Brand is a single-minded and intense play about a monomaniac proving himself right, whatever the cost. Of course he is not actually right, which is irony. Or perhaps he is partly right, which is ambiguity. Regardless, Ibsen marches his fanatic down one mountain and up the other, trimming everything away until nothing is left.
In Peer Gynt, Ibsen sprawls. The first act is almost deceptive. It stays in the village, mostly at a wedding part, until Peer Gynt runs off with the bride. Outlawed and wandering the mountains, in Act II he has some strange encounters with the Troll King and his court, and with the mysterious invisible Great Boyg, the subject of much interpretation:
PEER GYNT: Who are you?
THE VOICE: Myself.
PEER GYNT: That stupid answer
You can keep; it makes nothing clear. (II.vii.)
In Act III, Peer Gynt returns to the natural world, down from the mountain, to say farewell to his dying mother in that wonderful scene I looked at yesterday. Then he is off “[t]o the sea… and farther still” (III.iv.).
In the last two long acts, Ibsen cuts loose. The action moves to a symbolic plain. Peer Gynt becomes a slave trader and plantation owner and arms dealer (almost). He spends a scene in a tree fighting off a pack of monkeys:
PEER GYNT: The beast!
The whole load on top of me! Ugh, horrible - !
Or could it be food? It tastes – equivocal;
But then, it’s habit that forms our taste. (IV.iv.)
Try to imagine this philosophical scatology in a English play from 1867. I wonder how this scene is staged. Monkey puppets, maybe.
Peer Gynt fantasizes about recovering the desert by flooding it. He has an affair with a houri. He engages in archaeological research, discovering the statue of Memnon that sings at sunrise.
PEER GYNT: (Writes in his notebook.)
“The statue sang. Hear definite tones,
But can’t quite figure what it all means,
A hallucination, obviously.
Nothing else worthy of note today.”
The statue of Memnon shows up in one of the Ubu plays, where it is thrown in the toilet. The statue reminds Peer Gynt of the King of the Trolls, while the Sphinx, in the next scene is more like the Great Boyg, a puzzle since the Boyg was invisible. In the Oedipus story, the Sphinx asks a riddle, but here it is Peer Gynt who asks the sphinx questions.
PEER GYNT: Hi, Boyg, who are you?
A VOICE (behind the Sphinx)
Ach, Sphinx, wer bist du?
PEER GYNT: What? An echo in German? How odd!
THE VOICE: Wer bist du?
PEER GYNT: The accent, it’s very good!
This observation is new, and mine.
(Writes in his notebook.)
“Echo speaks German, Dialect – Berlin.”
(BEGRIFFENFELDT comes out from behind the Sphinx.)
BEGRIFFENFELDT: A man!
PEER GYNT: So he’s the explanation.
“Later came to another conclusion.” (IV.xii.)
Mythologists and Sophocleans will likely note that the answer to that other Sphinx’s riddle was “A man.” The next and final scene in the act takes place in a lunatic asylum, making me wonder if that is where Peer Gynt has been all along.
I guess I have just been cataloguing the free weirdness of Act IV. The final act is similar, with taking Threadballs, the return of the Troll King, and three different avatars of death. This stuff would not exist without the example of Part II of Goethe’s Faust (1832), but once Ibsen has borrowed Goethe’s free dramatic form and inventive use of symbolic characters, the contents are all his own. This is all a lot of fun.