Peer Gynt is an epic drama written by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen in 1867. The play is a verse drama, telling the life story of the farm boy Peer, an unreliable poet who is prone to make up tall tales of his own experiences, often based on local folklore. This to the chagrin of the villagers, who have heard the stories before. Peer lives with his widow mother on a downtrodden farm, coming from a family who has seen better days. During his youth, he trespasses on a rural wedding and runs off with the bride, after being rejected by the chaste Solveig, who apparently made a lasting impression on him.After having his way with the bride Ingrid, who was sweet on him, but had to marry someone else, he dumps her, only to get exceedingly drunk with three dairy maids in the mountain, and then finally to get abducted into the same mountain. Here, he encounters the Mountain King and his daughter, the green-clad Hulder, and has to pass some tests for the right to woo her. He goes some of the way, but rejects the trolls when they ask for permission to alter his eyesight for ever. Then the trolls beat him within an inch of his life before disappearing because of church bells, invoked by his mother, who seeks for him outside.Alone in the mountain, Peer has to face the Boyg, an undefinable creature he cannot fight, and who will not face him. Peer finally collapses when the creature gives in because of hymns and more church bells, this time invoked by Solveig, who really wishes to save his soul. He wakes up dreadfully hung over, and manages to give away a silver button to her younger sister Helga.Peer, now an outcast and outlaw, tries to make a living in the mountains, and Solveig comes to live with him. She decided that he really needed it, and would not live with anyone else. At the same moment, the green-clad Hulder arrives with an offspring she claims is his, and the realisation makes Peer go face heel turn on Solveig, and he flees the country completely for several years. He only makes a brief stop to visit his dying mother.Peer lives large in foreign lands, earns a lot of money on slave trade and missioning, and is abandoned by his foreign friends off the coast of Morocco. From there, he finds his way to Egypt, playing the prophet and seduces a beduin chieftain's daughter who robs him, before he eventually tries his luck as a historian in Cairo. He ends up in a local madhouse, suddenly realizing how he got there.Returning to Norway an old man, he ends up shipwrecked off the western coast, and comes home as an unknown beggar. He sees his old farm fallen to total ruin, is mocked by the villagers who believe him dead, and returns to the mountains, where he finally realizes that his life is wasted. He meets the Devil, the Mountain King and a button moulder, who tells him to be reshaped, as his soul was squandered. He finally admits defeat and runs to the only one who can still save him: Solveig, still waiting in his old cabin. The play ends with a "we´ll see" from the button moulder.Edvard Grieg composed incidental music for the play, which was performed at the premiere, with selections later published in the two Peer Gynt Suites. In the Hall of the Mountain King and Morning Mood are the most famous pieces.
The play contains examples of these tropes:
Abhorrent Admirer: Mads Moen, the bridegroom of Ingrid, whom she took as a last resort, while she actually wished to marry Peer. Peer is quick to make a cuckold of him, on his wedding day!
Accidental Murder: Peer hangs on the keel of a boat for sheer life after his ship has gone down. He shares the space with the ship`s cook, and they fight over a place to hang on. Peer manages to shove the cook down, and accidentally drowns him.
All Just a Dream: The second act from the moment he stumbles against the wall of a mountain shed dreadfully hung over, to the moment he wakes up at the end of the act with a dry throat. The passage with the trolls and the Boyg, let alone the Greenclad Woman happens in between. Whether or not this actually is just a dream is open for interpretation.
Ambiguous Ending: "We meet at the last cross-roads, Peer, and then we'll see - I say no more..."
An Aesop: The realization dawning on Peer when meeting the Button Moulder, sent by God. The moral of the play is also uttered by him: To be thyself is to give yourself up, or to go with the meaning of the master on your brow.
Ancient Egypt: The last part of the fourth act takes place in Egypt, with Peer commenting on the Sfinx and the bust of Memnon.
Arc Symbol: The silver button. The item is closely related to Peer.
His mother relates how he wished to mould buttons as a kid, and asked his father for some tin. His father gave him a silver coin to mould buttons from.
When Solveig sends her kid sister to find him, Peer gives her a silver button for Solveig to remember him by.
And then, of course, he meets the button moulder in the fifth act, whose sole task is to mould squandered souls, telling him straight in his face that he was meant to be a "shining button on the waistcoat of the world, but you fell off, so now, you are about to go in the junkbox, to go into recycling..." The Rule of Symbolism comes along with anvils at this point.
Artistic Licence - Geography: When coming home in the fifth act, Peer is standing on deck of a ship and claiming to see the mountain Hallingskarvet, and the glacier Hardangerjøkulen. None of those can be seen from the western seas. It is also unclear whether the captain of the ship is right when stating that one can see Norway's highest mountain from the top mast.
My sword will fall crushing down on you! King Saul slew a hundred, Peer Gynt slew a thousand!
Badass Normal: A young boy Peer sees in act three, is dead by the fifth. A priest relates his life in a long eulogy, telling the story of the man, who cut off his index finger to avoid being proscribed to the army, then living his life on a secluded mountain farm (he had to rebuild the farm twice, because of flood, and then because of a glacier), working his ass off to get his sons to school, and seeing them off as unthankful adults in America. As the priest puts it, "he strove and fell in the farmer`s small struggle". Peer relates to this man, although it is lampshaded that he lived a more meaningful life than the title character.
The priest subverts it in his speech, when he considers that this man actually never got outside his small circle, and thus, never got to see the big picture.
Becoming the Mask: Peer has actually piled up so many masks over one another over the years that he hardly can find himself under them anymore. Lampshaded in the famous "onion scene", where he actually tries to pile them off, one by one, only to find nothing beneath them. He concludes with a slow realization that he has become like the Boyg, without shape or substance.
Bedlam House: The madhouse in Cairo. Even the asylum keeper seems to have lost his marbles. Here, he seems to meet his peers, a number of people who are themselves to the point of hilarity. Peer makes a heel realization in the process.
Blatant Lies: Lampshaded in the very first line: "Peer, you`re lying!" Of course he answers "No, I`m not!" And it escalates from there.
But Now I Must Go: Peer in the third act, running the hell away from everything that binds him. He leaves Solveig at the doorstep, telling her to wait, and argues that he has a heavy burden to shoulder, and must carry it alone. It takes the rest of his life to return to her. Solveig used the same phrazing when leaving her own family behind to live with Peer.
Catch Phrase: "Avoid it, said the Boyg". "Be utterly thyself".
Chekhov's Gun: The Silver Button, handed over to Solveig´s sister in the second act, is often seen as a foreshadowing of the button moulder in the fifth. Being a symbol of Peer´s soul, it makes sense in context.
Courtly Love: Peer`s attitude to Solveig in the third act. Before this, he has had his way with no less than five girls (Ingrid and the hulder, and the three dairy maids). When Solveig arrives on the scene, he goes courtly, defining her high above the other girls. OOC Is Serious Business indeed.
Creepy Child: The brat Peer begat with the hulder has grown abnormally fast, and the first thing he says, is "I shall chop you with my axe".
Cue the Sun: Played straight all the way, according to the Rule of Symbolism. Peer faces the Sphinx at daybreak (cue the "morning mood" theme). And the final scene of the play is set at daybreak. And Solveig, with her Meaningful Name - referring to the sun (Sol = Sun).
Dead Guy on Display / Mummy: The second of the three loonies Peer encounters in the Cairo Asylum carries a mummy on his back. He is called a "Fellah", that would be a carrier. And he claims he carries "king Apis" with him. Peer suggests the fellah should hang himself to be like his king, and the fellah does. This suicide begins Peer`s heel realization.
The Devil Is a Loser: Lampshaded by Peer Gynt in a tale he tells of how the Devil tried his luck as a street artist in San Francisco, and later on when the two actually meet. Peer manages to trick the Devil when he realizes the Devil is after his soul - and sends him on a wild goose chase to South Africa (Actually Played for Laughs).
Defiled Forever: Ingrid Hægstad. After eloping with Peer, he just leaves her, and she soon gets her revenge on him by way of her father. But she is implied to be slandered for posterity, and marries the smith Aslak afterwards. Peer returns after her death. Another implication is that she actually had a son with Peer.
Delusions Of Grandeur: Peer from the literal start. He dreams of getting the best of all around him, becoming a king, or an emperor. The delusion backfires splendidly when he eventually gets his coronation in a madhouse.
Description Cut: In the fourth act, when Peer has a humans are flawed monologue while entering his role as "the historian". He ends this with the words: "Women are a feeble stock" - and the scene cuts directly to Solveig, who patiently sits waiting - and does her famous song. As if Ibsen just makes a point in saying "feeble? I think not!"
The Determinator: Solveig qualifies. Waiting patiently an entire lifetime for Peer to return craves some strength of will and determination allright.
Deus ex Machina: The button moulder. His task is to reshape squandered souls, and seemingly to give Peer a second chance, when Peer stalls him several times only to meet him at anothee cross-roads. The trope can be read as somewhat averted, as Peer has to find his salvation himself.
Did You Just Flip Off Cthulhu?: Peer annoys the mountain king and the entire troll community when he decides not to follow their last request, and explains why he is not worthy of the king's daughter. The trolls beat him to kingdom come.
Did You Just Romance Cthulhu?: Peer gets a child with the Greenclad Woman, after romancing her alright. If he actually slept with her physically is beside the point, as the Mountain King points out. In the secondary world, lust is enough to conceive. When Peer goes oh crap instantly and talks himself out of the situation, he flips off the whole troll society.
Dub Name Change: The Mountain King. Originally his name Dovregubben translates as "that old guy from Dovre", underlining that he is a generic troll in charge of that particular mountain (Dovre, that is). Norwegian folklore has generic trolls of that order for almost every mountain available (Gaustatoppen, Norefjell, even Ekeberg in Oslo...).
Egopolis: Peer has another delusion of grandeur while being stranded on the edge of the Sahara. He imagines flooding the desert to make it fertile, and then erect his own land "Gyntiana" with "Peeropolis" as the main city.
Eternal Love in the form of Solveig, who unselfishly gave her life away to Peer, and waited for him for years, even if he himself did not exactly realize it, or even deserved it.
Eldritch Location: Peer has been in the great hall of the Mountain king. The trolls leave in a hurry when church bells signal that his mother is out looking for him. The cave seems to collapse, and the next thing he knows, Peer is in a place that is seemingly nowhere, fighting something that is beyond his comprehension.
Face-Heel Turn: Several. Every time Peer is confronted with his past, he usually runs away from it, setting off a new "identity" of some sort. His past comes back to bite him really hard in the end.
The Fair Folk: Played straight with the greenclad Hulder, who abducts him into the mountain.
Fate Worse Than Death: Peer Gynt is about to experience his already fragmented soul being "recycled" into several new ones, and thus, he will be denied any kind of afterlife, be it heaven or hell. Consider that Peer Gynt actually considers a place in hell as a better solution than the one offered him.
Fingore: Peer sees a boy who chops off his index finger (to avoid being drafted - the finger was necessary for pulling the trigger). Peer is seriously squicked by this. The boy gets a Call Back in the fifth act, as Peer comes home in time for his funeral.
Follow the Leader: The Neverending Story has Bastian, the titular character. He expies Peer Gynt on several occasions: Bastian is known for his tall tales, is called a liar, and has, like Peer, a gift of fantasy. When slipping away to Fantasia, he piles up several wishes to hide his true self, gradually losing it, and is at the end of the story, about to lose himself completely, ending up in a city of madmen. Oh, and before that, he was about to proclaim himself emperor. Like in the Cairo madhouse, the people of the city of madmen see nothing but themselves. At the end, with his memory of his human life totally gone, Atreju intervenes on behalf of him, doing the part of Solveig (replacing love with The Power of Friendship), giving Bastian the insight he needs to return home.
Genre Deconstruction: The fairy tale on several accounts. Also romanticism according to some scholars. Taken to the extreme, the play is a deconstruction of the Norwegian national myth. The play becoming a national myth in it´s own right, is a heavy historical irony on Ibsen´s behalf. Whether the play actually deconstructs romanticism is up to debate, as the structure of the play relies heavily on romantic troping. The "deconstructor" of the plot is Peer himself, as Solveig, invoking the Power Blonde, is there to save him. All the romantic tropes are in fact played straight with Solveig.
Gorn: One of the madmen slits his throat on stage. Peer is seriously squicked, since it seems he indirectly caused it.
Gratuitous German: Begriffenfeldt, the proprietor of the Cairo Asylum, speaks with a heavy influence from his native language.
Grey and Grey Morality: as defined by Peer himself, to get away from any responsibility at all. Naturally, his final moment of realization occurs in a dense fog (grey, by all standards). The morality of Solveig is more common black and white.
Hearing Voices: In the second act, when the Boyg calls on "birds" or whatever, to consume him. And later in the fifth act, alone in the wilderness, a number of voices call to him to remind him on all the tasks and works he didn`t do, the songs he never sung, and the tears he never shed. In the end, his mother calls to him, complaining that his way of "comforting" her on her deathbed in fact led her straight to hell.
Heel-Face Turn: the very end, when he finally faces Solveig for redemption.
Historical Villain Upgrade: The historical Peer lived and died in the area of Gudbrandsdalen in Norway, was known for his abilities as a reindeer hunter, for his tall tales, and for several encounters with trolls. The boyg and the three dairy maids are all extracted from the works of Asbjørnsen and Moe.
Humanoid Abomination: The troll brat, conceived by the Greenclad Woman. Come the fifth act, the Mountain King reveals that this entity has grown fat, and has children all over the country. Serves as a take that from Ibsen, when the old troll tells that those half-trolls are taking positions all over Norway.
I Am the Noun: Hussein, an inmate of the Cairo Asylum, presents himself like this: "I am a pen". Peer follows suit by calling himself an "adorned imperial parchment". Hussein really thinks he is a pen, to be used by the assigned Emperor present (Peer himself), and wants the others to sharpen him (like a goose feather pen). In that process, he slits his throat and dies, uttering his last words:
Light Is Good: Played straight. A sunrise often parallels a moment of "dawning" in the mind of Peer. The end is also played out at sunrise. And then the name of Solveig, parallelled with the Norwegian word for "sun" (Sol).
Mama Bear: Peer's mother Åse. She is rather at odds and dissatisfied with the ways of her son, but stands up for him when she believes him threatened - to the point where she tries to face down the local smith, the possibly strongest man in the community and Peer's archnemesis in the first part of the play. Occasionally, she also acts like a jewish mother.
Mental World: Most of the fifth act can be seen as this, as Peer's inner turmoil tends to mirror the landscape he walks through, often a barren wasteland of sorts, until he hears the song of Solveig and gets a sense of direction.
Mind Rape: The Mountain King tries it, but the Boyg actually does it on Peer. Peer has a part of the boyg inside him for the rest of his life, and constantly follows the instructions from it: "avoid it". At the end of the play, he concludes that his life is void, and his soul an "empty shed".
Mind Screw: The Boyg does this on Peer. So does the button moulder and the "unknown passenger" in the fifth act. Ibsen hardly got any screwier than this.
Ms. Fanservice: Anitra, daughter of a bedouin chieftain, who tricks Peer in the desert. If Peer is right in his description of her during her famous dance, she is actually fan disservice, but most productions play her the other way around.
Mysterious Waif: The "unknown passenger", who shows up in the beginning of the fifth act, scaring the living willies out of Peer. He also doubles the Mind Screw factor by asking Peer a number of questions, and commenting on him in a way that nobody, until this very day, has fully understood. Who, or what he is, is interpreted in adnauseam. Everyone is the foreign passanger, it seems.
Napoleonic Wars: The historical background, set in the early nineteenth century, as the beginning of the play. Later events shout out to the Greek rebellion (1825) and the San Francisco Gold Rush in 1848. Peer returns several years after this, sometime before 1865.
Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: A number of times for Peer himself, as he constantly gets himself and others into impossibly bad situations.
Norwegian Language Struggle: Ibsen couldn`t resist it. He had to put in a big shout out to this. When Peer is in the Cairo madhouse, he encounters a being who claims to fight for the Malabar orangutans and their right to make their own noises after four hundred years of portuguese suppression. Really? Another take that from Ibsen. The man is a parody of a known language struggler at the time.
Not Himself: Actually the whole point of the play. Discussed by the Button Moulder in the fifth act, who reasons that he Peer has never been himself, so why stall death?
Oh, Crap: Several times during the play, often resulting in a face heel turn, only to make things even harder for Peer in the end. The final Oh Crap moment turns into a My God what have I done moment when he finally realizes that he is destined for total nothingness.
One True Love: Solveig for Peer. "The devil take all women - except one!"
Our Souls Are Different: Consider that the soul of Peer Gynt, and those of his father and grandfather, are scheduled for recycling. The premise is that they are meant to be melted down for the making of new ones.
Our Trolls Are Different.: Coupled with the fair folk trope, as the inside of the mountain is populated with secondary world beings of every order possible: Witches, goblins, trolls - They are all there. The main type of beings, including the king himself, is trolls, of course, and the main slogan is appointed to them: "Troll, be utterly thyself", as opposed to "Man, be thyself". Can be considered a combination of tropes, as the troll king is the father of the Hulder (not defined as such, only as "the greenclad woman", but her traits are likewise).
Out-of-Character Moment: The end of the fourth act. At this point, we have met a middle aged Peer who has been bluffing on self confidence all the way, who always seems to be on top of things, and never seems to mess up, even when he actually does. In the madhouse, he is shocked out of his wits, has a visual breakdown, and starts to present himself as a more sincere, and rather helpless person. He even speaks of Solveig with reverence: "In the possesion of one woman, I was a book laid with silver. It is the same typo to be wise and mad." Sadly, it doesn`t last that long.
Outlaw: Peer is sentenced to this after eloping with the bride Ingrid. Her father did not take it well.
Prospector: During the 1849 California Gold Rush. He tells stories of that later on.
Rags to Riches: Peer Gynt came to America with nothing more than a penny to his name. Ten years later, he was the richest man in Charleston. He made his fortune in slave trade.
Really Gets Around: Peer plays this straight: The bride Ingrid, the three dairy maids, Anitra (and who else?). Averted with Solveig, who never got to bed with him.
Rejection Affection: Peer finds Solveig to really be something when she actually rejects him. He seems to have quite a backstory with the girls, but Solveig just calmly rejects him at their first meeting. And this leads him to think she is more than he bargained for. Lampshaded when he chases Ingrid away, by comparing her to Solveig: "Can you deny my requests?" When Ingrid tells him "no", he flatly leaves her.
Riddle of the Sphinx: Peer reaches Cairo early in the morning, and hears the song from the statue of Memnon. Then he approaches the Sphinx, and asks himself the important question: "Who are you?" When the keeper of the asylum approaches, he claims to have solved the riddle: The sphinx is "himself". And that leads Peer Gynt straight to the asylum.
Saved by the Bell: Literally inside the mountain, as the Fair Folk can't endure the sound of churchbells. And Peer in the end, though it is the singing of hymns that does the trick.
The Scrooge: Peer returns home with clear shades of this trope. His ship goes down with all hands, however, and he comes to shore ribbed of all his property. But at the start of the fifth act, he is miserly enough, not giving away a penny to anyone who seems happier than he (that is everybody else).
The Greenclad Woman and Peer spar lines, referring to Macbeth: Fair is foul and foul is fair, or "black seems white and foul seems grand..."
Ibsen also nods to other Norwegian authors, as contemporary poet Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson wrote of a golden haired girl in a largely successful story five years prior to the play. Like Solveig, this girl at first sight wore a hymn book, held "her mother's skirt", and had a similar name.
Consider that the play, written in 1867, coincides with of the life a certain mr Norton, who had proclaimed himself emperor of the United States only eight years before. Ibsen may have taken some inspiration from this (the madhouse scene springs to mind).
Smite Me, O Mighty Smiter: Peer at the end of the fourth act. He loses it after the second suicide, and calls out for mercy or whatever, but has lost the name of God in the process, calling him "ruler of all fools".
Somewhere, an Ornithologist Is Crying: Peer claims to have encountered seagulls at 1500 meters above sea level in the mountains of Vågå. But then again, he was telling his mother a tall tale.
Take That: The play was a symbolical kick to the Norwegian and Swedish denial of fact at the Battle of Dybbøl in 1864, when Denmark had to fight Prussia all on their own and lost. Ibsen could not forgive the lack of principle he meant to see in his countrymen, and wrote a play containing a main character lacking almost every principle in the world. And ironically, it became Norway´s national play. The Norwegian elite who in time embraced the play, seems to have been Dramatically missing the point. And somewhere, Ibsen is laughing his heart out...
Also when the Mountain king states that the half troll Peer begat with his daughter actually thrived and "has splendid children all over the country", implied to have taken over the newspapers.
The Badass Normal farmer also counts, as the loss of his index finger made him unfit to go to war (underscoring the 1864 point). Serves as an even greater Take That when one considers that the boy avoided drafting during the crucial fights for Norwegian independence in The Napoleonic Wars (possibly 1814). As a consequence, Ibsen hints of a "common flaw" in the Norwegian national build-up, surfacing in the time of independence.
Teasing Creator: The "unknown passenger". Oh boy. Peer believes himself to be the only passenger on the ship that carries him home at the beginning of the fifth act. Then, a Mysterious Waif pops up from nowhere, and everybody else is ignorant of him. The passenger states that he is interested in Peer`s body, is rejected on this and quietly leaves. When he shows up again, Peer is hanging on for dear life on a turned life boat. He once again brings up the topic of Peer`s body, and from here on, the dialogue gets positively weird. To this day, scholars have been totally in disarray about who or what this "passenger" is, or what he really means. Knowing Ibsen, he could have pulled The Walrus Was Paul on us - but he never actually stated it.
Walking the Earth: Peer does it for most of his life, coming home, still walking in tighter and tighter circles until he eventually hits home - to Solveig.
What Are You: When the Boyg is not responding properly, Peer asks it what it is. The answer makes sense:
The Boyg. Only one. The Boyg who is unscathed, and the Boyg who got wounds. The Boyg who is dead, and the Boyg who lives.
What Have I Become?: Peer has at least two Heel Realizations, one at the end of the fourth act, and one even more disturbing in the fifth. Here, he actually sinks down in a moment of total despair, lamenting his fate: "So unfathomably poor can a soul then go back again to nothing in the misty grey..." This is where he realizes he has to get to Solveig before it is too late.
Who Are You?: The arc question of the play. Peer asks this to the Boyg, and gets only the answer "Myself". He asks this three times. Later on, he asks the same question to the Sphinx, believing him to be the Boyg in disguise. In the end, he starts to ask himself the same question, not having a straight answer anymore.
You Are Already Dead: The Button Moulder tells Peer that much when they first meet: "The grave is dug and the coffin ordered. The maggots shall have a feast in the carcass, but I am sent to immediately collect the soul..."