Disclaimer: If she were running, I would totally vote for Jane Fonda. So it doesn’t necessarily mean that I hate women just because I love Robert Bly, whose new translation of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt opened at the Guthrie last night.
In tenth grade, I read Iron John, Bly’s seminal book about how men should use fairy tale and myth to recreate the hero’s journey in our own lives. I admit, for a fifteen-year-old completely mystified by The Ladies, early exposure to a how-to book about illuminating your soul by celebrating your inner warrior was probably problematic. Back then, I would read passages to my girlfriends (tragically, anti-heroically, never ever girlfriends) to their disgust. You didn’t have to be Susan Faludi, it seems, to recognize Bly’s PBS–poetic, back-to-the-earth chauvinism for what it is—you know, chauvinism.
Since, I’ve (sort of) learned that it’s not cool to use fairy tales, or HBO series, or epic myth—or even the bible—as either a guide or justification for acting like a prick. But I do recognize the ongoing benefit of gathering around the campfire and trying to figure out what’s going on with us dudes, singularly and collectively. And last night, after braving the twenty-six below wind-chill, turning my back to the arctic void, and huddling around the thrust stage with my bearded, Norwegian sweater–wearing comrades (I really don’t know if it was my imagination, but I was overwhelmed by the wintergreen fragrance of snus, Norwegian chewing tobacco, throughout the performance), it seems to me there’s still no storyteller better equipped or more willing to grapple with the dude issues than Bly.
Because Peer Gynt is a total dude. The play starts with Gynt as a fifty-year-old, successful businessman being surprised to death at his birthday party by his coworkers. From there we travel back through his unconscious to his adolescence, when he was living with his mom in Norway. In an incredible performance that holds together what becomes a surreal, at times completely incoherent journey, Peer is portrayed by the English actor Mark Rylance. Rylance lends Peer a sort of Bill Murray–esque sangfroid, even though he intentionally mangles his vowels with a backwoods, hick from Fon-du-Lac, Kevin Kling accent. It’s a heroic performance, and an entirely necessary one: It wouldn’t be fair to say that “Rylance saves Peer Gynt,” because any dense, nearly impenetrable work needs a singular point that us mere mortals can concentrate on: Barbarella needed Jane Fonda, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex needed Woody Allen, and Peer Gynt needs Rylance.
The Rylance likeability factor has to be high because Gynt is the town’s wild and crazy guy, an immature trickster and womanizer constantly regaling anybody willing to listen with tall tales about tackling reindeer and flying through the fjords with eagles or trapping the devil in a walnut and tricking the town’s blacksmith into pounding him on an anvil. All the old Joe Campbell/Robert Bly/Star Wars elements are there: Peer’s storytelling ability serves as sort of his magical power, simultaneously elevating him above and casting him out of the hoi polloi (it’s how he seduces girls); he loves his mammy, who raised him herself, but he’s never known his famous father or grandfather; he hasn’t found his innocent-as-the-Oslo-snow one true love, but he knows she’s out there, somewhere (and to hell with the tramps that he takes advantage of in the meanwhile, right?); and he hasn’t yet learned to focus his unique abilities so he can grow up and fulfill his destiny.
Look, even though Ibsen wrote Peer Gynt in 1867, it’s basically a comic book story, so you kind of know what’s going to happen. But I won’t ruin it for you, so from here on out, I’ll use disclaimers. Evidently, Ibsen wrote the original in rhymed couplets, which, I know, sounds like a major drag. But in his translation, Bly [SPOILER ALERT!!! SPOILER ALERT!!!] doesn’t start in with the rhymed couplets until well into Act II, (the sneaky bastard), and by that time it sort of works because: a) you’re invested in the character, and b) Peer is confronting the Troll king after making out with his smoking hot Troll daughter (played by the sexy Tracey Maloney) [END OF SPOILER ALERT].
Peer’s attitude towards women is going to be difficult for audiences to deal with. His behavior is reprehensible—he takes advantage of women sexually and then casts them aside, refusing to deal with the consequences. Frustratingly, it’s hard to say if Peer ever really does suffer any tragic consequences, or if he even really learns anything at all. After intermission, when things get really bizarre, there’s a crazy dream sequence at a German insane asylum where the point is made that you have to act like a sociopath if society acts insane. Throughout, there’s a lot of talk about “being true to yourself,” and it’s not really clear if that’s a good thing or a bad thing or if our hero or anybody else is really capable of attaining that goal. (Faludi would probably hammer this thing.)
So are we all acting like trolls? Should we? What does this have to do with nationalized health care? All are themes explored in Peer Gynt. I’m not kidding. At the end of the play, Rylance took a bow, and then asked the audience to stay for a second. He stopped the ovation, and made a little thank you speech about how all of us men are on a path and sometimes we need our elders to look back and wave at us in order to help us figure it out (“Which some of you,” Rylance joked, “are no doubt trying to do with this play right now.”). He turned our attention to Bly, the old poet with the white, wild Iron John shock of hair, sitting in the back of the theater with his wife, Ruth. Here was the dude who just translated Ibsen from the original Norwegian rhymed couplets and made it sort of interesting. I mean, I didn’t necessarily get it, and maybe I never will, but Bly is a hero just for telling the story.