Ibsen’s Great Haunting What a Norwegian playwright might teach us about the summer of our discontent.

Judi Dench as Mrs. Alving and Kenneth Branagh as Oswald in the BBC's 1987 production of Henrik Ibsen's "Ghosts."

Amid the fear and hope, the death and disruption and, above all, the anxiety of life during a pandemic and mass protest against systemic racism, one of the more comforting activities of quarantined home-life is staring at your bookshelves to ask hard questions.

“So, what did I spend all those hours that add up to years of reading for? What did I learn from these silent friends, their titles staring back at me, that might assist me in my hour of need and, I hope, two years from now?”

In the middle of March the musings on Albert Camus’s The Plague were thick on the ground. Gone were the persistent interpretations of the past that his Algerian plague was a metaphor for the sickness of fascism in Vichy France. Covid-19 laid any such sophistication bare. Instead, the great French-Algerian writer’s slim novel was a plea for all of us to be gracious to one another amidst life’s brief span of fragility. Life is absurd, so all the more reason for us to be kind toward one another.

Next came the appeals to read excerpts—but surely not the whole damned thing, just the plague years—from the diaries of Samuel Pepys, who managed to find hectic joys in the plague that visited his London Town. If Pepys could dodge a fatal disease with enough efficiency to carry on affairs with married women and live to write about it, what are we so worked up about?

Then UK lecturer Philip Hoare unveiled his celebrity-studded Big Read of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the poem of one man’s inexplicable urge to kill a mystical albatross at sea, survive the agony and intense hallucinations of thirst and doldrums, but still live to tell about it all to a stranger attending a hill-top wedding. Do not worry, Coleridge’s poem hints broadly. In the end, the trials of survival become wisdom for sweet discourses.

The fact is, so many texts indirectly related to disease and pandemic can become balm for our collective soul. As Paul Fussell writes in the preface of his renowned 1975 book, The Great War and Modern Memory, “I have focused on places and situations where literary tradition and real life notably intersect, and in doing so I have tried to understand something of the simultaneous and reciprocal process by which life feeds materials to literature while literature returns the favor by conferring forms upon life.”

Historical events—be they wars, plagues, or economic catastrophes—draw upon old myths and literary tropes even as they gear up to produce new ones that sustain the imaginations of our future.

Mere months into our current pandemic, our new myths and metaphors have not quite arrived for full articulation and meditation, but they are in close proximity. We sense them lurking around us, even if we cannot make out their shapes and forms. We anticipate them; maybe also dread them.

This is why, despite all the great reasons for reading Camus, Pepys, and Coleridge anew, my first thoughts went immediately to Henrik Ibsen. Specifically, his 1881 drama Ghosts.

Mere months into our current pandemic, our new myths and metaphors have not quite arrived for full articulation and meditation, but they are in close proximity. We sense them lurking around us, even if we cannot make out their shapes and forms. We anticipate them; maybe also dread them.

Most lovers of the theater can recount the first time they fell in love with the medium. Mine was as a 14-year-old who accompanied his mother to a professional production of Hedda Gabler at Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Theater Company in the early 1980s. Mostly naïve to domestic turmoil, I loved it that the characters argued with and cared about one another with seeming passion and, to be honest, I loved the prop of a handgun. But it was an old couple sitting next to me that I remember most. Partaking of a bag of chocolate-covered raisins during intermission with all the gusto of teenagers, the husband asked me pointedly.

“So, young man, what is your favorite Ibsen play?”

Staring back at him in complete confusion, I answered, “Well probably this one.”

“My wife’s favorite is Wild Duck, when it’s not Peer Gynt, that is!” he answered.

“No, it’s Wild Duck,” she said to him. “Definitely Wild Duck.”

“Then Wild Duck it is,” he said, reaching for her hand.

Minutes before the curtain rose on the second act, I was sold. Not so much on Ibsen’s dramatic genius, but the belief that any person of even basic sophistication must have a favorite Ibsen play. As a bonus, it also seemed obvious that the strongest of all marriages were built on a solid appreciation of theater. Even though I never spoke to the elderly couple sitting next to me again, I wanted what they had; that is, the love and wisdom of modern theater. The holding of hands before the spectacle of actors arguing and asking questions on stage.

It would be years after that production of Hedda Gabler that I finally got around to reading Wild Duck, watching the BBC drama of the same name starring Jenny Agutter as Hedvig, or sitting rapt as Jane Fonda played Nora in A Doll’s House, slamming the door on her husband Torvold. My high school friends could brag all they wanted about having read The Brothers Karamazov. A true revolutionary of the soul knew how seismic it was for individuals to free themselves from the bonds of societal convention. So what if none of his leading characters interrogated Jesus, or murdered their landlord? Playwright Henrik Ibsen was that mutton-chopped revolutionary. Decades before The Beatles made “living together” part of the normal course of human events, this dark Norwegian had wives leaving husbands to discover themselves as people.

 

• • •

 

 

Ghosts was crossed off my list of Ibsen must-sees relatively late in life, during a gap year when I drove south with my family from Salt Lake City down to Cedar City, Utah, to attend the Utah Shakespeare Festival. An Ibsen play planted in the middle of a replica of The Globe, and surrounded by Elizabethan drama, perplexed everyone. The program director at the time explained in the playbill notes that it would be theatrical malpractice not to present such a play in the midst of the 1980s AIDS epidemic.

This explanation went over like a lead balloon in staid, Mormon, southern Utah. Not because Ibsen’s darkest play invoked syphilis as part of a family’s misfortune, but because venereal disease could not possibly be the stuff of enlightened theater. Much like the UK and continental Europe of Ibsen’s time, polite society in Utah simply did not discuss such things.

Between the explosive volleys exchanged by actors portraying Mrs. Alving and Pastor Manders I remember turning my head now and then to look at the audience. Most were merely bored, while others were so authentically mortified they stared down into their laps with arms folded. Silent groans of protest never looked so loud.

But if Mormon culture in 1980s Utah was stern in its powers of denial, it was begrudgingly polite. Between the explosive volleys exchanged by actors portraying Mrs. Alving and Pastor Manders I remember turning my head now and then to look at the audience. Most were merely bored, while others were so authentically mortified they stared down into their laps with arms folded. Silent groans of protest never looked so loud.

To be fair, the play is relentlessly bleak and often turgid. What shocked European and British audiences when Ghosts first debuted in 1882 seem merely rote character studies in human hypocrisy to a current audience, let alone a sophisticated audience of true theater enthusiasts with ears tuned by Harold Pinter or Samuel Beckett. A lot of Ibsen plays leave the impression of having eavesdropped on a fierce, private family argument. That is especially the case with Ghosts. But while it may lack for momentum, it more than compensates in its slow-burning, searing impact.

 

• • •

 

The axis around which almost all the action spins is Mrs. Alving, a widow who married a pillar of society and business only to find out that her husband, Captain Alving, cultivated a wild side of drink and extramarital excursions. His most flagrant affair was with a house servant, Johanna.

Understandably upset, Mrs. Alving does what most Scandinavian women of her time did during a domestic crisis. She flies to the office of her neighborhood pastor for advice. There Pastor Manders reminds her that women are better off standing by their husbands, not standing up to them. In a bracing exchange, both characters remember that instant of years past:

 

Manders: No one can be responsible for the result of it. Anyway there is this to be said, that the match was made in complete conformity with law and order.

Mrs. Alving: (going to the window): Oh, law and order! I often think it is that that is at the bottom of all the misery in the world.

 

The sting of these words is deep for Mrs. Alving. Not only did she heed the pastor’s advice, but heeded it along with broad hints that she harbored affection for the pastor. Compounding the pain, Pastor Manders still nurses a grudge that Mrs. Alving never considered how her fondness for him could have ruined his public reputation as a stalwart clergyman.

Looming over these exchanges somewhere in the late Captain Alving’s old house, itself sitting in the dark mist of a cold Norwegian winter, is Oswald, Mrs. Alving’s son returned home from sojourns in sunny Italy and the lights of Paris. She never dared tell her son of his father’s improprieties, going so far as to send him away from home as a youth as soon he started asking questions.

“I thought the child could not help but be poisoned simply by breathing in this tainted home,” she tells Pastor Manders. “That is why I sent him away.”

Oswald has a yen for the current house servant, Regina, the rumored daughter of a wag named Engstrand, who seems half-drunk whenever he is on stage. Engstrand is among the most bizarre entrepreneurs in modern drama, mostly because he succeeds in making Pastor Manders look like a fool without even trying, but also because he wants to launch a “boarding house” for sailors, a polite way of saying he wants to run a whorehouse.

Oswald also has a yen for a good argument, and spars with Pastor Manders over the alleged immorality of youthful libertines when compared to bourgeois marriage. He seethes at the hypocrisy of, “model husbands and fathers” who search the brothels to “look for a little on their own.” Here the informed theatergoer can cue the irony of the fact that Oswald speaks, unknowingly, of his own derelict father. There is no such irony for Mrs. Alving, only the pain of silent acknowledgment.

A chief spectacle of this play is a town orphanage funded by Mrs. Alving through her late husband’s estate, and soon to be dedicated by Pastor Manders. Like the pistol at the center of Hedda Gabler, the Alving orphanage is a prop by which Ibsen performs a dazzling feat of gymnastics. But as Ghosts is a play true to its downbeat key, the effect here is incendiary in a different way. Rather than a gun being fired, the Alving orphanage catches fire and burns down. And since Pastor Manders advised Mrs. Alving against an insurance policy—the purest of philanthropic ventures must rely on true faith, you know—the loss is total. Again, and always one to compound the pain, Ibsen tells us through Mrs. Alving that she was counting on the orphanage’s success to inoculate the legacy of her late husband in the public eye. No one would dare question the reputation of a man whose name adorned an orphanage? Would they?

The charred orphanage also gives Engrstrand leverage to blackmail Pastor Manders into helping found his “boarding home” for sailors. And so Ibsen twists the knife of hypocrisy into Manders yet again, gleefully indulging in his specialty of exposing the shallow depths of bourgeois religion. (If there is a fault in the dramatic design of kicking a clergyman already down, it makes us wonder what Mrs. Alving found attractive in such a hollow man.)

There is worse to come when Oswald, in halting, agonizing words, tells his mother he is, “spiritually broken—ruined. I shall never be able to work again.” Not sparing his mother’s imagination, he describes the pain of his sickness:

 

Oswald: “I began to feel the most violent pains at the back of my head. As if a tight iron had been screwed around my neck and right through my head. … I couldn’t see clearly. Everything went misty in front of my eyes.”

 

So far, so much Nordic doom and gloom. If you ever wondered where Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman got his mojo, look no further. The first third of Ghosts contains a scene of recognition so jolting in its ice-cold effect that it is too good to spoil in a tepid summary. If this essay succeeds at any level, it will compel you to seek out either the 1987 BBC version, or this 2014 Digital Theatre screen version of Richard Eyre’s Almeida production, as soon as possible. The first features depth-charge performances by Judi Dench as Mrs. Alving and Kenneth Branagh as Oswald. The second is icier in its distance, but still effective.

To borrow a phrase from George Orwell good drama, like good prose, “is like a window pane.” The origin of so many individual problems can be traced to our relationship with others, be it marriage, family, or friends. We must look through that window and not shrink from its view.

Ibsen never went in search of wisdom through the laughter of elaborate misunderstandings in the key of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or the light jousts at societal mores in the style of Molière. But he did not resort to horror or shock either. There is no nastiness here, as in Pinter’s The Homecoming. There is no Gloucester with eyes ripped out. In fact, it seems reasonable to assume Ibsen meant no harm to anyone at all. If he could have spared Hedda Gabler her suicide through any means possible, he would have done that as well. But because Ibsen was Ibsen, he could not. To borrow a phrase from George Orwell good drama, like good prose, “is like a window pane.” The origin of so many individual problems can be traced to our relationship with others, be it marriage, family, or friends. We must look through that window and not shrink from its view.

Drama students worth their salt all know the old adage that if we turn A Doll’s House upside down what we get, more or less, is Ghosts. The first reveals what happens when a woman leaves her husband for good reasons, the second shows us what can happen when a woman stays with her husband for the wrong reasons.

As George Bernard Shaw put it, “even those who are most indignant with Nora Helmer for walking out of the doll’s house must admit that Mrs. Alving would be justified in walking out of her house. … Ibsen is determined to shew you what comes of the scrupulous line of conduct you were so angry with Nora for not pursuing.”

In that vital sense, Ghosts foreshadows modern feminism and even today’s #MeToo movement. Men have their fun, leaving women everywhere to pick up the wreckage in pain and strive to put affairs in the best possible order and keep the human race afloat. Men still have their fun and maintain power at the great expense of women everywhere.

Yet the curious fact is that Ibsen never considered himself a feminist, just a dramatist who wanted to excavate long-denied truths about human relationships. During an 1898 invitation to speak to the Norwegian Society for Women’s Rights, he said:

 

“I am not even quite sure what women’s rights really are. To me it has been a question of human rights. And if you read my books carefully you will realize that. Of course it is incidentally desirable to solve the problem of women; but that has not been my whole object. My task has been the portrayal of human beings.” ¹

 

Can the playwright who best dramatized the paramount needs of the individual in society have anything to say about collective destiny and responsibility during a pandemic, and mass protest against systemic racism? To the extent that any collective comprises individuals, it would be strange to answer no.

There are only five characters—six, if we want to count the deceased Captain Alving—gracing the stage for Ghosts: a mother, her son, a pastor, a house servant, and a family acquaintance seconded as a hanger-on. The lines of inference connecting these characters is a long way to being transposed on top of our current national upheaval. But if we listen carefully to their arguments, accounts, and pleas for relevance and understanding we can learn from their stumbles, resonate with their hopes, and just maybe end up with enough wisdom to chart the best possible destination for where we want to go and how we might best change.

Ghosts is a drama of many themes. At its core, though, is the idea of “sickness” as the inexorable tide we push for, or against. It is the one drama—dare it be said, the only?—wherein “sickness” becomes the widest possible metaphor not just for disease, but inherited social convention, accepted ideology, and the crucible of family without which we cannot survive, but in which we can also decay and die.

The lines of inference connecting the play’s five characters is a long way to being transposed on top of our current national upheaval. But if we listen carefully to their arguments, accounts, and pleas for relevance and understanding we can learn from their stumbles, resonate with their hopes, and just maybe end up with enough wisdom to chart the best possible destination for where we want to go and how we might best change.

European audiences understood well enough that Oswald’s affliction was syphilis. A young man does not leave his frigid Norwegian home-town for Italy and Paris without the itch of a tom-cat. But Ibsen gives his affliction the curious twist of being inherited more than contracted. Why? To make the condition more binding, more horrific and hence, more difficult to escape.

Although Norwegian, Ibsen wrote in Danish, the written language shared by Norway and Denmark at the time. The play’s original title of Gengangere can also be translated as “revenants,” “people who return,” and “events that repeat themselves.”

Mrs. Alving says it all in the play’s most central lines:

 

“I am frightened, because there is in me something ghost-like, from which I can never free myself … I almost think we are all ghosts, all of us, Pastor Manders. It is not just what we’ve inherited from our mother and father that walks in us, it’s all sorts of dead ideas, and all sorts of old and obsolete beliefs. They are not alive in us, but they live in us. And we can never free ourselves from them. They lie as thick as grains of sand. And we are all so horribly afraid of the light.”

 

• • •

 

Scholars have searched high and low for any mention of the United States in Ibsen’s writings including his private correspondence. Curiously, he makes next to no mention of our troubled, 19th-century country. For a dramatist animated by questions of human liberty, this seems at best an error of omission, at worst an act of outright negligence. One charitable interpretation is that perhaps Ibsen felt that, as a writer, he was on safest ground to write only about what he knew best, that being the destructive ideals, the “ghosts,” haunting the lives of Norwegians he had lived among, but also mirrored in European countries where he wrote his works in exile.

Even so, it is hard not to read Mrs. Alving’s words as anything except a call for people to brave their fears and build a better future. Her particular anxieties and regrets belong to her character alone—who among us has recently funneled a spouse’s fortune into an orphanage?—but her sentiment stands at the summit of universal urges that struggle against enigmatic punishments, death, and a yearning for freedom from old ways. Do we dare jump, being “so afraid of the light”?

The Greeks defined tragedy primarily as the fall of a great person, usually a king humbled in the worst of all possible ways, e.g., Oedipus. Welsh scholar and linguist Raymond Williams posited that for Ibsen, the tragedy of human nature was far more general than that. Instead, it was “[when a person] stands in a tight place; he cannot go forwards or backwards.” ²

The stubborn refusal to budge even the slightest in a direction that acknowledges the equality of all races, and enact reforms to bring that about. The stubborn refusal to wear a mask while shopping in public, as a sign of respect for the health of those around you. These are the irreconcilable differences of our nation on the precipice of death, stricken by corporeal and political disease. Do we dare move one place forward or backwards, being “so afraid of the light”? Maybe Ibsen never stopped to consider the crimes of racism that existed across the Atlantic from his own country, but he would recognize the tragedy of human stasis if he saw it.

It is one of the marvels of Ghosts that, while it speaks to the ways that convention and ideas haunt and even maul us, it is also a drama about light. In one of the earliest exchanges of the play, Pastor Manders upbraids Mrs. Alving about her choice of reading when he finds certain books, presumably by J.S. Mill and Charles Darwin, on her desk:

 

Manders: “I cannot blame you for wishing to keep informed of these intellectual movements from the great world outside, about which one has read so much. After all, you have allowed your son to wonder there for a number of years. But one does not have to talk about it, Mrs. Alving.”

 

Oh, but of course we do. This being an Ibsen play “these intellectual movements” will be talked about, even if indirectly, or at least once the audience heads back home to argue about the play they just saw. It could be said that Ghosts is one long dramatization about how destructive it is not to discuss new ideas at all. Whether his syphilis was inherited or contracted, Mrs. Alving never told Oswald the truth about his father before it was too late. Mrs. Alving herself never faced the truth or validity of her own emotions.

The Greeks defined tragedy primarily as the fall of a great person, usually a king humbled in the worst of all possible ways, e.g., Oedipus. Welsh scholar and linguist Raymond Williams posited that for Ibsen, the tragedy of human nature was far more general than that. Instead, it was “[when a person] stands in a tight place; he cannot go forwards or backwards.”

Light, and by extension enlightenment, as a metaphor, is so large and clunky that even a playwright as deft as Ibsen lumbers a bit to find the right moments where Mrs. Alving’s words settle into their best, most impactful form. Watching Ghosts is similar to watching the plaster settle into a mold, where the form of Ibsen’s creation becomes almost visible. This occurs in the dawn of the play’s final words, after Oswald gives his mother a pack of morphine so she might help him commit suicide when the pain of his condition becomes too great.

 

Mrs. Alving: (coming cautiously nearer). Do you feel calmer now?

Oswald: Yes.

Mrs. Alving: (bending over him). It has only been a dreadful fancy of yours, Oswald. Nothing but fancy. All this upset has been bad for you. But now you will get some rest, at home with your own mother, my darling boy. You shall have everything you want, just as you did when you were a little child.—There, now. The attack is over. You see how easily it passed off! I knew it would.—And look, Oswald, what a lovely day we are going to have? Brilliant sunshine. Now you will be able to see your home properly. (She goes to the table and puts out the lamp. It is sunrise. The glaciers and peaks in the distance are seen bathed in bright morning light.)

Oswald: (who has been sitting motionless in the armchair, with his back to the scene outside, suddenly says:) Mother, give me the sun.

Mrs. Alving: (standing at the table, and looking at him in amazement). What do you say?

Oswald: (repeats in a dull, toneless voice). The sun—the sun.

 

In the play’s final crescendo of exchanges between mother and son, Mrs. Alving screams that she cannot bear it, the sight of her son reduced to a shrinking, tortured figure in her embrace. “What is the matter with you!” she screams.

In the best productions, these final moments embody what any parent fears most: the horror of slowly losing a child. Also, in the best productions, these final moments capture the contradictory demands of children, the wish to grow apart from parents, but also be comforted by them.

“We are all so horribly afraid of the light,” Mrs. Alving said to Pastor Manders earlier.

Now she holds her suffering child. He wants the sun. Six times he says so, in a barely audible voice before the curtain falls.

It is the culmination and clash of these opposing visions that makes Ghosts a play for our time, maybe for all time.

In the closing of its final scene you can sense the unfurling coil of a dark flower in bloom, the blunt force of yearning for a release from the grip of insuperable pain, the hope of escaping the worst of what makes us frail, hurtful, and therefore human, and the fear of not knowing what a better future might look like, or if it will even arrive.

¹ Burt, Daniel S. The Drama 100 (Checkmark Books, New York, NY, 2008) p. 65

² Williams, Raymond. Drama from Ibsen to Brecht (Chatto & Windus: Penguin, 1968) p. 74

 

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