Saturday, February 8, 2014

I’m more in need of life than you - Ibsenian gusto

My temptation is to wander through Act V of Peer Gynt in the same way I pawed through my favorite bits of Act IV.  “Part of the lasting strangeness of Peer Gynt is that it is more of a trilogy of drama than a single work” writes Harold Bloom in The Western Canon (p. 339).  A small part of the strangeness, given all of the other strangeness, but this is true.

I guess I will not do that.  The play ends with some sort of escape from or transcendence of death, or with a great victory of the Female Principle, or It Was All A Dream (“Sleep and dream, my dearest boy!” is the last line), or Peer never did get out of that insane asylum at the end of Act IV, or he was there all along, or he died earlier in the play without my noticing, since he is still there, on stage.

At this point I am not going to choose an answer or try to reconcile them.  I see why I always want to refer back to the clearer, narrower Brand as a handhold.

Whatever else the two plays have in common, the central characters are big, full of life, and should be played big.  The paradox of Brand is that his gusto is so destructive.  Peer Gynt, and the acting of Peer Gynt, ought to be fun, like Mephistopheles in Faust of Falstaff in Henry IV, two characters so big it took two plays to contain them.

Robert Brustein, in The Theatre of Revolt (1964), argues that Brand is meant to be “Ibsen in his best moments (which is to say, at his most morally elevated)” while Peer Gynt is “Ibsen at his most irresponsible moments (which is to say, at his most morally lax)” (p. 50), which if true is instructive, since I find it difficult to avoid condemning Brand and loving Peer.  I respect Brand for his integrity, but also fear him as a fanatic.  Meanwhile, Peer Gynt has so little integrity that he becomes a slave trader and even murders a cook at the beginning of Act V (they are fighting over a capsized lifeboat):

PEER GYNT:  Let go that hand!
THE COOK:                                  Spare me please!
                       Think of my children, what they’ll lose!
PEER GYNT:  I’m more in need of life than you;
                       I haven’t had children up till now.   (V.ii.)

This scene has another of the play’s many blasphemies, as the cook drowns while trying to recite the Lord’s Prayer.  “Give us this day our—(Goes under).”  I am not sure why the character is a cook.  If it was just for this “daily bread” joke, he should have been a baker.

At this point one of the last act’s multitudinous devil figures pops out of the sea to reassure Peer:

PEER GYNT:  Clear off, you monster!  Get away!
                       I won’t die!  It’s the land for me!
THE PASSENGER:  You needn’t worry in that respect –
                                No one dies halfway through the last act.  (Glides away.)

Look, I am on the verge of doing what I swore I would not do.  I will just repeat the paradox, that in literature liveliness outweighs many sins.  Who would want Falstaff to reform?


  1. I can't help noticing that the cook drowns on the word "epiousios," a famously mysterious word in the Lord's Prayer.

    Probably coincidence, but a tasty one. I suspect it's really a baptism joke.

  2. 'Brand is meant to be “Ibsen in his best moments (which is to say, at his most morally elevated)” while Peer Gynt is “Ibsen at his most irresponsible moments (which is to say, at his most morally lax)”'

    There's the famous distinction between Puritans ("Right but Repulsive") and Cavaliers ("Wrong but Wromantic")
    The cook is a ship's cook, remember. Ship's cooks are always funny- perhaps because their only qualification for the job wasn't being able to cook but no longer being able to be an able-bodied seaman.

  3. I myself strike the ideal balance between Cavalier and Roundhead.

    You are probably right about the ship's cook. He is almost necessarily funny. His bread is probably inedible.