This analysis of Peer Gynt was originally published in The Continental Drama of Today. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1914. pp. 28-31.
Peer Gynt may be taken as complementary to Brand. In the former play, the hero is a man of indomitable will; in the latter, he is a man almost without it. In Peer Gynt, Ibsen satirized the weaknesses of the Norwegian people, incorporating them into the character of Peer. Although at first the play may seem disjointed and chaotic, the hero always stands out clearly and one is left with a unified impression of the work as a whole.
Certain themes recur constantly in Ibsen's plays, and one of the commonest is heredity. Worked out finally in Ghosts, it is to be found in A Doll's House and Peer Gynt. Peer owes much in his character to his mother and a great deal to his father; this we learn from Ase herself in one of her early conversations with her son. How great a factor heredity is when used for purposes of motivation in a play, is an interesting study. How far is Peer responsible for what he does? How far is Nora Helmer? As for Oswald in Ghosts, it is safe to assert that Ibsen intended him to be entirely blameless.
Ibsen's later plays -- from A Doll's House to Hedda Gabler -- are often cited as models of technical economy. And so they are, but it must not be forgotten that the early plays are for the most part admirable examples of the craftsman's skill. Read the first eleven pages of Peer Gynt and notice how much ground is covered: (a) the atmosphere is created; the "wooded hillside," with the water rushing down the slope, the old mill shed, serve to give the "milieu" or environment in which the action is to pass; (b) the chief personage is introduced, and his dominant characteristics made apparent; (c) nearly all of the past that is necessary for the understanding of the play is made known; and, (d) some inkling as to Peer's fate is hinted at. These preliminaries are so skilfully introduced, so unobtrusively insinuated, that the reader scarcely realizes he has learned anything. Compare this with the opening pages of Hedda Gabler, where the exposition is much more compact, almost too much so; in that play it is doubtful whether the audience could assimilate all that is set before it, because practically every word is full of import. In Peer Gynt there is sufficient matter of extraneous interest -- such as the intrinsic beauty of the lines and the situation itself -- to attract the reader or auditor, so that he will pay strict attention to all that is said and done. In the exposition of Hedda Gabler what actually happens is of comparatively little interest. Take any play, read the first five pages, and see how much the author has told, noting carefully whether it is attractively served, as it were, or merely lumped together.
Read Peer Gynt through as a story, a poem, a fantasy; the first time do not seek the full explanation of hidden meanings and symbols. THe work is a satire on human nature, and if in places it is obscure, try to enter into its spirit, which is everywhere manifest. It is, of course, helpful to know what the Boyg and the Button Moulder stand for, but not absolutely necessary.
Compare the exposition of Peer Gynt with that of The Pretenders and Brand. Compare the characters of Agnes and Solveig; what is the function of each, in relation to the chief character in the respective plays?
Peer Gynt is not a "well-made" play; it is not modeled upon any accepted formula, yet it is effective both as poetry and drama. Ibsen declared that if critics objected to his play on the ground that it was not poetry, they would have to change their conception of poetry to fit what he had written. Likewise may it not be urged that they who condemn Peer Gynt regarding it merely as a poem and no play must change their conception of what constitutes a play.
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