John Gabriel Borkman, by Henrik Ibsen

Introduction.

The anecdotic history of John Gabriel Borkman is even scantier than that of Little Eyolf. It is true that two mentions of it occur in Ibsen’s letters, but they throw no light whatever upon its spiritual antecedents. Writing to George Brandes from Christiania, on April 24, 1896, Ibsen says: “In your last letter you make the suggestion that I should visit London. If I knew enough English, I might perhaps go. But as I unfortunately do not, I must give up the idea altogether. Besides, I am engaged in preparing for a big new work, and I do not wish to put off the writing of it longer than necessary. It might so easily happen that a roof-tile fell on my head before I had ‘found time to make the last verse.’ And what then?” On October 3 of the same year, writing to the same correspondent, he again alludes to his work as “a new long play, which must be completed as soon as possible.” It was, as a matter of fact, completed with very little delay, for it appeared in Copenhagen on December 15, 1896.

The irresponsible gossip of the time made out that Bjornson discerned in the play some personal allusions to himself; but this Bjornson emphatically denied. I am not aware that any attempt has been made to identify the original of the various characters. It need scarcely be pointed out that in the sisters Gunhild and Ella we have the pair of women, one strong and masterful, the other tender and devoted, who run through so many of Ibsen’s plays, from The Feast at Solhoug onwards — nay, even from Catalina. In my Introduction to The Lady from the Sea (p. xxii) it is pointed out that Ibsen had the character of Foldal clearly in his mind when, in March 1880, he made the first draft of that play. The character there appears as: “The old married clerk. Has written a play in his youth which was only once acted. Is for ever touching it up, and lives in the illusion that it will be published and will make a great success. Takes no steps, however, to bring this about. Nevertheless accounts himself one of the ‘literary’ class. His wife and children believe blindly in the play.” By the time Foldal actually came to life, the faith of his wife and children had sadly dwindled away.

There was scarcely a theatre in Scandinavia or Finland at which John Gabriel Borkman was not acted in the course of January 1897. Helsingors led the way with performances both at the Swedish and the Finnish Theatres on January 10. Christiania and Stockholm followed on January 25, Copenhagen on January 31; and meanwhile the piece had been presented at many provincial theatres as well. In Christiania, Borkman, Gunhild, and Ella were played by Garmann, Fru Gundersen, and Froken Reimers respectively; in Copenhagen, by Emil Pousen, Fru Eckhardt, and Fru Hennings. In the course of 1897 it spread all over Germany, beginning with Frankfort on Main, where, oddly enough, it was somewhat maltreated by the Censorship. In London, an organization calling itself the New Century Theatre presented John Gabriel Borkman at the Strand Theatre on the afternoon of May 3, 1897, with Mr. W. H. Vernon as Borkman, Miss Genevieve Ward as Gunhild, Miss Elizabeth Robins as Ella Rentheim, Mr. Martin Harvey as Erhart, Mr. James Welch as Foldal, and Mrs. Beerbohm Tree as Mrs. Wilton. The first performance in America was given by the Criterion Independent Theatre of New York on November 18, 1897, Mr. E. J. Henley playing Borkman, Mr. John Blair Erhart, Miss Maude Banks Gunhild, and Miss Ann Warrington Ella. For some reason, which I can only conjecture to be the weakness of the the third act, the play seems nowhere to have taken a very firm hold on the stage.

Dr. Brahm has drawn attention to the great similarity between the theme of John Gabriel Borkman and that of Pillars of Society. “In both,” he says, “we have a business man of great ability who is guilty of a crime; in both this man is placed between two sisters; and in both he renounces a marriage of inclination for the sake of a marriage that shall further his business interests.” The likeness is undeniable; and yet how utterly unlike are the two plays! and how immeasurably superior the later one! It may seem, on a superficial view, that in John Gabriel Borkman Ibsen has returned to prose and the common earth after his excursion into poetry and the possibly supernatural, if I may so call it, in The Master Builder and Little Eyolf. But this is a very superficial view indeed. We have only to compare the whole invention of John Gabriel Borkman with the invention of Pillars of Society, to realise the difference between the poetry and the prose of drama. The quality of imagination which conceived the story of the House of Bernick is utterly unlike that which conceived the tragedy of the House of Borkman. The difference is not greater between (say) The Merchant of Venice and King Lear.

The technical feat which Ibsen here achieves of carrying through without a single break the whole action of a four-act play has been much commented on and admired. The imaginary time of the drama is actually shorter than the real time of representation, since the poet does not even leave intervals for the changing of the scenes. This feat, however, is more curious than important. Nothing particular is gained by such a literal observance of the unity of time. For the rest, we feel definitely in John Gabriel Borkman what we already felt vaguely in Little Eyolf — that the poet’s technical staying-power is beginning to fail him. We feel that the initial design was larger and more detailed than the finished work. If the last acts of The Wild Duck and Hedda Gabler be compared with the last acts of Little Eyolf and Borkman, it will be seen that in the earlier plays it relaxes towards the close, to make room for pure imagination and lyric beauty. The actual drama is over long before the curtain falls on either play, and in the one case we have Rita and Allmers, in the other Ella and Borkman, looking back over their shattered lives and playing chorus to their own tragedy. For my part, I set the highest value on these choral odes, these mournful antiphones, in which the poet definitely triumphs over the mere playwright. They seem to me noble and beautiful in themselves, and as truly artistic, if not as theatrical, as any abrupter catastrophe could be. But I am not quite sure that they are exactly the conclusions the poet originally projected, and still less am I satisfied that they are reached by precisely the paths which he at first designed to pursue.

The traces of a change of scheme in John Gabriel Borkman seem to me almost unmistakable. The first two acts laid the foundation for a larger and more complex superstructure than is ultimately erected. Ibsen seems to have designed that Hinkel, the man who “betrayed” Borkman in the past, should play some efficient part in the alienation of Erhart from his family and home. Otherwise, why this insistence on a “party” at the Hinkels’, which is apparently to serve as a sort of “send-off” for Erhart and Mrs. Wilton? It appears in the third act that the “party” was imaginary. “Erhart and I were the whole party,” says Mrs. Wilton, “and little Frida, of course.” We might, then, suppose it to have been a mere blind to enable Erhart to escape from home; but, in the first place, as Erhart does not live at home, there is no need for any such pretext; in the second place, it appears that the trio do actually go to the Hinkels’ house (since Mrs. Borkman’s servant finds them there), and do actually make it their starting-point. Erhart comes and goes with the utmost freedom in Mrs. Wilton’s own house; what possible reason can they have for not setting out from there? No reason is shown or hinted. We cannot even imagine that the Hinkels have been instrumental in bringing Erhart and Mrs. Wilton together; it is expressly stated that Erhart made her acquaintance and saw a great deal of her in town, before she moved out to the country. The whole conception of the party at the Hinkels’ is, as it stands, mysterious and a little cumbersome. We are forced to conclude, I think, that something more was at one time intended to come of it, and that, when the poet abandoned the idea, he did not think it worth while to remove the scaffolding. To this change of plan, too, we may possibly trace what I take to be the one serious flaw in the the play — the comparative weakness of the second half of the third act. The scene of Erhart’s rebellion against the claims of the mother, aunt, and father strikes one as the symmetrical working out of a problem rather than a passage of living drama.

All this means, of course, that there is a certain looseness of fibre in John Gabriel Borkman which we do not find in the best of Ibsen’s earlier works. But in point of intellectual power and poetic beauty it yields to none of its predecessors. The conception of the three leading figures is one of the great things of literature; the second act, with the exquisite humour of the Foldal scene, and the dramatic intensity of the encounter between Borkman and Ella, is perhaps the finest single act Ibsen ever wrote, in prose at all events; and the last scene is a thing of rare and exalted beauty. One could wish that the poet’s last words to us had been those haunting lines with which Gunhild and Ella join hands over Borkman’s body:

We twin sisters — over him we both have loved.
We two shadows — over the dead man.

Among many verbal difficulties which this play presents, the greatest, perhaps, has been to find an equivalent for the word “opreisning,” which occurs again and again in the first and second acts. No one English word that I could discover would fit in all the different contexts; so I have had to employ three: “redemption,” “restoration,” and in one place “rehabilitation.” The reader may bear in mind that these three terms represent one idea in the original.

Borkman in Act II. uses a very odd expression — “overskurkens moral,” which I have rendered “the morals of the higher rascality.” I cannot but suspect (though for this I have no authority) that in the word “overskurk,” which might be represented in German by “Ueberschurke,” Borkman is parodying the expression “Uebermensch,” of which so much has been heard of late. When I once suggested this to Ibsen, he neither affirmed nor denied it. I understood him to say, however, that in speaking of “overskurken” he had a particular man in view. Somewhat pusillanimously, perhaps, I pursued my inquiries no further.

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