… what’s the hurry ? …
This Classic Stage production of Peer Gynt, adapted by John Doyle, should be called Peer Gynt Shortened and Simplified.
This is a shrunken version of the epic verse drama which Ibsen wrote in five acts with approximately 50 characters, about a self-centered and hyper imaginative (“dreams of glory”) man who roams a good part of the earth including a trip to an underworld of trolls. In this version there’s less of everything, fewer scenes, abbreviated episodes, fewer characters … and the violin music is evocative but thin compared with the symphonic character of Edvard Grieg’s original score. A bright spot of the production is the fine acting of Gabriel Ebert as Peer.
Like his father before him, who frittered away a fortune and abandoned his wife and son, Peer is trouble through and through. He scorns a promising bride and then abducts her from her wedding with another man, the first of the women he skips out on. Banished from his community for the abduction, he lands in the under-the-mountain realm of the Troll King who provides Peer with a motto: “Be true to yourself and to hell with the world.” One of the many ambiguities of the play is that Peer didn’t really need the motto – he was already a prime egoist. Another ambiguity is the very question of whether the episode among the trolls “really happened” or was a figment of Peer’s imagination, the question that runs through most episodes of the play.
Perhaps that’s why in Classic Stage’s program for the play, the Cast lists only seven characters – seven! The play has over fifty! Those listed are of Peer’s village, perhaps under the assumption that all the others are only imagined by Peer and thus don’t need to be listed – what a simplification that is! And it’s indicative of the reductionist approach of this production to Ibsen’s vast play. Even if Peer imagines the others, or some of the others, they’re still characters, for Pete’s sake! So, if you know the play, you’ll be surprised to see no Button-molder on the list of characters, that devilish figure prepared to melt down Peer’s soul into indistinguishable nothingness with the rest of ordinary humanity – he’s not listed because, I guess, he’s “just imagined.”
The saintly-like pure woman who loves him is Solveig (whom he first encounters at the wedding where he “ruined” the bride). He has a brief idyll with Solveig in a remote mountain cabin but an old mountain woman from Peer’s time spent among the trolls turns up with her troll-human hybrid child – Peer’s misbegotten son conceived through his “thought.” Through this child born not of a sexual act but of sexually lustful thoughts, Ibsen represents the Northern European Protestant idea that thoughts alone – not just deeds but mental imaginings, fantasies and desires – can determine guilt. This intrusion from Peer’s sinful past provokes him to abandon Solveig (who, however, continues to love him and appears at the end in a kind of redeeming role).
After a time as a successful merchant – slave trading and the like — Peer is robbed and abandoned in North Africa. Alone amidst the harsh elements of nature like King Lear on the heath, he finds his way to his true “empire,” an insane asylum where everyone is like him in living in a private world – the mad being the ultimate egoists, as Peer understands it. Among the adventures beyond the madhouse is a climactic terrifying shipwreck, and the mysterious encounter with the Satanic-like agent, the Button-molder, ready melt him down indiscriminately in his ladle, with whom Peer attempts a Faustian-like negotiation.
In the role of Peer, Gabriel Ebert runs the gamut of human experience and of affect and emotion. He’s tall and virile, clownish and pixy-like, adult and childlike, ranging through these transformations with wit, understanding, and extraordinary physical and emotional energy. In spite of the minimizing of the play itself, one can see through Gabriel Ebert’s dramatic characterization Ibsen’s monumental character of Peer Gynt. It would be great to see Ebert in a fully realized version of this tantalizing, confusing, and iconic drama.
Two hours with no intermission. What’s the hurry anyhow?
Classic Stage, some years ago, staged Target Margin’s ambitious and thoroughgoing production of Goethe’s Faust. Peer Gynt is in many ways comparable to Faust in its egoistic, hedonistic central figure and his multi-faceted life-voyage, its mystic overtones, symbolic characters, philosophic resonances and ambiguities. I wish Classic Stage had brought to Ibsen’s Peer Gynt a similar broad, determined embrace of the play’s epic scope and complexities. Without that, and in spite of Ebert’s great efforts, the play seems irrelevant … even silly.
Peer Gynt plays at Classic Stage in Manhattan’s East Village through June 19, 2016. For more information and tickets, click here.