SCREAM May 2004
To argue that Peer Gynt is the most contemporary of Ibsen's works is probably not new. Though I'm not going to research who has or hasn't made such assertions. Considering its outmoded notions drawn from Kierkegaard and some baggage from the mid nineteenth century, the play's essential character survives quite well. His more naturalistic later plays are dated and all but impossible to reconstruct in a more contemporary context. Ibsen's work is so often presented in an academic museum style or academically condemned to the text book. However, Peer Gynt provides us with surprising universality and a flexibility in structure and form that accommodates twenty-first century sensibilities and issues.
There has been a lot written about Peer Gynt while it is still performed on a relatively regular basis. Though I believe Edward Lambert's fantasy opera, The Button Moulder, probably goes more to the heart of the play than most of the productions of the actual text. The notorious fourth act and the surreal fifth act have tended to defeat so many aspiring productions. Lambert's reconstruction goes to the essence of the play in a way that reaches more directly to a contemporary audience. However, I believe the work contains a much darker core than the fantasy opera provides. And a much denser portrait of the human aspiration and journey than is credited by the rambling productions that try to be "true" to Ibsen! It is doubtful Ibsen ever really considered the work for live performance. So being "true" isn't really at issue. Ibsen had something very powerful to say underneath the words. And this is what the focus of contemporary production must address.
Preceding Strindberg's Dream Play by over thirty years, Peer Gynt is as much dream as it is nightmare. Incorporating myths and popular fantasies, Ibsen turns them upside down to explore realms of psychic adventure that extend beyond the dullness of the overly defined social niceties and deceptive realities of life. It is a poem of huge proportions where the realms of gold are illusory and the sparkles of human ego are there to be melted down into small metal buttons.
The character of Peer Gynt is so much in the contemporary mould of a man searching for meaning and relevance but so easily deceived by his own narcissistic tendencies and the guile of false prophets. The petty world of the rustic little community where Peer comes from is contrasted with the alternative daring adventures of the Trolls and the slick mainstream world of self-promotion and financial success as epitomized by the adulation of the "Gyntish Self". To simply approach a production of the play from a theatrical point of view is to buy into huge problems caused by the awkward structure of the play and the dated language of many of the monologues.
The following treatise aims to provide a background model for constructing a production of Peer Gynt in a contemporary context.
I have been intrigued by Peer Gynt since I was at school. The first production I saw was at La Boite Theatre in the late seventies. Around the same time, I saw another one in Adelaide directed by Colin George. I re-read the play sometime in the early 1980s and have since had a desire to do it. But the awkwardness and sheer length was always going to be problematic.
In constructing the production for The Daramalan Theatre Company, I borrowed the idea of Colin George of having three actors playing Peer: one for each stage of his life as depicted in acts 1 to 3, then act 4 and then act 5. However I encountered problems. The Daramalan Theatre Company production is essentially a student production supplemented with strong professional input. While casting a very young (though exceptionally talented) man as the young Peer and a professional actor as the middle-aged Peer, no one was found at this point to effectively play the older Peer. This has prompted considerable creative thinking.
In adapting the play, I had to cut it down from approximately 138 pages to 75. While this was achieved mostly by severe cutting of long monologues and nineteenth century chit-chat, it also meant honing the work to its essential character. I also felt it more direct to pose the central question for Peer at the beginning of the play rather than waiting to act 5. This was done (as it turns out) in exactly the same way as the opera The Button Moulder.
The idea of giving a man three possibilities for after death seemed odd. Firstly, he could get heaven; secondly hell; and thirdly (and more commonly) he could be melted down to his essential metal elements and made into buttons. The essential metal underneath all the tinsel and shine is an intriguing and simple metaphor. In old age the metal starts to appear through the skin as it loses it elasticity and shine. One's own dullness and ordinariness can't be concealed as death approaches and makes its presence felt. The Button Moulder is busy taking lives, melting down the remaining flesh and bone and casting what is left into simple buttons.
Viewing Peer Gynt's central question in this light aids the interpretation of the final perplexing moments where Solveig cradles him as an old man. To simply view it as Peer achieving redemption in the arms of the woman who waited and remains true to him as an expression of love and a higher nature is to undermine the power of Ibsen's work. What if she inherits charred and crumpled metal with little else left to maintain?
What if the final lament is sung by Solveig while lines are deceptively uttered by the memory of his mother now merged with that of the old Solveig and sadly contemplated by the innocence of the young Solveig played by a different actress?
Is not the tragedy of Peer Gynt one of loss? And one of failure to grow? The boy in his mother's arms is later cradled in a foetal position by his once youthful sweet heart who is now also aged. Only now, his humanity is faded into essential metal with little time before it can be cast into buttons.
Is Peer, as we finally see him, already dead? A kind of walking bag of bones in Solveig's memory and imagination of the heart? Is not Solveig's loneliness and stolen potential for living a tragedy in itself? Yet her life is such a contrast to Peer's. His is spent chasing his tail (his troll side's tail) to the point of ending up spent and deflated; incapable of love and even of facing himself. Solveig's "self" is not in question. Her heart is still full of power even though she has been virtually still and no where but with herself. In this sense, we can't feel sorry for her. Though we might regret what she never became. There is something in her that is essentially truthful. While in Peer, the truth is elusive and superficial. Yet few characters so clearly define the 21st. century man more than Peer Gynt.
Visit Collins Book store and see many books still proffer the "Gyntish Self" in the guise of self help and business management.
Most of Peer's life ended as he enacted the "Emperor of the Self" in a lunatic asylum. How long he remained there is not clear. But what is clear is his desire to return home. Like a ghost in a Japanese NOH play, Peer returns home to try and discover his life's meaning. He does this by way of a ship and journeys through his old home land where no one knows him except Solveig.
So much of Peer is defined by women. Firstly his mother! Then Ingrid, the bride whom he steals away on her wedding night. He is left with the dream of Solveig and the reality of her love. He is tutored in wild abandonment by three girls from the forest hills. He is changed forever by the circumstance of the Troll King's daughter who has his baby, a half troll / half human creature. He is later undone by the beauty and guile of the Bedouin dancing girl, Anitra. The major turning points in his life are at the hands and breasts of significant women.
So it is as a spectral figure that he drifts into the arms of Solveig at the end of the play. Yet she still takes him into her soul without questioning. How much is the figure in her arms a memory or spectra of what might have been? How much is it a decayed man of little worth.
How much do skeptical men of the twenty-first century still hope deep down in their hearts that a loving Solveig will cradle their skeleton at the end of a despairing and delusional lifetime of raging against their lot? OR is there such a person possible in the form of Solveig in a world where short term fulfillment is the norm and the goal is living every moment as a fabricated "self"?
I suggest that the ideal of a Solveig in a post feminist world is impossible because the goal in such a world is to make Solveig into a lifeless Peer imbued with all the trappings of the "Gyntish Self".
The contemporary reality of Western society is so devoid of emotional blood and grounded earth and so filled with abstraction and the marketer's delusion that a Peer and Solveig relationship is impossible. Instead, at best, we are left with two skeletal figures at cross purposes suing each other. The NOH ghosts are only the left-over ideals of each as they scour the past for some semblance of what might have once been imagined or had some potential weight.
Peer Gynt is nothing if not a play about being male and female. It is about the death of masculinity and its final cradling in the arms of archaic femininity. It is a tragedy in the same mould as King Lear. In this vein, it is a most contemporary play. It causes us to challenge socially acceptable truisms propagated in the fluorescent seminar rooms of our universities and class rooms. It also points to those moments of personal realization that define and determine one's character and life's goals. In this way, Peer Gynt is a ceremony of the cultural and personal psyche exposing its vulnerability and compliance in its self destruction.
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