“John Gabriel Borkman” by Henrik Ibsen

*** SPOILER WARNING: The following post inevitably reveals some of the plot details of this play, and so, if such things are important to you (they needn’t be), it is possibly best not to read this post till you’ve read or seen the play for yourself.  

All quoted passages are taken from the translation by Barbara Haveland and Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife, published by Penguin Classics

I am talking about the crime for which there is no forgiveness.

The set-up is fairly straight-forward. John Gabriel Borkman had once been an important man – a banker. But he had been caught embezzling, and, after three years in custody awaiting trial, had been found guilty, and had served another five years in prison. The action of the play takes place eight years after his release, and those eight years Borkman has spent again imprisoned, this time voluntarily: he has shut himself up in his room upstairs, endlessly pacing up and down, “like a sick wolf” as his wife puts it, never daring even to leave the house, but obsessing over how he will yet achieve the greatness he thinks he had been close to achieving those sixteen years ago.

Under the same roof, though never seeing him, lives his wife, Gunhild. Unlike Borkman, who is a miner’s son, she is from a privileged, land-owning family; and she too, like her husband, is obsessed: she is obsessed with clearing the family name, and restoring the family honour; and she is determined that it is their son, Erhart, now a young man in his early twenties, who will achieve this. It is he who will eventually redeem them by paying back all the creditors, and thus laying the matter to rest for ever. Not that she cares for the creditors: as with her husband, but for different reasons, those who have lost their livelihoods all those years ago barely enter her mind at all: what matters to her is her family name, and, more importantly (though she doesn’t openly acknowledge this), the hurt she has received from her husband.

The hurt is not merely to her family pride: it is to her personal pride also. She had loved her husband, but that love had not been returned: John Gabriel Borkman’s mind had been elsewhere. It had been obsessed, then, as now, with power – the power that, in the secular world in which they live, can come only with industry and with commerce. It is for the sake of this power that Borkman had renounced love: he had, as a young man, loved Ella, Gunhild’s twin sister, but had married Gunhild instead, for no other reason than better to pursue his dream of power. Yet, some compunction had prevented his using Ella’s money in his fraudulent schemes: she had survived the financial turmoil that Borkman’s embezzlement had occasioned, and it is her house, unaffected by the financial collapse of Borkman’s bank, in which the Borkmans now live – under the same roof, but never setting eyes on each other, year after year.

And it was Ella who, when the scandal had broken, had looked after her nephew Erhart. And now, she knows she is dying, and she wants her nephew, whom she regards as her own son, to carry on her name. But his biological mother, endlessly brooding on her hurts, and fixated on the idea of the next generation making restitution for the sins of the past, cannot allow this. So now, the twin sisters fight each other over the son, just as they had once fought over the father.

All this brings in various familiar themes – corruption in public life and betrayal in the private, the relationships between the generations, the imposition of duty upon the spontaneous joy of life, the dreams and illusions that sustain us, the renunciation of love for power, and so on. And all this promises a realistic, drawing room bourgeois drama – admittedly a turbulent one, but, nonetheless, of the kind that Ibsen is still, rather unfairly, associated with.

But this is not the play Ibsen gives us. Not by a long shot.

But what he gives us isn’t easy to describe, as not only is it unlike any other play I know of, it is also, despite certain recurrent themes, unlike any of Ibsen’s other plays either. Over these twelve plays beginning with The Pillars of Community, Ibsen had been moving way from what may be termed “realism” – that is, depictions of characters of the kind we may expect to encounter in real life, thinking and behaving in a manner that does not stretch credulity in everyday settings. In this play, he seems to take such a drastic step further away from realism, that one wonders whether, despite the realistic trappings, we should be considering it in such terms at all. The three principal characters – Gunhild, Ella, and John Gabriel – seem poised in some mysterious region between life and death: Ella knows she is dying, and, at the end, John Gabriel actually does die, but, whether they know it or not, there is no future for any of them, and the hopes they harbour about the future are, of necessity, delusional.

And these characters are much simpler, too – just as the characters in the late Shakespeare plays are simpler than their predecessors: Leontes is not as complex a character as Othello, nor Iachimo as complex as Iago, nor Miranda as complex as Ophelia; similarly, John Gabriel is not as complex as Master Builder Solness, nor Gunhild as complex as Hedda Gabler. What you see on the surface is more or less what there is: this is not a play that looks into the depths of the characters, primarily because those depths don’t really exist.

Also noticeably absent is imagery. No place here for anything like the phantom white horses of Rosmersholm, the towers of The Master Builder, or those water lilies in Little Eyolf that germinate in the depths, and then shoot suddenly to the surface. The room in which the play opens is hot and stuffy, and there is a blizzard blowing outside, and these, I suppose, could be seen as symbols, but they are quite straight-forward, and lack the resonance to be the stuff of dramatic poetry. The hot room and the snowstorm outside are introduced not to communicate those obscure matters that cannot be communicated by other means, but merely as representations of two different states of mind. Here, the characters speak directly: what they say is precisely what they mean, and we do not need to look for symbols in their words.

The handling of time is also different. Typically, an Ibsen play gives us selected scenes, as it were, with a gap of time between successive scenes (the number of these scenes determined by the number of acts in the play). Here, although there are four acts, there is no temporal gap between them – so that Act Two begins at the very point where Act One ended, Act Three at the precise point where Act Two ended, and so on. The action of the play takes up exactly the same two hours or so it takes us to watch it. This pushes the very idea of time itself into the foreground, and injects into the play a tremendous urgency: time is running out fast for all three of these characters, and, at  the edge of the grave, perhaps already in some mysterious region between life and death, there is no scope, no time, for indirectness: these characters say what they feel, what they think, without any periphrasis, any subterfuge, and with a directness that is almost brutal.

Passions are high, right from the start. The stage directions accompanying the various speeches, especially those of Gunhild, leave us in no doubt: “animated”, “tense”, “with mounting excitement”, “flares up”, and so on. Of course, acting styles have changed since then, and modern audiences probably prefer understatement, but however the actors convey this, there is clearly much passion here, and it’s not hidden.

These three characters meet for the first time after sixteen years. Gunhild and John Gabriel live in the same house, but she sits downstairs, brooding, while he paces up and down upstairs, similarly brooding (though on different matters), and never daring to leave the house. Gunhild says that sometimes she hears him come down to the hall, put on his hat and coat, but take them off and go back upstairs again. They have never spoken to each other for sixteen years – not since his embezzlement had been discovered and he was taken into custody.

Into this environment comes Gunhild’s twin sister, Ella Rentheim. Although she owns the house in which Gunhild and John Gabriel live, she herself does not live there. We discover over the course of the play why she has decided after all this time to meet her sister again: she knows she is dying, and, terrified of leaving nothing behind her, wishes her nephew to take her name. The other two, however, don’t know they’re dying: they are too wrapped in their own obsessions, and both are obsessively planning for a future that doesn’t exist.

But Ella Rentheim is right to be terrified. The death these characters face is cold and blank: there is nothing beyond it. Despite the various religious references throughout the play – not least the middle name of the titular character, that seems to speak of a power and a glory that isn’t really visible – there is no mention, nor even a hint, of a divinity. These characters may all long for something that is greater than themselves – Gunhild for her lost reputation and her pride in her self, Ella for something of her own that she may leave behind, John Gabriel for a power and a glory that was nearly his – but in each case, what they long for is of this world,  a worldfrom which they are already in the process of departing. Any hope for a future is illusory: all they have to fall back on is the past.

And they all speak of that past openly, frankly, almost as if past caring what hurt they cause in speaking of it. Neither Gunhild nor John Gabriel care about those who have lost their livelihoods. In the first act, when we hear (but don’t see) John Gabriel pacing up and down his room upstairs, “like a sick wolf”, Gunhild and Ella don’t spare each other in their recollections of the past. And in the second act, when Ella goes up to see John Gabriel, he too speaks coldly about the past, in particular about why he had sacrificed Ella whom he, as a young man, had once loved: he had his own dreams, dreams of earthly power and earthly glory, and, to achieve this, he had needed the goodwill of the lawyer Hinkel, who had also loved Ella. And so, he sacrificed his own love: he had married Ella’s sister, and had left Ella for Hinkel. And he can say all this coldly to Ella now, without the slightest pang of remorse:

ELLA RENTHEIM: But you did have what was most precious on board. Your future life –

BORKMAN: Life isn’t always what is most precious.

Borkman had been aspiring to something that was, for him, more precious even than life itself. Traditionally, that takes us into the realms of religion, but the world presented here is godless. But how can one find something even more precious than life itself in a godless world? And what does one sacrifice to achieve this? John Gabriel Borkman had sacrificed Ella, without a thought, and now, years later, He can tell her this without any remorse. Ella’s response is deeply religious:

ELLA RENTHEIM:  … at the time, I didn’t know about your great, horrific crime.

BORKMAN: What crime? What are you talking about?

ELLA RENTHEIM: I’m talking about the crime for which there is no forgiveness.

Ella goes on to explain what she means by this:

You have killed the vital capacity for love in me.

 The word used in the original, the notes of my Penguin edition tell me, is “kærlighedslivet”, a compound word joining together the words meaning “love” and “life”. Michael Meyer (Methuen) translates that line simply as “You have killed love in me”. I’d guess the Penguin translation by Haveland and Stanton-Ife possibly gets closer to what Ibsen had intended, but it is at the expense of succinctness. The meaning, I think, is fairly clear: there is no symbol or poetic imagery here to decipher. John Gabriel Borkman has destroyed in Ella the ability to love; he has compelled her to live a loveless life; and for that crime, there is no forgiveness.

The reference here is to a somewhat enigmatic verse in the Bible:

Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men; but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men.

– Gospel According to Matthew 12:31

Even a charge such as this, made so directly, appears to make no impact at all upon John Gabriel. He is in grip of something that is, to him, even more powerful.

When we first see him, at the start of Act Two, a young local girl, Frida, is playing the piano to him – the Danse Macabre by Saint-Saëns. The exchange that follows – more monologue than exchange, really, since Frida does not really understand what he says, and nor does it matter to him whether she does or not – is, to put it mildly, strange:

BORKMAN: Can you guess where I hear notes like this, Miss Foldal?

FRIDA [ looks up at him]: No, Mr Borkman?

BORKMAN: It was down in the mines.

FRIDA [ does not understand]: Really? In the mines?

BORKMAN: I’m a miner’s son, as you probably know. Or perhaps you didn’t?

FRIDA: No, Mr Borkman.

BORKMAN: A miner’s son. And my father sometimes took me down the mines with him – . Down where the metal ore sings.

FRIDA: Oh, does it – sing?

BORKMAN [nods]: As it’s being loosened. The hammer strokes that loosen it are the chimes of midnight; they strike, and set it free. That’s why the ore sings – it sings with joy – in its own way.

FRIDA: why does it do that, Mr Borkman?

BORKMAN: It wants to come up to the light of day, and serve people.

Borkman’s vision of the ores under the ground longing to come up to “serve people” seems almost religious in its fervour, and, in the absence of a God, somewhat demented. But, given that absence, what can that religious fervour be directed towards? Borkman speaks of “serving the people”, and yet he never once shows any feeling or understanding of people, of their needs or their desires. The people he himself has ruined with his embezzlement he is happy to dismiss as insignificant. There is a fervour there all right, but directed towards what? The play doesn’t answer this, but it’s hard to resist the obvious answer that it is power. This is the dream that animates Borkman – the power and the glory, associated with Gabriel, but of distinctly an earthly, workmanlike variety. This is what he had sacrificed Ella to, and what he later cold-bloodedly tells Ella is more precious than life itself.

This renunciation of love for power, and this desire to master the elements of the earth with the aim of obtaining this power, bring to mind what many may regard as the single most powerful work of art of the 19th century – Wagner’s mighty Ring Cycle.  Ibsen was in nearby Munich when these operas were first performed in Bayreuth, but, despite being urged by his compatriot Edvard Grieg, he did not go to see them: he was not particularly musical, and the thought of sitting so many hours through these works put him off. No doubt he would have heard about the Ring, but it seems to me unlikely that this would have had any significant influence on him: we shouldn’t, after all, be surprised when major artists living in the same era hit upon similar themes. It is more fruitful, I think, to look for connections in Ibsen’s own earlier work.

As a young man of twenty-three, Ibsen had written a poem on precisely this theme:

Deep in the mountain’s desolate night
The rich treasure beckons me.
Diamonds and precious stones
Among the red branches of gold.

And in the darkness there is peace.
Peace and rest for eternity.
Heavy hammer, break me the way
To the heart-chamber of what lies hidden there…

[From the translation by Michael Meyer]

In The Pillars of Society, written some twenty years earlier, and the first in the series of twelve plays of what may be termed a cycle, Bernick too had dreamed of mastering the elements of the earth:


Imagine what a powerful lever [the railway will] represent for our entire community. Think of the enormous tracts of forest that’ll be made accessible; think of rich seams of ore that can be worked; think of the river with one waterfall after the other. Just imagine all the industry that can be established there.

[Translated by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik]

And Bernick too had considered himself above the law to achieve his ends. But he lacked the quasi-mystical fervour of Borkman.

More recently, there was Master Builder Solness, who had also come from humble origins and had worked his way up, and who had also ruthlessly used those around him to gain his worldly success. He is in many ways a close match to Borkman. He too speaks of serving people (or, at least, of building houses “for people to live in”) but shows little concern for people in any other aspect of his life. Both Solness and Borkman have a self-regard that is at times blasphemous: both say of themselves, as the voice of God had said to Moses out of the burning bush, “I am what I am”.

But of course, this man who “is what he is” is also a man afraid to leave his own house. The dreams and visions that sustain him are merely rather pathetic comfort blankets. He is flattered in this by Frida’s father, a rather pathetic little man, Villem Foldal. Foldal too has his life-sustaining illusion: he is, both at home and outside, a downtrodden little man, but he had written once a tragic drama, and he is convinced that, one day, the greatness of this drama will be recognised. He had been one of those insignificant little men who had been ruined by Borkman’s fraud, but he comes to Borkman regularly, both to assure and to be assured: he assures Borkman that his dream of once again attaining power isn’t really dead; and Borkman, in turn, keeps alive Foldal’s own dream of some day being recognised as a poet. A comic pair, perhaps more suited for a play by Molière than one of Ibsen’s darkest tragedies. But their mutually supporting relationship cannot last: Foldal is injudicious enough to bring up the rather unpleasant truth that Borkman cannot have access to the financial world again given his conviction, and Borkman, stung by the ray of reality breaking in upon him, bluntly tells Foldal that he is no poet. After all, how can someone who does not recognise the poetic beauty of Borkman’s dreams be a poet? And this Molièresque scene of comedy ends, as Molière’ own scenes often do, on a surprisingly poignant note. But despite the break, both Foldal and Borkman cling on to their respective illusions.

There is one further element to the play: youth – those characters who, unlike the principal characters of this drama, do have a future. There Frida, the 15 year-old who comes over to play the piano for John Gabriel; there’s Fanny Wilton, a beautiful young lady (in her early 30s, we are told) who presents herself as widowed, but who is most likely divorced (divorce carried a huge social stigma in those days); and, of course, there’s Erhart himself, from whom so much is expected. Once again, compared to characters in Ibsen’s earlier works, these are simple characters: there is not much more to them than what one sees on the surface. What unites them – at least, the two older ones – is simply a desire, as Erhart puts it, to “live, live, live”. And there are no metaphysical complexities involved in what they mean by this: they mean the pleasure of the moment.

Fanny Wilton is an outgoing and assertive personality: it was her former husband, and not herself, who had been unfaithful, and in those days, it must have required a quite uncommonly self-assertive character in a woman to seek divorce and to accept the social stigma that went with it. It is she who decides to travel south, towards the sun (and there is an obvious symbolism here in the comparison between the sun she goes to, and the snowstorm she leaves behind). She takes with her the others of this league of youth – Erhart and Frida, in the sleigh-carriage with its tinkling bells.

The image of Youth simply walking away from the failures and unhealthy obsessions of their elders is an attractive one, but it’s not quite so straight-forward as it may seem. Fanny Wilton’s unashamed explanation for taking the 15-year-old Frida with them can, even now, or, perhaps, especially now, seem rather shocking:

Men are so fickle, Mrs Borkman. Women too. When Erhart has finished with me – and I with him – it would be good for both of us if, poor thing, he has someone to fall back on.

There is nothing moral about the rebellion of Youth. The duties and the responsibilities the older generation expect from Erhart are almost casually discarded, and the rebellion is not intellectual or philosophical in any sense. Erhart and Fanny Wilton are not even going off together because they love each other: they are going away with each other for no other reason than that they want sex – sex in the southern sun. It really is that simple.

But the departure of Youth for the southern sun is not where the play ends. We have one further act, in which are left behind not merely the dying, but, one suspects, those who are already dead. And the blizzard that has been raging outside till now comes now to the forefront: we now leave that over-heated house, and find ourselves right in the cold blankness of the snow. If we had suspected that the previous three acts weren’t quite taking place in the real world, we can have no doubts about it now. We are now in an imaginary world, a visionary world, not perhaps quite in the realms of death, but not quite in the land of the living either.

And the three protagonists in this drama go into death without any new understanding of themselves, without any conciliation with the past. Borkman finally leaves his house, and he and Ella, though as yet unreconciled, and the crime for which there is no forgiveness still unforgiven, tramp off together into the snow. But first, we are reminded of another corpse left behind: Villem Foldal, the downtrodden man who thinks himself a poet.

And in a sense, though not in the sense he had thought, he is a poet. He has been knocked down by a sleigh, has lost his spectacles, and has hurt his foot: he is more absurd and insignificant and downtrodden than ever. But when he hears that this carriage that has knocked him down had in it his own daughter, who is heading for the sun, far from being anguished, he is overjoyed. One cannot help feeling that this strange joy is the only pure ray of sunlight in the entire play: he is happy – happy that his daughter may find something of a joy that it has never been his privilege to have had. And this holy simpleton leaves the stage in a state of happiness that we fear none of the other characters in the play have ever known, or ever will know.

Certainly not the three remaining corpses. The one hope that Gunhild had nursed for some sixteen years now is shattered: her son Erhart was never the person to carry on his shoulders that great burden she had wanted to place on them, and she is in despair. Ella too now realises that, with Erhart’s departure, there will be nothing left of her; and she accepts this final defeat with grace. But as for Borkman, defeat is something he cannot even contemplate: this time, he finally plucks up the courage to come outside his house, though as deeply immersed as ever in his illusions.

Borkman and Ella together walk up through the snow, to a bench over a view of the world below: this was a place they used to come to in their younger days, but where we might expect this circumstance to awaken in Borkman’s mind the more tender feelings he once had for Ella, we see him enmired still in his dream of power. Dead men cannot develop, after all, and Borkman is already dead. And he intones what is in effect a hymn to the power and the glory he had dreamed of:

BORKMAN: Ella, can you see the mountain ranges there – far away? One behind the other. They rise. They tower up! There lies my vast, infinite, inexhaustible kingdom!

ELLA: Oh, but there’s an icy blast coming from that kingdom, John!

BORKMAN: That blast is like the breath of life to me. That blast comes over me like a greeting from my spirit subjects. I sense them, the trapped millions; I feel the veins of metal ore stretching out their arms to me, branching, beckoning, coaxing. That night when I stood in the bank vault holding the lantern in my hand, I saw them before me like shadows come to life. You all wanted to be liberated then. And I tried to do it. But I lacked the power. The treasure sank back into the depths. [with outstretched hands] But I will whisper to this in the still of the night: I love you, as you lie there in the deep of the darkness with the look of death! I love you, life-craving riches – I love you, and all your blazing retinue of power and glory! I love, love, love you!

It is in this state of religious ecstasy that Borkman dies. He gives his life to that which, to him, is more precious than life itself. At the very end, he feels a cold hand grasp his heart. Not a hand of ice, but a hand of iron. He sacrifices himself to the gods whom he had loved. And at the end, the two women, the twin sisters, themselves dead, hold hands over the dead man.

***

The late plays of Ibsen are notoriously obscure, and it is hard to know just how to interpret this. Given Borkman’s transcendent longing for power, he has been linked, naturally enough, to Nietzsche, and this play has been seen both as a Nietzschean play, and also as a play critical of Nietzschean ideas. I don’t know that either will do: these plays weren’t written, after all, to demonstrate any specific or even any general point. Rather, I see it as a bleak and ferocious and unforgiving winter landscape, a depiction – as Ibsen himself put it – of “the coldness of the heart”. It is a world balanced between life and death: often, especially in the final act, we feel as if we are already in the icy realms of Death, an icy and unforgiving region into which we carry, unrepentant, all the coldness and delusions that have lived with, all our crimes unatoned. And, especially, that crime for which there is no forgiveness, which, as Ibsen interprets it, is the murder of love within our beings.

Perhaps only a Holy Fool like Villem Foldal may escape.

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