Peer Gynt

Citation metadata

Editor: David M. Galens
Date: 2000
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 8. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 19
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Peer Gynt


Henrik Ibsen wrote Peer Gynt in 1867. He never intended that the work be performed on stage; instead, Ibsen envisioned his work as a poetic fantasy to be read. However, Peer Gynt quickly became recognized as a masterwork of Scandinavian literature, and in 1876, Ibsen adapted his work for the stage. One reason for the work’s popularity derived from Ibsen’s use of Norwegian fairy tales, particularly, Asbjornsen’s Norwegian Fairy Tales. But Ibsen was also poking fun at some of the popular new ideas, including the emerging trends about getting back to nature and simplicity, ideas also popular in the United States since Henry David Thoreau espoused them. Since Ibsen originally intended this work to be read, he had little concern about including Peer’s travels or about creating situations or locations that would later prove more difficult to translate to a stage performance. Obviously, he also had little concern about the poem’s length, since there are no such restrictions on printed verse. But adapting the lengthy fantasy poem into a play presented some challenges, with Ibsen ultimately forced to cut the work by about one third. Instead of simply removing a large section, such as the adventures that occur in Act IV, Ibsen cut almost every scene by a few lines.

As a play, Peer Gynt consists almost entirely as a vehicle for Peer’s adventures. He is a character who runs from commitment, and who is completely selfish, having little concern for the sacrifices that others are forced to make in accommodating him. Page 88  |  Top of ArticleIbsen’s use of satire and a self-centered protagonist suggests social implications for nineteenth-century society, a topic that always interested Ibsen.


Ibsen was born March 20,1828, in Skien, Norway, a lumbering town south of Christiania, now Oslo. He was the second son in a wealthy family that included five other siblings. In 1835, financial problems forced the family to move to a smaller house in Venstop outside Skien. After eight years the family moved back to Skein, and Ibsen moved to Grimstad to study as an apothecary’s assistant. He applied to and was rejected at Christiania University. During the winter of 1848, Ibsen wrote his first play, Catiline, which was rejected by the Christiania Theatre; it was finally published in 1850 under the pseudonym Brynjolf Bjarme and generated little interest. Ibsen’s second play The Burial Mound was also written under the pseudonym Brynjolf Bjarme, and became the first Ibsen play to be performed when it was presented on September 26,1850, at the Christiania Theatre.

In 1851, Ibsen accepted an appointment as an assistant stage manager at the Norwegian Theatre in Bergen. He was also expected to assist the theatre as a dramatic author, and during his tenure at Bergen, Ibsen wrote several plays, including Lady Inger (1855) and Olaf Liljekrans (1857). These early plays were written in verse and drawn from Norse folklore and myths. In 1857 Ibsen was released from his contract at Bergen and accepted a position at the Norwegian Theatre in Christiania. While there, Ibsen married Suzannah Thoresen (1858). Their only child, Sigurd, was born the following year.

By 1860, Ibsen was under attack in the press for a lack of productivity. When the Christiania Theatre went bankrupt in 1862, Ibsen was left with no regular income, relying on a temporary position as a literary advisor to the reorganized Christiania Theatre for his livelihood. Thanks to a series of small government grants, by 1863 Ibsen was able to travel in Europe and begin what became an intense period of creativity. During this period, Ibsen completed a dramatic epic poem, Brand, which achieved critical notice (1866). This was followed by Peer Gynt (1867). The first of Ibsen’s prose dramas, The League of Youth (1869), was the first of his plays to demonstrate a shift from an emphasis on plot to one of interpersonal relationships. This was followed by Emperor and Galilean (1873), Ibsen’s first work to be translated into English. A Doll’s House (1879) and An Enemy of the People (1882) are among the last plays included in Ibsen’s realism period. Ibsen continued to write of modern realistic themes in his next plays, but he also relied increasingly on metaphor and symbolism in Hedda Gabler (1890).

A shift from social concerns to the isolation of the individual marks the next phase of Ibsen’s work. The Master Builder (1892) and When We Dead Awaken (1899) all treat the conflicts that arise between art and life, between creativity and social expectations, and between personal contentment and self-deception. Many critics consider these last works to be autobiographical. In 1900, Ibsen suffered his first of several strokes, and his ill health ended his writing career. Ibsen died May 23, 1906.


Act I

The play opens with Peer telling his mother, Ase, about the deer hunt he has just returned from. After delivering an exciting story filled with details from the hunt, Peer, who has no deer carcass in sight, admits that he fabricated the whole story. Ase accuses her son of being a lazy liar who is doing nothing to save them from poverty. After she tells him that he might have had a fine dowry if he’d chosen Ingrid as he wife, Peer agrees to marry her. But Ase replies that she is already promised to another, with the wedding scheduled for the next day. Peers states that he intends to stop the marriage, and when Ase protests, he picks her up and places her on a roof. On the way to the wedding, Peer overhears some guests talking and thinks they are speaking of him. He lies on the grass and begins to daydream about how he might be someone grand and important. In the distance, Peer can hear the wedding celebration and music.

Peer arrives at the wedding, but no one will dance with him, and people move away at his approach. Only a young farmer’s daughter, Solveig, will speak to him, but she, too, quickly moves away. As a drunken Peer begins telling stories, filled with exaggeration and fancy, many of the young men present begin to make fun of him. When Solveig again appears, she tells Peer that her father has warned her to stay away from Peer. In spite of alternating threats and pleadings, Peer cannot convince Page 89  |  Top of Articleher to dance with him. The bridegroom, Mads, who is not very bright, believes the fables and stories that Peer has been telling, and he now asks Peer for help in getting into see the bride, who has locked herself away from him. Sneaking in to see Ingrid is just what Peer has wanted to do and so he agrees to go around back with Mads. As Act I ends, the crowd is in disarray as they see Peer running up the mountain with the bride clutched over his shoulder.

Act II

It is early morning, and Peer is preparing to leave Ingrid. She is still clothed in her wedding finery and begs Peer to take her with him, but he replies that he wants another woman. As the two separate, Ingrid yells threats after Peer, who appears not to care. Meanwhile, Ase, accompanied by Solveig and her parents, is searching for Peer. Ase laments that she had never expected Peer to do such a thing, since he has never done much of anything in the past. Solveig’s parents think Ase is as crazy as Peer evidently is, but they continue to help her search for him because it is their Christian duty. But Solveig wants to hear more about Peer and asks Ase to tell her about him. As the men from the village continue to look for Peer, he is given a hiding place by three herdgirls.

Eventually, Peer meets the daughter of the king of the mountain, and after telling her he is a prince, Peer asks her to marry him. The mountain king has several tests for Peer to pass before he is given the king’s daughter to marry. The last test, blindness, has no appeal for Peer and he abandons his new bride. Next Peer encounters the Great Boyg, who will not let him pass. Again Peer is offered riddles he must solve, but just when it seems hopeless and Peer sinks to the ground exhausted, the Great Boyg withdraws claiming that Peer has women to help him and the Great Boyg has no power against women. Peer awakens next to his mother’s hut, and when he sees the child, Helga, he asks that she bring Solveig to him.


Peer is an outlaw, hiding from the men of the village. He has built himself a hut in the forest, where he is able to be with Solveig. Meanwhile, Ase has had to pay a harsh fine in her son’s name and has been left with nothing. Solveig has also paid a huge price to be with Peer. She has left her family and everyone she loves behind. Peer is safe only while

Henrik Ibsen Henrik Ibsen

he remains in the forest. If he leaves, he becomes fair prey for whoever wants to hunt him down. Peer and Solveig know only a few brief moments of happiness. The mountain king’s daughter appears with an ugly malformed child and tells Peer that the child is his. She threatens Peer and promises to haunt him and destroy any happiness he might find with Solveig. Peer remembers from his early religious training that repentance can offer him hope and salvation. Peer tells Solveig to wait in the hut for him, no matter how long it takes. Peer leaves and heads into the village to his mother’s hut, where she is dying. Peer tells Ase stories to comfort her and when she is dead he thanks her for all that she has given to him. Peer leaves his mother’s body to a neighbor’s final care and says that he is leaving for the sea and beyond.

Act IV

This act opens in Morocco. Peer is older and obviously successful, but in many ways he has not changed. As he dines with friends, Peer fills the air with exaggerated stories and complete untruths. Peer also relates that he has made much money in trade, some of it in heathen religious idols and some of it in bibles. Peer also says that he sees himself as a citizen of the world, taking something from each country he visits. Peer is full of bravado, wanting to Page 90  |  Top of Articlebe emperor of the world. But he alienates those around him and he is robbed of all his goods as his yacht is seized and he is put ashore; but when Peer prays to God for help, the yacht mysteriously blows up with all on board. Peer next moves to the African desert, where he is again robbed. Meanwhile Solveig is still waiting in the hut for Peer to return, although she is quite middle aged now and does not know that Peer has continued in his aimless wanderings.


Peer is now an old man, and as this act opens he is at sea on a ship headed back toward Norway. But the ship wrecks and Peer barely survives and must push aside the ship’s cook who is also trying to stay afloat. When he finally comes ashore, Peer decides that it is time to return home and settle down. Peer meets with the Button Moulder, where he is forced to confront his deeds and account for his life. Peer finally understands that he has been selfish and that his life has been without direction. At that moment, Peer hears Solveig singing and he hurls himself at her feet, begging for her forgiveness. When he would have her cry out his sins, Solveig replies that he has made her life beautiful. Hearing her words, the Button Moulder leaves, but promises that he and Peer will meet again.



Ase is Peer’s mother. She loves her son very much and makes many sacrifices for him. But from Peer’s words at her death, it is also apparent that she was willing to punish, even beat him, if necessary. Ase wants to believe in Peer, and so, when he tells her his stories, she initially believes him. She pushes Peer to make something of himself, even berating him and calling him lazy when she must. When Peer is banished, she is the one who is fined and who loses everything she has. But in spite of all that she suffers, Ase is happy to see Peer when he appears at her deathbed.

The Button Moulder

The Button Moulder represents Peer’s future. In a sense, the Button Moulder is death, who has come to claim Peer. Peer is neither bad enough for hell, nor good enough for heaven. So the Button Moulder has come for Peer, to melt him in his ladle. Peer is destined to become just one more of the lost souls, indistinguishable from the others who are sent to this nonentity of existence. The Button Moulder is turned away by Solveig whose love for Peer proves that he must be worthy of such devotion.

The Great Boyg

The Great Boyg represents the riddle of existence. He is a shapeless, frightening monster, who cannot be conquered. He blocks Peer’s way up the mountain, and he tells him that although he never fights, he is never beaten. When it seems that the Boyg will take Peer, the sound of a woman singing sends him away. The Boyg cannot beat a woman.


Ingrid is the bride kidnapped by Peer. Since she is hiding from her bridegroom at her own wedding, it does not appear too unlikely that Peer is really rescuing her. In fact, when Peer abandons her, Ingrid is very angry, wanting to continue on with him.

Mountain King’s Daughter

See Woman in green

Old Man of the Mountain

The father of the woman in green, whom Peer seeks to marry. He has a number of tests that Peer must go through to prove that he can become a troll, and thus, worthy of his daughter.

Peer Gynt

Peer is the central protagonist in this play. When the play opens he has no plans, no future, and no money. He seems not to care about not having these things, and it is his mother who berates him for his lack of ambition. Peer kidnaps Ingrid on her wedding day, but it does not appear to be from love. Instead, he wants her for her dowry, and he really just takes her because he has been denied her. Rather than work for what he wants, Peer simply takes what he thinks he should be given. Peer has many adventures after he abandons Ingrid, but in all of them, he is completely selfish and self-centered, thinking only of what he wants or what will benefit him. Although he finds great wealth, and much of it dishonestly or at least dishonorably, Peer loses what he has several times, and when he finally returns to

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Peer (Derek Jacobi, on the left) aboard the ship just before the fateful wreck Peer (Derek Jacobi, on the left) aboard the ship just before the fateful wreck

his home, he brings no riches home with him. Instead, Peer finds the greatest riches of all, the love of Solveig, which was always there for him to discover.


Solveig is a young farmer’s daughter who Peer meets at Ingrid’s wedding. She is initially interested in Peer, but she is warned off by her father. After Peer runs away with Ingrid, Solveig joins Ase in searching for him. And when Peer is banished, Solveig chooses to leave her sister and parents and join Peer in living an isolated life in the forest. After only a brief time together, Solveig is left alone while Peer, who has left to pick up firewood, leaves for good. She promises to wait for him and she does so, even though the wait has lasted many years. Solveig’s love for Peer is far greater than he deserves, but it is her love that saves him and gives meaning to his life.

Woman in green

Believes Peer’s lies and agrees to marry him. He abandons her, and later she reappears with a troll-child, whom she identifies as Peer’s child. Her threats to destroy Peer’s happiness with Solveig cause him to run away.

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  • An American version of Peer Gynt was filmed in 1915.
  • Peer Gynt was filmed in 1934 by German director Fritz Wendhausen. This film is an adaptation of some of Ibsen’s motifs and is not a true version of the play, as Ibsen created, since this film represents Nazi ideology and propaganda and not Ibsen’s ideology. Availability of any remaining copies of this film is unknown.



Because Peer Gynt was conceived of as poetical fantasy, Ibsen had little concern with creating reality. Many of the things that Peer does are unrealistic and absurd, beginning with Act I when the play opens to Peer’s inventive and clearly exaggerated story of hunting, a story his mother believes. Another example occurs within a few lines when Peer picks up his mother and sets her atop the roof of her house. Still another sequence that is absurd is Peer’s meeting with the trolls in the forest. Peer is willing to become one of the trolls, even wearing a tail and consuming the troll’s natural food. Ibsen uses these absurd situations and characters to poke fun at society. The playwright makes clear that the situations Peer is placed in are as absurd as some of the elements within the society where Ibsen lives.


Although Peer kidnaps Ingrid on her wedding day, it is clear that love is not the reason. In fact, Peer is too selfish to really be motivated by love of anything. In his selfishness, Peer wants Ingrid for the dowry she would bring, a dowry that would enable him to escape having to work. However, there is love in this play, and that is the love that motivates Solveig. She sacrifices her family, friends, and home to live with Peer, isolated and ostracized in the forest. And although she can only share his life briefly, Solveig waits patiently for him to return. Peer never tells her when he might return, and in fact, he is gone for many years. But still, Solveig waits, alone in the hut, and when Peer finally returns an old man, she quickly greets him with love and thanks him for having made her life fuller and happier. Solveig offers an example of enduring, committed love for someone who spends much of his life trying to escape any commitment.

Return to Nature

The trolls espousing organic nature mirrors a trend in the 19th century, a back to nature movement and a more natural life that Ibsen was satirizing. The trolls embrace a “simple, homey lifestyle” of natural foods. The food may taste terrible, but the fact that it is “local produce” is more important than taste. The clothing can only be local, nothing imported, which the troll refers to as “Christian clothes.” Peer’s beliefs are ok, because the trolls care only for outward appearance; if he agrees with the trolls on style, Peer may believe whatever he wants, even if it gives the trolls, “the creeps.” Ibsen creates a world where what is natural, regardless of taste or appearance, is more important than ideas or intellect.

Punishment and Revenge

Peer’s kidnapping of the bride, Ingrid, results in condemnation and punishment. Much of this is simply revenge, directed toward someone whose bragging and outlandish behavior has flaunted accepted societal rules. The punishment, though, is also shared by Peer’s mother, Ase, who loses everything to pay fines leveled toward the only member of Peer’s family who is available for punishment, his mother. Ase loses her farm, inheritance, furnishings, everything she owns. She becomes subject to the charity of the town, when she is given a house to live in until her death. Peer can remain free only as long as he remains isolated in the forest. If he should leave the safety of the forest, Peer becomes vulnerable to capture. This means that Solveig, if she wants to share his life, will also have to share Peer’s punishment.


Peer is constantly challenged to explain his moral identity. He quotes William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “To thine own self be true,” but he lives his life by the troll motto, “Be true to yourself-ish.” Page 93  |  Top of ArticleWhen he is an old man, Peer finally recognizes that while he has often quoted the former lines, he has lived the troll’s lines. Peer has been selfish and self-centered, thinking only of his own desires and needs. When he is confronted with Solveig’s steadfastness and loyalty, he finally recognizes his own moral failure. Humanity, that trait that the trolls wished to eliminate from Peer, is largely defined by man’s morality. Without morality, Peer loses much of his humanity and nearly succumbs to the Button Moulder’s advances. Only the selflessness of Solveig’s love could transform the troll’s maxim for life into the adage that Peer needed to embrace for his moral survival—“To thine own self be true.”


Religion is represented by the allegorical figures of the Great Boyg and the Button Moulder. Both of these figures represent the future that Peer must face as he cannot find a moral compass by which to live his life. The Great Boyg represents the riddle of existence, which must be confronted and answered to live life as a moral human being. The Button Moulder represents Peer’s fate when it appears that his life has been without meaning. When Peer lives his life by taking and never giving, he becomes vulnerable to the fate that the Button Moulder offers, a life of nothingness. It is a death worse than an eternity in hell.



A major division in a drama. In Greek plays the sections of the drama signified by the appearance of the chorus and were usually divided into five acts. This is the formula for most serious drama from the Greeks to the Romans, and to Elizabethan playwrights like William Shakespeare. The five acts denote the structure of dramatic action. They are exposition, complication, climax, falling action, and catastrophe. The five act structure was followed until the nineteenth century when Ibsen combined some of the acts. Although, Peer Gynt is a five act play, Ibsen deviates somewhat from the traditional format. The exposition occurs in the first act when Peer kidnaps Ingrid. The complication occurs in the second act when Peer makes a hasty alliance with the Mountain King’s daughter. The climax occurs in the third act when Peer must flee from the woman in green and the troll child. The fourth act contains the story of Peer’s adventures. The falling action occurs in act five when Peer is confronted with his own selfishness and the love of Solveig offers him salvation. There is no catastrophe in this play, since Solveig averts it.

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  • Discuss the use of Christian allegory in Peer Gynt.
  • Peer Gynt has been described as the national story of Norway. Research the social history of 19th century Norway, and try to explain why you think this play has such appeal.
  • Peer Gynt is based on myths and fables. Research some Norwegian fables and try to explain how this play might be similar or different from those fables.
  • In Act IV, Peer travels extensively and has many adventures, all as he seeks to become wealthy. Do some research into the economic situation in 19th-century Norway. Try to determine what life was like for people without family wealth. Consider what Ibsen might be saying about the relative importance of economic security.
  • In Peer Gynt, Ase loses everything after she is fined. However, the crime is Peer’s. Investigate the legal system in place in 19th-century Norway, and discuss the social implications and options for family members of an accused criminal.


A person in a dramatic work. The actions of each character are what constitute the story. Character can also include the idea of a particular individual’s morality. Characters can range from simple stereotypical figures to more complex multi-faceted ones. Characters may also be defined by personality traits, such as the rogue or the damsel in distress. Page 94  |  Top of Article“Characterization” is the process of creating a lifelike person from an author’s imagination. To accomplish this the author provides the character with personality traits that help define who she will be and how she will behave in a given situation. For instance, Peer is immediately identified as lazy and a liar. He also is quickly established as selfish and reckless.


A drama is often defined as any work designed to be presented on the stage. It consists of a story, of actors portraying characters, and of action. But historically, drama can also consist of tragedy, comedy, religious pageant, and spectacle. In modern usage, drama explores serious topics and themes but does not achieve the same level as tragedy.


Genres are a way of categorizing literature. Genre is a French term that means “kind” or “type.” Genre can refer to both the category of literature such as tragedy, comedy, epic, poetry, or pastoral. It can also include modern forms of literature such as drama novels, or short stories. This term can also refer to types of literature such as mystery, science fiction, comedy or romance. Peer Gynt is fantasy, written in a mixture of prose and verse.


This term refers to the pattern of events. Generally plots should have a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion, but they may also sometimes be a series of episodes connected together. Basically, the plot provides the author with the means to explore primary themes. Students are often confused between the two terms; but themes explore ideas, and plots simply relate what happens in a very obvious manner. Thus the plot of Peer Gynt is the story of Peer’s adventures. But the theme is of how Solveig’s love is able to save Peer from the destruction his selfishness has wrought.


The time, place, and culture in which the action of the play takes place is called the setting. The elements of setting may include geographic location, physical or mental environments, prevailing cultural attitudes, or the historical time in which the action takes place. The locations for Peer Gynt include a small village in Norway, a nearby forest, Africa, and a boat at sea. The action begins when Peer is a young man and lasts over many years. During the course of the play, Peer progresses from young man to middle aged man to an old man. Actual ages and a time setting are never provided.


Legend has it that when Mark Twain visited London during the Diamond Jubilee celebration of Queen Victoria, he observed that British history had advanced more in the sixty years of her reign than in all of the two thousand years that preceded it. This was certainly true of the whole of Europe, which saw dramatic change occur within the 19th century. With just one invention, the steam engine, the industrial revolution began. Improvements in the steam engine led to faster ships and the easier transport of goods, which led to increased trade, improved economic conditions, and better availability of goods. But the improvements in steam power also led to faster railroad transportation, superior manufacturing looms, more efficient printing presses, and automated farming and agricultural equipment, such as the combine. But industry was not the only area to undergo dramatic change. Education, especially the development of compulsory primary and secondary education, was spreading around throughout the world. At the same time, universities and colleges were spreading quickly, and there was a new emphasis on learning. Meanwhile, newspapers were being founded in major cities around the world, encyclopaedias were being published, and the World Almanac was printed for the first time.

The introduction of the telegraph and the intercontinental cable quickly linked the world and made communications easier, as did the invention of the telephone. Other developments also occurred, such as photography, which improved quickly, especially with the ease in which pictures could be taken and developed. Improvements in canning make it easier to process, preserve, and transport previously perishable foods. In addition, the invention of refrigerated rail cars made shipping of food and meat safer and easier. In science, the new study of ecology was invented to describe environmental balance, and the followers of Charles Darwin begin to study the

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  • 1876: The International Association for the Exploration and Civilization of Africa is founded under the auspices of the Belgian king, Leopold II.

    Today: There are few areas of the earth that remain unexplored, thus the exploration of the space beyond the earth remains a motivating force behind the United States support of NASA.

  • 1876: Robert’s Rules for Order by U.S. Army Engineer Corps Officer Henry Martyn Robert is published. This nonfiction work establishes rules for maintaining order and a democratic procedure for any self-governing association, such as in church or civic organizations.

    Today: The rules that Robert’s book established for maintaining order and voting on decisions remains the hallmark of civic, volunteer, and church organizations since its implementation more than one hundred years ago.

  • 1876: Although the first typewriters were introduced several years ago, and an improved version is introduced at this year’s Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, their expense keeps demand restricted and production is limited. Most people continue to write with pens and pencils.

    Today: The computer had made writing far easier than anyone might have imagined a hundred years ago, and as a result, the typewriter is becoming obsolete.

  • 1876: The publication of Englishman Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859 has led to an explosion of interest in the new science of anthropology; subsequently, this led to a greater interest in archeology. This new emphasis on science provided Ibsen with material for his new play, Peer Gynt.

    Today: The interest in man’s past, especially the discoveries available because of archeology, continue to draw the attention of a public seeking answers to the meaning of man’s existence.

  • 1876: The completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, the completion of the transcontinental railroad in the United States, and the invention of the telephone in 1876 mean that the world has become much smaller.

    Today: Instantaneous communications and satellites have made the world even smaller than it was 120 years ago. People in the developed nations think nothing of flying to destinations that would have taken weeks or months to reach in the 19th century. Nor do people hesitate to complete overseas telephone calls, and with the ease of using internet access, instantaneous communications have become even easier and less expensive to undertake.

evolution of man. Advances in medicine identified many of the bacteria that spread disease, while the weapons of war also changed with the invention of the Gatling gun, which made it easier to kill people.

The influence of Darwin in the midst of all this scientific and industrial progress cannot be ignored or underestimated. His books, especially The Origins of Species, fed a growing debate about the role of man and religion. Darwin questioned long-standing assumptions about humanity and man’s role in the world. His next book, The Descent of Man, only continued to fuel the fire. Religious leaders, who felt that Darwin was attacking a literal interpretation of the bible, were outraged. And the movement to subject the bible to a rigorous scientific examination that it was not designed to withstand, further fueled the debate. The Utilitarian Movement of the mid-nineteenth century also raised questions about the usefulness of religion in man’s life. If man’s existence was subjected to reason, then religion provided little benefit for men, who should rely more completely on technology, economics, and science for Page 96  |  Top of Articlesurvival. Jeremy Bentham and his followers sought to subject every institution to the light of human reason. However, religion is based on faith, not reason. In many ways, religion was seen as a luxury that modern men did not need for survival. Thus Ibsen’s conclusion of Peer Gynt appears as almost a rejection of this scientific approach to life. Ibsen is basically arguing that a man’s life must have a moral center to have meaning. Society’s fear of science, and the loss of humanity that all of this very rapid change had brought, reinforced for many the need to embrace religion if humanity was to endure.


In his translation of Peer Gynt, Kenneth McLeish states that Ibsen intended his work to be read and not performed on stage. But, McLeish notes, Ibsen’s work was quickly recognized as a masterpiece of Scandinavian literature, of equivalent status to Goethe’s Faust in Germany or Manzoni’s I promessisposi in Italy. The reason for this acclaim did not simply lie in the text’s brilliance, although many critics did embrace Peer Gynt’s poetic narrative. Instead, it was Ibsen’s use of Norwegian folklore, especially Peter Christen Asbjorsen’s Norwegian Fairy Tales, upon which Peer’s early adventures are based, that broadened the text’s appeal. McLeish also declares that Ibsen’s satirizing of several contemporary trends also increased the poem’s appeal. Some of these trends, states McLeish, include satire on

the new ‘science’ of archeology, of superstition and above all of the ‘back to nature’ movements of the 1860s: his trolls believe in making their own clothes and eating such ‘organic’ foods as cowdung and bullpiss, and one of the lunatics fights for the purity of the ancient language, unsullied by importations from foreign tongues—a preoccupation of mid-19th century Norwegian intellectuals.

However, McLeish says that Ibsen was not serious with any of this satire. Purportedly, he intended Peer Gynt to be a funny fantasy that would move quickly and hold the reader’s attention. As a poem, it largely succeeded.

In 1876, Ibsen adapted his verse poem to the stage. In doing so, he was required to cut sections of the text and make the work shorter in length. Incidental music was added, and McLeish reports that a full orchestra accompanied this first performance. The music helped to fill the time it took to move the sets between scenes. According to McLeish, Ibsen hated the idea of his verse poem being translated into prose, and so McLeish’s translation includes a combination of the verse and prose in an effort to capture more of Ibsen’s intent. In contemporary productions, as in the one staged by the National Theatre for which McLeish provided a translation, the largest number of cuts in Ibsen’s work occur in the African scenes, which contain much of the 19th century political satire. McLeish points out that these scenes contain much repetition and that many of the ideas would be incomprehensible to modern audiences.

Critics often appreciate satire that pokes fun at society’s so-called “sacred cows,” and Ibsen’s nineteenth-century critics and audience were no different. Although no reviews of the 1876 theatrical production are readily available, Edvard Beyer has provided a compilation of reviews of the printed verse poem when it was published in 1867. These reviews of Peer Gynt were mostly positive, although a few critics had serious complaints about the last two acts of the poem. Bjornstjerne Bjornson reviewed Ibsen’s new work for his own publication, Norsk Folkeblad. Bjornson states that Ibsen’s work was “a satire on Norwegian selfishness, narrowchestedness, conceitedness.” Beyer points to Bjornson’s comments about the Button Moulder scenes, noting that “they serve to bring the tale onto ‘Christian ground.’” Bjornson thought that Ibsen intended for the conclusion to demonstrate that Solveig loved Peer because she “loves in us, our image of God,” but that Ibsen’s conclusion “is unfortunately unclear and by no means carefully worked out.” According to Beyer, many of Bjornson’s comments concerning the “topicality and validity of the text” are representative of other Norwegian critics of this period. Bjornson notes that Ibsen’s poem “includes in its details and as a whole such a grand and bold statement into all our commotion as we have never received before.” An unidentified reviewer for Morgenblader, says that Peer Gynt is

from beginning to end a veritable torrent of polemic depictions, an adventure drama about egotism, which borrows the licence of folktales in order to give the buoyancy of imagination course for bold symbols, but employs the structure and means of drama in order to impart spontaneous life and vigor to shaping the image of the soul.

This reviewer also says that all the elements of the play are provided and that the reader or audience need not ask additional questions. Beyer notes that this unnamed reviewer offers a review that is “qualified but sympathetic.” A strength of the drama is Page 97  |  Top of Articlethat “by using motifs from folktales” Ibsen “has freed himself from many curbs and restraints, and symbolic allusions have served to bridge gaps.” However, this reviewer continues, “the fourth act does not contribute to the progress of the play; nothing changes in a decisive manner until near the end of the fifth act, and the end is no conclusion,” but, instead, it leaves more questions. A review in Aftenbladet, by Frederik Baetzmann, also finds fault with the final acts, especially the concluding scene with Solveig. Baetzmann points out that having Peer saved “because a woman, Solveig, has remained true to him... is of course just as absurd in Christian as in psychological terms.” Beyer quotes from several additional reviews of Ibsen’s poem, but the essence is that Ibsen’s work offers some important and interesting political satire, but the work is flawed by the last two acts, which do not work well with the first three acts. However, in spite of this significant problem, most reviews did recommend Ibsen’s newest work.


Sheri E. Metzger

Metzger is a Ph.D., specializing in literature and drama at the University of New Mexico. In this essay, she discusses the 20th-century use of Peer Gynt as Nazi propaganda.

During the period that encompassed the Third Reich, Peer Gynt was a favorite production of German theatres, who saw in Henrik Ibsen’s work elements that could be manipulated to support Nazi ideology. Ibsen was not a socialist, nor would he have embraced the racism and inhumanity that marked the years of Adolf Hitler’s reign. Ibsen was familiar with the need for critics and audiences to attribute a political agenda to his work. Of the claim that A Doll’s House was a feminist work, Ibsen remarked that he was not a feminist, but instead, he believed in human rights and in exposing social injustice. From this claim, it is easy to see that Ibsen would not have approved of Nazi uses of Peer Gynt to support a claim of Aryan superiority. As Martin Esslin notes in his study, Ibsen and the Theatre: The Dramatist in Production:

Ibsen’s first and most obvious impact was social and political. His efforts to make drama and the theatre a means to bring into the open the main social and political issues of the age shocked and scandalized a society who regarded the theatre as a place of shallow amusement.

Thus Ibsen saw the theatre as a place to expose and question social and political issues, not as a place to embrace injustice. Audiences were not shocked by a play that endorsed society; they were shocked by theatre that questioned those conventions. Had Ibsen simply wanted to assert the superiority of social conventions, there would have been no need to write a play about them and no need to move the theatre beyond that of “shallow amusement.” But Ibsen had a social conscience, and he would no doubt have been shocked at the use of Peer Gynt as a spokesman of the Nazi political machine.

In considering the Nazi-era productions, it is first worthwhile examining a post-World War II German production of Ibsen’s play. In this case, Peer Gynt still maintains a political ideology, but Aryan superiority is replaced by a fondness or nostalgic effort to recapture an atmosphere reminiscent of nineteenth-century theatre. In his discussion of the 1971 German stage production of Peer Gynt, Fritz Paul points out that the German producer, Peter Stein, used eight different actors to play Peer on stage. Paul describes the intention behind this and states that, “through these different emanations and theatrical metamorphoses, Peer loses his individuality and appears simply as a representative of the nineteenth century.” Instead, according to Paul, “the modern notion of subjectivity and individuality and all conventional ideas of self and identity are called into question by the change of actors.” Or, as Paul argues, “generalization is achieved through individualization.” Paul sees this as a stroke of theatrical genius, but in subverting the individual, Stein also recalls the Victorian fear of the individual that was awakened by industrialization and socialist theories. The demand for better wages and living conditions frightened business owners and the aristocracy, and Ibsen’s play, with its use of traditional folktales, seemed, on the surface at least, to be recalling a more traditional past, when life was more predictable. In this production of Peer Gynt, Stein also recalls that past, when the individual and all the demands that he might make upon society are subordinated to the needs to the general.

When in Act V, Stein has Peer and Solveig reclining in a stylized version of a Pieta, Paul concludes that Stein’s stage production includes a non-verbal message for the audience: “In today’s world this story from Norway about a man called Peer Gynt is also no more than a museum piece. At

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  • Henrick Ibsen’s Brand (1866), written the year before Peer Gynt, is also written in epic verse. Brand is the first of Ibsen’s works to achieve both critical and popular attention. This work explores the inhumanity of uncompromising idealism.
  • Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene (1590) is an early verse epic that includes allegorical characters and a fairytale-like motif to explore the meaning of truth.
  • Orlando Furioso (1532), by Ariosto, is a verse epic that includes love, war, and honor and focuses on man’s responsibility to fulfill his duty.
  • Norwegian Folk Tales: From the Collection of Peter Christian Asbjornsen, Jorgen Moe (reprint 1982), by Peter Christen Asbjorsen, et al., is a collection of fairy tales in contemporary translation. Asbjornsen’s stories were the source material for much of Peer Gynt.
  • Peter Christen Asbjornsen’s East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Twenty-One Norwegian Folk Tales (reprint 1990) is a collection of folktales; many, if not all, would have been familiar in Ibsen’s world.
  • Favorite Folktales From Around the World (1988), by Jane Yolen, is a collection of more than 160 folk tales from over 40 different cultures and traditions.

the same time no judgement is passed on the value of museums and their exhibits in general.” Although this 1971 production does embrace subtle social and political ideology, it does so in an effort to recall a different era. Stein might have thought he was making a statement about the complexity of modern life in attempting to recall what he considered to be the far simpler life of the nineteenth century, and indeed, there are probably few twentieth-century audiences who would understand the complexity of nineteenth-century life.

A far more political use for Peer Gynt is attributed to the many productions during 1933-1944. In an article that explores why Nazi Germany found this play so appealing, Uwe Englert argues that only certain of Ibsen’s plays were useful to the Third Reich. Ibsen’s social plays, says Englert, were not as useful as the dramas of religion or those with Germanic characters. One of the efforts of the National Socialist cultural policy was to establish new links to Germanic myths. Englert states that during this period in Germany, “theatre was considered the ‘stage of the nation,’ which could witness here ‘its fortune, its rise and fall, its metamorphosis, its sacrificial offering and the purification of the soul of the nation.’” Thus Germany could use the stage to reinvent itself in whatever reincarnation it chose. There was also a move, according to Englert, to move away from what the National Socialists called “unheroic bourgeois drama.”

Ibsen fit these initial criteria, but there were several other reasons why this particular playwright became so popular during this period. Englert asserts that the National Socialists “firmly adhered to German and foreign classics [and] thus National Socialist ideology was firmly imbedded in a great context of tradition and was positively sanctioned by the adoption of great names in theatre literature.” That the Third Reich considered classical dramas extremely important is not something that should be underestimated, according to Englert. Consequently, the National Socialists undertook an effort to reinvent Ibsen. First, Ibsen’s “Scandinavian origin and his allegedly Germanic appreciation of art were untiringly stressed” in the popular press. There were also, according to Englert, attempts to link Ibsen to the ideas of the German philosopher, Johann Georg Hamann. Ibsen’s genealogy was also traced, and Ibsen was found to have German ancestry through both his mother and father’s distant Page 99  |  Top of Articleancestors. To make all this work, the National Socialists had to concentrate on using Ibsen’s earlier works, since these were felt to contain superior links to Fascism, and thus says Englert, “Ibsen was declared an enemy of liberalism and advocate of an order of absolutism.”

A Royal Shakespeare Company production of Ibsens play: Derek Jacobi as Peer Gynt in one of his many incarnations A Royal Shakespeare Company production of Ibsen’s play: Derek Jacobi as Peer Gynt in one of his many incarnations

Peer Gynt was chosen, argues Englert, because Peer sacrifices his humanity as “an embodiment of imperfection and of self-deception, [and] he ostensibly develops into an Americanized money-and-business-man, who does not even hesitate to trade slaves and false idols.” In short, Peer becomes the perfect Nazi hero because he embodies all the worst traits of an American. In another example of a stage production of this play, Englert relates a story wherein the Germans met with more resistance than anticipated in their invasion of Norway, and blaming this on Norway’s allegiance to England, Peer was depicted as an ‘unscrupulous merchant’ who embodied the British mercenary spirit of which Ibsen intended his play to be a warning. So popular was Peer Gynt that it was performed 1,183 times during 1933-1944. Only William Shakespeare’s Hamlet was performed more often, states Englert.

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Much of this popularity can be traced to Hitler’s friend, Dietrich Eckart, who made changes in Ibsen’s drama to focus more on an “anti-modern interpretation of Ibsen,” an interpretation that rewrites much of the play to create a Peer who rejects materialism and who is able to “overcome the inferior race of the trolls.” The trolls, of course, are Jews. In fact, Englert relates that in some performances, the king of the trolls was depicted as Jewish, as he was in a 1938 Munich production.

According to Englert, as a result of Eckart’s influence, his version of Peer Gynt was the basis for nearly all performances in the following years. Englert concludes that in Peer Gynt “the National Socialist cultural politicians saw a literary model that they could use for their propaganda purposes in an unrestrained manner. For this reason, there is hardly another drama which was performed so often in the Third Reich as Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. Unfortunately Ibsen’s play was also appropriated by other venues, as well.

In 1934, Peer Gynt was adapted to film, finding yet another audience in German theatres. In a discussion on the play’s transformation onto film, Lilia Popova and Knut Brynhildsvoll state that the film’s writer chose to select and stress specific motifs present in the play. While observing that Ibsen’s play was well suited to film, since Peer’s many adventures and the stories contained within the play are more easily captured by a camera, the authors also note that this film deletes Peer’s dream sequences. It is worth considering why the film should delete such an important element of the play, since Ibsen used dream sequences in many of his works, and as Esslin notes, the dream visions are always present, even when suppressed. However, the dreamlike Peer would not be in keeping with the Nazi agenda, where hard work is emphasized. Popova and Brynhildsvoll also find that in the film version, even Solveig becomes a propaganda tool, as “a natural woman, who denies her sexuality—at least until Peer’s return. By means of her purity and virtue she represents the ideal woman of Fascist ideology.”

These authors conclude that this adaptation does not “project the fantastic and utopian ideals of its model.” Again, this would not be in keeping with Fascist ideology. As did Englert, Popova and Brynhildsvoll, find that adaptations of this play during this period serve more for propaganda than for an accurate depiction of Ibsen’s work. The attempts to use Ibsen’s Peer Gynt in this manner only serve to indicate the strength of his work. There would be little point in taking the work of an obscure playwright and using it to rewrite history. To use someone of Ibsen’s stature to white-wash Nazi ideology was an important goal for the Nazi’s, but it was an abomination. Ibsen would have horrified.

Source: Sheri E. Metzger, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.

John Bemrose

Reviewing a 1989 production staged at the annual Shaw Festival in Canada, Bemrose affirms the lasting power of Ibsen’s play and its ability to provoke deep thought “long after the final line has been spoken.”

Any theatre that dares to tackle Ibsen’s classic 1876 drama, Peer Gynt, has its work cut out for it. Not only does the sprawling saga of a Norwegian folk hero run to nearly six hours in performance, but the play demands an emotional range and a level of technical virtuosity—there are over 50 speaking parts—that few companies can muster. All the more credit must go then to the Shaw Festival for its new production of Peer Gynt which comes closer than most to what Ibsen had in mind. In some ways, it is surprising that the company in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., took on Peer at all. It is better known for mounting dramas of a sunnier, lighter sort, such as its current pleasing interpretation of George Bernard Shaw’s 1908 comedy Getting Married. But in doing the Ibsen drama, the Festival has successfully stretched itself into new territory. There are Page 101  |  Top of Articlerough patches in the production, and the generally worthy text by London, Ont., translator John Lingard contains such awkwardly up-to-date terms as “lifestyle.” But there are many moments when the Festival’s streamlined version of Peer —it has been reduced to three hours—turns into exhilarating theatre.

Among Ibsen’s works, Peer Gynt is something of an anomaly. The Norwegian playwright is known mostly for such dour, realistic prose-dramas as Hedda Gabbler and The Wild Duck. But Peer Gynt, a much earlier work, is exuberant, frequently humorous and written in lively, highly colored poetry. Its hero, Peer Gynt (Jim Mezon), is one of those figures of world literature who, like Falstaff or Don Quixote, seem even larger than the works that gave them birth. Peer is a Nordic Everyman, who in the course of the play ages from a brawling, fantasy-prone youth to an indomitable old man. During his long life, he suffers the pangs of love, wins and loses power and fortune, and has preposterous adventures with trolls, monkeys and Arabian belly dancers. Those adventures are essentially a dramatization of his spiritual progress—or lack of it. Chronically restless, Peer is usually faithful to only one thing—his desire to run away from himself. In the play, that trait is symbolized by his desertion of Solveig (Gabrielle Rose), the one woman he truly loves.

Peer eventually returns to Solveig, but not before he comes to see that he has wasted his life. The revelation comes from his meeting with a subtly frightening character called the Buttonmoulder (memorably played by Robert Benson), who approaches Peer near the end of the play. It is the Buttonmoulder’s job to round up all the souls who are neither bad enough for hell nor good enough for heaven—and melt them down like so many imperfect buttons so they can be used in the making of new souls. He tells Peer that he too must be melted down because, like all the other mediocrities, he has “never been himself.” His words set Peer on a last, desperate search to discover what the Buttonmoulder means and to become, if possible, “himself.”

Peer is easily one of the most demanding roles in all drama. The actor who plays him is onstage most of the time, the main focus of attention in a story that, in the wrong hands, can seem absurd and tedious. Mezon is by no means a complete Peer: he lacks the resonant sexuality that would make his attractiveness to his various lovers wholly believable. But he displays a physical exuberance that expresses Peer’s boundless energy of mind and body. In the opening scene, he tells a tall tale to his mother, Aase (given a wry earthiness by Joan Orenstein), about how he has ridden on the back of a stag and fallen off a mountain summit. Mezon acts out Peer’s tale with wildly vivid gestures, until he is finally writhing on the floor with the abandon of a three-year-old. And that is the main gift that Mezon brings to his role: he suggests the constant presence of the child within the man.

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Indeed, there is a childlike, fairy-tale quality about the entire play. Peer may be lying about the stag, but even more unlikely events happen to him. At one point, he enters the core of a mountain and becomes embroiled with a tribe of trolls. The whole interlude may either be a nightmare or a real event. It is unimportant; the play breaks down the distinction between objective and subjective perceptions and shows that they are equally important. In keeping with that merging of reality and imagination, director Duncan Mclntosh has given his production a deep stylistic unity, assisted by Kevin Lamotte’s artfully moody lighting. The world they have created for Peer’s inward and outward journey is as gloomy and oppressive as the long Norwegian winter, lit by the sudden shafts of Ibsen’s poetry.

Most of the 16 actors who play the more than 50 characters whom Peer meets are excellent—and there is something mysteriously satisfying about seeing them in their multiple (sometimes up to seven) roles. Time and again, Peer meets the same faces: Benson appears variously as a man in Peer’s native village, a ship’s cook and also as the Buttonmoulder. Such repetition symbolizes the fact that, for all his travelling, Peer never gets anywhere: again and again, he is failing to become himself. Near the end of the play, Peer asks the Buttonmoulder what is meant by “becoming oneself.” The Buttonmoulder tells him it means “putting yourself to death.” That is more than Peer can grasp, but it is a measure of the Shaw Festival’s production of Peer Gynt that such questions continue Page 102  |  Top of Articleto cast a radiance in the mind, long after the final line has been spoken.

Source: John Bemrose. “A Radiant Revival” in Maclean’s, Vol. 102, no. 30, July 24, 1989, p. 50.

John Simon

Simon offers a mixed review of a 1989 production staged by the Hartford Stage Company and starring Richard Thomas (John Boy from television’s The Waltons) in the title role.

Peer Gynt is one of those very rare plays that see humanity whole. All of man is in it, and most of woman. To look at it is to gaze into an abyss: the abyss of the human soul. Ibsen’s hero is artist and wheeler-dealer, dreamer and scrapper, visionary and fool. This eternal adolescent yearns for the heights; this coward needs no banana peel for his pratfalls. Around him are Aase, the overprotective, carping, impossible mother; Ingrid, the Woman in Green, Anitra, three versions of unidealized woman; and Solveig, the ideal beloved-cum-mother figure.

Around Peer, too, are the world and its people; also history, politics, religion, and pusillanimity. It is, like Lear and Faust and a couple of others, a dramatic summation that encapsulates a universe—in some ways the most inclusive and essential. Certainly it is the last word on man’s double nature as questing spirit and wallowing troll. And it squarely confronts the ultimate questions of being and extinction, of the possibilities of God, devil, and mere dissolution. Boldly, it asks what is salvation, if such a thing exists. More boldly yet, it probes deeper and deeper into life with poetic fancy and earthy humor. Boldest of all, it does not stoop to easy answers.

That’s why Peer Gynt continues to be a fruitful puzzle for successive generations of scholars and critics, theater people and audiences; that is why to produce it and see it remain, after 122 years, thrilling challenges. It is to Mark Lamos’s hefty credit to have given us, with his Hartford Stage Company, a two-part, five-hour version that, though judiciously pruned, preserves all the essentials and keeps tickling, stimulating, extending us almost all the way. The difficult madhouse scene is not solved; yet only after the shipwreck scene does invention slacken as Lamos and his gallant band fail to come up with images as lyrical, funny, and daring as have gone before.

One big problem is that Lamos allowed Michael Meyer’s Ibsen to be his chief guide through the play: that he swallowed whole the misinterpretations Meyer offers especially on page 272 of his book. No, Peer does not die in the lunatic asylum or stormy sea, and the great fifth act is just as really and surreally, psychologically and symbolically, the portrait of a confused, contradictory human being. So as not to give us an allegedly romantic, sentimental, banal protagonist—Meyer’s bugbear—Lamos has chosen not to let the hero age and become a figure of pathos; rather, he has him bounce around in youthfully immature vitality all the way. This is a huge mistake: Gynt is about life entire, which includes old age, exhaustion, fear of death. The ending of the play can be done perfectly straight without the least danger of banality or sugariness. Correctly understood, it is anything but simple and sentimental; rather, like the rest, funny, absurd, satirical, and sad. Also immensely moving.

Richard Thomas proves such a warm, athletic, intelligent, well-spoken, imaginative, and manifold actor that he could easily have handled that last required dimension: aging. In the supporting cast, Patricia Conolly, Leslie Geraci, and one or two others do handsomely; but some of the other supporting roles, and all the lesser ones, are shortchanged. I admire the courage of the translation by Gerry Bamman and Irene B. Berman, which espouses Ibsen’s rhyme and metrics; lacking real poetic powers, however, it falls into a number of pitfalls. Still, it has its good moments and it serves.

There is something anticlimactic about music that is by Grieg, Beethoven, and Mel Marvin. But John Conklin, Merrily Murray-Walsh, and Pat Collins have supplied enough splendid design elements (as well as a few miscarriages) to make this Peer Gynt a joyous, unsettling, necessary experience.

Source: John Simon. “The Way We Don’t Live Now” in New York, Vol. 22, no. 17, April 24, 1989, pp. 141-42.

Robert Brustein

While offering a mixed appraisal of the Phoenix theatrical companies production of Peer Gynt, Brustein has nothing but praise for the power and literary significance of Ibsen’s play.

The intentions of the Phoenix company, which aspires to create a repertory of “time-honored and modern classics,” are lofty and honorable, but their productions this year have overwhelmed me with fatigue, impatience, and gloom. My anguished imagination is now subject to a fearful hallucination in Page 103  |  Top of Articlewhich I see the finest works of the greatest dramatists strewn about the Phoenix stage like so many violated corpses, while a chorus of newspaper reviewers gleefully sings dirges in the wings. Perhaps it is unfair to blame anyone but the reviewers themselves for the absurdities they write about Aristophanes and Ibsen; certainly, journalists—occupied with exalting the present—have always been inclined to knock the past. Yet, it cannot be denied that the Phoenix has provided a generous supply of corks for this pop-gun fusillade.

For it seems to me that the Phoenix, while outwardly more deferential toward the past than the reviewers, is inwardly just as indifferent to it. Instead of letting these plays stand on their own legs, the company’s policy is to hale them into the twentieth century by the nearest available appendages. In Lysistrata this resulted in extremely painful attempts at topicality (as when an assorted collection of pneumatic females chanted “Sex Almighty, Aphrodite, rah, rah, rah!” or an ungainly chorus carried placards across the stage announcing that “Athens is a Summer Festival”). In Peer Gynt, the effort is less clumsy but no less obfuscating—a varnish of “theatrical values” is spread thickly over the surface of the play. The Phoenix production never betrays the slightest hint that Peer Gynt has an intellectual content, a consistent theme, or, for that matter, any interest at all beyond a histrionic sweep. Stuart Vaughan, the director, has staged the mad scene, for example, as a frenetic phantasmagoria which is quite chilling in its effect, but one has not the vaguest idea what such a scene is doing in the play. With the directorial emphasis on stage effects, crowd scenes, and occasional “Method” touches in the relations between characters, what was conceived as a masterful play of ideas emerges as just another stage piece, and a pretty boring one at that.

But Peer Gynt’s claim to “classical” stature does not rest on the fact that it provides fat parts for actors, compelling scenes, or the opportunity for designers, directors, and technicians to display their wares; nor is the play particularly distinguished by any profound psychological insights. Considered strictly as theatre (a word which is coming to mean the very opposite of drama), the play undoubtedly has severe defects, especially in form. But like all great works, Peer Gynt survives because it transcends the facile notion of “theatre,” because it is larger than its characters or its effects, and because what it has to say about the nature of existence remains both wide and deep.

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In fact, Peer Gynt, written nearly a hundred years ago, tells us more about our own condition than almost anything written in America in recent times, for Peer’s concern with Self is one of the central problems of our national life. A fanciful storyteller with a prancing imagination, Peer might have developed into a great man, but he is too absorbed in appearances to become anything more than a great illusionist. As rapist, as honorary troll, as slave trader, as entrepreneur, as prophet, he is the incarnation of compromise, the spirit of accommodation, the apotheosis of the middle way. He whirls giddily around the glove, justifying his absolute lack of conviction and principle with the protest that he is being true to himself. The inevitable conclusion to this maniacal egotism is insanity (where the ego turns in upon itself completely), and it is in the madhouse that Peer is crowned Emperor. Neither saint nor sinner, Peer finally learns he has been a worthless nonentity who existed only in the love of a faithful wife, and at the end of the play he is waiting to be melted down, like all useless things, by the Button Moulder. “He who forfeits his calling, forfeits his right to live,” wrote Kierkegaard, who believed, like Ibsen, that careerist self-absorption and mindless self-seeking are the most monstrous waste of life. Or, as the Button Moulder puts it: “To be yourself, you must slay yourself.”

“To be yourself is to kill the worst and therefore to bring out the best in yourself’ is the way the passage reads in the Phoenix production, which will give you some idea how easily a profundity can become a copybook maxim. But although Norman Ginsbury’s doggerel, inaccurate rendering makes William Archer’s Victorian bromides seem sublime and precise, the adapter is not exclusively to blame for the general amorphousness of the evening. Stuart

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Vaughan’s cutting is almost guaranteed to make the work incomprehensible, and the central roles are all pretty well miscast. If the Phoenix were a true repertory company, Fritz Weaver would have been ideally placed in the part of the Button Moulder; since it is not, he plays the leading role. A heroic actor with a fine gift for irony, Weaver begins to make sense when Peer gets older; but his heavy style is inappropriate to the younger, quicksilver Peer who is turned into an earthbound swain with monotonous speech inflections and a clumsy pair of hooves.

In brief, we must be grateful to the Phoenix for wanting to mount this play, at the same time wondering what the animating impulse was to do so. In the past, the Phoenix had no policy other than to survive; today, its brochure speaks of creating a “new tradition in the theatre.” But since the Phoenix has developed no new methods of staging, no new methods of playing, no new interpretative approach, I am puzzled about what this new tradition will be. There seems to be an authentic desire, as yet unrealized, to create a “working, professional group that can grow as a unit,” but we have yet to see any sign that the “time-honored and modern classics” will function as anything more than showcases for the company. Alas, the trouble with the Phoenix is the trouble with the American theatre at large; isolated within its theatre walls, it shows no willingness to abandon itself to any purpose higher than its own existence. In this regard, Ibsen’s play remains a cogent lesson; for if the American theatre is ever to be a place for art, it must learn to slay itself.

Source: Robert Brustein. “What’s Wrong with the Phoenix?” in his Seasons of Discontent: Dramatic Opinions 1959-1965, Simon & Schuster, 1965, pp. 218-21.


Beyer, Edvard. “The Reception of Ibsen’s Brand and Peer Gynt in Scandinavia 1866-68,” in Contemporary Approaches to Ibsen VIII, edited by Bjorn Hemmer, Norwegian University Press, 1994, pp. 4-69.

Englert, Uwe.’ Ibsen and Theatre Life in Nazi Germany,” in Contemporary Approaches to Ibsen VII, edited by Bjorn Hemmer, Norwegian University Press, 1991, pp. 85-99.

Esslin, Martin.’ Ibsen and Modern Drama,” in Ibsen and the Theatre: The Dramatists in Production, edited by Errol Durback, New York University Press, 1980, pp. 71-82.

McLeish, Kenneth. Henrik Ibsen Peer Gynt: A Poetic Fantasy, translated and adapted by Kenneth McLeish, Nick Hern Books and the Royal national Theatre, 1990.

Paul, Fritz. “Text-Translation-Performance. Some Observations on Placing Peter Stein’s Berlin Production of Peer Gynt (1971) within Theatre History,” in Contemporary Approaches to Ibsen VII, edited by Bjorn Hemmer, Norwegian University Press, 1991, pp. 75-83.

Popova, Lilia and Knut Brynhildsvoll. “Some Aspects of Cinematic Transformation: The 1934 German version of Peer Gynt,” in Contemporary Approaches to Ibsen VII, edited by Bjorn Hemmer, Norwegian University Press, 1991, pp. 101-111.


Gunnarsson, Torsten. Nordic Landscape Painting in the Nineteenth Century, translated by Nancy Adler, Yale University Press, 1998.

Examines the themes and the social and political environment in which Scandinavian painters worked. There is a good representation of the forests and fjords of this area of Europe.

Hanson, Karin Synnove, editor, Henrik Ibsen, 1828-1978: A Filmography, Oslo, 1978.

Contains details about the film productions of Ibsen’s work.

Hemmer, Bjorn, editor. Contemporary Approaches to Ibsen VII, Norwegian University Press, 1991.

A collection of essays on Ibsen’s work. Of particular note, this volume contains several interesting discussions about Nazi productions of Ibsen’s plays.

Hemmer, Bjorn, editor. Contemporary Approaches to Ibsen VIII, Norwegian University Press, 1994

Includes a discussion about the initial production of Peer Gynt in 1876.

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Lambourne, Lionel. The Aesthetic Movement, by Phaidon Press, 1996.

Presents a discussion of a movement that brought change in architecture, a change that Ibsen refers to in Peer Gynt. The motto of this movement, “art for art’s sake,” created more than just changes in outward beauty; it also resulted in cultural changes that this author explores in this text.

McFarlane, James, editor. The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen, Cambridge University Press, 1994.

This book contains 16 chapters that explore different aspects of Ibsen’s life and works, including important themes.

Von Franz, Marie Louise. Psychological meaning of Redemption Motifs in Fairytales, by Inner City books, 1985.

This author uses Jungian theories to assign psychological significance to fairytales. This is of interest to students who think that fairytales need to have a significance beyond that of enjoyment.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2693300017