Posts Tagged ‘Ibsen’

“Ghosts” by Henrik Ibsen

*** SPOILER WARNING: The following post inevitably reveals some of the plot details of this play, and so, if such things are important to you, it is possibly best not to read this post till you’ve read or seen the play for yourself.

All quoted passages are taken from the translation by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik, published by Penguin Classics

 

The stage directions for the first of the three acts tells us:

Through the conservatory windows a gloomy fjord landscape can be seen, veiled by steady rain.

We’re in the same location for the second act, and the stage directions tell us:

A rainy mist still lies heavily over the landscape.

The location remains unchanged in the third and final act also, and now, we are in the depths of night:

The lamp is still burning on the table. It is dark outside apart from a faint glow to the left in the background.

The sun does begin to rise in the final moments of the play, but what we see on stage as the sun rises is a scene of unmitigated horror: the rising of the sun brings with it no renewal. Quite the opposite.

It is hard to think of another play quite so unremittingly bleak and sombre as Ghosts. Even Long Day’s Journey into Night had begun in the light of day. The English title, Ghosts, is evocative, but Ibsen’s original Norwegian title is perhaps even more powerful: Gengangere means – so the notes to my Penguin Classics edition tell me – “something that or someone who walks again”. It is about the Past that refuses to stay in the past, that poisons the Present, and crushes the joy out of our lives.

This crushing of the Joy of Life is here a major theme. It is, ironically, Pastor Manders who introduces the motif of the Joy of Life early in the play, when he thinks back on the late Captain Alving:

As a young man, he was certainly full of the joys of life.

But to Manders, this is no more than a ready-made expression: he does not think too deeply on what it may signify. But Mrs Alving’s son, Osvald, recently returned from Paris, seizes upon it:

Yes, the joy of life, Mother – no-one knows much about that here at home. I never feel it here.

The word used in the original Norwegian is livsglad, a compound word, meaning (as, once again, the notes tell me) “happy in life” or “enjoying life”. I suspect that the power of this compound word is diminished when unpacked into the somewhat weak and prosaic “joy of life”. There is, I think, no way around this: in Bengali, too, it is permissible (as it isn’t in English) to create compound words in this manner, and the poetic or dramatic force comes from the often unexpected juxtaposition of the words that are welded together; translated into speakable English, something of this power is inevitably lost. And I suspect it is similar when translating from Norwegian. But, once introduced, livsglad becomes a major motif in this play. What Ibsen presents here is not a lachrymose wallow in the misery that is life, but, rather, a yearning for livsglad that seems ever beyond our reach, and a barely suppressed anger that this should be so.

Not that there aren’t thematic continuities from Ibsen’s previous play, A Doll’s House. It has often been pointed out, for instance, that while A Doll’s House presents a woman who walks out on her husband, Ghosts presents the tragedy of a woman who didn’t. This is true enough, but this neat pattern doesn’t really take us very far, as the marriage between Nora and Torvald is very different from that of the Alvings, and the reason Nora walks out is very different from the reason Mrs Alving had, in the past, nearly walked out. If we are to focus too intently on the thematic continuities between these last twelve plays (which Ibsen himself, towards the end  of his life, referred to as a “cycle”), there is a danger, perhaps, that we fail to see each of these plays as individual entities, and that we miss out on the new themes that Ibsen introduces in each. Yes, there is a thematic continuity in that Nora had refused, Brand-like, to continue living with lies, while Mrs Alving had been persuaded to continue doing so. But what takes centre-stage now are those lies themselves, those gengangere, that do not remain suppressed, that return to poison our lives, and destroy us. Indeed, these gengangere had never really gone away in the first place. And the livsglad that is crushed by them is more than merely “joy of life”: it is, rather, an elemental power that we are born with, that should make life beautiful, but which, when crushed, turns into its very opposite, so that even the rising of the sun brings with it pain and horror.

We do not see the marriage of the Alvings: Captain Alving, when the play opens, has long been dead. But the exposition here is more than merely communicating to the audience the events of the past so that the present drama may be understood: the exposition here is an examination of the past, and much of the present drama consists of the characters re-evaluating it, and coming to a new understanding. Thus, even as late as the final act, we see the characters revisiting the past, and understanding it in a different way.

Captain Alving had been one of the “pillars of society” Ibsen had written about in an earlier play, the very image of civic respectability, but, like those pillars, there was moral rottenness inside. For, in this instance, this exemplar of respectability had been in reality a lecherous and dissipated sybarite. Mrs Alving had left him once, and had taken refuge in the house of Pastor Manders.  And there is more than enough in the dialogue of this play to indicate that, at the time,  Mrs Alving and Pastor Manders had loved each other. But, while it is all too easy to play Pastor Manders as an outrageous hypocrite, he had had denied himself for the sake of the principles he sincerely believed in, and had persuaded Mrs Alving to return to her rightful husband. For Pastor Manders does not believe that humans were created to be happy:

It is the mark of a rebellious spirit to demand happiness here in life. What right do we mortals have to happiness? No, we must do our duty, madam! And your duty was to hold firmly to the man you’d once chosen, and to whom you were tied by holy bonds.

Duty. Duty not with happiness, or livsglad, as the end, but duty for its own sake, duty as its own end. And, far from being a hypocrite, Pastor Manders sincerely believes this: he lives by this, and for this. However, Captain Alving had not, as Manders had thought, reformed after his wife’s return: he remained as dissipated as ever, and Mrs Alving had been compelled, for the sake of the family’s good name and standing in society, to live a lie. And she knows the toll it has taken:

But I almost believe we are ghosts, all of us … It’s not just the things we have inherited from our fathers and mothers that return in us. It’s all kinds of old dead opinions and all kind of old dead doctrines … They aren’t alive in us; but they are lodged there all the same, and we can never be rid of them. I have only to pick up a newspaper and read it, and it’s as though I see ghosts living throughout the entire land.

Mrs Alving has suffered because she had submitted to the conventions of society that had demanded she continue with her farce of a marriage. She had realised that the law that had condemned her to this was wrong, and  this realisation leads her on to further realisation:

Yes, when you forced me to submit to what you called my duty and obligation; when you extolled as right and proper what my whole soul rebelled against as an abomination. That was when I began to examine the stitching that held your teachings together.  Only wanted to unpick a single knot, but the instant I had loosened that, the whole thing fell apart. And then I realised it was machine sewn.

And yet, she has to go on living with these ideas, these values, that she knows destroy all the Joy of Life. The past that lives with us, in us, those dead ideas that we cannot shed off … ghosts, gengangere.

Mrs Alving had been determined there must be, for the next generation at least, a complete break from the past – that her son should inherit nothing from his father. She had sent him away from home at an early age, so he would ever find out what his father had been like. And all the wealth that had come from his father’s side, she had used to open an orphanage, to ensure that none of it ever comes to her son – that her son should be free, in all respects, from all his father had been. And as she had lived a life of lies while her husband had been alive, she continues, for form’s sake, to perpetuate lies about him after his death, preserving his public image as a man of irreproachable moral integrity, while herself burning with resentment inside at the very lie she is perpetuating.

However, despite all her efforts, the Past continues to live within her son Osvald in a most terrible way, and here, we come across a problem that Ibsen had not envisaged. In Ibsen’s time, it was believed, wrongly, that syphilis could be passed on from father to son: but that, we now know, is not true. Of course, it is possible that the father could have infected the mother, and the mother could pass it on to the child, but if that were so, Mrs Alving too would be syphilitic, and that is clearly not the case. [EDIT: Please see footnote at the bottom of this post.] (I am, I should hasten to add, no expert on these medical matters, and would be more than happy to be corrected if I am mistaken in any way.) In short, it is simply not possible that Osvald has inherited syphilis from his father.

However, this does not invalidate the credibility of the plot. Syphilis itself is never mentioned directly, and, while Mrs Alving, and, later, Osvald, accept that the disease has been inherited from the father, there is no real evidence for it presented in the play. Indeed, there is not even any evidence that Captain Alving, dissipated though he was, had been syphilitic in the first place. Osvald, when breaking the news of his illness to his mother, is at pains to say that he had “never lived a riotous life”: but that is not to say, of course, that he had necessarily been celibate. And, indeed, till he discovers that his father was not the irreproachable pillar of virtue he had always believed him to have been, Osvald blames himself. He may not have been riotous, but it is certainly possible that he had been unlucky. Of course, Ibsen had intended us to believe that Osvald’s syphilis was inherited, but medical science has overtaken Ibsen’s intentions in this respect. And while this does not invalidate the credibility of the plot, as such, it inevitably weakens somewhat the play’s dramatic power. In Ibsen’s original conception, the ghosts from the past that we cannot lay to rest were both an image, and also a reality, in that it has taken the very real form of a disease inherited by son from father; but if we can no longer believe in that physical inheritance, it remains merely an image, and Osvald’s syphilis itself is but a cruel and capricious twist of fortune rather than a tragic inevitability. The fruits of sin (as syphilis was then regarded), instead of afflicting the father, afflicts the son instead; the inheritance is metaphorical, not physical.

But though the tragic force of the drama is inevitably diminished somewhat, it is by no means obliterated, as any good production of this play will reveal: it still holds the stage, and the effect remains quite shattering. Osvald’s brain is weakening: he knows that after the next attack, he will remain utterly incapable – alive, but with a brain that is, effectively, dead. He who had in him that yearning for livsglad, that unbounded joy in the simple fact of just being alive, finds himself saying to his mother:

I didn’t ask for life! What kind of life is it you’ve given me? I don’t want it!

But he is not the first for whom the delight in living has turned into its very opposite. When, at the start of the play, Pastor Manders had referred unthinkingly to Captain Alving being “full of the joys of life”, he was simply and unthinkingly using an expression, without considering what it really meant. Since then, we have had a picture of Alving that is very far removed from the joys of life: he enjoyed merely life’s debauched pleasures. But, in an extraordinary passage towards the end of the play, Mrs Alving sees her dead husband, and, consequently, her own past, in a startlingly different light. Pastor Manders may have used the term unthinkingly when speaking of the late Captain Alving, but he had not really been mistaken:

MRS ALVING: You should have known your father when he was a young lieutenant. He was certainly filled with the joy of life!

OSVALD: Yes, I know.

MRS ALVING: It was like a sunny Sunday just looking at him. And such incredible energy and vitality he had!

OSVALD: And – ?

MRS ALVING: And then this joyous child – because he was a child back then, had to while his time away back here, in a middling-sized town that had no real joy to offer, only diversions. He was stuck here without any vocation in life, with nothing but a civil service appointment … Without one single friend capable of feeling what the joy of life might be; only layabouts and drinking companions …

The man she had, for most of her life, hated and despised now appears to her as someone whose natural exuberance and joy had, for lack of any outlet, festered, become corrupted. And she sees as well her own part in this:

MRS ALVING: Your poor father could never find any outlet for this excessive joy of life inside him. And I didn’t bring any Sunday sunshine into his home either.

OSVALD: Not even you?

MRS ALVING: They had taught me about duties and the like, things I have gone around believing in for so long. It always seemed to come down to duty – my duties and his duties and – I’m afraid I made this home unbearable for your poor father, Osvald.

As Pastor Manders may have said, why strive for joy, for happiness, in the first place? Duty, joyless duty, is what we are here for, and to think otherwise is to rebel against the Laws of God Himself. Pastor Manders’ ideas may be old and dead, but they remain with us, and they crush whatever delight, whatever joy, we may take in the very fact of living.

This theme introduced in this play of livsglad, that problematic compound word for which “joy of life” seems to me perhaps too weak a translation, returns again in later plays in the series, most notably, perhaps, in The Master Builder, in which, at a climactic point, Solness exclaims “I – who cannot live without joy!” It is the denial of this livsglad, and the terrible consequences of this denial, that seem to me to be at the centre of this darkest and most unremittingly bleak of all Ibsen’s plays.

Ghosts, after its premier in 1882, predictably, caused a huge scandal, even bigger than the one occasioned by Nora walking out on her husband and family at the end of A Doll’s House. Even years later, when Ibsen was a Grand Old Man of Letters rather than the enfant terrible, the then monarch of Norway, Oscar II, told Ibsen at some formal reception that he really shouldn’t have written Ghosts.  Ibsen had replied: “Your Majesty, I had to write Ghosts!” Unremitting as it is in its intensity, it bears throughout the marks of a play that had to be written.

 

Footnote: My friend Richard Arundel draws my attention to the following footnote by Michael Meyer in the introduction to his translation of Ghosts, published by Methuen:

In view of the oft-repeated complaint that syphilis cannot be inherited from one’s father, it is worth pointing out that it can be inherited from one’s mother, and that a woman can have syphilis without realizing it or suffering any particular discomfort.In other words, and this is a far more frightening explanation of Oswald’s illness than the usual one, Mrs Alving could have caught syphilis from her husband and passed it on  to her son. Dr Jonathan Miller has pointed out to me that Oswald could also have been infected by smoking his father’s pipe. Ibsen knew more about medicine than some of his critics.

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“A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen

All quoted passages are taken from the translation by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik, published by Penguin Classics

Ibsen once denied that A Doll’s House is a “feminist” play, claiming he did not even know what feminism meant. He was being disingenuous, of course: he knew fine well what he had written, and he meant every word of it, but I think I can understand his frustration: while his very specific intentions were eagerly seized upon, his more general themes seemed obscured: the play was seen as primarily didactic rather than as exploratory. That is probably the case even now: although we are no longer shocked by the play’s feminist manifesto – indeed, we tend nowadays to nod along in agreement with its didactic flow – we still think of it primarily as a social play, a play in which the hypocrisies of society are denounced, and social change demanded. And since the society it depicts has largely changed in the direction that Ibsen had advocated (at least in the western world), far from being perturbed by it, we may even find it comfortable, vindicating as it does our liberal values.

For A Doll’s House is surely Ibsen’s “greatest hit” (closely followed, I’d guess, by An Enemy of the People and by Hedda Gabler). Nora is still the part that our leading stage actresses queue to play. One can see why: it is a terrific part – although, I’d venture, Ibsen wrote a great many roles for leading ladies that are at least as challenging (Mrs Alving, Rebecca West, Ellida Wangel, Ella Rentheim, Gunhild Borkman, etc.) But it is this role, and Hedda Gabler, that has captured our collective imagination more than the others.

The overall plot is well-known – so much so that I don’t think I need to put up a spoiler warning” before I summarise it (and if a “spoiler warning” is required, it’s possibly best not to read on): a seemingly happily married middle-class woman, with three children, discovers that her marriage is a sham, and walks out on her family. Contemporary audiences certainly found it deeply shocking (as was intended), but perhaps we moderns should not be entirely shockproof on the matter: a parent, of either sex, walking out on parental responsibilities should rightly shock. Our failure to be shocked, or, possibly, our determination not to be shocked, can but rob that extraordinary final scene of its dramatic edge.

A Doll’s House has always been the English title of the play, although the Norwegian dukkehjem, literally translated, means “doll home”; it is Ibsen’s own coinage, and refers not to a toy house that a child may play with, but to a real home where the lady of the house is no more than a mere doll. Towards the end of the play, Nora says:

[Father] called me a doll-child, and he played with me, just as I play with my dolls. And then I came into your house … I went from Daddy’s hands over into yours.

First her father’s doll, and now her husband’s: the one person she has never belonged to, the one person she has never been, is herself, and, as a consequence, she does not even know what her true self really is. When her husband Torvald, in desperation, asks if she has moral sense, she, far from replying in the affirmative, can only say:

Oh, Torvald, that’s not easy to answer. I simply don’t know. I’m in such confusion over these things.

And yet, only a few lines later, when Torvald claims she is ill and feverish, she replies:

I’ve never been so clear and sure as I am tonight.

There’s actually no contradiction between Nora’s two statements. She does not know whether she has a moral sense or not because she does not know herself; but she is perfectly clear and sure about the fact of her own ignorance.

Peer Gynt, for different reasons, does not know himself either: always choosing to be whatever had been most convenient at the time, he finds he is like an onion, layer after accumulated layer, but with no real core. And it may be that Nora, having been what first her father and then her husband had wanted her to be, has no core either: but she is determined to find out for herself. Having been forced to be a Peer Gynt all her life, she now shows the steely, uncompromising determination of a Brand.

This famous final scene always takes me by surprise, even though I know full well what it contains. Its tonality is very different from the rest of the play. We had been led to believe that the play was essentially about blackmail: Nora, for the noblest of motives (to save her husband’s life, and not to worry her dying father) had imprudently forged a signature, and now, an employee in her husband’s bank on the verge of being sacked tries to blackmail her. Her desperation rises almost to fever pitch: at the end of the second act, she dances on stage a wild tarantella, and she dances with such intensity that Torvald can’t help commenting “You’re dancing as if your life depended on it”. And, without realising it, he is not far off the mark: she is indeed desparate, and has already contemplated suicide. But the crisis set up by the end of the second act isn’t really what the play is about: for the theme that was lying underneath all the while, even if we perhaps didn’t notice it at the time, was the state of Nora’s and Torvald’s marriage itself, and the terrible lie upon which that marriage had been based.

Here, we see the continuation of themes from The Pillars of Society: that play had focussed on the lies underpinning social respectability and prosperity; here, Ibsen considers the same theme, but in a domestic sphere, within the sanctified institution of marriage itself. Even that which we hold most sacred is based on lies, and we would see that for ourselves if only, with a Brand-like insistence upon truth, we determine to look upon it without equivocation, without compromise.

By the end of the play, Nora has become a sort of Brand: the absolute truth must not merely be faced, it must also be acted upon, without compromise. But this is certainly not as she had appeared at the start. When we see her first she is a scatterbrain, extravagantly spending her husband’s money (and being told off for it), eating macaroons secretly despite her husband’s wishes. And when husband and wife talk, it is not the talk of two mature adults:

TORVALD:  When did my squirrel  get home?

NORA: Just now. … Come  out Torvald, and you will see what I have bought.

TORVALD: … Has my little spending bird been out frittering money again? … we can’t be extravagant.

NORA: Oh but Torvald, we can be a little extravagant now, surely. Can’t we? Just a teeny-weeny bit. After all, you’ll have a big salary now and be earning lots and lots of money.

And so on. Nora is the scatter-brained child, to be gently admonished if need be; and he, Torvald, is the responsible adult, indulgent up to a point, but making sure, for her own good, that his wife is not too naughty. We soon see that Nora, though not conversant with the ways of the world outside (having never had the opportunity to be part of it), is far from unintelligent. So why does she speak to her husband in that manner? She speaks to no-one else like that. Why does she behave like a child? Why does she allow herself to be reprimanded?

The answer is surely that she is playing a role. She is wearing a mask that gives her an appearance that is acceptable in society. She plays the child to allow her husband to play the adult. To enable him to play the protector, she must play the part of the creature who needs protecting. She wears this mask not because, like Peer Gynt, it is necessarily a convenient mask to wear, but because, in her position in society, this is the mask she is expected to wear. And, at this point of the play at any rate, she sees no reason not to wear it. And if she wears the mask expected of her, so does Torvald: he is the man, the protector. And Nora takes this at face value. And we have to wait till the very final scene for this issue to be dramatically resolved.

But until then, Ibsen adroitly directs our attention elsewhere. He introduces the blackmail theme. Nora is terrified – not so much because her husband will discover her secret, but because she is so utterly convinced that when he does, he, her protector, will protect her, and take the blame upon himself; that he will accept shame and disgrace and ruin, all for her sake. The thought that he will do so almost drives her mad: Nora believes in the mask her husband wears: she thinks it his real face.

But the resolution of the play is not the resolution of the blackmail plot; that is resolved quite unexpectedly, and with surprising ease. And then the real theme, which had been introduced in the very first scene between husband and wife, and which has been simmering beneath the surface while Nora’s attention (and ours) had been distracted by other things, establishes itself again centre stage. And when it does take centre stage, we realise that it had been there all along. For when the crisis does break, Torvald’s mask falls: he is no protector. He cannot even think of such a thing. The idea of protecting his wife by sacrificing himself does not even occur to him. Instead, he turns on her, and speaks the cruellest, most hurtful things a wife could ever expect to hear from a husband.

But then, suddenly, everything is all right: the crisis has passed, and the threat of blackmail no longer hangs over them. And, as far as Torvald is concerned, they can go back to being as they were. But Nora had seen the mask fall, and she cannot believe in it any more. And, far from the baby talk she had put on for his benefit, she speaks clearly, adult to adult: there is, as she says, a “reckoning” to be made.

We have been married now for eight years. Doesn’t it occur to you that this is the first time the two of us, you and I, man and wife, are talking seriously together?

No, it hadn’t occurred to him. It occurs to her, for she is the more intelligent of the two, despite her having acted otherwise. Once his mask is off,  there’s no putting it back on again, and she must unmask herself also.

Torvald, in this final scene, is, of course, shocked, but he does accept what she says. For, like Nora, he too has been wearing a mask that had not suited him, and he too does not know who or what he really is. After eight years of marriage, after eight years of living on lies, lies about their marriage, lies about their own selves, they, for the very first time, speak to each other. And it is deeply moving. So used have they become to the masks they wore, now that these masks are off, neither knows who they really are.

Some productions make Torvald the villain of the piece. This is wrong. He is simply an ordinary man, not too bright perhaps, but a man who, like, perhaps, most of us, does not question the values of the society he lives in. He is no villain. In one production I have seen, Torvald, when he loses his head, actually strikes his wife. This is a grotesque misjudgement. Nora is leaving not because of domestic violence: she is leaving for reasons far more complex, and the introduction of physical violence is not only uncalled for in Ibsen’s text, it detracts from the true motivations. Nora leaves not because she has been physically abused (she hasn’t): she leaves because she has to know the truth. As with Brand, living a life based upon lies is not an option, and, no matter whom she hurts in the process – her husband, her children, even her own self – it is the Truth that has to take precedence. In that final, solemn scene, there is no room for further subterfuge.

It has perhaps become too easy nowadays to nod away in agreement with Nora in the final scene. That was the way society used to be, but we are so much more enlightened now. We may even congratulate ourselves on it. But Ibsen had intended that scene to be uncomfortable, and the production would fail badly if this scene serves but to reassure us in our modern certainties.

For that final scene, even in our more enlightened times, genuinely is shocking. The masks we nowadays find ourselves wearing may not be the ones worn by Nora and Torvald, but it is not possible to live in any sort of society without wearing some mask or other, and allowing our faces to grow into them. Inevitably, all our lives are based on lies or deceptions of some sort or other: we wouldn’t be able to live in peace with our fellow human beings if we were to be uncompromisingly our own selves: like Brand, we would have no choice but to exile ourselves from society, and, perhaps, find our own pristine Ice Church, untouched by human corruption.  To live amongst our fellow humans is to compromise, that is, to lie, to deceive – at least up to a point. And what becomes of our true selves then? Is it then even reasonable to talk of such things?

This is not to say that Ibsen had not written a social drama, a feminist drama advocating – indeed, insisting upon – independence and autonomy for women. Despite anything he may have said to the contrary, this is an accurate description of A Doll’s House.  But if we see no more than this, we tame the play, as it were, we domesticate and make palatable that which, I think, retains still its power to disturb.

Perhaps thankfully, most of us are not Brand. We aren’t Nora either. We do not insist on the Truth at all costs, however much we may like to think we do: we compromise ourselves as individuals to be able to live in peace with our fellow humans; and, since we have to compromise, since we have to deceive ourselves a bit in  the process, we find ways of justifying it to ourselves. (That is, if we notice  it at all.) Perhaps that is the sensible thing to do. But Ibsen couldn’t allow matters to rest there: in his very next play, Ghosts, published just two years after A Doll’s House, he presents an unflinching look at the consequences of living our lives upon convenient deceptions. The vehement slamming of the door as Nora walks out on her husband and children at the end of A Doll’s House marks the end of one story, but there are many others still to be told.

“The Pillars of Society” by Henrik Ibsen

All quoted passages are taken from the translation by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik, published by Penguin Classics

After the soaring poetry and the mythic imagery of Brand and Peer Gynt, the scrupulously realistic portrayal of citizens of a small provincial town seems inevitably a bit of an anti-climax. Not that The Pillars of Society had come immediately after these two verse dramas: Ibsen had taken a curious route from those earlier heights of poetic imagination to this doggedly earthbound depiction of ordinary people living their everyday lives. He had written that vast and exotic two part historic drama Emperor and Galilean, and also a comedy, The League of Youth, the latter generally judged by posterity (correctly, I think) as being diverting, but, perhaps, a bit slight. The Pillars of Society is, however, far from exotic, and, despite its focus on the quotidian, far from slight. It is the first of a sequence of twelve plays that Ibsen, nearly twenty-five years later, referred to as a “cycle”. It seems, however, highly unlikely that Ibsen had any thought of composing a cycle of plays when he embarked on this: if cycle it is, then its cyclical elements, at least to begin with, were accidental. But accidental or not, the thematic connections linking these twelve plays seem to me apparent, despite Ibsen’s stylistic development over the years during which these plays were written, and despite also the often radical new directions in which he took his art. And similarly apparent are the thematic connections with Brand and with Peer Gynt: the break with those earlier poetic dramas was not as thorough as it might seem.

But whatever poetic instincts Ibsen had – from the evidence of Brand and Peer Gynt, and also of his later plays, they were substantial – seem almost deliberately suppressed here. The scene here is not the high mountains and ice-vaulted crevices we see in Brand, nor the mythic, phantasmagoric landscapes of the mind that we find in Peer Gynt: it is, instead, a small, provincial town, all too real and too solid, all too subject to the hard laws of business and of economics: it is a thriving shipping port. And the characters populating this drama do not have the stature and the larger-than-life presence of Brand or of Peer Gynt: these are all, in comparison, small people, and their poetic vision, should they exist, are well hidden away beneath the unexciting pressure of earning a daily living. At the centre of the drama, but by no means dominating it (as it is in essence an ensemble piece), is Karsten Bernick, solid and respectable, the chief pillar of this society. He owns the shipyard on which the prosperity of the entire town depends. He runs it with a ruthless efficiency characteristic of capitalism untrammelled by considerations of social conscience: and yet, at the same time, his ruthless efficiency has brought wealth and stability to a kind of society that, as we had seen in Brand, used regularly to suffer from famine. As the drama progresses, we see Bernick as, morally, a most reprehensible character: his standing and his reputation, both public and private, are built on lies; his entire existence, his status as a pillar of society, is one of utter hypocrisy. The very base on which this society is built is morally rotten. And, on one level, this drama may be seen as an exposure of this moral rottenness, a demand – such as Brand might have made – that we face the truth and confess it, whatever the cost. But, at a deeper and somewhat subtler level, I don’t think things are quite so easy.

But before we try to plumb its depths, the surface demands exploration, as it is fascinating in itself. In many ways, it corresponds to the popular image of Ibsen: here is Ibsen the social reformer, hitting out at the lies and hypocrisies on which respectable society is built, pointing at us the finger of moral indignation: this is Ibsen as dramatist for social change. Somerset Maugham once mischievously characterised the plots of Ibsen’s plays as, essentially, an outsider entering a stuffy room, opening the window, and everyone, a consequence, dying of cold. This is no doubt unfair, but there is some truth in this caricature, and nowhere is this caricature more apparent than in The Pillars of Society. The society depicted in the first act is indeed unbearably stuffy, and the air is heavy with hypocrisy and with moral self-righteousness; an outsider does indeed enter, and, at the end of the act, literally opens a window. But this literal act is also, very obviously, a symbolic act, and the symbolic cold air let in proves devastating.

The play deals explicitly with what was, at the time, a theme of burning topical relevance. Ships allowed to sail even when known not to be seaworthy was a notorious scandal of the time, especially in a seafaring nation such as Norway. As Michael Meyer says in his introduction to his own translation, British Member of Parliament Samuel Plimsoll had been fighting for years against “the cold-blooded and unscrupulous sacrifice of human life by sending men to sea in rotten ships”, merely to allow the owners collecting on the insurance afterwards. In British Parliament, Plimsoll openly called these owners “murderers”. A number of such instances of this occurred in Norway also, and they were much publicised. But that a play dealing explicitly with so topical a theme can still even now triumphantly hold the stage does indicate that there is more to this play than merely a Drama of Social Reform. And if we wish to discover what more there is, we need to look a bit deeper. And once we do, we discover Peer Gynt enjoined by Brand to acknowledge the Truth – the Truth, at all costs.

For, from Brand’s perspective, it is only when one acknowledges the Truth and lives by it that one can find one’s inner self – that same inner self that Peer Gynt discovered at the end he does not possess. But acknowledging the Truth is painful in the extreme; and, what is more, it does not guarantee us happiness. For Brand, such a consideration is irrelevant: Truth must be acknowledged for its own sake, for it is an end in itself. But for the Peer Gynts among us, this is far from obvious.

Bernick is, effectively, Peer Gynt in the real world: that is, the “real world”, as opposed to the world of the poetic imagination that Ibsen had previously given us. The lies in which Bernick has become entangled, and on which his entire life, both public and private, is now based, had not come about out of an evil nature: they had merely been the easiest way of getting what he wanted. When obstacles had come his way, he simply, like Peer, went around. But that is all in the past now, and he is a success. And on his success has depended the success of the entire town: he is indeed a pillar of society. In the very first scene, Bernick’s chief clerk tells Aune, the shipyard foreman:

You are first and foremost foreman of Consul Bernick’s shipyard. You have first and foremost a duty towards the community which is Consul Bernick’s company; because it’s what we live by.

Whatever the lies and the hypocrisy, the community is Consul Bernick’s company. If the company falls, the community falls. Exposing the lies may be morally the correct thing to do: it is what Brand would have insisted upon – not as a means to some end, but because the Truth is not something that may be compromised. But for us ordinary mortals, the dilemma is real.

In a stage of brilliantly staged scenes, the lies upon which Bernick’s reputation has been built, and also upon which his company has been built – which, we are reminded, is what the entire community lives by – are brought to light. But what should Bernick do? On the surface, it is clear-cut: he should tell the truth. But below the surface, the moral waters are murkier. It may be said, with justification, that when Bernick talks of the good of the community, he is only making excuses. But even if that were true, if Bernick’s company goes under, the entire community would go under too. Is Truth really worth so great a price? Are the moral demands of Brand at all reasonable?

But then, if we reject Brand’s moral imperatives, what are we left with? Bernick at one point considers allowing a ship to sail he knows not to be shipworthy, because the man who could bring down his entire business kingdom would, he knew, be on it. In short, he contemplates murder – and mass-murder at that. And he tries to justify even this – seemingly to the schoolmaster Rørlund, but, ultimately, to his own troubled conscience:

Bernick: When one stands at the threshold of a far-reaching enterprise which aims at the improved well-being of thousands – , if this thing were to require one single sacrifice – ?

Rørlund: In what way, sir?

Bernick: Suppose, for example, that a man is considering building a large factory. He knows for certain – since experience has taught him this – that sooner or later during the running of this factory human life will be lost.

Rørlund: Yes, that is only too probable.

Bernick: Or a man embarks on a mining business. He takes family men and youngsters in the prime of life into his service. It can be said with absolute certainty, can it not, that they won’t all come out of it alive?

Rørlund: Yes, unfortunately, that’s probably so.

Bernick: Well. Such a man knows beforehand, then, that the enterprise he wants to set in motion will undoubtedly cost human lives at some point. But this enterprise is for the common good; for every human life it costs, it will just as undoubtedly further the welfare of hundreds.

Whatever Bernick’s motivation, this is true. Even if the Truth may be discerned (and Ibsen was to question even that in later plays), is it necessarily desirable? It is this terrible question that creates a terrible and terrifying undercurrent beneath the seemingly simple confrontation on the surface between Truth and Falsehood. And it is because of this undercurrent that the play remains still so a thrilling a piece of drama: without this undercurrent, it would merely be a call for social reform which, once the reform is implemented, ceases to be of any but historical interest.

But what had been Bernick’s motivation in setting up his business kingdom in the first place? It seems unlikely that he had been motivated by the welfare of the town’s citizens: that had been, at best, a by-product. Bernick himself says that he had tried to salvage his family business, which, when he was a young man, had been in danger of going under. He had saved that business, and, as a consequence, had save the entire community of which he is now so estimable a pillar. And as we see him break less than entirely honest deals, it seems clear that his true motivation had been power – power not merely among his fellow-citizens, but power also over Nature itself, which he feels he can harness:

Imagine what a powerful lever [the railway will] represent for our entire community. Think of the enormous tracts of forest that’ll be made accessible; think of rich seams of ore that can be worked; think of the river with one waterfall after the other. Just imagine all the industry that can be established there.

In a much later play, John Gabriel Borkman, Borkman too had been entranced by the possibility of subduing Nature to his will, but Borkman, in his single-mindedness, had more resembled Brand: Bernick, for all his desire, remains Peer Gynt, for ever seeking the easy way around. But now, the man who had sought power, who had sought to harness Nature itself, becomes fully aware of the moral depths he has suck to as a consequence of pursuing his desires. He realises a curse is upon him, and hopes his son will one day grow up to redeem, and to lift the curse:

The inheritance I am giving him is a thousand times worse than you know. But the curse must lift some day surely. Then again – Perhaps –

Such a figure recalls another figure from that era: Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, the last instalment of the mighty Ring Cycle, had been premiered in 1866, just one year before the premier of The Pillars of Society, and it is not too far-fetched, I think, to draw parallels between Ibsen’s Bernick and Wagner’s Wotan. Ibsen would certainly have known of the Ring Cycle – his friend and compatriot, Edvard Grieg, tried to persuade him to go and see it at Bayreuth – but Ibsen, who never cared much for music, had resisted. But it seems unlikely that Ibsen would have found his themes from what he had known of Wagner’s work: we should not really be too surprised when major artists living through the same times hit upon similar themes. This was, after all, the Age of Capital: faster than ever before, Nature and its resources were being harnessed to enhance human power. It would be surprising indeed for intelligent and perceptive artists not to wonder at what the consequences of all this may be. But their foci were different: where Wagner was concerned – amongst other things – with the question of redemption, Ibsen’s focus was on the nature of Truth, and of the all too human compromises we make with it.

This play ends, seemingly, on a moral triumph: after his own son is found to be in imminent danger, Bernick relents, publicly confesses, and all, apparently, ends well. But while the play itself ends on a bright major key, far too many issues remain unresolved. Bernick doesn’t, after all, reveal the whole truth: the most incriminating part of it, including the attempted murder, he holds back. Will that ever come out, we wonder? Will he have the moral courage? And even if he does, should he? Would not his company fall, and the entire community with it?

The play is rounded off satisfactorily as far as the dramatic presentation was concerned, but there remain too many unresolved questions. Possibly because these questions cannot be resolved satisfactorily. Ibsen was to return to these questions with even deeper vision in subsequent plays of the cycle. Indeed, many of the themes broached here return. Among the subsidiary themes in this play, for instance, is the position of women – intelligent people, but whose aspirations and energies are crushed under society’s structure: in A Doll’s House, the very next play in the cycle, Ibsen focuses on this. The theme of the past haunting the present, with terrifying consequence, returns in Ghosts; and in the next play, An Enemy of the People, Ibsen again returns to te theme of the Truth, and public good.

In A Wild Duck, he questions the extent to which we may live with the Truth; while in Rosmersholm, he explores our ability even to recognise it. And so on. With The Pillars of Society, we are only at the beginning.

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 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 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 passenger 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: e 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; ad, 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 mounts 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.

Grappling with Ibsen

It was in the late ’80s, when I was in my 20s, that I developed a fascination with Ibsen. I think (although, with the passage of time, I cannot be certain on this point) it was a couple of BBC broadcasts that set off my passion – Little Eyolf, with Diana Rigg and Antony Hopkins, and The Master Builder, with Leo McKern and Miranda Richardson. The plays puzzled me. I could sense a lot going on under the surface; I could sense powerful undercurrents, of the presence of mysterious, irresistible forces; but the precise nature of these undercurrents, of these forces, eluded me. Possibly they elude me still, even after all these years of reading and re-reading, of seeing various productions. For all Ibsen’s reputation as a depicter of the bourgeois and creator of firm solidities; as one who had his finger firmly on the pulse of society and who pointed out and excoriated its various hypocrisies; Ibsen seemed to me, and seems to me still, to be looking beyond all that: he seemed to me to be plumbing mysterious depths, and exploring hidden recesses, of the human mind. Not that the social themes did not exist, of course, but these were not what fascinated me so. But what did fascinate me I found hard to articulate. I think I still do.

It is perhaps for this reason that I have generally kept away from Ibsen on my blog, but if the point of my writing this blog is for me to talk about what interests me most, and what I love best, then I really have to tackle Ibsen here some time. If only so that I can say, as Hilary famously said after conquering Everest, that I’ve “knocked the bastard off”.

I doubt whether here is any other writer of comparable stature whose literary career had so slow a start. Ibsen’s first play, Catiline, was written in 1850, and nine more plays followed in the next fifteen or so years; but had he written nothing other than these plays, it is doubtful whether he would have been remembered at all. Not that some of them do not show flashes of what was to come: The Vikings at Helgeland, especially, clearly foreshadows the later Hedda Gabler. But it’s fair to say that stodgy historical melodramas, with such creaking plot devices as overheard conversations and intercepted letters and so on, are not really to modern taste.

Ibsen himself seemed to tire of all this. Love’s Comedy, written in 1862, seemed a very conscious departure: forsaking historic romance and melodrama, Ibsen set this play in contemporary times, and wrote the whole thing in rhymed verse, rich in poetic imagery; and its principal theme – which, predictably, scandalised contemporary audiences – was the barriers set in the way of human love when institutionalised as marriage. It’s a fascinating work in many respects, but, I must admit, not one I find particularly dramatic: how much I should blame translations for this I am not entirely sure, but I do get the feeling that Ibsen was branching out into new and unexplored territory, and it shouldn’t really be too surprising if there are some shortcomings.

Ibsen turned back to historic drama again with his next play, The Pretenders, an epic work that seems to me quite clearly a great advance on his earlier historic plays. Although, even here, it must be admitted that, compared to something such as, say, Danton’s Death, written by Georg Büchner some thirty years earlier, it can seem a bit leaden.

It was at this time something remarkable happened. A government grant, for which he had applied a year earlier, freed him from the responsibility of having to write specifically for the theatre; and Ibsen left Norway for Italy (he remained an exile from Norway for the next 27 years). And here, in the southern Mediterranean climes, he wrote a verse play set in the mountains and the fjords of the home country he had turned his back on. This play – the first of his two plays written specifically to be read rather than to be performed – was Brand, and I don’t think even the finest of his earlier works could have prepared anyone for the immense stature of this: it was as if the freedom not to write for the stage had freed his imagination also.

However, the verse, even in translation, is vividly dramatic. The whole work is far too long for a single evening’s performance, but the dramatic seemed to be such an inexorable feature of Ibsen’s imagination that, even when cut down for performance, and even in translation, it holds the stage triumphantly. Here, with bold dramatic strokes, Ibsen depicts a dramatic world that is perhaps best described as “mythic” – scenes, situations, and characters of immense power, resonating in our minds as insistently as the most potent of ancient myths.

Its title character, Brand, is a preacher whose stern, unbending search for truth, the absolute truth, and his refusal to accept compromise, inflicts cruelties not only upon his flock, but also upon those he loves most, and even upon himself. It is a theme that haunts Ibsen’s work: the truth. We may all acknowledge its importance: we always have done. Tell the truth and let all else go hang. But all else can’t go hang: Ibsen was fascinated by the extent to which humans can accept the truth – the extent to which they can acknowledge it, or even, perhaps, recognise it. In the magnificent final scene of Brand, Brand, rejected by his flock, is led into a mountain crevice covered above by ice – the “ice church”. The truth is indeed holy, but it is also cold. Can humans inhabit such an ice church?

Peer Gynt appeared the very next year, 1867. As far as I have read, this, and Brand, are – for me at any rate – the last great plays in verse (although, I suppose, a case can be made for the verse plays of T. S. Eliot). In many ways, Peer Gynt is the antithesis of Brand: if Brand is unbending, Peer is only too happy to bend in whichever direction the wind blows, evading his responsibilities, compromising his morals (which he possibly never had much of to begin with), until, by the end, he is no more than an onion – layer upon accumulated layer, with no real core. If in Brand Ibsen had invented his own mythology, here, in a troll-haunted world, he invents his own folklore; and such is the reach of this astounding work – again, not written specifically for the theatre, but which works splendidly on stage even in cut-down versions – that he seems to me to anticipate virtually all the dramatic innovations of twentieth century theatre: I once saw a production of Peer Gynt by the Berliner Ensemble, directed by Peter Zadek, and, true to their Brechtian roots, they presented it in the mould of Brechtian Epic Theatre: it worked beautifully. There are also elements in this play that seem to me also to anticipate Strindberg’s dream plays, or the Theatre of the Absurd. It is an audacious achievement.

After scaling these heights of poetic drama, Ibsen seemed to turn his back on poetry. But first came a curious anomaly – Emperor and Galilean, a two-part epic drama, filled with the bizarre and the opulent and the exotic. I have read this a few times, but have failed to make sense of it, and to see where exactly in Ibsen’s work it fits. It seems like nothing Ibsen had written before or after, either stylistically or thematically. It is tempting to think that Ibsen took a wrong turn with this one, but it shouldn’t really be dismissed so glibly: he collected material for this play for over four years, and spent another two years writing it; and what’s more, he averred it to be his finest work. It is all very mysterious. I sometimes think this is Ibsen’s equivalent of Flaubert’s Salammbôsomething he had to get out of his system as an outlet before he could focus on more everyday matters. But I may well be wrong. I re-read this recently, and I was, once again, very puzzled.

There was also a comedy – yes, Ibsen did write comedies – The League of Youth, which is, to be frank, an enjoyable but comparatively slight affair. And then followed the twelve prose plays that critic Brian Johnston refers to as “The Ibsen Cycle”- plays set not in the world of the mythic, or of folklore, but in the everyday world, with characters from ordinary walks of life, speaking, naturalistically, in prose. But appearances can be deceptive. While the earlier plays in this cycle certainly seem to focus on social issues, even here, it seems to me, the undercurrents run deep. And these undercurrents become more apparent on the surface as the cycle progresses, the poetic imagery becomes ever denser and ever more resonant, until, in the last play, When We Dead Reawaken, though written in prose, we seem to be back again in the poetic world of Brand and of Peer Gynt. The adjective “visionary” does not seem misapplied.

***

Perhaps it’s the literature of the mid- to late- 19th century that attracts me most. Not exclusively: I love my Shakespeare, of course, and the Romantic poets; I have a keen interest in Greek tragedies, am entranced by Don Quixote, and so on; and I love also a great many of the achievements of modernism – Ulysses, The Four Quartets, etc. And inevitably, given my Bengali background, Tagore is important to me – I don’t have a choice on that one. But it’s perhaps the mid- to late- 19th century that I keep going back to most, for reasons I haven’t frankly bothered to analyse. And the literary figures of that era who are most important to me, who are, as it were, permanent residents of my mind (such as it is), are, I think, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Hopkins, and, most certainly, Ibsen. But I have never really understood why Ibsen exerts so powerful a hold on my imagination. So I am planning, over the course of this year, to read Ibsen’s major works – by which I mean Brand and Peer Gynt, and the twelve prose plays beginning with The Pillars of Society and ending with When We Dead Awaken – and to write here some unstructured personal musings. (I’ll give Emperor and Galilean a miss: it may well be a major work, but if I try to write about something I really don’t understand, I’m afraid I’ll end up just making an arse of myself.)

As ever, these posts will not be analyses, and certainly not “reviews”, but merely some reflections on what these works mean to me. I shall, in short, be talking to myself. But I’ll be talking out loud, so do please drop in to listen, if you feel like it; and, as ever, feel free to add your own thoughts, and let me know if you disagree. It’ll all help me sort out my own thoughts on this most fascinating of writers.