Posts Tagged ‘Peer Gynt’

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.


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:

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

‘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:

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

Dost thou think so, spirit?

Mine would, sir, were I human.

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