Places Discussed

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*North Country

*North Country. Four of the five acts of the play are set in various locations in the far north, presumably Norway and surrounding regions. Ibsen is intentionally vague about setting, however, in order to suggest the fairy-tale quality of his drama. Farms, towns, and woodlands serve a dual purpose. They are realistic locations in which much of the action takes place, but they are simultaneously places where Peer Gynt’s imaginative life is realized. Trolls, elves, and other fantastic creatures populate these regions. Thus, setting comes to symbolize the state of mind of the hero as he strives to become successful, respected, and powerful.

*North Africa

*North Africa. The fourth act of Peer Gynt is set principally in Morocco and Egypt, where the hero’s wanderings take him and give him opportunity to interact with other tycoons and attempt to solve the modern riddle of the Sphinx on the meaning of life. Gynt’s astute answer to that riddle lands him in a Cairo madhouse. Through this radical shift in locale, Ibsen further suggests the epic nature of his play, emphasizing the foolish dreams of his hero to become emperor of the world.

Historical Context

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Legend has it that when Mark Twain visited London during the Diamond Jubilee celebration of Queen Victoria, he observed that British history had advanced more in the sixty years of her reign than in all of the two thousand years that preceded it. This was certainly true of the whole of Europe, which saw dramatic change occur within the 19th century. With just one invention, the steam engine, the industrial revolution began. Improvements in the steam engine led to faster ships and the easier transport of goods, which led to increased trade, improved economic conditions, and better availability of goods. But the improvements in steam power also led to faster railroad transportation, superior manufacturing looms, more efficient printing presses, and automated farming and agricultural equipment, such as the combine. But industry was not the only area to undergo dramatic change. Education, especially the development of compulsory primary and secondary education, was spreading around throughout the world. At the same time, universities and colleges were spreading quickly, and there was a new emphasis on learning. Meanwhile, newspapers were being founded in major cities around the world, encyclopaedias were being published, and the World Almanac was printed for the first time.

The introduction of the telegraph and the inter-continental cable quickly linked the world and made communications easier, as did the invention of the telephone. Other developments also occurred, such as photography, which improved quickly, especially with the ease in which pictures could be taken and developed. Improvements in canning make it easier to process, preserve, and transport previously perishable foods. In addition, the invention of refrigerated rail cars made shipping of food and meat safer and easier. In science, the new study of ecology was invented to describe environmental balance, and the followers of Charles Darwin begin to study the evolution of man. Advances in medicine identified many of the bacteria that spread disease, while the weapons of war also changed with the invention of the Gatling gun, which made it easier to kill people.

The influence of Darwin in the midst of all this scientific and industrial progress cannot be ignored or underestimated. His books, especially The Origins of Species, fed a growing debate about the role of man and religion. Darwin questioned longstanding assumptions about humanity and man's role in the world. His next book, The Descent of Man , only continued to fuel the fire. Religious leaders, who felt that Darwin was...

(This entire section contains 584 words.)

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attacking a literal interpretation of the bible, were outraged. And the movement to subject the bible to a rigorous scientific examination that it was not designed to withstand, further fueled the debate. The Utilitarian Movement of the midnineteenth century also raised questions about the usefulness of religion in man's life. If man's existence was subjected to reason, then religion provided little benefit for men, who should rely more completely on technology, economics, and science for survival. Jeremy Bentham and his followers sought to subject every institution to the light of human reason. However, religion is based on faith, not reason. In many ways, religion was seen as a luxury that modern men did not need for survival. Thus Ibsen's conclusion ofPeer Gynt appears as almost a rejection of this scientific approach to life. Ibsen is basically arguing that a man's life must have a moral center to have meaning. Society's fear of science, and the loss of humanity that all of this very rapid change had brought, reinforced for many the need to embrace religion if humanity was to endure.

Literary Style

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Act A major division in a drama. In Greek plays the sections of the drama signified by the appearance of the chorus and were usually divided into five acts. This is the formula for most serious drama from the Greeks to the Romans, and to Elizabethan playwrights like William Shakespeare. The five acts denote the structure of dramatic action. They are exposition, complication, climax, falling action, and catastrophe. The five act structure was followed until the nineteenth century when Ibsen combined some of the acts. Although, Peer Gynt is a five act play, Ibsen deviates somewhat from the traditional format. The exposition occurs in the first act when Peer kidnaps Ingrid. The complication occurs in the second act when Peer makes a hasty alliance with the Mountain King's daughter. The climax occurs in the third act when Peer must flee from the woman in green and the troll child. The fourth act contains the story of Peer's adventures. The falling action occurs in act five when Peer is confronted with his own selfishness and the love of Solveig offers him salvation. There is no catastrophe in this play, since Solveig averts it.

Character A person in a dramatic work. The actions of each character are what constitute the story. Character can also include the idea of a particular individual's morality. Characters can range from simple stereotypical figures to more complex multifaceted ones. Characters may also be defined by personality traits, such as the rogue or the damsel in distress. ''Characterization'' is the process of creating a life-like person from an author's imagination. To accomplish this the author provides the character with personality traits that help define who she will be and how she will behave in a given situation. For instance, Peer is immediately identified as lazy and a liar. He also is quickly established as selfish and reckless.

Drama A drama is often defined as any work designed to be presented on the stage. It consists of a story, of actors portraying characters, and of action. But historically, drama can also consist of tragedy, comedy, religious pageant, and spectacle. In modern usage, drama explores serious topics and themes but does not achieve the same level as tragedy.

Genre Genres are a way of categorizing literature. Genre is a French term that means "kind" or "type." Genre can refer to both the category of literature such as tragedy, comedy, epic, poetry, or pastoral. It can also include modern forms of literature such as drama novels, or short stories. This term can also refer to types of literature such as mystery, science fiction, comedy or romance. Peer Gynt is fantasy, written in a mixture of prose and verse.

Plot This term refers to the pattern of events. Generally plots should have a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion, but they may also sometimes be a series of episodes connected together. Basically, the plot provides the author with the means to explore primary themes. Students are often confused between the two terms; but themes explore ideas, and plots simply relate what happens in a very obvious manner. Thus the plot of Peer Gynt is the story of Peer's adventures. But the theme is of how Solveig's love is able to save Peer from the destruction his selfishness has wrought.

Setting The time, place, and culture in which the action of the play takes place is called the setting. The elements of setting may include geographic location, physical or mental environments, prevailing cultural attitudes, or the historical time in which the action takes place. The locations for Peer Gynt include a small village in Norway, a nearby forest, Africa, and a boat at sea. The action begins when Peer is a young man and lasts over many years. During the course of the play, Peer progresses from young man to middle aged man to an old man. Actual ages and a time setting are never provided.

Compare and Contrast

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1876: The International Association for the Exploration and Civilization of Africa is founded under the auspices of the Belgian king, Leopold II.

Today: There are few areas of the earth that remain unexplored, thus the exploration of the space beyond the earth remains a motivating force behind the United States support of NASA.

1876:Robert's Rules for Order by U.S. Army Engineer Corps Officer Henry Martyn Robert is published. This nonfiction work establishes rules for maintaining order and a democratic procedure for any self-governing association, such as in church or civic organizations.

Today: The rules that Robert's book established for maintaining order and voting on decisions remains the hallmark of civic, volunteer, and church organizations since its implementation more than one hundred years ago.

1876: Although the first typewriters were introduced several years ago, and an improved version is introduced at this year's Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, their expense keeps demand restricted and production is limited. Most people continue to write with pens and pencils.

Today: The computer had made writing far easier than anyone might have imagined a hundred years ago, and as a result, the typewriter is becoming obsolete. 1876: The publication of Englishman Charles Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859 has led to an explosion of interest in the new science of anthropology; subsequently, this led to a greater interest in archeology. This new emphasis on science provided Ibsen with material for his new play, Peer Gynt.

Today: The interest in man's past, especially the discoveries available because of archeology, continue to draw the attention of a public seeking answers to the meaning of man's existence.

1876: The completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, the completion of the transcontinental railroad in the United States, and the invention of the telephone in 1876 mean that the world has become much smaller.

Today: Instantaneous communications and satellites have made the world even smaller than it was 120 years ago. People in the developed nations think nothing of flying to destinations that would have taken weeks or months to reach in the 19th century. Nor do people hesitate to complete overseas telephone calls, and with the ease of using internet access, instantaneous communications have become even easier and less expensive to undertake.

Media Adaptations

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An American version of Peer Gynt was filmed in 1915.

Peer Gynt was filmed in 1934 by German director Fritz Wendhausen. This film is an adaptation of some of Ibsen's motifs and is not a true version of the play, as Ibsen created, since this film represents Nazi ideology and propaganda and not Ibsen's ideology. Availability of any remaining copies of this film is unknown.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Beyer, Edvard. ‘‘The Reception of Ibsen's Brand and Peer Gynt in Scandinavia 186668,’’ in Contemporary Approaches to Ibsen VIII, edited by Bjorn Hemmer, Norwegian University Press, 1994, pp. 4-69.

Englert, Uwe."Ibsen and Theatre Life in Nazi Germany,’’ in Contemporary Approaches to Ibsen VII, edited by Bjorn Hemmer, Norwegian University Press, 1991, pp. 85-99.

Esslin, Martin. ‘‘Ibsen and Modern Drama,’’ in Ibsen and the Theatre: The Dramatists in Production, edited by Errol Durback, New York University Press, 1980, pp. 71-82.

McLeish, Kenneth. Henrik Ibsen Peer Gynt: A Poetic Fantasy, translated and adapted by Kenneth McLeish, Nick Hern Books and the Royal national Theatre, 1990.

Paul, Fritz."TextTranslation-Performance. Some Observations on Placing Peter Stein's Berlin Production of Peer Gynt (1971) within Theatre History,’’ in Contemporary Approaches to Ibsen VII, edited by Bjorn Hemmer, Norwegian University Press, 1991, pp. 75-83.

Popova, Lilia and Knut Brynhildsvoll. ‘‘Some Aspects of Cinematic Transformation: The 1934 German version of Peer Gynt,’’ in Contemporary Approaches to Ibsen VII, edited by Bjorn Hemmer, Norwegian University Press, 1991, pp. 101-111.

Further Reading Gunnarsson, Torsten. Nordic Landscape Painting in the Nineteenth Century, translated by Nancy Adler, Yale University Press, 1998. Examines the themes and the social and political environment in which Scandinavian painters worked. There is a good representation of the forests and fjords of this area of Europe.

Hanson, Karin Synnove, editor, Henrik Ibsen, 1828-1978: A Filmography, Oslo, 1978. Contains details about the film productions of Ibsen's work.

Hemmer, Bjorn, editor. Contemporary Approaches to Ibsen VII, Norwegian University Press, 1991. A collection of essays on Ibsen's work. Of particular note, this volume contains several interesting discussions about Nazi productions of Ibsen's plays.

Hemmer, Bjorn, editor. Contemporary Approaches to Ibsen VIII, Norwegian University Press, 1994. Includes a discussion about the initial production of Peer Gynt in 1876.

Lambourne, Lionel. The Aesthetic Movement, by Phaidon Press, 1996. Presents a discussion of a movement that brought change in architecture, a change that Ibsen refers to in Peer Gynt. The motto of this movement,"art for art's sake,’’ created more than just changes in outward beauty; it also resulted in cultural changes that this author explores in this text.

McFarlane, James, editor. The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen, Cambridge University Press, 1994. This book contains 16 chapters that explore different aspects of Ibsen's life and works, including important themes.

Von Franz, Marie Louise. Psychological meaning of Redemption Motifs in Fairytales, by Inner City books, 1985. This author uses Jungian theories to assign psychological significance to fairytales. This is of interest to students who think that fairytales need to have a significance beyond that of enjoyment.


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Fjelde, Rolf. “Peer Gynt, Naturalism, and the Dissolving Self.” The Drama Review 13, no. 2 (Winter, 1968): 28-43. Explores a rhetorical perspective on Peer’s identity, concluding that Peer is an example of the uncentered self who can achieve wholeness only through a relationship with others.

Groddeck, Georg. “Peer Gynt.” In Ibsen: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Rolf Fjelde. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965. A psychoanalytical exploration of Peer Gynt, this book chapter emphasizes Peer’s relationships to the women in his life.

Johnston, Brian. To the Third Empire: Ibsen’s Early Drama. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980. A detailed and insightful survey of Ibsen’s early dramatic production, the volume includes a major section devoted to Peer Gynt. Points out that the drama, which has a moral purpose, owes its appeal to the same playful strategies for dealing with reality that Ibsen argues against.

McFarlane, James. Ibsen and Meaning: Studies, Essays and Prefaces, 1953-87. Norwich, England: Norvik Press, 1989. In a major contribution to Ibsen criticism, his play Brand (1866) is compared to and contrasted with Peer Gynt. Unlike the protagonist of Brand, says McFarlane, Peer Gynt is a man who lives entirely in his illusions.

Shapiro, Bruce G. Divine Madness and the Absurd Paradox: Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” and the Philosophy of Kierkegaard. Westview, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1990. An in-depth discussion of the relationship between the character of Peer Gynt and Kierkegaardian philosophy, particularly his theory of the contrast between the aesthetic and the ethical spheres of existence.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide