HENRIK IBSEN 1866
Henrik Ibsen’s religious drama, Brand, caused a huge stir when it was first published in Scandinavia in 1866. Although it was well received in Denmark, it was highly debated in Norway, Ibsen’s pious homeland. Ibsen wrote the play while on a self-imposed exile in Italy, which began in 1864. Although the play’s sources of inspiration have been interpreted in many different ways, it is likely that the work—like Ibsen’s exile—was a statement on Norway’s failure to join with its Danish neighbors in preventing Germany from taking two of Denmark’s duchies in 1864. The play was the first commercial and critical success of Ibsen’s and paved the way for his future successes, starting with Peer Gynt, which he published a year after Brand. Both plays are verse dramas—plays written in the style of a poem—a more literary but less common type of modern drama.
Brand was a cathartic writing experience for Ibsen, who never intended the play to be staged. Like the inspiration for the play, the meaning in the work has also been interpreted in many different ways. The main character, Brand, is a pastor who holds himself and all of his followers, including his wife, to the rigid command of “Naught or All!” This essentially means that people must be willing to risk their lives and all earthly attachments if they wish to find eternal salvation. Brand is tested on this faith, and even though he falters a few times, he nevertheless goes the distance, sacrificing his mother, son, and wife in an attempt to adhere to his beliefs. The ambiguous ending has been interpreted in many Page 76 | Top of Articlecontradictory ways, including that Brand’s life is either meaningful or worthless. Although this is one of Ibsen’s major works, it is currently out of print. Various translations can often be found in libraries. One such translation is the 1960 Doubleday edition, translated by Michael Meyer.
Ibsen was born on March 20, 1828, in Skien, Norway, to a wealthy family. However, in 1834, Ibsen’s family lost its money when the family business failed. When he was fifteen, Ibsen left school to work as a pharmacist’s assistant, although he eventually tried to get admitted to Christiania University. When he failed the entrance exams, Ibsen turned his attention to writing and wrote his first play, Cataline, in 1850. At this point, Ibsen’s work was relatively unknown, so he became assistant stage manager at the Norwegian Theater in Bergen, where he was expected to write and produce one drama each year. These early plays were not well received, and in 1862 Ibsen petitioned the government for a pension that would allow him to travel while he wrote. He was eventually given a small stipend in 1864.
The same year, Ibsen began a self-imposed exile from Norway that would last for the majority of his adult life. Although many critics say that Ibsen left his country to get away from bad memories of his father’s failed business and Ibsen’s own failure as a stage manager, the playwright himself said that he needed to leave his homeland to write drama that accurately reflected Norwegian life. While in Italy during the first few years of his exile, Ibsen published Brand(1866) and Peer Gynt(1867), two plays that made him famous. From this point on, Ibsen’s works were more popular, but in some cases, such as 1879’s A Doll’s House, which addressed the oppression of women, his plays dealt with controversial topics.
In 1891, Ibsen returned to Norway from his twenty-seven-year exile and continued to write major plays, including The Master Builder(1892) and John Gabriel Borkman(1896). Shortly after completing When We Dead Awaken(1899), a highly autobiographical play in which Ibsen questions his own life as an artist, Ibsen suffered several strokes, which rendered him an invalid until his death several years later. Ibsen died on May 23, 1906, in Oslo, Norway.
Brand begins in the frigid mountains of Norway in the mid-eighteenth century. Brand, a pastor, strides confidently through the dangerous and disorienting mountain mist, while a peasant—crossing the mountains with his son to be with his dying daughter—turns back and tries to convince Brand to do the same. Brand is unshakable in his will, however, and challenges the peasant to risk his life for the daughter he loves. The weather clears, and Brand comes across a young couple—Einar, an artist, and Agnes. Although the couple is happy, Brand is grim and says he is on his way to the funeral of the false God that people have been worshipping. Although Einar is defiant and brushes off Brand’s speeches, which he sees as religious fanaticism that belongs to an earlier age, Agnes is affected and is no longer carefree. Brand meets Gerd, a mad girl, who throws stones at a hawk that only she can see and tells him about the Ice-Church, a natural, church-like formation of ice in the mountains. Brand tells Gerd to stay away from the church because the formation is unstable and could come crashing down in an avalanche. Gerd invites Brand to come with her, then screams when she sees the imaginary hawk again. She runs away. Brand reflects on all of the travelers he has seen thus far and concludes that none of them is living life the way it should be lived. Brand goes down into the valley.
By the fiord—a narrow inlet of water surrounded by mountains, which leads to the sea—Brand comes upon a group of peasants begging the town’s sheriff for food. Brand offers sermons instead of money, and the hungry peasants move in to beat Brand. They are interrupted by a woman who begs Brand to come across the stormy bay to her house to perform last rites for her husband who has killed their starving child out of mercy and has mortally wounded himself out of shame for the act. Brand prepares to brave the stormy boat ride to the woman’s house. He asks for help from the woman, but she is afraid for her life and will not go; neither will most of the crowd. Only Agnes, the bride of Einar, decides to leave her new husband to help Brand. Together, they make it in time to perform the last rites. The crowd arrives much later, impressed by Brand’s courage. A man asks him to stay on as their pastor. Brand refuses at first, not wishing to waste his life in this small village when he could do Page 77 | Top of Articlegreater good in the world at large. Brand’s mother walks up and attempts to bequeath her fortune to him, as long as he agrees to hoard it and to give his mother her last rites on her deathbed. Brand says that he will not give her last rites unless she gives her entire fortune away to charity. His mother initially refuses to do this, although she leaves the possibility that she may change her mind. Einar comes up and asks Agnes to return to him, but Agnes chooses to align herself with Brand and his rigid demand of “Naught or All,” meaning that she must give herself totally to God without attachments to safety, either personal or financial, and other earthly aspects.
Three years later, Brand and Agnes are married and living in the little village by the fiord where Brand has decided to serve as pastor. Brand’s mother is on her deathbed, and he waits for her summons, refusing to go serve her last rites until she agrees to give her fortune up to charity. At the same time, Brand and Agnes discuss the fact that their son, Alf, is becoming sick. Various messengers come to Brand, telling him that his mother is willing to give up half of her fortune, then nine-tenths, but she is unwilling to give up all of it. Although other characters accuse Brand of being too hard, including Agnes, he sticks to his pledge and refuses to administer last rites to his mother. The sheriff comes up and says that, since Brand is rich from his inheritance, he should use the money to move away. The sheriff is worried that Brand’s depressing sermons are affecting the townspeople and disturbing a sense of peace and harmony. Brand refuses to leave and declares war on the sheriff. The doctor comes up to tell Brand that his mother is dead and accuses him of being too hard on her. At Agnes’s frantic request, the doctor looks at Alf and says that if they do not move to a warmer climate, the boy will die. In a panic, Brand says he will leave, until the doctor points out Brand’s hypocrisy. At this point, Gerd, a mad little girl, arrives. Brand takes her ravings as a sign that he should stay, and although Agnes is crushed that they have to sacrifice their son’s health to do it, she agrees to stay with Brand.
It is Christmas Eve, and Agnes is mourning their dead child. Brand asks his wife not to cry over
Alf, as grief is a worldly attachment. Although it takes a while, Agnes finally dries her tears and tries to continue with the Christmas celebration, honoring Jesus instead of mourning her child. The sheriff arrives and says that Brand has won his war, as the majority of the townspeople are following his sermons. The sheriff offers a truce and asks if Brand will donate his inheritance to build a multipurpose building that can be used as a poor house and jail. However, Brand has other plans, which are to build a new church, an idea that the sheriff does not like when he thinks the townspeople will have to pay for it. However, when Brand says he will cover the expense, the sheriff suddenly supports the idea. The sheriff mentions that gypsies have come to town. He also says that, in the past, Brand’s mother had spurned the advances of a gypsy man, who instead married another gypsy and had a number of children—including the mad girl, Gerd, for whom the townspeople have been providing food and clothes. The sheriff leaves, and Agnes looks out at Alf’s grave, daydreaming about her dead son. Brand catches her doing this, then catches her taking out Alf’s old clothes. A gypsy woman comes to the door, begging for clothes for her freezing child. At Brand’s request, Agnes eventually gives the gypsy woman Alf’s clothes, the last remnant that she has Page 78 | Top of Articleto commemorate her dead son. However, this act is not good enough for Brand; Agnes must avow that she has given the clothes willingly.
A year and a half later, the new church is completed, and the town is ready to throw a big celebration. The clerk and schoolmaster talk about the church and about how Brand’s grim teachings interfere with the harmony of the village. They hear Brand playing a mournful tune on an organ, and they talk about Agnes’s death. They momentarily lose their composure and talk about the possibility that they themselves might follow Brand’s grim teachings. The sheriff comes up to Brand, who is unhappy about the grand church he has built, seeing it as yet another abstraction from God. The sheriff talks about the celebration, in which Brand is to be made a knight. Brand is mortified that they are going to try to make him a celebrity, which he sees as being even farther removed from God. Brand leaves, running into the dean, who echoes the sheriff’s sentiments and tells Brand that, with this new church, he now serves the government and that he wants Brand to give lighter sermons. Einar, the former artist, comes up to Brand. Einar has had a revelation, has given up his prideful dependence on willpower, and has sacrificed his life to God. He condemns Brand for his own pride.
The crowd starts getting rowdy, wanting the celebration to start. Brand addresses them, inciting them to follow him. The majority follows Brand into the mountains, but the followers have doubts and begin to stone Brand, thinking he has tricked them. The dean and sheriff follow the crowd. When the crowd turns on Brand, because he cannot offer them anything but a rough life, the dean and the sheriff coax them back to town with the lie that an abundance of fish has come into the bay. Wounded, Brand continues on into the mountains, where he sees a vision of his wife, Agnes, who tells him to give up his strict policy of “Naught or All.” Brand refuses, and the vision vanishes. Gerd appears with a rifle, sees Brand’s wounds, and equates him with Christ. Gerd tells Brand that they are in the Ice-Church, and when she thinks she sees the hawk of Compromise, she fires, killing them both in an avalanche. As he dies, Brand calls out to God, asking him how to achieve salvation. A voice responds: “God is Love!”
Agnes is, first, wife to Einar, then to Brand, whom she obeys until the end of her life, even when it means losing her life and the life of her son. At the beginning of the play, Agnes is a carefree, young woman, recently engaged to Einar. Brand gives them a sermon, which falls on Einar’s deaf ears but impacts Agnes, so much so that when Brand asks for a volunteer to risk his or her life to help someone, Agnes leaves Einar to help Brand. Agnes decides to leave Einar for good, marries Brand, and has a child with him. Although Agnes has agreed to Brand’s harsh requirement of “Naught or All!” she struggles with Brand’s decision to stay in the harsh weather of the village when it means the death of their son. She follows Brand in the end, however, as she eventually does when Brand commands her to stop grieving for their dead son. When Brand tells Agnes to get rid of her last memories of their son, as well as his clothes—donating them to a needy gypsy woman—she once again falters at first but eventually adheres to Brand’s strict religious requirements and gives up her earthly attachments. Agnes also dies from the harsh weather in the mountains, and her death greatly affects Brand, so much so that when he is tempted in the mountains by a vision, it takes the form of Agnes.
Brand is the unyielding title character, a priest who forces himself and his family to adhere to a strict religious life, even though it means the death of them all. Brand is driven by his strong will, which he thinks is the way to God. He believes that by having the personal strength to relinquish all of one’s earthly attachments, a person can achieve eternal salvation. Brand’s faith is fiery, as are the gloomy sermons that he gives to villagers. Brand repeatedly puts his life on the line for his principles, thinking that an attachment to one’s life is unholy. He counts on his enormous strength of will to get him through situations, and most of the time he is successful, overcoming great odds to live through storms and in harsh climates that ultimately kill his wife, Agnes, and their son, Alf.
Brand’s famous requirement for his wife or for anybody who chooses to follow him is “Naught or All!” meaning that one must be willing to give everything in order to be saved. Brand is tested in his faith on several occasions. When his mother is on her deathbed, he refuses to give her last rites Page 79 | Top of Articlebecause she will not give up her hard-earned fortune to charity. When his son is given the prognosis of death if Brand does not move him to a warmer climate, Brand nevertheless stays in the mountains, sacrificing his son, because he has a job to do with his parish. Although Brand’s own faith wavers on occasion, he is reminded of his mission by others, such as the mad girl, Gerd, and the doctor, and is ultimately able to stick to his rigid faith. At the end, Brand’s rigid faith is put in question, first by Einar, a reformed man who tells Brand that he himself was only saved when he gave up his pride and his belief in his own strength. Einar senses similar qualities in Brand and declares him damned. In the end, Brand retreats to the mountains, where he is tempted by a vision of his dead wife—who tries unsuccessfully to get Brand to compromise his ideals. He also runs into the mad girl, Gerd, who reveres him like Christ and kills them both when she shoots her own vision, the hawk of compromise, causing a massive avalanche. As Brand dies, he appeals to heaven, asking how a man can achieve salvation. A voice answers, “God is Love!” ending the play on an ambiguous note.
Brand’s mother dies without receiving last rites from her son because she refuses to donate her hard-earned money to charity. Brand warns her that he will not perform last rites for her unless she gives away all of her money, but his mother has had to suffer greatly for the money, and she wants Brand to hoard it after she is gone. Although his mother ultimately offers to give nine-tenths of her money away, it is not enough for Brand, who requires her to give it all away.
The clerk is a normally rational person who decides to go with Brand at the end of the play, although, like others, he turns on the priest. When the clerk and the schoolmaster are talking before the dedication of the new church, they both betray a sense of emotion, which is quickly suppressed. However, when Brand gives his fiery sermon to the crowd, the clerk follows him up into the mountains. Even after he has turned on Brand, the clerk is afraid to go back to town, since he is afraid he has lost his job. He is relieved to find out that he has not.
The dean tells Brand that since the priest has built the new church, he must now serve two masters—the people and the state. He also tells Brand that his gloomy sermons do not serve the needs of the state and that Brand needs to tone down his fiery proclamations. Brand refuses, but the dean says it is no use. Brand tries to run away to the mountains, taking many of the townspeople with him. When they turn on Brand, the dean is there with the sheriff to reclaim them, saying that they will have a much easier life in the village than with Brand. The people gladly go with the dean and the sheriff.
The doctor attends Brand’s mother on her deathbed and, like many others, accuses Brand of being too strict in his requirements for faith. The doctor also lets Brand know that his son will die if Brand and Agnes do not move to a warmer climate. When Brand has a moment of weakness and says he will leave at once, the doctor calls him a hypocrite, although he says that most men are. This, along with the appearance of Gerd, helps to convince Brand to stand by his strict faith and stay, even though it means the death of his son.
Einar is the hedonistic artist, initially engaged to Agnes, who eventually trades his wanton ways for faith in God. When Einar is first introduced, he is a happy bridegroom, and he and Agnes look forward to their happy and carefree lives together. After Agnes leaves him to marry Brand and commit herself to Brand’s harsh lifestyle, Einar commits himself to a life of sin but is saved by a few nuns and eventually becomes a missionary. He tells Brand that his salvation came from transferring his faith in his human will to prayer and says that Brand is damned—presumably because Brand still believes in the strength of human will.
Gerd is the mad little girl who appears several times in the play when Brand is doubting himself. Gerd is the daughter of a gypsy man who was spurned by Brand’s mother. The townspeople have been feeding and clothing Gerd. She has religious visions, and she inspires Brand to stick to his strict morals, such as when her presence encourages him to stay living in the fiord—even though it means the death of his son. At the end of the play, when Brand walks alone through the mountains, Gerd appears with a rifle, saying that she is hunting the hawk of compromise. For once, Brand has seen the hawk, in Page 80 | Top of Articlethe vision of his dead wife, Agnes, who has tried to convince him to give up his strict beliefs. Gerd believes that Brand is Christ, since the priest’s wounds from the villagers match Christ’s wounds. At the end, Gerd shoots the hawk in the Ice-Church, which causes the avalanche that kills both Gerd and Brand.
The schoolmaster of the village is a rational person who eventually succumbs to Brand’s powerful preaching at the end and follows him into the mountains. He is one of many who turn on Brand when the priest cannot offer guarantees of an easy life. Even after he has turned on Brand, the schoolmaster is afraid to go back to town, since he is afraid he has lost his job. He is relieved to find out that he has not.
The sheriff, Brand’s nemesis, tries several times to get Brand to leave the village, since the priest’s gloomy teaching disrupts orderly village life. The sheriff first meets Brand when the sheriff is giving out food to the poor. When Brand offers sermons instead of donations, the sheriff is angry. When Brand is about to receive his inheritance, the sheriff encourages Brand to take the money and leave. When Brand refuses, the sheriff threatens him, and Brand declares war. Later, the sheriff declares Brand the winner of their war, as Brand has won the support of the majority of people. The sheriff offers a truce and tries to get Brand to use his inheritance to build a new poor house, which will also serve many other functions. Brand, however, wants to build a new church, which the sheriff supports. On the day the church is to be dedicated in a big party, Brand realizes his mistake and tries to get back to the simple life once again, going into the mountains, away from the showy church, to seek the simple life. When Brand incites a number of villagers to follow him into the mountains, the sheriff is worried but bides his time. He follows the crowd, which turns on Brand after he promises them a hard life but a good afterlife. The sheriff then dupes the villagers into coming home by lying to them, saying that millions of fish have entered the fiord.
The woman saves Brand from being beaten by the townspeople in the beginning by her frantic request for a priest to administer last rites for her husband. Although the woman is glad Brand is willing to cross the stormy bay to her house, she will not, for fear of losing her life.
Depending on how one looks at the ambiguous ending of the play, Brand’s iron strength of will is either a curse or a blessing. If one interprets the ending statement, “God is Love!” to mean that Brand should have focused less on prideful will and more on love, then it is a curse. If, however, one takes the voice to mean that God is acknowledging Brand’s hard work and welcoming him to heaven at the hour of Brand’s death, then his will is a blessing. In any case, Brand’s will is his personal driving force, and it becomes the driving force of the play. With rare exception, the other characters are not able to use their strength of willpower in the absolute way that Brand does. As Brand notes after the peasant and his son refuse to cross the mountains to be with the peasant’s dying daughter, Brand would help people like this if he could: “But help is useless to a man / Who does not will save where he can!”
In other words, if somebody is only willing to give up items that are expendable, then it is not a true sacrifice. When it comes to giving up irreplaceable items, such as one’s life, most people fail the test, as Brand says: “Much will they give with willing mind, / Leave them but Life, dear Life, behind.” Brand, however, follows his own ideal, as one of the village men notes after Brand braves the stormy fiord to administer last rites to a man. Says the village man, “You have the strength.... The way you showed, you went, at length.” In other words, Brand is not all talk; he has done exactly what he said he was going to do.
In the majority of cases, Brand’s will is tied to his religious conviction. Unlike the villagers, who Brand says follow a “bald, grey, skull-cap-pated God,” a meek divine being that is convenient for the villagers, Brand’s God is a powerful vision from more devout times: “And He is young, like Hercules,—/ No grandad in the seventies.” Brand’s vision of God does not allow a compromise. Instead, Brand, in serving his God, adheres to the phrase “Naught or All!” which does not give room for
compromise. Throughout the story, he lives by this strict code and insists that anybody who follows him does the same. At the end of the play, a number of townspeople become inspired by Brand’s impassioned sermon and follow him into the mountains.
However, it is not long before the crowd starts complaining about the harsh conditions in the mountains. “I haven’t had a crumb today,” says one person, instigating several to ask for food and drink. Other people cry out such complaints as “My child is sick!” and “My foot is sore!” Brand admonishes them: “The wage before the work you claim,” saying that they need to work before they will get their salvation. Several members of the crowd take this to mean that they will get their salvation during their lives and start asking very specific questions such as “Can I be certain of my life?” and “What’s my share, when the prize is won?” Brand tells them that they must give up their tendency to compromise and that their reward will be in heaven, and the crowd, who feels tricked, turns on Brand. The rigid religious conviction that Brand demonstrates is not inherent in most of the other characters, who do not have enough patience or faith.
As part of the strength of will and the religious conviction that Brand requires of his followers, he also instructs them to make certain sacrifices other than their lives, such as giving up earthly ties like money. When Brand’s mother tells him she is bequeathing the hard-earned family fortune to him, as long as he hoards it after she is dead, Brand refuses to do this. He also refuses to give his mother her last rites until she gives the money away to charity: “That of free will you cast away / All that binds you to the clay.” However, Brand’s mother is unable to make this sacrifice and so goes to her grave without receiving her last rites. In addition to their lives and money, characters must also be willing to sacrifice the lives of other loved ones. Brand does this with his mother when he refuses her Page 82 | Top of Articlelast rites. He also sacrifices his son, Alf, and calls upon his wife to perform this sacrifice willingly. Even after Alf is dead—as a result of the cold weather of the mountain parish that Brand refuses to abandon—Brand asks Agnes to give up all of her memories of the child, even to sacrifice his baby clothes. Although Agnes does this, Brand is doubtful that she has done it wholeheartedly: “Did you with a willing heart / Face the gift, nor grudge the smart?” In other words, in order for Agnes’s sacrifice to be totally pure, she must not only willingly give away the clothes but must do so without bitterness. Although Agnes eventually succeeds, most characters in the play are not able to make this type of sacrifice.
Ibsen wrote his play as a verse drama, also known as a dramatic poem, a play that is composed entirely of lines of poetry. This more romantic, less realistic style of play is less common in modern drama. From the first conversation in the play, the exchange between Brand and the peasant man, it is evident that the play is a verse drama. The first sign is that the dialogue is arranged into lines, as opposed to paragraph style. For example, when the peasant is describing the bad weather conditions and the near invisibility of Brand in the fog, he says: “The mist is closing in so thick, / A body’s eyesight barely passes / Beyond the measure of his stick.” This example also illustrates the second sign that marks the play as a verse drama—the rhymes. Although the rhymes continue throughout the poem, they do not follow a set pattern or scheme, as many rhyming poems do.
Ibsen is known for heavy use of symbolism in his plays, and this one is no different. The play incorporates a number of aspects that symbolize religious objects or ideas. For example, the mountains suggest proximity to God as the setting of the natural Ice-Church, which collapses on Brand at the ambiguous end, as the place where God answers Brand’s exclamation prior to his death, and as a setting where characters retreat from the perversions of humanity, such as Brand’s self-imposed exile. Believing that the church is not large enough, Brand builds another one, then realizes his mistake, telling the people, “Out from here, where God is not! / Can He dwell in such a spot,” and then throwing the keys to the new church into the river. Brand has realized that, no matter what kind of church he builds in the valley, it will always be tainted by humanity. As a result, Brand goes into the mountains and, ultimately, ends up at the Ice-Church.
Other religious symbols that Ibsen plants in the mountains include Brand himself, who, after being stoned by the villagers, resembles Christ. Says Gerd when she sees Brand’s wounds: “On thy brow, the red drops stand / Where the thorns’ sharp teeth have caught it! / Aye ‘tis thee the Cross did bear!” In addition, Gerd sees the vision of a hawk, which she says is “Compromise,” ambiguously symbolizing either the lack of religious conviction in many of the peripheral characters or the overbearing will of Brand.
The play also makes use of satire, a technique used to depict characters or their actions in a manner that scorns and ridicules to prove a point that the playwright wishes to make. In this case, Ibsen satirizes many government or social institutions, through many general characters such as the sheriff and the dean. The sheriff is depicted as an unscrupulous person who will do what it takes to maintain harmony in the village. When the sheriff first meets Brand, he does not like the pastor, since Brand does not give comforting sermons. The sheriff makes this clear when he comes to visit Brand and encourages him to leave, letting him know that “You’ve set all harmony a-jangle.” At the end of the play, when the villagers follow Brand into the mountains, the sheriff is not worried and uses a lie to win the villagers back: “Because a shoal of fish / Has come into the fiord—by millions!” When the sheriff and the dean are discussing this miracle later on, the sheriff admits that there are no fish:
Besides, a day or two days hence,
When folk have found their common sense,
Who’ll care a rap if victory
Was won by truth or by a lie?
This comment satirizes government officials who are willing to lie or to perform other dishonest deeds in order to get their way. The dean is also a morally suspect character, who gives Brand all sorts of advice about how to tone down his sermons and serve two masters—the people and the state: “Our working days you know, are six; / We save the Page 83 | Top of Articleseventh for emotion.” The dean has relegated religion to one day a week so that the majority of the week can be devoted to work activities, which more directly benefit the state. This type of mentality contradicts Brand’s entire style of life and satirizes the government institutions that hold this same view.
In November 1859, the English naturalist Charles Darwin published his book, On the Origin of Species, and the world was never the same again. Darwin’s theory of evolution, based on his plant and animal research from a five-year voyage around the world on the H.M.S. Beagle, posed the idea that all species had evolved from a limited number of common ancestors through a process known as natural selection. Through natural selection, only those animals that possessed the random mutations necessary to adapt to changing environments were able to reproduce often enough to pass on their genes successfully. Viewed over a long timescale, these mutations could cause one species to evolve into a totally new species. Darwin’s theory had horrible implications for the religion. If humans had evolved, they said, it challenged the idea of a human creation by God and, some said, the very existence of God.
Land Disputes in Northern Europe
In the mid-1800s, two wars broke out in connection with the administration of two duchies, Schleswig and Holbein. Although the lands had been under Danish rule for centuries, the inhabitants were mostly German. In 1863, when the Danish King, Frederick VII, tried to formally annex Schleswig, the German inhabitants revolted. The neighboring Germanic country of Prussia got involved and encouraged Austria to support its war against Denmark for control of the duchies. In 1864, the Norwegian parliament voted not to back Denmark in its fight against Prussia, a decision that disgusted Ibsen and others who supported a united Scandinavia. The Danish army was easily defeated by Prussian forces later that year, and Denmark turned over control of the two duchies to Prussia and Austria.
Prussia and Austria split the administration of the territories between them—Austria controlled Holstein, and Prussia controlled Schleswig. This arrangement led to tensions between the two countries, which then took up arms against each other in 1865 in the Austro-Prussian War, also known as the Seven Weeks’ War. Prussian troops, making use of railroads and using newer breech-loading rifles, easily conquered the Austrian and other Germanic forces, which were still using older, muzzle-loading guns. In addition to annexing the combined Schleswig-Holstein, Prussia’s win also led to its annexation of five of Austria’s six allies, instantly changing the political landscape of Germany.
Alfred Nobel’s Discovery of Dynamite
While the breech-loading rifle represented a major advance in the design of guns, at the same time, a Swedish pacifist, Alfred Nobel, was working on an invention that would eventually change the face of explosives—and battles—forever. In 1866, Nobel, who was manufacturing and performing dangerous experiments on nitroglycerin—an explosive liquid—set off an accidental explosion that ruined his factory and killed his brother and workers. Although the Swedish government refused Nobel’s request to rebuild his factory after the explosion, the next year, Nobel, whom some called a mad scientist, was able to perfect his discovery, combining the liquid nitroglycerin with sand to create portable explosive sticks known as dynamite.
Brand has always been a work that invites many interpretations, beginning with its stormy reception in Norway in 1866. In F. L. Lucas’s 1962 book, The Drama of Ibsen and Strindberg, Lucas notes that “its effect on Norwegian pietism was like pitching a millstone into a small pond.” Likewise, in his 1969 book, Ibsen: A Portrait of the Artist, Hans Heiberg notes that “all over Norway the controversy raged, becoming the subject of sermons from pulpits, as well as social debate.” However, while many Norwegians took Ibsen’s attacks personally, in Denmark, Heiberg says that the book was considered by critics “a sensational break-through of Norwegian
literature.” The book was a popular success, and Heiberg notes that it was reprinted three times within the same year, “an almost unheard-of sales success.”
With the success of Brand, which he wrote while on a self-imposed exile in Italy, Ibsen also achieved financial freedom. Though early reactions were mixed, the play is generally been received well now, although interpretations throughout the years have differed greatly. In 1889, Edmund Gosse of the Fortnightly Review called the play a “beautiful Puritan opera,” whereas, in 1931, in his book, The Life of Ibsen, Vol. 2, Halvdan Koht says that Ibsen’s intended meaning of the play “was that it was not honest or worthy of a human being to do anything else than to stand alone, to be one’s self.” There was a massive amount of scholarship on Ibsen and his works in the 1960s, when critics focused on many different aspects of the play. In his 1961 article in The Lock Haven Bulletin, Irving Deer identified a sharply divided critical argument that had sprung up by that point: “Simply stated, the controversy boils down to whether Ibsen intended him to be a hero or a villain.”
Likewise, a year later, in 1962, Lucas notes only one aspect of the play, the ambiguous voice at the end of the work, spawned at least five different interpretations by critics, including that “this voice is the Devil’s,” it is “the voice of God” either condemning or welcoming Brand as a result of his adherence to his rigid faith, it is the “real or imagined” voice “of the dead Agnes,” it is “the voice of Brand’s own soul,” and it “is what Ibsen says it is—simply a voice.” This assessment is representative of other aspects in the play, which have also been debated endlessly.
One of the other aspects that academics in the 1960s focused on was the connection between Brand and the writings of the philosopher, S0ren Kierkegaard. As Heiberg notes, “Kierkegaard was undoubtedly one of the godparents of the fundamental ideas behind Brand.” In her 1966 book, Ibsen, The Norwegian: A Revaluation, M. C. Bradbrook also notes this, saying that “Kierkegaard too demanded that a man should give his All.” Heiberg notes one other idea about the play, that it “is first and foremost Ibsen’s settlement with himself,” Page 85 | Top of Articlea sentiment that has been echoed by other critics. As biographical and critical studies have illustrated, and as Ibsen’s own comments verified, Brand was a cathartic experience for the playwright, in which he explored his own views about life and religion.
Debates over the play’s meaning continue today. However, regardless of how people interpret the play, there is no doubt that Brand, along with his next play, Peer Gynt, is considered one of Ibsen’s major works—and the seminal work that helped lead to his immense critical and popular success both in Scandinavia and around the world.
Ryan D. Poquette
Poquette has a bachelor’s degree in English and specializes in writing about literature. In the following essay, Poquette discusses Brand’s conflicting desires, which ultimately drive him mad and lead him to death.
In Ibsen’s Brand, the title character has such strength of conviction that he sacrifices everything, including his family, to stick to his beliefs. On the surface, this appears to be a noble thing to do. In fact, many critics, like Edmund Gosse, who in the 1889 Fortnightly Review notes that the play is a “beautiful Puritan opera,” have seen Brand as a hero. However, as Irving Deer states in his 1961 article, “Ibsen’s Brand: Paradox and the Symbolic Hero,” this is not a foregone conclusion with all critics. Wrote Deer, “Simply stated, the controversy boils down to whether Ibsen intended him to be a hero or a villain.” By studying Brand’s spiritual journey, however, it appears that Ibsen meant to show Brand as a man who ultimately goes mad from the strain of trying to reconcile the contradictory ends of religious fanaticism and humanity.
At the beginning of the play, the audience is led to believe, as are the peasant and his son, that Brand is not a normal human. He claims himself to be “a Great One’s messenger” and shows little concern for the bad weather in the mountains, which the
peasant fears will kill them all if they continue on. Brand says he is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice if God requires it: “If of my life the Lord hath need / Then welcome precipice and flood!” The peasants think that Brand is crazy and do not follow him. Brand notes that these peasants, like most others in the world, are unwilling to make ultimate sacrifices: “Much will they give with willing mind, / Leave them but Life, dear Life, behind.” With this thought, Brand suddenly remembers his childhood and “two fancies of the brain” that he had. He describes these states of mind as “An Owl that dreads the dark, a fish / With water-fright.” In other words, as a child, he had a fear of living the life that he was meant to live. Just as an owl is meant to live at night and a fish is meant to live in water, Brand felt that he was “bound to bear” a burden and, as a child, had a moment of weakness about this fact.
This passage introduces the idea that Brand is not invincible, as audience members might first believe after seeing him risk his life and survive harsh mountain weather whereas normal mortals turn back. It also underscores the idea that Brand is different from many other humans, who live in fear
most of their lives, as other characters show. Brand is so strong in his mission for God that the fears only appear to have plagued him when he was a child. At this point, the audience gets another glimpse into Brand’s past, when he runs into Agnes and Einar—a boy with whom he went to school. Einar describes Brand’s childhood as follows: “Aye, the same solitary elf / Whom, still sufficient to himself / No games could ever draw away.” Brand, with his philosophical thoughts and fears about the meaning of his life and his greater mission, chose to isolate himself from the other schoolchildren. This is an important idea that Ibsen plants in the beginning because it foreshadows what will eventually happen to Brand as he alienates himself from the human race as a whole.
It is appropriate, then, that after Brand meets Einar in the mountains, he runs into Gerd, a mad little gypsy girl who has visions. She questions Brand: “You saw the hawk just now?” Brand is not mad, however, and so cannot see the visions that Page 87 | Top of ArticleGerd speaks of. Gerd is not deterred. When they start to talk about the church in the valley where Brand is headed, Gerd makes mention of a much more impressive one, “A church built out of ice and snow!” Brand recognizes that Gerd is talking about the Ice-Church, a natural, chapel-shaped structure that exists in the mountains, but he warns Gerd that she should not go there, for fear of an avalanche: “A sudden lurch / Of wind may break the hanging ice: / A shout, a rifle-shot, suffice—.” The rifle-shot foreshadows the avalanche at the end that kills both Brand and Gerd, but more important, this reference to the Ice-Church helps to illustrate Brand’s mentality at the beginning of the play. While he is willing to face any danger and give his life for his mission to God, he does not see the Ice-Church as a worthy spiritual endeavor, and so he cautions against going there.
When Brand’s mother arrives, the audience gets one more example of Brand’s self-imposed exclusion from humanity: says Brand to his mother, “I’ve gone against you from my youth; / You’ve been no mother, I no son, / Till you are grey and I am grown.” Brand is disgusted with his mother’s materialistic behavior, which first manifests itself after his mother dies. Unseen by his mother, Brand watches as she loots his father’s dead body, searching for money, then expands her search to the rest of the room: “Finding, she seized with falcon’s pounce / ‘Twixt tears and glee, each several ounce.” This base materialism horrified the young Brand and shaped his disparaging view of humanity: “Barely one in thousands sees / How mere life is one immense / Towering mountain of offence!” Instead of living an offensive life with other humans, Brand devotes himself to what he believes is a higher cause, setting the ultimately unachievable goal of suppressing his humanity through sheer will. When the doctor accuses Brand of being inhumane, since he would not give his mother last rites after her failure to give up material goods, Brand states his view of humanity:
Humane! That word’s relaxing whine
Is now the whole world’s countersign!
It serves the weakling to conceal
The abdication of his will;
However, even though Brand tries to suppress his humanity, this is impossible, a fact that gradually becomes clear. Although Brand is not interested in preserving his money, his power, or his physical health, as others are, he does have an obsession with his mission—something that he is initially unwilling to give up. One of the peasant men points this
hypocrisy out to Brand when he is trying to talk Brand into abandoning his grander plans and do a good service by helping their village: “This Call of yours, this holy strife / You yearn for and will not let drop—/ It is then dear to you?” Brand is emphatic, letting the man know that “It is my life to me!” At this point, the man turns Brand’s words back on himself, saying that, as Brand has counseled others to be willing to give up things that are dear to them, such as their lives, Brand should be willing to give up his own “life.” Brand recognizes this and decides to stay.
Even though he stays in the village, Brand tries to maintain his seclusion from humanity. Says Brand: “Of what the paltering world calls love, / I will not know, I cannot speak; / I know but His who reigns above.” This, however, is not true, because he falls in love with Agnes, his wife, and loves their son, Alf. These attachments threaten to compromise Brand’s mission, starting with his son, Alf. Brand and Agnes are unsure whether or not Alf will be able to survive the harsh weather in the fiord, but Brand is convinced that the sacrifices he has already made for God mean that he will not be called upon to sacrifice Alf, too: “He will not take away our joy... / My little lad in time will grow / As big and strong as can be found.” However, as he starts to dwell on this idea, he realizes the immensity of such a sacrifice, questiong the possibility of it along with his strength of will: “But if He dared demand?” When the doctor tells Brand and Agnes that their son will die if they do not leave, Brand immediately says he will go, even though it will mean abandoning Page 88 | Top of Articlehis parish and his mission. Here, he is responding to his human emotions, which want to preserve the life of his son. However, he is eventually able to suppress these emotions once again, and through the strength of his will, he stays at the parish, sacrificing his son for his mission.
Although Alf s death affects Brand greatly, he suppresses his grief, though barely, and requires Agnes to do the same. But when Agnes dies, Brand can no longer suppress his humanity, and the strain of trying to follow his mission while ignoring his humanity is apparent. Says the clerk: “Aye, he’s not quite right: / He’s felt a lonely, gnawing tooth / Since he became a widower.” The clerk notes that Brand expresses his grief by playing the organ and that “Each note’s as wild / As if he wept for wife and child.” The musical notes are not the only thing that is wild about Brand at this point. When the townspeople try to make him a hero, idolizing him and the new church he has built, Brand is once again disgusted with the materialism of humanity, which now has intruded into his vocation. He gives an impassioned speech to the crowd about “the flaw, in me and you,” and the impressed crowd follows Brand into the mountains.
The dean is worried that Brand is stealing their villagers, but the sheriff says: “Who would butt against a bull? / Let him have his craze out full!” The sheriff can see that Brand has gone mad from the strain of trying unsuccessfully to suppress his humanity, and he knows that the villagers will eventually turn on Brand when he offers them gloomy sermons instead of comfort. When this inevitably happens, the clerk, echoing the sentiment of many others, says: “Let be the lunatic!” Brand retreats into the upper reaches of the mountains. He is distraught, searching for the strength of will he once had, and at this point totally mad from his grief:
Alf and Agnes! O come back
Where the peaks are bleak and black
Lone I sit, the wind blows through me
Chilled by visions weary and gloomy—
At this point, in his despair, Brand sees a vision of his dead wife, Agnes, tempting him to compromise and give up his mission. Brand fights the vision, however, and refuses to give up his mission, saying: “Wandering dreams no more are rife: / No, the horror now is... life!” Having exiled himself from humanity, Brand now turns his back on his life and the memory of his wife. As the vision disappears, Gerd, the mad girl, comes up to him. She asks him if he has seen the hawk of compromise, her vision from before, and he admits: “Aye! For once I saw him true.” Although Brand shied away from Gerd before, now he finds in her the only human company he can have, since, in her madness, she has set herself on a similar mission as Brand—hunting down and killing the spirit of compromise. Unlike in the beginning of the play, Brand now willingly allows Gerd to lead him to the Ice-Church, where she sees the hawk and shoots him with her rifle. The resulting avalanche buries them both but not before Brand calls out to God asking if human will is enough to achieve salvation. Brand hears a voice cry out, “God is Love!” Although there are several interpretations of this, the most likely, given Brand’s steady breakdown into madness, is that he is hearing a voice that does not exist.
Since he was a child, Brand has attempted to adhere to an impossible ideal, which was easy enough for him to do when he had no attachments. However, by falling in love with Agnes and loving their son, Alf, he succumbed to one of the human material weaknesses that he has despised since his childhood. Over the course of the play, Brand’s attempt to suppress this weakness fails, and the strain, coupled with the grief over his dead family, slowly drives him mad.
Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on Brand, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
In the following essay excerpt, Brustein explores connections between Ibsen’s leaving his native Norway and the rich inspiration present in Brand, calling the drama “a sudden revelation from the depths of an original mind.”
Any discussion of Ibsen’s mature art must start with Brand, since this monolithic masterpiece is not only the first play he completed after leaving his native country, but his first, and possibly his greatest, work of enduring power. Nothing in Ibsen’s previous writings prepares us for a play of this scope, not even the substantial talent he displays in The Vikings at Helgeland and The Pretenders, for Brand is like a sudden revelation from the depths of an original mind. It is highly probable that Ibsen’s achievement in Brand was intimately connected with his departure from Norway, for he seemed to find an important source of creative power in his self-imposed exile: “I had to escape the swinishness up there to Page 89 | Top of Articlefeel fully cleansed,” he wrote to his mother-in-law from Rome. “I could never lead a consistent spiritual life there. I was one man in my work and another outside—and for that reason my work failed in consistency too.” Ibsen’s desire for creative consistency was certainly fulfilled during his sojourn in Rome. Besides filling him with admiration for the “indescribable harmony” of his new surroundings (“beautiful, wonderful, magical,” he called them), Ibsen’s Italienische Reise, like Goethe’s before him, seems to have opened him up to an expansive romanticism. Ibsen himself was quite conscious of the influence of Rome on his art, for in describing to a friend how Brand had come to be written, he said: “Add to this Rome with its ideal peace, association with the carefree artist community, an existence in an atmosphere which can only be compared with that of Shakespeare’s As You Like It—and you have the conditions productive of Brand.” It was a period of the most exquisite freedom Ibsen had ever known, and his nostalgia for these years was later to find expression in Oswald’s enthusiastic descriptions of the buoyant livsglaede(joy of life) to be found in the Paris artist community.
On the surface, Brand—an epic of snow and ice with a glacial Northern atmosphere and a forbidding central figure—would seem to have little in common with this warm, sunny Italian world. Yet the sense of abandon which Ibsen was experiencing is reflected in the play’s openness of form and richness of inspiration (“May I not... point to Brand and Peer Gynt,” wrote Ibsen later, “and say: ‘See, the wine cup has done this!’”). Though it was originally conceived as a narrative poem, Ibsen soon reworked Brand into a five-act poetic drama, a work so conscientiously long and unstageable that Ibsen was astonished when a Scandinavian company decided to produce it. For Ibsen, exulting in the luxury of pure self-expression, had written the work unmindful of the limiting demands of an audience or the restricting requirements of a theatre. Having finally freed his imagination from its frozen Northern vaults, Ibsen had at last discovered how to make his work an integral part of his spiritual life. The solution was simple enough; he had to be the same person in his work as outside it. Although in The Pretenders Ibsen had dramatized the conflicts in his own soul through a fictional external action, Brand has the most thoroughgoing revelation of his rebellious interior life that Ibsen had yet attempted, an act of total purgation, in which he exorcised the troll battle within his heart and mind by transforming it into art. With Brand, Ibsen confronted for the
first time and in combination the great subjects which were to occupy him successively during the course of his career: the state of man in the universe, the state of modern society, and the state of his own feverish, divided soul.
The play, a storage house for all of Ibsen’s future themes and conflicts, is constructed like a series of interlocking arches, each ascending higher than the last. The lowest arch is a domestic drama, in which Ibsen examines the relationship of the idealist to his family (the basis for later plays like The Wild Duck); the middle arch is a social-political drama, in which he analyzes the effect of the aristocratic individual on a democratic community (the basis for plays like An Enemy of the People); and the highest arch is a religious drama, in which he shows the rivalry between the messianic rebel and the nineteenth-century God (the basis for plays like The Master Builder). Pastor Brand—a reforming minister of extraordinary zeal (his very name means “sword and fire”)—is the hero of all three dramas, and Ibsen’s supreme idealist, individualist, and rebel. In the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, and those apostles of religious purification who arise in human history to change the course of the world, Brand is remorselessly dedicated to his cause. Like Luther, he has elected to be the “chastiser of the age,” scourging the excesses of individuals and institutions; like Moses, he is determined to bring new codes of spiritual purity to a generation of idlers, appeasers, and dreamers; and like Christ, he is committed to the salvation of all mankind through a complete transformation of human character. Brand, however, is a very peculiar Christian, if indeed he can be called Christian at all. Intensely masculine, patristic, strict, and unyielding, he rejects the compassionate side of Christianity in his determination Page 90 | Top of Articleto close the gap between what is and what should be by making human practice conform to spiritual ideals. Actually, Brand is more extreme than the most apocalyptic Puritan reformers, a Savonarola of the will who brings Protestant individualism to the furthest reaches of its own implications. For, as Brand develops his theology, he demands not only that each man become his own Church, but—so strict are the extremes of his ideal—even his own God.
Man becomes a god by imitating God, but Brand’s God—not a “gentle wind” but a “storm”—is almost inimitable, being the purest and most uncompromising of celestial beings. He is identified with the Ideal itself, to be attained through the unlimited striving of the human will. Because of his emphasis on will, the mortal sin for Brand is cowardice and half-heartedness. Like Kierkegaard before him, and Nietzsche after, Brand is disposed towards the great saint or the great sinner—the man who lives his life extremely with a purpose either good or evil—but he cannot abide the will-less mediocrities who fail to be anything fully. Brand’s Devil, therefore, is the spirit of compromise, while his concept of evil is identified with the middle way of moderation, accommodation, luxury, ease, and moral laziness. Taking “All or nothing” as his rebellious credo, he has resolved to make “heirs of heaven” out of the dull and cloddish inhabitants of the modern world, fashioning a new race of heroes to match the heroic figures of the past.
Brand, who follows his own precepts with uncompromising integrity, is himself one of these heroes—but at a terrific cost. Struggling painfully to conquer any emotions which might lead him from the path of righteousness, he becomes contemptuous of any but the hardest virtues: for him, love is merely a smirch of lies (“Faced by his generation / Which is lax and slothful, the best love is hate”), while charity and humanitarianism are the encouragement of human weakness (“Was God humane when Jesus died?”). Thus, Brand finally succeeds in suppressing his own human feelings, an ambiguous victory which makes him at the same time both wholly admirable and wholly impossible. Like most monastic, disciplinary types, he has something forbidding and inhuman in his nature. Ibsen usually associates him with images of cold and hardness (snow, steel, iron, stone); even the conditions of his birth (he was “born by a cold fjord in the shadow of a barren mountain”) suggest his icelike qualities. By comparison, the beauty-loving painter Ejnar and his lovely fiancee Agnes are identified with “mountain air, the sunshine, the dew, and the scent of pines,” and their pursuit of Southern pleasures is a striking contrast to Brand’s singleminded pursuit of the ideal.
Yet, such is Brand’s heroic stature, fierce courage, and charismatic power that by the end of Act II Agnes has been converted to his religion of “grayness,” leaving Ejnar to take up her duties by Brand’s side. It is in the domestic scenes that follow (Acts III and IV) that Brand’s defective humanity is most strongly dramatized, for his fanatic ideals of moral purity succeed in destroying his entire family; first his mother, who dies unshriven when Brand refuses to visit her unless she freely gives away her fortune; then his young son Alf, a victim of the Northern cold who has been refused the Southern warmth (an Ibsenist image for love); and finally Agnes herself, forced into dreadful choices and ultimately deprived of even the relics of her mother love. All this while, Brand has been engaged in a terrific struggle with himself, torn between his ideal and his love for Agnes and Alf. Yet his decision to be a god has left him with no real choice; and when Agnes warns him “He dies who sees Jehovah face to face,” he can only accept the terrible implications of his Godhead and let her die. When she abdicates her painful life with an ecstatic cry (“I am free Brand! I am free!”), Brand has achieved a moral victory only through the sacrifice of everything he loved in the world—as Shaw put in through “having caused more intense suffering by his saintliness that the most talented sinner could possibly have done with twice his opportunities.”
Yet it is only in the domestic portions of the play that Brand emerges as a villain-idealist; like all great reformers (even Christ treated his family with scant respect), he has no time or capacity for a happy private life. When he plays a public role, in the social-political scenes, he is a bright contrast to the citizenry he has come to reform. Here, Brand, a typical Sturm-und-Drang hero, is the individual at war with society, denouncing its worm-eaten conventions, its limited aspirations, its corrupt institutions. His antagonist, in this drama, is the Mayor, society’s elected representative—like Mayor Peter Stockmann and Peter Mortensgard, a “typical man of the people,” and therefore Brand’s instinctive enemy. The conflict between them arises from their conflicting expectations from their constituents. Brand, appealing to spiritual man, seeks the salvation of the individual through a revolution in his moral consciousness; the Mayor, appealing to social man, seeks the pacification of the community through Page 91 | Top of Articleattention to its material needs. Wishing to make life easier, the Mayor wants to construct public buildings; Brand, wishing to make life harder, wants to construct a new Church. This conflict—in which Brand obviously expresses Ibsen’s own predisposition in favor of the individual against the community, the moral against the social, the spiritual against the material, radical revolution against moderation and compromise—is ultimately irreconcilable. But since Brand’s following has increased, the Mayor, pulling his sheets to the wind, capitulates, following the desires of the compact majority by helping Brand with his plans. The Mayor, however, has not lost the battle. He has merely made a strategic retreat in order to assimilate his enemy. And, as for Brand, his temporary success has made him unwittingly betray his own ideal.
In Act V, which forms the climax of the religious drama and the heart of the play, Brand becomes what Ibsen really intended him to be—neither a villain-idealist nor a hero-reformer but a tragic sufferer existing independently of moral judgments. At the beginning of the act, Brand is seen as a fashionable preacher, a popular commercial personality like Billy Graham. His new Church is about to open and Brand himself is to be decorated by the State for his services to the community. Multitudes have gathered for the event—vaguely sensing that the destruction of the old Church was some form of sacrilege and trembling with apprehension “as though they had been summoned to elect a new God.” Brand himself is very morose; he cannot pray and his soul is full of discords. His mood grows blacker when the Provost—the theological counterpart of the Mayor—begins to inform him that religion is merely an instrument of the State to insure itself against unrest. When he warns Brand to concern himself with the needs of the community rather than the salvation of the individual, Brand suddenly becomes aware that the Church is a lie and that he has become a corrupt institution himself. Ignoring the Provost’s contention that “the man who fights alone will never achieve anything of a lasting nature,” he tells his enthusiastic followers that the only true Church is the wild and natural world of the fjords and moorlands, not yet tainted by human compromise, hypocrisy, and evil: “God is not here! / His kingdom is perfect freedom.”
Like Moses leading his people towards the beautiful promised land, Brand makes his way upwards to the freedom and purity of the cliffs and mountains. But like Moses’ followers, the people begin to slacken and grumble when the way grows hard. The Grand Inquisitor, in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, had told the resurrected Christ that the common man seeks not Godhead, but miracle, mystery, and authority. And now it is Brand’s turn to learn of human limitation, as his followers clamor for water, bread, prophecies, security, and miracles in place of the spiritual victory he promises. When he offers them no more than “a new will,” “a new faith,” and “a crown of thorns,” they feel betrayed and begin to stone their Messiah. And when the Mayor arrives with the Provost to reclaim the sheeplike flock with a promise of food and safety, they repudiate Brand’s salvation altogether, meekly returning to their secular lives below.
Brand is left alone on the moorlands, torn and bleeding, to meditate upon his mistakes. In putting vengeance, justice, and retribution before forgiveness, charity, and compassion; in repudiating the “God of every dull and earthbound slave,” Brand has pursued Godhead through the pursuit of an incorruptible ideal. But while making him Godlike, this quest has also made him a rebel against the very Deity he had tried to serve. Brand’s messianism has turned him into something harder and crueler than God, and it has broken the backs of his all-too-human followers. Now Brand must learn that man cannot be God; that he must live with the Devil if he is to live at all; and that even the freedom of the will is limited by the inexorable determinism of inherited sin. Now, like Moses on Mount Nebo, Brand is denied the promised land, and must await retribution himself. Yet, still he adheres to his ideal. When a specter appears, in the shape of Agnes, offering him warmth, love, and forgiveness if he will only renounce the awful words “All or nothing,” Brand refuses; and when the spirit is transformed into a hawk flying across the moorlands, Brand recognizes his ancient enemy, the Devil of Compromise.
Still struggling upwards, Brand finally reaches the Ice Church, a mighty chasm between peaks and summits where “cataract and avalanche sing Mass.” It is Brand’s true parish, for there, in the ideal habitat of the extreme Romantic, Brand may preach his gospel of the absolute, free from the human world and its compromising influences. When Gerd—the wild gypsy girl who has accompanied him—suddenly has a half-ironic, half-sincere vision of Brand as the incarnation of Christ and begins worshiping him as a God, Brand, at last, gives way to human feeling:
Until today I sought to be a tabletPage 92 | Top of Article
On which God could write. Now my life
Shall flow rich and warm. The mist is breaking.
I can weep! I can kneel! I can pray!
But it is too late. Shooting at the devil-hawk with her rifle, Gerd has started an avalanche, and Brand is about to be buried in the snow. At the last minute, Brand asks a final tortured question of God: “If not by Will, how can man be redeemed?” And the answer comes from the heavens in booming tones: Han er deus caritatis—“He is the God of charity, mercy, love.”
It is an answer which completes the play, but denies its philosophical basis. For if Brand’s severe demands have all been wrong, and man is redeemed only through love, then the whole intellectual structure of the work collapses; and Brand’s relentless attacks on compromise and accommodation are all superfluous. We must remember, however, that Ibsen is not rejecting Brand’s revolt as an idea; he is merely rejecting it as a form of action. And since Brand’s judge is a God of love, even Brand, we must assume, is forgiven at the last. The ending of Brand, nevertheless, like the ending of so many of Ibsen’s plays, is inconclusive, an early example of Ibsen’s failure to integrate his drama of ideas with his drama of action—and this itself is the result of his refusal to adopt a positive synthetic doctrine. Up until the ending, we can regard Brand both as a great hero-saint-reformer with a redeeming message of salvation and as a flawed, repressed, and ice-cold being whose ruthless dedication to an impossible ideal causes untold suffering and needless deaths. Up until the ending, we can admire Ibsen’s extraordinary capacity for keeping two antithetical attitudes in his mind at the same time, so that he is able to exalt messianic rebellion as an idea, while condemning it in practice. But the ending demands a synthesis which the author cannot provide; instead, he chooses to invalidate the intellectual hypothesis of his play. Still, even in this vaguely unsatisfying ending, one is filled with admiration for this defeated, yet triumphantly Godlike hero whose eternal struggle upwards has somehow enlarged the spiritual boundaries of man.
We must conclude, then, that both the success and failure of the play stem from the unreconciled conflicts of the playwright. For Ibsen’s split attitude towards his hero reflects the clash in his own soul between the twin poles of his temperament—the Romantic idealism of the reforming rebel and the Classical detachment of the objective artist. This dualism—fatal to a man of action but invaluable to a Page 93 | Top of Articledramatist—is present whenever Ibsen examines the effect of absolute idealism on private happiness, a subject that is to obsess him all his life. But though he will treat this delicate theme again and again in the future, he will never make a presentation of such compelling power and grandeur.
Source: Robert Brustein, “Henrik Ibsen,” in The Theatre of Revolt, Little, Brown and Company, 1962, pp. 35–84.
Bradbrook, M. C., Ibsen, The Norwegian: A Revaluation, Archon Books, 1966, p. 43.
Deer, Irving, “Ibsen’s Brand: Paradox and the Symbolic Hero,” in Ibsen: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Rolf Fjelde, Prentice-Hall, 1965, p. 52, originally published in The Lock Haven Bulletin, Series 1, No. 3, 1961, pp. 7–18.
Gosse, Edmund, “Ibsen’s Social Dramas,” in Fortnightly Review, Vol. XLV, No. CCLXV, January 1, 1889, pp. 107–21.
Heiberg, Hans, Ibsen: A Portrait of the Artist, translated by Joan Tate, University of Miami Press, 1969, pp. 125, 129, 132, 134–35.
Ibsen, Henrik, Brand, translated by F. E. Garrett, J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1960.
Koht, Halvdan, The Life of Ibsen, translated by Ruth Lima McMahon and Hanna Astrup Larsen, Vol. 2, W. W. Norton & Company, 1931.
Lucas, F. L., The Drama of Ibsen and Strindberg, Cassell, 1962, pp. 62, 66–67
Adler, Stella, Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov, edited by Barry Paris, Vintage Books, 2000.
This book offers an engaging way for actors and non-actors alike to approach works by the three playwrights. Adler, a famous actress and acting instructor, discusses the best way for actors to approach roles in the plays, while giving an academic analysis of the major works.
Donnelly, Marian C., Architecture in the Scandinavian Countries, MIT Press, 1991.
Donnelly’s book gives a detailed account of Nordic building, starting with the remains of structures that date back to 7,500 B.C and continuing through to the 1970s. The book covers structures and the architects who created them, from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and the Faroes.
Goldman, Michael, Ibsen, Columbia University Press, 1998.
Goldman explores the often-overlooked connection between Ibsen’s dramatic art and the effects that specific dramatic techniques have on audiences who experience the plays. The book offers a thorough discussion of many of Ibsen’s major plays, including Peer Gynt, The Master Builder, A Doll’s House, and The Wild Duck.
Kierkegaard, Søren, The Essential Kierkegaard, edited by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton University Press, 2000.
Most critics acknowledge the profound influence that Kierkegaard had on Ibsen’s beliefs and on his dramatic works. This comprehensive anthology collects the major works of the nineteenth-century Danish philosopher.
Marker, Frederick J., and Lise-Lone Marker, Ibsen’s Lively Art: A Performance Study of the Major Plays, Cambridge University Press, 1989.
In this production study of six of Ibsen’s major plays, the Markers explore non-English theatrical productions from other countries, including Germany, Russia, France, and Scandinavia. The book covers early productions from Ibsen’s life up to more modern and unconventional interpretations of the plays in the twentieth century.
Roesdahl, Else, The Vikings, Penguin USA, 1999.
Brand mentions the legendary exploits of the Vikings, the Nordic conquerors who initially inhabited the Scandinavian countries. Traditionally, Vikings have been largely viewed as lawless pirates who plundered at will. In her extensive study, Roesdahl digs underneath the legends, incorporating the latest archaeological research to provide an accurate description of the geography, culture, and lifestyle of the Vikings. The book also includes a section on how the Vikings have influenced modern culture.