Peer Gynt by Ibsen (Translated Peter Watts)

Finally, a post that.s not in the ‘Watercooler’ section where it seems that I.ve been spending all my time! After thoroughly enjoying Ibsen.s The Master Builder, A Doll’s House, and the one and only Hedda Gabler (who, I.m not afraid to say, I find sort of attractive), I decided to tackle Peer Gynt. According to the blurb on the back of this nice Penguin edition:

Peer Gynt, his greatest play in verse, was also to be Ibsen’s last. After its publication in 1867 he abandoned poetry to concentrate on realistic plays in prose. However, with its predecessor, Brand, it established Ibsen’s reputation as a playwright. Its relaxed gaiety complements the harder-hitting earlier work, and may be seen as a fundamental expression of Ibsen’s philosophy of life.

The irresponsible, lovable Peer is based on a semi-legendary character of the mountains. Norwegian folklore, with its malevolent and ugly trolls, plays a larger part in his adventures that satire: social comment is present–the caricatures of types and nationalities are self-evident–but it is as light hearted and genial as the rest of the play.

The cover art, which shows Forest Troll by Kittelson is fantastic as well. Since I always like to reward diligent readers with pictures, I slaved away to find an image:

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Did you know that most of my knowledge on art is from looking up artists on Penguin editions whose images catch my eye? Isn.t the technique superb? Not technically demanding but imaginatively demanding to have come up with the concept: a visual representation of the pathetic fallacy. Simple but ingenious.

Okay, so I got away from the watercooler to do some real reading related to Doing Melpomene.s Work. But unfortunately not much happens in this play. What?–‘It covers Peer Gynt.s whole life’, you say, ‘how could you say that not much happens?’. Well, you are correct diligent reader! Let me put it another way. I don.t understand much of what.s happening. Well, did I understand anything? You can be the judge.

So Peer Gynt is one of the character.s from Asbjornsen.s Norwegian Fairy Tales. I get that. He spends a lot of the time in the woods. The trolls he encounters are interesting. If you are in Greece and in the woods, you will likely encounter, Pan, drunken satyrs, centaurs, and other sort of jolly creatures. If you are in Britain and in the woods, you will likely encounter dainty fairies, little pixies, and other sorts of things you.ve read about in Midsummer Night’s Dream. They.re not usually drunk but they practice magic are are very often clever and mischievous. Well, it so turns out that the Norwegian woods are populated by trolls. They are ugly, have claws, and are cannibals. Well, maybe not cannibals if they are a different species than humans. But they do eat humans. And from Peer.s interactions with the Woman in Green, maybe they are not an entirely different species! So, it strikes me that what is out there in the woods can be taken as a reflection of national character. Someone smarter than I am can figure out what this signifies. Why would Mediterranean wildlife be half-animal and half-human and fond of drink, British wildlife be magical and fond of mischief, and Norwegian wildlife be ugly and brutal?

The troll world must be some sort of counter-humanity, a perspective from which humanity can be judged (seeing that it is hard to judge and you.re part of the thing that.s judging):

Old Man: What is the difference between trolls and men?

Peer Gynt: As far as can see–none at all. Big trolls will roast you, and little trolls claw you; and we’d be the same–if only we dared.

Old Man: True; in that, and in other respects, we’re alike. But morning is morning and evening is evening, and one huge difference stands between us…I’ll tell you, now, what the difference is: Outside among men, where the skies are bright, there’s a saying ‘Man, to thyself be true’; but here among trolls, the saying runs: ‘Troll, to thyself be–enough.’

The outside saying of ‘Man, to thyself be true’ reminds me of the ancient Greek injunction to ‘know thyself’ (gnwthi seauton). Well, it strikes me that part of ‘knowing oneself’ is to know one.s own appetite. So it leads to both wisdom and excess. The troll saying to ‘be enough’ seems a clarion call for simplicity, especially as the Old Man follows up by extolling a simple and homely way of life. This hits home for me in this age of excess. McMansion houses, faster cars, endless consumption: what is ‘enough’? Have we forgotten the word ‘enough’? How we would make our lives so much richer by saying ‘enough’! I was reading a Credit Suisse 2014 Global Wealth Report. Net income is what you have if you were to take the value of all your assets (house, car, book collection, etc.,) and subtract all your liabilities (mortgage, line of credit, etc.,). Assiduous readers love games. So let.s play a game. How much net income do you think you would need to have to be wealthier than 50% of the world.s population? The answer is $3650 USD. That.s really not very much. Let.s continue. If you wanted to be in the top decile of the world (top 10%) of wealth how much do you think you would need? No cheating. $77,000 USD is what you.d need. Anybody close. Okay, to be the in the top 1%. Three guesses. If you said $798,000 USD you got it. Everyone I know is doing better than 50% of the world.s population. Most of the people I know (let.s say 80% or 4 out of 5, same as the number of dentists that recommend Trident gum) have a net worth of over $77k. And maybe one out of twenty people I know is in the top 1% of the world with net worth north of $798k. But everyone I know says they don.t have enough. Well, I wonder what the rest of the world would say to us?

A hint at the ending comes during the episode with Anitra. Peer Gynt at this stage in life (he goes through many changes) become, of all things, a prophet. With one of his devotees, Anitra, he misquotes the last words of Goethe.s FaustTeil Zwei, saying ‘Das ewig Weibliche zieht uns an’ (the Eternal-feminine leads us on) instead of ‘Das ewig Weibliche zieht uns hinan’ (the Eternal-feminine draws us higher’. Of course, Peer Gynt is getting duped by Anitra, who runs away with all his wealth. But at the end, he is saved from the diabolical Button Moulder by the love of Solveig, whom he had abandoned years earlier. Sort of like how Gretchen or Margaret redeems Faust at the end of Goethe.s play. So, Ibsen is doing something interesting here. But since this is only my first impressions of the play, I haven.t much more to say. Only that it.s piqued my curiosity! But perhaps you know the secret… Someone out there probably knows! Odds are there are people who have written their theses on this topic and staked their entire careers on defending their positions!

What else did I notice? Well, the blurb on the back that I quoted mentioned something about the play being ‘a fundamental expression of Ibsen’s philosophy of life’ (it strike me that this statement could appear just about on the back of any book). Well, as you know, I.m sensitive to drama as being an exploration of how much our values cost. The exploration of the cost of happiness in Master Builder was one of that play.s most enchanting themes. It was good to see it on display in Peer Gynt as well:

How lavish is Nature, how mean is the spirit;

how dearly man pays for his birth, with his life.

The very opposite of the spirit of entitlement that rages across the first world today. I like it.

Reading this play, I.m reminded of Glenn Gould who loved Bach. He loved the inventions, counterpoint, fugues, and canons. But the free formed fantasias he loved less, or not at all. Peer Gynt is like a free flowing fantasia. It is on a huge scale: the life of a man. It is not so much held together by form or dramatic unity as by the character of Peer Gynt. It must have been an incredible challenge for Edvard Grieg to find a musical idiom and form by which to set the play to music in his Peer Gynt Suites.

Reading Peer Gynt has been a humbling experience. Although I.m used to reading drama, it reminds me of how, if I read outside tragedy (which is very familiar), I can easily lose my way. In fact, unless one is familiar with a genre (history, romance, comedy, biography, and so on), it.s in general hard to understand what one is reading. Certainly, you understand the words. But reading is more active than comprehension. You have to anticipate where the author is taking you. And, for me reading Peer Gynt, I was absolutely unprepared for what was to come. So, I understood the words. But the greater meaning is still dull to me. It.s like if I were to read a medical textbook. Certainly I.d know the words. But it would be hard comprehending the unity of the the author.s message. Maybe one day I.ll return to Peer Gynt. It takes about five or six readings of even simpler plays to really begin to ‘get it’. But there.s so much more out there that I.ve never read. Even from Ibsen When We Dead Awaken and Enemy of the People are sitting on my bookcase silently awaiting the right moment.

There you have it, dear readers: my first impression of Peer Gynt. Until next time, I will be doing what I know how to do best. So, regardless of whether my best will be good enough, until next time I am Doing Melpomene.s Work.

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