Brand, by Henrik Ibsen
If you like ..Henrik Ibsen, you may also like Hjalmar Söderberg, Pär Lagerkvist and Jens Bjørneboe.
Brand is the drama of absolute intransigence in support of the religious life as opposed to the hedonistic one. The motto of Brand, the main character, is "All or nothing". He is a strong person, a very stubborn Norwegian, and he does not admit compromises nor expedients, but goes directly to his goal, over-riding affections, memories and traditions. The conventional God is a God too spineless for Brand, a God weak and antiquated, a God who contents himself with fragments of human hearts, and who finds it sufficient that man, fortified by the Christian doctrine of redemption, offers Him homage every seven days.
Upon this petty and what he views as a vulgar concepcion of religion, the young Norwegian pastor declares war to the death. Better, according to Brand, to live in utter impiety, better to live like a libertine than to accommodate oneself to the practice of such a false and lying life. "Either everything or nothing."
Thus Henrik Ibsen lets Brand struggle with and live out the dilemmas laid out by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard in Either/Or (see Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (Penguin Classics)). And to some extent Brand may be viewed as Ibsen's reply to, and partly also refutation of, Kierkegaard.
If there is a God, one should dedicate oneself to him completely, without dissimulation and without defections. In conformance to this ambitious ideal of his, Brand refuses to leave his parish although the climate threatens the life of his wife and child and later they die; and he also denies the sacrament to his aged dying mother, because she will not consent to give away all her riches. Contrary to Zarathustra, who from the mountain descends into the valley to be among men, Brand painfully climbs to the summit in order to be nearer to his God. But an avanche descends upon him. Dying Brand asks of the Eternal if the littlie grain of human will has any weight in the scale of redemption.
In the midst of the crash of the avalanche the answer comes to him: "God is love!" With such an answer the tragic Norwegian arrives at a more humane and generous conclusion than the philosopher Kierkegaard, whose life has some points of similarity with that of the cleric Brand. This is a wonderful play and a great, thought-provoking reading.
See also: George Bernard Shaw's The Quintessence of Ibsenism (Dover Books on Literature and Drama), James McFarlane's The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen (Cambridge Companions to Literature), and Toril Moi's excellent Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism: Art, Theater, Philosophy.
Peer Gynt, by Henrik Ibsen
In 1867, Ibsen wrote Peer Gynt, which some call "the most Norwegian of his plays." In Brand, Ibsen had challenged his countymen with the impressive picture of an uncompromising crusader, who was willing to sacrifice all in achieving what he considered to be his God-given call in life. Here, in Peer Gynt, was portrayed with white-hot anger the very antithesis in terms of lack of vision, half-heartedness, and readiness to compromize, all of which Ibsen found much too prevalent among his contemporary compatriots, and seemingly despised. The dreamful nature of Norwegians is thoroughly bashed in Peer Gynt - the play about the dreamer of all dreamers.
In Peer Gynt, the dramatist Henrik Ibsen presents the exact reverse of Brand; Ibsen's anger having now been replaced by scorn. He bitterly and brilliantly ridicules his countrymen by holding up before them the true embodiment of their most fundamental flaws and shortcomings. Peer Gynt, the main character in the play,is the spirit of compromise incarnate; unable to face life squarely he steadfastly obeys the command, "Go round about," chooses the easiest way out, and shrinks from every moral responsibility, finding refuge instead in half lies, lies and idle dreams.
Because he has lived so utterly to himself, Peer Gynt fails to realize his true self and to find his calling in life; for, according to Ibsen, "to be oneself is to slay oneself." And that is not at all in the repertoir of Mr. Gynt! But at last, on the brink of ultimate destruction, his death drawing near, Peer is saved through Solveig's unselfish and ennobling love, which kindles the latent spark of divinity within him, enabling him for once to face life unflinchingly and thereby to find himself.
Peer Gynt is a wonderful play which also contains his deathbed-style flashbacks over his life - to his mother, who castigates him for being a liar; to scenes of dancing and the wedding where he "steals" the bride and becomes an outlaw; to his visit with trolls; and much more. It is a play full of playfulness and deep satire.
Peer Gynt, besides being in the intention of the poet a satire on the Norwegian nation, is more or less universal in its application and appeal. The moral implications of this drama are fundamental and challenging, yet not where its greatest attraction lies. For the play is full of variety, dash, caprice alternating with profundity, and great flights of fancy. It is richer poetry than perhaps in any of Henrik Ibsen's other works.
The key themes in An Enemy of the People are eternal. This beautiful and interesting play is about the fight between truth and power, a fight witnessed every day in the newspapers all over the world. Ibsen lets the contradiction between truth and the concerns of the powerful play out in a drama involving a community threatened by pollution. We witness the plays of the media, the responses of the powerful, the role of family and friends, as well as "the public". As well as the role of truth, this play also concerns the powerful people's manipulation over the simple-minded majority and the potential tyranny of that majority.
Henrik Ibsen is said to have written An Enemy of the People in somewhat of a fury, as he was angered by the way the critics treated his previous play, Ghosts. He had expected the Liberal press to receive Ghosts with a greater understanding. Instead he found himself "fighting at the outposts of thought". Thus An Enemy of the People was written with an satirical intention, but became one of his most brilliantly crafted social dramas.
When Dr. Stockmann, the main character in the play, discovers a poison in the town's water supply, after some suspicious illnesses and conclusive tests, he believes he will be seen as a hero. But even his brother, Mayor Peter Stockmann, sees things differently. Seeing a potential for an unpopular tax hike, Peter rallies the people against Dr. Stockmann's "irresponsible research". We witness the reactions of the different social actors and groups to the potentially very damaging news for the community, and the various ways they try to spin the story, cover it up, or benefit from it. This comes to a climax at a town meeting at which Dr. Stockmann is labeled an enemy of the people. Even with seemingly factual and solid research - the truth as he views it - on his side, the majority of the population spurns Dr. Stockmann as a liar. Thus, Ibsen raises the fundamental question of whether the truth should always be told, regardless of consequences. Or, whether the community should be sacrificed or huge costs incurred in order for truth to prevail?
An Enemy of the People is a wonderful play, one of Henrik Ibsen's most famous, and one that still poses questions of the highest importance even at this day and age!
PS: Arthur Miller's revision of An Enemy of the People
I usually don't review or even mention revisions and rewrites of famous plays. However, the revision by Arthur Miller, done with lots of love and tender care for Ibsen from Miller, may be the exception that confirms the rule.
You too may want to take a close look at Arthur Miller's rewrite "An Enemy of the People". Miller has revised or Americanized Ibsen's original play in ways which some think improves on Ibsen. I happen to disagree with that view, but read both versions and see what you think!