Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 871

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

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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...

(The entire section contains 871 words.)

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Peer Gynt


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