As the play opens, Peer gives an account of a reindeer hunt that went awry, a famous theatrical scene generally known as "the Buckride". His mother scorns him for his vivid imagination, and taunts him because he spoiled his chances with Ingrid, the daughter of the richest farmer. Peer responds, and goes straight to the wedding, scheduled the following day, because he may get a chance with the bride anyway. His mother follows quickly to stop him from shaming himself completely.
At the wedding, Peer is taunted and laughed at by the other guests, especially the local smith, Aslak, who holds a grudge after a brawl somewhat earlier on. But in the same wedding, Peer meets a family of newcomers, from another valley, followers of Hans Nielsen Hauge. He instantly notices the daughter, Solveig, and wants her for a dance. She refuses because of her mother, and even more when she learns who he is. His reputation has preceded him. She leaves him, and Peer starts drinking. When he hears that the bride has locked herself up, he acts on the news and runs away with the bride, and spends the night with her in the mountains.
This action has repercussions, and Peer is banished. As he wanders the mountains, his mother, Solveig and her father search for him. Meanwhile, Peer strays alone in the mountains. During his flight he meets three amorous dairy-maids who are waiting to be courted by trolls (really a folklore-motif from Gudbrandsdalen). He gets dead drunk with them and spends the next day alone with a severe hangover. He runs his head into a rock and swoons, and the rest of the second act takes place in Peer's dreams. He comes across a woman clad in green who turns out to be the daughter of the troll mountain king. Together they ride into the mountain hall, and the troll king gives Peer the choice of becoming a troll if Peer is to marry his daughter. Peer agrees to a number of issues, but withdraws in the end. He is then confronted with the fact that the green-clad woman is with child (mirroring Ibsen's own struggles with the child he had out of wedlock). Peer denies this; he hasn't even touched her, he claims, but the wise troll-king replies that he begot the child in his head as he desired his daughter. That is the troll-human way. Crucial for the plot and understanding of the play is the question asked by the troll-king: What is the difference between troll and man?
The answer is: Man, be thyself. Troll, to thyself be - enough. Egoism is a typical troll-trait in this play. From then on, Peer has this as his motto, claiming as time passes to be himself, whatever that is. One of the most interesting characters is the Bøyg; a creature who has no real description. On the question "who are you?" The Bøyg answers: "myself". In time, Peer also takes the Bøyg's leading line as a motto: "Go around". The rest of his life, he "beats around the bush" instead of facing himself, or the truth.
When waking up, he is confronted by Helga, the sister of Solveig, who gives him food and regards from her sister. Peer replies by giving the girl a silver button for Solveig to keep, and asks that she will not forget him.
As an outlaw, Peer struggles to build his own cottage in the hills, and while he's doing this, Solveig turns up, insisting on living with him. She has made her choice, she says, and there is no returning for her. Peer delights and welcomes her, but as she enters the cabin, an elderly woman in a green dress appears with a limping boy at her side. This is the green-clad woman from the mountain hall. She has in a way cursed him, and he has to remember her, and all his previous sins, when facing Solveig. This Peer can't handle, and decides to leave, with the excuse: "I have got something heavy to fetch". He returns in time for his mother's death, and then sets off overseas.
Peer is away for many years, taking part in various occupations and playing various roles including that of a businessman engaged in enterprises on the coast of Morocco. Here, he explains his view of life, and we learn that he is a businessman with dirty money on his hands. He has been a missionary, a slave-trader, and many other things. His friends rob him, and leave him alone on the shore. Then he finds some stolen bedouin gear, and in these clothes, he is hailed as a prophet by a local tribe. He tries to seduce Anitra, the chieftain's daughter, but she gets away, and leaves him. Then he decides to become a historian, and travels to Egypt. He wanders through the desert, passes the Memnon and the Sphinx. As he addresses the Sphinx, believing her to be the Bøyg, he encounters the keeper of the local madhouse, himself out of his marbles, who regards Peer as the bringer of supreme wisdom. Peer comes to the madhouse, and understands that all of the patients live in their own worlds, being themselves to a degree that no one cares for anyone else. In his youth, Peer had dreamt of becoming an emperor. In this place, he's finally hailed as one - the emperor of the "self" . Peer despairs and calls for the "Keeper of all fools", i.e. God.
Finally, on his way home as an old man, he is shipwrecked. Among those on board, he meets the Strange Passenger, considered by some scholars to be the ghost of Lord Byron. The Strange Passenger wants to make use of Peer's corpse to find out where dreams have their seat. This passenger scares Peer out of his wits. He lands on shore bereft of all his possessions, a pitiful and grumpy old man. Back home in Norway, Peer Gynt attends a peasant funeral, and an auction, where he offers for sale everything from his earlier life. The auction takes place at the very farm where the wedding once was held. Peer stumbles along, and is confronted with all that he didn't do, his unsung songs, his unmade works, his unwept tears, and his unasked questions. His mother comes back and claims that her deathbed went awry. He didn't lead her to heaven with his ramblings. Peer escapes and is confronted with the Button-moulder, who maintains that Peer's soul must be melted down with other faulty goods unless he can explain when and where in life he has been "himself". Peer protests. He has been only that, and nothing else. Then he meets the troll king, who states that he has been a troll, not a man, most of his life. The moulder comes along and says that he has to come up with something if he is not to be melted down. Peer looks for a priest to confess his sins, and a character named the Lean One (who is probably the Devil), turns up. He believes Peer cannot be accounted a real sinner who can be sent to hell. He has not done anything serious. Peer despairs in the end, understanding that his life is forfeit. He understands he is nothing. But at the same moment, Solveig starts to sing - the cabin he himself built, is close at hand, but he dares not enter. The Bøyg in him tells him "around". The moulder shows up and demands a list of sins, but Peer has none to give, unless Solveig can vouch for him. Then he breaks through to her, asking her for his sins. But she answers: "You have not sinned at all, my dearest boy". Peer does not understand - he believes himself lost. Then he asks her: "Where has Peer Gynt been since we last met? Where was I as the one I should have been, whole and true, with the mark of God on my brow?" She answers; "In my faith, in my hope, in my love". Peer screams and calls her mother, and hides himself in her lap. Solveig sings her lullaby for him, and we might presume he dies in this last scene of the play, although there are no stage directions or dialogue to indicate that he actually does.
Behind the corner, the button-moulder, who is sent by God, still waits, with the words: "Peer, we shall meet at the last cross-roads, and then we shall see if. .. I'll say no more".
The "Buckride" is also from this source, but as Åse points out, it was originally Gudbrand Glesne from Vågå who did the tour with the reindeer stag, and finally shot it.
Ibsen asked Edvard Grieg to compose incidental music for the play. Grieg composed a score that plays approximately ninety minutes. As Ibsen's long play is quite an undertaking to put on stage, and since Grieg's incidental music had an ineffable quality that destined it to become an all-time classic, this music started to lead a life of its own: Grieg extracted two suites of four pieces each from the incidental music (Opus 46 and Opus 55), which became very popular as concert music. Only one of the sung parts of the incidental music ended up in these suites (the last part of 2nd suite, Solveig's Song, the solo part now played by violin rather than sung, though the vocal version is sometimes substituted). (Originally, the second suite had a fifth number, The Dance of the Mountain King's Daughter, but Grieg withdrew it.) Grieg himself declared that it was easier to make music "out of his own head" than strictly following suggestions made by Ibsen. For instance, Ibsen wanted music that would characterize the "international" friends in the fourth act, by melding the said national anthems (Norwegian, Swedish, German, French and English). Reportedly, Grieg did not have the right temperament for this task.
The music of these suites, especially the Morgenstemning ("Morning Mood") starting the first suite, In the Hall of the Mountain King, and the string lament Åse's Death later reappeared in numerous arrangements, soundtracks, etc.
On film, the seventeen-year-old Charlton Heston starred as Peer in a silent, student-made, low budget film version of the play made in 1941. Peer Gynt, however, has never been given a full-blown treatment as a sound film in English on the motion picture screen, although there have been several television productions, and a sound film was produced in German in 1934.
The first American production of Peer Gynt was led under the musical direction of Peter Kurtz. Peter Kurtz, an accomplished violinist, having received his education both here and in Europe, and having studied under David Mannes in New York and under Senick (the master of Jan Kubelik) in Vienna. For a number of years he alternated with Mannes as the conductor of the Settlement orchestra. He has also been associated with the Damrosches and other leaders in the musical world.
In 2006, Robert Wilson staged a co-production revival with both the National Theater of Bergen and the Norwegian Theatre of Oslo, Norway. Ann-Christin Rommen directed the actors in Norwegian (with English subtitles). This acclaimed production mixed both Wilson's minimalist (yet constantly moving) stage designs with fantastic technological effects to bring out the play's expansive potential. Furthermore they utilized state-of-the-art microphones, sound systems, and recorded acoustic and electronic music to bring clarity to the complex and shifting action and dialogue. From April 11 through the 16th, they performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Howard Gilman Opera House.
In 2006, as part of the Norwegian Ibsen anniversary festival, "Peer Gynt" was set at the foot of the Great Sphinx of Giza near Cairo, Egypt (an important location in the original play). The director was Bentein Baardson. The performance was the centre of some controversy, with some critics seeing it as a display of colonialist attitudes.
In March 2007, the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä, along with the St. Olaf Choir put on a new adaptation of Peer Gynt, masterminded by Robert Neu at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, MN. There were stagings and a narrator to help keep the program to 2 hours down from the original 6-hour play. The music was done in Norwegian, but the actors spoke in English. Peer Gynt played by Doug Scholz-Carlson.
In September 2007, the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy together with the Oberlin College Choir, the Cleveland State University Chorale and members of the Cleveland Orchestra Chamber Chorus presented a full musical performance of Grieg's Peer Gynt complete with theatrical staging. The performance was narrated by actor John de Lancie. Lead vocal parts were performed by Inger Dam-Jensen and Joshua Hopkins. All singing was in Norwegian with English subtitles projected above the stage. The performance was based on a 1998 score that was somewhat streamlined, eliminating some social commentary. In June 2008 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, this concert was presented again, unstaged, with de Lancie as narrator, Ashkenazy conducting the National Symphony Orchestra (United States), the Master Chorale of Washington singing the choral parts (again in Norwegian), and with Sergei Leiferkus as the lead character. These performances by Ashkenazy and de Lancie are based on a "complete" version of the score produced in 1988 by Finn Benestad, from which the spoken English text was adapted by de Lancie.
In 2007, on Inside the Actors Studio, Elton John used a copy of Peer Gynt provided by one of the students to perform an impromptu music composing session.
In 1948, the composer Harald Sæverud made a new score for the nynorsk-production at "the Norwegian Theatre" (Det Norske Teatret) in Oslo. Sæverud's music is considered anti-romantic, humorous, and rough. Sæverud, unlike Grieg, successfully incorporated the national music of each of the friends in the fourth act, as per Ibsen's request.
In 1969, Broadway impresario Jacques Levy (who had previously directed the first version of Oh! Calcutta!) commissioned The Byrds' Roger McGuinn to write the music for pop (or country-rock) version of Peer Gynt, to be titled Gene Tryp. The play was apparently never completed, although McGuinn is currently (as of 2006) preparing a version for release. Several songs from the abortive show appeared on the Byrds' albums of 1970 and 1971.
In 1998, playwright Romulus Linney directed his adaptation of the play, entitled Gint, at the Theatre for the New City in New York. This adaptation moved the play's action to 20th-century Appalachia and California.
In 2001 a group of electronica music called "Operatica" made a new version of the popular song from Peer Gynt, "Solveig's Song", which is rearranged and performed in English.