Feb 21, 2015

Peer Gynt: Your Grandfather's Heterosexism

Rock Island had a large Scandinavian population --we even rated a visit from Carl Gustaf, the King of Sweden -- and our teachers, from grade school through college, felt it their duty to introduce us to "our" heritage (mostly Swedish, but also Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic, Finnish, and even Estonian). I liked Vikings and Norse mythology, but not much else:

1. The horrible fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, which usually ended with a kid dying
2. The Wonderful Adventure of Nils, about a boy who visits every single one of Sweden's 25 provinces.
 3. A Doll House, about a woman in an unhappy marriage
4. The Growth of the Soil, about a married couple trying to eke out a living on sparse ground.

Wait -- I could be reading The Lord of the Rings instead of this stuff, or parked in front of the tv watching Chips. 

5. But the worst was Peer Gynt, the 1867 Ibsen play set to music by Edvard Grieg.  I had to read it, play it, perform in it. During my freshman year in college, I had to write a paper analyzing it.

Ok, here's my analysis: Peer Gynt is an irreverent rapscallion, like Tom Jones, whose adventures mostly involve sex with women.  After having sex with the sister of his true love Solveig, plus three dairy maids and a mysterious Lady in Green, Peer ends up in the Hall of the Mountain King, a haven of trolls.

The troll king offers to scratch his eye so that he can see clearly, know things as they are, but Peer refuses and runs away.  After many  adventures as a brigand and a businessman, he returns home, elderly and bitter, and reunites with his true love Solveig on her death bed.

The troll king asks "What is the difference between troll and man?"

The answer is the same as in Pippin: men don't aspire, don't dream, and certainly don't try to see things as they are.  They stay home and marry women, meekly accepting their destiny in job, house, wife, and kids. They aren't gay.

I got a B-.

In spite of my antipathy, Peer Gynt is very popular.  There have been at least 20 film and television versions in French, German, Norwegian, Dutch, English, and Hungarian.  Versions with street people as performers, with Peer as a young boy, with Peer as a hillbilly.

A 1971 German miniseries had 7 actors playing Peer Gynt in various stages of his life.

A 1941 student film had a very young Charleton Heston (future star of Ben Huras Peer Gynt (top photo)

There was a 1960 cartoon called Peer Gynt's Adventures in Arabia.

The 2006 tv movie was set in modern times. Robert Stadlober played a gay character in Summer Storm, but his performance was still entirely heterosexist.

Plus many stage versions and ballets.

There's a Peer Gynt festival every year in Vinstra, Norway, featuring a performance of the play next to Lake Gala, where Grieg found his inspiration.