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! (III.vi.)
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.