The Borkman family fortunes have been brought low by the imprisonment of John Gabriel who used his position as a bank manager to speculate with his investors' money. The action of the play takes place eight years after Borkman's release when John Gabriel Borkman, Mrs. Borkman, and her twin sister Ella Rentheim fight over young Erhart Borkman's future. Though John Gabriel Borkman continues the line of naturalism and social commentary that marks Ibsen's middle period, the final act suggests a new phase for the playwright, a phase brought to fruition in his final more symbolic work When We Dead Awaken.
The Norwegian historian Halvdan Koht stated that the play could have been based on an incident that Ibsen might have recorded from an earlier period in his life (i.e. 1851), the attempted suicide of an army officer who had been accused of embezzlement.
In 2010 a revival of the play was performed in the Abbey Theatre as part of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival. In a new version by Frank McGuinness directed by James Macdonald, it featured actor Alan Rickman as John Gabriel Borkman, Fiona Shaw as his wife Gunhild and Lindsay Duncan as Ella. The play had previously been performed in the Abbey Theatre in 1928.
In 2011 the production moved to New York and received mixed reviews.
In 2015, David Eldridge adapted the play into a two-part production directed by Helen Perry and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on March 8th and 15th, starring David Threlfall as Borkman, Susannah Harker as Ella Rentheim, Gillian Bevan as Mrs. Borkman, Philip Jackson as Vilhelm Foldal, Luke Newberry as Erhart Borkman and Claire Cage as Malene.
In August 2017 as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival a new production in English based on a contemporary translation and adaptation by Fox and Orchid Theatre Company and played by just two actors portraying seven characters was performed. It was entitled "(My Father) John Gabriel Borkman" and was performed at Venue 38, Space Triplex, Prince Philip Building, Hill Place, Edinburgh .
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