Robert Bly takes on a Norwegian masterpiece

A king among men?
Actor Mark Rylance plays a spoiled young man who travels the world in search of himself, and not paying much attention to who he hurts in the process.
Photo © Michal Daniel, 2007

Robert Bly is quick to explain that Henrik Ibsen's play Peer Gynt isn't really a play at all. It's a six-hour-long poem.

"He never intended it in a way to be a play," chuckles Bly. "It was just 'I am famous now, so I'll do anything I want to, and I'll call it a play' - and he did that."

Robert Bly
Robert Bly is a pivotal figure in the history of Minnesota poetry, as well as an accomplished translator of literature and poetry from around the world.
Submitted photo

The main character in Peer Gynt is a poet and a braggart who runs off with someone else's bride, gets drunk with trolls, and generally behaves badly.

"He does horrible things throughout the play and yet you end up loving him very much - how can that be?" asks Bly. "That's the real mystery of Peer Gynt."

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Gynt eventually comes to terms with his actions, although it's not clear if he finds redemption.

Ibsen wrote the piece in Italy in 1867, looking back with a critical eye at his Norwegian homeland. Many people are more familiar with Edvard Grieg's music composed to accompany the work. Bly's translation - and editing - of the poem for the stage is one of only a couple that keep the rhyming meter.

Henrik Ibsen
Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen is best known for serious drama that critiques society, whether it's in Hedda Gabler, or in A Doll's House. But translator and poet Robert Bly says the rhyming verse in Peer Gynt is used to keep a more high spirited tone and endear the main character to the audience.
public domain archival photo

"All their speeches are intended to be rhymed," says Bly. "And in the rhyme you say half of it in the first line and half of it in the second line and you get a feeling of completion when the 'bloom... bloom' comes in like that. But it's all high spirited. It's not meant to be taken terribly seriously. And that's a big shock to people who think of Ibsen as a sober guy."

Many people associate Henrik Ibsen with his works Hedda Gabler and A Doll's House - dark dramas filled with death and dispair. Bly says in contrast the language in Peer Gynt is high spirited - even loony.

Here's an excerpt from Bly's translation, in which Peer Gynt recounts his highly unethical adventures making money as a trader:

A lovable imp
Mark Rylance stars as Peer Gynt in Robert Bly's new translation of the Henrik Ibsen classic.
Photo © Michal Daniel, 2007

"I sold negro slaves in South Carolina and boat loads of idols in mainland China."

"Good Lord! I must say I'm a bit shocked!"

"Well, my line of work, I'll say it aloud, wasn't the sort that made one proud.

Often I felt myself that very way - 'You'll have to end it!' I'd hear myself say.

But of course it's easier to found a business than close it down.

Thousands worked for me - to me an enjoyment. But I became concerned about unemployment!"

In the Guthrie Theater's production of Peer Gynt British actor Mark Rylance plays the lead role. Rylance actually proposed the idea of producing Peer Gynt with a new translation by Robert Bly. He had met Bly back in 1999 and read a couple of scenes from the play that Bly had worked on.

The button moulder
Jim Lichtscheidl plays the button moulder in Guthrie Theater's "Peer Gynt," translated by Robert Bly.
Photo © Michal Daniel, 2007

"I wanted with this project to just celebrate something about Robert and create a big piece with a community of people who maybe haven't been to his readings, or aren't aware of the incredible work he's done," says Rylance. "My hope was to be some part of sharing that with more people."

Rylance says Bly's translation is a pleasure to perform. But Robert Bly has no illusions of his translation becoming the definitive English version of Peer Gynt for all time.

"You have to attach to the heart, really - not to the head," says Bly. "So certain 'heart language' will be used for 20 years, and will pass away. And if you're translating after that's passed away, you need to feel where the 'heart words' are now, and what really touches people, and try to move in that way. It's sort of irritating to translators - they do a good work, and 20 years later everyone throws it out and starts over again!" Bly laughs.

Bly says translators like himself will come and go, but it's the playwright Henrik Ibsen who will remain in the reader or playgoer's memory.

He says he'll feel he's done Peer Gynt justice if audiences leave the Guthrie Theater infected by the high spirits of the play.