Tuesday, 3 March 1998

Henrik Ibsen: Brand (1866)

Translation: Michael Meyer, 1960
Edition: Methuen, 1960

Brand is a fairly early Ibsen play, in this translation part of the Methuen plays series. This and its companion in the volume Ibsen Plays 5, Emperor and Galilean, are among the earliest Ibsen translations attempted by Meyer, and are clearly meant for performance rather than publication. Both plays are fairly severely cut; in Brand's case, this is to remove the discussion of nineteenth-century Norwegian politics which is likely to be tedious to a modern, non-Scandinavian audience.

The central character is a pastor of the Norwegian state church. He returns to his ancestral home, a small, remote village in a valley overshadowed by the dangerous mountains which surround it. As he arrives, the villagers are on the verge of starvation, and he shows no pity for their state, refusing to give them the food they crave. He blames them for putting the needs of the body above the duty of the spirit, which in his mind is due to a hard and vengeful God. He does, however, show great personal courage in crossing the fjord in a storm to give a householder his last rites. This act leads the villagers to ask him to become their pastor. He is mocked by the gypsy girl, Gerd, who tells him that the "ice-church" up in the mountains is far greater and more beautiful than the ugly village church.

In the second act - Brand has a lot of plot! - he has married a woman named Agnes and has a son, Ulf. The son is dying, and the doctor tells Brand and Agnes that he will live if they leave the village and move to the south. After a struggle within himself, viewing this as temptation to give up his calling, Brand refuses to leave the village, and Ulf dies. The third act takes place the following Christmas, when Agnes decorates their house in the way that the child loved. Brand tells her that she must give up her attachment to the dead child and devote herself to his calling, as he (and, indeed, society in general) believed a wife should. A gypsy woman arrives, begging for clothing to warm her freezing young son, and Brand makes Agnes purify herself by giving up all the clothing she has left which belonged to Ulf, her last reminders of her child.

By the fourth act, Agnes too has died, and Brand is putting his energy into building a larger and more beautiful village church. As the work comes to completion, Brand falls into despair as he realises that the church can never be big enough or beautiful enough. He rejects the building, at the moment which everyone around him thinks is his time of triumph. He leads the villagers away from the church into the mountains. Up in the mountains, the villagers abandon him when he is unable to minister to their physical needs - there is a clear contrast with the story of Christ feeding the five thousand, where the gospels say he had compassion on the crowd because of their hunger. Finally, he is left alone with Gerd, who leads him to the ice-church. She fires a rifle and the noise breaks the balance that keeps the ice and snow in a church-like shape, and Brand is destroyed by an avalanche to end the play.

Brand is an incredibly bleak play. There are really no admirable characters; Agnes comes closest perhaps to being so. It is of course a strong attack on the human consequences of the hard-heartedness that so often characterises evangelical Protestantism. Brand has an inadequate picture of God, one which perhaps reflects his own personal inadequacies. Even he, at times, finds the self-sacrifice that he feels his God demands of him almost two much to bear, notably in the second and third acts.

Ibsen's feelings about religion and personal freedom (characters are constantly asked to make choices when they feel there is no choice) play a major role. The ice-church probably represents the negation of love; Brand's uncompromising devotion to duty completely kills off the love which he should feel towards Agnes and Ulf, to the villagers, and above all to his God. (Contrast Peer Gynt in Ibsen's next play, who abandons all that might be considered duty for extreme self-indulgence.)

Altogether, Brand is a challenging play to read, but I felt it was well worth it.

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