It was only at the end of “Posterity,” Doug Wright’s new play that imagines the real-life encounter between Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen and a sculptor doing a bust of him, that the point of it became clear to me (although the title should have been a tip-off): How will any of us be remembered? Are even great artists ever guaranteed immortality?
What finally brought these questions into focus was the last scene between the deep-voiced Australian actor John Noble as the majestic, cranky Ibsen and the sexy performer Hamish Linklater as the wild bohemian sculptor Gustav Vigeland. Ibsen expresses regrets, enumerating some of his (real-life) cruelties and misadventures. “Are these things your statue might confess?” he asks the sculptor, oddly…and with great pathos. It’s a moving and intriguing scene. But it’s insufficient payoff for the too-static two hours that preceded it.
Wright imagines that Vigeland hates making Ibsen’s bust and Ibsen hates sitting for it. Vigeland only wants to sculpt Ibsen to stay in the good graces of the city official who commissioned the work, in hopes that the city will also give Vigeland money to create what he really wants to do – a fountain with magnificent sculptures of everyday people. (The actual fountain is now part of the Vigeland Park in Oslo, the world’s largest sculpture park of a single artist.)
Ibsen’s motivations are less clear: He admires Vigeland’s work, and has sat for many other artists before, but he is over 70 now, prefers to be remembered when he was more hale, and resents Norwegian officials fawning over him now, after decades of their indifference, because of his success elsewhere.
“Two dozen plays! Apparently that’s insufficient to guarantee me a place in the public’s memory. No, I must be lionized in some god-forsaken park, where not the people but the pigeons will offer their accolades. This is what they call a tribute!”
So why has he shown up at Vigeland’s studio at all?
But then Ibsen changes his mind, after he has a stroke (the climax of Act I), when during his feverishness, he is visited by the devil who (as he recounts to Vigeland in Act II) told him that he will only be remembered “if the ills which enraged you, which forced you to pick up a pen, endure. Your best stab at immortality? If men remain greedy. If women remain belittled and enslaved by convention.”
Ibsen agrees to sit for the bust. But Vigeland’s assistant neglected to keep the clay moisturized so it is not useable. Vigeland simply pretends to be preparing the sculpture as Ibsen sits unaware.
This is surely somehow a metaphor, but it also neatly crystallizes the problem with the play. Unlike, say, John Logan’s “Red,” where we see the painter Mark Rothko energetically at work laying down canvas and spreading paint, “Posterity” has little action, and not much more than a glimpse into the artistic process: When the play begins, we see Vigeland putting his hand on the back of one of his two nude models, and then carrying the hand back to his sculpture of her. But that tantalizing initial gesture is pretty much all we get. Derek McLane’s promising set of an artist’s atelier winds up being a tease. There is also no special insight into Ibsen’s plays, nor even much discussion of them, and the tidbits of Ibsen biography often feel artificially inserted: Ibsen carries around a quote praising his work, for example, from a then-unknown student who happens to be James Joyce. There is little drama – the conflict between the two artists feels manufactured, much of the set-up improbable. “Posterity” is a talk show – one laced with intermittent humor and occasional intellectual heft, but not enough to keep consistently absorbing.
There are three other characters in the play. Henry Stram plays the sculptor’s agent Sophus Larpent, who arranged the meeting with Ibsen. Dale Soules and Mickey Theis portray two of Vigeland’s (fictional) models, one an old woman who was the agent’s housekeeper, the other the assistant who has dreams of achieving artistic success. All three have moments in which they, too, reveal their obsession — which, Wright makes clear, is everybody’s obsession — with being remembered.
Written and directed by Doug Wright; sets by Derek McLane; costumes by Susan Hilferty; lighting by David Lander; music and sound by David Van Tieghem; dialect coach, Deborah Hecht
Cast: Hamish Linklater (Gustav Vigeland), John Noble (Henrik Ibsen), Dale Soules (Greta Bergstrom), Henry Stram (Sophus Larpent) and Mickey Theis (Anfinn Beck).
Running time: two hours and 10 minutes including one intermission.
Posterity is scheduled to run though April 5