Twentieth Century Use of Peer Gynt as Nazi Propaganda

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1656

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:

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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 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...

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