Henrik Ibsen, master illustrator of humankind's capacity for disaster and triumph, takes a less willful tone than in A Doll's House -- but delivers a powerful message all the same.
Ibsen's ‘Brand’ preached the philosophy of “All or nothing.” Relentless, cruel, resolute, overriding in will, Brand went through everything that stood in his way toward gaining an ideal. Another play was needed as a compensating balance, as a complementary color to ‘Brand.’ That is exactly what ‘Peer Gynt’ is. Instead of the iron will of Brand, Peer is will-less; instead of sufficient, he is insufficient; instead of resolute, irresolute.
In all issues facing him, Peer goes around. ‘Brand’ was published in Copenhagen, 15 March 1866. By December it had reached its fourth edition. The play had a phenomenal reading success, and people became curious to know what Ibsen's next play would be. The dramatist, about this time, was relieved of financial worry by two money grants, one from the Norwegian government and the other from the Scientific Society of Trondhjem. This enabled him to give to his work an unfettered mind. He went with his family to Frascati, where, in the Palazzo rooms, he looked many feet down upon the Mediterranean, and pondered his new drama.
He was soon writing to his friends of its imaginative character. The scenario for ‘Peer Gynt’ and the first act were completed by 5 Jan. 1867. The details had been planned carefully, and folklore mixed with experience became the matrix for the inconsequent Peer's adventures. Ibsen's own studies in regional folktales had given him a goodly stock to draw from; and there are touches of family history in the play which are less evident than Ase, who was a rough portrait of Ibsen's mother. This is his most fantastic piece, the one with the most formlessness about it. In it there are germs of ideas worked out more fully in later plays. Peer, the poet and dreamer, has none of Brand's polemics about him. If the world were full of lovable rascals like Peer, who dreams of being what he is not; or full of Stoics like Brand, inflexible, rentless, uncompromising — there would be little human progress.Ibsen preserved a profund silence about the content of this drama. He begged of his publisher, Hegel, to create as much mystery about it as possible. In his workmanship he became reckless with imagery. That is why "Peer Gynt" is so formless. He carries Peer from abandoned youth to senile old age in scenes of wild riot. This hero fights his way among nixies, wrestles in the coils of the Boyg — symbol of his own indeterminateness and confusion.
He cares nothing for consequences, even though the Green-Clad Woman confronts him with an Ugly Brat, symbol of his lust. Out of sight, out of memory, that is the tragedy of Peer's romance with Solveig. And when the Button-Molder finally calls him to accounting — as Death, in the morality, calls to Everyman, Peer suddenly realizes that he has been a bungler of life, with his motto, “To thyself be enough.” In the end, however, he is cleansed in the faith and hope and love of Solveig. ‘Peer Gynt’ was issued 14 Nov. 1867, and the Norwegian public hailed it vociferously. The critics, in some quarters, were uncompromising in their censure, some sneering at the poetry of it. Whereupon, Ibsen wrote his now famous message: “My book is poetry, and if it is not, then it will be.
The conception of poetry, in our country, in Norway, shall be made to conform to the book.” Many read satire into the play; others read into it motives never intended. So contrary were the views, that Ibsen threatened to write an autobiographical interpretation of it. ‘Why cannot they read it as a poem?’ he queried. That is the way it should be regarded. Even Ibsen used to confess that neither ‘Brand’ nor ‘Peer Gynt’ was intended by him for the stage.
In 1874, however, he was arranging with Edvard Grieg for the music now so widely famous as the Grieg Peer Gynt Suite; but for the purposes of the music he was considering an adaptation of his original text. In 1906 scenes from the play were given by the Progressive Stage Society of New York; but to Richard Mansfield is due the credit for the authentic American performance of ‘Peer Gynt,’ at the Chicago Grand Opera House, 24 Oct. 1906. The stupendous task of preparation for a drama so dependent on its external scene for illusion undoubtedly added to the strain on the actor's health, resulting in his death the following summer.
There are three supreme figures that stand as creative epitomes of the Stoic, the Fantasist and the Romanticist. These are Brand, Peer Gynt and Don Quixote. Ibsen's two plays will come into their true position long after ‘A Doll's House’ and ‘Hedda Gabler’ are dated and outworn.
Encyclopedia Americana, 1920