A satire on a person, one of those contradictory creatures with an upright body and groveling soul, Peer Gynt is an example of Henrik’s Ibsen’s symbolic treatment of the theme of individualism. This drama is a long episodic fantasy, with a picaresque, jaunty, boastful, yet lovable sinner. Ibsen combines folklore and satire with a symbolism that imparts a rich emotional impact to the drama. The unorthodox and untheatrical elements of the play, however, make stage presentation difficult. The play deals with the degeneration of the human soul, yet the triumphant note at the end regarding the redeeming power of love keeps the play from being tragic.
Peer Gynt was Ibsen’s last verse play; his later dramas were written in prose, in keeping with his shift to more realistic themes. Peer Gynt is a masterpiece of fantasy and surreal effects, which, in combination with Ibsen’s delicately graceful eloquence, makes the play difficult to stage, especially in a realistically oriented theater. In some ways, the play resembles a picaresque novel more than it does a play. It is episodic and involves a journey filled with disparate adventures. Peer Gynt has been faulted by some critics for being overloaded with “spectacle”: too many rapid changes of exotic scene. It is just such qualities, however, that lend the play its greatest strength.
Such inspiration prompted Ibsen in 1874 to request that his famous contemporary, the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, compose incidental music for Peer Gynt. Grieg accepted the request with reluctance, having personal and artistic reservations about its feasibility. After two years of strenuous work, he completed the job, and in 1876, Ibsen’s Peer Gynt was performed with Grieg’s Peer Gynt, two orchestral suites of amazing beauty including “Anitra’s Dance,” “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” and “Solveig’s Song.” To a large extent, this artistic collaboration proved fruitful because both Ibsen and Grieg intuitively agreed about the uniquely and distinctively Norwegian qualities of Peer Gynt. The protagonist, as drawn by the playwright, could have no other ethnic identity; the music, as composed by the musician, could have no other cultural origin, for Grieg was a master at absorbing and utilizing peasant and folkloric themes. Indeed, it has been somewhat acerbically observed that Peer Gynt will be remembered not as Ibsen’s play but as Grieg’s music.
The play describes the adventures of an egocentric but imaginative opportunist. To be sure, Peer is a lovable rogue, but a self-obsessed one. His preoccupation with himself—his own gratification—is his egocentricity; his upwardly mobile changes of locality and women constitute his opportunism; his exotic tastes suggest his imaginative approach toward coping with life. Still, his final return to native hearth and native woman—as he buries his head in Solveig’s waiting lap—indicates the limits of adventuring.
Finally, it is this inevitable return to the home territory that makes Peer Gynt irrevocably, unavoidably, categorically a play about home, in this case Norway. Such a concept of territoriality is concisely expressed in a line from Mikhail Bulgakov’s Russian play, Dni Turbinykh (pr. 1926, pb. 1955; Days of the Turbins, 1934), in which one character flatly asserts “Homeland is homeland,” implying an influence of national identity that transcends egocentricity and opportunism as well as political affiliation and religious preference. Peer returns to the land of his origin in a denouement that shows his own as well as Ibsen’s ultimate commitments, and those commitments lend the play its compelling force.