IBSEN AND THE GENESIS OF PEER GYNT
“A LIAR, SEDUCER, AND BOMBASTIC SELF-DECEIVER”
IBSEN AND THE GENESIS OF PEER GYNT
Before there was the Ibsen of A DOLL’S HOUSE and HEDDA GABLER, there was the Ibsen of BRAND and PEER GYNT. It is his late realist cycle of plays, beginning with A DOLL’S HOUSE and ending with WHEN WE DEAD AWAKEN, that nowadays eclipses this early and often theatrically bolder work. It is easy to forget how truly rich and varied this extraordinary Norwegian Dramatist’s canon actually is, a theatrical universe that includes comedies, verse tragedies, Roman Emperors, trolls and even a smattering of ancient Vikings.
Ibsen’s formative years (1850 to 1864) were spent first at the Det Norse Theater (Bergen) and later at the Christiania Theatre where he became its Creative Director. During this intense period he was involved in the mounting of hundreds of plays. This work was primarily as a director and producer, but interspersed between the standards of the 19th-century repertory, Ibsen tried his own hand at playwriting. The fruits of these early efforts were meet with little interest from the viewing public and Ibsen ultimately found himself disenchanted with Norway and its theatre scene. In 1864, he took his wife and newborn child to Italy where he would spend the next 27 years in a self-imposed exile.
It is in exile that Ibsen would pen his greatest works, beginning with two epic verse plays: BRAND (1865) and PEER GYNT (1867). BRAND was Ibsen’s first great critical and financial success. This five-act verse tragedy focuses on a maverick preacher, aptly named Brand (Norwegian for “Fire”). He is disgusted with the compromised manner in which modern Christians live their lives. His is an “all or nothing” philosophy that can be found in the Old Testament and which demands an unbending life in service to God’s edicts rather than the more comfortable compromises of the 19th-century bourgeois society. This ultimately leads Brand and his followers to leave the church they have built and head deep into the mountains to create a “Church without limits.” But the rigors of such a life are too hard on Brand’s followers and he is ultimately left alone to grapple with his failure to change the world. “Does not salvation consider the will of man?” becomes Brand’s dying words and they resonated deeply with critics and audiences alike. Brand became, in a way, the last gasp of the Romantic/Idealist movement and suddenly Ibsen’s name was being bandied about in the company of such great thinkers and artists who were engaged in a love/hate relationship with Romanticism, a select group which included the likes of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and that young Russian upstart named Dostoevsky.
Two years later, on the heels of the success of BRAND came PEER GYNT, another five-act verse drama about yet another Nordic iconoclast. It is difficult to talk about PEER without a nod toward BRAND since PEER seems to continue Ibsen’s ongoing dialogue with the roots of Romanticism and the problems of the individual verses society. In fact, PEER seems to parody the Romantic, individualistic iconoclast that BRAND became for critics and audiences alike. Ibsen’s intentions remain somewhat coy in his correspondence in regards to PEER.
In January 1867, Ibsen wrote to his publisher that he had just concluded penning: “A long dramatic poem, part legend, with characters from Norwegian folklore. It will bear no resemblance to BRAND and will contain no direct polemics.” Perhaps we should take Ibsen here at his word. Why shouldn’t he, after the relentless high-mindedness of BRAND, have something of a lark with PEER? Isn’t every author entitled to a little bit of fun after the rigors of an intellectual tragedy? And yet, one can’t help but feel that somewhere in Ibsen’s unconscious, PEER is a kind of theatrical objective correlative to the “Brand-ism” that so captivated his newfound audience; hidden within the joyride of PEER, between his tall tales and escapades with trolls, there lies the feeling of a continued critique; Brand’s grandstanding gives way to Peer’s antics, sending up the Brands of the world and calling the import of “the Self”, that great invention of the 19th-century, into question.
Regardless, something about PEER’s irrepressible spirit continues to captivate contemporary audiences. The play has become a mainstay of our dramatic repertory whereas his counterpart, BRAND, is left to brood about the fate of mankind on the shelves of countless libraries rather than the stages of our modern theater. No doubt much of PEER GYNT’S success has to do with his own protean invention and reinvention of himself and his surroundings. In this sense, Peer is something of a perennial author and the hero of his stories is always, resolutely and unapologetically himself. Fiction is Peer’s constant companion and perfect foil to the prosaic nature of truth, which can be, let’s face it, often lacking in color and variety. Ibsen’s Peer is known to “indulge” the truth and embroider the otherwise-quotidian world with a tall tale, the taller the better. Why not make an otherwise humdrum Monday morning sound all the more exciting by adding a made up struggle with a troll or two? Peer’s impatient relationship with the quotidian is like that of the author Philip K. Dick who once wrote, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, is still there the next morning.” Peer seems forever allergic to the humdrum of the next morning, and it is this predisposition that sends him around the world in search for adventure. It is this hunger for the “more-ness” of life has placed him in a select pantheon of literary figures that includes, Dante’s Ulysses, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and Goethe’s Faust.
The equally irrepressible critic Harold Bloom writes that PEER, “more than Goethe’s Faust, is the one 19th-century character who has the largess of the greatest characters of the Renaissance imagines. Dickens, Stendhal, Hugo, even Balzac have no single figure quite so exuberant, outrageous, vitalistic as Peer Gynt. He merely seems initially to be an unlikely candidate for such eminence. What is he, we say, except a kind of Norwegian roaring boy, marvelously attractive to women, a kind of bogus poet, a narcissist, absurd self-idolater, a liar, a seducer, a bombastic self-deceiver? But this is partly moralizing, all too much like the scholarly rants against Falstaff. True, Peer, unlike Falstaff, is not a great wit. But in Peer, the scamp bears the blessing: more life.”
And perhaps it is this insatiability that is at the root of Peer’s theatrical longevity. It sends him around the world but also returns him home. There he must confront his past, his lost love, and a mysterious Button molder who informs Peer that his soul must be melted down with other faulty goods unless he can explain when and where he was ever truly “himself.” And it is here that Peer finds that he is in the same situation as Brand. Both Peer and Brand are held to a final existential accounting, both iconoclasts are asked to justify themselves and, in the end, find justification lacking. Not even the comic register of the play can help Peer escape such an accounting. And so, there they stand, the proverbial rogue and holy man, polar opposites, faced with the same dilemma, the dilemma of their time, our time, all time: justify yourself. This is Ibsen’s great question and he continues it, from these epic verse plays that take place on the tops of mountains and in the sands of Egypt, all the way to the well-appointed living rooms of the 19th-century bourgeois, rooms that still find their way onto our 21st-century stages, and questions that still demand answers.