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Henrik Ibsen wrote Peer Gynt in the summer of 1867 as he traveled through Italy. One of Ibsen’s earliest plays, the work is based on the fairy tale Per Gynt and reflects the influence of Peter Christen Asbjørnsen’s Norwegian Folktales, which had just been published, as well as elements from his own family and biography. Ibsen would eventually come to be known as the Father of Realism through his more famous works, such as A Doll’s House (1879) and Hedda Gabler (1891). However, Peer Gynt mixes elements of fantasy and myth into a proto-existentialist tale about a man’s search for self in a style that differs entirely from his later plays. Ibsen grew up relatively poor. He impregnated a housemaid, supporting the child financially but not taking part in his life. He failed the entrance exam to attend university and become a doctor, and instead wrote his first play when he was twenty years old. Ibsen left his parents behind forever at age twenty-two, becoming one of the most influential figures in the development of both Norwegian drama and the development of Western theatre.
Peer Gynt tells the story of a hotheaded twenty-year-old with a wild imagination. Peer is the laughingstock in his hometown of Haegstad, an exasperation to his mother, and a compulsive liar of fanciful stories that suspiciously resemble Norwegian folklore. He is banished from the village after he impulsively runs off with a young bride named Ingrid on her wedding day. The town believes he has kidnapped Ingrid. Peer poses as a prince to seduce a troll princess, in the hopes of fulfilling his fantasy of having his own kingdom. When he is exposed as a fraud, the troll king orders him to be tossed off the cliff. Peer is saved when Helga, Solveig’s younger sister, rings the church bells and inadvertently scares off the trolls. Peer then has the chance to settle in the woods with Solveig, the woman he loves. Before long, Peer is confronted by the troll princess and their unfortunate child. Peer chooses to “go round” (90) his predicament and leaves the forest as well as the patient Solveig, to whom he vows to come back for. He returns to town and finds that his mother, Åse, is dying. She pardons his lifetime of bad behaviors—such as running off with Ingrid and fighting Aslak, the blacksmith—before offering him all she has and then dying. Peer leaves before his mother’s remains are laid to rest and embarks on a journey to find himself and his fortune.
Peer, now middle-aged and living in Morocco, has become a “citizen of the world” (121), with the lofty goal of one day being an emperor of the world. He reiterates that in by looking out for only himself and never marrying, he is able to accomplish what he seeks. During his travels, he amasses a small fortune through exporting goods but is robbed and left with nothing on the coast. He sees his yacht, usurped by supposed friends, explode, and thanks God. After deciding to set up his future kingdom there in Morocco, he is robbed by a woman named Anitra and vows to relinquish his quest for wealth, as well as his pursuit of women. Solveig, also middle-aged, still lives in the forest hut, awaiting Peer’s return. Peer, however, has decided to become a traveling history scholar. In Egypt, Peer solves the riddle of the Sphinx and incidentally becomes the “emperor” of a madhouse. After two of his “subjects” kill themselves, Peer removes himself as the “emperor of the self” (157).
Now an old man, Peer is on a ship near the Norwegian coast. He refuses to tip the crew, claiming that no one is waiting for him and therefore he will not pay for other people’s children. The ship passes a wreck, and although they cannot aid them, Peer wishes to help. Hethen he meets a stranger who appears to know him. This stranger, who calls himself a “friend” (167), goads Peer for his corpse. Soon after, the ship crashes into rocks. The ship’s cook implores Peer to save him, as the cook has children. Peer remarks how he himself is yet to have his children, and the cook sinks into the water. The stranger returns and again asks Peer for his corpse. Once on land, Peer decides to go back to Haegstad. In his old hometown, he meets Aslak, who is mourning his wife, Ingrid, and Mads Moen, Ingrid’s slighted former groom, but no one recognizes Peer. Peer joins the property auction, offering imaginary items. When he hears his name, he asks who Peer Gynt is. The townspeople remark that the deceased Peer Gynt was “a hopeless case. A yarnspinner” (174). When Peer comes across his old hut in the woods and hears Solveig singing, he realizes that there is where his empire had always been.
Throughout his misadventures, Peer raises questions about the nature of self. Theatre scholar Klaus van den Berg distills the play’s point into the question: “If you lie; are you real?”Although the original Danish text was written in verse, the NHB Drama Classics series edition, which was published in 2010, translates the play into prose with elements of poetry. This version was translated and introduced by Scottish author and educator Kenneth McLeish. Ibsen wrote the play as a closet drama, and the original version was essentially impossible to stage. Ten years after it was written, it was revised for performance. Even with the revisions, the fantastical elements, the passage of time in the text, and the cinematic array of settings presented serious challenges. The play shifts styles constantly, mixing realism and fantasy, dream and reality, and symbolism and literalism. The play has been revived in several major productions since its inception, with various interpretations of Ibsen’s text that reflect the timelessness and relatability of Peer’s long and winding journey.