“All or Nothing”:
The Prisoner & Ibsen’s Brand
A number of years ago I wrote an essay offering an interpretation of the cult TV series The Prisoner (anthologized in Summoning the Gods, published by Counter-Currents).
I had known for some time that early in his career series star and creator Patrick McGoohan had played the title character in a London stage production of Henrik Ibsen’s Brand, and that this had been an important role for him both personally and professionally.
It was only recently, however, that I got around to reading Brand (in a translation from the Norwegian by Michael Meyer), as well as seeing McGoohan perform the role in a videotaped production for the BBC. (Available on DVD as part of the BBC’s Henrik Ibsen Collection.) The result is that I have discovered a new dimension to The Prisoner – and found further confirmation of the interpretation I’ve already offered.
Ibsen wrote Brand in 1865, but never meant it for theatrical performance. The play was written as a verse drama intended to be read by performers from a script. Thus, Ibsen included a number of elements that were nearly impossible to stage, including a storm at sea and an avalanche. The play was a great success in print, but no one dared to try to stage it until 1885, in Stockholm. One attendee described the experience as follows: “It lasted for 6 ½ hours, until 12:30 a.m. Such ladies as survived to the end lay dozing on their escorts’ shoulders, with their corsets and bodices unbuttoned.” Thereafter Brand was seldom performed – though the play did enjoy some popularity in Germany, unsurprisingly, around the turn of the last century. It was not performed in Ibsen’s native Norway until 1904.
The Story of Brand
The titular character of Brand is a Protestant minister whose religion consists almost entirely in a kind of extreme moral fanaticism. The play opens high in the mountains, with Brand bent on getting someplace – though where and why are not made clear. A guide encounters him and warns him of the hazardous path ahead:
GUIDE. Listen, priest. We have only one life. Once that’s lost we don’t get another. There’s a frozen mountain lake ahead, and mountain lakes are treacherous.
BRAND. We will walk across it.
GUIDE. Walk on water?
BRAND. It has been done.
GUIDE. Ah, that was long ago. There are no miracles now. You sink without trace.
But Brand ignores him and presses on. Eventually he runs into a young couple – Ejnar and Agnes – who are carefree and in love. Ejnar calls to Brand, who watches them from above: “Don’t stand up there like an icicle. . . . And I’ll tell you how good God has been to us.” But then Brand reveals his mission to them:
BRAND: I am going to a burial feast.
AGNES: To a burial feast?
EJNAR. Who is to be buried?
BRAND. That God you have just called yours. The God of every dull and earth-bound slave shall be shrouded and coffined for all to see and lowered into his grave. It is time, you know. He has been ailing for a thousand years.
EJNAR. Brand, you’re ill!
BRAND. No, I am well and strong as mountain pine or juniper. It is our time, our generation, that is sick and must be cured. All you want is to flirt, and play, and laugh; to do lip service to your faith but not to know the truth; to leave your suffering to someone who they say died for your sake. He died for you, so you are free to dance. To dance, yes; but whither? Ah, that is another thing, my friend.
It’s difficult to resist quoting this marvelous text. Brand denounces what he calls “the people’s God.” “You do not want to live your faith,” he says to Ejnar and Agnes. “For that you need a God who’ll keep one eye shut.” And then comes Brand’s description of his God, which, I must note, is positively chilling when spoken by McGoohan:
Mine is a storm where yours is a gentle wind, inflexible where yours is deaf, all-loving not all-doting. And he is young and strong like Hercules. His is the voice that spoke in thunder when he stood bright before Moses in the burning bush, a giant before the dwarf of dwarfs. In the valley of Gibeon he stayed the sun, and worked miracles without number – and would work them still, if people were not dead, like you.
Though undeniably this is a play about Christianity (and differing interpretations of Christianity), more fundamentally it is about one man’s alienation from what he perceives to be a decadent, fallen society. On one level, Brand is quite right to denounce the vice and hypocrisy he sees around him. But he sets his own moral standard so impossibly high that no one can escape condemnation. And he will leave human weakness no quarter.
Agnes winds up leaving Ejnar for Brand (transfixed after listening to him speak she says to Ejnar “But – did you see – how, as he spoke, he grew?”). But for a while, Brand is essentially rootless. “I must leave this narrow valley,” he says, “I cannot fight my battle here.” But where can he fight it? And how? Eventually, he realizes that a man’s primary field of battle is within his own soul: “Yes. Within, within. There is the way, that is the path. In oneself is that earth, newly created, ready to receive God.” And this is the ideal he urges on others: a kind of complete self-effacement, where one simply becomes a blank tablet on which God can write his law. When Brand’s mother lies dying, calling for him, he refuses to go to her unless she gives up her rather considerable wealth, of which she is sinfully proud. She sends a message to Brand, saying that she will give up half. Still, he refuses to come. A second message arrives: she will give up nine tenths. Still, he remains immovable. And when she dies, Brand shows no remorse.
He demands from himself and all others quite literally “All or nothing”: “Remember, I am stern in my demands. I require All or Nothing. No half measures. There is no forgiveness for failure.” The local doctor tells him, “Our generation is not to be scared by rods of fire, or by nurses’ tales about damned souls. Its first commandment, Brand, is: be humane.” But Brand will have none of this. He tells Agnes “When the will has triumphed, then comes the time for love. But here, faced by a generation which is lax and slothful, the best love is hate.”
I confess there is a part of me that identifies very strongly with Brand, and that is drawn to the stark purity of his “fanaticism.” Setting aside Brand’s Christianity, I’ll wager most of my readers can identify with Brand as well, faced as we are by an even more decadent culture. We can endorse Brand’s sweeping condemnation of . . . well, everything. We also share his intransigence – but we also share his isolation. For us, to accommodate ourselves to this time is death. Still, we must consider the wisdom in the following exchange:
BRAND. So empty, so flat, so mean has man become.
AGNES. And yet, from this blind, stumbling generation, you demand: All or Nothing?
Brand’s mistake is not his idealism, or even his blanket condemnation of his society. His mistake is in thinking that others are capable of living up to the standards he sets for himself (and, ultimately, it is not clear that he is capable of living up to them either). He fails as a minister because he is not able to accept the reality of human weakness, and to work with people as they are so as to try and move them just a little closer to the ideal. But he is not content to edge imperfect people ever so slightly nearer to an ideal they will never fully realize. He wants all, or nothing.
Brand does eventually at least settle somewhere, and becomes pastor of the local church. And he and Agnes have a child, a little boy named Ulf. But the child is weak and sickly, and the climate only worsens his condition. The doctor advises them to leave the area, or the child will die. Any normal man would pack his bags at once, but Brand cannot abandon his flock – he has promised them so much, and set such a lofty example, that he cannot simply up and leave. And so, with full knowledge that it will mean the death of his child, Brand stays. Agnes, suffering but enthralled to Brand’s uncompromising moralism, passively obeys him. The result, predictably, is that Ulf does indeed die.
Brand sees the child’s death as a necessary sacrifice: had he left town in order to save his child, it would have been for purely selfish reasons. One wonders if Brand has read Kant. In a famous passage of his Grounding of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant tells us that
to preserve one’s life is a duty; and furthermore everyone has also an immediate inclination to do so. But on this account the often anxious care taken by most men for it has no intrinsic worth, and the maxim of their action has no moral content. They preserve their lives, to be sure, in accordance with duty, but not from duty. On the other hand, if adversity and hopeless sorrow have completely taken away he taste for life, if an unfortunate man, strong in soul and more indignant at his fate than despondent or dejected, wishes for death and yet preserves his life without loving it – not from inclination or fear, but from duty – then his maxim has a moral content.
Similarly, Brand is sure that he has acted morally simply because he has chosen to do exactly the opposite of what he wanted to do: he wanted to save his child. He believes he has acted from duty alone, and the proof of it is that he and Agnes now suffer. Of course, if Brand is a Kantian he is a bad one: it is true that Brand had an obligation to his flock, but he also had an obligation – in the eyes of most, a greater one – to safeguard his child’s life. (When the doctor urges Brand to do the “humane” thing and save the child, Brand answers “Was God humane towards his son?”)
Consider also his treatment of his mother. As a minister he had an obligation to disapprove of greed and attachment to material possessions – yet he also had an obligation to care for his mother, regardless of her failure to live up to his ideal. Perhaps he felt the desire to go to her, but he fought it off in the name of “duty.” In his cold rejection of her in the hour of her death, Brand is certain that he has acted with complete virtue. It is worth noting that Otto Weininger, writing in Sex and Character, noted approvingly that “only Ibsen (in Brand and Peer Gynt) has, almost independently, discovered the principle of Kantian ethics.”
In any case, Agnes accepts Brand’s claim that Ulf’s death was necessary, but of course she clings to the memory of her lost child. She carefully preserves his clothes in a trunk, taking them out now and again and recalling how he looked in them – much to Brand’s discomfort. But on Christmas Eve a poor gypsy woman comes begging, asking for clothes for her little child. And so, inevitably, Brand now puts Agnes to the test: she must give up all of Ulf’s clothes to the gypsy. Agnes does so, but surreptitiously she keeps back one item: Ulf’s little cap. But then, filled with remorse, she surrenders it to Brand and the gypsy. “Willingly?” he asks her. “Willingly,” she responds. And then, in a state of religious ecstasy, she cries “I am free, Brand! I am free!”
At this point, I think one is tempted to offer a kind of Nietzschean analysis of Brand, and to see him as a man who has set himself against life. But it is important to note that there is not the slightest indication in Ibsen’s play that Brand is motivated by cruelty, and still less by some kind of ressentiment. It is quite obvious that Brand does what he does because he is genuinely convinced that he is right. Even though he winds up doing things that seem, to us, terribly wrong, he is misguided, not evil. It may seem incredible to say this given all the foregoing, but Brand is a sympathetic character. We can admire his single-minded idealism and determination to do what is right – and we can also easily imagine these same impulses leading us to make our own tragic mistakes. Indeed, Brand is a genuinely tragic character, not a villain.
When the play’s fifth and final act opens, Agnes has died. Ibsen never really explains how she dies, it simply seems that after her last, great act of self-sacrifice she just gives up her life. Six months have passed since her death, and Brand has succeeded in building a new church for the village. (The other, he complained, was “too small.”) The provost (Brand’s church superior) arrives to congratulate him, but he has some words of warning for Brand:
Your job isn’t to save every Jack and Jill from damnation, but to see that the parish as a whole finds grace. We want all men to be equal. But you are creating inequality where it never existed before. Until now every man was simply a member of the Church. You have taught him to look upon himself as an individual, requiring special treatment. This will result in the most frightful confusion. The surest way to destroy a man is to turn him into an individual.
Brand’s ideal, of course, was for each man to freely choose to empty himself, and to be filled by God – freely and truly, and with full consciousness. The provost sees this as dangerous folly, calculated to throw every soul into confusion, and into self-aggrandizement and a rejection of authority. Brand is unnerved by his exchange with the priest – and even more so by a subsequent exchange with Ejnar, who has returned after many years abroad. The once happy-go-lucky young man is now a missionary, and his moral fanaticism exceeds even Brand’s. Recognizing himself in Ejnar, Brand is horrified, and seems to lose control.
He throws the key to the new church into the river and leads the townspeople up towards the mountains. He declares that together they will now roam the land saving souls, and will make of the earth itself a vast church without walls. At first, the people are caught up in Brand’s enthusiasm: “Lead us! Lead us! Lead us to victory!” they cry. But after a while, when they begin to feel hungry and thirsty, they start having doubts. One of them demands of Brand “First, how long shall we have to fight? Secondly, how much will it cost us? Thirdly, what will be our reward?” There is little, alas, that can be done with such material, but Brand persists and answers them:
How long will you have to fight? Until you die! What will it cost? Everything you hold dear. Your reward? A new will, cleansed and strong, a new faith, integrity of spirit; a crown of thorns. That will be your reward.
But the townsfolk have had enough. They begin pelting Brand with stones, intent on killing him. Brand survives the attack only due to the sudden arrival of the mayor, who lies and tells them that “a shoal of fishes has entered the fjord – millions of them!” This is the only sort of reward that means anything to most human beings. Faced with the prospect of riches, the people forget about Brand and return to the town.
Brand, of course, cannot follow them. He must press on. As he climbs higher and higher into the snow-covered mountain range Brand becomes delirious, and hears a female voice (apparently Agnes) calling to him: “You can never be like Him, for you are flesh. Do His will, or forsake Him, you are lost, lost.” The voice promises Brand a “remedy,” a way for him to redeem himself. Anxiously, he asks to know it and the voice replies: “Three words. You must blot them out, wipe them from your memory: All or Nothing!” Finally, Brand is caught in the path of an avalanche; escape is impossible. He cries aloud to the heavens: “Answer me, God, in the moment of death! If not by will, how can man be redeemed?” As Brand is buried by the avalanche, the voice responds: “He is the God of love.” And the play ends.
Brand on Stage, and on the Small Screen
The foregoing brief description (which leaves out quite a lot) is enough to indicate at what a high intellectual level this play is pitched, and what emotional power it possesses. But it is no surprise that it has seldom been performed. Brand is too sad, too long, too intellectual, and too emotionally unsettling to ever be a popular play, even with “serious theatergoers.” In addition, there is the significant problem of finding an actor powerful enough to bring this character to life.
That problem, and the problem of the play’s length, was solved in Britain in 1959 when the ’59 Theatre Company commissioned a new translation by Michael Meyer. Realizing that there was simply no way that they could mount a 6 ½ hour play, producer Caspar Wrede and director Michael Elliott asked Meyer to produce an abridged version – cutting out all the discussion of topical matters Ibsen had included, which would have been largely incomprehensible to a London audience in the late 50s. On stage, Meyer’s cut version would clock in at a very reasonable 2 ½ hours, including two intermissions. Meyer’s translation was later published, but is now out of print. (Used copies are still to be found, however.) I have to say that if I weren’t aware that the play is heavily abridged, I would never have guessed it. How faithful it is to Ibsen’s Norwegian I really can’t say, but Meyer is an excellent English stylist.
The ’59 Theatre Company presented Brand at the Lyric Opera House in Hammersmith (now known simply as the Lyric Hammersmith) as part of a six month residency there. A repertory company of actors was utilized, including Patrick McGoohan, Dilys Hamlett (Agnes), Patrick Wymark (the Mayor), and Peter Sallis (the Doctor and the Provost). Michael Elliott had little experience directing for the stage, but had helmed a number of plays for BBC television, including Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea the previous year. Wisely, it was decided that the production should be minimalistic, with little suggestion of any definite time and place. Richard Negri’s stark mountain sets and the cast’s dark and simple costumes gave the whole thing a rather Bergman-like feel. (Indeed, when watching the video of the BBC telecast it struck me as a great shame that Bergman had never brought this play to the screen.)
In the role of Brand, McGoohan is simply stunning. As his co-star Peter Sallis has noted, McGoohan delivered the only possible interpretation of the role: he plays Brand as if he is a prophet in a constant state of religious ecstasy. He does not speak, he oraculates. He barely seems to notice anyone else, so lost is he in what appears to be a constant communion with God. And he seems built out of fire and brimstone, continually inveighing against all and everything, and at an emotional pitch that is simply exhausting to watch. As is the case with many of McGoohan’s performances, at times he is a bit over-the-top – but the role demands this. Brand is a man of lofty ideals, absolute moral certainty, and the conviction that it is his job to save the world. One simply can’t “underplay” a character like that. Writing of McGoohan’s performance in the television broadcast, one academic says the following:
Patrick McGoohan’s performance as Brand is played at a tenor that is unfamiliar in subsequent television drama. This intensity of performance is evident in both his speech and appearance. When Brand speaks, the impression made is animalistic; the voice both growls and wavers and sometimes appears to yelp at points of rhetorical conclusion, McGoohan often speaks much faster than would be effective in any conversation and lines of speech suddenly jump into higher volume and more forceful emphasis in a jolting fashion. The facial expressions that McGoohan uses are as striking and defined as the speech that he uses; sudden frowns and settings of the mouth and jaw. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this animated facial physicality is the way that McGoohan uses his eyes, rarely appearing to make direct eye contact with other characters but flickering his eyes aside, only looking at his wife, and even then quickly looking away.
This is an extremely perceptive description of what is in fact McGoohan’s general style of acting, not just in Brand (though in Brand we have him at his most powerful, and also at his most quirky). McGoohan’s avoidance of looking directly at his fellow performers is a brilliant way to suggest Brand’s detachment from other human beings. It is, quite simply, a remarkable performance.
Unfortunately, it was a bit too much for some of the preview audience at the Lyric Opera House. They were impressed by McGoohan, but found his performance literally wearying. The result was that on press night Elliott visited the volatile McGoohan in his dressing room and – with some trepidation, I imagine – asked him to hold back a bit until the last act. McGoohan did as his director asked, and when the final curtain came down the result was a tremendous response from the audience. Michael Meyer describes the experience in his memoirs:
Then came the fifth act. Ibsen was a master of the final act, but he never wrote a greater one than in Brand. When the villagers who have followed Brand up the mountain turn on him and stone him, McGoohan suddenly unleashed all his terrifying power, and from then until the final moments . . . the audience was gripped as seldom happens in a theatre. Michael had designed a marvellously simple yet effective method of suggesting the avalanche. The . . . pale sun behind the gauze began slowly to contract and distend like a human heart, the darkness and the roar intensified until, following Brand’s cry: ‘If not by Will, how shall man be redeemed?’, there was a sudden silence, the invisible ghost of Agnes replied: ‘He is the God of Love’, the avalanche descended with redoubled force and the curtain descended with it. The audience rose and cheered; never have I heard a reception to equal that.
By all accounts, the BBC’s rendition – broadcast in August 1959 – did not quite succeed in duplicating the stage production’s vivid theatricality – but how could it? The cast of the television version was mostly the same, and it was again directed by Michael Elliott. However, cuts were made in Meyer’s already-abridged version of the play, resulting in a running time of just about exactly 90 minutes. Unfortunately, some wonderful lines were cut and interesting speeches truncated, but overall the result is still quite gripping. For the telecast, McGoohan does not seem to be “holding back” in the earlier acts at all. And this was undoubtedly a wise decision. A theatre audience will generally sit through the entirety of a production they’ve paid to see. Even if they are not terribly involved by the earlier bits, they will wait to see how it all plays out. But a television audience can simply switch channels. McGoohan knew that he needed to “grab them” right from the beginning. As Peter Sallis has said, “You can’t diminish Brand for the television camera.”
Brand and The Prisoner
Brand was an important role for McGoohan both personally and professionally, and I think there can be little doubt that he identified strongly with the character. To begin with, McGoohan was a religious man. He received a strict Catholic upbringing from his parents, and initially acceded to his mother’s request that he become a priest. Years later when asked by a fan who had been the most important influence on his life, he responded “Jesus Christ.” And, like Brand, McGoohan appears to have had something of a Christ complex. The Prisoner’s script editor George Markstein relates an amusing anecdote about McGoohan – one that is revealing, but also one that we should not read too much into. It was Christmas Day, during production of The Prisoner, and Markstein suddenly realized he wasn’t sure if he’d been given the day off. So he took a cab to the studio. He found it deserted, save for McGoohan sitting on a stool in the middle of a sound stage. “What are you doing here, George?” McGoohan asked. Markstein explained he wasn’t sure if he’d been told he didn’t have to come in. McGoohan responded, straight-faced, “George, on my birthday everyone has the day off.”
To my mind, this little anecdote from Markstein reveals a good deal of self-knowledge on McGoohan’s part. Obviously, he didn’t literally think he was Jesus – but perhaps he did recognize a tendency in himself towards a Brand-like self-aggrandizement; a tendency towards messianism. And isn’t it obvious that this would be the case? After all, what kind of man does it take to create The Prisoner? Those who worked with McGoohan found him more Jehovah-like than Christ-like, if truth be told. By all accounts, he was alternately charming and intimidating. Orson Welles, no shrinking violet himself, stated that he found McGoohan “intimidating” when they worked together in a stage production of Moby Dick (directed by Welles).
Actor Leo McKern suffered a nervous breakdown while being directed by McGoohan in the Prisoner episode “Once Upon A Time.” Years later he said of McGoohan, “He was almost impossible to work with and a dreadful bully – always shouting and screaming and yelling about the place . . . I felt a dreadful sense of pressure all the time, being shouted at.” Indeed, there are numerous stories of McGoohan’s tyrannical behavior during the filming of The Prisoner. At least one director was dressed down and sacked by McGoohan on the set only hours after he had started work (McGoohan took over direction himself). In one instance, the crew actually rebelled against McGoohan’s perfectionism. He was directing a scene in the episode “A Change of Mind” and had been trying for some considerable time to get one shot right. But by the late evening the crew had finally had enough. When 9 p.m. rolled around, the time work had been scheduled to end, the technicians simply turned off the lights in the middle of shooting and went home, leaving a stunned McGoohan to fume in solitude.
Now, one can excuse all of this bad behavior on McGoohan’s part since The Prisoner is such a brilliant series. And it is easy to see that the reason he felt such a drive to get everything right is that he was a man with a mission. As anyone who has seen The Prisoner knows, this was no ordinary series – it was a modern morality play. McGoohan even christened his production company Everyman Films, after the fifteenth-century English morality play. The Prisoner was a commentary on our times – an indictment, really. His previous series, Danger Man, had enjoyed international popularity and made McGoohan the highest-paid actor on British television. The head of ITC, Lew Grade, had given McGoohan carte blanche on The Prisoner – sealing the deal with a simple handshake, and guaranteeing him complete creative control. With such resources at his disposal, and a guaranteed audience of millions, McGoohan knew what he must do. The opportunity could not be wasted. God had finally given him a big enough church, and he had to preach the evangel.
Not surprisingly, the pressure got to be a bit too much for him at times. On one occasion while filming a fight scene he nearly strangled actor Mark Eden. Recalls Eden: “All the veins were standing out on his forehead, and I thought, if I don’t throw him off I’m gonna black out.” McGoohan admitted years later “I worked my way through three nervous breakdowns.” Eventually, he was micro-managing every aspect of production on the series. And anyone who did not share his vision – especially his conception of the series’ moral tone – was simply removed. George Markstein rather quickly fell out with McGoohan, and attacked him years later for his “megalomania.”
McGoohan had a reputation in the industry as excessively moralistic and prudish. Most notoriously, he would not kiss his leading ladies. In all eighty-six episodes of Danger Man, McGoohan’s John Drake – a dashing secret agent during the heyday of dashing (and womanizing) secret agents – never once kisses or even flirts with any of the beautiful women who frequently starred opposite him. And many of my readers will have heard the story of how he turned down the role of James Bond when it was offered to him (ahead of Sean Connery), because he did not like Bond’s “amoralism.” (Though McGoohan revealed years later that it also had to do with the fact that he didn’t want to work with director Terrence Young.) It wasn’t just Bond’s kiss-kiss, of course, it was also his bang-bang that McGoohan objected to. And so we never see John Drake carry a gun or deliberately kill anyone.
In short, one can spot quite a few parallels between McGoohan and Brand, and I am quite convinced that McGoohan saw those parallels himself – both the flattering and the unflattering ones. There is no doubt that McGoohan could be a bit of a bully and megalomaniac – but I think there is also no doubt that he was a highly introspective and religious man, who recognized those tendencies in himself and understood that they were some of his worst features. In short, he was both attracted and repelled by the figure of Brand – who seems to have hit a bit close to home.
So far, however, all that I have said merely helps up to see how Brand can illuminate Patrick McGoohan. But how does it help us understand The Prisoner better? I would like to make the simple suggestion that Number Six is Brand. (There, it’s finally been done: for years people have wanted to hang a name on Number Six, and now he has one – just the one, I’m afraid, but it’s better than nothing.)
Let’s start with a small but revealing detail. Ibsen specifies in the stage direction of Brand that the character should be “dressed in black.” And given that he is a minister (referred to as a “priest” in Meyer’s translation) this is only fitting. Famously, our Number Six wears black throughout the series, but what is particularly interesting is his attire in the first episode, “Arrival.” When McGoohan awakes in the Village he is still wearing the clothes he had on when he was kidnapped in London. They are a black (or possibly dark gray) suit, over a black knit pullover shirt with three buttons. Notably, the shirt is buttoned up to the neck. The ensemble gives him a priest-like appearance – and it is uncannily reminiscent of the wardrobe McGoohan wore as Brand. In the 1959 stage production and telecast McGoohan wore a long, cassock-like black coat and black trousers, over a simple black shirt buttoned up to the neck (without any clerical collar). His wardrobe in “Arrival,” in short, looks like a modernized version of what he wore as Brand.
Of course, this isn’t enough to base an argument on – though it is an interesting detail. The more important parallels are between the characters of Number Six and Brand. In the essay on The Prisoner I wrote some years ago, I made the heretical suggestion that the series’ attitude toward individualism is actually rather ambivalent. The suggestion is heretical because most fans think that the series is a hymn to individualism and non-conformity. And most fans think that Number Six is offered to us a moral ideal, and as an unqualified hero. But I reject this. Yes, McGoohan did deplore the conformism of modern society, as well as its homogenization and dehumanization. And he deplored the shrinking sphere in which individual freedom is possible. But another of his targets was the soulless egoism of modern life.
In the final episode of The Prisoner we discover, of course, that the mysterious “Number One” is really Number Six himself. And I am not alone in thinking that this is the key to understanding the entire series. Here I must simply quote some lines from my earlier essay, because I can’t think of a better way to say what I mean:
When the Prisoner enters No. 1’s chamber, he sees himself on a TV screen saying “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped,” et cetera [just as he said in “Arrival”]. Then we hear his voice speeded up, hysterically chanting “I! I! I! I! I! I!” And we see the image that closes almost every episode: iron bars slamming shut over McGoohan’s face, this time over and over again. Are we being told here that the ego is a prison? . . . [No. 6] does not turn from modernity to anything higher than it, or higher than himself. He turns inwards and wills himself as, in effect, an atomic individual. As I have said, the most significant thing about the Village is that it has no church. But perhaps the most significant thing about No. 6 is that he doesn’t ask about this. . . . McGoohan is saying, “Fine. Reject society. Reject materialism and the modern world. But if you reject them in the name of your own ego you are buying into that primal, Biblical sin that is at the root of modernity itself: the placing of ego and its interests, narrowly conceived, above all else.” Without preaching to us, without ever mentioning religion, McGoohan invites us to rise above our No. 1, and turn our souls toward the Real Boss. One need not be a Christian, let alone a Catholic, to understand and sympathize with this message. . . . Does No. 6 get the message in the end? Not at all. . . . The final shot of the series is the same as the very first: there is a thunderclap, and the Prisoner comes speeding towards us in his hand-built Lotus. He is caught in the circle: an eternal cycle of rebellion, leading nowhere, and certainly not upwards. He is still a prisoner—not of the Village or of society, but of his own ego.
I was pleased to discover recently a quote from Prisoner producer David Tomblin which seems to confirm my interpretation: “If you sit down and look at it and think about it, it’s a man destroying himself through ego.” And McGoohan said of the series’ finale some years before his death, “Get rid of Number One, and we are free.”
So now I must speak of a dimension to the character of Brand that I did not explore earlier, but that should be rather obvious: Brand is, at root, an egoist. But, one might object, how can Brand be a Kantian – as I said earlier – and be an egoist as well? The answer is that Kantian moralism is, in fact, egoistic in a peculiar way – and we see this facet taken to an equally peculiar extreme by Brand (which, by the way, is surely the reason Weininger found the character so attractive). For Kant, the moral will must be autonomous. Now, “autonomy” literally means “giving a law to oneself.” One must choose or will one’s own law, or make the moral law one’s own. To act morally, for example, out of fear of God is an example of what Kant called “heteronymy”: allowing one’s will to be determined by something other than the will itself – other than one’s own pure, free act of affirming the good as the good.
If I can be forgiven the sin of embellishing Ibsen, one can easily imagine Brand caught in the following exchange (say, in Act Five of the play):
GOD. I am the God of love. You must give up your “All or Nothing” and reconcile yourself to human fallibility. You must lower your sights and forgive others for their inability to live up to your ideal.
BRAND. But to do that is to encourage human failure. We cannot give sin any quarter. And to forgive men their failings is to tell a lie: there is no salvation in having a partially clean conscience. It truly is All or Nothing.
GOD. Brand, there are shades of gray . . .
BRAND. Gray is a mixture of black and white. There can be no justification for accepting any of the black!
GOD. Look, this is God you’re talking to here . . .
BRAND. Then get thee behind me, Oh Lord. For thy law is no law at all. The love you feel for man – the love you lavish on him despite all his failings – is no virtue. And your promise of forgiveness does him no favor, for it merely comforts him in his weakness. Hear the voice of righteousness, Oh Lord! Follow me and be saved!
It is Brand’s own law, not God’s that he champions. It is his judgment he sets above all else. It is his vision that adheres to, though it means the death and suffering of others. This “selfless” man, this man of “duty” and of God, is one of the most profoundly selfish characters in all literature.
All the admirable traits in Brand are identical to those of Number Six: he is passionate, determined, resolute, strong, persevering, sure of his rightness, incorruptible, and uncompromising. But like Number Six, he is blind to the prison he has made for himself – the prison of his own ego. “Get rid of Number One, and we are free,” McGoohan says. This is advice we could give to both Brand and Number Six. The only difference is that the case of Brand is somewhat more ironic. He thinks that the “Number One” he is serving is God – when it is actually himself. Number Six, like modern man himself, never thinks of God. And he is bent on achieving a false and superficial freedom, if only the unseen “Number One” can be got out of the way. It never occurs to him that the “Number One” that imprisons him is his own ego.
There’s a great deal more that could be said here about The Prisoner and Brand. (For example, the voice of the provost – who wants all men to be equal and deplores individualism – is clearly the voice of “Number Two”!) And Brand really demands separate treatment. But I am convinced in Brand we have an important key to understanding The Prisoner, and its creator. Some of my readers may wonder why I have bothered so much about a television series. But film is art, and I would go so far as to say that it is the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art. It is capable of profundity, and of moving us in a way that no other art form can. And The Prisoner is serious film, and perhaps the greatest television series ever made. Like a great work of literature, it rewards us with something new each time we return to it.
1. Billy Smart, “World Theatre: Brand,” http://screenplaystv.wordpress.com/2012/01/27/world-theatre-brand-bbc-1959/#_ftn1 . I am indebted to this piece for quite a bit of the information in my essay on the making both of the stage production and telecast.
2. Michael Meyer, Not Prince Hamlet (Oxford, 1989), 165.
3. These two quotes, and a number of anecdotes recounted here, appear in the pages of Robert Fairclough’s The Prisoner: The Official Companion to the Classic TV Series (New York: ibooks, 2002).
4. Both quotes appear on p. 104 on The Prisoner: The Official Companion.
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Brand/McGoohan sounds a lot like Harry Partch. As I quote Ben Johnston in my essay
“He was so possessive of his artistic creations that … Partch was yet unwilling, even unable, to collaborate. He either dictated to his collaborators in their own area or he fought them all the way to an estrangement. . . . In his attitude to society he demanded support for his own work as far as possible without any strings attached while he was capable of even violating a contract with another artist. . . . This goes far beyond artistic integrity; indeed the word integrity is an ironic one to use at all in this context. He orchestrated and all but guaranteed the oblivion his work so obviously courts.”
The leitmotiv of Partch’s carreer, 1=1 (integrity, musical unison, monophony) recalls the chant of the Village’s parliament: “I I I! I I I!”
Thank your for this passage:
“It is Brand’s own law, not God’s that he champions. It is his judgment he sets above all else. It is his vision that adheres to, though it means the death and suffering of others. This “selfless” man, this man of “duty” and of God, is one of the most profoundly selfish characters in all literature.”
You’re welcome. I’m glad you enjoyed the essay.
I am not usually so sloppy.
Thank you for – correction.
This essay was so compelling that I went out and ordered the BBC Brand and The Prisoner series from Netflix. I had always been impressed with McGoohan, based on a couple episodes of “Danger Man” I saw as a kid, and his performance opposite Vanessa Redgrave in Mary Queen of Scots. But I had never seen anything else.
Outstanding analysis! I wonder if anyone else has made this discovery before.
Thank you, Petronius! Its well known in McGoohan fan circles that Brand was his favorite role and that it “influenced” him. But to my knowledge no one has discussed in any depth how it could have influenced The Prisoner.
I don’t agree. Brand is not a Catholic priest and doesn’t need to forgive people of their sins. He is willing to forgive those around him but follows Jesus’ teaching of “shaking the dust off your sandals and let them go” if they don’t accept his teachings. The job of a pastor is to lead the people in the path of Christ which is to “take up their cross and follow me”. “any man who saves his life will lose it and any man who loses his life for my sake will find it”. Not to mention that even Abraham put his own child on a sacrificial alter since God asked it of him. Brand has been appointed by God not to leave his flock and it is a test of his faithfulness whether or not he will give him up. “Give away everything you have and follow me”, whoever does not hate his father, mother, or brother cannot follow me” ” Let the dead bury there own dead”..etc. Jesus called for everything. The theological debate of assurance of salvation is raised here. If you claim salvation or faith in Christ you’re finished… Brand is in the other camp of “you will no them by their works” and “whoever does the will of my father is mine”. The ending is severely misunderstood as well. Death is salvation for Brand. The slaughter of the bird and the symbol of the dove is Christ who “washes away sins” and “makes us white as snow.” Satan was overcome when Christ died. Brand’s questioning words are to know the divine mystery of God…. why is sacrifice the answer? It is to show that he loves us. “Greater man has no love than this, that he lay down his life for his friends”. Brand has been faithful and true to the end and is prepared for heaven which is where he was symbolically trying to lead the people, much like the story of Pilgrims Progress but almost everyone falls away. If you think this is incorrect please let me know but I think it’s fair to say that Jesus was considered a fanatic of His day which is why they had to get rid of Him as well.
I saw McGoohan as Brand at the Lyric when I was at school 18 years old. It was riveting, spell-binding, mesmeric: not a performance as much as a lived reality. It reminds me now of a Beckett play – possibly Salad Days: two characters stuck in sand. I shall need to look more deeply at why this might be – the quality of the experience, or the issues raised?
As for your analysis of and bringing together with The Prisoner, this so-powerful TV series, on which I was hooked: thank you. I had never before understood it like that.
These are issues with which we all need to struggle, to find our way, both in and out of our tradition and that of our society and our times.
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