Peer Gynt by Henrik Ibsen
Author: Henrik Ibsen
Peer Gynt is a verse play by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. It was written in 1867 and first performed in 1876. The plot is loosely based on the Norwegian folk tale of Per Gynt, which follows the exploits of the titular hero. Ibsen’s play added new elements to the original tale, such as Peer traveling to North Africa, crossing the Sahara desert, and meeting a Bedouin princess. Ibsen modeled several of the characters in Peer Gynt on his family members. His parents, Knud Ibsen and Marichen Altenburg, provided the inspiration for the characters of Jon Gynt and Åse respectively.
Combining realism and surrealism, the play has been admired for its satire on Norwegian egotism. It has since become one of the most widely performed Norwegian plays.
Edvard Grieg composed incidental music for Peer Gynt, which includes some of today’s most well-known classical pieces. “Morning Mood,” “Solveig’s Song,” and “In the Hall of the Mountain King” are all pieces that were composed for this play.
Peer Gynt, the son of the once highly regarded Jon Gynt, is a useless poet and braggart. He is banished after running away with a bride. Wandering the mountains, he comes across trolls who attempt to make him one of their own. After leaving the trolls behind, he embarks on an adventure that takes him to North Africa, across the Sahara desert and Egypt. When he returns home, Peer is forced to confront the reality of his unproductive and hollow life.
2. Story Summary
The play opens in Gudbrandsdalen (Gudbrand Valley), where the historical person Per Gynt is believed to have lived in the 17th century. Peer Gynt’s father, Jon Gynt, was once highly regarded but squandered all his money. He now works as a traveling salesman, leaving his wife and son behind in debt. Peer’s mother, Ase, wants him to restore the family’s fortunes. However, Peer is a useless poet and braggart.
As the play opens, Peer describes a disastrous reindeer hunt in an iconic scene known as “The Buckride.” Ase mocks him for his fanciful imagination and failure to marry Ingrid, the daughter of the wealthiest farmer in town.
Peer goes to Ingrid’s wedding, thinking he still has a chance to marry her. Ase runs after him and tries to prevent him from making a fool of himself. At the wedding, Peer is laughed at by the other guests, especially Aslak, the blacksmith, who had gotten into a brawl with him before.
There, he also meets Solveig, the daughter of a family of newcomers. He asks her to dance with him, but she refuses. After Solveig leaves, Peer starts drinking. He hears that Ingrid has locked herself in and decides to run away with her. Peer and Ingrid then spend a night in the mountains.
The town believes Peer abducted Ingrid and banished him. Wandering the mountains, he comes across three dairymaids waiting to be courted by trolls. Peer gets drunk with them and suffers a hangover the next day. He runs into a rock and faints. The rest of this act likely takes place in his dreams.
He meets a woman in green who is the daughter of the troll mountain king. They enter the hall of the mountain king, and the king offers to turn Peer into a troll if he marries his daughter. Peer declines the offer but is told that the king’s daughter is pregnant. He insists that he did not touch her, but the king says he conceived the child in his thoughts.
When Peer wakes, he sees Helga, Solveig’s sister, who gives him food. Peer gives her a silver button to give to Solveig and asks her not to forget him.
Peer builds a cottage in the woods. Solveig arrives and declares that she has chosen to live with him. Peer is glad to see Solveig and welcomes her in. Just as Solveig enters the cottage, an old woman in green appears with a limping boy. She is the troll king’s daughter and has cursed Peer to remember her whenever he faces Solveig.
Unwilling to deal with the curse, Peer tells Solveig that he needs to fetch something and leaves. He returns to town and finds his mother on her deathbed. Before she dies, Ase forgives Peer for all his wrongs, including fighting with Aslak and running away with Ingrid. Before his mother is buried, Peer sets off overseas to find himself and build his fortune.
Peer takes up various occupations on the coast of Morocco, including selling heathen images to China and trading slaves. His friends rob him and abandon him on a shore. He then finds some stolen Bedouin gear and is mistaken for a prophet by a Bedouin tribe. Peer attempts to woo the chief’s daughter, Anitra, but she steals his money and leaves him. Afterward, he travels across the Sahara desert to Egypt, passing by the Colossi of Memnon and the Sphinx.
Peer arrives at a madhouse in Cairo, where the keeper believes him to be the bringer of supreme wisdom. There, Peer is hailed as an ‘emperor of the self.’
On the journey home, Peer is shipwrecked. After landing on shore, Peer attends a peasant funeral and then an auction, where he puts on sale items from his past journey. The auction takes place at the same farm where Ingrid’s wedding was held.
Peer encounters the Button-molder, who threatens to melt him down with other faulty goods unless he can answer when in his life he has been ‘himself.’ He then meets the troll king, who says Peer has been a troll, not a man, his whole life. A person known as the ‘Lean One’ appears and says that Peer cannot be sent to hell as he has not committed any grave sin.
Peer tries to find Solveig so that she can forgive him for his sins. However, she claims that he has not sinned at all. In the last scene, Peer comes across his old cottage and hears Solveig singing.
- Peer Gynt – The protagonist of the play, a poet.
- Ase – Peer’s mother
- Aslak – A blacksmith
- Husband and wife – Newcomers to the district
- Solveig and Helga – Daughters of the husband and wife
- The Farmer at Hegstad
- Ingrid – The farmer’s daughter
- Three dairymaids
- A woman in green – A troll princess
- The troll king – Father of the troll princess
- Multiple troll-courtiers, troll-maidens, and troll-urchins
- A couple of witches
- Brownies, nixies, gnomes, etc.
- An ugly brat
- The Bøyg, a voice in the darkness
- Kari – A cottar’s wife
- Master Cotton, Monsieur Ballon, Herr von Eberkopf and Trumperstale – Travelling gentlemen
- A thief and a receiver
- Anitra – Daughter of a Bedouin chief
- Arabs, female slaves, and dancing girls
- The Memnon Statue
- The Sphinx at Giza
- Professor Begriffenfeldt – Keeper of the madhouse in Cairo
- Huhu – A language reformer
- Hussein – An eastern minister
- A fellow with a royal mother
- Several madmen and their keepers
- A Norwegian skipper
- The crew of the Norwegian skipper
- A strange passenger
- A pastor/The Devil (Peer Gynt thinks he is a pastor)
- A funeral party
- A parish-officer
- A button-molder
- A lean person
Peer Gynt is someone who believes that he is extraordinary. In reality, he is a poor and untalented peasant in a small Norwegian town. Hence, Peer lives in his fantasies where he gets to play the role of a mythical hero. As the play opens, Peer returns home empty-handed and tells his mother a tall tale about a reindeer hunt that went awry. His mother is initially absorbed in the story but realizes that Peer is merely recycling an old folk tale. This scene highlights the disconnect between Peer’s heroic fantasies and mundane reality. To avoid telling his mother the truth about his poor hunting skills, he reverts to lies.
Lying to himself helps to boost his sense of ego. However, these lies eventually chip away at his genuine identity. As Klaus van den Berg asks of Peer: “If you lie; are you real?” In the end, the Button-molder threatens to melt Peer’s soul since it is empty, worth neither saving nor condemning.
The story of Peer Gynt contrasts the moral inhibitions of humans with the amorality of the trolls. The play’s central theme is the “struggle between the divine purpose and our undermining passions and egocentricities, between man’s deeper self and his animal, or troll, self.”
When the troll king asks, “What is the difference between troll and man?” The Old Man of the Mountain answers, “Out there, where sky shines, humans say: ‘To thyself be true.’ In here, trolls say: ‘Be true to yourself and to hell with the world.’”
Peer adopts the troll’s motto, ignoring morality to fulfill his desires. Although Solveig is loyal to him, he lies and abandons her to go on an adventure. As an old man, Peer is confronted with the fact that he has been a troll his whole life. By rejecting morality, he has been stripped of his humanity.
Throughout his life, Peer Gynt avoids commitment of any sort. When he meets the Great Boyg, he adopts the creature’s saying “Go around” as a motto. Instead of facing obstacles, Peer prefers to ‘go around’ them. This life motto is part of why Peer goes on an adventure – he does not want to deal with the curse the troll princess placed on him by remaining with Solveig. At this time, he hears a voice saying, “Go around, Peer,” and decides to abandon Solveig.
While avoiding commitment allows Peer to take the easy way out, it leaves him with a hollow life. Confronted with the Button-molder, Peer struggles to come to terms with his worthlessness. The Button-molder tells Peer that his soul is empty and has to be melted down. In response, Peer pleads for time so that he can bring witnesses to prove he has accomplished something and has been somebody. In the end, he is only saved by Solveig’s enduring love for him. Unlike Peer, she remained committed to the person she loved for life, waiting for him to return to their cottage. Her committed love saves him from being worthless since he is precious to her.
5. Grieg’s Music
In 1874, Ibsen wrote to his friend, Edvard Grieg, asking him to compose incidental music for Peer Gynt. The play was not initially meant for stage performance, but Ibsen had changed his mind and wanted it to be performed with music. Grieg agreed but soon faced difficulty with the task. He wrote in August 1874 that “Peer Gynt progresses slowly, and there is no possibility of having it finished by autumn. It is a terribly unmanageable subject.”
Nevertheless, Grieg’s wife, Nina, wrote, “The more he saturated his mind with the powerful poem, the more clearly he saw that he was the right man for a work of such witchery and so permeated with the Norwegian spirit.”
In autumn 1875, Grieg completed the approximately 90-minute score for the play. Peer Gynt premiered in February 1876, with Grieg himself conducting the orchestra.
Grieg extracted eight pieces from the incidental music to form two suites (Opus 46 and Opus 55), which became widely performed as concert music. Popular movements from the Peer Gynt suites such as “Morning Mood,” “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” and “Solveig’s Song” are some of the most loved classical pieces today. These pieces have found their way into popular culture as background music in films and television shows. They have also been adapted into various musical genres.
In D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, “In the Hall of the Mountain King” was played before the Union attack on Atlanta. This usage of the song helped popularize it in American culture.
“In the Hall of the Mountain King” appears in Fritz Lang’s film, M (1931), as the leitmotif of the child killer, Hans Beckert. Beckert whistles this song whenever he feels the urge to commit murder. The song is frequently used as background music in the animated television series “Garfield and Friends,” aired from 1988 to 1994.
In the 1973 dystopian film Soylent Green, “Morning Mood” was part of the music selected by the character Sol Roth to listen to as he lay dying. “Morning Mood” was also a favorite of Carl Stalling, who used it as background music for morning establishment shots in Warner Bros. cartoons.
6. Influence on popular culture and legacy
Every year, the Peer Gynt Festival is held in Vinstra, Gudbrandsdalen. The festival, which takes place in the first week of August, celebrates Henrik Ibsen and Norwegian culture. Its main event is an outdoor performance of Peer Gynt on a stage beside Gålåvatnet lake. Other events include debates, an art exhibition, and literature seminars. Additionally, the festival awards the Peer Gynt prize to persons and institutions that have made contributions nationally or internationally.
The Peer Gynt Sculpture Park in Oslo was opened in honor of Henrik Ibsen, and its sculptures present his play, Peer Gynt, act by act. The park was established in 2006 by Selvaag, a Norwegian property developer. Selvaag hosted an international competition to select sculptures for the park, which now holds 20 sculptures.
Peer Gynt has had many film, theatre, opera, and ballet adaptations. In 1912, German writer Dietrich Eckart adapted the play into an anti-semitic and German nationalist work. In Eckart’s version of the play, Peer is portrayed as a superior Germanic hero, and the trolls represent the Jewish spirit that Peer must overcome. Eckart’s Peer Gynt was a popular success, and he would go on to become the first editor of the Nazi Party’s newspaper, the Völkische Beobachter.
In 1951, the American playwright Paul Green wrote an English version of Peer Gynt. The actor John Garfield played the leading role in Green’s version of Peer Gynt on Broadway.
Peer Gynt was adapted into a ballet in 1981 by the Houston Ballet’s Artistic Director, Ben Stevenson, and again in 2007 by Heinz Spoerli. Peer Gynt has been adapted many times for film, including a 1941 American film notable for being the film debut of actor Charleton Heston. There are four German films of the play, produced in 1919, 1934, 1971, and 2006.