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Old 10-17-2011, 02:30 PM   #1
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The MobileRead Literary Book Club October 2011 Discussion: Peer Gynt

Ho, hei! It is now time to discuss our October selection, Peer Gynt by Henrik Ibsen, and that is no lie! Paola has volunteered to lead discussion once (she?) is finished, but anyone may do so before then or contribute with discussion-leading posts at any time.

Any of you may post your thoughts whenever you like and everyone is free to join in the discussion. Let us now not leave fallow this thread and instead keenly and bravely begin!


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Old 10-20-2011, 02:19 PM   #2
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So this thread has been sitting out here long enough that some one should say something. Though I am reluctant to be the first as I don't have a lot to offer.

I read that Ibsen originally wrote Peer Gynt as a poem, as a modern fairy tale, and was persuaded later to turn it into a play for the stage. To me that is what it read as, a fairy tale with aspects of an Old Norse saga thrown in. Most fairy tales are morality tales where the protagonist is either rewarded for good behavior or is taught a lesson that bad behavior will lead to eventual misfortune. This is turned upside down in Peer Gynt. Peer remains a selfish immoral character though out yet continually stumbles into good fortune. Even the ending is left ambiguous, will Peer yet escape the fate The Button-moulder intends for him.

There is an overlay of Christianity to Peer Gynt as well. One thing I found amusing is that when Peer is describing his past sins (while making his fortune in Charleston, Carolina) he puts engaging in the trade of African slaves on the same level as shipping idol-images to China. I wonder if Ibsen was being ironic there, though I suppose good Christians at the time Peer Gynt was written would have thought that.

Maybe this poor comment will kick start a real discussion? Honestly I thought some of the other nominations this month would have presented more for discussion. Peer Gynt is very entertaining when staged, especially with the musical score, but as a object for discussion? Let me put a plug in for The Coast of Utopia (Stoppard's complete trilogy that includes Voyage). It was excellent, with Shipwreck and Salvage even better than Voyage, as they moved beyond the emphasis on the Bakunin family.
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Old 10-20-2011, 08:07 PM   #3
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I also found Peer Gynt to be less weighty than I expected. The core question, "What is the difference between a troll and a man?" doesn't seem very difficult or nuanced or even meaningful. As I read, I wondered if my lack of appreciation could be linked to reading the work in translation and thus not able to appreciate the poetry, or to lack of familiarity with Norse myth and legend. Still, the story itself didn't seem terribly significant.

I found it to be enjoyably witty and parts were touching or sad. As Hamlet said, entertaining in a performance as a night out, but fairly trivial as a read.

I'd love to see some comments that will help me get what I'm missing. I also hope that once I have a little more time over the weekend I'll have something more cogent to offer.
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Old 10-20-2011, 10:12 PM   #4
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I loved it. I searched for a recorded play version to watch and found none. Would anyone know of one? In google image searches while looking for an image to use with the starting post, I saw plenty of stills of scenes from staged versions and it whet my appetite to see this performed. I imagine it must be a terribly tricky play to produce, and I read that one version was an over-five-hour, two night affair. Scenes were so short and the staging seems so difficult in reading that I'm very curious to see it pulled off.

I found it to be weighty, and rather liked how it blended scenes of folk-tale fantasy with scenes of utter realism. For every whimsical troll-realm scene, there was a heart-breaking scene of Ase dying in poverty and despair.

I'd like to read some other discussion of the play to delve into it a bit more, if not only here then also in a study guide or something, so I'm really just shooting arrows into the darkness here right now with my insights, but for starters, I thought Peer was a complex character. I found him to be naive and simple-minded in some ways, and then clever and witty in others.

He certainly was selfish. I liked the theme mentioned directly at the end of the play - troll vs man - living in selfish haze vs living fully as yourself while caring for others - to be simple yet powerful. I like that it pinpointed in a simple way a distinction that many people easily overlook. It didn't bother with selflessness or the range of possibilities, but stuck to complete and utter selfishness vs some caring for others. And I liked how it laid down the verdict of this selfishness not being as terrible a thing such as, say, murder, but rather an easier trap to fall into, as the Button Moulder pointed out that most people "nowadays" ended up in a similar position of being melted into nothingness for violating these lesser sins. I thought he was basically saying that a soul is worth nothing if it doesn't care for others.

As to the vagueness of the ending, I thought that perhaps it was the hope that Ibsen was saying is always there for all of us until the last, which as Hamlet53 said is probably due to the Christian influence on the play, but I think it would work philosophically without Christianity too. So even though Peer has been terribly selfish his entire life, perhaps at the end he could still change before it's too late.

Of the Norse mythology Ibsen wrapped the play up in, I enjoyed that he used these simplistic tales to craft what I at least consider to be a very complex play. Even psychologically. At first we are presented Peer with no explanation, he just is. But then later on the play really delves into what made him this way - an alcoholic father who wasted away the family money and left him and his mother poor, a mother who coddled him and used fantasy to help them escape their existence and reality.

Ase I found to be possibly the most interesting. I was wondering if the play meant for her use of fantasy with Peer as a youngster to be a bad thing? I hope not, but I didn't crack what Ibsen meant by that. Obviously with Peer he took it to an extreme and used it to stay selfish and escape reality his entire life. Perhaps the caution was that she only used that, and didn't school him as well in the realities of life?

One part I didn't exactly get - what was the purpose of the man who cut off his finger to escape the military, and the subsequent eulogy by the pastor near the end?
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Old 10-21-2011, 01:28 PM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by sun surfer View Post
I loved it. I searched for a recorded play version to watch and found none. Would anyone know of one? In google image searches while looking for an image to use with the starting post, I saw plenty of stills of scenes from staged versions and it whet my appetite to see this performed. I imagine it must be a terribly tricky play to produce, and I read that one version was an over-five-hour, two night affair. Scenes were so short and the staging seems so difficult in reading that I'm very curious to see it pulled off.
Peer Gynt Film

This at Amazon


Adapted for television


I have not watched any of these. I have only seen it staged once. This was a small semi-professional production; not top notch costumes or props, local small theater actors, and recorded music not an orchestra. This was balanced out by the advantages of an intimate theater. It was long as I recall, but not overly so. My recollection is about 4+ hours with a couple of intermissions.

Nice comments. I am still adsorbing all of that.
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Old 10-22-2011, 01:43 PM   #6
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Thank you, Hamlet. The Charlton Heston version I had seen in looking around (I should've mentioned that) and it looks interesting, especially since he was only a teenager at the time. But it seems that it was a film-student short, and only has survived because of having Heston in it, so I'm not expecting much from it, though I would like to see it.

The other version looks interesting but seems to not be available.
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Old 10-23-2011, 12:54 PM   #7
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ok, with many apologies for the delay, finally I am chipping in, too. I have to thank Sun Surfer for his insight, because I very much share Issybird and Hamlet's views. I was hopping between the Adelaide University version and an annotated Penguin paperback edition, which though not exhaustive has enough notes to indicate clearly that Ibsen was using satire against the conservative Norvegian and Swedish societies, and Norvegian nationalism in particular, with several references to the (damming) non intervention when Denmark was invaded - of course I woulnd't have been able to tell, and even with the notes I remained pretty much in the dark "thanks" to my total and utter ignorance of Norwegian history.

In addition, there were various references to changes in the structure of the verse for dramatic effect, but of course that is completely lost in the (non rhyming) translation. As far as translation goes, I found the Adelaide one perhpas more poetic though more criptic for me as a non-native speaker tan the Penguin version (transalted by Peter Watts). As prose, I found it very flat, and at various points it felt very much like reading the Arabian nights.

In short, I cannot say I liked it, and in hindsight I wouldn't have proposed it.

To be more constructive, one of the "verses" that struck me most is the answer of the Button Moulder to Peer's question on what it means to be oneself, to which the Button Moulder replies "Being one's self means slaying one's self ... Above everything else it's observing the Master's intentions in all things"; and beside this, there is a running theme on Christianity to which Peer pays only lipservice until (maybe) the very last moment. I am still mulliying on this one, and looking forward to more insights from you all!
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Old 10-23-2011, 02:01 PM   #8
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I just finished this yesterday. I read Acts 1, 2 & 5 twice to try and understand them better. Then last night I took a long walk and listened to the Grieg music for inspiration to gather my thoughts. However, I'm still not sure how to react to this play.

I will start with this recommendation. I was a bit lost too with references to Norwegian folklore, nationalism, the German-Danish war of 1864, etc. I had a hard time finding literary commentary on this book on the internet too. I finally found some worthwhile introductions if you type these phrases into the search box at books.google.com:

Peer Gynt. A dramatic poem. - London, Scott o.J. XXII, 287 S.
The Collected Works of Henrik Ibsen: Peer Gynt

The Collected Works also has a few of the Norwegian folk-tales reprinted at the end of the book. I wonder if Peer Gynt would have different meaning if you were to also read Ibsen's earlier play Brand. There appears from the introduction commentary to be intentional contrasts between the plays.

Wikipedia has an article on Norwegian romantic nationalism, but I don't think it really helped me to understand the play any better. I would like to better understand what the Norwegian views toward Christianity in this time period were as I suspect the play satirizes Norwegian religious attitudes too. I think Peer has a half-hearted view toward religion. He takes what he wants when he needs it and discards the rest. There are also several examples where he attempts to make amends by canceling a wrong with a right, e.g. the missionaries versus idols. Or, when he laments on the lack of Christianity among the sailors who won't save the 3 in the icy waters yet he's in the right because he offered money for the other men to jump in and save them.

Hamlet53, I also read that Ibsen intended for the play to be a poem and had not envisioned it acted out, which is why Peer's adventures are varied and occur across the globe. When he was asked to make it shorter, instead of removing Act 4 which would have made it easier to perform, he removed a little from each act. I also read that Act 4 was written after the others, more as an afterthought. I would very much like to see this play acted out on stage now! I think I would enjoy more from the dramatic presentation than the words on a page.
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Old 10-23-2011, 07:24 PM   #9
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I agree that a lot of the cultural allusions were lost on me even with notes. However I still really enjoyed the character of Peer Gynt and the language (Adelaide translation). I also liked the fact that it shifted so much in terms of time and place. I am very fond of lying, untrustworthy protagonists for some reason so for me Peer Gynt was a good read. I know that I missed a lot in the text but I feel like I still benefited from reading it.
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Old 10-25-2011, 02:37 PM   #10
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Unfortunately, I found it quite difficult to relate very much to this play. Peer himself is a very Loki-like character. Like Loki he is the ultimate selfish trickster, but whereas Loki in Norse Mythology is seen as ultimately an evil character, taking sides against the gods, Peer is {perhaps} redeemed by Solvieg’s love. But why Solvieg loves him is a complete mystery to me.

I felt as Hamlet did, that Ibsen was deconstructing the traditional morality of the Norse Myth. Thus, there is no psychological or moral Ragnarok equivalent for Peer. The ending is indeed ambiguous and no doubt Ibsen purposely created this ambiguity to play against the simplistic heroic answers of the great Sagas.

But in the end, I just wasn’t moved by this play and my final reaction was very similar to Issybird’s. However, Sun surfer’s very impressive review would indicate that I’m missing something. I should probably re-read the play with those insights in mind.
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Old 10-25-2011, 04:30 PM   #11
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But why Solvieg loves him is a complete mystery to me.
I wondered this too! Her father doesn't want his daughter to dance with him because Peer has a reputation. He takes the bride to the hills and then tosses her aside the next morning. The best that I could come up with is maybe we are supposed to believe that Ase spun glowing stories of her son to Solveig to spark the romance.
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