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The Demons of John Gabriel Borkman Brian Johnston Theatre is the art of apparitions. The curtain rises and sud­ denly the presences manifest themselves. Their appearance is their whole life. The actor, waiting in the wings, is a wholly different creature from the character who enters onstage. The great dramatist is the artist who most boldly and effectively presents us with memorable and forceful apparitions which then take on life by feeding off of our captive imaginations: a form of transfusion takes place in which we “enter into” the Active characters and endow them with substantial life while they in turn take possession of us. In Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman this “vampyric” relation exists not just between the Active characters and the audience but also between the Active characters and their world. The elder trio, Borkman, Gunhild, and Ella Rentheim, all are Aguratively dead and have been discarded by the world: but they seek to live once again in the world, to take possession of it by taking possession of the will of the young man, Erhart Bork­ man. He is to ensure their continuation in life. As Gunhild proclaims: Erhart has an obligation, before all else, to achieve a brilliance [aa lyse saa hoyt] of such height and scope that not one per­ son in this country will still recall die shadow his father cast over me—and over my son.l Ella, who wishes to “open a path for Erhart to be happy here on earth,” nevertheless demands that the young man take on her name—Rentheim—and so perpetuate her existence be­ yond her imminent death. Even Borkman, the most self-suffi­ cient of the trio, wffl urge Erhart to join him and help him “win this new life.” For Gunhild, Erhart’s “mission” is the “oppreisning” of the Borkman name and honor. Oppreisning implies not only resti17 18 Comparative Drama tution but also resurrection and the idea of Erhart resurrecting a dead and discredited world, and, by his brilliant light dispel­ ling the darkness, recalls the Scandinavian myth of the resur­ rection of the destroyed northern world by the young god Baldr, a regeneration of the world free from the guilt of the older gods. Silence and sound are telling metaphors in the play. The superbly uncanny sound of Borkman pacing up and down in his room overhead, which the audience is made to hear, then forget, suddenly to be startled into awareness of its significance when Gunhild explains its origin, is itself a nch blend of sound and silence: GUNHILD Always hearing his footsteps up there. From early morning till far into the night. And so loud, as if they were in this room. ELLA Yes, it’s strange how the sound carries. GUNHILD Often I have the feeling that I have a sick wolf pacing his cage up in the salon. Right over my head. (Listens, then whispers) Hear that, Ella! Listen! Back and forth—back and forth, the wolf pacing. The wolf is one of the identities, or manifestations, of the god Odin, and the manner in which Ibsen introduces this identity in this passage causes the audience to “register” it with maximum force. In the silence of winter sound does seem to become more clear and to carry further, and Gunhild’s whispered injunction to Ella to listen makes the hearing of the audience, too, more thrillingly acute. Act I opens with the metallic sound of sleigh bells and closes with the swelling sound of the piano hammers striking the metallic strings. Deep within Borkman’s imagina­ tion, we will learn, is the sound of a ghostly hammer striking at and releasing the metal ores within the mines, a sound that punctuates the silence of his lonely exile. In the last Act, just before he dies, Borkman not only sees his ghostly kingdom but hears the thousands of hammers and machines creating a new world out of metal. The “apparitional” quality of the play is enhanced by a pattern of startling entrances and exits repeated in each Act. The play opens with Ella’s unprecedented entrance into Gunhild’s living room and she as dramatically exits from it, to appear, for...


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pp. 17-32
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