Ibsen’s Peer Gynt – Norwegian trolls have their say about 21st Century greed and Wall Street

Jeremy Wechsler

Jeremy Wechsler

by John Olson

At first glance, Peer Gynt seems very different from Henrik Ibsen’s later and more frequently produced plays (among them A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler, and An Enemy of the People), which are known for their realism and social criticism. For one, it’s written in verse and moves from reality to fantasy – borrowing liberally from Norwegian fairy tales rather than being firmly grounded in the stage realism which Ibsen pioneered. Still, director Jeremy Wechsler contends it not only remains emblematic of Ibsen’s later plays in its criticism of 19th Century European society, but is equally biting about our present culture. “What Ibsen’s plays share,” Wechsler says, “is an examination of the stories we tell ourselves as a culture, and a questioning of the validity of those stories. Peer Gynt, though based on a fairy tale, is concerned with a man’s struggle to cope with his family’s belief that it is his destiny to become wealthy, whatever the cost. It resembles Ibsen’s later plays in its challenge of the social mores of the time. Peer is told by his family that he is exceptional and must achieve great financial success, but by the end of the play he learns that he’s just like everyone else. And what does he do now that he has this knowledge?”

Richard Engling and Bryson Engelen as old and young Peer Gynt

Richard Engling and Bryson Engelen as old and young Peer Gynt. Photo by John W. Sisson, Jr.

Wechsler believes Peer Gynt has parallels to America today and the concept of “American Exceptionalism.” He says, “In an era when the US is deeply in debt to foreign countries and unemployment is at historically high levels, can we still view America as a global leader? And if we’re not the global leader, then what are we? When our cultural expectations are taken away, what do we do – form a new cultural expectation?”

Another parallel to today is in Peer Gynt‘s questioning the morality of the “wealth at any cost” belief system. Gynt, throughout his journeys, amasses a fortune (before ultimately losing it), but he hurts a lot of people in the process. This echoes current criticisms by participants of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement and others that charge America’s financial industry with generating massive profits through predatory practices at the expense of the masses.

The societal pressure to succeed in material terms has been particularly focused on men, Wechsler says. Ibsen’s treatment of this cultural expectation is amplified in the translation by Robert Bly that will be performed for this production. Bly, as not only an award-winning poet, but a leading writer of the men’s movement was particularly well suited to ask “what does it mean to be an American male?”

Though Ibsen changed the face of theater, his sharp social commentary hasn’t changed human nature or behaviors. His insights remain relevant nearly 150 years after they were written, and as translated into contemporary American idioms by Robert Bly, their applicability to today will be apparent to audiences of this new version and production of Peer Gynt.

Read more about it at http://petheatre.com/peergynt.html.

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