We're happy to report that 40% of the people who saw Ghosts and filled out the audience surveys thought our production was exceptionally well done, and another 40% thought it was quite good. But never before in our history has there been such a divergence of opinion in written comments. Here's what people thought of the acting: "terrific," "superb," "stilted," "wonderful," "awful," "excellent," "horrible," "overacted," "underacted," "especially good," "disappointing," "wooden," "amazing," "phenomenal." As for the show itself: "boring," "gripping," "magnificent," "intense," "deep," "like a Greek tragedy," "like a soap opera," "riveting," "dated,", "totally relevant," "fast," "a little slow," "magnificent. Absolutely magnificent." You get the idea.
Our audiences were markedly vehement in their opinions. Most of them loved it, some of them hated it, and no one messed with Mr. In-Between. Perhaps this is just a reflection of the violent disagreements that mark our society and community, where we are regularly assaulted by the Gazette editorial page and occasional theatre review (I'm happy to say nearly everyone disagreed with that one). But there may be something about the play itself that provokes such deep division. Last year I saw a terrific production of Ghosts in London, which won all sorts of awards—in fact the production was instrumental in my deciding to do our version here. So I was shocked later to read the New Yorker review which called it empty and episodic, with "so much overacting,that everything is reduced to soap opera—without the cheap thrills." It seems that a house divided on the play is a global as well as a local phenomenon.
Ibsen's play is a complex affair. The chief protagonist, Helene Alving, is forced to spend so much time hearing news she doesn't want that she can seem boxed in and therefore underacted. Her antagonist, Pastor Manders speaks almost entirely in a language that is deliberately fabricated from truisms and cliches, and so his performance is likely to seem both stiff and hammy. These two used to be connected but its clear they aren't anymore, so audiences complain they weren't connecting. People who want their realism to stay entirely in the kitchen sink will be disappointed in a play in which every particular is more metaphorical than grounded in concrete fact, and audiences hoping for the symbolic operatic heights of melodrama will be disappointed in how Ibsen frustrates these expectations by staying on dark hard ground. The play is at once creaky, slow, swift, repressed and flamboyant.
I liked it even more after directing it. I liked how the little things might mean a lot: Oswald sitting on the table with his back to us, his life going up silently in the exhale of a cigar; Mrs Alving asking if there can be salvation in the joy of life, and Regina entering laughing with a bottle of champagne, providing the answer. But I like the play in its grand scheme too, a harrowing demonstration of a nightmare best described by Karl Marx, who died two years after Ghosts was written:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.
It's a great play which gradually reaches a level of intensity you don't often find in theatre. I like to think the long silence which followed the end of many of our performances might have been a measure of how strongly the play landed. At least on some. Others perhaps were merely sleeping out their time,waiting for this old Norwegian turkey to dry up and go away.