The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, JULY 3, 1938
Ibsen Is Still Lively
--Peer Gynt Suite, by W. J. Cash
Site ed. note: The tender fantasy from "Peer Gynt" which Cash selects to display Ibsen's enduring poetic skill suggests Cash's own tenderness--but a complex one, needful of intellect and subtlety and devoid of open displays of crass sentiment and weapy tears--even upon such an emotional scene as the fugitive son saying his last to his dying mother. That, Cash saw as the purpose of art--to display a common scene from reality in a heightened form, not just the dull-pate rendering of literal memory.
Cash's own mother died one hot August afternoon in 1959 in Shelby at the Cash home on Sumter Street. She was surrounded by her minister, family, and neighbors. Her death came peacefully--unnoticed by those in the room save one little boy who pointed out to someone that his grandmother was now different. She had gone from within a coma into which she had gently slipped the night before, as her daughter Bertie, having spent the previous four months at her bedside tending her, said good-bye. Yes, there were tears--and had Wilbur lived another eighteen years, no doubt he would have provided some of his own. But this was reality.
NOW and then I run across somebody saying or implying that Ibsen is outmoded. But I think what they are mainly thinking about is the writhings of Nora Helmer in "A Doll's House" and the hysterical and exploded "science" of "Ghosts." There are others of his "problems," too, which seem pretty stale fustian to us now. Indeed, I think very little of the whole "problem" technique which he invented. Not because I do not believe that plays, like novels, ought to be concerned with the living stuff of reality, but because I believe that the approach ought to be more insidious than is possible to a system which starts with an abstract question, creates situations and persons to embody that question, and drops it in your lap, a complete and neat little bundle labeled "problem."
But for all, Ibsen seems to me to be anything but outmoded. Even the worst of the problem plays are still full of good stuff. If the cause of the contest seems to us ridiculous now, the eternal struggle between man and woman is admirably done in "A Doll's House." And if we know now that syphilis isn't inherited and incline to laugh at the heavy mouthings of the characters of "Ghosts," yet Pastor Manders is as deathless as the type he represents. But it is in his least read works, like "Brand" and "Peer Gynt" that he remains wholly fresh and readable. The latter I think by far the best thing he ever did and the play upon which his claim to be remembered is most substantially based. It is one of the greatest fantasies of the world. The only ones I think of which can be compared to it are "The Tempest" and "The Playboy of the Western World," with the latter of which it, of course, has a great deal of kinship.
Take that passage in which Peer, having committed the bride-rape, comes down out of the forests in the mountains to visit his dying mother, Ase, at the risk of his neck.
Peer: ... "Do you mind, dear, how oft in the evenings sat at my bedside here, and spread the fur-coverlet o'er me, and sang many a lilt and lay?"
Ase: "Ay, mind you? And then we played sledges when your father was far abroad. The coverlet served for sledge-apron, and the floor for an ice-bound fiord."
Peer: "Ah, but the best of all, though, --mother, you mind that, too? --the best was the fleet-foot horses--"
Ase: "Ay, think you that I've forgot? --It was Kari's cat that we borrowed; it sat on the log-scooped chair--"
Peer: "To the castle west of the moon and the castle east of the sun, to Soria-Moria Castle the road ran both high and low. A stick that we found in the closet, for a whip-shaft you made it serve."
Ase: "Right proudly I perked on the box-seat--"
Peer: "Ay, ay: you threw loose the reins, and kept turning round as we traveled, and asked me if I was cold. God bless you, ugly old mother,-- you were ever a kindly soul--! What's hurting you now?"
Ase: "My back aches, because of the hard, bare boards."
Peer: "Stretch yourself: I'll support you. There now, you're lying soft."
Ase (uneasily): "No, Peer, I'd be moving!"
Ase: "Ay, moving; 'tis ever my wish."
Peer: "Oh, nonsense. Spread o'er you the bed-fur. Let me sit at your bedside here. There: now we'll shorten the evening with many a lilt and lay."
Ase: "Better bring from the closet the prayer-book; I feel so uneasy of soul."
Peer: "In Soria-Moria Castle the King and the Prince give a feast. On the sledge-cushions lie and rest you: I'll drive you there over the heath--"
Ase: "But, Peer dear, am I invited?"
Peer: "Ay, that we are, both of us." (He throws a string round the back of the chair on which the cat is lying, takes up a stick and seats himself at the foot of the bed.) "Gee up! Will you stir yourself, Black-boy? Mother, you're not a-cold? Ay, ay; by the pace one knows it, when Grane begins to go!"
Ase: "Why, Peer, what is it that's ringing--?"
Peer: "The glittering sledge-bells, dear!"
Ase "Oh, mercy, how hollow its rumbling!"
Peer: "We're just driving over a fiord."
Ase: "I'm afraid! What is that I hear rushing and sighing so strange and wild?"
Peer: "It's the sough of the pine-trees, mother, on the heath. Do you but sit still."
Ase: "There's a sparkling and gleaming afar now; whence comes all that blaze of light?"
Peer: "From the castle's windows and doorways. Don't you hear, they are dancing?"
Peer: "Outside the door stands Saint Peter and prays you to enter in."
Ase: "Does he greet us?"
Peer: "He does, with honor, and pours out the sweetest wine."
Ase: "Wine! Has he cake as well, Peer?"
Peer: "Cakes? Ay, a heaped-up dish. And the dean's wife is getting ready your coffee and dessert."
Ase: "Oh, Christ; shall we two come together?"
Peer: "As freely as ever you will."
Any sit: "Oh, deary, Peer, what a frolic you're driving me to, poor soul!"
Peer (cracking his whip): "Gee-up; will you stir yourself, Black-boy?"
Ase: "Peer, dear, you're driving right?"
Peer: "Ay, broad is the way."
Ase: "This journey, it makes me so weak and tired."
Peer: "There's the cattle rising before us; the drive will be over soon."
Ase: "I will lie back and close my eyes then, and trust me to you my boy!"
Peer: "Come up with you. Grane, my trotter! In the castle the throng is great: they bustle and swarm to the gateway. Peer Gynt and his mother are here! What say you, Master Saint Peter? Shall mother not enter in? You may search a long time, I tell you, ere you find such an honest old soul. Myself I don't want to speak of; I can turn at the castle gate. If you'll treat me, I'll take it kindly; if not, I'll off just as pleased. I have made up as many flimflams as the devil at the pulpit-desk, and called my old mother a hen, too, because she would cackle and crow. But her you shall honor and reverence, and make her at home indeed; there comes not a soul to beat her from the parishes nowadays. --Ho-ho; here comes God the Father! Saint Peter, you're in for it now! (In a deep voice.) "Have done with these jack-in-office airs, sir; Mother Ase shall enter free!" (Laughs loudly and turns toward his mother.) "Ay, didn't I know what would happen? Now they dance to another tune!" (Uneasily.) "Why, what makes your eyes so glassy? Mother! Have you got out of your wit--?" (Goes to the head of the bed.) "You mustn't lie there and stare so--! Speak, mother; it's I, your boy!" (Feels her forehead and hands cautiously; then throws the string on the chair, and says softly): "Ay, ay, you can rest yourself, Grane; for even now the journey's done." (Closes her eyes and bends over.) "For all of your days I thank you, for beatings and lullabies! --But see, you must thank me back, now--" (Presses his cheek against her mouth.) "There; that was the driver's fare."
I think that will not be outmoded for a very long while.
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