Brand (play)  

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Brand is a play by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. It is a verse tragedy, written in 1865 and first performed in Stockholm on 24 March 1867. Brand was an intellectual play that provoked much original thought.

Brand is a priest who wants to take consequence of his choices, and is therefore deeply bound to doing the "right thing". He believes primarily in the will of man, and lives by the device "all or nothing". To make compromises is therefore difficult, or by his moral standards questionable at best. His picture of God is clearly derived from the Old Testament. His beliefs render him lonely in the end, as people around him, when put to the test, as a rule can not or will not follow his example. Brand is arguably a young idealist with a main purpose: to save the world, or at least Man's soul. His visions are great, but his judgement of others may seem harsh and unfair.

The word "Brand" means fire in Danish/Norwegian.



First act

At the beginning of the play, we find Brand in the mountains, and confronting three different kinds of people: a farmer, who doesn't dare to brave an unsure glacier on behalf of his dying daughter, the crazy beggar-girl Gerd, who claims to know a bigger church in the hills, and hunts for a great hawk, and finally, Einar, a young painter with an easy-going attitude, and his fiancée, Agnes. Einar and Brand were in school together, and their conversation ends in a long discussion about the envisioning of God. Brand taunts Einar for portraying God as an old man, who "sees through his fingers", and wants to envision God as a young, heroic saviour. He means that people have become too sloppy about their sins and shortcomings, because of the dogma that Christ, through his sacrifice, cleansed humanity once and for all.

In the end, Brand vows to take a fight, mainly in his own soul, with those three "minds" he just met: The lazy mind (the farmer), the wild mind (Gerd), and the easy-goer (Einar). He ponders Man's purpose, and the difference between what is, and what should be. Here, we find the famous sentence: What you are, be fully, not in parts and pieces.

Second act

Brand enters the valley in which he was born, and finds great famine and need. The local mayor distributes bread for the hungry in strict rations, and Brand questions the need for it. Meanwhile, a mother comes from the other side of the fjord, telling of her husband who needs absolution, because he, in dire need, killed one of his children rather than seeing him starve. Then he harmed himself. Nobody dares to venture the high sea, but Brand goes in a boat and, to his surprise, Agnes follows him. Together, they sail across, and the man gets his absolution. Brand muses over the remaining children, and what this experience might do to them, when a couple of farmers show up and demand that he stay with them as their priest. Brand is reluctant to do this, but they use his own words against him, and he gives in.

Agnes, sitting on the beach, looks into herself, and tells of an "inner world being born", in one of Ibsen's best known soliloquies. She renounces her former fiancée Einar and goes with Brand. In the end of the second act, we meet Brand's mother, and learn that he grew up under the glacier, in a dreary place with no sun. His mother robbed his father while he was on his deathbed, and as a consequence, Brand does not want her money, but she urges him to take it.

Third act

Some years later, Brand and Agnes live together with their son, Ulf, who is grievously ill because of the climate. The local doctor urges him to leave for the sake of his son, and he hesitates. Meanwhile, his mother is dying, and Brand impresses on her that she will not get her priest unless she gives all her money to charity. She refuses to do so, and so Brand refuses to go to her.

On the question of his son's health, the doctor points out that it is right to be "humane", whereas Brand answers: "Was God humane towards his son?" He states that by modern standards, the sacrifice of Christ would have boiled down to a "diplomatic heavenly charter", and no more. He clearly means there's a difference between being a "human", and being a "humanist". In the end he almost gives in, but the farmers come to him and plead with him to stay. Then Gerd shows up, and states that evil forces will prevail if he leaves. The final straw is when she points out that the son is his "false god". Then he gives in and stays, knowing this will take his son's life. It is clear, however, that he wants Agnes to choose for him, and she answers: "Go the road your God appointed for you".

Fourth act

After the death of his son, Brand schemes to build a bigger church in the parish. The old one is too small to cope with his visions. He has hardened somewhat, and refuses to mourn. Agnes comforts herself with the clothes of her dead child. The local mayor is mostly opposing him, but tells him that he has rising support in the parish and of his plans for a jail/labor facility. He also tells him how his mother was forced to break bonds with her true love, and married an old miser instead. The boy then became father of Gerd, while Brand is the result of the other, clearly loveless affair. During the act, a beggar-woman arrives, demanding clothes for her freezing child (it's Christmas Eve). Brand then puts Agnes to the test, and gradually, all her dead child's clothes are given to the beggar-woman. As a result of this, Agnes renounces her life, and exclaims "I'm free". Brand accepts with effort, and Agnes dies.

Fifth act

Brand gets his new church built (in the 1860s, many old Norwegian churches were replaced by newer and bigger ones). Brand understands that his new and bigger church is too small, and rebels against the authorities, the local dean and the mayor. The provost talks about getting people to heaven "by the parish", and denounces individual thinking. The provost's speech should be examined in detail, also because he has a vision of the masses "marching with equal steps" towards salvation, and stressing that egality matters more to the church than freedom. This speech has been interpreted as holding a fascist undertone. In fact, the provost mentions that the ideal of a religious leader is "a corporal" that shall hold the masses in line. Rendered in Norwegian, the word "fører-ideal" is used in this passus (rhyming on corporal), something that to Norwegian (and German) ears easily could be interpreted as a foreshadowing of Hitler (fører = führer). Brand's answers to this are mostly sarcastic. The provost ends his speech mentioning the "erasing of God in the soul of man", something of which he seems to approve. Brand, of course, wants the opposite: individual freedom and a clear picture of God in man's soul.

Einar returns as a gloomy missionary soon after the provost's friendly speech. He has worked out a view of life that makes Brand shiver. Whereas Brand mourns the loss of his wife, Einar in the end thinks her death was righteous, because he regards her as a female seducer. Upon learning this, Brand shoves him off.

In the end, Brand protests the heavy plight lain upon him by his elders, and throws the key to the church into the river and makes for the mountain with the entire parish following him. He holds a great speech, and urges the people to "lift their faith", to make their Christianity surge through their entire existence, and in a way make a "Church without limits", that is meant to embrace all sides of life. In the end, he states that they all shall be priests in the task of relieving all people in the country from mental thralldom. To this, the local clergy protest, because they no longer have any sway over their flock. He is greatly loved and respected by the commoners, but the test is in the end too hard. They are lured down again by the mayor, who fakes news of great economical opportunity (a great amount of fish in the sea). The same people who followed him, then chase him with stones in their hands. Brand is then left alone, struggling with doubt, remorse, and temptation, "the spirit of compromise". He does not yield to it, even when the spirit claims to be Agnes, something Brand doubts. The spirit says that the fall of man forever closed the gates to Paradise, but Brand states that the road of longing is still open. Then the spirit flees and says: "Die! The world does not need you!". Brand meets Gerd again, who thinks she sees the saviour in him, and Brand denies this, of course. At the very end of the play, Gerd takes him to the glacier, her personal church, and Brand recoils when understanding where he is, the "Ice-cathedral". He breaks down in tears. Gerd, being a hunter from the start of the play, fires a shot at the hawk, and lets loose a great avalanche, which in the end buries the entire valley.

In his dying words at the end of the play, Brand screams out to God, asking, "Does not salvation consider the will of man?" The final words are from an unknown voice: "He is the god of love." What this line means has been debated. One interpretation is that Brand left love out of his account (a popular statement). Another might be that, being the god of love, God does not forget Brand after all.



The play debates freedom of will and the consequential choice. The problem is further debated in Peer Gynt. A crucial point is the discussion about the absence of love, and the sacrifice of Christ. As a consequence, the imitation of Christ can be regarded as a theme of the play (cf. Thomas à Kempis). A key to this interpretation is found in the name of Agnes, clearly derived from Agnus Dei, the lamb of God or the sacrificial lamb. One should be aware that Brand never asks anyone to sacrifice themselves for his cause. He rather warns them off, if they wish to pledge themselves to him - as is the case of Agnes. But when she chooses, Brand reminds her of the moral consequence of that choice - it is final, and there is no turning back. Agnes chooses anyway, both the sweet and the bitter.

One can also see a discussion in the play about what the Christian message really means, and what God's purpose with man really is. At one point Brand says: The goal is to become blackboards for God to write upon. A reminiscence of this is found in Peer Gynt: I was a paper, and was never written upon. The topics of the two plays are clearly related.

The play was Ibsen's breakthrough as playwright and author. Ibsen was himself fond of the character, and claimed that Brand was "himself in his best moments".

Brand's vision

Brand's vision is arguably a romantic one, and his address in the fifth act resembles in a way Henrik Wergeland`s vision in his great poem Man. His rebellion against the clergy, whom he feels are leading people astray rather than in the right direction, is also foreshadowed by Wergeland. He states here that "the spirit of compromise", a mentality he struggles to get free from all the way, is none other than Satan. When he is tempted later, we should be aware of this.

From the beginning, Brand wishes to make man whole, because he is aware that there has been a split, a sundering somewhere in the past, and he wishes to fight a fragmented view of man and God. This fragmentation makes man weak, he states, and an easy prey to temptation - a result of the fall of man. The definition of wholeness as a greater good and fragmentarism as a bad thing, is a philosophical statement, originally derived from Plato and Pythagoras. The sentence about a Christianity that embraces all sides of life, resembles the view of the Danish priest Grundtvig. Throughout the play, we see that Brand looks for the right way to solve this problem, and makes new discoveries as he moves forward. One can also interpret the entire play as a tale of a developing soul, struggling with his connection to God. In this view, the collapse at the very end is a collapse of Brand's conflicting self, and the disaster opens a closed road for him. Thus, the final words of Gerd makes sense, as she finally manages to shoot the great hawk, with the words: "Salvation comes". This interpretation makes Gerd a restless voice in Brand's soul.

The play can also be seen as a discussion of romanticism and reality, in a quite disillusional way. Ibsen at this stage leaves romanticism well behind, and moves on to greater realism.

Some also consider Brand's character to have been based on the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.<ref>See Max Nordau Degeneration trans from the German London Heinnemann 1895 p 357</ref> Kierkegaard gave an essential place in his philosophy to the opposition between faith and reason, the importance of making decisive choices and suffering in the name of God, and whose life ended during an official attack he led against the church of his country (which he thought perverted the original Christian message, making it an empty religion).

Otto Weininger saw the play as expressing a deep understanding of Kantian ethics:-


Problems in modern interpretation

In recent years, the character of Brand has been fairly misunderstood, and he is often regarded as an unsympathetic, fundamentalistic and conservative man. In many ways, his view of life is rather too radical for his peers, who fail to understand him. While Ibsen states an open ending, as he does in most cases, modern instructors often condemn Brand where Ibsen does not. The attitude of Brand is regarded as dangerous and unfitting, apt to give readers or viewers bad conscience. The Norwegian judgement of Brand and Peer Gynt often goes in favour of Peer, and disregards Brand. One could interpret this change in judgement of the character as a consequence of postmodernism and the acknowledgement of a fragmented soul.

Problems in interpretation of the character arise even more when considering: what kind of people today are willing to sacrifice their lives for a cause? Before getting into that discussion, one has to consider what the cause of Brand really is. The answer to that question can only come through examination of Ibsen's text; however the most important questions that Ibsen is raising require that the reader not only study the text, but also engage in self-reflection.

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