Friday, February 7, 2014

This observation is new, and mine. (Later came to another conclusion) - crazy Peer Gynt

Brand is a single-minded and intense play about a monomaniac proving himself right, whatever the cost.  Of course he is not actually right, which is irony.  Or perhaps he is partly right, which is ambiguity.  Regardless, Ibsen marches his fanatic down one mountain and up the other, trimming everything away until nothing is left.

In Peer Gynt, Ibsen sprawls.  The first act is almost deceptive.  It stays in the village, mostly at a wedding part, until Peer Gynt runs off with the bride.  Outlawed and wandering the mountains, in Act II he has some strange encounters with the Troll King and his court, and with the mysterious invisible Great Boyg, the subject of much interpretation:

PEER GYNT:  Who are you?
THE VOICE:                             Myself.
PEER GYNT:                                            That stupid answer
                        You can keep; it makes nothing clear.  (II.vii.)

In Act III, Peer Gynt returns to the natural world, down from the mountain, to say farewell to his dying mother in that wonderful scene I looked at yesterday.  Then he is off “[t]o the sea…  and farther still” (III.iv.).

In the last two long acts, Ibsen cuts loose.  The action moves to a symbolic plain.  Peer Gynt becomes a slave trader and plantation owner and arms dealer (almost).  He spends a scene in a tree fighting off a pack of monkeys:

PEER GYNT:               The beast!
    The whole load on top of me!  Ugh, horrible - !
    Or could it be food?  It tastes – equivocal;
    But then, it’s habit that forms our taste.  (IV.iv.)

Try to imagine this philosophical scatology in a English play from 1867.  I wonder how this scene is staged.  Monkey puppets, maybe.

Peer Gynt fantasizes about recovering the desert by flooding it.  He has an affair with a houri.  He engages in archaeological research, discovering the statue of Memnon that sings at sunrise.

PEER GYNT:              (Writes in his notebook.)
“The statue sang.  Hear definite tones,
But can’t quite figure what it all means,
A hallucination, obviously.
Nothing else worthy of note today.”
                                   (Moves on.)

The statue of Memnon shows up in one of the Ubu plays, where it is thrown in the toilet.  The statue reminds Peer Gynt of the King of the Trolls, while the Sphinx, in the next scene is more like the Great Boyg, a puzzle since the Boyg was invisible.  In the Oedipus story, the Sphinx asks a riddle, but here it is Peer Gynt who asks the sphinx questions.

PEER GYNT:  Hi, Boyg, who are you?
A VOICE (behind the Sphinx)
                                         Ach, Sphinx, wer bist du?
PEER GYNT:  What?  An echo in German?  How odd!
THE VOICE:  Wer bist du?
PEER GYNT:                         The accent, it’s very good!
This observation is new, and mine.
                        (Writes in his notebook.)
“Echo speaks German,  Dialect – Berlin.”
(BEGRIFFENFELDT comes out from behind the Sphinx.)
PEER GYNT:                       So he’s the explanation.
                                                           (Notes again.)
“Later came to another conclusion.”  (IV.xii.)

Mythologists and Sophocleans will likely note that the answer to that other Sphinx’s riddle was “A man.”  The next and final scene in the act takes place in a lunatic asylum, making me wonder if that is where Peer Gynt has been all along.

I guess I have just been cataloguing the free weirdness of Act IV.  The final act is similar, with taking Threadballs, the return of the Troll King, and three different avatars of death.  This stuff would not exist without the example of Part II of Goethe’s Faust (1832), but once Ibsen has borrowed Goethe’s free dramatic form and inventive use of symbolic characters, the contents are all his own.  This is all a lot of fun.


  1. This is indeed an odd play especially towards the end with the button mender. Seeing it in performance doesn't make it much clearer for me

  2. Maybe this works much better on paper than it does on the stage these days. I find your post interesting enough to make me want to read the play, a little. But I can't get past having walked out on a production at the first intermission thinking there's no way I could sit through two more hours of this stuff.

    It certainly could have been the production.

  3. I wonder if Ibsen's button smelter was not inspired by Chuang Tzu:

    Perhaps in time the Creator of Things will transform my left arm into a rooster. In that case I'll keep watch on the night. Or perhaps in time he'll transform my right arm into a crossbow pellet and I'll shoot down an owl for roasting. Or perhaps in time he'll transform my buttocks into cartwheels and my spirit into a horse, then people could climb on me and take me for a ride.

    How marvelous the Transformer is! What is he going to make of you next? Where is he going to send you? Will he make you into a rat's liver? Will he make you into a bug's arm?

    The Great Clod burdens me with form, labors me with life, eases me in old age, and rests me in death. So what makes my life good, is also the same thing which makes my death good. When the Great Smelter is casting metal, if the metal should leap up and say, `You must turn me into an Excalibur!' the Great Smelter would surely regard it as very inauspicious metal indeed. Now, having had the audacity to take on human form once, if I should say, `I don't want to be anything but a man! Nothing but a man!', the Transforming Creator would surely regard me as a most inauspicious sort of person. So now, having accepted heaven and earth as a great furnace, and the Transforming Creator as a Great Smelter, I'm willing to go wherever they send me: I will go off to sleep peacefully, and then with a start I will wake up.

  4. Jarry's use of Memnon was probably a direct reference to Peer Gynt, since Jarry participated in a production of Peer Gynt the year before: he edited the script, and played one of the trolls. What a show that must have been!


  5. " I wonder how this scene is staged. "
    True of all of Peer Gynt though.

    In the play Educating Rita, Rita- who is also trying to find herself, but less egotistically than Peer- answers the question "Suggest how you would resolve the staging difficulties inherent in a production of Ibsen's Peer Gynt" by saying "Do it on the radio." Perhaps Ibsen- like Henry Reed and Louis MacNeice- should have written for the radio.

  6. The production I would like to have seen is New York Shakespeare Festival, 1969, with Stacy Keach as Peer Gynt, Estelle Parsons as his mother, and Olympia Dukakis as various temptresses.

    Well, I would love to have seen the one Doug mentions, too, even though it was in French. Probably made little difference in that case.

    Radio would work well. That is a good answer. Or animation. Maybe Peer Gynt could be the next Pixar movie.

    I am not a person to say I prefer reading a play to seeing it, oh no, but I do prefer reading to seeing a dull performance - read it, James, read it! A great, great play. Neither reading nor seeing will resolve the puzzle of the button melter mentioned by BookerTalk (welcome, BookerTalk!) Nor will reading criticism, since everyone disagrees.

    Cleanthess - the spirit is the same, at least. None of the books I have handy mention any Chinese interests of Ibsen, but that proves only that the scholars were busy with other matters.

  7. I saw it two years ago in Paris. The performance was very much applaused for the beauty of the costumes (Christian Lacroix "haute couture"'s clothes), of the setting (a long narrow passage between the spectators), the excellent actors (la Comédie française at its best), etc.
    While listening to the the text, you could feel how great and impressive it was — but as something that you'd find impressive while reading it. I think it works better indeed when you read it: at the beginning, until the first intermission, it was quite pleasant (Peer and his old mother and so on), funny too. After that, it was more and more unbearable. The trolls (beautiful "haute couture" costumes), once on stage, were hideous. The whole act when Peer is in a tree with monkeys (beautiful "haute couture" costumes) was farcical and difficult to understand and to the end, I felt that the whole performance was a failure, something boring and ridiculous.
    Then, once back home I read Peer Gynt until late in the night and what a wonderful crazy weird work it was. So definitely a text you love on paper and not on stage.

  8. Lacroix monkeys, I like it. In theory. Not sure I want to see that.