Posts Tagged ‘Ibsen Cycle’

“Ghosts” by Henrik Ibsen

*** SPOILER WARNING: The following post inevitably reveals some of the plot details of this play, and so, if such things are important to you, it is possibly best not to read this post till you’ve read or seen the play for yourself.

All quoted passages are taken from the translation by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik, published by Penguin Classics


The stage directions for the first of the three acts tells us:

Through the conservatory windows a gloomy fjord landscape can be seen, veiled by steady rain.

We’re in the same location for the second act, and the stage directions tell us:

A rainy mist still lies heavily over the landscape.

The location remains unchanged in the third and final act also, and now, we are in the depths of night:

The lamp is still burning on the table. It is dark outside apart from a faint glow to the left in the background.

The sun does begin to rise in the final moments of the play, but what we see on stage as the sun rises is a scene of unmitigated horror: the rising of the sun brings with it no renewal. Quite the opposite.

It is hard to think of another play quite so unremittingly bleak and sombre as Ghosts. Even Long Day’s Journey into Night had begun in the light of day. The English title, Ghosts, is evocative, but Ibsen’s original Norwegian title is perhaps even more powerful: Gengangere means – so the notes to my Penguin Classics edition tell me – “something that or someone who walks again”. It is about the Past that refuses to stay in the past, that poisons the Present, and crushes the joy out of our lives.

This crushing of the Joy of Life is here a major theme. It is, ironically, Pastor Manders who introduces the motif of the Joy of Life early in the play, when he thinks back on the late Captain Alving:

As a young man, he was certainly full of the joys of life.

But to Manders, this is no more than a ready-made expression: he does not think too deeply on what it may signify. But Mrs Alving’s son, Osvald, recently returned from Paris, seizes upon it:

Yes, the joy of life, Mother – no-one knows much about that here at home. I never feel it here.

The word used in the original Norwegian is livsglad, a compound word, meaning (as, once again, the notes tell me) “happy in life” or “enjoying life”. I suspect that the power of this compound word is diminished when unpacked into the somewhat weak and prosaic “joy of life”. There is, I think, no way around this: in Bengali, too, it is permissible (as it isn’t in English) to create compound words in this manner, and the poetic or dramatic force comes from the often unexpected juxtaposition of the words that are welded together; translated into speakable English, something of this power is inevitably lost. And I suspect it is similar when translating from Norwegian. But, once introduced, livsglad becomes a major motif in this play. What Ibsen presents here is not a lachrymose wallow in the misery that is life, but, rather, a yearning for livsglad that seems ever beyond our reach, and a barely suppressed anger that this should be so.

Not that there aren’t thematic continuities from Ibsen’s previous play, A Doll’s House. It has often been pointed out, for instance, that while A Doll’s House presents a woman who walks out on her husband, Ghosts presents the tragedy of a woman who didn’t. This is true enough, but this neat pattern doesn’t really take us very far, as the marriage between Nora and Torvald is very different from that of the Alvings, and the reason Nora walks out is very different from the reason Mrs Alving had, in the past, nearly walked out. If we are to focus too intently on the thematic continuities between these last twelve plays (which Ibsen himself, towards the end  of his life, referred to as a “cycle”), there is a danger, perhaps, that we fail to see each of these plays as individual entities, and that we miss out on the new themes that Ibsen introduces in each. Yes, there is a thematic continuity in that Nora had refused, Brand-like, to continue living with lies, while Mrs Alving had been persuaded to continue doing so. But what takes centre-stage now are those lies themselves, those gengangere, that do not remain suppressed, that return to poison our lives, and destroy us. Indeed, these gengangere had never really gone away in the first place. And the livsglad that is crushed by them is more than merely “joy of life”: it is, rather, an elemental power that we are born with, that should make life beautiful, but which, when crushed, turns into its very opposite, so that even the rising of the sun brings with it pain and horror.

We do not see the marriage of the Alvings: Captain Alving, when the play opens, has long been dead. But the exposition here is more than merely communicating to the audience the events of the past so that the present drama may be understood: the exposition here is an examination of the past, and much of the present drama consists of the characters re-evaluating it, and coming to a new understanding. Thus, even as late as the final act, we see the characters revisiting the past, and understanding it in a different way.

Captain Alving had been one of the “pillars of society” Ibsen had written about in an earlier play, the very image of civic respectability, but, like those pillars, there was moral rottenness inside. For, in this instance, this exemplar of respectability had been in reality a lecherous and dissipated sybarite. Mrs Alving had left him once, and had taken refuge in the house of Pastor Manders.  And there is more than enough in the dialogue of this play to indicate that, at the time,  Mrs Alving and Pastor Manders had loved each other. But, while it is all too easy to play Pastor Manders as an outrageous hypocrite, he had had denied himself for the sake of the principles he sincerely believed in, and had persuaded Mrs Alving to return to her rightful husband. For Pastor Manders does not believe that humans were created to be happy:

It is the mark of a rebellious spirit to demand happiness here in life. What right do we mortals have to happiness? No, we must do our duty, madam! And your duty was to hold firmly to the man you’d once chosen, and to whom you were tied by holy bonds.

Duty. Duty not with happiness, or livsglad, as the end, but duty for its own sake, duty as its own end. And, far from being a hypocrite, Pastor Manders sincerely believes this: he lives by this, and for this. However, Captain Alving had not, as Manders had thought, reformed after his wife’s return: he remained as dissipated as ever, and Mrs Alving had been compelled, for the sake of the family’s good name and standing in society, to live a lie. And she knows the toll it has taken:

But I almost believe we are ghosts, all of us … It’s not just the things we have inherited from our fathers and mothers that return in us. It’s all kinds of old dead opinions and all kind of old dead doctrines … They aren’t alive in us; but they are lodged there all the same, and we can never be rid of them. I have only to pick up a newspaper and read it, and it’s as though I see ghosts living throughout the entire land.

Mrs Alving has suffered because she had submitted to the conventions of society that had demanded she continue with her farce of a marriage. She had realised that the law that had condemned her to this was wrong, and  this realisation leads her on to further realisation:

Yes, when you forced me to submit to what you called my duty and obligation; when you extolled as right and proper what my whole soul rebelled against as an abomination. That was when I began to examine the stitching that held your teachings together.  Only wanted to unpick a single knot, but the instant I had loosened that, the whole thing fell apart. And then I realised it was machine sewn.

And yet, she has to go on living with these ideas, these values, that she knows destroy all the Joy of Life. The past that lives with us, in us, those dead ideas that we cannot shed off … ghosts, gengangere.

Mrs Alving had been determined there must be, for the next generation at least, a complete break from the past – that her son should inherit nothing from his father. She had sent him away from home at an early age, so he would ever find out what his father had been like. And all the wealth that had come from his father’s side, she had used to open an orphanage, to ensure that none of it ever comes to her son – that her son should be free, in all respects, from all his father had been. And as she had lived a life of lies while her husband had been alive, she continues, for form’s sake, to perpetuate lies about him after his death, preserving his public image as a man of irreproachable moral integrity, while herself burning with resentment inside at the very lie she is perpetuating.

However, despite all her efforts, the Past continues to live within her son Osvald in a most terrible way, and here, we come across a problem that Ibsen had not envisaged. In Ibsen’s time, it was believed, wrongly, that syphilis could be passed on from father to son: but that, we now know, is not true. Of course, it is possible that the father could have infected the mother, and the mother could pass it on to the child, but if that were so, Mrs Alving too would be syphilitic, and that is clearly not the case. [EDIT: Please see footnote at the bottom of this post.] (I am, I should hasten to add, no expert on these medical matters, and would be more than happy to be corrected if I am mistaken in any way.) In short, it is simply not possible that Osvald has inherited syphilis from his father.

However, this does not invalidate the credibility of the plot. Syphilis itself is never mentioned directly, and, while Mrs Alving, and, later, Osvald, accept that the disease has been inherited from the father, there is no real evidence for it presented in the play. Indeed, there is not even any evidence that Captain Alving, dissipated though he was, had been syphilitic in the first place. Osvald, when breaking the news of his illness to his mother, is at pains to say that he had “never lived a riotous life”: but that is not to say, of course, that he had necessarily been celibate. And, indeed, till he discovers that his father was not the irreproachable pillar of virtue he had always believed him to have been, Osvald blames himself. He may not have been riotous, but it is certainly possible that he had been unlucky. Of course, Ibsen had intended us to believe that Osvald’s syphilis was inherited, but medical science has overtaken Ibsen’s intentions in this respect. And while this does not invalidate the credibility of the plot, as such, it inevitably weakens somewhat the play’s dramatic power. In Ibsen’s original conception, the ghosts from the past that we cannot lay to rest were both an image, and also a reality, in that it has taken the very real form of a disease inherited by son from father; but if we can no longer believe in that physical inheritance, it remains merely an image, and Osvald’s syphilis itself is but a cruel and capricious twist of fortune rather than a tragic inevitability. The fruits of sin (as syphilis was then regarded), instead of afflicting the father, afflicts the son instead; the inheritance is metaphorical, not physical.

But though the tragic force of the drama is inevitably diminished somewhat, it is by no means obliterated, as any good production of this play will reveal: it still holds the stage, and the effect remains quite shattering. Osvald’s brain is weakening: he knows that after the next attack, he will remain utterly incapable – alive, but with a brain that is, effectively, dead. He who had in him that yearning for livsglad, that unbounded joy in the simple fact of just being alive, finds himself saying to his mother:

I didn’t ask for life! What kind of life is it you’ve given me? I don’t want it!

But he is not the first for whom the delight in living has turned into its very opposite. When, at the start of the play, Pastor Manders had referred unthinkingly to Captain Alving being “full of the joys of life”, he was simply and unthinkingly using an expression, without considering what it really meant. Since then, we have had a picture of Alving that is very far removed from the joys of life: he enjoyed merely life’s debauched pleasures. But, in an extraordinary passage towards the end of the play, Mrs Alving sees her dead husband, and, consequently, her own past, in a startlingly different light. Pastor Manders may have used the term unthinkingly when speaking of the late Captain Alving, but he had not really been mistaken:

MRS ALVING: You should have known your father when he was a young lieutenant. He was certainly filled with the joy of life!

OSVALD: Yes, I know.

MRS ALVING: It was like a sunny Sunday just looking at him. And such incredible energy and vitality he had!

OSVALD: And – ?

MRS ALVING: And then this joyous child – because he was a child back then, had to while his time away back here, in a middling-sized town that had no real joy to offer, only diversions. He was stuck here without any vocation in life, with nothing but a civil service appointment … Without one single friend capable of feeling what the joy of life might be; only layabouts and drinking companions …

The man she had, for most of her life, hated and despised now appears to her as someone whose natural exuberance and joy had, for lack of any outlet, festered, become corrupted. And she sees as well her own part in this:

MRS ALVING: Your poor father could never find any outlet for this excessive joy of life inside him. And I didn’t bring any Sunday sunshine into his home either.

OSVALD: Not even you?

MRS ALVING: They had taught me about duties and the like, things I have gone around believing in for so long. It always seemed to come down to duty – my duties and his duties and – I’m afraid I made this home unbearable for your poor father, Osvald.

As Pastor Manders may have said, why strive for joy, for happiness, in the first place? Duty, joyless duty, is what we are here for, and to think otherwise is to rebel against the Laws of God Himself. Pastor Manders’ ideas may be old and dead, but they remain with us, and they crush whatever delight, whatever joy, we may take in the very fact of living.

This theme introduced in this play of livsglad, that problematic compound word for which “joy of life” seems to me perhaps too weak a translation, returns again in later plays in the series, most notably, perhaps, in The Master Builder, in which, at a climactic point, Solness exclaims “I – who cannot live without joy!” It is the denial of this livsglad, and the terrible consequences of this denial, that seem to me to be at the centre of this darkest and most unremittingly bleak of all Ibsen’s plays.

Ghosts, after its premier in 1882, predictably, caused a huge scandal, even bigger than the one occasioned by Nora walking out on her husband and family at the end of A Doll’s House. Even years later, when Ibsen was a Grand Old Man of Letters rather than the enfant terrible, the then monarch of Norway, Oscar II, told Ibsen at some formal reception that he really shouldn’t have written Ghosts.  Ibsen had replied: “Your Majesty, I had to write Ghosts!” Unremitting as it is in its intensity, it bears throughout the marks of a play that had to be written.


Footnote: My friend Richard Arundel draws my attention to the following footnote by Michael Meyer in the introduction to his translation of Ghosts, published by Methuen:

In view of the oft-repeated complaint that syphilis cannot be inherited from one’s father, it is worth pointing out that it can be inherited from one’s mother, and that a woman can have syphilis without realizing it or suffering any particular discomfort.In other words, and this is a far more frightening explanation of Oswald’s illness than the usual one, Mrs Alving could have caught syphilis from her husband and passed it on  to her son. Dr Jonathan Miller has pointed out to me that Oswald could also have been infected by smoking his father’s pipe. Ibsen knew more about medicine than some of his critics.


Grappling with Ibsen

It was in the late ’80s, when I was in my 20s, that I developed a fascination with Ibsen. I think (although, with the passage of time, I cannot be certain on this point) it was a couple of BBC broadcasts that set off my passion – Little Eyolf, with Diana Rigg and Antony Hopkins, and The Master Builder, with Leo McKern and Miranda Richardson. The plays puzzled me. I could sense a lot going on under the surface; I could sense powerful undercurrents, of the presence of mysterious, irresistible forces; but the precise nature of these undercurrents, of these forces, eluded me. Possibly they elude me still, even after all these years of reading and re-reading, of seeing various productions. For all Ibsen’s reputation as a depicter of the bourgeois and creator of firm solidities; as one who had his finger firmly on the pulse of society and who pointed out and excoriated its various hypocrisies; Ibsen seemed to me, and seems to me still, to be looking beyond all that: he seemed to me to be plumbing mysterious depths, and exploring hidden recesses, of the human mind. Not that the social themes did not exist, of course, but these were not what fascinated me so. But what did fascinate me I found hard to articulate. I think I still do.

It is perhaps for this reason that I have generally kept away from Ibsen on my blog, but if the point of my writing this blog is for me to talk about what interests me most, and what I love best, then I really have to tackle Ibsen here some time. If only so that I can say, as Hilary famously said after conquering Everest, that I’ve “knocked the bastard off”.

I doubt whether here is any other writer of comparable stature whose literary career had so slow a start. Ibsen’s first play, Catiline, was written in 1850, and nine more plays followed in the next fifteen or so years; but had he written nothing other than these plays, it is doubtful whether he would have been remembered at all. Not that some of them do not show flashes of what was to come: The Vikings at Helgeland, especially, clearly foreshadows the later Hedda Gabler. But it’s fair to say that stodgy historical melodramas, with such creaking plot devices as overheard conversations and intercepted letters and so on, are not really to modern taste.

Ibsen himself seemed to tire of all this. Love’s Comedy, written in 1862, seemed a very conscious departure: forsaking historic romance and melodrama, Ibsen set this play in contemporary times, and wrote the whole thing in rhymed verse, rich in poetic imagery; and its principal theme – which, predictably, scandalised contemporary audiences – was the barriers set in the way of human love when institutionalised as marriage. It’s a fascinating work in many respects, but, I must admit, not one I find particularly dramatic: how much I should blame translations for this I am not entirely sure, but I do get the feeling that Ibsen was branching out into new and unexplored territory, and it shouldn’t really be too surprising if there are some shortcomings.

Ibsen turned back to historic drama again with his next play, The Pretenders, an epic work that seems to me quite clearly a great advance on his earlier historic plays. Although, even here, it must be admitted that, compared to something such as, say, Danton’s Death, written by Georg Büchner some thirty years earlier, it can seem a bit leaden.

It was at this time something remarkable happened. A government grant, for which he had applied a year earlier, freed him from the responsibility of having to write specifically for the theatre; and Ibsen left Norway for Italy (he remained an exile from Norway for the next 27 years). And here, in the southern Mediterranean climes, he wrote a verse play set in the mountains and the fjords of the home country he had turned his back on. This play – the first of his two plays written specifically to be read rather than to be performed – was Brand, and I don’t think even the finest of his earlier works could have prepared anyone for the immense stature of this: it was as if the freedom not to write for the stage had freed his imagination also.

However, the verse, even in translation, is vividly dramatic. The whole work is far too long for a single evening’s performance, but the dramatic seemed to be such an inexorable feature of Ibsen’s imagination that, even when cut down for performance, and even in translation, it holds the stage triumphantly. Here, with bold dramatic strokes, Ibsen depicts a dramatic world that is perhaps best described as “mythic” – scenes, situations, and characters of immense power, resonating in our minds as insistently as the most potent of ancient myths.

Its title character, Brand, is a preacher whose stern, unbending search for truth, the absolute truth, and his refusal to accept compromise, inflicts cruelties not only upon his flock, but also upon those he loves most, and even upon himself. It is a theme that haunts Ibsen’s work: the truth. We may all acknowledge its importance: we always have done. Tell the truth and let all else go hang. But all else can’t go hang: Ibsen was fascinated by the extent to which humans can accept the truth – the extent to which they can acknowledge it, or even, perhaps, recognise it. In the magnificent final scene of Brand, Brand, rejected by his flock, is led into a mountain crevice covered above by ice – the “ice church”. The truth is indeed holy, but it is also cold. Can humans inhabit such an ice church?

Peer Gynt appeared the very next year, 1867. As far as I have read, this, and Brand, are – for me at any rate – the last great plays in verse (although, I suppose, a case can be made for the verse plays of T. S. Eliot). In many ways, Peer Gynt is the antithesis of Brand: if Brand is unbending, Peer is only too happy to bend in whichever direction the wind blows, evading his responsibilities, compromising his morals (which he possibly never had much of to begin with), until, by the end, he is no more than an onion – layer upon accumulated layer, with no real core. If in Brand Ibsen had invented his own mythology, here, in a troll-haunted world, he invents his own folklore; and such is the reach of this astounding work – again, not written specifically for the theatre, but which works splendidly on stage even in cut-down versions – that he seems to me to anticipate virtually all the dramatic innovations of twentieth century theatre: I once saw a production of Peer Gynt by the Berliner Ensemble, directed by Peter Zadek, and, true to their Brechtian roots, they presented it in the mould of Brechtian Epic Theatre: it worked beautifully. There are also elements in this play that seem to me also to anticipate Strindberg’s dream plays, or the Theatre of the Absurd. It is an audacious achievement.

After scaling these heights of poetic drama, Ibsen seemed to turn his back on poetry. But first came a curious anomaly – Emperor and Galilean, a two-part epic drama, filled with the bizarre and the opulent and the exotic. I have read this a few times, but have failed to make sense of it, and to see where exactly in Ibsen’s work it fits. It seems like nothing Ibsen had written before or after, either stylistically or thematically. It is tempting to think that Ibsen took a wrong turn with this one, but it shouldn’t really be dismissed so glibly: he collected material for this play for over four years, and spent another two years writing it; and what’s more, he averred it to be his finest work. It is all very mysterious. I sometimes think this is Ibsen’s equivalent of Flaubert’s Salammbôsomething he had to get out of his system as an outlet before he could focus on more everyday matters. But I may well be wrong. I re-read this recently, and I was, once again, very puzzled.

There was also a comedy – yes, Ibsen did write comedies – The League of Youth, which is, to be frank, an enjoyable but comparatively slight affair. And then followed the twelve prose plays that critic Brian Johnston refers to as “The Ibsen Cycle”- plays set not in the world of the mythic, or of folklore, but in the everyday world, with characters from ordinary walks of life, speaking, naturalistically, in prose. But appearances can be deceptive. While the earlier plays in this cycle certainly seem to focus on social issues, even here, it seems to me, the undercurrents run deep. And these undercurrents become more apparent on the surface as the cycle progresses, the poetic imagery becomes ever denser and ever more resonant, until, in the last play, When We Dead Reawaken, though written in prose, we seem to be back again in the poetic world of Brand and of Peer Gynt. The adjective “visionary” does not seem misapplied.


Perhaps it’s the literature of the mid- to late- 19th century that attracts me most. Not exclusively: I love my Shakespeare, of course, and the Romantic poets; I have a keen interest in Greek tragedies, am entranced by Don Quixote, and so on; and I love also a great many of the achievements of modernism – Ulysses, The Four Quartets, etc. And inevitably, given my Bengali background, Tagore is important to me – I don’t have a choice on that one. But it’s perhaps the mid- to late- 19th century that I keep going back to most, for reasons I haven’t frankly bothered to analyse. And the literary figures of that era who are most important to me, who are, as it were, permanent residents of my mind (such as it is), are, I think, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Hopkins, and, most certainly, Ibsen. But I have never really understood why Ibsen exerts so powerful a hold on my imagination. So I am planning, over the course of this year, to read Ibsen’s major works – by which I mean Brand and Peer Gynt, and the twelve prose plays beginning with The Pillars of Society and ending with When We Dead Awaken – and to write here some unstructured personal musings. (I’ll give Emperor and Galilean a miss: it may well be a major work, but if I try to write about something I really don’t understand, I’m afraid I’ll end up just making an arse of myself.)

As ever, these posts will not be analyses, and certainly not “reviews”, but merely some reflections on what these works mean to me. I shall, in short, be talking to myself. But I’ll be talking out loud, so do please drop in to listen, if you feel like it; and, as ever, feel free to add your own thoughts, and let me know if you disagree. It’ll all help me sort out my own thoughts on this most fascinating of writers.