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Ibsen's Unexpected Triumph: Peer Gynt at the Seattle Repertory Playhouse

From: Theatre History Studies
Volume 32, 2012
pp. 165-188 | 10.1353/ths.2012.0001

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One woman came a thousand miles from San Francisco just to see it. They came from all classes and walks of life—fishermen from up north, lumberjacks from the Grays Harbor Region. I recall seeing a day laborer, who had been working in the rain all day repairing the cartracks in front of the theatre, go to the box office of The Playhouse at quitting time to buy a pair of seats. The same people came twice, some three, four and more times to see it.

Albert Ottenheimer, "Seattle's 'Peer Gynt,'" June 1941

It is commonplace to consider Henrik Ibsen as one of the fathers of modern drama. Realistic pieces like A Doll's House and Ghosts practically defined the plays of the art theatre movement and linked him to box-set realism. Their subsequent widespread inclusion in dramatic literature anthologies further paints Ibsen as the playwright of the middle-class domestic drama. But before Nora and Torvald, Ibsen had written theatre pieces more closely akin to epic poetry. Brand (1866) tells the story—in verse—of a man of God who brooks no compromise from himself or others, and who dies, onstage, being crushed by an avalanche. Theatrically, Peer Gynt is even more challenging. Published in 1867 but not receiving its first production until nine years later, Peer clocks in, uncut, at five acts and thirty-eight scenes. It managed to put even Ibsen himself to sleep during an unedited performance of it in honor of his birthday. "I shall be satisfied," he is reported to have said, "as long as the piece is reduced to a proper length. Not to do this would spoil everything."Peer Gynt is enormous, covering the picaresque wanderings of its titular hero as he runs from his village in the Norwegian hills, woos the daughter of the Troll King, sails the world as a slave trader and merchant, meets madmen and fools, comes face to face with his own mortality, and returns home as an old man to the woman he has always loved and who has always loved him. Like Goethe's Faust (one of Ibsen's inspirations), Peer Gynt focuses on a strong central character, addresses weighty issues of morality and identity, and blends the natural and the supernatural in a theology that is anything but orthodox.

Both Peer and Faust held (and continue to hold) fascination and dread for theatre producers. As such, despite Ibsen's own significant popularity among the theatre cognoscenti of the early twentieth century, it did not have much of a life outside of Norway, and even there only received a major production once every ten years. Vast in scope, difficult in staging, demanding in technical requirements, poetic in timbre, and lengthy in performance, Peer Gynt was enough to daunt even the most enthusiastic of theatre-makers. Infrequent might be too weak a word for the production history of Peer, which had somewhere between four and six U.S. productions prior to 1930, including a production by the Santa Barbara Community Players in the late 1920s and a rumored staging by a "Norwegian Workingman's Society" in Seattle sometime between 1890 and 1893.

Yet it is Peer Gynt that Albert Ottenheimer describes in the above epigraph as one of the most popular shows he had ever been a part of. Peer Gynt was not only a landmark production for the Seattle Repertory Playhouse in the 1930s but also one of their biggest moneymakers, responsible, according to one account, for saving the fledgling theatre company from bankruptcy and dissolution. Originally mounted in 1931, the play would be revived four times over the course of the next decade, earning notices in national publications as it enticed locals and visitors alike. Peer Gynt became one of the longest-running shows in Seattle until after World War II, seen by over twelve thousand people in its initial nearly three-month run; it had a rare combination of theatrical artistry and popular appeal, earning lauds in multiple papers and rave reviews in four languages. How did it happen? How did a struggling theatre group with one foot in the community theatre world and the other in the emerging modernist tradition...



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