Kyoung-hee Kwon[1]

Author: Henrik Ibsen. Theatre Dir ector: Jung-woong Yang. Co-Production: LG Art Center and Theatre Company Yo-hang-ja (The Travelers), Seoul, Korea, 2009.

At the back of the stage is a huge mirror which distorts the objects it reflects and, on the floor of the stage, a low rectangular frame is filled with coarse dust. These are the basic elements of the minimalist stage set for Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, co-produced by LG Art Center and Theatre Company Yo-hang-ja (The Travelers). The play is in 5 acts and 38 scenes, covering half a century and moving from the mountain areas of Norway to the Arabian deserts, from Europe to Asia. Its fictional world is full of phantasmal grotesqueness and extraordinary imagination which span the human world, myths and fantasies. It is rich with poetic textures made of poetic metaphors and symbols, rapid progressions and condensations, rhythms and resonances. As a result, the flapping of the wings of fantasies, visions and daydreams, which counter the realities in the play, is the very powerhouse that generates the inner energy and the external movement.

Director Jung-woong Yang minimizes and condenses the lyricism and the overall aesthetic of the long sentences of the original language in the play. Instead, he has used simple and familiar everyday language by which he emphasizes the contemporaneity of the play, and attempts to magnify the brilliant and sensual images in the play. Because Yang focuses on creating impressive images for each scene, the larger meanings intended in the language and the actions of the characters, including those of Peer Gynt, have been scaled down. As a consequence, the production repetitively, monotonously reinforces the simple themes of an extremely selfish man’s search for himself, or of maternal love and the salvation of human beings as an act of mercy. The scene in which the trolls undress Peer Gynt and diaper him is hammered into farcical mode, the intellectual tastes of the play’s original era are rendered comical by simply changing the words: “Troll Times,” or “Troll Tribune,” for example. Peer Gynt makes his appearance to the popular standard My Way as a successful illegal weapons dealer; the scene which takes place on a deck in the North Sea as Peer Gynt is returning home is now in the first class seats in an airplane; the troll king, who has now become a beggar, appears, instead of carrying a bundle in his arms, pushing the kind of grocery store shopping cart used today. In this way, this production has turned the romantic symbolism of the original play into a popular emotionalism. Because the depth of Peer Gynt’s experiences and thinking has become more shallow, the narrative and the scenes do unfold economically and the performance is simple and clear. In sum, the biggest difference between the original play and this production is that the inner space of the capricious main character—the foundations of Peer Gynt’s existential speculation—were selectively presented in a quite limited way.

Peer Gynt © LG Arts Center
Peer Gynt © LG Arts Center

There are various props on the stage that transform into meaningful objects as demanded by the drama, and which appeal to the audience’s imagination. For example, the four-legged bathtub is Åse’s home, and then bed. It also symbolizes the universal desires for peace and resolution. The easy chair on which the green-clad troll king’s daughter makes love to Peer Gynt can be understood the same way, but its symbolic meaning also extends to obsession, domination and possession. Peer Gynt’s bicycle invites the audience to imagine a physical change that enables a horizontal movement, and a bodily motility. On the other hand, the umbrellas of Åse, Solveig and the funeral procession float here and there as light as air and symbolize freedom from morals, transcending the boundary between life and death, reality and fantasy. The mourners are located in a position from which to contemplate the meaning of life and death objectively; in other words, they are witnessing “death” from the position of “life,” and they are above morality, which is only a worldly value.

The rubber tank like a children’s pool, which is brought in by four women from behind the bathtub and which has been hidden from the audience thus far, expresses the peak of Peer Gynt’s immersion in pleasure. If the pleasure here is tactile and aural, however, the appeal of Anitra and Peer Gynt’s orgasm in the plastic booth in Part 2 is visual and voyeuristic. The director’s intention to draw eroticism from the rhythm of the water, and to tame temptation through the transparent booth is too easily read. The text of Peer Gynt does dramaturgically justify expressions of the main character’s indulgence in pleasure. The danger is that when such expressions are too unreserved (down-center stage) or too clichéd (swaying in the booth), and fail to achieve sublimation into aesthetic objects, then particular scenes—not to mention the whole production—can easily turn vulgar and distasteful.

About the huge mirror and the dust at the back of the stage. Dust is quite often a metaphor for rest, recurrence and eternity. The human body is material—that is, after all, dust. On the other hand, the human soul and mind are immaterial. In the scene at the beginning of the play in which Peer Gynt pretends to Åse that he was chasing after a deer in a ravine, he grabs some dust and tosses it into the air. While it is true that dust represents a foundation and a source, the dust scattered in the air betrays this idea and floats in the air. This is when we witness the inner state of Peer Gynt, who desires to wander aimlessly in the world forgetting his reason for existence just like dust, a part of nature but lost in the air.

If dust is essence and reality, the mirror is a multi-layered signifier. Naturally, a mirror is a distorted essence and a fiction. The mirror in the performance, however, is the opposite: it spies on and reveals the secret essence hidden behind the reality. The dusty floor is where extraordinary adventures of life, like Peer Gynt’s dreams, are happening, but the mirror is where the inherent meaning and value of such adventures are exposed. The mirror watches all these actions coldly and sternly insists on its existence. Like the paintings of the Surrealist, Dali, it reflects everything distorted, crushed and melted away. The real nature of Peer Gynt’s life is expressed through the mirror. In the images disfigured in the mirror, we get to see what Peer Gynt is missing in his life, that is, the weight of a life dedicated to being human. Thus, we may be able to say that Peer Gynt is a symbolic image of desire while the mirror is nature and a substance that reflects the truth.

Peer Gynt © LG Arts Center
Peer Gynt © LG Arts Center

Although Peer Gynt takes pride in being a “man of the world,” he comes only to the surety that he is nothing but an alienated individual. The world is an entity with its own rules and systems whether they are good or bad, and, therefore, a prison for a dreamer like Peer Gynt. Nevertheless, he does not leave just because he has to. Rather, he is able to leave because he desires to leave. When we consider that the mirror functions to reflect in a transcendental manner and to give meaning to the alienation of the man who has exiled himself, it becomes clear what director Jung-woong Yang was attempting to achieve with his modern approach to Peer Gynt: by juxtaposing the man who is existentially alienated, with the mirror which exposes the naked truth behind his image as a wanderer, he wanted to expose the interior sealed in the original text. The dust floor is concrete reality, and the mirror allows another meaning through distancing. The real substance between them, distorted and melted away, escapes a fixed meaning. This becomes the real world of Peer Gynt, and we come slowly, progressively to the poetic recognition that it can only be experienced subjectively, as abstract truth.

Peer Gynt travels all over the world throughout his life, wanting to live “as he is” and claiming to be “his Gyntian self.” The audience, however, through the whole performance, realizes that this life is nothing but a ghostly seduction that enlarges his arrogance and laziness. His Gyntian self is a combination of “hope and desire” and a round dance of “demand and daydreams.” Becoming himself is nothing other than “killing himself” and only by erasing his natural personality can he give birth to and complete his real self. Only by giving up his indolence, falsity, arrogance and escapism, can he reflect on himself, know himself and deserve salvation. Peer Gynt, the daydreamer, turns into “his Gyntian self” in the true sense. Whereas the original text ends when Gynt erases the basis of his personality, this performance shows his death. Peer Gynt, naked, walks into the plastic booth (now become the place where the Button-moulder does his melting) and lays his body down on the cold, dusty floor. Onto the dead body of Peer Gynt, who has been a dreamer—an arrogant man chasing after futile dreams—and who is now returning to nature, comes peace along with the shadow of nothingness.

Peer Gynt © LG Arts Center
Peer Gynt © LG Arts Center

The loose “joints” between the scenes are vulnerable points in the original text, and are the likely pitfalls for an actual performance. It seems that Jung-woong Yang also struggled with this challenge. While I was deeply impressed with the few scenes that truly reveal his brilliance, I wished, perhaps due to my impatience, that he hadn’t used familiar objects to create signs and symbols; that the stage had been more free and dynamic; that a new theatre aesthetic that went beyond my expectation had been realized.

[1] Kyoung-hee Kwon is a Korean theatre critic, and Professor in the Department of Theatre and Visual Arts at Myoungji College in Seoul, Korea. She received her Ph.D. in Drama from the University of Exeter, U.K. in 2001.

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Images and a Popular Emotionalism: Peer Gynt