I was lucky enough to see the recent production of Ibsen’s Emperor and Galilean which was put on by the National Theatre a couple of weeks ago. There are several reasons this was a stroke of luck, not least of which the fact that it’s arguable if Ibsen ever actually intended Emperor and Galilean to be performed in the first place. If you know any of his other plays, like Hedda Gabler or A Doll’s House, you’ll be aware that they’re mainly ‘drawing room drama’ – that is, they take place in one room, in a single set on stage, and that the plot is mainly played out through domestic interaction. In Emperor and Galilean, Ibsen dispenses completely with the restrictions forced upon him by the practicalities of a ninteenth century theatre and lets his imagination run wild. We’re thrown between Constantinople, the Gallic frontier of the Roman empire, Athens and plenty of places in between, eventually ending up in Persia. The National’s stage was used amazingly well for this, managing to capture the vast range of sense of place that Ibsen wanted to convey. Wikipedia informs me that the play was performed in Leipzig in 1896 and in Oslo in 1903, but goodness only knows how they managed the staging. It says quite a lot that the National’s revival is basically the first serious production (bar a radio play version) since Ibsen wrote the thing.
The other reason that this play particularly interests me is that it does classical reception on a not terribly popular period, but with quite a fertile subject. The Emperor of the play’s title is one of the fruitier Roman emperors, who has come down to us with the moniker Julian the Apostate. He was the last non-Christian emperor to rule the Roman empire, although he started off as a Christian; he seems to have converted (for want of a better word) while studying in Athens, at which point he also got himself inducted into the Eleusinian Mysteries (and why not) – something that Ibsen’s play sort of alludes to, except in the form of magicians and potions and incantations.
So, we have Ibsen, living in a Christian social context, writing a play about someone who made a big effort to destablise the prominence of Christianity and its socio-political dominance. We also have a protagonist who is, shall we say, clearly A Bit Disturbed and Inconsistent, although to be fair I think Ibsen does make that a bit more about Julian and his character than paganism. Despite saying that he would like everything to be lovely and people to just be nice, Julian does have a habit of deciding that people are plotting him against him and he’s going to have them imprisoned, tortured and killed, as well as some other rather questionable moral decisions, including choosing to set fire to a church in which people are sheltering from his soldiers. Now, in fairness, the Christian side of the community isn’t entirely without blame here, because some of their young men previously set fire to a temple of Helios that Julian was attempting to renovate. However, the second half of the play, which is all about Julian after he becomes emperor, basically gets Very Messy as Julian becomes more and more paranoid and reacts more and more outrageously with less and less justification to people he feels are betraying him.
The first half of the play concentrates on Julian’s quest for knowledge, his discomfort for Christianity, his time in Athens, his turn of paganism, his official election as the successor to his Evil Uncle Constantius (who killed his parents), Julian’s decision to create an uprising while he is heading the army in Gaul, and Constantius’ death as Julian returns back to Constantinople. There is also Julian’s marriage to a wife who dies after eating poisoned peaches just after Julian has begun his insurrection; I must say that I did find her half-nude death scene with excessive sensuous grinding (cos, you know, she’s mad, and this is what mad women do) a little bit OTT, even if the text does have her rambling about Christ as her lover which thus gives it a modicum of justification. Nonetheless, it would be quite nice if women going mad and dying didn’t have to be partially nude as a standard motif.
Anyway, where do we come at this from a classical reception perspective? It’s actually a bit more of a maze than usual, because you have a 2011 production of a 1873 play about the events of 351-363. Ibsen’s view of Julian’s career was very much based on what Ibsen knew, and there’s not much point in shoehorning in any modern scholarship. Anyone who gets titled ‘the Apostate’ obviously comes with a bit of a reputation. The production itself also has to cope with being seen within the context of previous receptions; for instance, the scene between Julian and his wife on the Gallic frontier where they are both dressed in fur skins cannot help but recall similar scenes from Gladiator, at least in part because there is no other way to depict ‘people of this period wearing things that are warm in a cold place’.
I think I want to pick out three things about the production that struck me, although I should warn you that these are fairly unformed thoughts rather than anything more substantial. The first is the decision to set the final part of the play, in which Julian disasterously decides to go after the Persians, in a modern Gulf War setting, camo gear and helicopters included. Now, Julian did go after what is now modern Baghdad, so going for the obvious modern parallel is clearly a bit of a canny production choice on the part of the team at the NT. However, it’s miles away from what Ibsen himself would have been thinking – the script is filled with what feels like almost painful attempts to make good reference to ancient military tactics, like the use of elephants (and I would much have preferred elephants projected onto the screen at the back of the stage than helicopters, myself). The clash between Ibsen’s sense of what the final campaign should feel like and the artistic vision of the NT team helps highlight one way in which approaches to reception have changed – this sense of needing to create obvious parallels between us and the ancient world, where Ibsen saw either the need for recreating an accurate picture of ancient warfare or the desirability of leaving such parallels unspoken, for the individual to notice and ruminate on at a later stage.
The second thing that struck me was the quite nice dovetail between Ibsen’s view of ancient religion (as opposed to Christianity) and spiritualism. I’m not up to date on Ibsen’s personal engagement with the spiritualist movement, or even how popular it was in Norway. That said, the scene in which Julian is visited by three key figures of the spiritual history of mankind, mediated by a priest-prophet figure who gives him potions and interprets mysterious things for him, has distinct overtones of the Victorian seance to me. This actually provides an interesting counterpoint to the NT’s decision to style those who return to the pagan faith as hippies, waving flowers, not wearing many clothes, wandering around looking a bit ecstatic and chanting ‘Helios!’ – that sense of these ‘alternative’ faith experiences as opposed to the dominant Christianity (which will remain dominant despite Julian’s intervention) suggests a continuity between alternative forms of religious expression that perhaps points to paganism as being ‘good to think with’ in this particular period and how we interpret it.
The final thing I want to mention is the relationship between power and religion, which was a live topic in Julian and Ibsen’s times, and is in ours. Julian wanted to break Christianity’s hold upon the power over the empire, restore freedom of religious expression and restore the standing of the pre-Christian cults. Ibsen lived, as I’ve said, in a world where power was very much held by the religious, and as his own plays make clear, he was somewhat sceptical of the moral authority some of these figures of power claimed to hold. In our own world, we’re worrying about the rise of global religious fundamentalism of all stripes, whether that bursts out in acts of violence or leads to democratically elected governments holding views we find it hard to reconcile ourselves to. The questions of religion and the uses (and abuses) of power don’t ever seem to go away. The value of looking back to Julian, through the lense of Ibsen, is that we gain fresh perspectives on the problem and new ways of looking at the issue that, perhaps, can help us get beyond the sticking points in our current thinking.