Tuesday, 2 January 2001

Asbjorn Aarseth: Text and Performance: Peer Gynt and Ghosts (1989)

Edition: MacMillan, 1989 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 701

As part of a series aimed at sixth form and undergraduate study of drama, Aarseth writes about two of Ibsen's best known plays, Peer Gynt and Ghosts. They are both among his more complex, though the have little else in common. Parts of Peer Gynt, in particular, can seem almost incomprehensible, and it often seems especially strange on stage. (It was written to be read rather than performed, like Goethe's Faust.)

The structure of the book is to discuss the text of each play first, and then their performance histories, with two case studies for each (one Scandinavian, one in London). Each section is really too short for a detailed discussion to develop, and Aarseth concentrates on one aspect in the textual analysis, the themes which are frequently lost in translation from Norwegian. Much is made, for example, of the animal imagery in Peer Gynt. Traditional animal metaphors are difficult to translate, because they carry meanings beyond their literal words, and often the sense is retained in translation at the expense of the animal. This is quite important, because the major theme of the play is the nature of human as opposed to animal nature.

Most of what Aarseth has to say is interesting; the problem is that it is not enough. Even concentrating on certain aspects of each play, he can only be relatively sketchy, and there are many interesting questions about which he has nothing to say at all. By fitting into what I suspect are the confines of the series, the interest of the book is diminished.

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