Monday, January 10, 2011

John Gabriel Borkman

One could have joked that there was some sort of structural damage to BAM’s Harvey Theater, and that the damage became the set for the Abbey Theater’s production of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman. The snow and ice that New Yorkers have seen quite a bit of lately was as ubiquitous on the stage as it was outside, particularly in Brooklyn. Blinding snow is indeed a fitting image for the agon that is described between the title character (Alan Rickman), who excuses the financial transactions that have destroyed so many lives by saying that he wanted to achieve the power to make other people happy, and the universe. Borkman, according to the woman he has thrown off, Ella Rentheim (Lindsay Duncan), is guilty of another crime, “the murder of love in a human being,” in that he has sacrificed her love, given her up for the sake of his ambition. The play begins with Borkman’s wife Gunhilde (Fiona Shaw) saying, “People like us have no time for happiness.” And happiness becomes the lingua franca of the play. When Borkman’s son Erhart (Marty Rea) brings it up as the goal to which he aspires, his mother mockingly asks him where he thinks he will find this so called happiness (the burden of parental wishes is yet another theme of the play). And what is the relationship of happiness to aspiration? In late Ibsen plays, imagination is always juxtaposed to reality. In The Master Builder, Solness’s muse Hilda pushes him to make “castles in the sky.” Isn’t the imperfect nature of reality always at odds with the perfect world that the imagination creates? The start of John Gabriel Borkman presents a compelling metaphor: imagination held prisoner. Borkman, convicted of his crimes, sentenced and now released and in exile in his own home, walks back and forth in his room as the clock ticks. Ibsen introduces us to his character through the sound of his footsteps. Ibsen’s characters could be artists or dictators in the monomaniacal way they subsume humanity to ideas. Both Strindberg and Ibsen influenced Bergman, and one is reminded of the harrowing picture of the artist in Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly, sacrificing the sanity of his abandoned children to his ambition for greatness. 

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