Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The 'Gyntish Self'

The first project  assigned in my second year was Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, in which we were to select a character of our choice to design and eventually  make a costume for the Wimbledon Costume show in February. Peer Gynt, is actually quite interesting a tale, one which involves trolls, a bit of world travelling, and the devil. You might recognise the ‘soundtrack’ by Edvard Grieg (, good blog reading music!). Definitely a play far removed from Ibsen’s later, more famous ‘modern’ plays. However, when doing further research into Ibsen himself and his life, I began to uncover a deeper meaning to the piece. To completely dismiss Peer Gynt as pure fairytale/fantasy would be to completely misunderstand it. For me, understanding the text lies in two things; Kierkegaard (the Danish Christian philosopher) and Ibsen’s early life.
 Peer, the character is a direct ‘alter-ego’ of Ibsen- one which he plays out his guilt of his younger years. Ibsen saw himself in his youth as someone who was basically sinful, selfish, and wild. What had happened was that when Ibsen was around 20 years old, he was apprenticed to an apothecary, during which he did what any so called average college student today would do- binge drinking, partying, ignoring his studies, begging his parents for money, and getting someone pregnant. Ibsen ended up paying child support for many years afterwards, not to mention that it must have wrecked his conscience to some extent.
                It is obvious that Ibsen, like many other writers and artists have sought their work as a catalyst for healing, and I viewed the piece as an entirely poetic commentary on the human condition rather than pure fantasy.
                At first I wanted to design the costume with a traditional Norwegian style, full of dirndl skirts and ribbons. My tutor thankfully steered me away from that and instead encouraged me to re-contextualize the piece. I started to have fun with the idea, and soon came up with the idea of setting Peer Gynt in a world closer to my own- contemporary America.
                I somehow thought the God-fearing Kierkegardian themes in the play went along well with the ‘fire and brimstone’ religion that is somewhat apart of American society today. I am not quite sure if the same would  be true of contemporary Norway, as the majority of Europeans are Atheistic.  The strong moralistic and often dogmatic themes in Peer Gynt kept on reminding me of American televangelists; I jokingly suggested that Peer could be a character akin to the infamous Jim Bakker (of Tammy Faye),  or that the Trolls could be the cast from the American reality series Jersey Shore.
                In fact, as I began to joke with my friends about the idea, the more I realized it would be possibly a very interesting premise to design for. So in the end, I basically translated the play into a new narrative. The character I ended up designing was Peer Gynt as the prophet. There is a bit in the original text where Peer Gynt’s ship wrecks and he manages to be stuck in the desert somewhere in the Middle East. In my production, he gets in a plane crash and is stranded in the desert somewhere in the Mojave desert in the American Southwest. He then steals a traveling preacher’s getup and gives himself the stage name of ‘The Prophet’, thus taking on an alias and preaching to the naïve desert townspeople. He then becomes a televangelist and loses everything after his girlfriend Anitra (Tammy Faye) steals from him.
                Designing contemporary clothing was at first a challenge for me- after all, there wasn’t really a necessity to make anything. So, I tried my best to think ‘outside the box’ and to really push myself to think of something show-worthy and interesting. In my research, I started to explore cowboys, and became fascinated by the textures of distressed jeans. Soon became aware of the different parts of dress that comprises a so called cowboy outfit- scarf, belt, hat, etc. Also looked into ‘showbiz’ characters such as Liberace and Evil Knievel and other Televangelists.
                The  idea for the colors came from a painting accident, and I decided it would go with the flamboyant character of the prophet. I also wanted to add something special for the show, so I decided I would put wings on the costume, that, when unfolded would make a stained glass window like the famous one in Chartres. I felt like it would be a way of inflating the prophet’s holy ego.

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