Robert Bly takes on a Norwegian masterpieceby Marianne Combs, Minnesota Public Radio
The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis is premiering a brand new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's classic play Peer Gynt.
It's the story of a devilish character who does terrible things to others, but still manages to be quite likeable.
Minnesota author and poet Robert Bly translated the work.
St. Paul, Minn. — 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."
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."
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.
"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:
"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.
"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.
- All Things Considered, 01/16/2008, 4:54 p.m.