Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Who shall conquer, the Emperor or the Galilean? - Henrik Ibsen's dialectic

Seven Ibsen posts, and then I go on vacation.

To review: after writing twenty failed plays, Henrik Ibsen left Norway for Italy, where he was somehow inspired to write a pair of verse play masterpieces, Brand (1866) and Peer Gynt (1867).  His next play was a comedy I have not read, followed by the gigantic ten act Emperor and Galilean (1873).  After this came the twelve-play cycle, Hedda Gabler and Ghosts and so on, that permanently altered theater worldwide.  “Realism” and all of that business.

For now, Emperor and Galilean (1873), Henrik Ibsen’s in-between masterpiece.  Ten acts, several dozen characters, a nine hour running time.  The play is so rarely done that the London National Theater called its 2011 production the play’s “premiere.”  I assume they meant “English-language.”  I assume there were other qualifiers.  I assume it was chopped down to a less preposterous length.  I did not have to sit still for so long to enjoy Emperor and Galilean, since I did not watch the play but read it in Brian Johnston’s 1999 translation.

The emperor in the title is Julian the Apostate (reigned 360-3); the Galilean is Christ.  In the first five acts, “Caesar’s Apostasy,” Julian is not yet emperor.  He is torn between the old pagan gods and Christianity, now the official faith of the Roman Empire.  Or, no, he wants to synthesize them.  Emperor and Galilean is, I think, the most explicitly Hegelian literary text I have ever read.  Meanwhile, at the more usual dramatic level, Julian, whose entire family has been murdered by the current Emperor, manages to survive and even triumph.

In Part Two, Julian has become Emperor himself.  Although he first advocates tolerance, he becomes increasingly repressive against the Christians, perhaps inflamed by their willingness to sacrifice themselves for their beliefs.  Rather than synthesizing the two faiths, Julian simply becomes the enemy of the Galilean, and in the end is destroyed by Christ, or his hubris and fate, a good Classical ending for a play, or perhaps by the inevitable workings of the Hegelian dialectic.

JULIAN:  Who shall conquer, the Emperor or the Galilean?
MAXIMUS:  Both the Emperor and the Galilean will disappear.
JULIAN:  Disappear-?  Both-?
MAXIMUS:  Both.  In our time or in centuries to come, I don’t know.  But it will happen when the right one appears.  (Two, Act III, p. 155)

For thematic picturesqueness, this scene is set in the ruins of a temple of Apollo (“Isn’t the whole world a heap of ruins,” 154).  The conversation continues:

JULIAN:  Emperor-God and God-Emperor.   Emperor of the realm of the Spirit and God of the realm of the Flesh.
MAXIMUS:  That is the third empire, Julian!  (p. 156)

I am making Emperor and Galilean sound like the most boring play ever written.  It is not, although it is certainly not the most thrilling.  There are battles, betrayals, mad scenes, prophecies – plenty of drama.  One great character, Julian.  “He is the most complex dramatic character ever created” says Brian Johnston (xvii).  Now that sounds like special pleading.  I dunno.

I wanted to make sure we are all clear on the use of Hegel, that’s all.  Please note another, perhaps more interesting dialectic.  Pastor Brand, the austere Christian, is set against Peer Gynt, the life-filled troll.  Christian thesis, pagan antithesis.  Julian should be the synthesis, but fails, as any human likely would.


  1. I very much like what you are doing with Ibsen. As for Peer Gynt, a
    "play" much admired by Harold Bloom, I have been intrigued by Ibsen's use of troll-like figures (male and female) in his later plays. As for the later plays, I have been impressed by Joan Templeton's book, Ibsen's Women, as a provocative "guide" for those plays. I recommend Templeton to any serious Ibsen reader. And, as for your future postings, I very much look forward to your comments on several of my favorite Ibsen plays: The Master Builder, The Wild Duck, The Doll House, and Hedda Gabler. Each of those plays includes intriguing "trolls" and women.

  2. Oh good, thanks. There will be at least one day of nothing but trolls.

    Thanks for the book recommendation. It will have to wait until my next run at Ibsen, but it looks great.

  3. Trolls and now a pagan emperor; pre-Realism Ibsen sounds yummy to me!

  4. Just wait until you see "realist" Ibsen. He's even crazier.

  5. I have never seen this play in production. I’d like to. From having encountered it only on the printed page, it strikes me as Ibsen’s equivalent of Flaubert’s “Salammbô”: a writer who sets out to depict everyday bourgeois life needs some sort of outlet for all that exoticism and mad flights of the imagination.

    PS I commented on you later post before reading this earlier one, and I see you have already commented on the thesis-antithesis of Brand and Peer Gynt.

  6. Oh yes, I'd love to see some version of this. Or the whole things over two days. You would need a Wagner or Verdi budget to really do justice to it, although I would happily watch a stripped down reading, too.

    It is a bit like Salammbô, strangely so. Ruins, the logistics of battles. Ibsen is not so cruel.

  7. May I argue that some longer plays (perhaps E&G) and some poetic drama (perhaps Peer Gynt) were written not so much with an eye to production and performance but rather as "closet" dramas better suited for either solitary or staged-and-episodic group reading.

  8. Brand must have been a closet drama, too. Of course they are all performed with massive cuts.

    Goethe's Faust plays obliterate the closet drama distinction. Reading them, they are obviously closet dramas, except they were performed, often, with the craziest stuff intact. The Weimar theater was obviously up to the challenge.

    Was it opera that led in this field? If a theater can perform Aida and Gotterdammerung, it can handle Peer Gynt.

    I am sure you are right, though. Brand and Peer Gynt were Norwegian best-sellers, restoring Ibsen's fortunes and reputation. long before they were performed.