Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Unwin’

“Poor Naked Wretches: Shakespeare’s Working People” by Stephen Unwin

“Poor Naked Wretches: Shakespeare’s Working People” by Stephen Unwin, published by Reaktion Books

As Stephen Unwin acknowledges early in his introduction, “Shakespeare grants more space to the rich and powerful than to those who work for them”. Various reasons for this are listed: there existed, after all, conventions and practical imperatives that a commercial playwright could not ignore. But people from what we may term the “lower echelons of society” (though Unwin himself is careful not to use such terms) – that is, those who aren’t among the rich and powerful – also populate his plays; and while they are not Prince Hamlet, neither are they present merely to make up the numbers: Shakespeare’s insatiable curiosity into the natures of various kinds of humanity is always apparent, no matter what social rank he is depicting. It is these characters of the “lower echelons” on whom Unwin focuses: what part do they play in these dramas? What was Shakespeare’s view of the commonality, those non-royals and non-aristocrats, from whose ranks Shakespeare himself had emerged?

Unwin is, quite rightly, quick to dismiss the view that Shakespeare shared Hamlet’s contempt for the groundlings (“…who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb show and noise”), or that he sympathised with Coriolanus’ hatred of “the many-headed multitude”. It is, after all, foolish to take the words spoken by certain dramatic characters in certain dramatic situations as reflecting the author’s own position, though it is surprising how many have done just that. Unwin dismisses also the patronising view expressed even by a critic as perceptive as Bradley, who described the “poor and humble” in these plays as “almost without exception, sound and sweet at heart, faithful and pitiful”. Looking clearly at what the texts say, both the contempt and the sentimentality seem out of place: Shakespeare’s view of those on the lower ranks was considerably more penetrating, as, indeed, we should expect from a writer so endlessly fascinated by all aspects of humanity. These characters may not occupy central positions in these dramas, but nothing human was alien to Shakespeare’s ever-probing mind.

There follow after the introduction ten fascinating chapters in which Unwin considers, one by one, the various categories of such characters. Firstly, there are the servants, slaves, and messengers. (The distinction between servant and slave is not always clear in the plays: are the two Dromios, say, slaves or servants?) Then follow the tradesmen and craftsmen, labourers and rebels, grouped together, as the boundaries separating them are often porous. We move to the pastoral setting in the next chapter, as Unwin considers shepherds, peasants, and gardeners; and then, into the world of women, which examines Shakespeare’s depiction of maids, nurses, and, yes, of witches. Workers in inns, taverns and brothels follow – the boundaries between these categories, once again, being often far from clear; and the next chapter looks at Shakespeare’s depiction of those from his own profession – “the poor players”. This leads naturally on to a chapter on fools, clowns, and jesters, and then, on to the most literate of the working people – clerks and clergy. Despite the title of the book, not all the types examined are strictly “working people”: Unwin next considers murderers and thieves, outlaws and conmen. And finally, Unwin moves on soldiers, sailors, and men at arms.

In each of these ten chapters, Unwin, with a trademark clarity familiar to anyone who has seen his theatrical productions, trawls through the plays, considering the depiction of working people, both in terms of their presentation on stage, and also in relation to the very harsh social and economic conditions of the time. What emerges is a plurality, a multiplicity: no general rule can be formulated to cover all cases, because each of these characters is depicted as an individual. Some are indeed, as Bradley puts it, “sound and sweet at heart”: a few, like those tenants in King Lear who tend to the Earl of Gloucester, despite what they must have known would have been terrible consequences should their kindness be discovered, may even be described as heroic in their soundness and their sweetness. But Shakespeare, like Tolstoy after him, was fascinated by the sheer variety of human types: no two poor people are alike because no two people are alike, regardless of social status.

There are, inevitably, darker elements too. At the furthest extreme from the soundness and sweetness are those “murderers”, as they are referred to in the stage directions of Richard III and Macbeth. In the latter play, we are actually forced to witness the murder of a child on stage: there is no sweetening of the pill. And yet, even these murderers are not an undifferentiated mass: each is an individual. The two murderers sent to kill Clarence in Richard III, for distance, are very different people.

And even though they commit the most heinous of crimes, they are morally no worse than the rich and powerful who have commissioned them. Jack Cade and his followers commit the most terrible atrocities, but they are morally no worse than the nobles who, in pursuit of their own ambitions, plunge the entire nation into civil war; and Shakespeare highlights this parallel by juxtaposing Cade’s rebellion with the civil wars that follow. Or consider James Tyrrell, commissioned to carry out the murder of the Princes in the Tower: he can feel a compassion for his innocent victims that Richard III, who had commissioned him, cannot. But there is no sentimentality here either on Shakespeare’s part: for all Tyrrell’s compassion, he does what he had been ordered.

There are reasons why these people have become what they are, and Shakespeare is interested in what these reasons are. Nothing human, after all, is alien to him. And nothing is alien to humanity either. “If it be man’s work, I’ll do it,” says the captain in King Lear before he goes on to commit an act that no man should do. This implicitly raises the question “What is man’s work?” The extremes of good and bad, each seemingly unbelievable were it not that we know both to exist, are present in the poor and powerless as well as in the rich and powerful. There is no contempt on Shakespeare’s part of those on the lower rungs of the ladder, but no sentimentality either. He gave the poor and powerless the same perceptive gaze he gave the rich and powerful.

In between these two extremes, there is what seems like an infinite variety. The working people can be dim, like Francis the apprentice drawer in Henry IV, Part One; or they can be intelligent and quick-witted, like the first gravedigger in Hamlet. Francis has always struck me as an interesting case. He is not at all intelligent or articulate, and, through no fault of his own, is certainly not educated; and Prince Hal and his boozing crony Poins poke fun at Francis quite mercilessly. How exactly are we to take this? Are we to share in the joke? Unwin reminds us that there would have been many apprentices among the groundlings, and it is unlikely they would have enjoyed seeing one of their own number made fun of in so heartless a manner. He adds that there are many different ways of playing this scene, which makes me wish that he could have described at least some of them. However, this is not a book about interpretations in stage productions (although I do hope such a book will follow). Whenever I read this scene, or see it in production (although, I’m sorry to say, I missed Unwin’s own productions of the Henry IV plays), I must admit it leaves something of a sour taste in the mouth: I cannot join Hal and Poins in their laughing at someone so very far below them by any measure of social privilege. Perhaps that sour taste in the mouth is precisely what Shakespeare had intended.

But Shakespeare depicts also among working people a wit and quick intelligence. “The age is grown so picked that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier, he gaffs his kibe,” says Hamlet of the gravedigger, but Hamlet is not being quite as generous as may at first sight appear: Hamlet’s pride may prevent him from acknowledging it, but, whether he admits to it or not, in their exchange, we had actually witnessed the gravedigger not just matching Hamlet, but getting the better of him. The peasant’s toe has done far more than merely come near the courtier’s heel. We’re a long way here from Hal casually mocking Francis’ inarticulacy and lack of education.

Throughout this book, there is a keen awareness of the tremendous social and economic pressures that have forced these people into the situations they’re in, and have made them what they are. Not that Unwin subscribes to social determinism, as such: a man so desperately poor as to agree to committing murder for money can nonetheless turn his back on the act, and refuse to do it. But the pressures are there all the same, and Shakespeare is aware of how great they are. In Henry VI Part Two, there is a scene that may at first sight seem extraneous, but, given that it is a part of a series of plays that sets out to depict the state of an entire nation, increasingly seems to me important. In this scene, a poor man claims to have been miraculously cured of blindness. The young king is impressed, but the more worldly-wise Duke of Gloucester isn’t: in questioning this man and his wife, he uncovers their deception, and then orders what seems, to modern audiences at least, the most disproportionate punishment. At this point, the man’s wife has a single line: “Alas! Sir, we did it for pure need.” And this single line casts an entirely new light upon what we have just seen: what had seemed, till now, mainly comic, turns suddenly into something far more poignant. Far from being an extraneous scene, it seems to me absolutely essential in what is, after all, a wider drama depicting the state of the nation.

This book focuses on an element often considered of secondary importance in dramas depicting the rich and the powerful, the kings and the queens, bishops and cardinals, senators and patricians. It focuses on the ordinary populace, the working people, the “poor naked wretches”, and these people are seen here, quite rightly, as more than mere background: as Unwin shows here, Shakespeare depicts them not with contempt or with sentimentality, but as individuals, with the same range of thought and of intelligence and of morality as their supposed betters. It is all presented with a clarity and a level-headedness that I have come to expect of him as a stage director, and I can only hope further books from Unwin will follow. (In particular, a book on interpretations in performance would be particularly fascinating.) While, naturally, I welcome studies by academics, there are, it seems to me, unique insights to be gained from those like Stephen Unwin who have experience of presenting these endlessly absorbing works in performance.

“All Our Children” by Stephen Unwin

All Our Children, at Jermyn Street Theatre, written and directed by Stephen Unwin.

This is not intended as a review. It’s a bit pointless anyway to review a play just a few days before its final performance. This is really no more than a record of my personal impressions, for what they’re worth. It is an attempt to make some sort of sense of the various thoughts and ideas that this play brought to the forefront of my mind. And, since the play did make a big impact on me, these personal thoughts and impressions seemed to me worth recording.

The play addresses the organised mass-murder of disabled children in Nazi Germany. It’s a problematic theme. Mass-murder of the innocent and the vulnerable is so morally nauseating that our moral indignation, though entirely justified, is likely to drown out those subtleties and nuances that generally give drama its depth. And once one has asserted how monstrous an atrocity these murders were, what more remains to be said?

In the event, this play delivered some ninety or so minutes, uninterrupted by an interval, of gripping, passionate, and sometimes explosive, drama. At the centre of the drama is Victor, a paediatrician, himself, quite obviously, severely ill. From Victor’s clinic children deemed “incurable” are transported away to special camps, in buses with windows painted out. He does not care very much to know what precisely happens in those camps, but he is assured that the extermination is painless. He himself marks out those children who are “incurable”, and, hence, to be exterminated. And, somehow, he has convinced himself that it is all for the best – best for everyone. The arguments for this are, after all, entirely rational: these children are so severely damaged that life can have no meaning for them; they are unable to contribute to society in any way, and are a constant source of pain and distress both to their families, and to themselves; they require vast expenditure just to be kept alive, and, when money is short, they are taking away resources from more deserving areas; and so on. Leaving aside sentimentality, disposing of them quietly and painlessly is really the best all round.

There is no real rational argument against any of this. The only argument is presented in the final act by Bishop von Galen (a historical figure), and his argument, far from being rational, is, as is to be expected from a bishop, overtly religious: human life, he asserts, all human life, is sacred. “Sentimental squeals of the ignorant,” as Eric, the enthusiastic young SS officer assigned as Victor’s deputy, puts it.

Victor himself is atheist, and a rationalist. And yet, he cannot quite share Eric’s enthusiasm for this brave new world. He cannot quite believe the arguments he is himself making in his own defence. He has compelled himself to accept all the rational arguments for what he is doing: leaving sentimentality aside, this is, indeed, the best for everyone – best even for those unfortunate, incurable children – the lebensunwertes Leben, lives unworthy of life, as they were known. And yet, he is not at peace with himself. And over the course of the play, a series of confrontations – with his deputy Eric, with his housekeeper Martha, with Elizabetta, the mother of one of the incurable children, and, finally, with Bishop von Galen – compels his inner self, which he had kept suppressed, to assert itself. Not that it makes much difference in the end: he has already been a major cog in the monstrous machine, and the horror will continue, with or without him. And in any case, he does not expect to live long. He is severely ill, and, if the illness doesn’t get him first, the Nazis will. “They’ll probably send me to a concentration camp,” he says at the end. “Or worse.” But it is not Victor’s conversion that is the real crux of the play: at the centre of the drama is a conflict between different value systems – one that sees human life without “sentimentality” is strictly rational terms, and the other which, in defiance of all rationality, insists on seeing human life as “sacred”.

It is all too easy for us to look at this conflict, and declare that the bishop’s view – that human life is sacred – is obviously the correct view, but there is more to this play than so obvious a conclusion. The question, it seems to me, is not so much “which side is right?”, but, rather, “why is it right?” Bishop von Galen can assert the sacred because he firmly believes in God, but can the concept of the sacred still be asserted in when, like Victor himself, we don’t believe in a God? And if we cannot assert the sacred, what answer do we give to Eric? This issue has not, I fear, disappeared with the fall of the Third Reich.

At this point, I trust the reader will forgive me if this piece takes on a more personal hue. For this is a question that I have struggled with now for some time, without being able to reach an answer that satisfies me. If we believe in God, and define the “sacred” as that which relates to God, there is no problem: we are, internally at least, consistent. But if we no longer believe in God, how do we define “sacred”? And if we cannot even define the sacred, how can we assert it? How can we declare it to be anything more than the “sentimental squeals of the ignorant” that the Nazi officer Eric takes it to be? If we cannot wholeheartedly assert our belief in God, how can we insist on the sacred?

This question plagued me insistently throughout the play. The murder of children is without doubt obscene, but how do I argue against it without appealing, as Bishop von Galen does, to religion?

The play is so passionate, so emotionally powerful, that at times it is almost unbearable. The scene where the mother of a murdered child confronts the doctor had me squirming in my seat with almost physical pain. The bishop’s assertions of morality in the last act came almost as a sort of relief – relief that such thoughts are finally expressed. But it is Martha, the housekeeper, whose words near the very end have the greatest effect:

Oh Doctor, I worry so much. About the children. Not just mine, but all of them. I know we’re meant to look down on the ones here and say they’re useless. But I don’t. I love them. I love every single one of them. I love my own children, of course, and I’m glad that they’re not – But I love the ones here too. Even the stupid ones. Even the ones who can’t do anything. Even the ones who just sit in their chairs dribbling. [Pause] I used to be so scared of them. They seemed so different to me. As if they’d infect me with their illnesses. As if I’d become like one of them. And they are different. But they don’t scare me any more. They’re just children, aren’t they? They’re just children. All our children.

No mention of religion here, or of the sacred. It is, indeed, an utterly irrational speech. Sentimental squeals of the ignorant. But sometimes, it is worth leaving our rationality behind, and worth risking sentimentality.


Jermyn Street Theatre is a small, subterranean venue, seating, I’m told, only 70, and with everyone very close to the actors. The acting space itself is very small. Being so very close to the action gave the whole thing more than a sense of intimacy: it was, quite often, as it was no doubt meant to be, oppressive and claustrophobic.

At the very opening and again at the end, we heard strains from the first song of Schubert’s Winterreise, possibly the bleakest work of art ever conceived. The evening lived up to its promise of bleak intensity, unrelieved by anything even remotely resembling “comic relief”. The performances were stunning: Colin Tierney, on stage throughout, was very believable as the tortured doctor, who shows heroism only when it is too late; the intensity of Lucy Speed’s performance, as the mother of a murdered epileptic child, was almost too intense to be bearable; Rebecca Johnson gave a touching performance as the housekeeper Martha, who had unthinkingly swallowed all the propaganda about the Fatherland, but whose underlying compassion is, ultimately, the only possible answer to the evil around her; Edward Franklin’s portrayal of the committed young Nazi is genuinely disturbing; and David Yelland, as Bishop von Galen, conveyed all the authority, moral indignation, and also, it must be said, an aristocratic disdain bordering on pomposity (Bishop von Galen was of an aristocratic background) that the part called for.

The entire production was, in short, a triumph. Quite apart from anything else, when cinema, and, in its wake, television, are moving increasingly towards visual rather than verbal means of expression, it is good to be reminded just how powerful and moving drama can be when generated primarily by the spoken word.

Stephen Unwin is best known as a theatre director, and, especially, for his productions of the plays of Ibsen and of Shakespeare. This is his first play as writer. I, for one, hope it won’t be his last.

Gloucester’s mock-suicide

…for, once again, the fierce dispute
Betwixt damnation and impassioned clay
Must I burn through…
– John Keats

“Damnation and impassioned clay…” Keats certainly had a way with words! But impressive though those words are, I particularly love here his use of the word “must”. King Lear is a harrowing play: fierce disputes betwixt damnation and impassioned clay, even at best of times, are unlikely to be anything but harrowing. But no matter: those of us who are under its spell feel that they must keep returning to it. And no matter how many times one sees or reads this play, each new encounter overwhelms with its terror and its pity, and its savage power.

I was eleven years old when I first encountered this play. It was at the Assembly Halls in Edinburgh, during the 1971 Edinburgh Festival: Timothy West played Lear. I am not sure how much I took in, or even how much I was capable of taking in at that age: but I took in enough. I was so excited by what I had seen, that I could not get to sleep that night. There are few single instances that one could describe as “life-changing”, but I think I can with some confidence describe that evening in such terms: my Shakespeare mania can be traced back to that performance.

Timothy West was, I think, only in his forties when he played that role in Edinburgh. Some thirty or so afterwards, I saw Timothy West, now himself closer to Lear’s “fourscore and more”, play the role again, this time in an English Touring Theatre production directed by Stephen Unwin. I am afraid I cannot give a detailed account of how his interpretation had changed over the years, but his performance was every bit as overwhelming as I remember it to have been some thirty years earlier.

I am currently reading the play in two different texts. Last year, I read Hamlet in different texts – the two Quarto texts (the so-called “good Quarto”, and also the “Bad Quarto” for completeness), and the Folio – and convinced myself that when more than one legitimate text exists, then we must treat them as different versions of the work: no purpose is served in conflating them. So now, to King Lear: as with Hamlet there are two good texts – the First Quarto, of 1608, and the First Folio, printed after Shakespeare’s death in the 1623; and there are sufficient differences between the two texts to indicate significant revisions. I’ll try to compare the two texts once I have finished reading them, but for the moment, I am drawn once again into this fierce dispute betwixt damnation and impassioned clay. And there’s one scene in particular in this fierce dispute that, even after forty and more years of repeated reading and viewing, I find puzzling.

It occurs in Act 4, shortly before the famous scene in which the blind Gloucester encounters the mad Lear on the heath. Edgar, Gloucester’s exiled son, leads his eyeless father: the father is unaware of the identity of the man leading him, and, in despair, wants only to die. Edgar pretends that they are at the edge of a cliff, and delivers a magnificent vertigo-inducing description of what it is like to look down from the imagined heights. Gloucester, thinking himself to be on the edge, leaps forward, only to fall on the level ground. When he comes to, Edgar approaches him again, this time pretending to be another person; and he tells Gloucester that he is now at the foot of the cliff, having fallen from the top, and that, but by some miracle, has remained physically unscathed. He adds also that the person Gloucester had been with at the top of the cliff – himself of course – had appeared to him from the bottom as some sort of fiendish supernatural figure.

This episode has always struck me as bizarre. I frankly do not understand it. Edgar playing these games with his sightless father makes no sort of sense at all: what is he trying to achieve? He tells us that he is doing all this to cure his father from despair, but how all this tomfoolery could achieve such an end, or even why he thinks it could achieve that end, is far from clear. It is utterly bizarre.

And yet, it is a scene that haunts the mind. I do not understand it, and I cannot see how it fits with what I understand to be the themes of the play. But I would not even think of cutting it from performance. After all, Shakespeare did not remove it when he revised the work: he clearly thought it important.

Am I missing something here? Or is this scene – like Charmian’s “Ah, soldier!” – one of those Shakespearean miracles that defy analysis? I do not know. Analysis is important, certainly, but it is salutary perhaps to keep in mind that a work of this stature has about it a mystery; and that even the most trenchant of analyses cannot pluck out the heart of that mystery.

“The air is thick with ghosts…”

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 from which they 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…

OSVALD: Mother…

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, play these very difficult parts superbly. 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.

“The Lady from the Sea”: a rich, rare Ibsen

19th century work about a married woman? File under “Trapped Inside a Marriage”. Emma Bovary, Hedda Gabler, Isabel Archer, Anna Karenina, Dorothea Brooke, Lady Dedlock … They’re all much of a muchness, aren’t they? “Trapped inside a marriage” – that’s what 19th century writers did awfully well.

And if it’s Ibsen, they’re definitely trapped inside marriage! In fact, you don’t even need to read or to see the play. Ibsen, after all, was a past master at this Trapped-Inside-a-Marriage malarkey: if it’s “Trapped Inside a Marriage” you want, then Ibsen’s your man!


The Lady From the Sea is among Ibsen’s finest works, written at a time in his career when he seemed incapable of writing anything other than masterpieces. It features at its centre one of the finest and most demanding roles ever written for an actress. And yet, while actresses queue up to play Nora in A Doll’s House, or the title role in Hedda Gabler, The Lady From the Sea is comparatively little-known, and rarely performed. I have been, for several years now, trying to catch on stage as many Ibsen plays as I can, but I only caught up with The Lady From the Sea on stage a couple of weeks ago – in a quite excellent production at the Rose Theatre in Kingston-on-Thames, with Joely Richardson in the central role, and superbly directed with characteristic clarity by Stephen Unwin.

It is hard to understand the reason for this neglect. As Unwin’s production demonstrated, it can hold the stage triumphantly. But, although Ellida Wangel is among the finest of all Ibsen roles, this is, essentially, an ensemble piece, with at least half dozen or so characters holding the stage equally: this is unusual for Ibsen – especially late Ibsen, in which the spotlight usually falls with a disconcerting intensity on only two or three characters at the most – and brings it in many ways closer to Chekhovian drama: but the themes, and the haunting poetic imagery, are unmistakably Ibsenite.

To get the obvious out of the way, Ellida Wangel is, indeed, trapped inside a marriage. But she is very different either from Nora (in A Doll’s House), who had preceded her by about nine years; or from Hedda, who was to follow immediately afterwards. Nora is an intelligent woman who plays the role of a helpless scatterbrain utterly dependent upon her husband because this is the role that is expected of her: she wears the mask that her particular social environment has created for her, but is intelligent enough to arrive at the realisation that the mask doesn’t fit. Hedda, on the other hand, is self-lacerating from the very start; she is also intelligent, but her intelligence merely serves to increase her disgust with herself: she has walked into her soul-destroying marriage with her eyes fully open, almost, one suspects, to punish herself. Ellida is quite different from either Nora or Hedda: she is a woman who remains, for reasons she herself cannot herself quite fathom, alienated from her kindly husband, and from her step-daughters, and longs for a freedom that she knows she has never had.

The respective husbands of these three ladies are also very different from each other. Nora’s husband, Torvald, is a self-deluding egotist, who, like his wife, is also wearing a mask that refuses to fit; Hedda’s husband is merely a nincompoop. But Ellida’s husband, though ageing, is a kindly, decent man. These ladies may all be trapped within their marriages, but  the marriages are all, nonetheless, very different from each other; and the ladies themselves are very different from each other. And, not surprisingly, these three marriages are resolved in very different ways. Nora famously walks out on her husband, but despite the apparent decisiveness of her action, she remains curiously uncertain: she is uncertain as to who she really is beneath her mask, and is determined to discover for herself; Hedda’s energies, on the other hand, become merely destructive, and turn in upon herself in one of Ibsen’s bleakest endings. But in The Lady From the Sea, against all expectations, the ending is joyous and radiant, as sunlight floods the stage. If only those who characterise Ibsen merely as a doom-and-gloom merchant would read or see this play: it is one of the most startlingly moving finales in all drama.

Ellida Wangel herself, the eponymous Lady From the Sea, I can’t help seeing as a sort of corollary to Isabel Archer: in A Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer finds herself having the luxury to choose, but the choice she makes is disastrous; nonetheless, because the choice has been made freely, she faces up heroically to its consequences. Ellida Wangel, on the other hand, has made a good choice; however, the choice had not been freely made, and, for this reason, Ellida cannot accept its validity. Despite her husband’s kindness and gentleness, Ellida has remained aloof: she is alienated not merely from her husband, but also from her step-daughters, who have come to despise her.

Into this naturalistic situation, Ibsen introduces his own brand of poetic imagery, which, in this play, hints at the demonic and the supernatural. Ellida had grown up in the far North, by the sea: even now, she is drawn to the sea, and to all it represents – openness, freedom, even terror – everything that is closed to her in her stolidly middle-class bourgeois marriage. And she is haunted by a memory of the past: she had betrothed herself to a sailor, and, despite this sailor being very likely a murderer, had solemnised the betrothal by tying together two rings, and throwing them into the sea. This sailor had said he will return for her, but he hadn’t: now, it appears, he may be dead. But, precisely half way through the play, this man, who may be dead, returns, and claims her. Ellida, significantly, does not recognise him at first, but when she does, she finds the claims of this ghostly man and all that he represents irresistible. But at the same time, she hates herself for what she desires.

There is a strong element of folklore in all this: Ibsen makes use here of the same legend that had inspired Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” – of the Lady from the Sea who comes to the land, grows land-legs, and finds herself unable to return. But while the Little Mermaid’s failure to return to the sea is tragic, Ibsen considers other possibilities: human beings, after all, are capable of growth, of development: they are capable of “acclimatisation”. In his earlier masterpiece, Peer Gynt had been happy to let his face grow to fit whatever mask happened to be the most convenient at the time, but when he tries to find out who he really is, he finds himself to be like an onion – merely layer upon accumulated layer, with no real centre; but his opposite is Brand, the absolutist, the utterly inflexible, the man who is prepared to destroy what is most dear to him rather than compromise. Here, in a naturalistic setting, Ibsen ponders upon the possible meanings of the story of the Little Mermaid: is developing land legs necessarily a bad thing? Is not the ability to compromise among mankind’s most remarkable features, and possibly even its saving grace? In short, is the story of the Little Mermaid necessarily tragic?

The subplots – unusual in an Ibsen play – are fully but unobtrusively developed. There’s the younger daughter, Hilde, whom we will see again in the later play The Master Builder: in that play, when it is suggested that she return home, she says “Wild birds do not fly back into their cages”. Here, we see the cage for ourselves, and to be frank, it doesn’t seem so bad. But she is a wild bird, all the same: we see her here fascinated by a young man who is absurdly foolish and self-obsessed, and who doesn’t realise that he is dying; Hilde, however, knows, and, fascinated by his impending death, teases him mercilessly. The older sister, Bolette, is much gentler, but she too has dreams of breaking out of the backwater which is the only world she knows, and coming to terms with the world outside. But the only way she can leave her native backwater is to accept the proposal of Arnholm, who had formerly been her tutor. She does not see him as a husband, but what choice does she have? Earlier in the play, Ellida had told her husband  that he had “bought” her: her husband had been shocked and hurt, but could not deny the justice of the accusation. And now, we see the same pattern repeating itself: Bolette is being “bought” by her prospective husband. But things are not quite so simple as such a bald summary might suggest: Arnholm, like Ellida’s husband Wangel, is a decent and kindly man: possibly, in time, Bolette may “acclimatise” as well.

But acclimatisation cannot, and must not, be taken for granted. Wangel had been hurt when his wife had told him that he had “bought” her, but he must accept the truth of this. And he is duty-bound, as an honest man, to set her free. And this he does in the climactic scene of the play: it is a heroic effort, and such heroism is unexpected in a character who has been presented in generally unheroic terms. But nonetheless, he does set her free: whatever choice she makes now is her own, freely made. Ellida is taken aback, “With all your heart?”she asks in astonishment. Yes, her husband replies replies in pain, “with all my suffering heart”. And at this point, Ellida knows what her choice is, and it is not what she had expected. She has, despite everything, “acclimatised”.


In Ibsen’s very next play, Hedda Gabler, we are back in a human hell. No  longer are we out in the open air by the fjords and mountains: we are stuck, claustrophobically enclosed, in a bourgeois drawing room, in which all passions turn hellish and destructive. This is not because Ibsen had changed his mind about marriage: he was, as ever, exploring new and different facets. But Hedda Gabler , powerful though it is, does not negate this rich, rare play in which Ibsen considers the possibility that we humans may, despite everything, pull through together after all.