“Peer Gynt” by Henrik Ibsen

[All excerpts below, except where otherwise stated, are taken from the translation by Geoffrey Hill, published by Penguin Classics]

Despite all the fantasy, the surrealism, the dream sequences, the weird forays into the realms of folklore, the plot, such as it is, of Peer Gynt, isn’t hard to follow. At least, not for the first four acts. Peer, when we first see him, is a madcap young man much given to mischief-making and to spinning fabulous yarns. He has been brought up by his long-suffering widowed mother, who is constantly upbraiding him, and who is, at the same time, fiercely protective of him. In the first act, Peer gate-crashes a wedding, and runs off with the bride. Later, he abandons her. He appears to have a few more sexual encounters, but refuses to take responsibility for any of them. In the course of all this, he fathers an illegitimate child, and, once again, refuses to accept responsibility, retreating from the child, and from the child’s mother, in a kind of horror. After his own mother’s death – the death scene, where Peer spins one final yarn for her, one of the loveliest and most tender in all dramatic literature – he goes abroad, and becomes a successful and international businessman, though completely unscrupulous, trading, amongst other things, in slaves. He is cheated of his wealth by other businessmen as unscrupulous as himself, and eventually finds himself an inmate of a madhouse in Egypt. And then, after all this, comes the fifth act, which is even stranger than all that had gone before.

Translator and biographer Michael Meyer suggests that Peer either dies in the madhouse at the end of the fourth act (although his death is not explicitly depicted); or he dies in the shipwreck off the coast of Norway at the start of the final act (although, once again, his death is not explicitly depicted). And all that follows is a sort of phantasmagoric unwinding of his life at the moment of his death, in which he is challenged to discover what significance his life may have had. This makes sense to me. All the fantasies and surrealism and dream sequences of the first four acts may be seen as reflections, however distorted, of reality; but even that model breaks down when we come to the last act.

Although the outline of the plot is clear in the first four acts, the details aren’t. Sometimes, even some very significant plot details are left maddeningly stranded in some no man’s land between reality and fantasy. That which is real and that which isn’t become so inextricably entwined, it becomes impossible to separate them out. We may take the trolls, for instance, to be fantasy, but how are we to take Solveig? If we insist on taking everything in this play at face value, Solveig is a vision of purity, the good and beautiful woman whom Peer really loves (even as he frolics with other girls); and she, in turn, returns his love, and eventually seeks him out. But before they can even begin to live their life together, Peer, horrified by the sight of the brutal child he has fathered, leaves her in shame. And, throughout Peer’s life, Solveig patiently waits for him. And at the very end of the play, she reclaims him. Now, clearly, Solveig is neither conceived nor presented as a real person, but it is impossible to tell whether Solveig is an idealised version of a real woman, or whether, indeed, she exists at all anywhere except in Peer’s mind. It is certainly possible to see Solveig as a pure fantasy – a vision of idealised womanhood that Peer, despite everything, harbours in some corner of his mind, but which he felt he felt he had to abandon when shamed by his own actions. But it is possible also that Solveig is a real person, although presented in the drama in a way Peer would like her to be, rather than the way she really is. We do not know, we cannot tell. And in this confusion of reality and fantasy, the impossibility of ever separating the two is very much the intended effect.

Similarly with Peer’s desert adventures in the fourth act. After the other businessmen have cheated him out of his wealth, Peer travels the desert; comes accidentally in possession of riches; is mistaken for a prophet; and takes for himself as mistress the slave Anitra, who declares she has no soul, and who goes on to cheat Peer of his new-found wealth. Did all this really happen, or is this again one of Peer’s tall tales? Could it be that he really did have a mistress in North Africa who had robbed him and left him, and that all the rest is merely an extravagant product of Peer’s teeming imagination? Once again, we cannot tell. Maybe Peer was cheated of his wealth on separate occasions both by the other businessmen, and by his mistress Anitra; maybe he was cheated just once, and his imagination accounts for the rest. As with so much in this play, we cannot tell.

The repetition of a theme – in this instance, of being cheated of his wealth – we see also in other parts of the pay. In the first act, for instance, the theme of Peer seducing and then deserting a woman is presented twice – the first time, in a more or less realistic mode (when Peer runs off with, and later rejects, Ingrid, the bride at the wedding); and then, the entire scene of seduction and desertion is replayed in a mode of pure fantasy. Here we first see Peer frolicking with three girls who are trolls – those strange goblin-like creatures of Norwegian folklore. Then, Peer, having seduced one of the troll girls (who happens to be the daughter of the troll-king), has to face her father in the Hall of the Mountain King. (He is called the “Dovre King” in Geoffrey Hill’s translation.) It is one of those scenes of mad, wild fantasy, as dark and sinister as it is playful and exuberant, that this play is so full of, and bears little resemblance to the playful scherzo Grieg composed as incidental music. In this scene, Peer agrees at first to become a troll himself and marry the Troll-king’s daughter, but changes his mind when he realises that a surgical operation must first be performed on his eyes, so he can see the world as a troll. He is saved – in true folklore tradition – by the church bells ringing, at the very sound of which the trolls scatter in confusion, and the entire Hall of the Mountain King collapses.

Immediately there follows perhaps the strangest scene of all in this very strange play. It is set completely in the dark. Peer is trying to walk forward, but something is blocking his way. Whatever it is that is blocking his way identifies itself as the “Boyg”. It tells him to “go round”. Peer is determined to walk through, but it is no good: he cannot pass through – he has to “go round”. And once again, he is rescued, as in the previous scene, by the church bells. “He was too strong for us,” says the voice of the Boyg, “the prayers of good women were keeping him safe.” What are we to make of all this? We may no doubt take the scene with the trolls as a fantastic reflection of real events, but do we make of the Boyg, and of the injunction to “go round”? What do we make of the repetition, within a mere two pages, of Peer being saved by the church bells? What do we make of that curious reference to the “prayers of good women”?

Fantasies though they may be, but neither the encounter with the trolls nor that with the Boyg is wasted on Peer. He may have refused the surgical operation on his eyes, but he certainly takes to heart the injunction given him by the Dovre King:

Out there – remember? – under the sky’s high-gleaming vault
‘be thyelf, be thyself, even to thy most inward fault’
is the great injunction. Down here, with the race of trolls,
‘be to thyself sufficient’ is the motto that appeals.

“To thyself be sufficient.” I’d guess that the original Norwegian resists easy translation. Peter Watts (Penguin) translates this as “To thyself be – enough!”,  with an interpolated dash and italics; James Kirkup and Christopher Fry (Oxford) make a reference to Polonius, translating this as “To thine own self be – all-sufficient!” – again with an interpolated dash, but no italics; and Michael Meyer (Methuen) gives us “Man, be thyself – and to Hell with the rest of the world!” The basic idea, made explicit in Meyer’s rendition, is one of solipsism: one’s own self is the only thing that matters. Whatever else of the troll-world Peer might reject, this injunction he follows.

And he follows too the Boyg’s injunction to “go round”. He never faces anything: he always takes whatever happens to be the easiest way, the path of least resistance – he always goes round. When he is horrified by the child he has fathered, when  he is too ashamed to face Solveig, he goes round – rather than face it, he simply walks away.

This makes the character of Peer Gynt in many ways the diametric opposite to that of Brand. (The two plays of which Brand and Peer Gynt are eponymous heroes were published only a year apart, in 1866 and 1867). Brand was always fanatically true to his fanatic self, but Peer “goes round” so often, one wonders whether he has a self to be true to. While these two verse dramas may be seen as mighty opposites, and their respective eponymous characters equally contrasted to each other – the one rigid and austere, the other exuberant and prodigal – the contrast between the two is too obvious, perhaps, too simple, to cast much light on either. Nonetheless, it may be said, I think, that, whatever misgivings we may have about the person of Brand, he was great of soul; with Peer Gynt, we wonder whether he has a soul at all. And this is the theme that comes to the fore in the final act: what, at the end of it all, is Peer? Is he really anyone at all?

The fourth act had ended in a madhouse in Egypt. The scene was nightmarish, frenetic: it had about it a sense of wild, uncontrolled frenzy. Maybe this is where Peer dies: we cannot tell. At the start of the fifth act, without explanation, we see Peer as an older man, on a ship back to his native Norway. Maybe he had escaped the asylum, and had made some sort of life for himself; maybe what we see is yet another fantasy, this time happening at the moment of his death. We do not know.

On this ship, Peer meets a ghostly passenger (referred to in the Dramatis Personae in Michael Meyer’s passenger as the “Strange Passenger”). The crew tells Peer that he is the only passenger, but, by this stage of the play, we are not surprised to encounter someone who doesn’t exist. This strange passenger is perfectly courteous, and he politely informs Peer that he wants Peer’s body when he dies.

Off the coast of Norway, the ship is wrecked in a storm. The strange passenger re-appears, and, in modern parlance, breaks through the fourth wall by telling Peer not to worry, because the hero of a play doesn’t die at the start of the fifth act. But here, maybe, he does.

Then Peer is on dry land, and finds himself at a funeral. His own funeral, we wonder? No, it is the funeral of a man Peer had seen earlier in the play chopping off his own fingers to avoid military conscription. From the long funeral oration, we find he had been a good man: he had had a family, and had looked after them. In short, he had been what Peer hadn’t. As Peer dies, so does his alter ego. And while we ponder the significance, if any, of the chopped fingers, we move on.

Peer now encounters a character who could have come straight out of folklore – the Button Moulder. He has been sent to melt Peer down, for Peer had not actually been anyone. Peer has no soul, nothing that could either be saved or damned. He is a blank, a nothing, worthy merely to be melted down. Even evil had eluded him. True, he had paid no attention to morals, and had even traded in slaves, but he had done all this not out of any attachment to evil as such, but simply because it had been the easiest way: he had, as ever, “gone round”. It is not a question of Good and Evil: it is a question of Being. What has Peer been?

Earlier, he had tried to describe his “Gyntian self”:

The Gyntian self – that iron brigade
of wishes, passions and desires,
a massive flood that knows no shores,
vortex of impulse, need and claim,
the world that I entirely am.

To his own self, in other words, he is sufficient. But can “a massive flood that knows no shores”, a mere “vortex of impulse”, really be anything at all? Is a shoreless flood an object? Does it have shape?

Peer asks to Button Moulder to give him time to prove himself, and they agree to meet at the next crossroads. In the meantime, Peer searches desperately for some meaning, some significance, his life must, he feels, have had. It is here we have the famous scene where Peer peels an onion, and finds merely layer upon accumulated layer, with no real core. In another scene, balls of yarn speak, as do withered leaves, and drops of dew, and broken straws. They tell us  they are the thoughts Peer hadn’t thought, songs he hadn’t sung, deeds he had never delivered, tears he hadn’t shed. Peer meets the Dovre King again, now come down in the world; and he meets a thin man in a priest’s cassock, who turns out to be the Devil himself. Neither can vouch for his being. At one point, Peer comes close to the cabin where he had left Solveig so many years ago: she sits there waiting for him still, singing, and once again, Peer turns away in shame.

But it is Solveig who nonetheless claims him in the end. How are we to read this? That he is saved by a vision of an ideal, which he had turned away from in shame but which had never quite disappeared from his heart? That Eternal Woman leads him on ever upward, as it had Faust?

Das Ewig-Weibliche
Zieht uns hinan.

These famous lines of Goethe’s had been quoted earlier in Peer Gynt, but in a mocking tone. Are we to take them seriously now? I suppose there’s no reason why we shouldn’t. But there’s no reason why we should either. In this play, where it has proved consistently impossible to separate out the different levels of reality and fantasy, this could be yet another fantasy. For even as Solveig claims Peer, having waited for him all her life, we hear the Button Moulder’s ominous lines:

Last crossroads, Peer? Our final meeting?
We’ll see. Till then, I shall say nothing.

Nothing is settled.

***

Peer Gynt is a huge, vast piece – like its predecessor Brand, far too long to be performed uncut in a single evening. But unlike Brand, it is wild, it is exuberant, it is overflowing with mad, extravagant, phantasmagoric visions. What it must be like reading it in the original Norwegian, I can only imagine, but all four of the translations I have read – by Michael Meyer, Peter Watts, James Kirkup & Christopher Fry, and the most recent translation in Penguin Classics, by Geoffrey Hill – convey a sense of almost of abandon, of reckless energy and vigour and  irrepressible ebullience.

As with his translation of Brand, Geoffrey Hill, not knowing Norwegian, had worked from a literal (and annotated) translation, this time by Janet Garton. It does not seem to me to be the ideal way to translate, but the results, it must be admitted, are very persuasive. Hill’s verse flows freely, with rhymes at the end of lines, and, more often than not half-rhymes, or simply words that vaguely echo each other. He varies the length of the lines far more than he had done in Brand, sometimes using alexandrines, or lines even longer, of fifteen or sixteen syllables. Sometimes he uses internal rhymes. But in all this, he achieves a wonderful fluency. The technique, as is to be expected from so distinguished a poet, is formidable, but it never slows the verse down: much of the time, it seems to rush forward like a torrent, a “massive flood that knows no shores”. I don’t think it displaces the earlier translations, but is certainly a most welcome addition to them. And by the end, I was left breathless.

***

I don’t think anything in Ibsen’s earlier work could prepare us for that sudden explosion of creativity that resulted Brand and Peer Gynt in, respectively, 1866 and 1867. He had been writing for some fifteen years, but, to my mind at least (I realise others may differ on this point), he had never really been much more than a journeyman dramatist. Even the best of his earlier work – The Vikings at Helgeland, Love’s Comedy, The Pretenders – could not have led anyone to expect what followed. But then, he was awarded a grant from the Norwegian government, and the freedom not to have to write for the stage seemed suddenly to release his creative energies.

The 1860s were a remarkable decade in European literature. It started with the publication of Great Expectations, and soon  afterwards, Dickens started serialisation of his last complete novel, Our Mutual Friend. (It was published in  1865.) Turgenev wrote what is often regarded as his finest novel, Fathers and Sons; and meanwhile, Dostoyevsky announced himself with From the House of the Dead and Notes From Underground, and followed them up with Crime and Punishment and The Idiot. Meanwhile, in France, Baudelaire published the third and final edition of Les Fleurs du Mal, containing several new poems; and Flaubert weighed in  with L’Education Sentimentale, and  George Eliot with, amongst other, The Mill on the Floss. And meanwhile, in Russia, there was the trifling matter of War and Peace. There was more than enough written and published in just those ten years to keep any reader occupied for an entire lifetime. And Ibsen’s Brand and Peer Gynt are among the major achievements even in this company. He may have started the decade merely as a journeyman, but after these two monumental achievements, everything was changed.

Brand and Peer Gynt were written  to be read rather than to be acted, but Ibsen’s instinct for the theatre never deserted him: judiciously trimmed versions still hold the stage triumphantly, even in  translation. (This is not something that can be said for all verse drama.) But curiously, Ibsen never wrote in verse again. Why he turned away from verse drama, after having written two of the very finest – possibly the last great plays to be written  in verse – is a matter of considerable conjecture: perhaps he felt he had exhausted all he could achieve in the form. His next play turned out to be the very exotic epic Emperor and Galilean, a vast work in two parts: Ibsen spent several years on this, and thought them, at the time, to be his best work, but I have never understood them, and a recent reading has left me as puzzled as I ever have been. And then came the decisive break: realistic plays, in realistic settings, with people from ordinary walks of life speaking the kind of language the audience spoke. No more Vikings at Helgeland, no more emperors and Galileans, and, above all, no more verse. It was a very unexpected turn for Ibsen to take, given what he had written before, but the themes broached in Brand and in Peer Gynt were to echo, I think, even here. They may not be verse, but the hand of the poet is apparent throughout.

But let us not anticipate…

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Enjoyable reading having tackled the play a decade ago, and I too felt confusion’s reign. The play reminds me of Henry James’s late novel “The Awkward Age”, which is equally impenetrable.

    I found Brand far more accessible, coming as I do from a Lutheran background and a familiarity with the great Dane, Soren Kierkegaard. I wonder whether Peer Gynt was inspired, in part, by Kierkegaard’s aesthete.

    Reply

  2. I found Brian Johnston’s use of Hegel really useful with Ibsen. Once I started looking for dialectics, a lot of Emperor and Galilean, for example, fell into place, much like the Brand vs Peer Gynt parallels you write about here.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Christopher on March 29, 2018 at 2:02 pm

    I adore this play. I saw a wonderful production of it some twenty years ago and it has stayed with me ever since. The notion that various elements are fantasies or that Peer dies before the epilogue-like fifth act begins is quite interesting – but to me, everything that occurs and appears in the play is very real. I think the mixture of the fantastic and the mundane, and the almost-maddening obscurity of so many scenes add greatly to the power of the work. Like a picture by Escher, the play demands inspection but defies comprehension. And I find that Peer, despite his immorality, is a sympathetic character, a dreamer and a striver who never quite finds his place in the world. I find after all these years, in my own life I am still wrestling with the Boyg – one can’t go through it, and going around merely delays the encounter.

    Reply

    • Hello Christopher, and thank you for your post.
      Of course, Peer Gynt is not a “realistic” play in the way “A Doll’s House” is realistic. Once we accept that everything we read (or see on stage) in this play is taking place on some plane other than the strictly realistic, it becomes difficult to determine what we mean by “real” in the first place. Ibsen plays upon this, as, I think, Shakespeare did in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or in “The Tempest”. But as you rightly say, the play “demands inspection but defies comprehension”. Perhaps that motto could serve for all great works of art!

      Peer is indeed a likeable figure, despite the quite deplorable things he does throughout. I suppose we all tend to like figures who can tell stories, spin yarns. The final yarn he spins to his dying mother is among the most moving scenes in any play.

      I have only seen this on stage once: it was nearly 20 years ago now, at the Edinburgh Festival, performed by the Berliner Ensemble in German (with English surtitles). It was a tremendous evening at the theatre. Amongst other things, their interpretation of the madhouse scene was striking: it was eerie rather than frenetic. And the final act unfolded in a dilapidated, urban environment rather than in the fjords.

      And I suppose we are all wrestling with the Boygs in our own way! And, unless we are as single-minded as Brand, we all go around.

      My best wishes, Himadri

      Reply

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