A London Summer with Huntley Dent / Theater

Ibsen’s Emperor and Galilean at the National Theatre

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The National Theatre's production of Henrik Ibsen's Emperor and Galilean. Photo: Catherine Ashmore.

Emperor and Galilean
by Henrik Ibsen

Directed by Jonathan Kent
National Theatre, London

Peter – John Heffernan
Agathon – James McArdle
Maximus – Ian McDiarmid
Julian – Andrew Scott
Constantius – Nabil Shaban

Grand mal Caesar. As an example of a mountain bringing forth a mouse, nothing is more perfect than reviewing an exhaustingly long, exhaustively serious drama. When the reader hears that the subject is the foibles of organized religion, the boat has sunk before the first torpedo is fired. Nevertheless.

Finding a “new” play by Henrik Ibsen sounds like a dubious coup, since the great ones, starting with A Doll’s House (1879), and even the obscure ones, ending with When We Dead Awaken (1899), have long ago been mined for meaning. In the case of his CinemaScope history play, Emperor and Galilean, new means unknown in English. Originally there were two parts, each four hours long, devoted to the spiritual struggles of Julian the Apostate, the last non-Christian Roman emperor, who flamed out after only three years (360-63 A.D.) and is remembered — or reviled if you are a devout Christian — for his bloody-minded campaign to return the empire to the old pagan gods. Along the way, as portrayed in this play, he scoured the faithful, burned churches, rebuilt ruined temples to Helios the sun god, and finally named himself the only God, a one-man pantheon. Ibsen toiled on his double-play for four years, beginning in 1869, and wrote letters to say that he considered it his major work as well as his most autobiographical.

Henrik Ibsen.

Photos of the bewhiskered playwright balancing spectacles on his nose give little hint that he could be impersonated by a depraved Caesar, no matter what he did with his Sundays. But historical accuracy was secondary to Ibsen. The real Julian was a man well worth admiring, described as “the military commander, the theosophist, the social reformer, and the man of letters.” He died at the age of 31, well on his way to becoming “the second Alexander” until he was fatally wounded in battle against the Persians. Ibsen’s primary reason for exploiting such a complex figure was to comment on the world of the nineteenth century, which was shifting under his feet, and everyone else’s, as religion attempted to survive the fatal blow delivered by Darwin, who shattered the notion of a perfect, immutable Creation ruled by a perfect, immutable God. The curtain rises on Julian as a young prince held captive in the rotted, perfumed luxury of the Emperor Constantius’s  court, trying vainly to find the light of the world — Jesus — in his own heart.

Knowing that what lies ahead smacks more of a debating society than Harry Potter and the Edict of Nantes, director Jonathan Kent has enjoined the special effects team to loose Jove’s thunderbolts, along with battle scenes, legions on the march, exploding churches, a pagan abattoir, windswept cliffs, the Acropolis, a desert plain before the walls of Babylon, and the like, signifying the cavalcade of exploits that carry Julian around the ancient world as he climbs the ladder of destiny to become Emperor. Every step of the way he wages war within himself between Christianity, portrayed as a religion of thou-shalt-not (i.e. Lutheranism in togas) and an ideal existence based on pure light, every manacle shattered, every door to freedom flung wide open.

Ben Power has done an exemplary job at reducing the play to three and a half hours in his new English adaptation, and the revolving stage at the Olivier has never performed so many dizzying tricks flinging us around the ancient world. The casting of Julian was always problematic, since the character begins as a nineteen-year-old full of fervent hopes and ends as a wounded, writhing madman fifteen years later. Andrew Scott, who seemed slight and shrill at first, grows into the part, and by the time he has metamorphosed into a general fiercely warring against the Gauls, you believe in him. There are fifty more parts, all well acted, but I imagine that two actors stuck in everyone’s mind: Nabil Shaban, playing Constantius as a shrieking, gold-encrusted dwarf borne about on a litter, and Ian McDiarmid as the other pivotal character in the play, a pagan magician named Maximus.

Emperor and Galilean. Photo: Catherine Ashmore.

The only dubious decision Kent has made is to put Julian and his intimates — three friends who follow his agonized seeking, with increasing distress — in hip black outfits and keeping their modern accents (including Scottish for Agathon, the friend who eventually stabs Julian to death for his persecution of Christians). We need an authority figure like the veteran McDiarmid to root the drama, which he does vehemently. In his confused flight away from Christ — the Galilean — and toward his destiny as emperor, Julian becomes a disciple and then helpless pawn of Maximus, who essentially stands in for another wizard, Simon Magus in the New Testament. What Maximus whispers in Julian’s ear is that he is destined to resolve the conflict between emperor and Galilean, ending the rift between what is owed to God and to Mammon. In so doing, Julian will bring about a new world order, the Third Kingdom, a time of liberty and enlightenment, ending forever the suffering and guilt that has made the Galilean abhorrent.

Ibsen’s allegory is heavy going despite the three-ring circus on stage, and whether due to the translation or the playwright’s insistence on everyday  language, I found scant literary value. Ambition and scope aren’t enough.   Even the fact that Ibsen had accomplished another epic soul journey, Peer Gynt, isn’t enough. But the possibility of the Third Kingdom reflects Ibsen’s idealism while Julian’s crazed collapse mirrors the psychological fatalism that dominates Ibsen’s later work, after the ashes of idealism could no longer be stirred. Certain mystical possibilities, including miracles, are left as open questions, and although the London critics viewed Maximus as Mephistophelean, his bubbling cauldron of portents, ghosts, and oracular visions is more ambiguous than that. From the young Julian’s perspective, genuine experiences of “going into the light” occurred, yet Ibsen was psychologically astute enough to know that paranoid illumination isn’t far from the divine variety.

The same critics felt that the play subverts itself by plumping for Christianity at the end. Really? There are a number of martyrs who populate the scene, including one of Julian’s three friends, Peter, who welcomes having his eyes gouged out so that he can more purely see God and not the corrupt world. But the victory of pain and suffering is exactly what Julian accuses Christianity of, and in the scene before his death, he remains as haunted by the elusive Christ as when he began, the only difference being that he is now damned. There is every reason to say that religious fanaticism won. As a post-Darwinian everyman, Julian is immobilized at the crossroads where doubt, reason, faith, and surrender meet. He is as unable to choose as any troubled seeker today. Worse, when Julian makes a leap of faith, it turns out to be suicidal. Pledging to render unto Caesar doesn’t work when you are Caesar himself, the ultimate odd man out.

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