Twentieth Century Use of Peer Gynt as Nazi Propaganda

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During the period that encompassed the Third Reich, Peer Gynt was a favorite production of German theatres, who saw in Henrik Ibsen's work elements that could be manipulated to support Nazi ideology. Ibsen was not a socialist, nor would he have embraced the racism and inhumanity that marked the years of Adolf Hitler's reign. Ibsen was familiar with the need for critics and audiences to attribute a political agenda to his work. Of the claim that A Doll's House was a feminist work, Ibsen remarked that he was not a feminist, but instead, he believed in human rights and in exposing social injustice. From this claim, it is easy to see that Ibsen would not have approved of Nazi uses of Peer Gynt to support a claim of Aryan superiority. As Martin Esslin notes in his study, Ibsen and the Theatre: The Dramatist in Production:

Ibsen's first and most obvious impact was social and political. His efforts to make drama and the theatre a means to bring into the open the main social and political issues of the age shocked and scandalized a society who regarded the theatre as a place of shallow amusement.

Thus Ibsen saw the theatre as a place to expose and question social and political issues, not as a place to embrace injustice. Audiences were not shocked by a play that endorsed society; they were shocked by theatre that questioned those conventions. Had Ibsen simply wanted to assert the superiority of social conventions, there would have been no need to write a play about them and no need to move the theatre beyond that of ‘‘shallow amusement.’’ But Ibsen had a social conscience, and he would no doubt have been shocked at the use of Peer Gynt as a spokesman of the Nazi political machine.

In considering the Nazi-era productions, it is first worthwhile examining a postWorld War II German production of Ibsen's play. In this case, Peer Gynt still maintains a political ideology, but Aryan superiority is replaced by a fondness or nostalgic effort to recapture an atmosphere reminiscent of nineteenthcentury theatre. In his discussion of the 1971 German stage production of Peer Gynt, Fritz Paul points out that the German producer, Peter Stein, used eight different actors to play Peer on stage. Paul describes the intention behind this and states that, ‘‘through these different emanations and theatrical metamorphoses, Peer loses his individuality and appears simply as a representative of the nineteenth century.’’ Instead, according to Paul, "the modern notion of subjectivity and individuality and all conventional ideas of self and identity are called into question by the change of actors.'' Or, as Paul argues, ‘‘generalization is achieved through individualization.’’ Paul sees this as a stroke of theatrical genius, but in subverting the individual, Stein also recalls the Victorian fear of the individual that was awakened by industrialization and socialist theories. The demand for better wages and living conditions frightened business owners and the aristocracy, and Ibsen's play, with its use of traditional folktales, seemed, on the surface at least, to be recalling a more traditional past, when life was more predictable. In this production of Peer Gynt, Stein also recalls that past, when the individual and all the demands that he might make upon society are subordinated to the needs to the general.

When in Act V, Stein has Peer and Solveig reclining in a stylized version of a Pieta, Paul concludes that Stein's stage production includes a nonverbal message for the audience: ‘‘In today's world this story from Norway about a man called Peer Gynt is also no more than...

(This entire section contains 1656 words.)

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a museum piece. At the same time no judgement is passed on the value of museums and their exhibits in general.’’ Although this 1971 production does embrace subtle social and political ideology, it does so in an effort to recall a different era. Stein might have thought he was making a statement about the complexity of modern life in attempting to recall what he considered to be the far simpler life of the nineteenth century, and indeed, there are probably few twentiethcentury audiences who would understand the complexity of nineteenthcentury life.

A far more political use for Peer Gynt is attributed to the many productions during 1933-1944. In an article that explores why Nazi Germany found this play so appealing, Uwe Englert argues that only certain of Ibsen's plays were useful to the Third Reich. Ibsen's social plays, says Englert, were not as useful as the dramas of religion or those with Germanic characters. One of the efforts of the National Socialist cultural policy was to establish new links to Germanic myths. Englert states that during this period in Germany, "theatre was considered the 'stage of the nation,' which could witness here 'its fortune, its rise and fall, its metamorphosis, its sacrificial offering and the purification of the soul of the nation.’’' Thus Germany could use the stage to reinvent itself in whatever reincarnation it chose. There was also a move, according to Englert, to move away from what the National Socialists called ‘‘unheroic bourgeois drama.’’

Ibsen fit these initial criteria, but there were several other reasons why this particular playwright became so popular during this period. Englert asserts that the National Socialists "firmly adhered to German and foreign classics [and] thus National Socialist ideology was firmly imbedded in a great context of tradition and was positively sanctioned by the adoption of great names in theatre literature.’’ That the Third Reich considered classical dramas extremely important is not something that should be underestimated, according to Englert. Consequently, the National Socialists undertook an effort to reinvent Ibsen. First, Ibsen's "Scandinavian origin and his allegedly Germanic appreciation of art were untiringly stressed'' in the popular press. There were also, according to Englert, attempts to link Ibsen to the ideas of the German philosopher, Johann Georg Hamann. Ibsen's genealogy was also traced, and Ibsen was found to have German ancestry through both his mother and father's distant ancestors. To make all this work, the National Socialists had to concentrate on using Ibsen's earlier works, since these were felt to contain superior links to Fascism, and thus says Englert, "Ibsen was declared an enemy of liberalism and advocate of an order of absolutism.''

Peer Gynt was chosen, argues Englert, because Peer sacrifices his humanity as ‘‘an embodiment of imperfection and of self-deception, [and] he ostensibly develops into an Americanized money-and-business-man, who does not even hesitate to trade slaves and false idols.’’ In short, Peer becomes the perfect Nazi hero because he embodies all the worst traits of an American. In another example of a stage production of this play, Englert relates a story wherein the Germans met with more resistance than anticipated in their invasion of Norway, and blaming this on Norway's allegiance to England, Peer was depicted as an 'unscrupulous merchant' who embodied the British mercenary spirit of which Ibsen intended his play to be a warning. So popular was Peer Gynt that it was performed 1,183 times during 1933-1944. Only William Shakespeare's Hamlet was performed more often, states Englert. Much of this popularity can be traced to Hitler's friend, Dietrich Eckart, who made changes in Ibsen's drama to focus more on an "anti-modern interpretation of Ibsen,'' an interpretation that rewrites much of the play to create a Peer who rejects materialism and who is able to "overcome the inferior race of the trolls.’’ The trolls, of course, are Jews. In fact, Englert relates that in some performances, the king of the trolls was depicted as Jewish, as he was in a 1938 Munich production.

According to Englert, as a result of Eckart's influence, his version of Peer Gynt was the basis for nearly all performances in the following years. Englert concludes that in Peer Gynt "the National Socialist cultural politicians saw a literary model that they could use for their propaganda purposes in an unrestrained manner. For this reason, there is hardly another drama which was performed so often in the Third Reich as Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt. Unfortunately Ibsen's play was also appropriated by other venues, as well.

In 1934, Peer Gynt was adapted to film, finding yet another audience in German theatres. In a discussion on the play's transformation onto film, Lilia Popova and Knut Brynhildsvoll state that the film's writer chose to select and stress specific motifs present in the play. While observing that Ibsen's play was well suited to film, since Peer's many adventures and the stories contained within the play are more easily captured by a camera, the authors also note that this film deletes Peer's dream sequences. It is worth considering why the film should delete such an important element of the play, since Ibsen used dream sequences in many of his works, and as Esslin notes, the dream visions are always present, even when suppressed. However, the dreamlike Peer would not be in keeping with the Nazi agenda, where hard work is emphasized. Popova and Brynhildsvoll also find that in the film version, even Solveig becomes a propaganda tool, as ‘‘a natural woman, who denies her sexuality—at least until Peer's return. By means of her purity and virtue she represents the ideal woman of Fascist ideology.’’

These authors conclude that this adaptation does not"project the fantastic and utopian ideals of its model.’’ Again, this would not be in keeping with Fascist ideology. As did Englert, Popova and Brynhildsvoll, find that adaptations of this play during this period serve more for propaganda than for an accurate depiction of Ibsen's work. The attempts to use Ibsen's Peer Gynt in this manner only serve to indicate the strength of his work. There would be little point in taking the work of an obscure playwright and using it to rewrite history. To use someone of Ibsen's stature to white-wash Nazi ideology was an important goal for the Nazi's, but it was an abomination. Ibsen would have horrified.

Source: Sheri E. Metzger, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.

A Radiant Revival

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Any theatre that dares to tackle Ibsen's classic 1876 drama, Peer Gynt, has its work cut out for it. Not only does the sprawling saga of a Norwegian folk hero run to nearly six hours in performance, but the play demands an emotional range and a level of technical virtuosity—there are over 50 speaking parts—that few companies can muster. All the more credit must go then to the Shaw Festival for its new production of Peer Gynt which comes closer than most to what Ibsen had in mind. In some ways, it is surprising that the company in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., took on Peer at all. It is better known for mounting dramas of a sunnier, lighter sort, such as its current pleasing interpretation of George Bernard Shaw's 1908 comedy Getting Married. But in doing the Ibsen drama, the Festival has successfully stretched itself into new territory. There are rough patches in the production, and the generally worthy text by London, Ont., translator John Lingard contains such awkwardly uptodate terms as "lifestyle." But there are many moments when the Festival's streamlined version of Peer—it has been reduced to three hours—turns into exhilarating theatre.

Among Ibsen's works, Peer Gynt is something of an anomaly. The Norwegian playwright is known mostly for such dour, realistic prose-dramas as Hedda Gabbler and The Wild Duck. But Peer Gynt, a much earlier work, is exuberant, frequently humorous and written in lively, highly colored poetry. Its hero, Peer Gynt (Jim Mezon), is one of those figures of world literature who, like Falstaff or Don Quixote, seem even larger than the works that gave them birth. Peer is a Nordic Everyman, who in the course of the play ages from a brawling, fantasyprone youth to an indomitable old man. During his long life, he suffers the pangs of love, wins and loses power and fortune, and has preposterous adventures with trolls, monkeys and Arabian belly dancers. Those adventures are essentially a dramatization of his spiritual progress—or lack of it. Chronically restless, Peer is usually faithful to only one thing— his desire to run away from himself. In the play, that trait is symbolized by his desertion of Solveig (Gabrielle Rose), the one woman he truly loves.

Peer eventually returns to Solveig, but not before he comes to see that he has wasted his life. The revelation comes from his meeting with a subtly frightening character called the Buttonmoulder (memorably played by Robert Benson), who approaches Peer near the end of the play. It is the Buttonmoulder's job to round up all the souls who are neither bad enough for hell nor good enough for heaven—and melt them down like so many imperfect buttons so they can be used in the making of new souls. He tells Peer that he too must be melted down because, like all the other mediocrities, he has ' 'never been himself.’’ His words set Peer on a last, desperate search to discover what the Buttonmoulder means and to become, if possible, "himself."

Peer is easily one of the most demanding roles in all drama. The actor who plays him is onstage most of the time, the main focus of attention in a story that, in the wrong hands, can seem absurd and tedious. Mezon is by no means a complete Peer: he lacks the resonant sexuality that would make his attractiveness to his various lovers wholly believable. But he displays a physical exuberance that expresses Peer's boundless energy of mind and body. In the opening scene, he tells a tall tale to his mother, Aase (given a wry earthiness by Joan Orenstein), about how he has ridden on the back of a stag and fallen off a mountain summit. Mezon acts out Peer's tale with wildly vivid gestures, until he is finally writhing on the floor with the abandon of a three-year-old. And that is the main gift that Mezon brings to his role: he suggests the constant presence of the child within the man.

Indeed, there is a childlike, fairy-tale quality about the entire play. Peer may be lying about the stag, but even more unlikely events happen to him. At one point, he enters the core of a mountain and becomes embroiled with a tribe of trolls. The whole interlude may either be a nightmare or a real event. It is unimportant; the play breaks down the distinction between objective and subjective perceptions and shows that they are equally important. In keeping with that merging of reality and imagination, director Duncan McIntosh has given his production a deep stylistic unity, assisted by Kevin Lamotte's artfully moody lighting. The world they have created for Peer's inward and outward journey is as gloomy and oppressive as the long Norwegian winter, lit by the sudden shafts of Ibsen's poetry.

Most of the 16 actors who play the more than 50 characters whom Peer meets are excellent—and there is something mysteriously satisfying about seeing them in their multiple (sometimes up to seven) roles. Time and again, Peer meets the same faces: Benson appears variously as a man in Peer's native village, a ship's cook and also as the Buttonmoulder. Such repetition symbolizes the fact that, for all his travelling, Peer never gets anywhere: again and again, he is failing to become himself. Near the end of the play, Peer asks the Buttonmoulder what is meant by ' 'becoming oneself.’’ The Buttonmoulder tells him it means ‘‘putting yourself to death.’’ That is more than Peer can grasp, but it is a measure of the Shaw Festival's production of Peer Gynt that such questions continue to cast a radiance in the mind, long after the final line has been spoken.

Source: John Bemrose.' 'A Radiant Revival'' in Maclean's, Vol. 102, no. 30, July 24, 1989, p. 50.

The Way We Don't Live Now

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Peer Gynt is one of those very rare plays that see humanity whole. All of man is in it, and most of woman. To look at it is to gaze into an abyss: the abyss of the human soul. Ibsen's hero is artist and wheelerdealer, dreamer and scrapper, visionary and fool. This eternal adolescent yearns for the heights; this coward needs no banana peel for his pratfalls. Around him are Aase, the overprotective, carping, impossible mother; Ingrid, the Woman in Green, Anitra, three versions of unidealized woman; and Solveig, the ideal belovedcummother figure.

Around Peer, too, are the world and its people; also history, politics, religion, and pusillanimity. It is, like Lear and Faust and a couple of others, a dramatic summation that encapsulates a universe— in some ways the most inclusive and essential. Certainly it is the last word on man's double nature as questing spirit and wallowing troll. And it squarely confronts the ultimate questions of being and extinction, of the possibilities of God, devil, and mere dissolution. Boldly, it asks what is salvation, if such a thing exists. More boldly yet, it probes deeper and deeper into life with poetic fancy and earthy humor. Boldest of all, it does not stoop to easy answers.

That's why Peer Gynt continues to be a fruitful puzzle for successive generations of scholars and critics, theater people and audiences; that is why to produce it and see it remain, after 122 years, thrilling challenges. It is to Mark Lamos's hefty credit to have given us, with his Hartford Stage Company, a two-part, five-hour version that, though judiciously pruned, preserves all the essentials and keeps tickling, stimulating, extending us almost all the way. The difficult madhouse scene is not solved; yet only after the shipwreck scene does invention slacken as Lamos and his gallant band fail to come up with images as lyrical, funny, and daring as have gone before.

One big problem is that Lamos allowed Michael Meyer's Ibsen to be his chief guide through the play: that he swallowed whole the misinterpretations Meyer offers especially on page 272 of his book. No, Peer does not die in the lunatic asylum or stormy sea, and the great fifth act is just as really and surreally, psychologically and symbolically, the portrait of a confused, contradictory human being. So as not to give us an allegedly romantic, sentimental, banal protagonist—Meyer's bugbear—Lamos has chosen not to let the hero age and become a figure of pathos; rather, he has him bounce around in youthfully immature vitality all the way. This is a huge mistake: Gynt is about life entire, which includes old age, exhaustion, fear of death. The ending of the play can be done perfectly straight without the least danger of banality or sugariness. Correctly understood, it is anything but simple and sentimental; rather, like the rest, funny, absurd, satirical, and sad. Also immensely moving.

Richard Thomas proves such a warm, athletic, intelligent, well-spoken, imaginative, and manifold actor that he could easily have handled that last required dimension: aging. In the supporting cast, Patricia Conolly, Leslie Geraci, and one or two others do handsomely; but some of the other supporting roles, and all the lesser ones, are shortchanged. I admire the courage of the translation by Gerry Bamman and Irene B. Berman, which espouses Ibsen's rhyme and metrics; lacking real poetic powers, however, it falls into a number of pitfalls. Still, it has its good moments and it serves.

There is something anticlimactic about music that is by Grieg, Beethoven, and Mel Marvin. But John Conklin, Merrily MurrayWalsh, and Pat Collins have supplied enough splendid design elements (as well as a few miscarriages) to make this Peer Gynt a joyous, unsettling, necessary experience.

Source: John Simon. ‘‘The Way We Don't Live Now’’ in New York, Vol. 22, no. 17, April 24, 1989, pp. 141-42.

Seasons of Discontent: Dramatic Opinions

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The intentions of the Phoenix company, which aspires to create a repertory of "time-honored and modern classics,'' are lofty and honorable, but their productions this year have overwhelmed me with fatigue, impatience, and gloom. My anguished imagination is now subject to a fearful hallucination in which I see the finest works of the greatest dramatists strewn about the Phoenix stage like so many violated corpses, while a chorus of newspaper reviewers gleefully sings dirges in the wings. Perhaps it is unfair to blame anyone but the reviewers themselves for the absurdities they write about Aristophanes and Ibsen; certainly, journalists—occupied with exalting the present—have always been inclined to knock the past. Yet, it cannot be denied that the Phoenix has provided a generous supply of corks for this pop-gun fusillade.

For it seems to me that the Phoenix, while outwardly more deferential toward the past than the reviewers, is inwardly just as indifferent to it. Instead of letting these plays stand on their own legs, the company's policy is to hale them into the twentieth century by the nearest available appendages. In Lysistrata this resulted in extremely painful attempts at topicality (as when an assorted collection of pneumatic females chanted "Sex Almighty, Aphrodite, rah, rah, rah!’’ or an ungainly chorus carried placards across the stage announcing that ‘‘Athens is a Summer Festival’’). In Peer Gynt, the effort is less clumsy but no less obfuscating—a varnish of"theatrical values’’ is spread thickly over the surface of the play. The Phoenix production never betrays the slightest hint that Peer Gynt has an intellectual content, a consistent theme, or, for that matter, any interest at all beyond a histrionic sweep. Stuart Vaughan, the director, has staged the mad scene, for example, as a frenetic phantasmagoria which is quite chilling in its effect, but one has not the vaguest idea what such a scene is doing in the play. With the directorial emphasis on stage effects, crowd scenes, and occasional"Method'' touches in the relations between characters, what was conceived as a masterful play of ideas emerges as just another stage piece, and a pretty boring one at that.

But Peer Gynt’s claim to "classical" stature does not rest on the fact that it provides fat parts for actors, compelling scenes, or the opportunity for designers, directors, and technicians to display their wares; nor is the play particularly distinguished by any profound psychological insights. Considered strictly as theatre (a word which is coming to mean the very opposite of drama), the play undoubtedly has severe defects, especially in form. But like all great works, Peer Gynt survives because it transcends the facile notion of "theatre," because it is larger than its characters or its effects, and because what it has to say about the nature of existence remains both wide and deep. In fact, Peer Gynt, written nearly a hundred years ago, tells us more about our own condition than almost anything written in America in recent times, for Peer's concern with Self is one of the central problems of our national life. A fanciful storyteller with a prancing imagination, Peer might have developed into a great man, but he is too absorbed in appearances to become anything more than a great illusionist. As rapist, as honorary troll, as slave trader, as entrepreneur, as prophet, he is the incarnation of compromise, the spirit of accommodation, the apotheosis of the middle way. He whirls giddily around the glove, justifying his absolute lack of conviction and principle with the protest that he is being true to himself. The inevitable conclusion to this maniacal egotism is insanity (where the ego turns in upon itself completely), and it is in the madhouse that Peer is crowned Emperor. Neither saint nor sinner, Peer finally learns he has been a worthless nonentity who existed only in the love of a faithful wife, and at the end of the play he is waiting to be melted down, like all useless things, by the Button Moulder. "He who forfeits his calling, forfeits his right to live,’’ wrote Kierkegaard, who believed, like Ibsen, that careerist selfabsorption and mindless self-seeking are the most monstrous waste of life. Or, as the Button Moulder puts it: ‘‘To be yourself, you must slay yourself.’’

"To be yourself is to kill the worst and therefore to bring out the best in yourself' is the way the passage reads in the Phoenix production, which will give you some idea how easily a profundity can become a copybook maxim. But although Norman Ginsbury's doggerel, inaccurate rendering makes William Archer's Victorian bromides seem sublime and precise, the adapter is not exclusively to blame for the general amorphousness of the evening. Stuart Vaughan's cutting is almost guaranteed to make the work incomprehensible, and the central roles are all pretty well miscast. If the Phoenix were a true repertory company, Fritz Weaver would have been ideally placed in the part of the Button Moulder; since it is not, he plays the leading role. A heroic actor with a fine gift for irony, Weaver begins to make sense when Peer gets older; but his heavy style is inappropriate to the younger, quicksilver Peer who is turned into an earthbound swain with monotonous speech inflections and a clumsy pair of hooves.

In brief, we must be grateful to the Phoenix for wanting to mount this play, at the same time wondering what the animating impulse was to do so. In the past, the Phoenix had no policy other than to survive; today, its brochure speaks of creating a ‘‘new tradition in the theatre.’’ But since the Phoenix has developed no new methods of staging, no new methods of playing, no new interpretative approach, I am puzzled about what this new tradition will be. There seems to be an authentic desire, as yet unrealized, to create a"working, professional group that can grow as a unit,’’ but we have yet to see any sign that the ‘‘timehonored and modern classics'' will function as anything more than showcases for the company. Alas, the trouble with the Phoenix is the trouble with the American theatre at large; isolated within its theatre walls, it shows no willingness to abandon itself to any purpose higher than its own existence. In this regard, Ibsen's play remains a cogent lesson; for if the American theatre is ever to be a place for art, it must learn to slay itself. Source: Robert Brustein. ‘‘What's Wrong with the Phoenix?" in his Seasons of Discontent: Dramatic Opinions1959-1965, Simon & Schuster, 1965, pp. 218-21.


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