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Authors and After Words

The fourth act of Ibsen’s poetic masterpiece, Peer Gynt, is unique to the play and though he never again wrote anything quite like it, the implications of its freely imagined and ironic satire continued to reverberate through his own authorship. What’s more, those reverberations echoed beyond Ibsen’s authorship to act upon and influence the work of his followers, very nearly without exception. All of this and more flows out of a single sentence, a perception and a proclamation that still haunts our own time:  “Absolute reason died last night at 11:00 o’clock!”

For the most part, Peer Gynt (1867) is a very Norwegian play. It is grounded in Norwegian folklore so that anyone not acquainted with those aspects of the Scandinavia experience must become familiar enough with them to be able to translate their significance into one’s own experience. Only then will the play begin to transcend its folk elements to ascend to a more archetypical level of appreciation. But it is not only folklore and tradition that informs this play. There are also hidden historical situations that motivate the text. As Rolf Fjelde so eloquently reminds us in his elegant introduction to the second edition of his translation, at the time, Ibsen was still railing against his homeland for the way Norway and Sweden (then still in union with each other) turned their backs on Denmark when Bismark marched into Schleswig – then a disputed province – and took it for Germany’s own. Having left Norway for Italy in 1864, Ibsen had passed through Berlin on his way south and had been deeply moved when he saw the ruined Danish artillery on display. The offence he took at the sight smoldered for the next three years and resulted in two plays – the great national poetic diptych composed of Brand, written in 1866, and Peer Gynt, which appeared a year later. Both plays were directed at his homeland, the one (Brand) featuring a man possessed by deep ethical and religious principles, and the other, (Peer Gynt) devoid of principles altogether. Norway is the setting for both plays with the exception of that fourth act in Peer Gynt wherein we discover our hero acting out his outlook on life in the wider world. The setting this time is Egypt where we discover Peer in the company of entrepreneurs like himself. He has been involved in a number of enterprises, including slavery. In these earlier scenes in the act, Ibsen takes pains to satirize the larger international business community and his jibes still strike home, especially in these days of financial peril. But it is the last scene of the act I wish to examine.

In every step of his journey, Peer is quick to explain himself as one whose standards are, to say the least, flexible. The whole basis of the “Gyntish self” is to remain flexible, open, not true, in the sense Polonius uses in the advice he gives his son in Hamlet, (“Unto thine own self be true and it shall follow as the night the day thou cans’t not be false to any man.”) No, the only truth in the Gyntish self is whatever’s needed to survive and, with a little luck, to prosper. Never face anything directly, always go around and, so far as the self is concerned, “Unto thyself be…sufficient.” In this frame of mind Peer eventually approaches the Sphinx, eager to hear the riddle. He asks the Sphinx who he is and receives an answer – in German! Not to worry, it’s not the Sphinx after all but a fellow named Begriffenfeldt who quickly turns things around and asks Peer who Peer is. Peer tells him his name and when pressed further responds that he is “Myself;” through and through, totally and only, himself. Hearing so, Begriffenfeldt leads him away to Cairo where they enter a large enclosure with cages and barred windows – a place that Peer will soon discover is the Cairo Madhouse. It is here that Peer learns that “Absolute reason died last night at 11:00 o’clock!” and since now all the sane are insane and all the insane sane, and since now only those who are filled with themselves are sane, it is only proper that Peer, so completely filled with himself as he is, be proclaimed the Emperor of the Self! The act ends with mad men of all sorts swirling around Peer, proclaiming him their Emperor.

In an interview later in Ibsen’s life, his translator, William Archer asked the playwright about this fourth act. Ibsen maintained, according to Archer, that the whole Fourth Act was an afterthought and did not belong to the original scheme of the play. And yet, for all of its apparent irrelevance to Ibsen, as the great American translator of Ibsen, Rolf Fjelde says in a foot note to the Cairo Madhouse scene, “Ibsen follows the tradition of Dante in the Inferno…and Goethe in the Walpurgis scenes in Faust by elaborating a symbolic setting that will fitly contain, characterize, and condemn the definitive evils of the time.”

Yet surely not only of his time, but of later times as well. Surely, it was Ibsen who opened up the dark continents of Realism, Naturalism, and Symbolism that both he and Strindberg would explore. And Strindberg was no stranger to the riggers of the Cairo Madhouse. The death of reason surely echoes through the theatrical movements both before and after the world wars of the first half of the 20th century. We see it and the implications of the self dominated mind in the Absurdism of Ionesco and Camus, the Existentialism of Sartre, the scathing testimony of the Theater of Cruelty as expressed in the works of de Ghelderode and Genet. The madhouse itself takes pride of place in Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss as well as in the more extreme testimonies of the experimental companies like the Living Theater, Jerzy Grotowski’s Poor Theater, and productions like Dionysus in ’69. Work of this kind was categorized by one critic as The Theater of Revolt. That theater is still very much alive in the world of Sam Shepard (as in Buried Child) and David Mamet (American Buffalo, for example.) But let’s not think for a moment that the Cairo Madhouse has broken out only in theater. Nihilistic novelists like Brett Easton Ellis describe the total encapsulation of selves in their work, even to the degree of presenting total phantasmagoria such as American Psycho.

In the year 2006, Norway and the world celebrated the 100th anniversary of Ibsen’s death. In these few words, we have seen how the death of reason and the Cairo Madhouse are still very much alive in our art, especially Ibsen’s vision of narcissistic nihilism and the irony of the Gyntish self:  The more one centers one’s life on the self, the less center there is to which the Self may adhere.

someone asks…not in relationship to anything, “Why?” and though I’m very proud that I have cold blood and…I can keep my nerve and do what I’m supposed to do…I open my mouth, words coming out and summarizing for the idiots…well, this is what, uh, how life presents itself…at the end of the century…and this is what being Patrick means to me…and this is followed by a sigh and a shrug and another sigh and above one of the doors covered by red velvet drapes in Harry’s is a sign and the sign in letters that match the drapes’ color are the words THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.

from American Psycho (1991) by Brett Easton Ellis