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Peer Gynt

[peer gint; Norw. pair gynt]
Peer Gynt is a play by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. It was written in 1867, and first performed in Christiania (now Oslo) on February 24, 1876, with incidental music by the composer Edvard Grieg. Ibsen wrote Peer Gynt while traveling to Rome, Ischia and Sorrento. It was first published on November 14, 1867, in Copenhagen. The first edition comprised 1,250 copies. It was followed by a re-print of 2,000 copies after 14 days. The large sales were mostly due to the success of Ibsen's previous play, Brand. Unlike Ibsen's other later plays, Peer Gynt is written in verse. This is because it was originally intended to be a written drama, not for stage performance. Difficulties due to rapid and frequent change of scene (including an entire act in pitch darkness) render the play troublesome to perform. It is also unlike Ibsen's later plays in that it is a fantasy rather than a realistic tragedy. Perhaps the most famous aspects of this play are the suites of Grieg's incidental music (Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46, and Suite No 2., Op. 55), whose well-known movements include Morgenstemning (Morning Mood), Anitras Dans (Anitra's Dance), and I Dovregubbens Hall (In the Hall of the Mountain King) from the first suite, and Solveigs Sang (Solveig's Song) from the second.

List of characters

  • Åse, a peasant’s widow
  • Peer Gynt, her son
  • Two old women with corn–sacks
  • Aslak, a smith
  • Wedding guests
  • A master cook
  • A fiddler
  • A man and a wife, newcomers to the district
  • Solveig and little Helga, their daughters
  • The farmer at Hægstad
  • Ingrid, his daughter
  • The bridegroom and his parents
  • Three alpine farm girls
  • A green-clad woman
  • The old man of the Dovre
  • Multiple troll-courtiers, troll-maidens and troll-urchins

  • A couple of witches
  • Brownies, nixies, gnomes, etc.
  • An ugly brat
  • A voice in the darkness
  • Kari, a cottar’s wife
  • Master Cotton.
  • Monsieur Ballon
  • Mr. von Eberkopf
  • Mr. Trumpeterstrale
  • Gentlemen on their travels
  • A thief
  • A receiver
  • Anitra, daughter of a Bedouin chief
  • Arabs
  • Female slaves
  • Dancing girls

  • The Memnon statue
  • The Sphinx at Giza
  • Dr. Begriffenfeldt, director of the madhouse at Cairo
  • Huhu, a language–reformer from the coast of Malabar
  • Hussein, an eastern Minister
  • A fellow with a royal mother
  • Several madmen and their keepers
  • A Norwegian skipper
  • His crew
  • A strange passenger
  • A pastor
  • A funeral party
  • A parish-officer
  • A button-moulder
  • A lean person


Peer Gynt can be considered as a bittersweet play about a Norwegian anti-hero. Peer Gynt is the son of the once highly-regarded Jon Gynt. Jon Gynt spent all his father's money on feasting and living lavishly, until there was nothing left; thus, Jon had to go from his farm as a wandering salesman, leaving his wife and son behind in debt. Åse, the mother, wished to raise her son to wield and restore the lost fortune of his father, but Peer is soon to be considered useless for practical tasks, somewhat of a poet and a braggart, not unlike the Norwegian youngest son from the fairy tales, the "Ash Lad", with whom he shares some characteristics.

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".

Central topics

The play focuses on the problems of choice, and of identity. "What is it to be one self", Peer asks in the end, and gets the answer: "to overcome one's self". Peer’s central conflict, and the most widespread conflict in the play, is Peer’s inability to be constrained versus a world that demands that of him. In a central scene, we find Peer pondering his identity, and picks an onion to look for the core of it. He declares himself an onion, and in the process finds nothing but layers. Who has he really been? Despite his capricious outward identity, Peer maintains that he stays true to the “Gyntish I.” There exists an intangible, natural something that shapes Peer’s assimilation of his surroundings in a uniquely “Gyntish” way. As with the core of the onion, this “true” Self cannot be exactly defined, but, within the parameters of its nonexistence, it exists nonetheless. Philosophically, the existential core of the play should be plain to see. Related to this theme, we also find the old riddle of the Sphinx. Much of the later dialogue revolves around riddles, and Man's purpose. Many consider the plot to be based on the medieval morality play, and Peer to be an Everyman, who has to atone and make up for his life when unexpectedly facing death.

The themes from the play surfaced again in the book The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. Many topics and even scenes from the play are referred to in this book.

Historical Peer

The historical Peer Gynt or Per Gynt, was in fact a fabled huntsman from Gudbrandsdalen, Norway, in the 18th century. Many of the stories from the play can be found in the collections of tales made by Asbjørnsen and Moe. There, Per Gynt rescues the three dairy-maids from the trolls, two of whom are mentioned in the play, and he shoots the Bøyg, originally a gigantic, worm-shaped troll-being. He was generally known to tell tall-tales of his own achievements, a trait Peer in the play has inherited.

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.

Grieg's music

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.

Notable productions

The first U.S. production of Peer Gynt, in 1907, starred the noted actor Richard Mansfield, in one of his very last roles before his untimely death. In 1923, Joseph Schildkraut played the role on Broadway , in a Theatre Guild production, featuring Selena Royle, Helen Westley, Dudley Digges, and, before he entered films, Edward G. Robinson. In 1944, at the Old Vic, Ralph Richardson played the role, surrounded by some of the greatest British actors of the time in supporting or bit roles, among them Sybil Thorndike as Aase, and Laurence Olivier as the Button Moulder. In 1951, John Garfield fulfilled his wish to star in a Broadway production, featuring Mildred Dunnock as Aase. Sadly, this production was not a success, and is said by some to have contributed to Garfield's death at age 39.

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.

Productions since 1993

In 1993, Christopher Plummer starred in his own concert version of the play, with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra in Hartford, Connecticut. This was a new performing version and a collaboration of Plummer and Hartford Symphony Orchestra Music Director Michael Lankester. Plummer had long dreamed of starring in a fully-staged production of the play, but had been unable to. The 1993 production was not a fully-staged version, but rather a drastically condensed concert version, narrated by Plummer, who also played the title role, and accompanied by Edvard Grieg's complete incidental music for the play. This version included a choir and vocal parts for soprano and mezzo-soprano. Plummer performed the concert version again in 1995 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra with Lankester conducting. The 1995 production was broadcast on Canadian radio. It has never been presented on television. It has also never been released on compact disc. In the 1990s Plummer and Lankester also collaborated on and performed similarly staged concert versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare (with music by Mendelssohn) and Ivan the Terrible (an arrangement of a Prokofiev film score with script for narrator). Among the three aforementioned Plummer/Lankester collaborations, all received live concert presentations and live radio broadcasts, but only Ivan the Terrible was released on CD.

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 the 1930s German composer Werner Egk wrote an opera based on the story.

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 1985-1987 John Neumeier wrote a ballet "freely based on Ibsen's play", for which Alfred Schnittke composed the score.

In 1998, the Trinity Repertory Company of Providence, Rhode Island commissioned David Henry Hwang and Swiss director Stephan Muller to do an adaptation of Peer Gynt.

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.


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