Thursday 2 April 1998

Henrik Ibsen: Peer Gynt (1867)

Edition: Methuen
Translation: Michael Meyer, 1963
This is one of the best known of all Ibsen's plays, though perhaps more for the music by Grieg than for the actual play. It's an early play, and is not at all like Ibsen's later works; it is very full of images and not at all realistic; a large part of the action is dramatisation of the imaginings of the main character.
In many respects, the play examines, in Peer, the opposite side of human nature to that scrutinised in Ibsen's previous play, Brand. The character of Brand is too inflexible, too unyielding, too focused on ideals while the character of Peer is almost totally concentrated on the life of the imagination and the stories that he tells. No ideals, almost no morals, no conventions enter his mind. He seduces the bride at a wedding, sets up a new religion in the Arabian desert, attempts to become king of the trolls.

The trolls are an important part of the play, symbolising what Peer so nearly becomes - totally amoral and self-centred. He is offered citizenship (along with the hand of the troll-king's daughter), but refuses to allow himself to be maimed in the way they insist (harming his eyes). So far he will go - wearing a tail, acting in a troll-like way - but no further. What saves Peer is the love of two good women - his mother, Aase, and the pure and innocent Solveig. She ends up waiting her whole life for him to return from his trip abroad, which leads him to an insane asylum in Egypt as well as the Arabian desert.
One perennial critical question about Peer Gynt is to name the moment at which Peer dies - is it in the lunatic asylum, or in the shipwreck on the journey back to Denmark, or after returning to the arms of Solveig. Michael Meyer thinks it is the asylum, because afterwards he is continually meeting characters symbolising death (the button-moulder, who remakes unworthy souls, and the stranger on ship who appears during the storm which wrecks it). I'm not sure I agree. There are so many things which take place in the imagination of Peer before this that to say something cannot really be happening doesn't make much sense.

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