Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen, translated and directed by Stephen Unwin, at Rose Theatre, Kingston.
Please note that the run at Rose Theatre Kingston has now finished, but this production will be touring with the English Touring Theatre. See here for venues and dates.
“The past is never dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”
- William Faulkner, from Requiem for a Nun
“The past is the present, isn’t it? And it’s the future too.”
- Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night, by Eugene O’Neill
The “exposition” is traditionally that part of the play in which the audience is provided with the background information that is required to follow the action. Usually, this required information deals with events of the past, and is generally imparted as quickly and as unobtrusively as possible, so as not to hold up the main action of the drama. But there is a certain type of play in which the past is itself the essence of the drama – where the “main action of the drama” is the process of understanding, and of coming to terms with (or, more frequently, of not being able to come to terms with) the events of the past. In these instances, the entire play becomes, in effect, one long exposition. Such plays aren’t new: Sophocles’ Oedipus the King is a prime example. And these plays continued into the twentieth century – Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, for instance. But perhaps no other dramatist more insistently explored the impact of the past on the present than did Henrik Ibsen: Rosmersholm, The Master Builder, John Gabriel Borkman, and, in particular, Ghosts, all see the present as something that has been shaped by the past, as something in which the ghosts of the past continue to haunt, and cannot be banished. There is no escaping these ghosts, much though we may long to. “The air is thick with ghosts,” says Mrs Alving early in the play, possibly not realising at the time the terrible implications of this.
This focus on the past from which there is no escape gives these plays a sense of constriction, of being trapped in a machine that cannot be anything other than infernal. The scene here is the middle-class drawing room that certain later critics and playwrights have seen fit to mock as “bourgeois”; but the contents of this particular “bourgeois drama” did more to “épater la bourgeoisie” than just about any other play one can think of. It’s not just the mechanisms of the plot – inherited syphillis, proposed incest, possible euthanasia – that were shocking: the very basis of the audience’s moral compass was subjected to an unremitting assault. Nowadays, of course, we aren’t so rigid – at least in the Western world – about moral codes of behaviour: we are far more likely now to laugh at the conventional morality of Pastor Manders, or, indeed, to see him as a caricature, than to nod away in agreement; but nonetheless, as this production amply demonstrated, this play’s ability to shock remains undimmed. And it is still there because, I think, it is only superficially about the inadequacy in our lives of conventional morality: considered at a deeper level, this play is about the ghosts that continue to haunt us – that terrible burden of the past from which none of us can ultimately free ourselves, and only in the context of which can we come to any self-understanding.
The past emerges in fragments as the play progresses. First, Pastor Manders tells us of the time when Mrs Alving, then a young wife, had left her husband and had sought refuge with him. He had wrestled with his own desires (although he does not, can not, tell us this), and had persuaded Mrs Alving back to the path of duty: he had persuaded her to returning to her husband to whom she has been united by God. This is a world in which duty is all-important; there is no room here for joy:
To pursue happiness in this world is to be governed by the spirit of rebellion. What right do we have to happiness? No, we must do our duty, Mrs Alving. And your duty was to cleave to the man you’d chosen and to whom you were tied by a sacred bond.
Her husband, Captain Alving, is now dead. And an orphanage, named after him, and financed by the wealth he had bequeathed, is soon to open. But this version of the past, of Captain Alving as a good and respectable man, is a lie, and Mrs Alving is now capable of telling Pastor Manders the truth: Captain Alving had not stopped being a dissipated man, and their marriage was an empty and a desperately unhappy sham. She had sent away her son, Osvald, at an early age, not as a dereliction of duty, but to prevent him associating with his debauched father; she had not wanted him to inherit anything of his (has ever a dramatic irony been so devastating?) With the money spent on the orphanage, the association with Captain Alving is now, Mrs Alving believes, finished: a line can now be drawn under it, and life can start afresh.
In the play The Father, Strindberg, objecting to what he regarded as feminism on Ibsen’s part, has his principal character say sarcastically that, some day, he would like to hear Captain Alving’s side of the story. Ibsen, however, had been ahead of the game on this score. Of course, since this is a realistic drama (at least on the surface), Ibsen could not bring back, Rashomon-like, the ghost of Captain Alving to give his own perspective; but the ghost is there all the same, and, towards the end of the play, before the final catastrophe, in an extraordinary moment of revelation, Mrs Alving begins to see a picture wider than the one that has so embittered her:
MRS ALVING: … You were talking earlier about joy in life, and what you said shed light on everything in my life.
OSVALD (shaking his head): I don’t understand.
MRS ALVING: You should have known your father when he was young. He was full of joy in life, I can tell you.
OSVALD: Yes, I know.
MRS ALVING: It made me feel like Sunday weather just looking at him, full of such tremendous life and energy.
OSVALD: So what happened?
MRS ALVING: Well, this boy – so full of joy in life – he was just a boy back then – well, he had to live in a small town with no joy, just diversions. He had to live a pointless life out here, as a government official. He had no real work, just routine. And not a single friend who could appreciate joy in life; just layabouts and drunks…
MRS ALVING: And so the inevitable happened.
OSVALD: What inevitable?
MRS ALVING: You said earlier what you’d turn into if you stayed at home.
OSVALD: You mean that father – ?
MRS ALVING: Your poor father never found an outlet for that great joy in life inside him. And I didn’t bring much either.
OSVALD: You didn’t?
MRS ALVING: I’d been taught duty, and all the things I believed in so long. Everything came down to duty – my duty, his duty and – I’m afraid I made your poor father’s home unbearable, Osvald.
- Translated by Stephen Unwin
[Incidentally, I’m pleased to see Stephen Unwin retain “Sunday weather”, which, I presume, is in the original. Other translators I have consulted replace it with something more idiomatically English, and I can see why; but “Sunday weather” has a good sound to it. Some other alternative are: “It was like a sunny morning just to see him” (Michael Meyer); “It was like a holiday weather just to look at him” (Rolf Fjelde); while Peter Watts avoids the expression altogether with “He was so full of vitality and boundless energy that it did your heart good just to see him”.]
Mrs Alving comes to recognise here her own part in this immense tragedy: she too now realises the terrible toll taken on the human spirit when the claims of joy are not acknowledged, and the very right to pursue happiness denied (“What right do we have to happiness?”)
The truth is arrived at slowly, and its final, terrible manifestation comes as the sun finally breaks through the gloom. And the truth, as so often in Ibsen, brings no relief. The truth is something that much exercised Ibsen’s imagination: in his very next play, An Enemy of the People, written, possibly, as a response to the virulent criticism Ghosts had received, Ibsen proclaims loudly the importance of acknowledging the truth; but even while proclaiming this, awkward questions remain unanswered, and in his subsequent plays, Ibsen addresses these questions. In The Wild Duck, he ponders on those truths that we cannot live with; and in Rosmersholm, he examines the elusive nature of truth itself, and the uncertainty of our perceptions. Here, in Ghosts, the truth is brutal, and inescapable. All attempts to deny the past, to draw a line under it, are doomed to fail: the ghosts of the past cannot be laid so easily. The name of Captain Alving was intended to grace an orphanage, but this attempt to deny the truth about the past goes up, quite literally, in flames; his name ends up gracing, more appropriately, a “sailors’ home” - videlicet, a brothel. The truth is indeed a terrible thing, and when the sun finally breaks through in the final scene, it reveals a scene of devastation, and of utmost terror.
We may no longer object to this play on moral grounds, as past generations have done; our moral perceptions have certainly changed since 1882, when this play was first performed to predictably outraged critical response. But in a world that, like the town in which Captain Alving lived, appears not to believe in joy, and sees mere diversion as an adequate substitute, this unblinking stare into the truth of our condition retains its terrifying power.
I have seen this play twice on television (once with Dorothy Tutin as Mrs Alving, and another production with Judi Dench), but this is the first time I have seen it on stage. It certainly makes a difference. The atmospheric sets, designed by Simon Higglett, are based on the designs made by Edvard Much for a 1906 production directed by Max Reinhardt, and they enhance superbly the claustrophobic horror of the work. Stephen Unwin’s direction presents the work with his customary clarity, respecting the integrity of Ibsen’s text without sacrificing anything in the way of dramatic immediacy. And the performances I cannot imagine being bettered. It is important, for instance, not to present Pastor Manders as a caricature, as he could so easily become: he is a hypocrite, yes, but by no means a conscious hypocrite; and Mrs Alving, on stage through virtually the entire play and having to sustain its terrifying intensity, must surely be among the most demanding of all stage roles: Patrick Drury and Kelly Hunter, respectively, do full justice to these very difficult parts. And the smaller parts – smaller only in terms of the number of lines spoken rather than in terms of their importance to the drama – are expertly taken by Mark Quartley, Florence Hall, and by Pip Donaghy. In short, if this play tours to anywhere near where you live, and you do not object to an evening of nerve-jangling drama that is as far from traditional “feelgood” as may be imagined, then this production is most strongly recommended. It inspires terror, yes, but perhaps we need to experience such terror from time to time. I left the theatre shaken, even though I knew what to expect. But yes, for whatever perverse reason, I would gladly experience this all over again.