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Peer Gynt ( ; ) is a five-act play in verse by the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen, loosely based on the fairy tale Per Gynt. Interpreted in its day as a satire on the Norwegian personality, Peer Gynt is the story of a life based on avoidance. A first edition of 1,250 copies was published on 14 November 1867 in Copenhagenmarker. Despite having swiftly sold out, a re-print of 2,000 copies, which followed after 14 days, did not sell well and was not exhausted until 1874.

While Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson admired the play's "satire in Norwegian egotism, narrowness, and self-sufficiency" and described it as "magnificent", Hans Christian Andersen, Georg Brandes and Clemens Petersen all joined a widespread hostility. Enraged by Petersen's criticisms in particular, Ibsen defended his work by arguing that it "is poetry; and if it isn't, it will become such. The conception of poetry in our country, in Norwaymarker, shall shape itself according to this book." Despite this defense of his poetic achievement in Peer Gynt, the play was his last to employ verse; from The League of Youth (1869) onwards, Ibsen was to write drama only in prose.

Ibsen wrote Peer Gynt in deliberate, liberating disregard of the limitations that the conventional stagecraft of the 19th century imposed on drama. Its 40 scenes move uninhibitedly in time and space and between consciousness and the unconscious, blending folkloric fantasy and unsentimental realism.

Raymond Williams compares Peer Gynt with August Strindberg's early drama Lucky Peter's Travels (1882) and argues that both evidence a new kind of dramatic action that was beyond the capacities of the theatre of the day; both created "a sequence of images in language and visual composition" that "became technically possible only in film." Peer Gynt was first performed in Christiania (now Oslomarker) on 24 February 1876, with incidental music by the composer Edvard Grieg. It was published in a German translation in 1881, in English in 1892, and in French in 1896.


Plot synopsis

Act I

Peer Gynt is the son of the once highly-regarded Jon Gynt. Jon Gynt spent all his father's money on feasting and living lavishly, until there was nothing left; thus, Jon had to go from his farm as a wandering salesman, leaving his wife and son behind in debt. Åse, the mother, wished to raise her son to wield and restore the lost fortune of his father, but Peer is soon to be considered useless for practical tasks, somewhat of a poet and a braggart, not unlike the Norwegian youngest son from the fairy tales, the "Ash Lad", with whom he shares some characteristics.

As the play opens, Peer gives an account of a reindeer hunt that went awry, a famous theatrical scene generally known as "the Buckride". His mother scorns him for his vivid imagination, and taunts him because he spoiled his chances with Ingrid, the daughter of the richest farmer. Peer responds, and goes straight to the wedding, scheduled the following day, because he may get a chance with the bride anyway. His mother follows quickly to stop him from shaming himself completely.
At the wedding, Peer is taunted and laughed at by the other guests, especially the local smith, Aslak, who holds a grudge after a brawl somewhat earlier on. But in the same wedding, Peer meets a family of newcomers from another valley, followers of Hans Nielsen Hauge. He instantly notices the daughter, Solveig, and wants her for a dance. She refuses because of her mother, and even more when she learns who he is. His reputation has preceded him. She leaves him, and Peer starts drinking. When he hears that the bride has locked herself up, he acts on the news and runs away with the bride, and spends the night with her in the mountains.

Act II

This action has repercussions, and Peer is banished. As he wanders the mountains, his mother, Solveig and her father search for him. Meanwhile, Peer strays alone in the mountains. During his flight he meets three amorous dairy-maids who are waiting to be courted by trolls (really a folklore-motif from Gudbrandsdalen). He becomes highly intoxicated with them and spends the next day alone suffering from a hangover. He runs his head into a rock and swoons, and the rest of the second act takes place in Peer's dreams. He comes across a woman clad in green who turns out to be the daughter of the troll mountain king. Together they ride into the mountain hall, and the troll king gives Peer the choice of becoming a troll if Peer is to marry his daughter. Peer agrees to a number of issues, but withdraws in the end. He is then confronted with the fact that the green-clad woman is with child. Peer denies this; he hasn't even touched her, he claims, but the wise troll-king replies that he begot the child in his head as he desired his daughter. That is the troll-human way. Crucial for the plot and understanding of the play is the question asked by the troll-king: What is the difference between troll and man?

The answer given by the Old Man of the Mountain is: "Out there, where sky shines, humans say: 'To thyself be true.' In here, trolls say: 'Be true to yourself-ish.'" Egoism is a typical troll-trait in this play. From then on, Peer has this as his motto, claiming as time passes to be himself, whatever that is. One of the most interesting characters is the Bøyg; a creature who has no real description. On the question "who are you?" The Bøyg answers: "myself". In time, Peer also takes the Bøyg's leading line as a motto: "Go around". The rest of his life, he "beats around the bush" instead of facing himself, or the truth.

When waking up, he is confronted by Helga, the sister of Solveig, who gives him food and regards from her sister. Peer replies by giving the girl a silver button for Solveig to keep, and asks that she will not forget him.


As an outlaw, Peer struggles to build his own cottage in the hills, and while he's doing this, Solveig turns up, insisting on living with him. She has made her choice, she says, and there is no returning for her. Peer delights and welcomes her, but as she enters the cabin, an elderly woman in a green dress appears with a limping boy at her side. This is the green-clad woman from the mountain hall. She has in a way cursed him, and he has to remember her, and all his previous sins, when facing Solveig. This Peer can't handle, and decides to leave, with the excuse: "I have got something heavy to fetch". He returns in time for his mother's death, and then sets off overseas.

Act IV

Peer is away for many years, taking part in various occupations and playing various roles including that of a businessman engaged in enterprises on the coast of Moroccomarker. Here, he explains his view of life, and we learn that he is a businessman with dirty money on his hands. He has been a missionary, a slave-trader, and many other things. His friends rob him, and leave him alone on the shore. Then he finds some stolen bedouin gear, and in these clothes, he is hailed as a prophet by a local tribe. He tries to seduce Anitra, the chieftain's daughter, but she gets away, and leaves him. Then he decides to become a historian, and travels to Egyptmarker. He wanders through the desert, passes the Memnonmarker and the Sphinx. As he addresses the Sphinx, believing her to be the Bøyg, he encounters the keeper of the local madhouse, himself out of his marbles, who regards Peer as the bringer of supreme wisdom. Peer comes to the madhouse, and understands that all of the patients live in their own worlds, being themselves to a degree that no one cares for anyone else. In his youth, Peer had dreamt of becoming an emperor. In this place, he's finally hailed as one - the emperor of the "self" . Peer despairs and calls for the "Keeper of all fools", i.e. God.

Act V

Finally, on his way home as an old man, he is shipwrecked. Among those on board, he meets the Strange Passenger, considered by some scholars to be the ghost of Lord Byron. The Strange Passenger wants to make use of Peer's corpse to find out where dreams have their seat. This passenger scares Peer out of his wits. He lands on shore bereft of all of his possessions, a pitiful and grumpy old man. Back home in Norway, Peer Gynt attends a peasant funeral, and an auction, where he offers for sale everything from his earlier life. The auction takes place at the very farm where the wedding once was held. Peer stumbles along, and is confronted with all that he didn't do, his unsung songs, his unmade works, his unwept tears, and his questions that were never asked. His mother comes back and claims that her deathbed went awry. He didn't lead her to heaven with his ramblings. Peer escapes and is confronted with the Button-moulder, who maintains that Peer's soul must be melted down with other faulty goods unless he can explain when and where in life he has been "himself". Peer protests. He has been only that, and nothing else. Then he meets the troll king, who states that he has been a troll, not a man, most of his life. The moulder comes along and says that he has to come up with something if he is not to be melted down. Peer looks for a priest to confess his sins, and a character named the Lean One (who is probably the Devil), turns up. He believes Peer cannot be accounted a real sinner who can be sent to hell. He has not done anything serious. Peer despairs in the end, understanding that his life is forfeit. He understands he is nothing. But at the same moment, Solveig starts to sing - the cabin he himself built, is close at hand, but he dares not enter. The Bøyg in him tells him "around". The moulder shows up and demands a list of sins, but Peer has none to give, unless Solveig can vouch for him. Then he breaks through to her, asking her for his sins. But she answers: "You have not sinned at all, my dearest boy". Peer does not understand - he believes himself lost. Then he asks her: "Where has Peer Gynt been since we last met? Where was I as the one I should have been, whole and true, with the mark of God on my brow?" She answers; "In my faith, in my hope, in my love". Peer screams and calls her mother, and hides himself in her lap. Solveig sings her lullaby for him, and we might presume he dies in this last scene of the play, although there are no stage directions or dialogue to indicate that he actually does.

Behind the corner, the button-moulder, who is sent by God, still waits, with the words: "Peer, we shall meet at the last cross-roads, and then we shall see if. .. I'll say no more".

Writing process

On 5 January 1867 Ibsen wrote to Frederik Hegel, his publisher, with his plan for the play: it would be "a long dramatic poem, having as its principal a part-legendary, part-fictional character from Norwegian folklore during recent times. It will bear no resemblance to Brand, and will contain no direct polemics or anything of that kind." He began to write Peer Gynt on 14 January, employing a far greater variety of metres in its rhymed verse than he had used in his previous verse plays Brand (written 1865) or Love's Comedy (written 1862). The first two acts were completed in Romemarker and the third in Casamicciola on the north of the island of Ischiamarker. During this time Ibsen told Vilhelm Bergsøe that "I don't think the play's for acting" when they discussed the possibility of staging the play's image of a casting-ladle "big enough to re-cast human beings in." Ibsen sent the three acts to his publisher on 8 August, with a letter that explains that "Peer Gynt was a real person who lived in Gudbrandsdal, probably around the end of the last century or the beginning of this. His name is still famous among the people up there, but not much more is known about his life than what is to be found in Asbjørnsen's Norwegian Folktales (in the section entitled 'Stories from the Mountain')." In those stories, "Per Gynt" rescues the three dairy-maids from the trolls and shoots the Bøyg, who was originally a gigantic, worm-shaped troll-being. Per was known to tell tall tales of his own achievements, a trait Peer in the play inherited. The "buck-ride" story, which Peer tells his mother in the play's first scene, is also from this source, but, as Åse points out, it was originally Gudbrand Glesne from Vågåmarker who did the tour with the reindeer stag and finally shot it. Following an earthquake on the island on 14 August, Ibsen left for Sorrentomarker, where he completed the final two acts; he finished the play on 14 October. It was published in a first edition of 1,250 copies a month later in Copenhagenmarker.

Grieg's music

Ibsen asked Edvard Grieg to compose incidental music for the play. Grieg composed a score that plays approximately ninety minutes. Grieg extracted two suites of four pieces each from the incidental music (Opus 46 and Opus 55), which became very popular as concert music. Two of the sung parts of the incidental music ended up in these suites (the famous In the Hall of the Mountain King in the 1st suite with the vocal parts omitted, and the last part of 2nd suite, Solveig's Song, the solo part now played by violin rather than sung, though the vocal version is sometimes substituted). (Originally, the second suite had a fifth number, The Dance of the Mountain King's Daughter, but Grieg withdrew it.) Grieg himself declared that it was easier to make music "out of his own head" than strictly following suggestions made by Ibsen. For instance, Ibsen wanted music that would characterize the "international" friends in the fourth act, by melding the said national anthems (Norwegianmarker, Swedishmarker, Germanmarker, Frenchmarker and Englishmarker). Reportedly, Grieg was not in the right mood for this task.

The music of these suites, especially Morning Mood starting the first suite, In the Hall of the Mountain King, and the string lament Åse's Death later reappeared in numerous arrangements, soundtracks, etc.

Notable productions

The first USmarker production of Peer Gynt, in 1907 starred the noted actor Richard Mansfield, in one of his very last roles before his untimely death. In 1923, Joseph Schildkraut played the role on Broadwaymarker, in a Theatre Guild production, featuring Selena Royle, Helen Westley, Dudley Digges, and, before he entered films, Edward G. Robinson. In 1944, at the Old Vicmarker, Ralph Richardson played the role, surrounded by some of the greatest Britishmarker actors of the time in supporting or bit roles, among them Sybil Thorndike as Aase, and Laurence Olivier as the Button Moulder. In 1951, John Garfield fulfilled his wish to star in a Broadway production, featuring Mildred Dunnock as Aase. Sadly, this production was not a success, and is said by some to have contributed to Garfield's death at age 39.

On film, the seventeen-year-old Charlton Heston starred as Peer in a silent, student-made, low budget film version of the play made in 1941. Peer Gynt, however, has never been given a full-blown treatment as a sound film in English on the motion picture screen, although there have been several television productions, and a sound film was produced in German in 1934.

In 1957, Ingmar Bergman produced a five-hour stage version of Peer Gynt, at Swedenmarker's Malmö City Theatremarker, with Max Von Sydow as Peer Gynt. Bergman produced the play again, 34 years later, in 1991, at Sweden's Royal Dramatic Theatremarker, this time with Börje Ahlstedt in the title role. Bergman chose not to use Grieg's music, nor the more modern Harald Sæverud composition, but rather traditional Norwegian folk music, and little of that either.

In 1993, Christopher Plummer starred in his own concert version of the play, with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra in Hartford, Connecticut. This was a new performing version and a collaboration of Plummer and Hartford Symphony Orchestra Music Director Michael Lankester. Plummer had long dreamed of starring in a fully-staged production of the play, but had been unable to. The 1993 production was not a fully-staged version, but rather a drastically condensed concert version, narrated by Plummer, who also played the title role, and accompanied by Edvard Grieg's complete incidental music for the play. This version included a choir and vocal parts for soprano and mezzo-soprano. Plummer performed the concert version again in 1995 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra with Lankester conducting. The 1995 production was broadcast on Canadian radio. It has never been presented on television. It has also never been released on compact disc. In the 1990s Plummer and Lankester also collaborated on and performed similarly staged concert versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare (with music by Mendelssohn) and Ivan the Terrible (an arrangement of a Prokofiev film score with script for narrator). Among the three aforementioned Plummer/Lankester collaborations, all received live concert presentations and live radio broadcasts, but only Ivan the Terrible was released on CD.

In 2006, Robert Wilson staged a co-production revival with both the National Theater of Bergenmarker and the Norwegian Theatre of Oslomarker, Norway. Ann-Christin Rommen directed the actors in Norwegian (with English subtitles). This acclaimed production mixed both Wilson's minimalist (yet constantly moving) stage designs with fantastic technological effects to bring out the play's expansive potential. Furthermore they utilized state-of-the-art microphones, sound systems, and recorded acoustic and electronic music to bring clarity to the complex and shifting action and dialogue. From April 11 through the 16th, they performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Musicmarker's Howard Gilman Opera House.

In 2006, as part of the Norwegian Ibsen anniversary festival, "Peer Gynt" was set at the foot of the Great Sphinx of Gizamarker near Cairo, Egyptmarker (an important location in the original play). The director was Bentein Baardson. The performance was the centre of some controversy, with some critics seeing it as a display of colonialist attitudes.

In January 2008 the Guthrie Theatermarker in Minneapolismarker debuted a new translation of Peer Gynt by the acclaimed poet Robert Bly. Bly learned Norwegian from his grandparents while growing up in rural Minnesota, and later during several years of travel in Norway. This production stages Ibsen's text rather abstractly, tying it loosely into a modern birthday party for a 50 year old man. It also significantly cuts the length of the play. (An earlier production of the full-length play at the Guthrie required the audience to return a second night to see the second half of the play.)

In 2009, Dundee Rep with the National Theatre of Scotland toured an inventive production which was critically acclaimed on its first outing in 2007. This raucous and radical interpretation, with much of the dialogue in modern Scots, was hailed by The Scotsman newspaper as "A piece of world class popular theatre for our time". The cast included Gerry Mulgrew as the older Peer. Directed by Dominic Hill.

The Peer Gynt Festival

In the valley of Gudbrandsdalen, Henrik Ibsen and Peer Gynt have been celebrated with a festival since 1928. The festival is one of Norway’s main events, and is recognized by the Norwegian Government as a leading institution of presenting culture in nature. The fine art and enjoyable experiences of the festival, mostly with the nature as a magnificent backdrop, awakens feelings that make the audience reflect and think.

The main event in the festival is the staging of "Peer Gynt" by lake Gålå, by director Svein Sturla Hungnes. The play takes place in the same surroundings that Ibsen claims he found inspiration for the caracter "Peer Gynt", and is of many regarded as the original. The play is performed with proffesional actors from the national theater institutions, and nearly 100 amateur actors. Edvard Griegs original Peer Gynt music is performed by an proffesional orchestra.

The play is regarded the most popular theaterplay in Norway, attracting more than 17 000 people every summer.


In the 1930s German composer Werner Egk wrote an opera based on the story.

In 1948, the composer Harald Sæverud made a new score for the nynorsk-production at "the Norwegian Theatre" (Det Norske Teatret) in Oslo. Sæverud's music is considered anti-romantic, humorous, and rough. Sæverud, unlike Grieg, successfully incorporated the national music of each of the friends in the fourth act, as per Ibsen's request.

In 1951, North Carolinian playwright Paul Green published an American version of the Norwegian play.

In 1969, Broadwaymarker impresario Jacques Levy (who had previously directed the first version of Oh! Calcutta!) commissioned The Byrds' Roger McGuinn to write the music for a pop (or country-rock) version of Peer Gynt, to be titled Gene Tryp. The play was apparently never completed, although McGuinn is currently (as of 2006) preparing a version for release. Several songs from the abortive show appeared on the Byrds' albums of 1970 and 1971.

In 1985–1987 John Neumeier wrote a ballet "freely based on Ibsen's play", for which Alfred Schnittke composed the score.

In 1998, the Trinity Repertory Companymarker of Providencemarker, Rhode Islandmarker commissioned David Henry Hwang and Swiss director Stephan Muller to do an adaptation of Peer Gynt.

In 1998, playwright Romulus Linney directed his adaptation of the play, entitled Gint, at the Theatre for the New City in New York. This adaptation moved the play's action to 20th-century Appalachia and California.

In 2007, St. John's Prepmarker of Danvers, Massachusettsmarker won the MHSDG Festival with their production starring Bo Burnham.

In 2008, Theater in the Open in Newburyport, MAmarker, produced a production of Peer Gynt adapted and directed by Paul Wann and the Company. Scott Smith, whose great, great grandfather (Ole Bull) was one of the insperations for the character, was cast as Gynt.


  1. Brockett and Hildy (2003, 391) and Meyer (1974, 284).
  2. Meyer (1974, 284).
  3. Meyer (1974, 288).
  4. Meyer (1974, 284-286). Meyer describes Clemens Petersen as "the most influential critic in Scandinavia" (1974, 285). He reviewed Peer Gynt in the 30 November 1867 edition of the newspaper Faedrelandet. He wrote that the play "is not poetry, because in the transmutation of reality into art it fails to meet the demands of either art or reality."
  5. Letter to Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson on 9 December 1867; quoted by Meyer (1974, 287).
  6. Watts (1966, 10-11).
  7. Meyer (1974, 288-289).
  8. Brockett and Hildy (2003, 391) and Meyer (1974, 288-289).
  9. Williams (1993, 76).
  10. Farquharson Sharp (1936, 9).
  11. Quoted by Meyer (1974, 276).
  12. Peer Gynt employs octosyllabics and decasyllabics, iambic, trochaic, dactylic, anapaestic, as well as amphibrachs. See Meyer (1974, 277).
  13. Meyer (1974, 277-279).
  14. Quoted by Meyer (1974, 279).
  15. See Meyer (1974, 282).
  16. Meyer (1974, 282). Meyer points out that Ibsen's fear of subsequent earthquakes in the town, which motivated his swift departure from the island, were not groundless, since it was destroyed by one 16 years later.
  17. Ingmar Bergman produces Peer Gynt at Malmö City Theatre, 1957
  18. Ingmar Bergman produces Peer Gynt at Royal Dramatic Theatre, 1991


  • Banham, Martin, ed. 1998. The Cambridge Guide to Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. ISBN 0521434378.
  • Brockett, Oscar G. and Franklin J. Hildy. 2003. History of the Theatre. Ninth edition, International edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. ISBN 0205410502.
  • Farquharson Sharp, R., trans. 1936. Peer Gynt: A Dramatic Poem. By Henrik Ibsen. Edinburgh: J. M Dent and Sons and Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott. Available in online edition.
  • McLeish, Kenneth, trans. 1990. Peer Gynt. By Henrik Ibsen. Drama Classics ser. London: Nick Hern, 1999. ISBN 1854594354.
  • Meyer, Michael, trans. 1963. Peer Gynt. By Henrik Ibsen. In Plays: Six. World Classics ser. London: Methuen, 1987. 29-186. ISBN 0413153002.
  • ---. 1974. Ibsen: A Biography. Abridged edition. Pelican Biographies ser. Harmondsworth: Penguin. ISBN 014021772X.
  • Moi, Toril. 2006. Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism: Art, Theater, Philosophy. Oxford and New York: Oxford UP. ISBN 9780199202591.
  • Oelmann, Klaus Henning. 1993. Edvard Grieg: Versuch einer Orientierung. Egelsbach Cologne New York: Verlag Händel-Hohenhausen. ISBN 3893494855.
  • Schumacher, Meinolf. 2009. "Peer Gynts letzte Nacht: Eschatologische Medialität und Zeitdehnung bei Henrik Ibsen". Figuren der Ordnung: Beiträge zu Theorie und Geschichte literarischer Dispositionsmuster. Ed. Susanne Gramatzki and Rüdiger Zymner. Cologne: Böhlau. pp. 147–162. ISBN 9783412203559
  • Watts, Peter, trans. 1966. Peer Gynt: A Dramatic Poem. By Henrik Ibsen. Harmondsworth: Penguin. ISBN 0140441670.
  • Williams, Raymond. 1966. Modern Tragedy. London: Chatto & Windus. ISBN 0701112603.
  • ---. 1989. The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists. Ed. Tony Pinkney. London and New York: Verso. ISBN 0860919552.
  • ---. 1993. Drama from Ibsen to Brecht. London: Hogarth. ISBN 0701207930.

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