Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 576
Immensely popular when first published, the verse drama Brand—a play in poetry—took the whole Scandinavian world by storm and launched Henrik Ibsen’s European fame. Four editions appeared in the year of its publication; by 1889, the eleventh edition had appeared. Four translations were published in Germany between 1872 and 1882. Though not intended for the stage, the work’s fourth act was played repeatedly (only in Sweden has the whole drama been performed). The play was written in Italy, where the author had exiled himself in protest against Norway’s national shame in remaining neutral and failing to support Denmark in its war against invading Prussia. From Italy, Ibsen was able to catch in clearer perspective the strengths and weaknesses of his native land. The writing of Brand seemed to be a personal catharsis, and he was able thereafter to return to his northern home and produce in regular succession, almost every two years for the rest of his life, his original and stirring dramas. Though Brand is addressed to the people of Norway, it is universal in its appeal, depicting the never-ending and tragic struggle of the soul in its search for uncompromising truth.
Brand was written in the first phase of Ibsen’s career, when his plays dealt mainly with historical themes, folklore, and romantic pageantry, and before the playwright turned to prose and social issues in the second phase of his career. Brand was the first of Ibsen’s masterpieces, foreshadowing his best-known plays of social criticism. The play vitalized the Norwegian theater, which had been languishing under the shadow of the Danish theater in Copenhagen even after Norway’s separation from Denmark in 1814. Brand thus has historical significance as well as artistic importance.
The play combines poetry and moral passion in a grim Norwegian landscape of jagged mountains, deep-fissured valleys, and cruel cold. The setting is an apt complement to the solemn, tragic atmosphere of the play and to the dour cynicism of many of Brand’s parishioners and fellow villagers. Indeed, gloom pervades the play. At the beginning of the play, Einar and Agnes appear to Brand as symbols of lightheartedness that the priest deplores as evil. Soon after, Agnes breaks off her engagement to Einar to marry Brand and live a life of great sacrifice, which ends with her early death. Einar, too, subsequently forsakes his lighthearted ways and becomes a religious fanatic. It is the stern image of Brand, however, that dominates the play.
Brand is the tragedy of a supreme idealist misled by an image of holiness. His uncompromising attitude in his dealings with others—even with his wife and in matters relating to the survival of their son—reveals his conviction that the path to holiness is too narrow for concessions or backsliding. Brand is so sure of his own judgment that even his mountain-climbing injuries appear as vindicating stigmata. Ironically, his epiphany is shattered by the rifle shot of Gerd, his one remaining follower and a social outcast. The manifestation of the transcendent mercy of God, however, just before the avalanche engulfs Brand and Gerd, is not a validation of his beliefs. Rather, Ibsen is showing that even the most pious and dedicated priest can do and be wrong and thus stand in need of the divine solace Brand had earlier exhorted his sinful parishioners to seek. Brand depicts the fate of a proud man whose ideals and idealism have blinded him to his own pride.