You can't choose your fans
Directors, actors, critics - all scratch their heads about what a playwright's intentions may be. The truth is, however, that there isn't a single truth. An author may know exactly how s/he intends a play to be received, but once it is out there in the world, interpretation is up for grabs.
For example, it's hard to imagine that Ibsen would have been thrilled to learn that Hitler was a devotee of Peer Gynt. Yet Hitler's Private Library, Timothy W Ryback's new study which uses the dictator's books as entry points to discuss his career, reveals that he was indeed a major fan of Ibsen's verse epic. This unwieldy masterpiece has long been the most problematic of Ibsen's plays for directors and translators. Now, as if there weren't already enough difficulties surrounding it, we have to wonder what makes it so very appealing to fascists.
Hitler became acquainted with the play when making a name for himself in right-wing politics. An early mentor was the writer Dietrich Eckart, who spotted the spuming Austrian's potential as a speaker and encouraged his progress in proto-Nazi Berlin. Eckart had also translated a successful production of Peer Gynt, pouring contempt on the established German version of the play, which was by a Jewish author. He identified strongly with the wandering hero, hungry for fame (he took it as a portent that he was conceived just as Ibsen began writing the play: 'for me this fact holds a transcendent epiphany').
What did Hitler see in Peer Gynt? And what does this tell us about interpretation? Some thoughts after the click:
Eckart gave Hitler a copy of his translation, and took him to see the play, which made a lasting impression (he also had four separate recordings of Grieg's incidental music to the play). Ryback doesn't really explain what attracted him to Gynt, though we might see connections with Peer the touchy fabulist and overweening chancer. Peer begins the play wanting to stop people laughing at him - he's hurt, angry, deceitful. Mid-point in the drama, he's an overweening power-magnet, owning everything he sees, but he ends limping back to his origins, to the Norwegian hearth song he's refused to hear for so long.
If Eckart and Hitler saw something magnificent in the hero's self-making, it's hardly an unambiguous portrait - we're more likely to view Gynt as inhabiting a dream, on the run from his own defensive self. On the other hand, the fact that the play can attract fervent admiration from such dubious quarters might point to its problematic nature. (Hitler also thought Shakespeare's vengeful Jew, in The Merchant of Venice, a more telling stage character than Lessing's enlightened rabbi in Nathan the Wise; again, his advocacy might serve as a warning to directors who try to create a sympathetic Shylock. Maybe he's just a nasty piece of work in a pretty nasty play?)
Critics are often told they have misinterpreted, misunderstood, missed the boat or the point. Perhaps. But the figure of Hitler-the-fanboy reminds us that no author or stage artist can control interpretation of their work: audiences take what they need from a work of art. And what they take may be terrifyingly partial or boneheaded; they may even find greater richness and subtlety than the work deserves. I don't know that I'd want to see an Adolf-friendly production of Peer Gynt, but I guess I'm pleased that the play stradles the ambiguous territory that makes it a possibility.
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