Reading reviews of the Abbey Theatre production of John Gabriel Borkman that played recently at BAM sent me as well in search of reviews of other notable productions of past years. I found similarities in critical attitudes toward the play regardless of the production. This post is not a critique of any production, but rather thoughts stimulated by responses to those productions.
Ibsen’s first plays were Romantic verse dramas steeped in Norse legend, history, sagas, culminating in the twin peaks of Brand and Peer Gynt. Mid-career, he switched to prose and to a realism alive with the vibrant tug of war between Romanticism, whose poetry extends experience to the far reaches of the imagination, and Naturalism, which confines drama to the world of immediate perception. Ibsen transformed the Naturalistic elements of the well-made play and the drama of ideas into a “poetry of the theatre", as Cocteau called it. He replaced the poetry of language with a poetry of visual imagery: evocative décor, clothing suggestive of character, objects as extensions of character (Hedda is a loaded pistol), lighting illuminating not only a room but the psychology of character and situation, dialogue sounding like ordinary speech yet carrying layers of meaning—to this day still pretty much the model of theatrical and media storytelling.
In his last plays the poetry of imagery, metaphor, and allusion intensifies the relationship between the world of the five senses and the Romantic world of Norse mythology and sagas.
The demons of the unseen world help fuel Hedda’s passion, trapped in its bourgeois parlor:
Hedda: (nervously, pacing the room) Well, it’s—these things come over me, just like that, suddenly. And I can’t hold back. (Throws herself down in the armchair by the stove.) Oh, I don’t know myself how to explain it.
That world hovers just out of sight in Master Builder Solness’s messianic connection to the other realm of servers and helpers; Hilda Wangel arrives almost as a Romantic agent of the troll world.
In John Gabriel Borkman, Romanticism insists, Naturalism pushes back, and Romanticism insists even more forcefully than in the immediately preceding plays, pushing toward symbolism and expressionism. (The three main characters are among ‘the already dead’.) The struggle of the individual to discover and to free a whole self is a fundamental theme in all of Ibsen’s prose plays, but in this play something of his profound belief in the significance of human lives, of Human Life, leads him back to the grand mythic underpinnings of his early verse plays.
A responsive reading of the description at the opening of each act evokes the theatrical poetry of character, place, atmosphere, and spiritual condition. It is a mistake for a reader of this play to breeze through these descriptions. If the reader is an actor, paying attention to these descriptions is essential.
There are those who profess that good acting has no need for “character” or “characterization”; that if an actor is well-cast all he or she need do is respond truthfully to immediate circumstances and the drama will just happen. But in great plays like this, the necessary character of the character is more complex and specific than any one actor can embody just by being truthful and responding to imaginary circumstances. Character must be created. Storytelling style must be created.
In John Gabriel Borkman the details of character as Ibsen describes them are as evocative as the details of the environment of each act. A miner’s son of medium height, strongly and compactly built, distinguished appearance with chisled profile, piercing eyes, curling grayish-white hair and beard. Does this mean tall actors need not apply? No. But they must ask themselves what is it about Borkman that makes Ibsen want him to be of medium height; what is the “meaning” of this? A miner’s son, medium height, strongly and compactly built: Working class origins; feet planted on the ground; a solid spine settled in his hips; not easily shaken or knocked off balance; a physical power, perceptible even under the suit coat and starched shirt of the banker he became.
His wife Gunhild calls him “a sick wolf”. He paces (Ibsen describes him always with his hands behind his back—why?). He growls (Ibsen is pointed in this).
A lone sick wolf pacing and growling is dangerous--and one with nothing to get his hands on is even more so.
The audience must experience the animal danger in the human movements.
Borkman describes himself as “a wounded eagle”. And Ibsen gives the wounded eagle piercing eyes. This eagle longs for restoration to former glory and the freedom to soar once again—which for him means doing what?
How does this express itself in his behavior, his very animating energy?
Cast Alan Rickman in the role and you’ve cast a good actor who can respond truthfully to given circumstances.
But his sick wolf will likely have a lean and hungry, and probably a slightly effete, look.
The need for freedom and power of the Rickman Borkman eagle with piercing eyes will likely be venal, selfish, cold. And inner.
And will you get the son of a miner, of stocky and compact build? Not likely.
This Borkman might do well to absorb something of Liam Neeson. Or Javier Bardem.
He’s an Industrialist-Capitalist, Robber Baron, Financier. There are lots of Nineteenth Century models for this part of his character. He is driven to power, yes, but power to do what? Is it simple greed? Egotistical Ambition?
He is deeply passionate, with a single-minded obsession toward greatness. He has an artist’s drive, a poet’s heart and soul. I think that’s the most important thing about him. It’s his elemental driving force. And it is precisely what the actor can animate in himself to begin his creative work of characterization: the driving need to create, to achieve, to make a mark.
Through all of Act I we hear Borkman pacing up and down the length of the upstairs salon gallery. When we first encounter him in Act II, he is standing by the piano, hands behind his back, listening as Frida Foldal plays the last measure of the Danse Macabre. (In the following, I’ve combined his first several lines, eliminating the questions Frida asks to encourage him to keep talking.)
Can you guess where I first heard such music as this? It was down in the mines. I’m a miner’s son as I guess you know. And my father took me down with him sometimes, into the mines. Down there the metal sings. When the ore is loosened. The hammer blows that loosen it—they’re like the midnight bell that strikes and sets it free. And so the metal sings—for joy—in its way. It wants to come up into daylight and serve mankind.
This prepares for the soaring poetry of the climax of the play when, from deep within his heart, muscular, visceral poetry finally bursts out:
Critics regularly call him mad, talk about his ‘lunacy’. But Borkman is mad only if the play he’s in is social realism. Measured by the criteria of ordinary realism, Medea is mad; she’d escape the death penalty by reason of insanity.
If Borkman is not mad, it’s because the world of his play is not simply realistic—that it reaches as far and as deep as Romantic poetry can take it.
In his essay The Memory of Heroism, Robert Brustein writes this of the Greek tragic hero:
Daring to transcend philosophy, daring to outface Necessity, the hero stretches the outer boundaries of his limitations to their uttermost, and, in the consequent rending and tearing, establishes new boundaries towards which men may strive. Greek tragedy, at the same time that it contains some of the most profound wisdom, is the noblest act of resistance in literature. (1960)
Something of this applies to Borkman and though he may fail to scale the tragic heights to Greek stature, he does everything in his late Nineteenth Century power to do so.
And the play reminds me of Michelangelo’s last sculptures, the captives, and their perceivable struggle to free themselves toward tragedy heights, to resist, to push against monumental forces, to reach to the gods. Romanticism struggling with Naturalism to reach for something else.
For Borkman, there are “the spirits of the gold”.
Ibsen insisted that all his characters are passionate and that implies visceral engagement, kinesthetic involvement, muscles, not simply ‘feelings’, which too often result in shrieking voices and tense bodies in untrained actors and in professionals only well-modulated voices and too controlled, too relaxed bodies.
There is danger in true passion—the possibility of the destructive unexpected not simply the over-heated emotional. Perhaps a bit of the brawling Russell Crowe of Gladiator needs be added to our evolving Rickman Borkman.
The Romantic tragic beings of all three major characters–Borkman, Ella, and Gunhild--are mythic in their passions. They are Titans. And the force of Norwegian-Lutheran-Victorian strictures combined with the restraints of Naturalism work mightily to rein in Romantic passions that have the power of volcanos, of earthquake tremors, of lava leaping into the night air.
In JGB there are two dramas playing out: The surface Naturalistic conflict and the deeper Romantic mythic clash of Titans. Actors must play both simultaneously. Create these powerful oppositions in spine and human will, in muscles and voice—not just with physical twitches and safe, shallow emotional outbursts, even if, as the New Yorker BAM review describes it, “the trio performs with full braying force”.
I’m thinking more Jason and Medea and less George and Martha.
How to achieve the necessary physical, kinesthetic involvement to create the Romantic-Naturalistic Shapeshifters of this play?
Work at it. Go into action:
Embody Viking heroes and Norse gods storming the universe and then immediately morph into bankers shuffling papers and wives crocheting doilies.
Then back again at the clap of the director’s hands.
Try: The superhero Borkman versus The Superhero Ella. Miner’s Son-Sick Wolf-Wounded Eagle versus Towering Radiant Lava Jet Encased in Black Silk Armor.
Then the Gunhild superhero joins them. She may be ice, but deep within burns a blue-white raging fire—is it love or is hate?
Within scenes, switch back and forth from Naturalistic Human Being to Hero of Norse saga, like The Hulk or Transformers do, while continuing to respond truthfully to all stimuli in the situation.
Borkman might be a Titan of the other world. Like Prometheus he is bound to the upstairs gallery. And Gunhild and Ella are goddesses Ice and Fire that plague him.
Apply all this to the quality of Borkman’s pacing. To the Gunhild/Ella faceoff that starts the play.
The anguish of these people goes deeper than we ordinary folk seem capable of. From the moment Ella comes back into their lives, when the forces working on all three finally burst the surface and reveal themselves to the cosmos--from which Ibsen demands attention (I can see him shaking his fist at the heavens demanding that–pace Arthur Miller--attention must be paid!)--they can speak in such extremes because Ibsen believes their situation reaches into the life of myth, springs from primordial roots and extends to the ear of God himself. Giving voice to that which is beyond ordinary language, their speech reaches for the heights of true poetry.
So the voice must be one with the body. Actors must be able to burst into Wagnerian arias and duets or into elemental vocalized Martha Graham dance without so much as a moment needed to prepare.
Perhaps during a scene, shapeshift immediately from Wagnerian magnificence to John Galsworthy class-conscious smallness, maintaining the force of the Wagnerian within the confines of the Galsworthyesque. And back again.
At a clap of the hands.
What’s the suspense when these gods must further suppress their kinesthetic impulses as they deal with mere mortals: with Mrs. Wilton and Foldal and even Erhart the son?
What happens to Erhart in Act III when he must confront this trio of Titans? When he must become Erhart the Superson?
That Act III confrontation of Borkman, Gunhild, Ella as they vie for Erhart’s soul is the point at which critics blame the play for failing, for falling into ludicrous melodrama. But what does the play ask of its actors so that this confrontation becomes the major crisis rather than a major letdown? How must it play so that it prepares for the elevation to poetic tragedy on the hilltop at the climax of the play in the next act?
Certainly not the affectless underplaying, or its over-wrought emotional counterpart, of contemporary realistic media acting.
Try creating the situation as a cosmic tug of war: Gunhild on one planet, Ella on another, Borkman on a third, and Erhart in the center of the solar system resisting as each tries to pull him into her(his) own orbit.
By the way, why does Ibsen give Borkman ‘curly grayish-white hair and beard’?
How this story is told is as important to its meaning as what the story is about.
What price Glory? Power? Achievement?
What does the troll of Single-minded, Driving Passion demand in return for its gift?
What will the gods of All-consuming love, of Obsession, exact from the human being captured by their powers?
What claims do we have on one another? What responsibilities? With what result?
What place Restitution Restoration Redemption?
Some critics of the play suggest that all the drama has happened in the past and in the present all we get is discussion, perhaps revelation. Well, what is the drama of revelation? What is the suspense of Borkman’s waiting to be restored as a champion to the land of the living? What’s the drama of a Titan in the underworld waiting to be admitted back into the light, to ascend the heights of Olympus once again?
And in moments of revelation come moments of extraordinary realization. What does Ella realize in her upper room encounter with Borkman? What must Borkman put to words that he has for years not spoken?
And on and on: Where is the drama?
The fundamental challenge for actors and directors of this play, it seems to me, is to create the reality of people with great Romantic tragic souls and spirits bound by the trappings of a materialistic, post-industrial world. We must believe that the man who paces up and down the upstairs gallery is capable of reaching out into the hills beyond his house and with his own hands wresting iron ore from beneath the mountains; that the woman who sits and crochets in the parlor below could hurl a lightning bolt across the galaxy to fry her sister and her husband; that the sister who for years has accepted her lot could engulf them all in the bubbling lava of her rage and/or her love.
Without these powerful realities, the situations will indeed shrink to creaky melodrama, over-blown dialogue, laughable in its excess rather than profound in its tragic poetry; the verbal and emotional bombast of a shallow reality rather than the vocal and visceral manifestation of a deep, even tragic, primordial experience.
Since I started writing this, I’ve been imagining working on the play this way with Rickman and Fiona Shaw. That’s a rehearsal process I could get into.
Now if only we could get Cherry Jones to join us.