Peer Gynt is a five-act play in verse by the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen, loosely based on the fairy tale Per Gynt. It is the most widely performed Norwegian play. According to Klaus Van Den Berg, the “cinematic script blends poetry with social satire and realistic scenes with surreal ones”. Peer Gynt has also been described as the story of a life based on procrastination and avoidance. A first edition of 1,250 copies was published on 14 November 1867 in Copenhagen. Despite having swiftly sold out, a re-print of 2,000 copies, which followed after only 14 days, didn’t sell out until seven years later.

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 Norway, 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 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 Journey (1882) and argues that both explore 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 Oslo) on 24 February 1876, with original music composed by Edvard Grieg, which includes some of today’s most recognized classical pieces, In the Hall of the Mountain King and Morning Mood. It was published in a German translation in 1881, in English in 1892, and in French in 1896.

The play is very loosely based on a Norwegian fairy tale, Per Gynt, believed by Ibsen to be rooted in fact. Ibsen was also generally inspired by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen’s collection of Norwegian fairy tales, published in 1845 (Huldre-Eventyr og Folkesagn). Several of the characters are modelled after Ibsen’s own family, notably his parents Knud Ibsen and Marichen Altenburg.

Performed by the Continental Symphony Orchestra.

Narrated by Art Gilmore.

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