Posts Tagged ‘Ibsen’

“Peer Gynt” by Henrik Ibsen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Das Ewig-Weibliche
Zieht uns hinan.

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

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

Nothing is settled.

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

But let us not anticipate…

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“Brand” by Henrik Ibsen

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

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

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

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

Brand’s vision of God is altogether more terrible:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

While Michael Meyer (Methuen) gives us:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

A note on the translation:

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

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

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

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

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

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.

“A Month in the Country” by Ivan Turgenev

I’ve long had a theory – which will, I am sure, be quite exploded in the comments section of this post by people better read than myself – that while the novel was establishing itself in the nineteenth century as perhaps the most important literary form of the age, drama lagged significantly behind. While prose drama was seen primarily as suitable for comedy ( Sheridan, Gogol, the prose plays of Molière, etc.), tragic works were still seen to require a dignity and nobility that only verse could provide. Further, drama, unlike prose fiction, had either to be tragic or comic: there was nothing between Racine on the one hand, and Molière on the other. And while the comic could (and indeed did) accommodate figures from all walks of life, the tragic had to deal with kings and queens, nobles and bishops, princes and princesses; and, with people now reading about Emma Woodhouse or Emma Bovary, kings and queens and nobles and bishops delivering high-flown blank verse were, perhaps, starting to seem a bit old hat. So, while the novel flowered as a literary form (Austen, Stendhal, Balzac, Dickens, Hawthorne, Melville, and so on), drama, in contrast, remained relatively static, and, indeed, stultified, until some time in the late nineteenth century when Ibsen and Chekhov (and I guess I should add Strindberg, although, personally, I have never really understood his work) rescued the form by raising it to the heights that the novel, at its best, had already attained.

I suppose it would be easy enough to find exceptions to this (Büchner, for instance, although his remarkable plays weren’t know about till much later); but, whatever the reason, as a vehicle of literary expression, the drama did indeed, I think, lag behind the novel for much of the nineteenth century. But one very notable exception is a play Ivan Turgenev wrote in 1850, A Month in the Country.

At this stage in his career, Turgenev had written some wonderful short stories and sketches, but had not yet embarked on the novels on which his fame now primarily rests. A Month in the Country is not too often performed these days (at least, I cannot remember a single performance of it in London in the last few decades), but, reading it, it seems a remarkably assured work, and leaves one wondering what Turgenev might have gone on to achieve in the field of drama had he not decided to turn instead to the novel. Not that A Month in the Country is not a fine work in itself. But it also seems, in the context especially of the times, a sort of harbinger, indicating directions of development in the drama that were only really taken up by Chekhov some fifty years afterwards.

The scene should be familiar to anyone who knows Chekhov’s plays: a country estate populated by its owners (landed gentry naturally), and various hangers on (wards, ageing parents, “companions” – i.e. those who would have been destitute were it not for the landowners’ charity); tutors and governors, maids and servants; and the occasional country doctor or neighbouring landowner stopping off. It is, in short, an ensemble piece, as are all of Chekhov’s dramas. And the mode is neither comic (although there are a few jokes in it), nor explicitly tragic: it is pitched – once again, as Chekhov’s plays are – between the two extreme poles, depicting with the utmost seriousness and sensitivity the unfulfilled longings and the pains of disillusion of its principal characters, while yet placing them in a wider context in which we may see such things as, perhaps, less than cataclysmic. The register, as in Turgenev’s novels, is of a gentle sadness.

At the centre of this group is Natalya Petrovna, the lady of the house. Although she is married, she is loved by Rakitin, described in the list of characters as a “friend of the family”. The love is not returned: Natalya Petrovna is not an adulterous wife. Nonetheless, and despite knowing what Rakitin feels for her, she is on friendly terms with him, and often confides in him. This scenario would recur in Turgenev’s later novel, Smoke, with Irina and Potugin; and, as was well-known even at the time, Turgenev himself was in just such a position, in love with the famed opera singer Pauline Viardot, and hanging around hopelessly with the Viardot household. It does seem a somewhat humiliating situation to be in, and it seems surprising that Turgenev, knowing this to be his own situation, and knowing, further, that this situation was no secret, should so draw attention to it by depicting it in his own work.

In Smoke, the husband had been a pretty nondescript character. Here, the husband is off-stage for most of the play, but when he does emerge in the final acts, the way Turgenev presents his is arresting: he knows full well how his friend Rakitin feels about his wife, but has such confidence both in his wife and in his friend, he firmly believes that neither would betray him. This is quite remarkable, especially in a drama, in which an Othello-like jealousy would have created a far greater theatrical impact; and that Turgenev was prepared to forgo such a immediate theatrical impact for the sake of greater subtlety of characterisation is an indication of how seriously he took the artistic potential of what he must have known was a new kind of drama – neither broadly comic, nor yet aiming for the intensity of high tragedy.

But arresting though this situation is, Turgenev keeps it mainly in the background till the final two acts. Of greater impact in the earlier part of the play is the passion Natalya Petrovna feels for her son’s tutor, a young man barely out of childhood himself, and who is utterly taken aback when he discovers the intensity of the passion he has unwittingly unleashed. And here, although Turgenev is not aiming to write high tragedy, he is surely harking back to Racine’s Phèdre, or even to Euripides’ Hippolytus. Racine’s focus had been the older woman, and Euripides’ the younger man, but since Turgenev’s play is an ensemble piece, he can focus equally on both. The young tutor, Belyaev, finds himself having to grow up quickly, and come to some kind of understanding of the endless complexities of adult human emotions; and Natalya Petrovna, having regarded lightly Rakitin’s passion for herself, has now to understand, and, if she can, come to terms with her own unfulfilled passion, and its destructive power. And this proud lady has to cope also with the humiliation of becoming a rival to her own teenage ward.

One may, of course, read this as Turgenev “getting his own back” on Pauline Viardot, but that would seem to me a shallow reading. Quite apart from the inadvisability of interpreting a work based on what we know of the author’s own life, advancing such an interpretation is to overlook the gentle compassion with which Natalya Petrovna is depicted. If there is any sense of triumph on the author’s part, I, for one, could not detect it. The theme here is unfulfilled desire, and, however humilating it may be, either in Rakitin or in Natalya Petrovna, or, for that matter, in the teenage ward Vera, Turgenev’s treatment of this theme evinces a gentle sadness. There is no catharsis at the end. Turgenev was not writing high tragedy: people here do not die of unhappiness, but have to go on living, bearing their burdens as best they can.

The play is not, perhaps, flawless. Ibsen had once said of one of Tolstoy’s plays that there were “too many conversations and not enough scenes”: sadly, he did not go on to explain what he regarded as the distinction between the two, but we may, perhaps, guess at it: in a “conversation”, only what is explicitly said is important, whereas in a “scene”, what is said is invested with various overtones and resonances in such a way as to communicate more than what is explicitly said. That, at least, is my understanding. And here, too, I think Ibsen might have made the same criticism as he had made of Tolstoy’s plays – “too many conversations, not enough scenes”. But Ibsen himself had worked for decades to master the art of creating scenes rather than mere conversations; and while it is true that much of this play consists merely of conversations (at least by the definition I have proposed above), these conversations are never less than interesting, and are often compelling; and the “scenes”, when they come, are magnificent.

There are cases, admittedly, when characters express their thoughts through long monologues. I suppose that in a modern production, realism can be dispensed with altogether at such points, and stage time frozen as the character steps up to the footlights to deliver what we would now describe as “stream of consciousness”. Or better still, such monologues may be cut altogether: audiences are more used now to picking up subtleties of internal thought purely from what the characters say on stage.

And little passages such as this may also be cut:

ISLAEV: I’m not used to altercations of this sort. I hope they won’t often be repeated. I’ve a strong constitution, God knows, but I can’t bear this.

To our modern ears, this sounds very much like a novelist writing a play. We can easily imagine a passage such as this in a novel – for instance:

Physically, Islaev had a strong constitution, but he had been throughout his life so free of all worry, and so unused to conflict, that confrontations of all kinds upset his natural equilibrium.

But in a play, such lines seem out of place. We are asked to believe that Islaev, in a state of mental perturbation, could nonetheless analyse himself accurately, and articulate clearly the fruits of his analysis for the audience’s benefit. But these were early days for realistic drama: one can easily find such passages also in early Ibsen or in early Chekhov.

A Month in the Country was Turgenev’s last play: he had written a few earlier – mainly in a comic, Gogolian mode – but none of them are anywhere near the class of this. After this, he turned to the novel. But it’s hard not to speculate how the drama might have developed had he decided otherwise. A Month in the Country very clearly points forward to Chekhov, but even when seen purely in its own light, it seems to me a remarkable achievement.

(The translation I read and quoted from above is by Stephen Mulrine, published by Oberon Books)

Future reading plans: Wagner, Ibsen, “The Mahabharata”, and other matters

I am not at all sure why I make plans for reading. I never stick to them anyway. Something always pops along that takes my fancy, and, like the best laid schemes of mice and men, all my calculations gang aft agley. Which reminds me: I have never actually bothered looking up what “aft agley” literally means. But whatever it means, that’s where my best-laid schemes invariably gang.

I realise also that the time for making plans is at the start of a new year, but I have always thought that a bad custom, as, quite apart from anything else, the gentle inebriation that is so salient a feature of the festive season is hardly conducive to sensible planning: whatever plans are made at such a time are likely to gang very much aft agley much more quickly than plans made in a more sober frame of mind.

In any case, some reading plans do need to be made now. I have just finished La Regenta by Leopoldo Alas (of which more in a later post) – a deeply impressive novel, but, at seven hundred and more pages of sight-destroyingly small print, it took me over three months to read. (I never was a particularly fast reader, and I seem to be slowing up in my old age.) Now that it is finished, I can’t help but feel a sense of freedom. This is not to disparage Alas’ novel, which really is magnificent, but, rather like the ageing roué whose eyes wander even while engaged in a fulfilling monogamous relationship, I couldn’t help looking longingly at all those unread titles, both on my bookshelf and in bookshops, as well as at various old flames whose charms I find myself keen to revisit.

Not that the relationship with La Regenta had been strictly monogamous: there were, as ever, clandestine assignations with various poems and short stories, and, between the two parts of the Alas’ novel, a serious fling with Tony Harrison’s version of Aeschylus’ Oresteia (of which, too, there will be more in a later post). And now that I have parted company with La Regenta, I am currently engrossed in Roger Scruton’s new book on Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which, despite its somewhat cheesy title (The Ring of Truth – whose bright idea was that?), is a fascinating read. I am not sure yet whether I should write a post on this: the themes of the Ring Cycle, and Scruton’s interpretations of them, though lucidly explicated, are so complex, and lead to so many areas of thought that are to me relatively new, that I don’t know I could express very much in a post beyond merely a partial understanding. But perhaps it’s worth recording even my puzzlement: sometimes, the very act of posing questions to which I do not know the answers can lead to a better understanding.

One may certainly argue that, like any major work of art, the Ring Cycle, at least to an extent, is intended to puzzle: life, after all, is puzzling, and any work of art that seeks to address life seriously has to convey something of its profound mysteries. One understands such works not by plucking out the heart of their mysteries – even if such a thing were to be possible – but, rather, by coming to some sort of understanding of, and a settlement with, the nature of the mysteries depicted. As I read about the profound mysteries addressed by Wagner, I cannot help but make connections. The connections with The Oresteia are obvious: I have long been aware of (though I haven’t yet read) Michael Ewans’ thesis (referred to in Scruton’s book) that the Ring Cycle is a sort of inverted Oresteia – that where The Oresteia consists of three tragic dramas followed by a satyr play (now lost), the Ring Cycle consists of a satyr play followed by three tragic dramas; and where Aeschylus depicts the emergence of civic society and the concept of law from the primeval murk of our unreasoning instincts, Wagner depicts the very fabric of law and of civic society collapsing under the weight of its internal contradictions. (It’s all very complex, and perhaps I should allow these ideas to settle in my mind for a while before exhibiting my ignorance and lack of understanding for all to see on this blog.) And there are two other connections as well that Scruton doesn’t mention, but which, since my own mind is already saturated with certain things, I could not help making. One was with the novels of Dostoyevsky; the other, with the plays of Ibsen.

Now, Dostoyevsky I have waffled about a few times on this blog, but, in all the six and more years this blog has been going, I have rarely touched on Ibsen. I am not sure why, since Ibsen is within the foremost circle of writers whom I most value. Not his early plays, which are conventional and rather stiff and boring historic dramas, and which would be utterly forgotten now had he not gone on to write greater stuff; but, say, from The Pretenders onwards. The Pretenders is the last and by far the best of those early plays, and, while I don’t think it matches some other historic dramas such as, say, Georg Büchner’s Danton’s Death, it is, nonetheless, a play not unworthy of a great dramatist. But then, something strange happened. Ibsen, freed by a government grant from hack-work in the theatre, wrote two masterpieces – Brand, and Peer Gynt. Heaven only knows where these plays came from: nothing he had written earlier would have led one to believe that he was capable of this. These two plays were written to be read rather than performed – they are both way too long for a single evening in the theatre, and need to be cut for performance – but Ibsen seemed to have the theatre in his blood: even when not writing specifically for the stage, he couldn’t help but write works that were thrillingly theatrical. Despite some notable later attempts to revive verse drama (by Yeats and Eliot, for instance), these were the last great verse dramas. Things were changing, and Ibsen was at the forefront of these changes. But if these plays do indeed mark the end of verse drama (and I realise that some may disagree with my contention), then the genre died with a bang rather than a whimper: I personally do not think there has been drama so powerful since Shakespeare.

Then, curiously, Ibsen devoted several years of his life writing a very exotic two-part drama Emperor and Galilean, about the Byzantine emperor Julian the Apostate. Ibsen himself felt – at least at the time – that this was his most important work, and I have never been able to figure out whether this indeed is a key work in his oeuvre, or whether it is a mistake, an aberration – a wrong turning that he afterwards rectified. I really ned to revisit these plays, and read them carefully: they seem such an anomaly in the context of his other work – but it could be that I have not yet come to an adequate understanding of them.

But other things were brewing in Ibsen’s mind. And while these other things were brewing, Ibsen kept the pot boiling with a comparatively light work – the comedy The League of Youth. But then followed those twelve great prose dramas, from The Pillars of Society to When We Dead Awaken, that Brian Johnstone – not entirely convincingly, to my mind – describes as “The Ibsen Cycle”. Ibsen himself, towards the end of his life, referred to these plays as a cycle, but it seems to me highly unlikely that they were initially conceived as such, and, other than these works being linked by similar themes, I cannot really detect much of a unity. But the thematic unities across these plays are themselves of interest, and, cycle or not, reading them in chronological order – and keeping in mind Brand and Peer Gynt, which are in many ways harbingers of these late plays (although they are much more than that also) – should, I think, be rewarding. For if we do regard these twelve plays as a single unified cycle (and I am prepared to be convinced that they are), then they may well challenge Wagner’s Ring Cycle as the most insanely ambitious artistic achievement of the nineteenth century.

So that is what I intend to do: over the course of next year, I shall read, in various translations, all the plays of Ibsen in chronological order, starting with The Pretenders, and hopefully, in the process, come to a better understanding of Ibsen’s developing artistic vision. And, of course, record my thoughts here for anyone who cares to read them. If, after all, this blog is primarily about those things that are dear to me, it seems crazy giving such short shrift to Ibsen.

But Ibsen is for next year. I have another scheme that I most certainly hope won’t gang aft agley, and which should keep me busy between now and the end of the year. I want to read The Mahabharata.

I don’t think there has ever been a time within the reaches of my memory when I haven’t been at least aware of the stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata: growing up as I did in an Indian Hindu family, these are things that enter the bloodstream at a very early age. I remember the comic strip books I had retelling some of the stories from these two national epics: I was introduced them at so early an age that I did not even bat an eye when Draupadi simultaneously married five brothers. But these stories did not enter the bloodstream fully: when I was five years of age, I left India and came to Britain, and exchanged the stories from The Ramayana and The Mahabharata with Greek myths, Arthurian legends, Bible stories. Inevitably, a residue from early childhood remains, but I now want to come to a better understanding of all this. A few years ago, I read Ashia Sattar’s abridged translation of TheRamayana, and was surprised by the extent to which Valmiki’s original version deviated from the stories I had taken in. I suspect it will be much the same with The Mahabharata.

Not that I am going to read the whole thing. Unlike The Iliad or The Odyssey, The Mahabharata is not a unified work: Sanskrit scholar Wendy Doniger refers to it as a sort of Wikipedia of the ancient world, with various voices adding to it over time. What we have now is, effectively, a series of accretions overlaying whatever may originally have been the core, and, as is to be expected, not all the accretions are equally of interest – at least, not to a casual reader such as myself. Under the circumstances, abridged editions in which the wheat is sorted from the chaff by expert hands are to be welcomed rather than regretted. So, to this end, I have got myself the single volume edition in Penguin Classics, translated by John Smith (an appropriate name for the translator of a work created by anonymous writers); a much-acclaimed verse retelling by Carole Satyamurthi, published by Norton (if what Carole Satyamurthi has done for The Mahabharata is in any way comparable to what Christopher Logue did for The Iliad, it would certainly be worth pursuing); and, finally, W. J. Johnson’s translation of the eleventh book of The Mahabharata, published by Oxford University Press – one of the shortest, but, I gather, among the most significant books of the massive epic. I doubt I’ll ever be a scholar of The Mahabharata, but reading this books will, at least, acquaint me with one of the major works of world literature – one that should be, but isn’t quite, in my bloodstream.

But before I leap into all that, I may as well continue my Turgenev project, and not let that gang aft agley with all the other schemes. After my encounter with the massive La Regenta, a few novellas may not, perhaps, go amiss. First Love I read many years ago, and don’t remember very well; and Spring Torrents and King Lear of the Steppes I don’t know at all. So, the plan is as follows: once I’ve finished reading about the Ring Cycle, I’ll move on to the three Turgenev novellas, and then tackle The Mahabharata. And if that takes me to the end of this year, I can embark at the start of next year on my Ibsen project.

And, anyone who has stayed with my ramblings so far may be pleased to know, I shall record my thoughts here on this blog, both the worthy and the unworthy, the perspicacious and the downright idiotic. But before I do all that, I had perhaps best find out what “gang aft agley” actually means.

When Henrik nearly met Fyodor

According to Michael Meyer’s biography of Ibsen, when Ibsen was staying in Dresden in 1870, a near neighbour of his was Dostoyevsky. It is unlikely that Dostoyevsky would have heard of Ibsen at that time, even though Ibsen had already written the two great verse dramas Brand and Peer Gynt. Ibsen would, most likely, have heard of Dostoyevsky, who had, by 1870, written Crime and Punishment and The Idiot, but he would not have known that Dostoyevsky was at the time in Dresden; and even if he had known, he would have had no particular reason to seek him out. In 1870, Ibsen would still have been working on that vast two-part historic play Emperor and Galilean, which he, if not posterity, thought his most important work; and soon afterwards, he would start on that series of twelve prose plays beginning with The Pillars of Society, and ending in 1899 with the visionary When We Dead Awaken. Dostoyevsky was working at the same time on Demons.

According to Meyer, the two both enjoyed long walks in the Royal Gardens, and they both frequented the cafés in Brühl’s Terrace. It would have been surprising indeed if they had never at least passed each other. But, attractive though the idea might be, it would have been even more unlikely for them to have met and conversed.

One could, of course, easily imagine that they did. That, after exchanging initial civilities, they had engaged in talk on literature, exchanged ideas, spoke about God and the Universe and Man’s Immortal Soul, and spurred each other on, each casting new light on all the great thoughts and ideas that were whirling so tumultously inside the other’s head. One could, without too great an effort, make of this possibility an engaging play for radio.

What intrigues me even more, however, is the possibility that they had sat near each other in some café, without the first idea who the other was, and that the only words exchanged were when Henrik had asked Fyodor to pass the salt. And that after the salt was passed, they had both returned to their respective thoughts, barely aware of the other’s presence.

Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Of the three late plays – Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest – it’s The Tempest that I find the most difficult: it has seemed to me – and seems to me still, even after having seen this fine production – almost entirely lacking in dramatic tension. Prospero the magician appears, through his faithful servant Ariel, to be in perfect control: neither Caliban’s threat on his life, or Sebastian’s and Antonio’s threat on Alonso’s, generates any tension at all: the audience is assured that these attempts are doomed to failure. And by the end of Act Three, what little dramatic tension there was dissipates as Alonso acknowledges his guilt. As for the strand with Ferdinand and Miranda, we know that Prospero is but testing Ferdinand, and everything Ferdinand says and does assures us that this is a test that he will pass with ease. So where is the tension?

I had not, till this production, seen this play on stage, and I had thought, or hoped, that a stage production will reveal a drama that my readings had missed: but no – there was little tension in performance either. But I have learnt, over many years’ experience with Shakespeare, not to be too hasty in criticising: that only leads to a presumption that embarrasses me when I read my posts over again a few years afterwards. Shakespeare knew what he was doing, and if he has drained this play of dramatic tension, it is for me not to criticise the play on that score, but to try to understand why he did so. For, despite the lack of dramatic tension, the play held my attention throughout the performance: there must have been something else in the work that held my attention so powerfully – though what that something else is, I am even now not entirely sure.

And yet, this most undramatic of plays starts with the most dramatic of scenes: we are plunged into the heart of things right away, with a fearful tempest at sea, and with the mariners and the passengers fearing imminent death. At the end of this scene, the ship appears to sink, and then, as we move to an island near the shipwreck, an entirely different music comes to the fore. It is a strange and solemn music, mysterious, elusive, and very beautiful, but also curiously static. Even as late as The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare had given us verse of the utmost dramatic power that had moved the play forward in surges of untrammelled passion, but we seem here to be in a rather different world: we seem almost to be at the bottom of the sea itself, with the drowned mariners and their passengers. And maybe that’s where we are: maybe what we experience here is some vague dream world between life and death – a communal fantasy experienced at the very moment of death itself. There’s something similar, I think, in the final act of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt: at the start of this act, we see Peer in a shipwreck. A fellow passenger tells him not to worry, as the protagonist of a play is never killed off at the start of the final act, but Peer does, I think, die here, and what we see in the rest of the act is Peer’s life unreeling at the point of death in a grotesquely transfigured form; and it is in this unreeling that Peer has to try to find some semblance of meaning, of significance, in the life that he has led. This final act of Peer Gynt is often seen as Ibsen anticipating much later movements in theatre, but I can’t help wondering whether, in The Tempest, Shakespeare had anticipated Ibsen.

It may be objected, of course, that by the end of The Tempest, no character is actually dead: on the contrary – the ship is magically rigged and ready to sail back to Naples, to the reality of the physical world. If what we had witnessed in the course of the play is indeed the unravelling of minds at the point of death, it is not death but to a renewed life that the characters return to. But the effect of the ending is very much to suggest a return to the real world, of a resurfacing; and if we are returning to reality, and resurfacing back to the light of common day, we have to ask ourselves which regions we are returning from, and from which uncharted depth of our unfathomable minds we are resurfacing. We cannot begin to conceive of a Naples or a Milan being anything like the magic island of Prospero: Naples and Milan are real – and Prospero’s magic island isn’t, quite. Shakespeare had done this kind of thing before – in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where, once again, the characters seem to enter an enchanted dream world that isn’t quite the world of reality, and where mortal sensibilities are translated, much as Bottom is, into some region where, accustomed as we are to the everyday world of reality, there is no foothold for us to hold on to. But here, the tone is different: the thoughts are not on the absurdities and the vagaries of human love, but on other things – on the nature of Man, on nature and on nurture, on transgression and on reconciliation, and, indeed, on death itself. In one of the most famous passages in the entire canon, death is likened to a sleep (“our little life is rounded with a sleep”), and if we extend that metaphor, the magic dream-world of this play, suspended between sleep and wake, can be seen as suspended between life and death also. If there is no dramatic tension here, no dramatic movement, it is because this is not what Shakespeare is interested in: what he is interested in, however, though easy to be affected by (especially when performed as wonderfully as it is here), is less easy to articulate. Perhaps Shakespeare’s miraculous poetry is the only way there is to articulate it.

The Tempest has been seized on by post-colonial schools of criticism, which – to summarise – see Prospero as a tyrannical colonialist, and Caliban as the downtrodden and exploited native; but I am unconvinced that this is an adequate way of looking at the play. For one thing, the island is no more Caliban’s than it is Prospero’s: Caliban says “this island is mine” because he had inherited it from his mother, the witch Sycorax; but Sycorax was no more of the island than Prospero is. The island had been uninhabited, except for the spirit Ariel, whom Sycorax had imprisoned in a tree, and whom Prospero had rescued (although he threatens in one of his frequent fits of rage to imprison Ariel again). And Caliban himself is a deeply enigmatic figure. At one level, he is earthy and brutish, and proposes killing Prospero by driving a nail through his head while he is sleeping; and he credulously imagines the drunken Trinculo and Stephano to be gods, and is happy to abase himself before them. But he is also given lines of quite unearthly beauty:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

Such realms of poetic imagination are worlds removed from the drunken baseness of Trinculo and Stephano: only a character of fine sensibility could speak lines such as these. And at the end, Caliban vows to “be wise hereafter, and seek for grace”. It is hard assembling together these fragmentary aspects of Caliban into one coherent whole, but I get the impression of an unrefined creature who nonetheless has the potential to rise to a higher state of being. “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine,” says Prospero, allowing the possibility that Caliban is an aspect of Prospero’s own mind, much, perhaps, as Ariel is – that these two are his slaves not merely in literal terms, but also metaphorically, representing as they do different aspects of his psyche. But of course, in a work such as this, they may be seen simultaneously as both literal and as metaphorical.

It is, perhaps, not Caliban, but those denizens of the civilised world, Trinculo and Stephano, who are so base that nurture can have no effect on their natures. Unlike Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano cannot even conceive of “grace”, let alone seek for it. And neither is Caliban the true monster of the play: the true monsters are Sebastian and Antonio, who remain to the end unrepentant and unreconciled. If, in these three late plays, Shakespeare had looked beyond the ruptures of tragedy, and had tried to explore the possibility of reconciliation, he had painted very different pictures. In Cymbeline, the reconciliation seems complete, with repentance and atonement one on side, and unreserved forgiveness and love on the other; in The Winter’s Tale, matters are a bit more complicated: the repentence and atonement are sincere, and the forgiveness loving, but the events of the past continue to cast their shadows upon the present, and what rejoicing there is must inevitably be subdued: the sorrows and evils of our lives cannot be wiped clean even by the Resurrection itself. In The Tempest, Shakespeare seems to go one step further: now, he seems to show the impossibility of reconciliation. Prospero decides not to punish, but that is hardly the same as forgiveness. For what kind of forgiveness is this?

For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother
Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive
Thy rankest fault

Whatever Prospero may say, this is no forgiveness. Antonio and Sebastian remain silent: there is no repentance there either. The evil remains, ready to burst out again. Even Miranda’s famous lines about the beauty of mankind are immediately undercut by her father’s more experienced voice:

MIRANDA
O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!

PROSPERO
‘Tis new to thee.

And what of Prospero himself? I generally try to resist interpretations that are based on the author’s biography; the suggestion that Prospero is Shakespeare’s self-portrait, and that the passage in which he abjures his art is effectively Shakespeare’s retirement speech, may or may not be true, but either way, they cast no light on the play itself. Interpretations of Prospero may, of course, vary, from the good and kindly main driven to rage by the wrongs done upon him but who finally triumphs over his vindictive side, to a man cruel and bitter and almost psychotic in his hatred, but who nonetheless manages to rein himself in for the greater good. Tim McMullan’s fine performance wisely charts a course somewhere between these two extremes, neither underplaying his frequent fits of rage, nor depicting a man beyond the reach of human pity. The turning point seems to me to come when Ariel, but a spirit, feels compassion for the human condition:

ARIEL
Your charm so strongly works ’em
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.

PROSPERO
Dost thou think so, spirit?

ARIEL
Mine would, sir, were I human.

PROSPERO
And mine shall.
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply,
Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?

Prospero seems at this point to be shamed into compassion, though there are bounds even on this: to call Antonio “brother” still infects his tongue. Even in a world as magical as this, complete reconciliation is not possible: the ruptures of tragedy are too great ever to be healed. Such a view does not necessarily negate the visions of reconciliation we had seen in Cymbeline and in The Winter’s Tale: it merely gives as a different perspective.

This magical play works particularly well in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse: lit by candle-light only, there was little scope for fancy lighting techniques or for special effects, but with Dominic Dromgoole’s sure-footed direction, it didn’t need either: although there must be an element of the spectacular – as indicated in the stage directions – it is that miraculous verse that conveys so much of the magic of this play. At the end, they all sail back to the now united kingdom of Naples and Milan, with the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand carrying a promise of a better future. But by the same token, the unrepentant presence of Antonio and of Sebastian also threatens further outbreaks of evil. Such is our human condition, that even a spirit such as Ariel may feel compassion for, and to which, ultimately, there can be no reconcilement. If this play is indeed Shakespeare’s last word, then I am afraid I can see in it at best a guarded optimism, and at worst, a profound pessimism. But no mystical vision: for all the magic of Prospero’s island, Shakespeare’s interest remained very much of this world, and of human affairs.

See here for my post on Cymbeline at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

See here for my post on The Winter’s Tale at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse