John Gabriel Borkman
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
January 12, 2011
From the first glimpse of the set of John Gabriel Borkman (by Henrik Ibsen in a new version by Frank McGuinness)—a few pieces of furniture on a black floor polished to icy reflectiveness and surrounded by massive snowdrifts—you know you’re in a pitiless, cold place, and the story unfolds like the grimmest of Grimm’s Fairy Tales: a battle of three selfish parents (father, mother, and foster mother, all beautifully acted by the high-power triumvirate of Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, and Lindsay Duncan) over a young man’s soul, a battle all three are fated to lose. Each bears deep wounds from the past, and each sees the young man, Erhart, as their only possibility of respite from desperation, solitude, or disgrace. But each has driven him- or herself so far into the depths of self-justifying delusions that for the young man, only breaking free completely gives him any hope at all.
Thirteen years ago, John Gabriel Borkman, a miner’s son who rose to become a respected bank manager, went to prison for embezzlement of his clients’ and depositors’ funds. All of his assets were seized in the resulting lawsuits, and his family (wife Gunhild and son Erhart) was rescued from destitution by Gunhild’s twin sister, Ella (who was also Borkman’s lover before he married Gunhild). Ella’s money, which (unlike that of most everyone the Borkmans knew) was not lost to Borkman’s scheme, bought the Borkman house out of auction and has been supporting the family financially ever since. While Borkman was in prison, Ella also fostered Erhart, as his mother was unable to care for him. But since his release eight years ago, the family has existed in a hideous stasis: Ella and Gunhild have not seen each other nor spoken since Gunhild reclaimed her son. Borkman and Gunhild occupy the same house but do not interact; Gunhild lives downstairs and molds her son (now in his twenties and about to finish his schooling) into a weapon that can go out into the world and restore the honor of the family name, while “the bank manager” paces upstairs and waits for the financiers of the world to come beg him to run the bank again, so he can get back to work with Erhart by his side.
But now Ella, gravely ill, has come to confront Gunhild and Borkman, wanting two things: first, to make Erhart her heir and have him take her name, as she has no children and her family line will otherwise end with her death, and, second, to confront Borkman and find out what truly caused him to break off their relationship so many years ago. Erhart, meanwhile, is in love with a neighbor, a wealthy divorcee with a cavalier attitude toward his family, and wants nothing to do with any of these stifling plans for his future. As his lover, Mrs. Wilton, has thrown off the shackles of her marriage, Erhart wants to walk away from all the crippling bonds of his family’s past and future, and simply enjoy life in the present—to grasp at a happiness the others have lost the ability even to imagine. Mrs. Wilton lives entirely in the present moment, which is exactly her appeal for Erhard, though we also see her fecklessness and thoughtlessness. (In a nice visual touch, Mrs. Wilton is the only character who wears color, a spot of literal brightness in the grim lives of the Borkmans and their circle.)
As often with Ibsen, there’s something eerily prescient in the subject matter—the way Borkman’s disgrace comes via financial manipulations and the failure of a capitalist master plan that presumes its creator is smarter than everyone around him. And there is a scathing critique of the radical inherent selfishness of capitalism (or of an uber-capitalist) here—one can almost feel Ibsen’s scorn for Borkman’s idea that the only person who really lost anything of import in his schemes was Borkman himself, in losing both his assets and his reputation, since his clients, not to mention his clerk and other bank employees, didn’t have very much to begin with and therefore don’t really count. The clerk, Wilhelm Foldal, in his genteel poverty, comes the closest to having genuine human connections anyone in the piece—he’s worked to maintain a friendship with Borkman, for one thing, plus he has a wife and five children, for whom he genuinely seems to feel affection and pride. He’s also the only one not utterly consumed by the past. Where his own ambitions have come to nothing—both as clerk and as poet—he is happy to think that his daughter Frida (a gifted musician Mrs. Wilton has taken under her wing) will go on to fulfillment and success, with possibly a small portion of her talent inherited from him.
But even more than capitalism, the play is a critique of monstrous individualism, of valuing individual advancement or success above human connectedness. An act of placing ambition over human contact spawned all the play’s dysfunctional relationships. Borkman is all ambition, all pride; he sees his theoretical loved ones as only instrumental appendages of himself and his clients as even less than that. He actually says at one point that the only person really damaged by his crimes was himself—and when Gunhild says, what of your family, your wife and son, he replies that he naturally includes his wife and son as part of himself. He gave up Ella for professional advancement, essentially trying to prostitute her to a professional mentor. As a result, Ella renounced human emotion completely; the only person in the world she has any fondness for is Erhart, and that only as a consequence of another of Borkman’s failings, since he left his family destitute and his wife emotionally ruined as well. Gunhild has spent her entire life married to a man who not only failed to love her, but disgraced and bankrupted her; she too has been warped away from normal human emotions.
Yet despite the iciness of these characters, the power of the three lead actors and of James Macdonald’s direction makes us feel for them even as we recoil from some of their actions and choices. The contrast between Fiona Shaw’s Gunhild and Lindsay Duncan’s Ella is beautifully drawn—Shaw is constantly, epically aware of the ways she’s been betrayed time and time again by everyone around her except her son. She lashes out in reaction to blows that haven’t hit yet; her guard is permanently up but she’s incapable of seeing anything but pure transparency in Erhard. Duncan, on the other hand, is only over the course of the play learning the depths of the ways she’s been betrayed, and her despair sinks in deeper and deeper as the play goes on.
Borkman is an even harder challenge—a hard, proud man whose ruthlessness in his personal relations (in giving up Ella, but also in the present, in his willingness to dismiss the only friend he has when he no longer sees “use” for him) gives way to romantic illusions—delusions—about his own future prospects. Rickman finds the pathos in a man so tied to his ambitions that he speaks infinitely more passionately about mining than about love.
John Gabriel Borkman is often profoundly uncomfortable to watch; it’s hard to spend two-and-a-half hours with such shattered souls. The sisters’ rapprochement at the play’s end is one of its only vaguely redemptive moments, and a terribly sad one; it’s two people taking comfort from their shared desperation. But there is a stark beauty here as well, and the quality of the craft makes it always powerful, if not precisely enjoyable.