of both this film and The Lady From the Sea. What happens to men when marriage changes from an economic compact to a strictly emotional one? Symbolically speaking, the men in both these works are destroyed, or nearly so, when they surrender to the sea and that uncontrollable, unfathomable region where there are no signs to follow. Yet both also triumph in their baptism; they become heroes of surrender, alongside the women.

Such a notion--and all the oceanic symbolism that went with it--was too bizarre for Ibsen's audiences. But, 110 years later, his play feels eerily familiar, even prosaic. And water seems, if anything, too easy a metaphor for sexuality; it must be, if a jewel called "The Heart of the Ocean" can play a crucial symbolic role in a Hollywood blockbuster. These days, as our century grinds to its conclusion, we understand that symbol intuitively.

The Lady From the Sea plays through February 7 at Red Eye; call 306-2207.

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