The lives of great playwrights have proved fodder for dramatists before Doug Wright. Edward Bond put Shakespeare on stage in Bingo (1973), and Christopher Marlowe was the main event in Peter Whelan’s The School of Night (1992) and David Grimm’s Kit Marlowe (2000). David Hare wrote about Oscar Wilde in The Judas Kiss (1998).
But Posterity, Wright’s thoughtful, rich meditation on fame and immortality, art and criticism, may be the first to make hay of Henrik Ibsen. Wright, who has also directed the Atlantic Theater production, has been inspired by a report of the dramatist’s annoyance at sitting for a bust by Norway’s greatest sculptor, Gustav Vigeland, in 1901, shortly before a series of strokes ended Ibsen’s writing career: he died in 1906.
Vigeland’s fame was ahead of him, however—he had conceived of but not found the patrons or funds to build an immense fountain in Kristiania, now Oslo. The conceit of the play is that the contrarian Ibsen, who lived in exile from 1868 to 1891, has been persuaded by the Cultural Ministry to sit for a sculptor. Ibsen has chosen Vigeland, whose work he admires. Vigeland doesn’t want to do it, but the hefty commission and the fame resulting from the sitting will spur donors to the fountain. For his part, Ibsen is disgusted: “It’s an insult,” he says. “Two dozen plays! Apparently that’s insufficient to guarantee me a place in the public’s memory.”
Vigeland (Hamish Linklater, by turns fiery, apologetic and proud) knows his worth, but so does the stern, prickly Ibsen (a booming-voiced John Noble), and the clash of the men provides the real drama, with subsidiary interest from three others. One is Henry Stram’s Sophus Larpent, a dapper agent for Vigeland—and a person who actually lived. The other two are invented by Wright: Dale Soules is Mrs. Bergstrom, a housekeeper to Larpent who loses her job when, in the first scene, Larpent discovers her naked in Vigeland’s studio, posing with Vigeland’s equally unclad assistant, the strapping young Mickey Theis as Anfinn Beck.
The priggish Larpent discharges Mrs. Bergstrom, whom Vigeland then hires. But this is just a prelude to the arrival of Ibsen, costumed beautifully by Susan Hilferty in a black vicuña frock coat and silver-topped walking stick—a notable contrast to the old coat and plain walking sticks the icon needs in the second half. Noble’s Ibsen is vain—and not only about his legacy. When Vigeland mentions the gaggle of young groupies that follow Ibsen, a rare smile creeps across the old sourpuss’s face.
It’s inevitable that the two strong-willed artists clash. They debate art and criticism, propriety and business, with a good deal of name-dropping: Donatello, Phidias, Henry James, Galileo, Shaw. To Wright’s credit, he expects literacy from his audience. When Larpent tries to ingratiate himself with the great man, he says, “I was there on that fateful night at the Kristiania Theater some twenty years ago when your leading lady slammed that fateful door” without naming either Nora or A Doll’s House. “Hundreds of people have made that claim,” Ibsen sniffs. Ibsen’s casual reference to a play he has written about a sculptor who dies in an avalanche is not specified, but it’s John Gabriel Borkman. (In one jarring lapse, though, Wright has Ibsen speak of “brinksmanship,” a Cold War term coined in the 1950s.) Even though there’s scant action, the ideas provide a satisfying meal.
“I’ll represent you as you are,” vows Vigeland.
“That’s a specious promise,” Ibsen responds.
“Why?” asks Vigeland.
“I’ve drawn characters from life,” says Ibsen. “I know what pinching and prodding—what ghastly surgeries—it takes to wedge human beings into the confines of art…. Don’t flatter yourself objective. The eye is selective in what it sees, and tainted by bias.”
The presence of Mrs. Bergstrom, who knows nothing about art but only about survival, and Anfinn, who hopes to make his mark by unseating his teacher, provide nice counterpoint to the high-mindedness. Both Linklater and Noble bring passion to their positions, with only an occasional dry patch. In the second act Ibsen suffers a reversal, and agonizes about some disgraceful behavior in his past. He asks Vigeland to make his bust something “kinder than he was in life.” Both men come across as vividly flawed humans in Wright’s meaty theatrical imagining.
Evening performances of Posterity, which runs through April 5, are at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Sunday and at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. There will be additional 2 p.m. performances on March 25 and April 1, but no 7 p.m. performances on March 29 and April 5. Tickets may be ordered online at Atlantictheater.org, by calling OvationTix at 866-811-4111, or in person at the Linda Gross Theater box office, 336 West 20th St., between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.