The Collected Works of Henrik Ibsen, Volume XI
JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN.
Translation and Introduction by William Archer.
The anecdotic history of _John Gabriel Borkman_ is even scantier than
that of _Little Eyolf_. It is true that two mentions of it occur in
Ibsen's letters, but they throw no light whatever upon its spiritual
antecedents. Writing to George Brandes from Christiania, on April
24, 1896, Ibsen says: "In your last letter you make the suggestion
that I should visit London. If I knew enough English, I might
perhaps go. But as I unfortunately do not, I must give up the idea
altogether. Besides, I am engaged in preparing for a big new work,
and I do not wish to put off the writing of it longer than necessary.
It might so easily happen that a roof-tile fell on my head before I
had 'found time to make the last verse.' And what then?" On October
3 of the same year, writing to the same correspondent, he again
alludes to his work as "a new long play, which must be completed as
soon as possible." It was, as a matter of fact, completed with very
little delay, for it appeared in Copenhagen on December 15, 1896.
The irresponsible gossip of the time made out that Bjornson
discerned in the play some personal allusions to himself; but this
Bjornson emphatically denied. I am not aware that any attempt has
been made to identify the original of the various characters. It need
scarcely be pointed out that in the sisters Gunhild and Ella we have
the pair of women, one strong and masterful, the other tender and
devoted, who run through so many of Ibsen's plays, from _The Feast at
Solhoug_ onwards - nay, even from _Catalina_. In my Introduction to
_The Lady from the Sea_ (p. xxii) it is pointed out that Ibsen had the
character of Foldal clearly in his mind when, in March 1880, he made
the first draft of that play. The character there appears as: "The
old married clerk. Has written a play in his youth which was only
once acted. Is for ever touching it up, and lives in the illusion
that it will be published and will make a great success. Takes no
steps, however, to bring this about. Nevertheless accounts himself
one of the 'literary' class. His wife and children believe blindly
in the play." By the time Foldal actually came to life, the faith
of his wife and children had sadly dwindled away.
There was scarcely a theatre in Scandinavia or Finland at which
_John Gabriel Borkman_ was not acted in the course of January 1897.
Helsingors led the way with performances both at the Swedish and the
Finnish Theatres on January 10. Christiania and Stockholm followed
on January 25, Copenhagen on January 31; and meanwhile the piece had
been presented at many provincial theatres as well. In Christiania,
Borkman, Gunhild, and Ella were played by Garmann, Fru Gundersen,
and Froken Reimers respectively; in Copenhagen, by Emil Pousen, Fru
Eckhardt, and Fru Hennings. In the course of 1897 it spread all over
Germany, beginning with Frankfort on Main, where, oddly enough,
it was somewhat maltreated by the Censorship. In London, an
organization calling itself the New Century Theatre presented _John
Gabriel Borkman_ at the Strand Theatre on the afternoon of May 3,
1897, with Mr. W. H. Vernon as Borkman, Miss Genevieve Ward as
Gunhild, Miss Elizabeth Robins as Ella Rentheim, Mr. Martin Harvey
as Erhart, Mr. James Welch as Foldal, and Mrs. Beerbohm Tree as Mrs.
Wilton. The first performance in America was given by the Criterion
Independent Theatre of New York on November 18, 1897, Mr. E. J. Henley
playing Borkman, Mr. John Blair Erhart, Miss Maude Banks Gunhild,
and Miss Ann Warrington Ella. For some reason, which I can only
conjecture to be the weakness of the the third act, the play seems
nowhere to have taken a very firm hold on the stage.
Dr. Brahm has drawn attention to the great similarity between the
theme of _John Gabriel Borkman_ and that of _Pillars of Society_.
"In both," he says, "we have a business man of great ability who is
guilty of a crime; in both this man is placed between two sisters;
and in both he renounces a marriage of inclination for the sake of
a marriage that shall further his business interests." The likeness
is undeniable; and yet how utterly unlike are the two plays! and how
immeasurably superior the later one! It may seem, on a superficial
view, that in _John Gabriel Borkman_ Ibsen has returned to prose and
the common earth after his excursion into poetry and the possibly
supernatural, if I may so call it, in _The Master Builder_ and
_Little Eyolf_. But this is a very superficial view indeed. We
have only to compare the whole invention of _John Gabriel Borkman_
with the invention of _Pillars of Society_, to realise the difference
between the poetry and the prose of drama. The quality of imagination
which conceived the story of the House of Bernick is utterly unlike
that which conceived the tragedy of the House of Borkman. The
difference is not greater between (say) _The Merchant of Venice_
and _King Lear_.
The technical feat which Ibsen here achieves of carrying through
without a single break the whole action of a four-act play has been
much commented on and admired. The imaginary time of the drama is
actually shorter than the real time of representation, since the poet
does not even leave intervals for the changing of the scenes. This
feat, however, is more curious than important. Nothing particular
is gained by such a literal observance of the unity of time. For
the rest, we feel definitely in _John Gabriel Borkman_ what we
already felt vaguely in _Little Eyolf_ - that the poet's technical
staying-power is beginning to fail him. We feel that the initial
design was larger and more detailed than the finished work. If the
last acts of _The Wild Duck_ and _Hedda Gabler_ be compared with the
last acts of _Little Eyolf_ and _Borkman_, it will be seen that in
the earlier plays it relaxes towards the close, to make room for pure
imagination and lyric beauty. The actual drama is over long before
the curtain falls on either play, and in the one case we have Rita
and Allmers, in the other Ella and Borkman, looking back over their
shattered lives and playing chorus to their own tragedy. For my
part, I set the highest value on these choral odes, these mournful
antiphones, in which the poet definitely triumphs over the mere
playwright. They seem to me noble and beautiful in themselves, and
as truly artistic, if not as theatrical, as any abrupter catastrophe
could be. But I am not quite sure that they are exactly the
conclusions the poet originally projected, and still less am I
satisfied that they are reached by precisely the paths which he at
first designed to pursue.
The traces of a change of scheme in _John Gabriel Borkman_ seem to me
almost unmistakable. The first two acts laid the foundation for a
larger and more complex superstructure than is ultimately erected.
Ibsen seems to have designed that Hinkel, the man who "betrayed"
Borkman in the past, should play some efficient part in the
alienation of Erhart from his family and home. Otherwise, why this
insistence on a "party" at the Hinkels', which is apparently to serve
as a sort of "send-off" for Erhart and Mrs. Wilton? It appears in
the third act that the "party" was imaginary. "Erhart and I were
the whole party," says Mrs. Wilton, "and little Frida, of course."
We might, then, suppose it to have been a mere blind to enable Erhart
to escape from home; but, in the first place, as Erhart does not live
at home, there is no need for any such pretext; in the second place,
it appears that the trio do actually go to the Hinkels' house (since
Mrs. Borkman's servant finds them there), and do actually make it their
starting-point. Erhart comes and goes with the utmost freedom in Mrs.
Wilton's own house; what possible reason can they have for not setting
out from there? No reason is shown or hinted. We cannot even imagine
that the Hinkels have been instrumental in bringing Erhart and Mrs.
Wilton together; it is expressly stated that Erhart made her
acquaintance and saw a great deal of her in town, before she moved out
to the country. The whole conception of the party at the Hinkels' is,
as it stands, mysterious and a little cumbersome. We are forced to
conclude, I think, that something more was at one time intended to
come of it, and that, when the poet abandoned the idea, he did not
think it worth while to remove the scaffolding. To this change of
plan, too, we may possibly trace what I take to be the one serious
flaw in the the play - the comparative weakness of the second half of
the third act. The scene of Erhart's rebellion against the claims
of the mother, aunt, and father strikes one as the symmetrical
working out of a problem rather than a passage of living drama.
All this means, of course, that there is a certain looseness of fibre
in _John Gabriel Borkman_ which we do not find in the best of Ibsen's
earlier works. But in point of intellectual power and poetic beauty
it yields to none of its predecessors. The conception of the three
leading figures is one of the great things of literature; the second
act, with the exquisite humour of the Foldal scene, and the dramatic
intensity of the encounter between Borkman and Ella, is perhaps the
finest single act Ibsen ever wrote, in prose at all events; and the
last scene is a thing of rare and exalted beauty. One could wish
that the poet's last words to us had been those haunting lines with
which Gunhild and Ella join hands over Borkman's body:
We twin sisters - over him we both have loved.
We two shadows - over the dead man.
Among many verbal difficulties which this play presents, the greatest,
perhaps, has been to find an equivalent for the word "opreisning,"
which occurs again and again in the first and second acts. No one
English word that I could discover would fit in all the different
contexts; so I have had to employ three: "redemption," "restoration,"
and in one place "rehabilitation." The reader may bear in mind that
these three terms represent one idea in the original.
Borkman in Act II. uses a very odd expression - "overskurkens moral,"
which I have rendered "the morals of the higher rascality." I cannot
but suspect (though for this I have no authority) that in the word
"overskurk," which might be represented in German by "Ueberschurke,"
Borkman is parodying the expression "Uebermensch," of which so much
has been heard of late. When I once suggested this to Ibsen, he
neither affirmed nor denied it. I understood him to say, however,
that in speaking of "overskurken" he had a particular man in view.
Somewhat pusillanimously, perhaps, I pursued my inquiries no further.
*Copyright, 1907, by Charles Scribner's Sons.
JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN (1896)
JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN, formerly Managing Director of a Bank.
MRS. GUNHILD BORKMAN, his wife.
ERHART BORKMAN, their son, a student.
MISS ELLA RENTHEIM, Mrs. Borkman's twin sister.
MRS. FANNY WILTON.
VILHELM FOLDAL, subordinate clerk in a Government office.
FRIDA FOLDAL, his daughter.
MRS. BORKMAN'S MAID.
The action passes one winter evening, at the Manorhouse of
the Rentheim family, in the neighbourhood of Christiania.
JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN
PLAY IN FOUR ACTS
MRS. BORKMAN's drawing-room, furnished with old-fashioned, faded
splendour. At the back, an open sliding-door leads into a
garden-room, with windows and a glass door. Through it a view
over the garden; twilight with driving snow. On the right,
a door leading from the hall. Further forward, a large
old-fashioned iron stove, with the fire lighted. On the left,
towards the back, a single smaller door. In front, on the
same side, a window, covered with thick curtains. Between
the window and the door a horsehair sofa, with a table in
front of it covered with a cloth. On the table, a lighted
lamp with a shade. Beside the stove a high-backed armchair.
MRS. GUNHILD BORKMAN sits on the sofa, crocheting. She is an
elderly lady, of cold, distinguished appearance, with stiff
carriage and immobile features. Her abundant hair is very
grey. Delicate transparent hands. Dressed in a gown of
heavy dark silk, which has originally been handsome, but
is now somewhat worn and shabby. A woollen shawl over her
She sits for a time erect and immovable at her crochet. Then the
bells of a passing sledge are heard.
[Listens; her eyes sparkle with gladness and she involuntarily
whispers]. Erhart! At last!
[She rises and draws the curtain a little aside to look out.
Appears disappointed, and sits down to her work again, on
the sofa. Presently THE MAID enters from the hall with a
visiting card on a small tray.
[Quickly.] Has Mr. Erhart come after all?
No, ma'am. But there's a lady - -
[Laying aside her crochet.] Oh, Mrs. Wilton, I suppose - -
[Approaching.] No, it's a strange lady - -
[Taking the card.] Let me see - - [Reads it; rises hastily and
looks intently at the girl.] Are you sure this is for me?
Yes, I understand it was for you, ma'am.
Did she say she wanted to see Mrs. Borkman?
Yes, she did.
[Shortly, resolutely.] Good. Then say I am at home.
[THE MAID opens the door for the strange lady and goes out.
MISS ELLA RENTHEIM enters. She resembles her sister; but
her face has rather a suffering than a hard expression.
It still shows signs of great beauty, combined with strong
character. She has a great deal of hair, which is drawn
back from the forehead in natural ripples, and is snow-white.
She is dressed in black velvet, with a hat and a fur-lined
cloak of the same material.
[The two sisters stand silent for a time, and look searchingly
at each other. Each is evidently waiting for the other to
[Who has remained near the door.] You are surprised to see me,
[Standing erect and immovable between the sofa and the table,
resting her finger-tips upon the cloth.] Have you not made a
mistake? The bailiff lives in the side wing, you know.
It is not the bailiff I want to see to-day.
Is it me you want, then?
Yes. I have a few words to say to you.
[Coming forward into the middle of the room.] Well - then
Thank you. I can quite well stand for the present.
Just as you please. But at least loosen your cloak.
[Unbuttoning her cloak.] Yes, it is very warm here.
I am always cold.
[Stands looking at her for a time with her arms resting on the
back of the armchair.] Well, Gunhild, it is nearly eight years
now since we saw each other last.
[Coldly.] Since last we spoke to each other at any rate.
True, since we spoke to each other. I daresay you have seen
me now and again - when I came on my yearly visit to the bailiff.
Once or twice, I have.
I have caught one or two glimpses of you, too - there, at the
You must have seen me through the curtains then. You have good
eyes. [Harshly and cuttingly.] But the last time we spoke to each
other - it was here in this room - -
[Trying to stop her.] Yes, yes; I know, Gunhild!
- the week before he - before he was let out.
[Moving towards the back.] O, don't speak about that.
[Firmly, but in a low voice.] It was the week before he - was
set at liberty.
[Coming down.] Oh yes, yes, yes! I shall never forget that
time! But it is too terrible to think of! Only to recall it
for the moment - oh!
[Gloomily.] And yet one's thoughts can never get away from it.
[Vehemently; clenching her hands together.] No, I can't understand
how such a thing - how anything so horrible can come upon one single
family! And then - that it should be our family! So old a family
as ours! Think of its choosing us out!
Oh, Gunhild - there were many, many families besides ours that
that blow fell upon.
Oh yes; but those others don't trouble me very much. For in
their case it was only a matter of a little money - or some papers.
But for us - - ! For me! And then for Erhart! My little boy - as
he then was! [In rising excitement.] The shame that fell upon
us two innocent ones! The dishonour! The hateful, terrible
dishonour! And then the utter ruin too!
[Cautiously.] Tell me, Gunhild, how does he bear it?
Erhart, do you mean?
No - he himself. How does he bear it?
[Scornfully.] Do you think I ever ask about that?
Ask? Surely you do not require to ask - -
[Looks at her in surprise.] You don't suppose I ever have
anything to do with him? That I ever meet him? That I see
anything of him?
Not even that!
[As before.] The man was in gaol, in gaol for five years!
[Covers her face with her hands.] Oh, the crushing shame of it!
[With increased vehemence.] And then to think of all that the
name of John Gabriel Borkman used to mean! No, no, no - I can
never see him again! Never!
[Looks at her for a while.] You have a hard heart, Gunhild.
Towards him, yes.
After all, he is your husband.
Did he not say in court that it was I who began his ruin? That
I spent money so recklessly?
[Tentatively.] But is there not some truth in that?
Why, it was he himself that made me do it! He insisted on our
living in such an absurdly lavish style - -
Yes, I know. But that is just where you should have restrained
him; and apparently you didn't.
How was I to know that it was not his own money he gave me to
squander? And that he himself used to squander, too - ten times
more than I did!
[Quietly.] Well, I daresay his position forced him to do that -
to some extent at any rate.
[Scornfully.] Yes, it was always the same story - we were to
"cut a figure." And he did "cut a figure" to some purpose! He
used to drive about with a four-in-hand as if he were a king.
And he had people bowing and scraping to him just as to a king.
[With a laugh.] And they always called him by his Christian
names - all the country over - as if he had been the king himself.
"John Gabriel," "John Gabriel," "John Gabriel." Every one knew
what a great man "John Gabriel" was!
[Warmly and emphatically.] He was a great man then.
Yes, to all appearance. But he never breathed a single word to
me as to his real position - never gave a hint as to where he got
his means from.
No, no; and other people did not dream of it either.
I don't care about the other people. But it was his duty to
tell me the truth. And that he never did! He kept on lying to
me - lying abominably - -
[Interrupting.] Surely not, Gunhild. He kept things back
perhaps, but I am sure he did not lie.
Well, well; call it what you please; it makes no difference.
And then it all fell to pieces - the whole thing.
[To herself.] Yes, everything fell to pieces - for him - and
[Drawing herself up menacingly.] But I tell you this, Ella,
I do not give in yet! I shall redeem myself yet - you may make
up your mind to that!
[Eagerly.] Redeem yourself! What do you mean by that?
Redeem my name, and honour, and fortune! Redeem my ruined life -
that is what I mean! I have some one in reserve, let me tell you -
one who will wash away every stain that he has left.
[With rising excitement.] There is an avenger living, I tell
you! One who will make up to me for all his father's sins!
Erhart you mean.
Yes, Erhart, my own boy! He will redeem the family, the house,
the name. All that can be redeemed. - And perhaps more besides.
And how do you think that is to be done?
It must be done as best it can; I don't know how. But I know
that it must and shall be done. [Looks searchingly at her.] Come
now, Ella; isn't that really what you have had in mind too, ever
since he was a child?
No, I can't exactly say that.
No? Then why did you take charge of him when the storm broke
upon - upon this house?
You could not look after him yourself at that time, Gunhild.
No, no, I could not. And his father - he had a valid enough
excuse - while he was there - in safe keeping - -
[Indignant.] Oh, how can you say such things! - You!
[With a venomous expression.] And how could you make up your
mind to take charge of the child of a - a John Gabriel! Just as
if he had been your own? To take the child away from me - home
with you - and keep him there year after year, until the boy was
nearly grown up. [Looking suspiciously at her.] What was your
real reason, Ella? Why did you keep him with you?
I came to love him so dearly - -
More than I - his mother?
[Evasively.] I don't know about that. And then, you know,
Erhart was rather delicate as a child - -
Erhart - delicate!
Yes, I thought so - at that time at any rate. And you know the
air of the west coast is so much milder than here.
[Smiling bitterly.] H'm - is it indeed? [Breaking off.] Yes,
it is true you have done a great deal for Erhart. [With a change
of tone.] Well, of course, you could afford it. [Smiling.] You
were so lucky, Ella; you managed to save all your money.
[Hurt.] I did not manage anything about it, I assure you. I
had no idea - until long, long afterwards - that the securities
belonging to me - that they had been left untouched.
Well, well; I don't understand anything about these things! I
only say you were lucky. [Looking inquiringly at her.] But when
you, of your own accord, undertook to educate Erhart for me - what
was your motive in that?
[Looking at her.] My motive?
Yes, some motive you must have had. What did you want to do
with him? To make of him, I mean?
[Slowly.] I wanted to smooth the way for Erhart to happiness
[Contemptuously.] Pooh - people situated as we are have something
else than happiness to think of.
[Looking steadily and earnestly at her.] Erhart has in the first
place to make so brilliant a position for himself, that no trace
shall be left of the shadow his father has cast upon my name - and
[Searchingly.] Tell me, Gunhild, is this what Erhart himself
demands of his life?
[Slightly taken aback.] Yes, I should hope so!
Is it not rather what you demand of him?
[Curtly.] Erhart and I always make the same demands upon
[Sadly and slowly.] You are so very certain of your boy, then,
[With veiled triumph.] Yes, that I am - thank Heaven. You may
be sure of that!
Then I should think in reality you must be happy after all; in
spite of all the rest.
So I am - so far as that goes. But then, every moment, all the
rest comes rushing in upon me like a storm.
[With a change of tone.] Tell me - you may as well tell me at
once - for that is really what I have come for - -
Something I felt I must talk to you about. - Tell me - Erhart does