Love's Comedy at the Orange Tree Theatre two days ago. This is supposed to be an "early, flawed work"? This is supposed to be an artist still finding his voice? Well, if that's true, then I can't wait to watch A Doll's House or An Enemy of the People, because I loved this to bits. Maybe it's the age. Maybe it's the situation. Maybe two years from now, in another place and time, I will wonder why I sat through those three hours, enthralled like I've rarely been before. Maybe I'll wonder about that in a couple of months, even. But be that as it may, that night, for me at least, Falk and Svanhild spoke in the authentic voice of truth.I saw Ibsen's |
A word about the Orange Tree Theatre. I cursed heartily when I discovered, on the day, that it is in Richmond, in Zone 4, the last stop on the District Line (and what's more, annoyingly close, on the map, to Ealing Broadway, so you can't see one without seeing the other). A one hour tube journey from Piccadilly, and I half-considered not going at all, in the night and the bitter cold, given that this play wasn't supposed to be "all that good", given that I'd get back to Victoria Coach Station at 11 30, or something. But thank fate, I went. The theatre itself was the first pleasant surprise - a circular arrangement of seats, three levels deep, and no stage - it was essentially like the quintessential fireside evening - sit around in a circle, and watch people perform within it - almost Indian, to put it extremely crudely. And that was at least part of what made the experience wonderful - being right next to the actors all the time, close enough to notice their most subtle movements and gestures, their expressions, even the beginning of tears in Svanhild's eyes. (Yes, by the end of the evening, I was entirely in love with both Svanhild - both the character, and the actress - what a performance! You can call me "Falk" henceforth).
And what made the play so special? I think it's exactly the same thing that made Kundera's Life is Elsewhere so special, the first time I read it. It is that Ibsen knows - he knows exactly what it is to be young, to dream, to see poetry in everything, to rage against convention and the world, to ponder and ponder about time, permanence, fleetingness and flux, to be in love and create a world, to be in pain and destroy it - he knows it all, and he finds the most perfect expression for it. And it isn't simply that he knows it all - this isn't Shelley writing within the blaze of romanticism, but rather, from the outside - as someone who understands the illusions that we create for ourselves, and is determined to show them to us as illusions, bare and exposed, without the legitimising covering of romanticism - as illusions, with all their beauty and all their futility. Is this a comedy? As much or as little as The Merchant of Venice is a comedy. Yes, there is laughter. But the laughter is not the laughter of watching Falstaff get his comeuppance in The Merry Wives of Windsor, or hearing Dogberry's malapropisms in Twelfth Night. It is the laughter of O my daughter, O my ducats, that follows upon the frigid gravitas of "Hath not a Jew eyes?" It is a laughter that, paradoxical as it may sound, is born out of sadness, a certain kind of sadness in The Merchant of Venice, and a different kind of sadness in Love's Comedy.
At one level, I understand perfectly, this play is about the subjugation of women. And that is probably the most dated aspect of it. Some of Falk's specific diatribes against convention, when it is on the subject of marriage, don't make too much sense in 2012 - at least, not to me, fortunate enough to have been born in a liberal family in a liberal age. So I'll pass lightly over that, and on to the other central conflict of the play - this brilliant tension between carpe diem live-in-the-moment on the one hand, and certainty and stability on the other.
The theme is set in the opening scene, in Falk's first poem.
I will live in song and gladness,—
Then, when every bloom is shed,
Sweep together, scarce in sadness,
All that glory, wan and dead:
Fling the gates wide! Bruise and batter,
Tear and trample, hoof and tusk;
I have plucked the flower, what matter
Who devours the withered husk!
Immediately after that, Falk claims that if he had control over the dictionary for one hour, he would expunge the word "next" from the lexicon, because we ruin our lives, we ruin our moments by thinking of what is to come next. We then learn that back in the day, when Stiver was in love, he wrote reams of poetry in office hours, but hasn't written a word since he became engaged with the woman he loved. So the two intertwined themes are established at the beginning - the moment is what matters, and social convention is utterly destructive - to that, and to everything else.
Falk then comes up with the classical romanticist desire of finding a woman to be his muse, one who will inspire him to write great poetry.
Let blindness veil the sunlight from mine eyes,
I'll chant the splendour of the sunlit skies!
Just for a season let me beg or borrow
A great, a crushing, a stupendous sorrow,
And soon you'll hear my hymns of gladness rise!
But best, Miss Jay, to nerve my wings for flight,
Find me a maid to be my life, my light—
For that incitement long to heaven I've pleaded;
But hitherto, worse luck, it hasn't heeded.
And so, the introduction of the third theme, that is also hopelessly intertwined with the other two - poetry, and how it is simply indispensable to youth and love. At this point, Svanhild enters, and her very first lines are redolent of tragedy:
I'll pray that such may be your destiny.
But, when it finds you—bear it like a man.
And then, replying to Falk when he wonders whether her faith in prayer will be adequate to provide him what he has always unsuccessfully asked for:
Wait till sorrow comes,
And all your being's springtide chills and numbs,
Wait till it gnaws and rends you, soon and late,
Then tell me if my faith is adequate.
And there you have it. Live by romanticism and, by Lermontov, you will die by it! Falk doesn't answer, but suddenly, there is a sense of foreboding, and a sense of the inevitable. In a sense, we know what is going to come. Falk will fall in love, he will write poetry, he will live his life like it was a poem, he will live in every moment for the moment, but he will be utterly unable to carry the logic through to its conclusion. Like Faust, he will want the moment to last as long as it can, and in wanting that, he will betray himself and his own professed ideals, and that... well, you know what that will bring.
Falk and Svanhild's first conversation is a brilliant exploration of the stifling forces of convention upon free spirits. Falk comments upon her mythical name. To which:
Is it so grim?
No, lovely as a song,
But for our age too great and stern and strong,
How can a modern demoiselle fill out
The ideal that heroic name expresses?
No, no, discard it with your outworn dresses.
You mean the mythical princess, no doubt—
Who, guiltless, died beneath the horse's feet.
But now such acts are clearly obsolete.
No, no, I'll mount his saddle! There's my place!
How often have I dreamt, in pensive ease,
He bore me, buoyant, through the world apace,
His mane a flag of freedom in the breeze!
Yes, the old tale. In "pensive ease" no mortal
Is stopped by thwarting bar or cullis'd portal;
Fearless we cleave the ether without bound;
In practice, tho', we shrewdly hug the ground;
For all love life and, having choice, will choose it;
And no man dares to leap where he may lose it.
Yes! show me but the end, I'll spurn the shore;
But let the end be worth the leaping for!
A Ballarat beyond the desert sands—
Else each will stay exactly where he stands.
By this time, I think, despite the foreboding of her first words, we're convinced that this is going, to put it crudely, somewhere. This is exacerbated by the sharp tension between the thoughts of Falk and Svanhild, and the rest of the people in the country house - encapsulated, for instance, in this brilliant exchange between Falk and the recently engaged Lind:
LIND [seizing FALK's hand].
My friend, I walk in rapt intoxication!
Hold! As a plighted man you are a member
Of Rapture's Temperance-association.
Observe it's rules;—no orgies here, remember!
And in Falk's commentary on the priest, and in Svanhild's yearning reply:
FALK [looking after STRAWMAN who appears at the window].
He was once so brilliant and strong;
Warred with the world to win his mistress; passed
For Custom's doughtiest iconoclast;
And pored forth love in paeans of glad song—!
Look at him now! In solemn robes and wraps,
A two-legged drama on his own collapse!
And she, the limp-skirt slattern, with the shoes
Heel-trodden, that squeak and clatter in her traces,
This is the winged maid who was his Muse
And escort to the kingdom of the graces!
Of all that fire this puff of smoke's the end!
Sic transit gloria amoris, friend.
Yes, it is wretched, wretched past compare.
I know of no one's lot that I would share.
And you're convinced of it when Falk proposes his we-two-against-the-world ideal. This is the classically romantic story, heading for a classically romantic climax. But here's the surprise. Svanhild doesn't want to be a muse, after all.
Yes, free, for freedom's all-in-all
Is absolutely to fulfil our Call.
And you by heaven were destined, I know well,
To be my bulwark against beauty's spell.
I, like my falcon namesake, have to swing
Against the wind, if I would reach the sky!
You are the breeze I must be breasted by,
You, only you, put vigour in my wing:
Be mine, be mine, until the world shall take you,
When leaves are falling, then our paths shall part.
Sing unto me the treasures of your heart,
And for each song another song I'll make you;
So may you pass into the lamplit glow
Of age, as forests fade without a throe.
SVANHILD [with suppressed bitterness].
I cannot thank you, for your words betray
The meaning of your kind solicitude.
You eye me as a boy a sallow, good
To cut and play the flute on for a day.
Yes, better than to linger in the swamp
Till autumn choke it with her grey mists damp!
You must! you shall! To me you must present
What God to you so bountifully lent.
I speak in song what you in dreams have meant.
See yonder bird I innocently slew,
Her warbling was Song's book of books for you.
O, yield your music as she yielded hers!
My life shall be that music set to verse!
And when you know me, when my songs are flown,
And my last requiem chanted from the bough,—
FALK [observing her].
What then? Ah, well, remember now!
[Pointing to the garden.
Yes, I remember you can drive a stone.
FALK [with a scornful laugh].
This is your vaunted soul of freedom therefore!
All daring, if it had an end to dare for!
I've shown you one; now, once for all, your yea
You know the answer I must make you:
I never can accept you in your way.
FALK [coldly, breaking off].
Then there's an end of it; the world may take you!
A number of things at play here. The most important being, probably, that Falk is throwing down the gauntlet. I don't make any promises that this will last, he's saying, but if you want the moment - then it is here. He's virtually admitting that there will come a time when Svanhild will become quotidian and ordinary to him, no longer the inspiration or the muse, no longer his poetry or his song - and that is simply... the way it is. But of course, what Falk entirely fails to see, and what Svanhild understands perfectly, is the other side to it. She says:
Are you content the fields of air to tread
Hanging your poet's life upon a thread
That at my pleasure I can slip and sever?
And then again:
Mind well this day, and heed it, and beware;
Trust to your own wings only for your flight,
Sure, if they do not break, that they will bear.
The paper poem for the desk is fit,
That which is lived alone has life in it;
That only has the wings that scale the height;
Choose now between them, poet: be, or write!
The interplay of ideas is spectacular. For here's the old theme back again, the warning: if you choose to live your life in a poem, and the poem depends upon something temporal, fleeting and inconstant, then there will be nothing for you once the poem ends. And at this point of the play, although Falk is minded to accept the advice, we certainly aren't. We'd rather that he lives the poem, even though it must be extinguished in a blaze of fire, and be reduced to dust and ash.
(to be contd.)