Back in the Saddle: Peer Gynt

School is once again underway, and this semester my studies are focused on modern work (modern, does not, as you might think, mean contemporary) spanning the period from about 1850-1950. Lots of Ibsen, Chekhov, Synge, some Zola and Strindberg and others, finally ending with Shaw. First up are the five acts and thirty-sevens scenes of Peer Gynt.

I suspect whether you enjoy Peer Gynt or not depends on whether you read it as theatre, psychology, or sociology. As theatre, it’s pretty damn annoying. Acts I, II, and III tell a relatively coherent story of a ne’er-do-well who has some of the aspects of a charming trickster. Act IV takes place a quarter century later, and Act V, at least a decade after that. Act IV, in particular skips around from location to location, putting the protagonist in odd situations, and then simply starting over in a new scene without resolving any of the situations created in the previous scene. There’s a heavy reliance on spectacle and “orientalism” to keep the audience amused. It’s one of those Cuisinart plays in which a little bit of everything: trolls, dancing girls, madhouses, thieves, mothers, shipwrecks, and supernatural characters are chopped together and the results are kind of messy.

Psychologically and sociologically, however, it’s kind of interesting. Peer is not really merely a rogue (constantly lying and sleeping with girls he rejects the next morning), he’s kind of a bastard (slave trading and profiteering), but not even enough of a bastard (he supported missionaries, and was kind to his slaves) to be damned. In Act V, he meets up with a character called The Button Molder.  The Button Molder essentially tells Peer that he hasn’t been noteworthy enough to be sent to heaven or hell, instead, his soul will just be melted down and recycled.

Peer panics and tries to find someone who’ll speak up for him, even going to the devil to bargain for a century or so in hell rather than being a nobody. Finally, he falls into the arms of the only woman who he’s never slept with, who has been patiently waiting for him for 50 years, and while some have interpreted that as Peer finding redemption in a good woman, Ibsen is more ambiguous than that worn trope would suggest.  Solveig tells Peer that he’s been living in her heart. But while that fantasy may have sustained her, The Button Molder is dealing with reality and warns him that the two of them will meet again.

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