Ibsen and the Irish Free State: The Gate Theatre Company Productions of Peer Gynt

By Malone, Irina Ruppo | Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies, Spring-Summer 2009 | Go to article overview
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Ibsen and the Irish Free State: The Gate Theatre Company Productions of Peer Gynt


Malone, Irina Ruppo, Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies


In 1897, arguing for the necessity of Irish Literature to turn to native myth and folklore for inspiration, W.B. Yeats cited the example of Henrik Ibsen, whose Peer Gynt, he contended, was 'not only "national literature" [...] but the chief glory of "the national literature" of its country'. (1) In 1899, Yeats promoted the newly-founded Irish Literary Theatre in a series of speeches and publications that praised Ibsen's early dramas 'founded on the heroes of legends of Norway' as models for the rising generation of Irish playwrights. In following the example of Ibsen, Yeats insisted, the Irish Literary Revival would restore creative vigour to the educated classes in Ireland, whose 'literary barrenness' he believed to be 'the result of their imaginations having been torn up by the roots and of them having little or no sympathy with the life of the country'. (2)

The implied promise that the Irish Literary Theatre would produce Ibsen was never fulfilled (much to the consternation of the young James Joyce who saw this omission as a sign of the moral cowardice of the directors). (3) Nor did the Abbey, the successor of the Irish Literary Theatre, stage any of Ibsen's plays until the 1923 production of A Doll's House. (4) As theatre manager, Yeats did not take the opportunity to engage his audiences in a comparative examination of literary nationalism that the production of Ibsen's plays, such as the early national romantic Vikings of Helgeland, and indeed the later Peer Gynt, would have provided. Moreover, Yeats's initial approach to Ibsen was neglectful of the satirical dimension of Peer Gynt and its critique of the Revivalist project in Norway.

The Irish premiere of Peer Gynt by the Dublin Gate Theatre enabled a double-look at Irish cultural nationalism. The Gate's 1928 production, and its 1932 revival, captured those aspects of the play that, though initially dismissed by Yeats, haunt his later poetry, as well as such self-critical works of the Irish Revival as J.M. Synge's Playboy of the Western World and James Joyce's Ulysses. Further, the innovative style of the production encapsulated Yeats's vision of the non-representational theatre, which he had earlier attempted to capture in his collaboration with Gordon Craig. Moreover, through its conflation of the subjective and the objective, Peer Gynt explores a problem in cultural Revivalism: the artist's relation to the world. The belief in what Freud termed 'the omnipotence of thoughts' (5)--the power of thought physically to affect the world--is related, in Peer Gynt, to the dynamics of myth making. In this sense, the play prefigures those texts of the Irish Revival that, like Yeats's later poetry, offer self-reflexive reassessments of Irish Revivalism.

In 'The Circus Animals' Desertion' (1939), Yeats provides an ironic review of his involvement in the Irish Revival project. Presenting himself as an old 'broken man', Yeats mocks his enchantment with 'old themes'. Ancient myths of Oisin, the Countess Cathleen, and Cuchulain, revived by Yeats in his poetic drama are mocked in the image of 'circus animals on show', who have attained a dubious life of their own and escaped the poet. After a life devoted to the imagination wherein the 'dream itself had all my thought and love', the speaker now sees the origin of his creativity to be a wasteland:

   A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
   Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
   Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
   Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone
   I must lie down where all the ladders start
   In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. (6)

The imagery of the final stanza of 'The Circus Animals' Desertion' is reminiscent of the auction scene in the fifth act of Peer Gynt. Peer, now an old man, returns to the Hegstad farm, the site of the adventures of his youth to find a 'ruined mill-house beside the stream. The ground is torn up, the whole place waste'.

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