Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Bypassing thought

“I’d rather people feel a film before understanding it” Robert Bresson once said in an interview. T. S. Eliot had said something similar: “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Art can, in other word, bypass thought, and still affect us.

In one way, I rather like this. After all, I’m damned if I can understand Bresson’s Pickpocket, say, or Eliot’s “Little Gidding” – at least, I’m damned if I understand these works well enough to account for the effect they have on me. And yet, they do have an effect on me: I can’t deny it.

But in another way, it bothers me. If one can respond, even respond powerfully, to something before one understands it; or even, perhaps, without ever understanding; can one then not respond to any old thing? What then of our powers of discrimination that we so pride ourselves with?

Of course, I tell myself, there is much one can love deeply without understanding. If, after all, one had to understand the principles of counterpoint to enjoy listening to a Bach fugue, poor old Johann Sebastian wouldn’t be left with too many admirers. And similarly with visual arts. Earlier this year, as I stood in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, in those great oval rooms, surrounded on all sides by those vast water-lilies of Monet, by those dazzling, resplendent splashes of colours, I felt quite transported. But were I imprudent enough to try to write a blog post about them, I don’t know that I could say anything more interesting or more meaningful than “I like them, and think they are very good”.

Indeed, now I think about it, much of writing on arts, perhaps most, could be reduced to that. “I like it. I think it is very good.” Or maybe “It rocks”. Or, conversely, “It sucks”. For who needs articulacy when you don’t have much to say in the first place?

And this, I admit, bothers me, because, while I do accept the truth of Bresson’s dictum (and of Eliot’s), the logical end of their pronouncements seems to be the death of dialogue. If understanding is not the point, then why go beyond “It rocks” and “It sucks”?

I pose these questions rhetorically, of course, but if I cannot at least attempt an answer, much of what I write on this blog would be quite meaningless (if, indeed, it isn’t pretty meaningless as it is). And I think my answer may be along the following lines:

While gaining an understanding may not be essential to appreciation, it surely helps.

Recently, I watched Robert Bresson’s last film, L’Argent, made when he was an old man in his 80s. It is a challenging film, as I think the expression is; which, in other words, means it’s hard to figure out what the hell it’s about. Bresson seems, towards the end both of his career and indeed of his life, to take his trademark austere style to its very extremes. The narrative line is elliptical, with the causes of the various effects we see never quite made clear; the actors have clearly been instructed merely to speak their lines clearly, without the slightest hint of expression; and it is left entirely to the viewer to figure out what these characters’ motivations are, or, indeed, what it all signifies. For, presumably, it all does signify something: it is clearly not a set of random events strung together arbitrarily. But how do I know this? I mean, how do I know that this is not merely a set of random events strung together arbitrarily, when, to tell the truth, I can’t make too much sense of it all? I’d answer that the film affected me. Rather strongly. But is this enough? Is a mere subjective response on my part, a response I cannot account for in any objective terms, a sufficient criterion of artistic merit?

Well, yes, it is, if one believes that the very concept of artistic merit is merely subjective. But I don’t believe that. And there’s my problem.

For whatever reason, I cannot leave it there. I cannot just say “I like it” (“It rocks”) and leave it at that.  I had to think about the film as best I can, allow it to enter into my consciousness. The plot is based on a late novella by Tolstoy, The Forged Coupon. In that story, the simple act of passing on a forged coupon has all sorts of unexpected knock-on effects, and Tolstoy shows us a small act of evil – so small, indeed, that “evil” may seem too strong a word for it – escalating into something enormous. And then, in the second part of the story, Tolstoy shows the opposite effect: a single small act of human kindness similarly escalates, and has knock-on effects, but in a different direction. Tolstoy’s work is, of course, a moral fable, and while some, I know, think of it as evidence of the decline of a once great artist, I personally think of this novella as amongst the world’s greatest literature. But be that as it may, Tolstoy’s purpose, unlike Bresson’s, could not be clearer.

Bresson takes this story, and shows us only the first part. Two boys pass a forged banknote, and the cumulative effect of this thoughtless action grows, until it seems to engulf humanity itself. But the counter-action – the spreading of Good – Bresson does not show. He takes the spread of evil to its end – omitting quite deliberately many of the links in the process – and then leaves us there. So yes, Bresson’s film, unlike Tolstoy’s story, is a deeply pessimistic work: it sees evil as triumphant, and humanity helpless. But if this were all, it would not have affected me so very powerfully. “Evil is all-powerful and we are helpless” seems too trite an observation to be the basis of a great work of art.

So what else is there to this film that affected me so? To get a better grasp of the film, I needed not merely to feel, but to understand – to understand why the characters act as they do. And yet, those are the very aspects of the film that Bresson chose to leave out. So, naturally, it was up to me to try to fill in those gaps. I have felt the film, as Bresson had wanted me to: but I found it deeply unsatisfactory to leave it there. I needed also to understand. And maybe, if I did, I could feel even more intensely.

It isn’t easy: Bresson was not merely a devout Catholic, he was also a Jansenist, and the modes of thinking this implies are very alien to my sensibilities. But it does seem to me that the principal character, having already attempted to kill himself, becomes so filled with hatred of his own self that he wants to damn his own soul. Mere physical destruction isn’t enough: through some strange workings of his mind that are outside the normal orbit of my own, he has to destroy himself spiritually too.

Now, there is no point in wondering whether or not this is the correct interpretation: since Bresson himself refuses to explain, any explanation that is not inconsistent with what is in the film is valid. A work of art isn’t, after all, a crossword puzzle – a code one has to solve to arrive at a correct answer. However, having reached at least some sort of understanding, however inadequate and superficial, I needed desperately to know what others have made of it. For the perspectives of others can but deepen my own.

I searched on Google, but I must admit I didn’t really find anything that was particularly valuable. Maybe I was looking at the wrong places. But I am not looking for a solution: there aren’t solutions to these things. What I am looking for is dialogue – something a bit more substantial than “it rocks” or “it sucks”. For the more one can understand, the better one can feel.

Ultimately, all works of art, of any substance at all, ultimately lies beyond our understanding. Even works we are well acquainted with. I have known King Lear, say, since I was eleven: I have seen many performances, both on stage and on screen; I have read it and re-read it for nearly 50 years now; I have even read books and essays about it. But do I really understand it fully? Could I account for all this play makes me feel? No. Ultimately, these things remain a mystery. But without making the effort at least to understand what I can, I would not have been able even to approach this mystery.

Looking back at the quotes with which I started this piece, I notice there is one word they both use. “I’d rather people feel a film before understanding it.” “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” (My italics.) Feeling may indeed come before understanding, but that is not to say it replaces it. And nor does analysis (which is no more than structured thought) destroy feeling, as so many seem to think. Quite the opposite. True, we may never pluck out the heart of the mystery that any work of art of any substance, I think, possesses; but not even to make the effort reduces us merely to passive spectators. And to engage adequately with a work of art, we need to be far more than that.

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A lack of vision

I often think my visual receptivity may be lacking. Yes, I know, I have written on various paintings from time to time on this blog, but I have always focussed on the dramatic content of the painting – on what the painting depicts – rather than on the purely pictorial elements. This is partly because I am not qualified to write on such matters, but only partly: lack of expertise doesn’t generally prevent me from sounding off. My reticence on these matters is mainly due, I think, to my realisation that I can’t respond as keenly to visual stimuli as I can to others.

Take dance, for instance. I have a great admiration for the immense skill of dancers, and their obvious dedication to their art, but rarely if ever has dance affected me to anywhere near the same depth that other art forms have. I can enjoy the grace and elegance of Astaire and Rogers, or the exuberance of the Nicholas Brothers, Ann Miller, or Gene Kelly, but, other than a relatively superficial enjoyment, none of this has ever really meant that much to me; I could quite contentedly live without these things, as I couldn’t, say, without my books, or my music. Ballet, I am sorry to say, leaves me cold; modern dance I cannot make any sense of. Dance is among the most central of art forms in Indian culture (more so, I think, than it is in the West), but the traditional  Indian  dances I have seen  have left me utterly unmoved.

Needless to say, these are not comments on dance as an art form, but on myself. And yet, there is much ballet music that is dear to me – Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Ravel, and so on. I love it when the music itself seems to dance, when the sounds convey that sense of movement. “What can dancers add to The Rite of Spring that the music does not itself convey?” I ask myself. The answer, obviously, is “a lot”, otherwise skilled dancers wouldn’t dedicate themselves to it, and neither would discerning viewers go to see it:  the deficiency is, once again, in me.

I can see evidence of this deficiency of mine everywhere. Take plays, for instance. In Hamlet, Claudius says “We shall hear a play” (the emphasis is mine). Claudius thinks of a play as something primarily to be heard – and I agree. Radio drama tends to give me more satisfaction than television drama, especially these days when visual gimmickry (or, at least, what I consider to be such) all too often distracts from the dramatic content. And, despite having seen Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra – a very favourite play of mine – on stage on several occasions, no version that I have seen has given me anything like what I have experienced from various audio recordings. Shakespeare’s language creates its own pictures that the stage, to my mind, can never quite match. For anyone wanting to experience Antony and Cleopatra, I’d direct them first and foremost to the audio recording by Irene Worth and Richard Johnson; or by Pamela Brown and Anthony Quayle; or by Frances Barber and David Harewood. Really – what can visuals add to what Shakespeare has already given us in words? Those words take the mind to places that no visual effect could possibly enhance.

Similarly with opera. A live performance is a special occasion, of course, but when I am at home, audio recordings often satisfy more than DVDs.

I won’t bore you with further examples: I think you get the picture. I am just not a very “visual” person.

I exaggerate, of course, to make my point. It’s not that I don’t appreciate visual elements: of course I do. It’s just that I don’t appreciate them enough. It’s just that words and sounds make a greater impression upon me than light and movement, shapes and colours.

This deficiency of mine, or relative deficiency, takes on greater significance when it comes to my appreciation of the most recent of all art forms – cinema. Nowadays, the word “cinematic” is used to refer almost exclusively to its visual elements: but cinema covers everything – the aural and the dramatic and the literary as well as the visual. Even more so perhaps than Wagnerian opera, it epitomises what Wagner called Gesamtkunstwerk – a confluence of all the different arts. The dramatic construction, the words spoken, the themes addressed, are all contributory factors to a film’s success, no less than are the lighting, the editing, the cinematography. To refer only to the purely visual aspects as “cinematic” seems to me to take a lop-sided view of the medium: there seems to me, after all, no shortage of films of the highest quality that rely primarily on the dialogue, and in which the visual elements, though certainly not negligible, are mere means to an end, and, sometimes, perhaps, little more than functional.

But then, there are films that, equally legitimately, focus on the visual aspects rather than on the literary or the dramatic, and here, I do feel I am at a disadvantage. Recently, I went to see 2001 – A Space Odyssey with a friend who names this as his favourite film. And, needless to say given all I have said above, it is a film I have remained strangely detached from. There is hardly any dialogue; and what drama there is – the conflict between the astronauts and the computer – only starts to develop some half way through the film, and is resolved long before the end. I went along to see it again, my friend’s enthusiasm awakening something of my own; but, while I can see that it is visually imaginative and thematically ambitious; while I can understand why it fills enthusiasts with a sense of awe; all it really awakened in me was a sense of my own deficiency in these matters. What awe I felt was due mainly to the music of Strauss and Ligeti on the soundtrack rather than to anything on the screen. In short, while I could sense why it arouses such powerful feeling in others, I could not summon up such feelings in myself.

So where does that leave me with other films that are more visual than literary? Where the essence of the film lies primarily, or even solely, in what we see? Undisputed cinematic masterpieces such as, say, Tarkovsky’s Mirror, or Bergman’s Persona? It’s not that I am blind to the merits of these films: far from it. But I can’t help feeling that, due to the limitations of my perspective, I am not perhaps getting as much out of these films as many others do.

And there are many other films that are rated very highly indeed, but where – unlike Mirror or Persona, where I can at least glimpse (though not entirely grasp) something of greatness – I can see little or anything at all of any merit. Vertigo, for instance. It is rarely too far from critics’ Top Ten lists, and the last time Sight and Sound held their prestigious critics’ poll, it was actually voted Number 1. Of course, it’s easy (and possibly desirable) to ignore such polls: art is not, after all, a sporting competition. But the fact remains that a very large number of knowledgeable and discerning people see great merit in a work that has always seemed to me (as do many other Hitchcock films) dramatically weak and thematically shallow. But I don’t know that I am in a position to say I am right and they are wrong, that my discernment is superior to others’. Indeed, I don’t think anyone is in a position to take such a stance, though many (rather distressingly, I find), do.

I feel I am on safer ground with literature, but even here, I can’t help but feel that there is so much that,  due to my personal temperament, is closed to me. The older I get, the more I sense this, and the more I question just how much of the vast range of human feeling I am capable of taking in. My own imaginative orbit, in comparison to all that has ever been thought and felt, is minuscule, and I frankly feel overwhelmed by it all.

I don’t really see the arts as didactic, but if they do teach us anything at all, it is how vast the range of human experience is. And I think I should perhaps be content with what I have gained from it, and not worry too much over all that has passed me by. And, the next time I feel like doing a hatchet job on something I didn’t much care for, to take a few steps back first, and take a deep breath. For, after all, it is not just in visual matters that my receptivity may be lacking.

The “Ibsen Cycle”, and the search for an -ism

It’s not easy to pinpoint the exact date when artists, writers and composers all decided they’d had enough of being Renaissance, and it was high time they changed to being Baroque. Although, it’s fair to say, the change wasn’t quite so clear cut: some took a detour through Mannerism, but that didn’t really last too long.

Fair enough, my sarcasm above is a bit heavy-handed, but I really do not decry labelling. However different, say, Bach, Handel and Telemann are from each other, it is clear that they are closer to each other than any of them is to, say, Tallis or Palestrina, and labels can be useful in signposting such matters – as long as we take the labelling to be no more than rough guides, and do not insist upon them dogmatically. (I say this rather ruefully, as I am rather given myself to crude generalisations, and have, quite rightly, been picked up before on the matter.)

But even overviews come a cropper when it comes to western literature of the 19th century. Or, more precisely perhaps, of the mid- to late- 19th century. When it comes to composers of that era, we may safely say that Wagner, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, etc., different though they all are from each other, are Romantics. In art, we have a useful catch-all term – “impressionism” – to cover most of the major artists of that era. (And for a slightly later generation of artists who don’t quite fit the term – Cézanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat – we have ingeniously thought up the term “post-impressionist”.) So that’s the artists covered. But what do we make of the major writers of that era? – of Tolstoy, George Eliot, Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Flaubert, Dickens (the later Dickens at least), Baudelaire, Ibsen, and the like? Caught between Romanticism before them and Modernism after, there seems to be no -ism into which they seem comfortably to fit.

At this point, we tell ourselves that labels don’t matter, shrug our shoulders, and move on. But I never was one for moving on. Not that I necessarily want to find a handy label: I do recognise that such labelling is pretty pointless. But I recognise also that, by the end of the century, something had changed from the heady days of Romanticism – that it would not have been possible to have produced the novels of Zola or of Hardy in the same age that had produced the odes of Keats or the Prometheus Unbound of Shelley. But what precisely had changed is not so easy to put one’s finger on – at least, not without making the kind of crude generalisations that I had promised myself not to make again.

But let’s make a few anyway, and see if they hold.

The first crude generalisation is that the mid- to late- 19th century was an era of “realism” in fiction – that is, writers of fiction aimed for verisimilitude, and attempted to produce narratives that the reader could believe might have taken place in the real world. But almost instantly we run into problems. Are not the plot and the characters of an 18th century novel such as Richardson’s Clarissa, say, also believable? And conversely, is there anyone who could believe that the characters populating novels so heavily stylised as Dead Souls, Little Dorrit or The Idiot could conceivably have existed as described? Or that the events that take place in those novels might conceivably have happened in reality? All right, let us take these instances as exceptions rather than the rule (although, it must be conceded, these are pretty big exceptions). But it still won’t do: the more one thinks about it, the more such exceptions crowd the mind – novels preceding the mid-19th century that are very realistic in nature (“realistic” as described above, that is), and novels of the mid 19th century that don’t even aim for surface realism. So no, I really don’t think that appealing to “realism” will do.

Neither would it do, I think, to claim that writers of the mid-to-late 19th century were more aware of social and economic pressures. There is no shortage of social and economic awareness in the works of Austen (who wrote when most of the poets we class as “Romantic” were active); or in the works of Fielding or Richardson. Or, going back even further, in the novels of Defoe (see Moll Flanders, for instance, or Roxana). Conversely, Henry James, who was very active towards the end of the 19th century, often made his characters so wealthy that they did not have to worry about economic pressures. So no, that one won’t do either.

But one thing that may, possibly, be said – though I say it rather gingerly – is that it became more difficult to create big characters – heaven-storming characters, characters who aspire to the level of gods; characters who fill the page (or the stage), who fill our imaginations with their bigness. Such characters are familiar in epic poems and plays of the classic age, and beyond – godlike Achilles; Odysseus, the man of twists and turns; Electra and Medea, Othello and Macbeth, Milton’s Satan. And Romanticism allowed for this bigness as well: indeed, with its emphasis on the individual self, it positively invited it – Goethe’s Faust, Shelley’s Prometheus, Pushkin’s Boris Godunov. But in the mid-to-late 19th century, this became more difficult. When the Phaedra of Euripides or the Phèdre of Racine lusts guiltily for a younger man, their passions are huge, they shake the very earth: when Natalya Petrovna similarly lusts guiltily for a younger man (in Turgenev’s A Month in the Country), she is simply an insignificant wife of an insignificant provincial landowner – a sympathetic figure, certainly, but rather small and pathetic in a way the creations of Euripides or of Racine aren’t. When authors of the post-Romantic era do produce big figures, they have to be removed from everyday life and its quotidian concerns (Captain Ahab); or these quotidian concerns are simply ignored (Heathcliff and Cathy). We cannot, after all, have Milton’s Satan or Shelley’s Prometheus worrying about paying their bills.

And, just as it became more difficult to present these big characters, it became easier to present humans as mere ants teeming in an anthill – whether they be the slum-dwellers of Zola’s L’Assommoir, the rotten bourgeoisie of Zola’s Pot Bouille, or the brutal peasantry of Zola’s La Terre. Of course, these novels could not have been written in the Romantic age as the social and economic environments presented by Zola were very much of their own time; but putting that aside, this view of humanity itself as something that is small, of individuality as something that is paltry, submerged in some wider, impersonal collective, seems to me very alien to the Romantic sensibility. Where the Romantics enjoined us to strive, now, the very idea of striving seems absurd. Even those who are dissatisfied with their present do not know what to strive for, or how: Emma Bovary’s rebellion is just as petty and as stupid as that that she is rebelling against.

Now, before you all regale me with notable exceptions to all this, let me suggest a couple myself: Brand, and Peer Gynt. Ibsen created these huge characters in the mid-1860s, in two verse dramas, epic in conception, and vast in scope. But then, his art took a strange turn, and I am still not sure why he felt this turn had to be taken. Having written Emperor and Galilean (which I won’t be posting about here, as I don’t think I understand it very well), and The League of Youth (which I won’t be posting about either, as it seems to me rather slight), he turned, quite deliberately, away from all that bigness, all that grandeur, and fixed his gaze upon those little ants teeming in the anthills. No, not quite Zola-esque, perhaps, but certainly little figures – smug bourgeoisie, small-time businessmen, bank managers, bored housewives, and the like. It’s like stepping deliberately from Racine’s Phèdre to Turgenev’s Natalya Petrovna.

Why did he do it? Could he on this fair mountain leave to feed and batten on this moor?

The first of these plays is The Pillars of Society (which I hope to be blogging about shortly). Without wishing to anticipate, it does seem a bit of a come-down from the granitic magnificence of Brand, or the riotous exuberance of Peer Gynt. But this is what Ibsen wanted. Towards the end of his life, some twenty-five years later, Ibsen himself described the twelve plays from The Pillars of Society to When We Dead Awaken as a “cycle”; and the eminent Ibsenian critic, Brian Johnston, takes Ibsen at his word. But did Ibsen know from the start what this cycle would develop into? Did he, indeed, envisage it as a cycle at all? To judge from Michael Meyer’s biography, I think the answer appears to be “no”. At least, there exists no evidence that he did.

But had he indeed looked forward to the plays towards the end of this cycle, he would have known that even restricting himself to prose (and to everyday prose at that), even confining himself to milieux that are, on the surface at least, “realistic”, he would, by the end, create characters every bit as big as anything achieved by writers of the past. Bernard Shaw, a man not given to flights of fancy, said of the protagonists of Ibsen’s late plays that there’s not one of them who is not touched by the Holy Ghost. And by the end of his last play, When We Dead Awaken, we seem back once again to the poetic and imaginative world of Brand. Ibsen had come full cycle. But that journey back to where he had started is long, and tortuous; and also utterly fascinating.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

When I had decided to blog about the major Ibsen plays, I thought I would do it one play at a time, and not anticipate what lies ahead. But reading The Pillars of Society, I think that would not be very advisable.  The connections not only with plays already written, but with plays yet to be written, are too important to ignore.

“Peer Gynt” by Henrik Ibsen

[All excerpts below, except where otherwise stated, are taken from the translation by Geoffrey Hill, published by Penguin Classics]

Despite all the fantasy, the surrealism, the dream sequences, the weird forays into the realms of folklore, the plot, such as it is, of Peer Gynt, isn’t hard to follow. At least, not for the first four acts. Peer, when we first see him, is a madcap young man much given to mischief-making and to spinning fabulous yarns. He has been brought up by his long-suffering widowed mother, who is constantly upbraiding him, and who is, at the same time, fiercely protective of him. In the first act, Peer gate-crashes a wedding, and runs off with the bride. Later, he abandons her. He appears to have a few more sexual encounters, but refuses to take responsibility for any of them. In the course of all this, he fathers an illegitimate child, and, once again, refuses to accept responsibility, retreating from the child, and from the child’s mother, in a kind of horror. After his own mother’s death – the death scene, where Peer spins one final yarn for her, one of the loveliest and most tender in all dramatic literature – he goes abroad, and becomes a successful and international businessman, though completely unscrupulous, trading, amongst other things, in slaves. He is cheated of his wealth by other businessmen as unscrupulous as himself, and eventually finds himself an inmate of a madhouse in Egypt. And then, after all this, comes the fifth act, which is even stranger than all that had gone before.

Translator and biographer Michael Meyer suggests that Peer either dies in the madhouse at the end of the fourth act (although his death is not explicitly depicted); or he dies in the shipwreck off the coast of Norway at the start of the final act (although, once again, his death is not explicitly depicted). And all that follows is a sort of phantasmagoric unwinding of his life at the moment of his death, in which he is challenged to discover what significance his life may have had. This makes sense to me. All the fantasies and surrealism and dream sequences of the first four acts may be seen as reflections, however distorted, of reality; but even that model breaks down when we come to the last act.

Although the outline of the plot is clear in the first four acts, the details aren’t. Sometimes, even some very significant plot details are left maddeningly stranded in some no man’s land between reality and fantasy. That which is real and that which isn’t become so inextricably entwined, it becomes impossible to separate them out. We may take the trolls, for instance, to be fantasy, but how are we to take Solveig? If we insist on taking everything in this play at face value, Solveig is a vision of purity, the good and beautiful woman whom Peer really loves (even as he frolics with other girls); and she, in turn, returns his love, and eventually seeks him out. But before they can even begin to live their life together, Peer, horrified by the sight of the brutal child he has fathered, leaves her, departing in shame. And, throughout Peer’s life, Solveig patiently waits for him. And at the very end of the play, she reclaims him. Now, clearly, Solveig is neither conceived nor presented as a real person, but it is impossible to tell whether Solveig is an idealised version of a real woman, or whether, indeed, she exists at all anywhere except in Peer’s mind. It is certainly possible to see Solveig as a pure fantasy – a vision of idealised womanhood that Peer, despite everything, harbours in some corner of his mind, but which he felt he felt he had to abandon when shamed by his own actions. But it is possible also that Solveig is a real person, although presented in the drama in a way Peer would like her to be, rather than the way she really is. We do not know, we cannot tell. And in this confusion of reality and fantasy, the impossibility of ever separating the two is very much the intended effect.

Similarly with Peer’s desert adventures in the fourth act. After the other businessmen have cheated him out of his wealth, Peer travels the desert; comes accidentally in possession of riches; is mistaken for a prophet; and takes for himself as mistress the slave Anitra, who declares she has no soul, and who goes on to cheat Peer of his new-found wealth. Did all this really happen, or is this again one of Peer’s tall tales? Could it be that he really did have a mistress in North Africa who had robbed him and left him, and that all the rest is merely an extravagant product of Peer’s teeming imagination? Once again, we cannot tell. Maybe Peer was cheated of his wealth on separate occasions both by the other businessmen, and by his mistress Anitra; maybe he was cheated just once, and his imagination accounts for the rest. As with so much in this play, we cannot tell.

The repetition of a theme – in this instance, of being cheated of his wealth – we see also in other parts of the pay. In the first act, for instance, the theme of Peer seducing and then deserting a woman is presented twice – the first time, in a more or less realistic mode (when Peer runs off with, and later rejects, Ingrid, the bride at the wedding); and then, the entire scene of seduction and desertion is replayed in a mode of pure fantasy. Here we first see Peer frolicking with three girls who are trolls – those strange goblin-like creatures of Norwegian folklore. Then, Peer, having seduced one of the troll girls (who happens to be the daughter of the troll-king), has to face her father in the Hall of the Mountain King. (He is called the “Dovre King” in Geoffrey Hill’s translation.) It is one of those scenes of mad, wild fantasy, as dark and sinister as it is playful and exuberant, that this play is so full of, and bears little resemblance to the playful scherzo Grieg composed as incidental music. In this scene, Peer agrees at first to become a troll himself and marry the Troll-king’s daughter, but changes his mind when he realises that a surgical operation must first be performed on his eyes, so he can see the world as a troll. He is saved – in true folklore tradition – by the church bells ringing, at the very sound of which the trolls scatter in confusion, and the entire Hall of the Mountain King collapses.

Immediately there follows perhaps the strangest scene of all in this very strange play. It is set completely in the dark. Peer is trying to walk forward, but something is blocking his way. Whatever it is that is blocking his way identifies itself as the “Boyg”. It tells him to “go round”. Peer is determined to walk through, but it is no good: he cannot pass through – he has to “go round”. And once again, he is rescued, as in the previous scene, by the church bells. “He was too strong for us,” says the voice of the Boyg, “the prayers of good women were keeping him safe.” What are we to make of all this? We may no doubt take the scene with the trolls as a fantastic reflection of real events, but what do we make of the Boyg, and of the injunction to “go round”? What do we make of the repetition, within a mere two pages, of Peer being saved by the church bells? What do we make of that curious reference to the “prayers of good women”?

Fantasies though they may be, but neither the encounter with the trolls nor that with the Boyg is wasted on Peer. He may have refused the surgical operation on his eyes, but he certainly takes to heart the injunction given him by the Dovre King:

Out there – remember? – under the sky’s high-gleaming vault
‘be thyelf, be thyself, even to thy most inward fault’
is the great injunction. Down here, with the race of trolls,
‘be to thyself sufficient’ is the motto that appeals.

“To thyself be sufficient.” I’d guess that the original Norwegian resists easy translation. Peter Watts (Penguin) translates this as “To thyself be – enough!”,  with an interpolated dash and italics; James Kirkup and Christopher Fry (Oxford) make a reference to Polonius, translating this as “To thine own self be – all-sufficient!” – again with an interpolated dash, but no italics; and Michael Meyer (Methuen) gives us “Man, be thyself – and to Hell with the rest of the world!” The basic idea, made explicit in Meyer’s rendition, is one of solipsism: one’s own self is the only thing that matters. Whatever else of the troll-world Peer might reject, this injunction he follows.

And he follows too the Boyg’s injunction to “go round”. He never faces anything: he always takes whatever happens to be the easiest way, the path of least resistance – he always goes round. When he is horrified by the child he has fathered, when  he is too ashamed to face Solveig, he goes round – rather than face it, he simply walks away.

This makes the character of Peer Gynt in many ways the diametric opposite to that of Brand. (The two plays of which Brand and Peer Gynt are eponymous heroes were published only a year apart, in 1866 and 1867). Brand was always fanatically true to his fanatic self, but Peer “goes round” so often, one wonders whether he has a self to be true to. While these two verse dramas may be seen as mighty opposites, and their respective eponymous characters equally contrasted to each other – the one rigid and austere, the other exuberant and prodigal – the contrast between the two is too obvious, perhaps, too simple, to cast much light on either. Nonetheless, it may be said, I think, that, whatever misgivings we may have about the person of Brand, he was great of soul; with Peer Gynt, we wonder whether he has a soul at all. And this is the theme that comes to the fore in the final act: what, at the end of it all, is Peer? Is he really anyone at all?

The fourth act had ended in a madhouse in Egypt. The scene was nightmarish, frenetic: it had about it a sense of wild, uncontrolled frenzy. Maybe this is where Peer dies: we cannot tell. At the start of the fifth act, without explanation, we see Peer as an older man, on a ship back to his native Norway. Maybe he had escaped the asylum, and had made some sort of life for himself; maybe what we see is yet another fantasy, this time happening at the moment of his death. We do not know.

On this ship, Peer meets a ghostly passenger (referred to in the Dramatis Personae in Michael Meyer’s translation as the “Strange Passenger”). The crew tells Peer that he is the only passenger, but, by this stage of the play, we are not surprised to encounter someone who doesn’t exist. This strange passenger is perfectly courteous, and he politely informs Peer that he wants Peer’s body when he dies.

Off the coast of Norway, the ship is wrecked in a storm. The strange passenger re-appears, and, in modern parlance, breaks through the fourth wall by telling Peer not to worry, because the hero of a play doesn’t die at the start of the fifth act. But here, maybe, he does.

Then Peer is on dry land, and finds himself at a funeral. His own funeral, we wonder? No, it is the funeral of a man Peer had seen earlier in the play chopping off his own fingers to avoid military conscription. From the long funeral oration, we find he had been a good man: he had had a family, and had looked after them. In short, he had been what Peer hadn’t. As Peer dies, so does his alter ego. And while we ponder the significance, if any, of the chopped fingers, we move on.

Peer now encounters a character who could have come straight out of folklore – the Button Moulder. He has been sent to melt Peer down, for Peer had not actually been anyone. Peer has no soul, nothing that could either be saved or damned. He is a blank, a nothing, worthy merely to be melted down. Even evil had eluded him. True, he had paid no attention to morals, and had even traded in slaves, but he had done all this not out of any attachment to evil as such, but simply because it had been the easiest way: he had, as ever, “gone round”. It is not a question of Good and Evil: it is a question of Being. What has Peer been?

Earlier, he had tried to describe his “Gyntian self”:

The Gyntian self – that iron brigade
of wishes, passions and desires,
a massive flood that knows no shores,
vortex of impulse, need and claim,
the world that I entirely am.

To his own self, in other words, he is sufficient. But can “a massive flood that knows no shores”, a mere “vortex of impulse”, really be anything at all? Is a shoreless flood an object? Does it have shape?

Peer asks to Button Moulder to give him time to prove himself, and they agree to meet at the next crossroads. In the meantime, Peer searches desperately for some meaning, some significance, his life must, he feels, have had. It is here we have the famous scene where Peer peels an onion, and finds merely layer upon accumulated layer, with no real core. In another scene, balls of yarn speak, as do withered leaves, and drops of dew, and broken straws. They tell us  they are the thoughts Peer hadn’t thought, songs he hadn’t sung, deeds he had never delivered, tears he hadn’t shed. Peer meets the Dovre King again, now come down in the world; and he meets a thin man in a priest’s cassock, who turns out to be the Devil himself. Neither can vouch for his being. At one point, Peer comes close to the cabin where he had left Solveig so many years ago: she sits there waiting for him still, singing, and once again, Peer turns away in shame.

But it is Solveig who nonetheless claims him in the end. How are we to read this? That he is saved by a vision of an ideal, which he had turned away from in shame but which had never quite disappeared from his heart? That Eternal Woman leads him on ever upward, as it had Faust?

Das Ewig-Weibliche
Zieht uns hinan.

These famous lines of Goethe’s had been quoted earlier in Peer Gynt, but in a mocking tone. Are we to take them seriously now? I suppose there’s no reason why we shouldn’t. But there’s no reason why we should either. In this play, where it has proved consistently impossible to separate out the different levels of reality and fantasy, this could be yet another fantasy. For even as Solveig claims Peer, having waited for him all her life, we hear the Button Moulder’s ominous lines:

Last crossroads, Peer? Our final meeting?
We’ll see. Till then, I shall say nothing.

Nothing is settled.

***

Peer Gynt is a huge, vast piece – like its predecessor Brand, far too long to be performed uncut in a single evening. But unlike Brand, it is wild, it is exuberant, it is overflowing with mad, extravagant, phantasmagoric visions. What it must be like reading it in the original Norwegian, I can only imagine, but all four of the translations I have read – by Michael Meyer, Peter Watts, James Kirkup & Christopher Fry, and the most recent translation in Penguin Classics, by Geoffrey Hill – convey a sense of almost of abandon, of reckless energy and vigour and  irrepressible ebullience.

As with his translation of Brand, Geoffrey Hill, not knowing Norwegian, had worked from a literal (and annotated) translation, this time by Janet Garton. It does not seem to me to be the ideal way to translate, but the results, it must be admitted, are very persuasive. Hill’s verse flows freely, with rhymes at the end of lines, and, more often than not half-rhymes, or simply words that vaguely echo each other. He varies the length of the lines far more than he had done in Brand, sometimes using alexandrines, or lines even longer, of fifteen or sixteen syllables. Sometimes he uses internal rhymes. But in all this, he achieves a wonderful fluency. The technique, as is to be expected from so distinguished a poet, is formidable, but it never slows the verse down: much of the time, it seems to rush forward like a torrent, a “massive flood that knows no shores”. I don’t think it displaces the earlier translations, but is certainly a most welcome addition to them. And by the end, I was left breathless.

***

I don’t think anything in Ibsen’s earlier work could prepare us for that sudden explosion of creativity that resulted Brand and Peer Gynt in, respectively, 1866 and 1867. He had been writing for some fifteen years, but, to my mind at least (I realise others may differ on this point), he had never really been much more than a journeyman dramatist. Even the best of his earlier work – The Vikings at Helgeland, Love’s Comedy, The Pretenders – could not have led anyone to expect what followed. But then, he was awarded a grant from the Norwegian government, and the freedom not to have to write for the stage seemed suddenly to release his creative energies.

The 1860s were a remarkable decade in European literature. It started with the publication of Great Expectations, and soon  afterwards, Dickens started serialisation of his last complete novel, Our Mutual Friend. (It was published in  1865.) Turgenev wrote what is often regarded as his finest novel, Fathers and Sons; and meanwhile, Dostoyevsky announced himself with From the House of the Dead and Notes From Underground, and followed them up with Crime and Punishment and The Idiot. Meanwhile, in France, Baudelaire published the third and final edition of Les Fleurs du Mal, containing several new poems; and Flaubert weighed in  with L’Education Sentimentale, and  George Eliot with, amongst other, The Mill on the Floss. And meanwhile, in Russia, there was the trifling matter of War and Peace. There was more than enough written and published in just those ten years to keep any reader occupied for an entire lifetime. And Ibsen’s Brand and Peer Gynt are among the major achievements even in this company. He may have started the decade merely as a journeyman, but after these two monumental achievements, everything was changed.

Brand and Peer Gynt were written  to be read rather than to be acted, but Ibsen’s instinct for the theatre never deserted him: judiciously trimmed versions still hold the stage triumphantly, even in  translation. (This is not something that can be said for all verse drama.) But curiously, Ibsen never wrote in verse again. Why he turned away from verse drama, after having written two of the very finest – possibly the last great plays to be written  in verse – is a matter of considerable conjecture: perhaps he felt he had exhausted all he could achieve in the form. His next play turned out to be the very exotic epic Emperor and Galilean, a vast work in two parts: Ibsen spent several years on this, and thought them, at the time, to be his best work, but I have never understood them, and a recent reading has left me as puzzled as I ever have been. And then came the decisive break: realistic plays, in realistic settings, with people from ordinary walks of life speaking the kind of language the audience spoke. No more Vikings at Helgeland, no more emperors and Galileans, and, above all, no more verse. It was a very unexpected turn for Ibsen to take, given what he had written before, but the themes broached in Brand and in Peer Gynt were to echo, I think, even here. They may not be verse, but the hand of the poet is apparent throughout.

But let us not anticipate…

“Brand” by Henrik Ibsen

[All excerpts below, except where otherwise stated, are taken from the translation by Geoffrey Hill, published by Penguin Classics]

There is a chill wind that blows through Brand. I don’t merely mean the setting: the Norwegian fjords, the isolated villages, the icy mountain heights, culminating in the “Ice Church” – the deep ravine over-vaulted with a sheet of ice – all evoke a sense-chilling cold; I mean also the content, utterly voided of anything resembling human warmth. At the centre of this drama is the priest Brand. Whatever the resonances the name may have in Norwegian, in English, it suggests flame, and there is indeed something very flame-like about him, about his burning intensity. Yet it is a flame that provides no warmth: it merely scalds.

Brand is a man who will brook no compromise. Not for him the kindly, indulgent God,

… your old, pampered God:
white-haired, moist-eyed with age,
his comic turns of rage
send children off to bed
giggling and half-afraid.

Brand’s vision of God is altogether more terrible:

My God is the great God of storm,
absolute arbiter of doom
imperious in His love!

your God can hardly move;
he’s weak of mind and heart,
easy to push about:
but mine is young, a Hercules…

These are no mere words. For Brand, it is literally “all or nothing”: if you do not give your all, you give nothing. For all that truly matters is his vision of divinity, imperious in His love. The quest for the Absolute, the refusal of any compromise, of anything that comes half way, or even that which comes close but stops short, is, to Brand, worthless. And if human concepts of the Absolute fall short, then they must be rejected. And if that means the rejection of all that all that we may recognise as human, then so be it.  The wind that blows through this poetic drama, vast and epic both in length and in scope, is chill indeed.

It is not that Brand is without love: far from it. Even human love he has. But his interpretation of this problematic concept is chilling. He refuses to give last rites even to his dying mother, as she is, even at her last breath, unequal to renouncing every last penny of all the possessions she had accumulated through her cupidity. He seals the death sentence of his infant child when he refuses to leave his vocation, his flock, and go south for the sake of the child’s death. And he destroys also the mental well-being of his wife, Agnes, first by allowing their child to die, and then, with what those of us less lunatic than he can only describe as the most appalling cruelty, refusing to allow her to mourn for her lost child as she would have wished: any mourning that indulges sentiment at the cost of acknowledging the harsh truth and reality of mortality, Brand refuses, both for himself, and for Agnes. Of course, Agnes had entered into union with Brand knowing precisely what he stood for: indeed, it is his very refusal to compromise that had attracted her in the first place. And, by the end, she does indeed see the face of God. But it is a terrible God, the God of Brand’s inflexible vision. She reminds Brand of Exodus 33:20: “Whoever looks on God shall die”. This God, imperious in His love, is seemingly indifferent to any human need other than the spiritual: Brand has forced Agnes to look upon such a God, and she must die.

And Brand does not spare himself either. He is no automaton. The grief of the deaths of those he most loved breaks him, but still he does not compromise. In the final act, among the most astonishing creations in all drama, Brand, reviled and stoned by his very flock, heads out into the mountains, into the icy waste. He had thought to replace the small, decrepit old church with something vaster, something more worthy of the greatness that is God, but he decides that this too is not enough – cannot be enough: no human concept of God, however great, can match the grandeur and terror of the Absolute. And so the tormented Brand, bleeding and reviled, assailed by hallucinations and temptations (including a vision of the dead Agnes), finds his ultimate destination high in the cold mountain peaks – the Ice Church. Never has God, mankind’s highest vision of the Absolute, seemed more remote from mankind.

One could, of course, see Brand merely as a cruel narcissist, merely destroying all that is human. To the objection that Brand himself is tortured by the death of his child and of his wife, one may reasonably answer that he had tortured the dead child and the dead wife somewhat more in the process; that whatever suffering Brand brings on himself, he had no right to impose it on others. Such a verdict is, of course, correct: it is the verdict the villagers, sensibly moderate, would no doubt pass. Yet, we have to go no further than this, for such a view does not come close to accounting for the tremendous power of the drama, a power apparent even when reading. Indeed, one may say especially when reading, as this play was written to be read rather than to be staged; and while it is theatrical enough to be successfully staged in somewhat cut-down versions – the full text is too long to fit comfortably into a single night’s viewing – no performance I have seen, not even the best, quite evokes in me the awe and the terror I experience when I read it.

This is a play, after all, that opens in a blizzard, and ends in an avalanche. And at its centre is a character who is both lunatic and visionary, who seems to carry the Ice Church within his very heart. We may reject this lunatic-visionary, but it would be wrong, I think, to dismiss him summarily. The world has seen these lunatic-visionaries enough whose pursuit of their Visions of the Ideal does not bother to count the merely human bodies wasted in its wake: we may not approve, but we must take them seriously. For what is the alternative? To compromise our morals, our ideals, merely for the sake of our momentary comfort, our convenience? To bend whichever way the wind blows? To live our lives as the villagers do in this play?

It may be objected, of course, that the villagers – the mayor, the provincial doctor, etc. – are all presented as caricatures, people with small minds and small souls, but we must be careful about using “caricature” as a pejorative: a caricature is not a failed attempt at portraiture. The villagers, Brand’s flock (until they reject him, and stone him) are not individualised: they form a sort of chorus of “right-thinking people”. They may not possess the greatness of soul of Brand, or anything like his visionary intensity, but neither would they sacrifice their own child for the sake of something so vague as an “ideal”. They may have a smallness of mind that we tend to think of as “provincial”, but these are people who travail against desperate odds, against drought, famine, hunger: the struggle to keep body and soul together does not leave much time – except for the most driven – for thoughts of the well-being of one’s soul. Brand is cast out at the end because he has to be: a man with no thought of human needs, or, rather, of what most of us would consider to be human needs, can have no place in a human society: the Ice Church is really the only place for him – grand, magnificent, awe-inspiring, but utterly cold and inhuman. To the Brands of this world who tell us that this is the Absolute we should strive towards, we surely have the right to say “no”; we surely have the right to drive them out. Caricatures these villagers may be, but they are not crude caricatures; and if we look closely and honestly, most of us should be able to recognise ourselves.

Once he is cast out, he takes to the mountains, and there he encounters, once again, the mad girl Gerd – like himself, also an outcast. We had learnt previously that it is possible that Gerd and Brand are half-siblings: that Gerd is possibly an alter ego of Brand’s is obvious, but attempts to pin down the significance of this don’t really get us too far. Enough that both are outcasts, and both are mad. Gerd is tormented by an imaginary hawk that she thinks attacks her: once again, it is easy to come up with suggestions of what this hawk symbolises, but none of the suggestions purporting to unlock this symbol can account for the extraordinarily resonant nature of the symbol itself. When Gerd sees Brand rejected and despised, and wounded and bleeding, she mistakes him for Christ. Sadly, Christ imagery is two-a-penny these days, but it is a piece of imagery Brand unambiguously rejects. If we are to see Gerd as an alter ego of Brand, we should really conclude that the proposed parallel to Christ is something that occurs to Brand himself; and, further, it is not something he entertains seriously. The imagery is introduced to be rejected almost immediately.

But then comes the final scene within the Ice Church, within which Brand and Gerd are overwhelmed by an avalanche. To the very last, Brand is tormented: for all his apparent certainty, the certainty to which he had sacrificed all that had been most dear to him, he, like Job, has questions for God. At this point, Geoffrey Hill (in an interview on these translations  printed at the end of the Penguin Classics edition) admits to deviating from Ibsen’s original. In Hill’s version, Brand asks God:

                             Tell
me, O God, even as Your heavens fall
on me; what makes retribution
flesh of our flesh? Why is salvation
rooted so blindly in Your Cross?
Why is man’s proud will his curse?
Answer! What do we die to prove?
Answer!

I must admit I don’t understand these questions. In the more literal translation by James Kirkup and Christopher Fry (from the Oxford Ibsen, edited by James McFarlane) we get this:

Answer me, God, in the jaws of death:
Is there no salvation for the Will of Man?
No small measure of salvation … ?

While Michael Meyer (Methuen) gives us:

Answer me, O God, in the moment of death,
If not by Will, how can Man be redeemed?

Both the versions by Kirkup and Fry, and by Meyer, seem to me to be not merely more direct and dramatic than Hill’s, but also more comprehensible. I find myself unconvinced both by Hill’s alterations, and also by the reasons he gives for it. But puzzling though these lines are in Hill’s version, what seems to me more puzzling is the response – the final line of Ibsen’s play:

A VOICE (calling through the noise of the thunder): He is the God of Love. (Hill)

A VOICE (cries through the thunder): He is the God of Love. (Meyer)

A VOICE (sounding above the thunder): God is Love. (Kirkup and Fry)

No issue here with any of the translations, but puzzlement nonetheless: does this mighty drama end with a piece of mere conventional piety, a trifling piece of sentimental platitude? How are we to take this line?

Of course, given that two people are being killed in an avalanche while this line is spoken, one could view this line as ironic. But if so, the irony is ham-fisted, and is as facile as the sentimentality of a more conventional reading.

But I think we need to look a bit deeper. First of all, although this last line is in response to a question asked directly of God, it is not God who answers. God, when he speaks to Job, or to Moses from the burning bush, refers to Himself directly and unambiguously in the first person (“I am who I am”). Here, the voice that sounds through the thunder speaks in the third person: God, throughout this play, remains silent. This voice could, of course, be an angelic voice, but it could equally well be a demonic one, beguiling mankind with false assurance. I personally think the voice is Brand’s. Just as the speeches of Gerd, his alter ego, or the gently loving but treacherous speeches of Agnes’ ghost, are really expressions of thoughts appearing in secret chambers of Brand’s own mind – thoughts Brand has to reject – so also this final line: this is what goes through Brand’s mind at the very moment of his death, in answer to his own tortured questioning. But if this is so, it provides no resolution. For Brand’s concept of love was harsh, much like that of the God he had created for himself:

My God is the great God of storm,
absolute arbiter of doom,
imperious in His love!

Is this still what Brand understands as “love”? It could be, of course, that at the end, Brand’s vision had softened, but there really is no indication of this in the rest of the text. No – if I read correctly this disturbing last line, then, in answer to Brand’s question, there is no salvation for the Will of Man, for the Will of a silent God, Brand’s God, imperious in His love, may crush it at will. Far from being sentimental, the ending brings no comfort at all: Brand’s death is as cold and as inhuman as his life had been.

If one knows the later plays of Ibsen, it is impossible to read Brand without seeing in it foreshadowings of what was later to come. That is not, of course, to say that Brand cannot stand on its own as a great work of art:  it clearly can, and does. But while Ibsen, in his later plays, descended from the mountain-tops to report in plain, everyday prose on domestic middle-class households, the themes broached in his two vast verse dramas, Brand and Peer Gynt, seem to me to echo through them. The man who brooks no compromise, who demands the Truth and the Absolute Truth only, even from his fellow men who are not strong enough to bear the burden on the Absolute, is a recurring theme: we see this in Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People, in Gregers Werle in The Wild Duck. The Truth, the Absolute, are fine things, but they can destroy us. And soon, Ibsen was questioning the nature of Truth itself, of how we perceive it.

Then there is the question of sacrifice for one’s aims. Brand sacrifices his child and his wife, and, finally, himself, in search of his Ideal; later, in The Master Builder, Solness too sacrifices his own children (for that is what it amounts too), and makes of his wife effectively a living corpse, in pursuit of his worldly ambition; and, just as Brand demands answers from a God who remains silent, so too, Solness, at the top of the church  tower he had himself built, challenges an equally silent God, telling him that no more would he build churches in His name.

We find the motif of destroying others in pursuit of one’s own fulfilment also in Ibsen’s last two plays, John  Gabriel Borkman, and  When We Dead Awaken. The last of these also ends with the principal characters overwhelmed in an avalanche, but this time, these characters go to their deaths willingly: when we dead awaken, they realise, we shall discover that we have never lived. Written over thirty years after Brand, and having taken a most circuitous route, Ibsen, at the very end, seems to return to where he had left it; but the onus is not now on God now to answer any questions.

Which is just as well, perhaps, given His maddening eternal silence.

***

A note on the translation:

In some ways, Geoffrey Hill was an ideal man to translate Brand and Peer Gynt, since, it may well be argued, it takes a poet to translate poetry, and, possibly, a great poet to translate great poetry. But in other ways, he wasn’t so appropriate: he knew no Norwegian. Brand he had translated for a National Theatre production directed by Sir Peter Hall, and had worked on a heavily annotated literal translation by Inga-Stina Ewbank; and, shortly before he died in 2016, he had returned to revise it, and also to work on Peer Gynt, this time working on an annotated literal translation by Janet Garton. I must confess that this does not seem to me the ideal way to translate anything, but it seems to have borne results: as is perhaps only to be  expected from a poet as accomplished as Geoffrey Hill, the dramatic verse throughout is often of quite exceptional quality.

On reading Hill’s translations (both of Brand and of Peer Gynt), I found myself comparing with the more literal translations I had read before – by James Kirkup and Christopher Fry, and by Michael Meyer (and, in the case of Peer Gynt, also the older Penguin  Classics translation by Peter Wattis). And, certainly in  the passages I compared, I cannot say I spotted any great divergence in meaning. (The exceptions to this are the handful of passages where Hill himself admitted to diverging from the original.) I’d guess that with the publication of Hill’s translations, Wattis’ translation will now be withdrawn, but it doesn’t deserve to be: it may not perhaps reach the poetic heights of Hill’s version at its best, but it is nonetheless a remarkable piece of dramatic verse in its own right, and, I’d guess, more literally faithful to Ibsen’s original text.

As for the Oxford Ibsen, the whole set has long been out of print, with only some of the translations appearing as Oxford World Classics paperbacks. I found a volume of Kirkup and Fry’s translations of Brand and of Peer Gynt in a second hand shop, and snapped it up immediately: I would certainly advise anyone else who finds this volume similarly to snap it up, as the translations are magnificent.

Michael Meyer’s translations for Methuen are equally recommendable. (It was through Meyer’s versions that I first got to know Ibsen, and confess to having a sentimental attachment to them.) However, his Brand is a version intended specifically for performance, and, hence, is judiciously trimmed.

But Hill’s version, however it was arrived at, and however he diverges from Ibsen’s original in a small handful of passages, remains a very fine work in its own right. I suppose it is almost de rigeur to go for the Shakespearean iambic pentameter when translating dramatic verse into English, but Hill resists that temptation, preferring shorter lines, and often writing in trimeters. He also rhymes lightly, occasionally using full rhymes, but, more frequently, half rhymes, or words that no more than vaguely echo each other. End-stopped lines are only occasionally used, so the verse has a fine flowing line. The result is verse that is supple, and which moves quickly, and which is sonorous, and also of tremendous dramatic power. As, indeed, any successful translation of Brand should be.

The Tragedy of Ophelia

Given that Hamlet is quite clearly of exceptional intelligence, and has an unsurpassed mastery of language, why is it that the love letters he sends Ophelia are so crap? This is a question that has long bothered me. When Polonius presents to Claudius and Gertude the private love letters Hamlet had written to Ophelia – concept such as privacy or intimacy mean little to so unfeeling a wretch – we get stuff like this:

Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.

To the celestial and my soul’s idol, the most beautified Ophelia

O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers; I have not art to reckon my groans: but that I love thee best, O most best, believe it. Adieu.

Is it at all credible that the character whom Shakespeare had endowed with something of his own intelligence and mastery of language would come out with guff as embarrassing as this? Shakespeare could have given Hamlet the kind of soaring love poetry that we see in Romeo and Juliet; or the more measured but equally potent expressions of love we see in so many other plays. But no – he seems almost to go out of his way to make Hamlet’s love letters as trite as they are clumsy.

That these lines are Hamlet’s there cannot be any question: Polonius may be foolish with other things, but he didn’t get to be the King’s most trusted right hand man without being a shrewd politician and intriguer, and he would certainly have been able to distinguish Hamlet’s handwriting from forgeries. No, Hamlet wrote these all right, and, unless we are to believe that Shakespeare had slipped up on so obvious a point, it is up to us to figure out why.

One point to notice, I think, is that, in the rest of the play, Hamlet is much given to mockery; and that when he mocks, he easily adopts the patterns of speech of those whom he is mocking. Here, for instance, he is mocking Osric:

HAMLET
… Put your bonnet to his right use; ’tis for the head.
OSRIC
I thank your lordship, it is very hot.
HAMLET
No, believe me, ’tis very cold; the wind is northerly.
OSRIC
It is indifferent cold, my lord, indeed.
HAMLET
But yet methinks it is very sultry and hot for my complexion.

Here he is mocking Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

But let me conjure you, by the rights of our fellowship, by the consonancy of our youth, by the obligation of our ever-preserved love, and by what more dear a better proposer could charge you withal, be even and direct with me, whether you were sent for, or no?

Here he is mocking Laertes’ overdone rhetoric (and pointing out his own mockery in the last line):

Why I will fight with him upon this theme
Until my eyelids will no longer wag.


I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?


‘Swounds, show me what thou’lt do:
Woo’t weep? woo’t fight? woo’t fast? woo’t tear thyself?
Woo’t drink up eisel? eat a crocodile?
I’ll do’t. Dost thou come here to whine?
To outface me with leaping in her grave?
Be buried quick with her, and so will I:
And, if thou prate of mountains, let them throw
Millions of acres on us, till our ground,
Singeing his pate against the burning zone,
Make Ossa like a wart! Nay, an thou’lt mouth,
I’ll rant as well as thou.

Of course, we don’t have the instructions Shakespeare gave to his actors: we have only his texts, and even these require learned critical scrutiny. But since a number of Hamlet’s lines are quite clearly spoken in the spirit of mockery, and with ironic imitation of certain types of speech, we may, I think, justly wonder which other of Hamlet’s lines are similarly intended. My own feeling is that there is much more mockery in Hamlet’s part than is usually reckoned. Take, for instance, this rhapsody of words Hamlet directs at his mother in the big court scene in the first act:

Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

All too often this passage is delivered straight, but it seems to me that he is here mocking insincere expressions of grief. When delivered straight, it becomes very difficult to make much sense of that trite rhyming couplet at the end; but if this passage is indeed mockery, that couplet fits perfectly.

There are, I think, a few other passages, even some revered ones, that would benefit from being delivered in a mocking tone. For Hamlet is a master of parody and of pastiche, and he employs them liberally.

Given this is the case, is it at all possible that his letters to Ophelia were similarly written in a spirit of mockery? Not that he was mocking Ophelia: not only is there no reason for him to mock her when he was wooing her, such mockery would indicate a cruel and heartless brute; and whatever else Hamlet may have been, he wasn’t that. No – he may have adopted this mocking tone in his letters because Ophelia was in on the joke. Once again, I do realise this is conjecture on my part, but let’s hold with that conjecture for now and see if it leads us anywhere sensible. For imagining that Hamlet wrote those awful lines in all seriousness really takes us nowhere sensible at all.

Polonius, of course, does not sense any irony in these letters, but the subtleties of Hamlet’s mind are entirely lost upon him anyway: we wouldn’t expect Polonius to take these letters at anything other than face value. Gertrude, who, despite not being perhaps the most intelligent of characters, knows her son well enough to be suspicious: “Came this from Hamlet to her?” she asks – not because she does not think Hamlet cannot love Ophelia, but because she knows this is not Hamlet’s style at all. But if, indeed, Ophelia was in on the joke, if Ophelia could laugh at the worn-out conceit of lovers’ “groans” – of lovers pining away helplessly with pangs of dispriz’d love – then the picture we usually have of Ophelia as the docile and obedient and somewhat pallid young lady disappears, and is replaced by someone who is quick-witted, and intelligent; indeed, she becomes the kind of person whom one can imagine Hamlet being attracted to.

For Ophelia (like Hamlet himself, for that matter) is in the wrong play. In a comedy, she could have been a Rosaline, or a Rosalind, or a Beatrice, or a Viola: Shakespeare’s comedies are full of bright-witted and intelligent and immensely attractive young ladies. Even the very young Juliet has wit and wisdom beyond her tender years. And the men fall for them: Berowne falls for Rosaline, Orlando for Rosalind, Romeo for Juliet. Even Benedick, despite his apparent enmity with Beatrice in the earlier acts, is clearly besotted with her: his discovery of his love for her is not the realisation of something that is new, but an uncovering of what already is, but had been hidden.

Observe, for instance, Ophelia’s reply to her brother, who tries to put on a “big brother” act and give her moral instruction:

But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.

This is a young woman who understands full well her brother’s sanctimony, his hypocrisy; she knows full well what he gets up to when he is seemingly “studying” at university. Her instinctive understanding, and her turning the tables on him in so shrewd and so articulate a manner, are worthy of Rosalind.

And Hamlet had, I think, been attracted to Ophelia for these very qualities. In a comedy, this would have worked out fine, but they are here in a very different play: here, Ophelia’s natural wit and intelligence are crushed by the overbearing nature of the power her father exerts upon her. She is utterly isolated, and has not even a Nurse to turn to. When she is distressed – as she is by Hamlet’s inexplicable behaviour – she has no-one to turn to except her father; and neither does she have any option but to obey her father’s instructions, even if it means handing over to him the personal love letters she has received. For all her natural intelligence, she is nonetheless a woman in a very patriarchal environment; and she is very young, and utterly dependent. Her spirit, though brilliant, is also fragile, and it is easily crushed.

It is in the third scene of the play, immediately after the big court scene (in which we had first seen Hamlet), that we see Ophelia for the first time. In too many productions of this play, the tension drops here, and it is largely a matter of “wake me up when the ghost appears”. But it shouldn’t be like that. We see Ophelia as intelligent and quick-witted, as she responds aptly, though not unkindly, to her brother, who has, rather patronisingly, been giving her moral instruction. But then her father enters, and he, in turn, gives moral instruction to his son. And the son takes it all. One suspects it is merely a matter of form on both sides, and that it is neither intended seriously on one side, nor taken seriously on the other. (The next time we see Polonius, he is setting spies on his own son: he certainly does not expect his moral instructions to be observed, and appears to have very few moral scruples himself.) And then he turns to his daughter, and she is in no position to reply to her father as she had to her brother. Both Polonius and Laertes judge Hamlet by their own somewhat debased standards: he merely wants his bit of fun with her, they think, and nothing more. Ophelia is sure she knows Hamlet better, but she is powerless: her last helpless words in this scene are “I shall obey, my lord”. And here, Ophelia’s tragedy, no less in magnitude than Hamlet’s, is set in motion – the crushing an intelligent, quick-spirited woman.

The two meet in III,i – the so-called “nunnery” scene. It has long seemed to me a key scene in the drama, although I don’t think I understood why. I am still not sure I entirely understand this scene – there is far too much happening here – but it still seems to me a key scene in the drama, and deserves close inspection.

Here, Ophelia has been instructed by her father to return to Hamlet all his gifts. And furthermore, she is to be the “bait”: she is given the morally dubious task of provoking Hamlet, so that her father and the King may, from their hiding place, observe how he reacts. Indeed, she finds herself in a situation similar to that of Hamlet himself: both have been enjoined by their respective fathers to do what does not come to them naturally – to do what they cannot.

She has been instructed to “read on this book”. If this is intended to camouflage her, as it were – to make her presence seem innocuous – it must be because Ophelia reading on a book is not a conspicuous sight: one can but conclude that she is often seen with a book. Hamlet enters, and delivers his famous soliloquy without at first noticing her. But it would be surprising indeed were she not to hear him; and what she hears is hardly cheerful stuff. Hamlet ponders why we choose to live when living is merely a series of the most intolerable vicissitudes, and concludes that we carry on living merely because we are to cowardly to face the alternative. And only when he has delivered himself of this that he notices her, reading on her book, and immediately adopts the familiar tone of mocking parody:

Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember’d.

If my conjecture is right, Ophelia is accustomed to this sort of banter, and, uneasy as she is in the task allotted her, takes up gratefully a similarly bantering tone:

Good my lord,
How does your honour for this many a day?

“My lord”, “Your honour” … is this the way a wooed woman addresses her wooer? Even if he is a prince? Their wooing was not, after all, merely in its early stages: she had already, by her own admission, “suck’d the honey of his music vows”.

“Good my lord”, “my lord”, “my honoured lord”, “your lordship” … by my count, there are eight instances of “my lord” (or variations thereof) in the very few lines that Ophelia has at this point, and it seems to me plausible that she is continuing the tone of banter that they were both accustomed to, and which, in this scene, Hamlet himself has introduced. Take, for instance, Ophelia’s next lines:

My lord, I have remembrances of yours,
That I have longed long to re-deliver

“Longed long” seems to me a rather contrived piece of poetic artifice, like someone who is not naturally a poet trying to speak poetically. Unless, of course, we take this also as a piece of parodic mockery. She even throws in a trite little rhyming couplet:

Take these again; for to the noble mind
Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.

We may remember that when Hamlet had mocked Gertrude, he too had thrown in a trite little rhyming couplet:

But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

But Hamlet’s reaction is not very appreciative. (One would hardly expect it to be given that she is returning his gifts.) He laughs – it could be a sardonic laugh – and then proposes a paradox. Once again, this was an aspect of courtly wit – we have seen Hamlet exchange paradoxes earlier with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – but this particular paradox has a rather nasty edge to it. The paradox is that beauty is more powerful than honesty; and this is because beauty has the power to transform honest people into being dishonest, but honesty does not have the comparable power to transform beautiful people into being ugly. A pretty enough paradox, but a bit too close to the bone given what Ophelia is doing (i.e. using her own beauty to entrap Hamlet); and the way Hamlet explains this paradox, bringing into it the imagery of prostitution, is particularly nasty:

… the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness

Ophelia understands the insult. She is using her beauty to trap him, and she is no better than a prostitute. She now drops the bantering tone – it is no longer appropriate – and the rest of her lines are merely brief replies, as short and as to the point as possible, to Hamlet’s questions. Her entire world is now on the point of collapsing.

And then, on top of it all, she is forced into a lie. “Where’s your father?” Hamlet asks, all of a sudden. “At home, my lord,” she replies, and this time, there is no bantering quality to “my lord”. It is a bare-faced lie, she knows it; and Hamlet knows she knows it. And this lie seems to confirm to Hamlet everything he had suspected. Previously, Hamlet had ranted at himself (“I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me…”), but now, he turns his fury upon her. Nothing Ophelia says from here onwards is addressed to Hamlet: he is now not someone who may be spoken with. This is not the person she has known, and all she wants is for the Hamlet she had previously known to be restored to her:

O, help him, you sweet heavens!

O heavenly powers, restore him!

But Hamlet is past restoring now. Polonius had thought Hamlet mad because – well, because he had been acting a bit funny. But with Ophelia, it is different: she knows that the  Hamlet she sees now is not the Hamlet as he used to be.

When Hamlet leaves, Ophelia is given some of the most heartbreaking lines in all dramatic literature. However, since, in most productions I have seen, the focus of the preceding scene had been primarily on Hamlet, with Ophelia playing effectively the “straight man”, these lines often fall a bit flat. Really, they shouldn’t:

O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword;
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
The observed of all observers, quite, quite down!
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That suck’d the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;
That unmatch’d form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy: O, woe is me,
To have seen what I have seen, see what I see!

And this time, there is no hint of parody here in that final rhyming couplet.

Hamlet and Ophelia meet again, for one last time, in the next scene, and this time they are in full gaze of all the court. And I find this scene excruciating: it is among the most distasteful and cruel scenes in all literature. Previously, Hamlet had accused Ophelia of behaving like a prostitute; here, he publicly – and quite deliberately, with pre-meditation – treats her as one. Polonius sees his daughter’s public humiliation, and does nothing. In this, at least, he is not being a hypocrite: he is merely following the advice he had given his son. He acts like an unfeeling bastard, and that’s because he is an unfeeling bastard: to his own self he is indeed true.

But what can one say of Hamlet’s behaviour? How could he have sunk so low from what he once had been? That is his tragedy.

The next time we see Ophelia, her mind has collapsed. It shouldn’t surprise us. Perhaps no-one had ever really loved Ophelia. Laertes protests in very exaggerated terms that he had, but one suspects that he was neither sufficiently intelligent nor sufficiently sensitive to appreciate her worth. Hamlet had truly loved her once – and indeed, he had made her believe so – but even when he finds she is dead, he seems more concerned with mocking Laertes than grieving for her. The only person who had, perhaps, really loved her, was Gertrude, herself another tragic character. She may not herself be the most intelligent or perceptive of characters, but it is she who delivers that rightly famous and very beautiful passage describing Ophelia being dragged down to her death in the waters while singing. And her brief and simple lines at Ophelia’s funeral I find almost unbearably moving:

Sweets to the sweet: farewell!
I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife;
I thought thy bride-bed to have deck’d, sweet maid,
And not have strew’d thy grave.

In another play, a comedy perhaps, she could indeed have been Hamlet’s wife, and it could have been a marriage of true minds. But here, the sweet spirit of hers, as intelligent and as bright as Rosalind’s or Viola’s, is crushed: it has no chance. This does not often register in productions: because she appears in only a few scenes, she often emerges no more than merely peripheral; and, although we see her fall, we do not really feel the full impact of her tragedy because we see little of the height that she falls from. But Shakespeare has, I think, given her enough. Hamlet Prince of Denmark does not present Hamlet’s tragedy alone.

Meanwhile, when Hamlet was not writing letters to Ophelia with their deliberately pisspoor verses, what else was he doing? My guess is he was writing: Hamlet needed to write things down (“meet it is I set it down”). And, given his passion for theatre, I’d guess further that he was writing a play. I’d guess he was writing Troilus and Cressida, that brutally cynical and dyspeptic play in which one of the two titular characters, Troilus, finds himself shocked that other humans do not possess the sense of honour that he does, and comes to hate them all. But Hamlet, in whose guise I like to think Shakespeare was writing this play, gives us Cressida as well, and she is presented as someone who realises – to her own shock – that Troilus loves not so much herself as a person, but Love and Honour as abstract ideals.

Troilus and Cressida was probably written soon after Hamlet, and there is no record of this brilliant but curious play ever being performed in Shakespeare’s lifetime. I suppose we can make of that what we will.

 

Confessions of a culture-vulture

It was Cosi Fan Tutte last night.

Every November, the Glyndebourne Touring Opera give a few performances in nearby Woking, and, almost invariably, they perform a Mozart opera. Which, obviously, is fine by us. Last year, it was Don Giovanni (I reported on that briefly here). I was recovering then from serious illness, and, in my weakened state, was afraid I might fall asleep during the performance; but, in the event, it turned out to be a first step back, as it were, to life: by the end of that performance, I felt less of an invalid, less weighed down by my troubles and worries – in brief, less of a miserable old sod. Those three Mozart-da Ponte operas have that effect on me: no matter how serious the aspects of our humanity they probe into, they elate, they exhilarate.

Take last night’s Cosi Fan Tutte. One of my earliest posts on this blog was about this opera, and I dwelt at some length on how deeply troubling the whole thing was. I cannot think of any other work, in any other artistic medium, that is so exquisitely beautiful, and yet so profoundly troubling. And last night, I felt the full force of this paradox all over again: the music is so perfectly beautiful, that the sense aches at it; and yet it presents a view of ourselves, of us all, that perturbs, and leaves one uneasy. I have read many accounts of this work, and even writers with far greater command than myself of the English language clearly find themselves struggling in trying to describe its effect. It remains elusive: just when you think you have found the key to it, some new detail occurs to you, and the entire edifice you have built for yourself suddenly comes tumbling down. It is hard indeed to account for a work that so entrances with its beauty, and yet so troubles you to your very depths; and which, even despite this troublesome nature, leaves you, somehow, elated by the end.

In other words, it’s a right bugger to blog about. So let’s move on.

One full year on from when I was feeling so sorry for myself and so comfortably self-pitying, I find myself in the midst of a spree of nights out. Last night, as I said, it was Cosi Fan Tutte; last week, it was Handel’s Rodelinda at the English National Opera. This was unplanned: a friend of a friend had an extra ticket which he was willing to see off at a ridiculously low price, and it seemed rude to turn it down. I must confess, though, that I am not really convinced by Baroque opera. Not dramatically, I mean. As I understand it, opera audiences of Handel’s time went to hear fine singing from star singers; and they went for spectacle; but they didn’t really go for what we would nowadays consider drama. So Handel operas tend to consist of a long sequence of solo arias – each very beautiful, and each very expressive, but each rather static, designed as they were for the singers simply to stand-and-deliver. Modern stagings invent various piece of stage business – some ingenious, others (to my mind) a bit pointless, and even a bit silly – to prevent it all becoming a merely a long sequence of dramatically static arias; but I rarely find myself convinced. The ENO production did as good a job as can be imagined, but I don’t think I’d have lost much if it had all been done simply as a concert performance. Certainly, in musical terms, and in terms of their expressive power, the arias themselves are top-drawer stuff, and they were quite beautifully performed; but I still can’t quite see this as drama. However, this is just a personal reaction: aficionados of Baroque opera may well disagree.

And I am also attending a series of concerts given at the Wigmore Hall by the Spanish quartet Cuarteto Casals, covering all of Beethoven’s mighty string quartets. I’ve been to two already, and there is a third concert in early December. We are also going to a performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers in two weeks’ time, in which a friend of ours is singing in the chorus. (To clarify on this point, when I say “I”, I mean I am going on my own; when I say “we”, I am going with my wife. We share some tastes – we both love Mozart and Verdi, for instance – but not all, and we see little point dragging each other off to events we may not enjoy.)

I will not be writing here about any of these concerts, since I am not really qualified to pass my layman’s opinions on musical matters. But when it comes to dramatic matters … well, truth to tell, I’m not really qualified to write about these matters either; but if I were to keep quiet about everything I am not qualified to comment on, this blog would never even get started. (And in any case, remaining silent when you have nothing much of interest to say would be going very much against the spirit of our times.)

And there’s theatre, of course. The Royal Shakespeare Company will be in London this winter, and they are bringing down from Stratford-on-Avon all four of Shakespeare’s Roman plays – Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus. Titus Andronicus has never been amongst my favourite plays, although, given I have never seen it on stage before, I may well go along to have a look come January. More surprisingly, perhaps, I have never seen Julius Caesar or Coriolanus on stage either, and have tickets for both between now and Christmas. And also between now and Christmas, I’ll be seeing Antony and Cleopatra, which I often name as my single favourite Shakespeare play: I find it a hard play to keep away from.

(And speaking of which, the National Theatre promises us an Antony and Cleopatra next year with Ralph Fiennes. It also promises us also Macbeth with Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff. At the same time the Royal Shakespeare Company is also promising us Macbeth, this time with Christopher Ecclestone and Niamh Cusack. Which one will be better? Well, there’s only one way to find out, as Harry Hill might say…)

And if all this weren’t enough, one Sunday in early December, the British Film Institute promises us screenings of all three films comprising Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (which I often regard as possibly cinema’s finest artistic achievement) in newly restored prints. I used to be a very keen film-goer in my student days, but I must admit that this is something that has long fallen by the wayside. However, I have never seen these masterpieces before on the big screen, and this really is very tempting.

So much to see, so little money in the bank…