Thursday, February 6, 2014

Some Ibsen blasphemies - I’ll sit and sing you ballad and song

Brand (1866) is a long play in verse about a Norwegian pastor who seeks martyrdom and finds it.  “Mere lifelong sacrifice / itself may not suffice” (Act II) describes the action well.  Pastor Brand begins up in the mountains, descends to the coast, and again ascends the mountain when the play ends.

Peer Gynt (1867) is a long play in verse about a Norwegian folk hero who seeks himself.  “I gave up love and power and glory / Since being myself was more necessary” (V.viii.) describes the theme if not the action of the play.  The action is wild.  Peer Gynt also begins his play up in the mountains where he has ridden a giant reindeer buck off a cliff, or at least claimed he did – the first line of the play is “Peer, you’re lying!” – before descending to the coast and the desert and then returning to Norway and the mountains as the play ends.

There are parallels between the plays, is what I am saying, even though the plays and characters in many ways stand in opposition.  Brand has too much self, is too sure of himself, while Peer Gynt has almost no self, adopting roles as they comes along – hero, troll, slave trader, emperor – whatever is handy.

The mothers of both Brand and Peer Gynt die in the third act of their respective plays.  Brand refuses to see his mother or comfort her in any way because she refuses to sacrifice her miserly fortune, even on her deathbed.

BRAND:  I don’t make different laws,
one for my own hearth, the other
for strangers.  My mother knows
that ‘all or nothing’
is absolute.  One piece
struck from the Golden Calf
is an idol, no less
than the beast itself. 

Ibsen has a dramatic problem with this scene, so it requires a series of messengers, one after the other, to deliver Brand news about his mother, but in these plays Ibsen had liberated himself from dramatic problems.  Peer Gynt has it better.  Here is how the godless, outlawed anti-hero treats his dying mother:

PEER GYNT:  Pah! Let me tuck in the coverlet,
Like so.  If the night seems long,
We’ll shorten it.  There; I’ll sit
And sing you ballad and song.
AASE:  No, my Bible!  I’ll read the Apostle.
My thoughts are weighing me down.
PEER GYNT:  In Soria-Moria Castle
There’s a feast for the king and queen.
Lie back on the silken cushion;
We’ll drive there over the snow.
AASE:  But – I have an invitation?
PEER GYNT:  Why, of course!  Both of us do!  (

At this point Peer Gynt pretends to drive a carriage.  The mother is dying, but her son explains away her fears:

AASE:  Dear heart, what is it, that ringing--?
PEER GYNT:  The silver sleighbells you heard!

Saint Peter awaits at the castle gate.  There are cakes with wine and coffee at the party.  Peer Gynt even concocts a little drama where Saint Peter keeps his mother outside, but God himself intervenes to let her in.

PEER GYNT:  (in a deep voice)
“An end to this fuss and bother –
Mother Aase can come in free!”
                         (Laughs aloud and turns to AASE.)
Isn’t that how I said it would break?
Now they’re singing a different tune!

And at this point the mother dies, led personally to heaven by her sacrilegious, blaspheming son.

(Closes her eyes and bends over her.)
Here’s thanks for all of your days,
For the blows and kisses I had –
But give back some little praise –
(Presses his cheek to her mouth.)
There – that was thanks for the ride.

Peer Gynt is in places so crazy, with its invisible trolls and singing statues and talking threadballs that Ibsen risks losing the humanity of his characters, but not in this fine scene.


  1. Invisible trolls, that's good, you could use that as a bridge to a Moomintroll post!

    Anyway, why plays in verse? Was that the thing to do in in mid-19th century Norway? Was that a cultural thing? Oh, but I think it's lovely that one of the precursors of realistic theater used to write verse plays about trolls.

  2. I'm trying to write more about all this, but it is so slow.

    I think I know the answer to your question, though. 1. Ibsen began with the idea of writing an epic, so he began with verse. 2. When he switched back to a play, staying in verse kept him in the tradition of Schiller and Goethe, still a living dramatic tradition for Ibsen. Peer Gynt would not exist without Faust.

  3. I was also wondering about the verse. I keep forgetting that Ibsen was working so long ago. We saw A Doll's House last year and--aside from the speechiness of the final act--it didn't seem dated. It was a new translation; I forget who by.

  4. All right, that thing is finally up. I filled it with passages that it is hard to believe were written by the author of A Doll's House and The Wild Duck.

    I am perhaps overly obsessed with dates, but this is a case where it is helpful to know that Peer Gynt was published only 35 years after Faust, Part II. They are that close. It is like a new play that is modeled after Buried Child.

    I had to look that up. Was there a great play from 1979? Was there ever!

  5. No, the Sam Shepard. Ah, Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth was 1979. I've not read that. Is it all right? If I used emoticons, I would put one here.

  6. No, it's fluff with sight gags to bookmark very abbreviated Shakespeare tragedies. Maybe it plays well live; I've never seen it. Or them, I guess. I don't know what Sam Shepard was 1979..."Buried Child?" I don't know it at all.

  7. Why wouldn't Ibsen write a verse play? Serious verse drama continued to be popular into the early 20th century (Rostand and d'Annunzio, for example), and Archibald Macleish and T.S. Eliot wrote them through the 1950s. And these were all ambitious stage works, not burlesques or closet drama.

    1. D'Annunzio wrote verse plays? That's very interesting. In Eliot's case, which is the only one I have familiarity with, well, it's a play set in the past, it just makes some sense, or at least the historical distance makes it more acceptable. But considering the steep turn to realism in the 20th century, it would sound weird for a play set in modern times to be in verse.

    2. Actually, Eliot wrote other verse plays set in the present: "The Cocktail Party," "Family Reunion," "The Confidential Clerk." Macleish won a Pulitzer in 1959 for "J. B.," also set in modern times. I don't know how they would play today.

      There was a turn to realism in the 20th century, but also to expressionism and stylization. I suppose verse was one technique for those other urges.

  8. Buried Child is so good. Shepard had a good run.

    I took the question about verse to mean something like "Was Ibsen self-consciously reviving an old form," which is how I take Eliot's play. In Ibsen's case the answer is no.

    The wonderful truth about Ibsen is that he is at the root of both the paths Doug mentions, which is a good trick.

  9. '"Was Ibsen self-consciously reviving an old form," which is how I take Eliot's play. In Ibsen's case the answer is no.'

    Nor was it in Eliot's. People carried on writing verse plays into the twentieth century- Tennyson and Swinburne for example. John Drinkwater's and Lawrence Housman's plays were commercial- if not critical- successes. Parts of Tom Stoppard's Travesties are in verse- limericks, so I'm not sure if that counts.

  10. I can tell you exactly where I got this idea about Eliot, that his verse dramas revive a dead tradition. It is from T. S. Eliot, specifically "The Possibility of a Poetic Drama," where he says among other things that Shelley's Cenci was self-consciously reviving an old form.

    I am not saying Eliot is right, I am am just saying that is where I am coming from. Existence is not evidence for this argument.