The National Theatre has a great reputation for brilliant staging of old and new drama based on historical fact, to which witness the great success of The White Guard, Coram Boy, and Pitmen Painters, on the last of which I have written previously.  This reputation remains intact with the present production, despite lesser success in my own view and the average of very varied reviews received (2 to 4 out of 5 stars).

In theatre or historical fiction (and occasionally, in painting) there is an issue of how, starting from consistency with the known sources and fixed points of established history, the work of art can add to the understanding of what was probably going on.  The sublime example on ancient Rome is Margaret Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian.  Is this what Ibsen (for Emperor and Galilean is indeed by him, despite being left off many lists of his works) was trying to do?  It seems only secondarily so.  Ibsen’s preceding plays, Brand and Peer Gynt, have romantic and mystical elements in common, and address philosophical problems of free will and belief (Brand is a questing priest and Peer Gynt is set in a mythical fairytale past).  These now seem dated historical curiosities.

Emperor and Galilean is a theatrical curio of a different kind, first published 1873 but not produced for 23 years thereafter.  I suspect that Ibsen was so overwhelmed by his visit to Rome (1864) that he felt he had to write something of cosmic sweep for an international audience and took some years getting this idea, as well as the mid-century idealistic philosophy out of his system. This, Ibsen’s third and grandest play, was gestated alongside those first two in the 1860s.  Ibsen also thought it his greatest;  however its relative failure in terms of productions (Ibsen is the next most produced dramatist after Shakespeare) perhaps signposted Ibsen elsewhere — to great success with the psychological and social conflicts of the Scandinavian bourgeoisie. The later plays seem much less dated, even glaringly modernist (eg, A Doll’s House, 1879).

Under the short rule (360-363) of Julian “the Apostate” (331?-363) the Roman empire is thought nearly to have reverted to paganism from Christianity, which had then only been the established religion for 4 decades.  This is indeed an issue of cosmic sweep, set in a complex period with a complex flow of historical processes, on which the sources are patchy.  Success in capturing the relation between the events of the period and Julian’s enigmatic and ascetic personality also eluded Adrian Murdoch (The Last Pagan, Inner Traditions, 2008), with his much better contemporary access to primary and secondary materials than Ibsen had.  The sources are good enough for some leads but not for a very detailed set of what-if? historical analyses (which fiction has already done on Julian).  It is uncertain just how near or far from success Julian’s dis-establishment project might have been at the time of his death in action in Mesopotamia.  This occurred in yet another Persian war, one that he had felt obliged to pursue to consolidate loyalties in the East.  In Ben Power’s adaptation of the play, this nemesis results (based on probably inaccurate historical sources) not from hubris but from gullibility.  This would be a most unbecoming demise for Julian, a cynic who forswore a religion partly because of its excessive demands for suspension of disbelief.

We are therefore left asking, if historical accuracy is not overriding for Ibsen, what in the dramatic character of the stage Julian has he given us to make us identify with him enough to feel affected when things go wrong as his rule unfolds?  I have to say not a lot:  perhaps an over-wariness in the adaptation about too much intellectual argument in theatre, especially theological and philosophical argument nearly two millennia old, has deprived us of an opportunity to appreciate his reasoning.

In Ben Power’s competent shoe-horning adaptation of Ibsen’s 8 hours into an action-packed 4,  the career narrative is so dominant that we get a rather sampled reportage of the way in which the Christians were perhaps unnecessarily provoked, but little sense of the dynamics and interplay of historical events.

More revealing is the way in which Christian Rome, though from just before Julian’s birth we should more properly be calling it Byzantium’, is shown as retaining all the shortcomings of its predecessor: to stay alive as a member of the elite, you had either go into exile or seize power yourself.  The pace of the career narrative is Shakespearian, somewhat recalling Macbeth; the source of seduction is only slightly the attractions of power (and despite a bizarre scene with the wife, who is also sister of the menacing preceding emperor, Julian’s uncle Constantius, it is not particularly a power-hungry spouse).  But sorcery and obscure prophesy are seductions as for Macbeth.

Julian is portrayed as trapped by his situation; he starts out professing to want freedom of worship to include Christianity, but the political monopoly in an established monotheistic religion makes conflict inevitable.  Julian rightly despised Christian superstition and seemed initially in the tradition of Marcus Aurelius to favour the classical learning and philosophy that was to be lost to the West for a millennium as Christianity grew to hegemony.  This point was not lost on the anti-Christian Edward Gibbon in History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88).  Yet Julian appears also to have indulged in and favoured similarly superstitious pagan practices, and not to have drawn much of value from his flirtation with philosophy in the backwater that was 4th-century Athens.  As with Christianity in his earlier maturity, he became disillusioned.  It is perhaps surprising that a century after Gibbon, Ibsen felt he had to give Christianity a much better press (eg, in his sympathetic portrayal of Gregory of Nazianzus as saint and martyr) than he gives Julian — perhaps a touch of Ibsen’s growing sympathy for the underdog which at this point Gregory becomes.

Ibsen worked up the play in the post-Darwin 1860s, when religious values were waning, so it is not surprising that he thought the apostacy would be relevant to the audience’s concerns, despite its remote historical and geographical setting.  Ibsen was later quite frank about the opiate value of religious belief, and Rebecca in Rosmersholm (1879), has lost hers.  Society was facing the possibility that God may not exist.  But Julian did not “disbelieve in God” in the sense Rebecca or we would understand of espousing materialism;  the general cultural assumption on deities in the ancient world was “anything goes”, and Julian felt that the Judaeo-Christian God’s monopoly was not justified socially and politically.  There is no very good evidence that on his deathbed Julian said “You have won then, Galilean.”  It is an anachronism, implying that he could have been obsessed with our own hindsight what-if question, rather than the pressing matters of his power base and the Persian war.

The unifying force which Constantine had seen in Christianity had led to a political role for the clerical hierarchy, the decay of both pagan religion and classical learning, and a question about the relation between church and state, one which was important at the time of writing the US Constitution and which is to some extent still with us.  The newly established religion was a threat to the intellectual fabric of ancient civilisation and to the divine cult of the emperors.  The meeting point of the drama with historically plausible conjecture, is that Julian started with the former laudable fear but that it shaded into the latter less laudable one, because power always corrupts. This message is there in the play but extracting it requires much concentration due to the many distracting sub-plots and prior knowledge of the history certainly helps when there is not time to read the excellent but lengthy programme notes.

This is a play mostly for those with an interest in ancient history and/or theatrical realisation.  Despite the length there is no boredom and much engagement created by the usual excellent NT acting and the flexible use of the set on the rotating multi-depth stage.  The imperial religious procession of Constantius is a breathtaking delight, worthy of a place in the annals of staging and costume.  I was not quite so sure about Julian’s fellow sun-worshippers appearing as trance-held hippies, but even in an action-packed drama there is room for humorous moments.

Emperor and Galilean plays at the National Theatre, Olivier Theatre, London, through August 10th.