In his translation of Peer Gynt, Kenneth McLeish states that Ibsen intended his work to be read and not performed on stage. But, McLeish notes, Ibsen's work was quickly recognized as a masterpiece of Scandinavian literature, of equivalent status to Goethe's Faust in Germany or Manzoni's I promessi sposi in Italy. The reason for this acclaim did not simply lie in the text's brilliance, although many critics did embrace Peer Gynt’s poetic narrative. Instead, it was Ibsen's use of Norwegian folklore, especially Peter Christen Asbjorsen's Norwegian Fairy Tales, upon which Peer's early adventures are based, that broadened the text's appeal. McLeish also declares that Ibsen's satirizing of several contemporary trends also increased the poem's appeal. Some of these trends, states McLeish, include satire on
the new 'science' of archeology, of superstition and above all of the 'back to nature' movements of the 1860s: his trolls believe in making their own clothes and eating such 'organic' foods as cowdung and bullpiss, and one of the lunatics fights for the purity of the ancient language, unsullied by importations from foreign tongues—a preoccupation of mid19th century Norwegian intellectuals.
However, McLeish says that Ibsen was not serious with any of this satire. Purportedly, he intended Peer Gynt to be a funny fantasy that would move quickly and hold the reader's attention. As a poem, it largely succeeded.
In 1876, Ibsen adapted his verse poem to the stage. In doing so, he was required to cut sections of the text and make the work shorter in length. Incidental music was added, and McLeish reports that a full orchestra accompanied this first performance. The music helped to fill the time it took to move the sets between scenes. According to McLeish, Ibsen hated the idea of his verse poem being translated into prose, and so McLeish's translation includes a combination of the verse and prose in an effort to capture more of Ibsen's intent. In contemporary productions, as in the one staged by the National Theatre for which McLeish provided a translation, the largest number of cuts in Ibsen's work occur in the African scenes, which contain much of the 19th century political satire. McLeish points out that these scenes contain much repetition and that many of the ideas would be incomprehensible to modern audiences.
Critics often appreciate satire that pokes fun at society's so-called ‘‘sacred cows,’’ and Ibsen's nineteenth-century critics and audience were no different. Although no reviews of the 1876 theatrical production are readily available, Edvard Beyer has provided a compilation of reviews of the printed verse poem when it was published in 1867. These reviews of Peer Gynt were mostly positive, although a few critics had serious complaints about the last two acts of the poem. Bjornstjerne Bjornson reviewed Ibsen's new work for his own publication, Norsk Folkeblad. Bjornson states that Ibsen's work was ‘‘a satire on Norwegian selfishness, narrowchestedness, conceitedness.'' Beyer points to Bjornson's comments about the Button Moulder scenes, noting that"they serve to bring the tale onto 'Christian ground.’’' Bjornson thought that Ibsen intended for the conclusion to demonstrate that Solveig loved Peer because she "loves in us, our image of God,’’ but that Ibsen's conclusion ‘‘is unfortunately unclear and by no means carefully worked out.’’ According to Beyer, many of Bjornson's comments concerning the ‘‘topicality and validity of the text'' are representative of other Norwegian critics of this period. Bjornson notes that Ibsen's poem ‘‘includes in its details and as a whole such a grand and bold statement into all our commotion as we have never received before.’’ An unidentified reviewer for Morgenblader, says that Peer...
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from beginning to end a veritable torrent of polemic depictions, an adventure drama about egotism, which borrows the licence of folktales in order to give the buoyancy of imagination course for bold symbols, but employs the structure and means of drama in order to impart spontaneous life and vigor to shaping the image of the soul.
This reviewer also says that all the elements of the play are provided and that the reader or audience need not ask additional questions. Beyer notes that this unnamed reviewer offers a review that is ‘‘qualified but sympathetic.’’ A strength of the drama is that "by using motifs from folktales'' Ibsen "has freed himself from many curbs and restraints, and symbolic allusions have served to bridge gaps.’’ However, this reviewer continues, "the fourth act does not contribute to the progress of the play; nothing changes in a decisive manner until near the end of the fifth act, and the end is no conclusion,’’ but, instead, it leaves more questions. A review in Aftenbladet, by Frederik Baetzmann, also finds fault with the final acts, especially the concluding scene with Solveig. Baetzmann points out that having Peer saved ‘‘because a woman, Solveig, has remained true to him ... is of course just as absurd in Christian as in psychological terms.’’ Beyer quotes from several additional reviews of Ibsen's poem, but the essence is that Ibsen's work offers some important and interesting political satire, but the work is flawed by the last two acts, which do not work well with the first three acts. However, in spite of this significant problem, most reviews did recommend Ibsen's newest work.