Peer Gynt

This page is a history and synopsis of Ibsen’s masterpiece Peer Gynt, for our current tour of the one-man-show Peer Gynt with Kåre Conradi please see the Current Tour link.

Peer Gynt (Norwegian pronunciation: [ˈpeːr ˈɡʏnt]) is a five-act play in verse by the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen, loosely based on the fairy tale Per Gynt and is the most widely performed of all Norwegian plays. According to Klaus Van Den Berg, the “cinematic script blends poetry with social satire and realistic scenes with surreal ones”. Peer Gynt has also been described as the story of a life based on procrastination and avoidance. A first edition of 1,250 copies was published on 14 November 1867 in Copenhagen. Despite having swiftly sold out, a re-print of 2,000 copies, which followed after only 14 days, didn’t sell out until seven years later.

While Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson admired the play’s “satire in Norwegian egotism, narrowness, and self-sufficiency” and described it as “magnificent”, Hans Christian Andersen, Georg Brandes and Clemens Petersen all joined a widespread hostility. Enraged by Petersen’s criticisms in particular, Ibsen defended his work by arguing that it “is poetry; and if it isn’t, it will become such. The conception of poetry in our country, in Norway, shall shape itself according to this book.” Despite this defense of his poetic achievement in Peer Gynt, the play was his last to employ verse; from The League of Youth (1869) onwards, Ibsen was to write drama only in prose.

Ibsen wrote Peer Gynt in deliberate disregard of the limitations that the conventional stagecraft of the 19th century imposed on drama. Its 40 scenes move uninhibitedly in time and space and between consciousness and the unconscious, blending folkloric fantasy and unsentimental realism.

Raymond Williams compares Peer Gynt with August Strindberg’s early drama Lucky Peter’s Journey (1882) and argues that both explore a new kind of dramatic action that was beyond the capacities of the theatre of the day; both created “a sequence of images in language and visual composition” that “became technically possible only in film. “ Peer Gynt was first performed in Christiania (now Oslo) on 24 February 1876, with original music composed by Edvard Grieg, which includes some of today’s most recognized classical pieces, In the Hall of the Mountain King and Morning Mood. It was published in a German translation in 1881, in English in 1892, and in French in 1896.

The play is very loosely based on a Norwegian fairy tale, Per Gynt, believed by Ibsen to be rooted in fact. Ibsen was also generally inspired by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen’s collection of Norwegian fairy tales, published in 1845 (Huldre-Eventyr og Folkesagn). Several of the characters are modeled after Ibsen’s own family, notably his parents Knud Ibsen and Marichen Altenburg.

Characters

  • Åse, a peasant’s widow
  • Peer Gynt, her son
  • Two old women with corn–sacks
  • Aslak, a blacksmith
  • Wedding guests
  • A master cook
  • A fiddler
  • A man and a wife, newcomers to the district
  • Solveig and little Helga, their daughters
  • The farmer at Hægstad
  • Ingrid, his daughter
  • The bridegroom and his parents
  • Three alpine dairymaids
  • A green-clad woman, a troll princess
  • The Old Man of the Mountains, a troll king (Also known as, The Mountain King)
  • Multiple troll-courtiers, troll-maidens and troll-urchins
  • A couple of witches
  • Brownies, nixies, gnomes, etc.
  • An ugly brat
  • The Bøyg, a voice in the darkness
  • Kari, a cottar’s wife
  • Master Cotton.
  • Monsieur Ballon
  • Mr. von Eberkopf
  • Mr. Trumpeterstrale
  • Gentlemen on their travels
  • A thief
  • A receiver
  • Anitra, daughter of a Bedouin chief
  • Arabs
  • Female slaves
  • Dancing girls
  • The Memnon statue
  • The Sphinx at Giza
  • Dr. Begriffenfeldt, director of the madhouse at Cairo
  • Huhu, a language–reformer from the coast of Malabar
  • Hussein, an eastern Minister
  • A fellow with a royal mother
  • Several madmen and their keepers
  • A Norwegian skipper
  • His crew
  • A strange passenger
  • A pastor
  • A funeral party
  • A parish-officer
  • A button-molder
  • A lean person

Plot

Act I

Peer Gynt is the son of the once highly regarded Jon Gynt. Jon Gynt spent all his money on feasting and living lavishly, until there was nothing left; thus, Jon had to go from his farm as a wandering salesman, leaving his wife and son behind in debt. Åse, the mother, wished to raise her son to restore the lost fortune of his father, but Peer is soon to be considered useless. He is a poet and a braggart, not unlike the Norwegian youngest son from the fairy tales, the “Ash Lad”, with whom he shares some characteristics.

As the play opens, Peer gives an account of a reindeer hunt that went awry, a famous theatrical scene generally known as “the Buckride.” His mother scorns him for his vivid imagination, and taunts him because he spoiled his chances with Ingrid, the daughter of the richest farmer. Peer goes straight to Ingrid’s wedding, scheduled for the following day, because he may still get a chance with the bride. His mother follows quickly to stop him from shaming himself completely.

At the wedding, Peer is taunted and laughed at by the other guests, especially the local blacksmith, Aslak, who holds a grudge after an earlier brawl. But in the same wedding, Peer meets a family of Haugean newcomers from another valley. He instantly notices the daughter, Solveig, and asks her to dance. She refuses because of her father and because Peer’s reputation has preceded him. She leaves, and Peer starts drinking. When he hears that the bride has locked herself in, he seizes the opportunity and runs away with the bride, and spends the night with her in the mountains…

Act II

His action has a consequence: Peer is banished. As he wanders the mountains, his mother, Solveig, and Solveig’s father search for him. During his getaway, he meets 3 amorous dairy-maids who are waiting to be courted by trolls (a folklore motif from Gudbrandsdalen). He becomes highly intoxicated with them and spends the next day alone suffering from a hangover. He runs head-first into a rock and swoons, and the rest of the second act takes place in Peer’s dreams. He comes across a woman clad in green who turns out to be the daughter of the troll mountain king. Together they ride into the mountain hall, and the troll king gives Peer the opportunity to become a troll if Peer would marry his daughter. Peer agrees to a number of conditions, but declines in the end. He is then confronted with the fact that the green-clad woman is with child. Peer denies this; he claims not to have touched her, but the wise troll king replies that he begat the child in his head. Crucial for the plot and understanding of the play is the question asked by the troll king: What is the difference between troll and man?

The answer given by the Old Man of the Mountain is: “Out there, where sky shines, humans say: ‘To thyself be true.’ In here, trolls say: ‘Be true to yourself and to hell with the world.’” Egoism is a typical trait of the trolls in this play. From then on, Peer uses this as his motto, always proclaiming that he is himself, whatever that is. One of the most interesting characters is the Bøyg; a creature who has no real description. On the question “Who are you?” The Bøyg answers, “myself.” In time, Peer also takes the Bøyg’s important saying as a motto: “Go around.” The rest of his life, he “beats around the bush” instead of facing himself or the truth.

Upon waking up, he is confronted by Helga, Solveig’s sister, who gives him food and regards from her sister. Peer gives the girl a silver button for Solveig to keep, and asks that she not forget him.

Act III

As an outlaw, Peer struggles to build his own cottage in the hills. Solveig turns up and insists on living with him. She has made her choice, she says, and there will be no return for her. Peer is delighted and welcomes her, but as she enters the cabin, an elderly woman in a green dress appears with a limping boy at her side. This is the green-clad woman from the mountain hall. She has cursed him by forcing him to remember her, and all his previous sins, when facing Solveig. Peer hears a ghostly voice saying, “Go roundabout, Peer”, and decides to leave. He tells Solveig he has something heavy to fetch. He returns in time for his mother’s death, and then sets off overseas.

Act IV

Peer is away for many years, taking part in various occupations and playing various roles including that of a businessman engaged in enterprises on the coast of Morocco. Here, he explains his view of life, and we learn that he is a businessman with dirty money on his hands. He has been a missionary, a slave-trader, and many other things. His friends rob him, and leave him alone on the shore. Then he finds some stolen bedouin gear, and in these clothes, he is hailed as a prophet by a local tribe. He tries to seduce Anitra, the chieftain’s daughter, but she gets away, and leaves him. Then he decides to become a historian, and travels to Egypt. He wanders through the desert, passes the Memnon and the Sphinx. As he addresses the Sphinx, believing her to be the Bøyg, he encounters the keeper of the local madhouse, himself insane, who regards Peer as the bringer of supreme wisdom. Peer comes to the madhouse, and understands that all of the patients live in their own worlds, being themselves to such a degree that no one cares for anyone else. In his youth, Peer had dreamt of becoming an emperor. In this place, he’s finally hailed as one — the emperor of the “self.” Peer despairs and calls for the “Keeper of all fools,” i.e. God.

Act V

Finally, on his way home as an old man, he is shipwrecked. Among those on board, he meets the Strange Passenger, who wants to make use of Peer’s corpse to find out where dreams have their origin. This passenger scares Peer out of his wits. He lands on shore bereft of all of his possessions, a pitiful and grumpy old man. Back home in Norway, Peer Gynt attends a peasant funeral, and an auction, where he offers for sale everything from his earlier life. The auction takes place at the very farm where the wedding once was held. Peer stumbles along, and is confronted with all that he did not do, his unsung songs, his unmade works, his unwept tears, and his questions that were never asked. His mother comes back and claims that her deathbed went awry. He did not lead her to heaven with his ramblings. Peer escapes and is confronted with the Button-molder, who maintains that Peer’s soul must be melted down with other faulty goods unless he can explain when and where in life he has been “himself.” Peer protests. He has been only that, and nothing else. Then he meets the troll king, who states that he has been a troll, not a man, most of his life. The molder comes along and says that he has to come up with something if he is not to be melted down. Peer looks for a priest to confess his sins, and a character named the Lean One (who is the Devil), turns up. He believes Peer cannot be accounted a real sinner who can be sent to hell. He has not done anything serious. Peer despairs in the end, understanding that his life is forfeited. He understands he is nothing. But at the same moment, Solveig starts to sing — the cabin he himself built, is close at hand, but he dares not enter. The Bøyg in him tells him “around.” The molder shows up and demands a list of sins, but Peer has none to give, unless Solveig can vouch for him. Then he breaks through to her, asking her for his sins. But she answers: “You have not sinned at all, my dearest boy.” Peer does not understand — he believes himself lost. Then he asks her: “Where has Peer Gynt been since we last met? Where was I as the one I should have been, whole and true, with the mark of God on my brow?” She answers; “In my faith, in my hope, in my love.” Peer screams and calls his mother, and hides himself in her lap. Solveig sings her lullaby for him, and we might presume he dies in this last scene of the play, although there are no stage directions or dialogue to indicate that he actually does.

Behind the corner, the button-molder, who is sent by God, still waits, with the words: “Peer, we shall meet at the last cross-roads, and then we shall see if… I’ll say no more.”

Writing process

On 5 January 1867 Ibsen wrote to Frederik Hegel, his publisher, with his plan for the play: it would be “a long dramatic poem, having as its principal a part-legendary, part-fictional character from Norwegian folklore during recent times. It will bear no resemblance to Brand, and will contain no direct polemics or anything of that kind.”

He began to write Peer Gynt on 14 January, employing a far greater variety of metres in its rhymed verse than he had used in his previous verse plays Brand (written 1865) orLove’s Comedy (written 1862). The first two acts were completed in Rome and the third in Casamicciola on the north of the island of Ischia.

During this time, Ibsen told Vilhelm Bergsøe that “I don’t think the play’s for acting” when they discussed the possibility of staging the play’s image of a casting-ladle ”big enough to re-cast human beings in.” Ibsen sent the three acts to his publisher on 8 August, with a letter that explains that “Peer Gynt was a real person who lived in Gudbrandsdal, probably around the end of the last century or the beginning of this. His name is still famous among the people up there, but not much more is known about his life than what is to be found in Asbjørnsen’s Norwegian Folktales (in the section entitled ‘Stories from the Mountain’).” In those stories, “Per Gynt” rescues the three dairy-maids from the trolls and shoots the Bøyg, who was originally a gigantic, worm-shaped troll-being. Per was known to tell tall tales of his own achievements, a trait Peer in the play inherited. The “buck-ride” story, which Peer tells his mother in the play’s first scene, is also from this source, but, as Åse points out, it was originally Gudbrand Glesne from Vågå who did the tour with the reindeer stag and finally shot it.

Following an earthquake on Ischia on 14 August, Ibsen left for Sorrento, where he completed the final two acts; he finished the play on 14 October. It was published in a first edition of 1,250 copies a month later in Copenhagen.

Background

Ibsen’s previous play, Brand, preached the philosophy of “All or nothing.” Relentless, cruel, resolute, overriding in will, Brand went through everything that stood in his way toward gaining an ideal. Peer Gynt is a compensating balance, a complementary color to Brand. Instead of the iron will of Brand, Peer is will-less; instead of sufficient, he is insufficient; instead of resolute, irresolute. In handling all issues facing him, Peer goes around them.

Brand had a phenomenal literary success, and people became curious to know what Ibsen’s next play would be. The dramatist, about this time, was relieved of financial worry by two money grants, one from the Norwegian government and the other from the Scientific Society of Trondhjem. This enabled him to give to his work an unfettered mind. He went with his family to Frascati, where, in the Palazzo rooms, he looked many feet down upon the Mediterranean, and pondered his new drama. He preserved a profound silence about the content of the play, and begged his publisher, Hegel, to create as much mystery about it as possible.

The portrayal of the Gynt family is known to be based on Henrik Ibsen’s own family and childhood memories; in a letter to Georg Brandes, Ibsen wrote that his own family and childhood had served “as some kind of model” for the Gynt family. In a letter to Peter Hansen, Ibsen confirmed that the character Åse, Peer Gynt’s mother, was based on his own mother, Marichen Altenburg. The character Jon Gynt is considered to be based on Ibsen’s father Knud Ibsen, who was a rich merchant before he went bankrupt. Even the name of the Gynt family’s ancestor, the prosperous Rasmus Gynt, is borrowed from the Ibsen’s family’s earliest known ancestor. Thus, the character Peer Gynt could be interpreted as being an ironic representation of Henrik Ibsen himself. There are striking similarities to Ibsen’s own life; Ibsen himself spent 27 years living abroad and was never able to face his hometown again.

Grieg’s music

Ibsen asked Edvard Grieg to compose incidental music for the play. Grieg composed a score that plays approximately ninety minutes. Grieg extracted two suites of four pieces each from the incidental music (Opus 46 and Opus 55), which became very popular as concert music. Two of the sung parts of the incidental music ended up in these suites (the famous In the Hall of the Mountain King in the 1st suite with the vocal parts omitted, and the last part of 2nd suite, Solveig’s Song, the solo part now played by violin rather than sung, though the vocal version is sometimes substituted). (Originally, the second suite had a fifth number, The Dance of the Mountain King’s Daughter, but Grieg withdrew it.) Grieg himself declared that it was easier to make music “out of his own head” than strictly following suggestions made by Ibsen. For instance, Ibsen wanted music that would characterize the “international” friends in the fourth act, by melding the said national anthems (Norwegian, Swedish, German, French and English). Reportedly, Grieg was not in the right mood for this task.

The music of these suites, especially Morning Mood starting the first suite, In the Hall of the Mountain King, and the string lament Åse’s Death later reappeared in numerous arrangements, soundtracks, etc.

Other Norwegian composers that have written theatrical music for Peer Gynt include Harald Sæverud (1947), Arne Nordheim (1969), Ketil Hvoslef (1993) and Jon Mostad (1993-4). Gunnar Sønstevold (1966) wrote music for a ballet version of Peer Gynt.

Peer Gynt Festival

At Vinstra in Gudbrandsdalen, Henrik Ibsen and Peer Gynt have been celebrated with an annual festival since 1928. The festival is one of Norway’s main events, and is recognized by the Norwegian Government as a leading institution of presenting culture in nature.

The main event in the festival is the staging of Peer Gynt next to Lake Gålå. The play is staged in the same surroundings in which Ibsen claims he found inspiration for the character Peer Gynt, and is regarded by many as the definitive version. The play is performed with professional actors from the national theater institutions, and nearly 100 amateur actors. Edvard Grieg’s original Peer Gynt music is performed by a professional orchestra. The event is one of the most popular theater productions in Norway, attracting more than 17,000 people every summer.

Peer Gynt Sculpture Park

Peer Gynt Sculpture Park (Peer Gynt-parken) is a sculpture park located in Oslo, Norway. Created in honour of Henrik Ibsen, it is a monumental presentation of Peer Gynt, scene by scene. It was established in 2006 by Selvaag, the company behind the housing development in the area. Most of the sculptures in this park are the result of an international sculpture competition.

Films

There have been a number of film adaptations including:

  • Peer Gynt (1915 film)
  • Peer Gynt (1918 film), a German film directed by Richard Oswald
  • Peer Gynt (1934 film), a German film directed by Fritz Wendhausen
  • Peer Gynt (1941 film), notable for being the film debut of Charlton Heston

We gratefully acknowledge Wikipedia for the article Peer Gynt.