David Henry Hwang takes on Ibsen's epic
by Jeffrey Gantz
So why hadn't David Henry Hwang, Tony-winning author of M.
Butterfly and current Trinity Repertory Company artist-in-residence, ever
done an adaptation? "No one ever asked me," he explains over the phone from New
York. But they have now: at the urging of Trinity artistic director Oskar
Eustis, Hwang got together with Swiss director Stephan Muller to work on a
production of Henrik Ibsen's long 1867 dramatic poem Peer Gynt. The
result, clocking in at about two hours and 15 minutes (about half the length of
the original), opens at Trinity tomorrow night, January 30.
"The concerns of the play wander through so many different areas," Hwang
points out. "It's a folk tale, it's a commentary on the social situation of
Ibsen's time, it's an attack on certain political figures of his day, it works
on sort of a Jungian level, it's all over the map. That was one of the reasons
I thought it would be fun. And in fact I've had a really good time working on
it. I'd like to do another one."
Ibsen's first staging notion was to replace the long fourth act, which rambles
and is full of topical references, with a "musical tone-picture." What was
Hwang's approach? "I actually started working on it with the bones of the
structure in place -- Stephan had already come up with the idea of folding the
fourth act as a series of flashbacks into the fifth act. I just approached it
as I would any play. Once it got on its feet, I tried to tear away things that
seemed extraneous -- I tried to be as ruthless with it as one would be with
one's own work."
Both the trolls and the mysterious Boyg came up for discussion.
"Stephan talks about trolls in the European conception as being almost the way
we look at werewolves or vampires. Whereas we all grew up with cute trolls with
purple hair." The Trinity creatures will be called trolls, but "they have the
flavor of being a kind of survivalist cult. It feels a little bit like Waco."
As for the Bøyg, the invisible troll-like creature that tells Peter to
"Go around," it's now the Invisible Hand. "There are interpretations where the
Boyg is the superego; there are interpretations where the Bøyg is
the id. As I see it, Peer is at a point where he's met Solveig and fallen in
love, and the Boyg tells him to go the long way around, which is what he
eventually does in terms of running away from Solveig. The Boyg
functions as a supertroll; it's a malevolent thing -- like the trolls it causes
him to go away from Solveig. So the idea of an Invisible Hand was interesting
because it suggests Adam Smith and so has the implication of being there for
Then there's the Thin Person in act five, who appears to be the Devil -- at
Trinity he's the young Peer. "Stephan always had this notion of using more than
one Peer. We also thought there needed to be some kind of climactic conflict
for Peer to go through. And the idea of the young Peer meeting the old Peer,
since we had two separate actors doing it anyway, seemed to be an interesting
way to go, not from Ibsen, but in a Freudian sense a fascinating way to wrap up
the whole interchange between how one person becomes another. To have a person
be in conflict with himself would be a theatrical way to present one of the
essential conflicts in the play." And the Button Molder, who threatens to melt
Peer down? "He's now the two Coin Inspectors -- I took the other metaphor, the
worn-down coin, and made that the central metaphor because it seemed to me to
be easier to understand."
What about the original's religious sensibility -- Solveig and her prayer
book, and her faith in Peer? "A lot of the things that were religious have
become more psychoanalytical. To confront oneself -- to go back to the two
Peers -- is sort of like confronting death, but it has more of a psychoanalytic
overtone than a religious one."
Hwang is, of course, aware that Ibsen is said to have been Freud's favorite
playwright. "I think that a lot of my personal biases are Freudian, and
therefore they work themselves into this adaptation. But a Freudian
interpretation suggests that Peer has a definitive identity, that there is an
essential Peer that he does not succeed in finding throughout the play but that
one existed if only he could find it. Whereas sometimes I believe in the
deconstructionist approach to Peer's identity -- which is that there is no
essential identity, and that his identity is a function of the particular
context he's in. And that interpretation would seem to be reinforced by the
onion monologue in act five [Peer peels an onion and finds no center, only
layers]. You can play it either way."
Trinity Repertory Company's production of Peer Gynt opens Friday, January 30, and runs through March 8. Call (401) 351-4242.