The New Century Theatres oppsetning av John Gabriel Borkman på Strand Theatre anmeldt av Clement Scott i The Daily Telegraph i London 4. mai 1897 (No. 13,098).
«JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN», AT THE STRAND THEATRE.
It was a relief to get out of the gloomy atmosphere of Ibsen, charged to the full with the Scandinavian spirit of sublimated selfishness, and moans and groans and wrecked lives and defiant egotism! It was a treat to leave a grim and darkened theatre and to meet healthy, cheery, buoyant life again in the Strand, where it was all bustle and activity, and boys were shouting about cricket and exhibiting placards and tempting one to the study of Abels score at the birth of the season. But the Ibsenites issuing forth in a mournful throng were not to be influenced by light or life, or air or nature. They could not forget the text of «John Gabriel Borkman,» which they had faithfully committed to memory. Said one subscriber to the New Century Theatre, «Its true that nothing new happens; but what has happened does not repeat itself either. Its the eye that transforms the action. (Breaking off.) But you dont understand this.» To which the Philistine replied, «No, I dont understand it.» Whereupon the disciple in true Ibsenite language permeated with egoism cut the conversation short with the curt remark, «Ah! thats just the curse. I have never found one single soul to understand me!»
The same remark is appropriate to the curious play under discussion. To it may be applied the stereotyped formula that «it reads far better than it acts.» In reading the play there are certain scenes that are stimulating and interesting. These same scenes when acted become trivial or commonplace, depressing or dull. The last of all, the union of the two sad women over the dead body of their selfish hero is tragedy illumined with poetry. It rings in the ears and haunts one like Little Eyolfs crutch. It is a sad antiphonal wail that the reader cannot get ouf of his ears.
«We twin sisters over him we both loved,
We two shadows over the dead man.»
But in the play as acted these illumined touches come like flash lights in such a dull morass of tedium that it requires actors of the greatest experience and tact to make them felt or to divorce them from ridicule. Luckily, those actors and actresses were present yesterday, and they certainly with heroic effort gave occasional life and colour to the very dullest and most deplorably monotonous of all the Ibsen plays yet seen in London.
Remember, we are not discussing «John Gabriel Borkman» as a study in literature; we make no comments on it as a book for the library or the bed-room fireside; we are not attempting to deny that it contains many a horrible truth and many a poem in prose. We are discussing it now as a stage play, as a work framed for and invented for the theatre, as a something that is to revolutionise our old-fashioned, obsolete, ridiculous, and conventional forms of dramatic art. As such we have no hesitation in saying that it is perfectly useless, perhaps the worst possible specimen of the masters theory, the greatest «swashing» blow to the disciples faith. It fails in that important essential which the drama, viewed in any light, imperatively demands contrast. A play is not a bad play because it contains one bad man or a dozen, one vile woman or twenty; it may be a very good play in which evil overwhelms good. But it must have contrast. Viewed as works of art, goody-goody or ultra-sentimental plays are as indefensible as plays of pure pessimism and mental as well as moral disease. But they cannot interest if they harp on one string and ring eternally the old tune. Contrast and variety they must have.
We do not suppose that Scandinavia is more prone to selfishness, or egotism, or defiant bluster than any other country on the face of the globe. And yet Dr. Ibsen would make us believe that it is. Human nature is seemingly obliterated in the land of the midnight sun. Let us take the characters in the play. John Gabriel Borkman, formerly managing director of a bank, caught red-handed in fraud, guilty of unjustifiable acts of peculation, sent to prison after having ruined the widow and orphan and beggared his own family, comes out of gaol to boast about his power, his ambition, his defiance of society, and prates about self and what he intended to do for his fellow-creatures and humanity with misery strewn before his very eyes. Pecksniff is a joke in moral obliquity and turpitude to the Danish banker. Next comes Mrs. Borkman, hard, cold, pitiless, unforgiving, unwomanly, and fiendish in most of her actions, but redeemed alone by her insane and animal love for her son, whom she would ruin and incarcerate and drive to desperation, killing the very «love life» in him as surely as the «love life» was slaughtered in her twin sister by the fraudulent and impudently defiant banker. She is a King Lear in petticoats. Then we have the maiden aunt who does not care how much her sisters heart bleeds, her twin sister, which makes matters worse, if she can only rob her of her whelp and cub. Wealth and power and the gift of charity are bestowed on Ella Rentheim in order that she may assert herself in a house which, as it stands, is a «hell upon earth,» and maunder over a wrecked life and a miserable existence. No one can have very much sympathy with the grey-haired maiden aunt, whose love and idolatry far more resemble vulgar revenge than any other feeling. The selfishness of Mrs. Fanny Wilton, who seduces the cub of the household, assumes a more arrogantly nasty tone. She has made up her mind to elope with the petted and passionate boy, and to provide him with a new mistress in case they do not get on together. The boys mother, with a malignant smile, asks the seductive Fanny a very plain question «Mrs. Wilton, do you think you are acting wisely in taking that girl with you?» Fanny is frankness itself. She returns the smile «half ironically, half seriously,» and thus delivers herself: «Men are so unstable, Mrs. Borkman; and women, too. When Erhart is done with me and I with him then it will be well for us both that he, poor fellow, should have someone to fall back upon.» But Mrs. Borkman is still unsatisfied, and asks, «But you yourself?» Whereupon the flippant lady in the ermine tippet and jelly-bag cap replies, «Oh! I shall know what to do, I assure you. Goodbye to you all.» So off she starts to inaugurate the ménage à trois. The selfishness of Erhart, when he cuts himself adrift from this hideous household, breaks his mothers heart, snubs his dying aunt, and ignores his fathers claim to any consideration, is as defiant as it is unjustifiable. Even the Ibsen audience, untrue to their faith and principles, applauded him to the echo. Here we had sympathy at last when Erhart shouted out, «I am young. I want to live for once in a way as well as other people. I want to live my own life. I dont want to work now, for I am young. Thats what I never realised before, but now the knowledge is tingling through every vein in my body. I will not work! I will live, live, live!» And the audience broke out into passionate approval, not knowing or feeling that Erhart was in reality the symbol of the «old play,» demanding to be heard once more in this desert of dreariness. Here we had commonsense and nature at last, and the first gleam of both in this dreary afternoon, save when poor old Foldal, the clerk, owned to writing plays, but acknowledged that the fact made no impression whatever on his family, and then proposed to read a five-act tragedy to the ex-convict, which proposal was rejected with the air of a Turveydrop. This was the only sign of selfishness in this mournful Ibsenite Tom Pinch. Selfishness did not even end with the maid who, aroused out of bed for an urgent mission, refused to go two steps without a covered sledge, and ended with attempting to turn poor John Gabriel and his dying Ella off their own amalgamated doorstep. It was certainly an object lesson in «self» all round.
Dull and depressing as the play was, it was superbly acted, notably by Miss Genevieve Ward and Mr. W. H. Vernon, who represented the ill-starred husband and wife, convict and enforced widow. They were both of special value in that they determined to act Ibsen to act him thoroughly according to their lights and experience. In later days these Ibsen plays have been taken in a monotonous sing-song fashion, and consistently treated to a kind of Danish Gregorian chant. It seemed imperative to bind them to a formula which required antiphonal chanting rather than acting. Miss Genevieve Ward broke down the tradition in five minutes. She began to act, not to sing, and she acted so remarkably well that she paralysed the Ibsen tradition of acting art, which is to be as morbid, mournful, and unnatural as possible. And on several occasions, notably at the close of the first act, Miss Ward forced the human stop with admirable effect. Never before in an Ibsen play has an actress asserted nature so much as this one did, when, falling on her knees after her whisper, «The wolf is whining again the sick wolf,» she said with really eloquent and natural grief: «Erhart, Erhart! be true to me. Oh, come home and help your mother! For I can bear this life no longer.» And again, at the close of the third act: «Let them go away from me both the one and the other! As far as far as ever they please! Erhart! dont leave me!» and once more at the close, in that one supremely pathetic line, «We twin sisters over him we both have loved.» Now, a trained Ibsenite actress would have slurred over all this and regarded natural expression as far too conventional. Not so Miss Genevieve Ward, who touched the true and human note. Mr. Vernon gave a masterly study of dogged obstinacy and sublime distrust of anyone or anything but himself and all in which he was concerned. The character of Ella Rentheim is one after the heart of Miss Elizabeth Robins; one that she has again and again played with effect and sincerity in other pieces. But this clever lady seemed ill and nervous and to be acting with a struggle. The two frivolous young people and what a relief they were! could not have been better played than they were by Mrs. Beerbohm Tree and Mr. Martin Harvey, who is coming rapidly to the front as a vigorous and passionate actor. Mr. James Welch, in a quaint character sketch, was better than ever, and what fault could possibly be found with Miss Dora Barton and Miss Marianne Caldwell? None whatever. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that the acting throughout was of its kind perfect. But, on the whole, good acting or not, the «Ibsen mission,» so far as the stage is concerned, remains precisely where it was before. Indeed, of our young and vigorous stage it may be said, in Ella Rentheims words, «Do you think a young man of Erharts age, full of health and spirits do you think hes going to sacrifice himself for such a thing as a mission?» We agree with Ella Rentheim and decidedly think not.