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Lying for the Life of It – Ibsen’s Irony

For all the writing I do about fiction, my first literary loves are poetry and play writing. Even so, I rarely write about drama. It’s about time I returned more frequently to my roots.

There are three playwrights who continue to draw my attention. Actually that number comes to eight but I treat the Greeks as a collective. The other two are Shakespeare and Ibsen. (I won’t go near the “But what about?” list.) This column is about Ibsen, because even a hundred years after his death, he remains the single most important dramatic author in modern and post-modern Euro-American drama.

As the great American critic Francis Fergusson has noted, Ibsen was a threshold author, writing with the dying Romantic Movement behind him while shaping the approaching Modernity. Born in 1828, Ibsen began his authorship with Cataline, written at age 22 in 1850. He continued to write until 1899 when his last play, When We Dead Awaken, was published. A series of strokes led to his death in 1906 at the age of 78. In all, he left 26 plays and one book of poems. In the course of this authorship he showed us not only how to write plays for a new kind of theater but what things needed to be written. As the great prognosticator of the modern age, Ibsen’s earlier works presented important motifs which developed into major themes in his later work. These early works predicted both the form and content to come – even beyond Ibsen’s own output. In the middle of his authorship, as he crafted the forms of Realism and Naturalism that we still see today, his plays often mystified and frequently divided audiences for or against his emerging ideas. In his last plays he was searching for a new poetic, symbolic, and psychological vision. There are those who will argue that Strindberg’s later plays actually established such a vision, but in all fairness, it was Ibsen who broke the ground and led the way.

It was perhaps Ibsen’s irony that cut the deepest furrows, most often in his attacks upon our shibboleths, our absurdities, and our self delusions. There is, however, at least one instance in which he uses irony to quite another effect. That incident occurs in Peer Gynt.

Peer Gynt was written about a third of the way through Ibsen’s authorship in 1867. The play begins with the appearance of Peer and his mother trundling down a mountain path on a warm summer’s day. The first words we hear come from Mother Aase. They are: “Peer, you’re lying!” The lie Mother Aase accuses her son of telling this time has to do with a ride he claims to have taken on the back of a stag, a dive wherein both stag and man fly off the side of a mountain and the plunge they take into deep flowing water from which Peer miraculously escapes to make it home safely. Mother Aase resists the enchantment of this tall tale as long as she can but, through the art of Peer’s telling, she is drawn into the story hook, line and sinker. A brilliant face-off erupts between mother and son, all about lie telling and truth telling, until Peer picks her up and plunks her down on the roof of the mill. He then trots away to further adventures, this time with mountain girls, trolls and a bride that strongly resembles a pig! That encounter nearly costs Peer the sight of one eye, but he escapes and returns home only to find his mother on the verge of death. Rather than face the grim reality of the situation, he sits down at the foot of Aase’s death bed, as if it were a sleigh, and again retreats into a story – a fairy tale about her entrance into Heaven. (The following translation is mine; Grane – pronounced Gran-eh – is the name of their horse. The fundamental meter is the anapest – dah dah DAH. Hence, one would read: hie hup GRANeh, now FLY like a HAWK and so forth.)

Hie hup Grane, now fly like a hawk!

See the castle is starting to hum.

For the crowd is beginning to gawk;

Here now comes our Peer Gynt with his Mum.

Now what say you to that, Holy Peter?

You’ll not let my dear Mummykins in?

Look, see here, there’s no soul any better,

Without fault, no, nor blemish, nor sin.

As for me, well, the less said the better.

I’ll just wait here, not meaning to goad.

If you’ll send out some glug for the weather…

As they say, just one more for the road.

I admit, truth is something I bend.

But the Devil when preaching is worse.

And I’ve called my dear Mum an old hen;

For the way she can cackle and curse.

But you pay her some honor, you hear?

And you do the right thing in the end.

You won’t find a soul any more dear,

Either near or from far round the bend.

Oh, now look, God the Father appears.

Now St. Peter, you’re up to your nose!

(In a deep voice.)

You! Enough with these Maitre’d’ airs.

Mother Aase, the dear, in she goes!

(Laughs and turns to his mother.)

Wasn’t that what I said and then some?

And it made the poor saint change his dance.

(Anxiously.)

Mama, why do you act deaf and dumb!

Ma, stop looking all weird and askance!

(Goes to the head of the bed.)

Don’t you lay there and stare like a fish!

Please say something! It’s me, Peer, your son.

(Gently clasps her hands the says softly:)

So it is. Grane do as you wish,

For our journey is over and done.

(He closes her eyes and bends over her.)

Thanks and blessings for all of your days.

For the whacks and each sweet childhood-kiss.

But I’ve earned one more thing, I should say:

(Pressing his cheek against her mouth.)

Tip the driver and nothing’s amiss.

The ethical and aesthetic questions that arise in this scene rest at the very heart of a post-modern discussion of the function of Myth and Story. The post-Enlightenment connotation of Myth as a popularized lie permeates this play but with a special focus in this scene. As mentioned above, Peer’s reputation as a consummate liar precedes him in the testimony of his own mother. Yet, we cannot help but read this scene as a most profound reversal of the prohibition against lying through which we actually experience Peer’s love and compassion for Mother Aase. His words bring us close to tears. The web of Myth captures us at our utmost humanity. Here Ibsen brings us to the center-most meaning of Myth: an archetypal experience of living human truth – the very process of life living itself to the fullest unto the very last moment. This is Ibsen’s irony honed to an ultimate paradox as it is put to the service of a son’s compassion for his mother in her dying moment.