From thousands of miles away he could hear it coming, the great howl of outrage that would greet his new play. Ibsen knew he had written something which would offend middle class sensibilities; he had felt “a few frontier posts ought to be moved.” But even he was surprised at the vehemence of the response. The director of the Christiana Theatre said the play was “one of the filthiest things ever written in Scandinavia.” “An open drain,” said the Telegraph, “a loathsome sore unbandaged;” “Naked loathsomeness,” was another verdict, “ ”unutterably offensive” was another, and yet another summed it up: “Ninety seven percent of the people who go to see Ghosts are nasty-minded people who find the discussion of nasty subjects to their taste, in exact proportion to their nastiness.”
These days the play causes no such alarm. It even seems a bit old fashioned, and you might wonder what was all the fuss about. It was about venereal disease, which is only very discreetly mentioned in the play. Syphilis had been around since the crew of Christopher Columbus brought it home from the New World, but it still would not do to speak of it in a respectable home, or in a respectable theatre. These days, of course, thanks to penicillin, syphilis is no longer a widespread phenomenon in the developed world, and its mention is unlikely to provoke any sort of mass revulsion. And these days you have to go to great lengths to really shock a contemporary theatre audience. Young Jean Lee, whose play Church produced quite a howl of its own here a few years ago, said she thought maybe the only way to really shock a contemporary theatre audience would be to chop a puppy in half on stage. We won’t be trying that.
And yet Ghosts can still challenge the fiber of an audience. You might not think so at first, since Ibsen drew on time honored and audience tested techniques in constructing his drama. From the world of popular melodrama he played upon the pleasures of the excruciating, gradually ratcheting up the dramatic tension to the almost unbearable. He borrowed the techniques of the well-made play which he had mastered during his tenure as a theatre manager in Bergen. Ghosts is a neat piece of engineering. Everything fits, nothing is wasted. There are no loose ends. The eventful and intriguing plot advances moment to moment, and clues to its secrets are carefully placed. It works like a classic thriller—it is a classic thriller!
It is also something more—and less. It’s a drama mostly missing the sweeteners that we expect in our morning cereals and in our evening pleasures. There’s barely a hint of romance, and not one full barrel of laughs. Gone are the rhetorical flourishes and purple passages that fluttered the hearts of audiences at popular melodramas. Ibsen rigorously suppressed them. He wanted his characters at all times to speak like recognizable people, speaking in a natural unforced language: “the effect of the play,” he wrote, “depends in the audience imagining it is sitting and listening and watching something actually going on in real life.” Ibsen was equally suppressive of spectacle. There are no storm scenes, no women tied to railroad tracks, no flights across icy rivers. Instead his play all happens inside an ordinary house during one rainy day and night, and it moves slowly out of the gates. The novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard remembers seeing Ingmar Bergman’s production with friends in Olso: “The first act was terrible, truly wretched it was, and in the interval, sitting at the terrace table with a view of the harbor, Geir and Linda chatted away about just how terrible it was, and why.”
This reaction is not atypical—many of those first critics who were not horrified by the play were bored by it, finding it small, gloomy and dull. Yet this austere restraint, this stony art which refuses sensation and risks boredom, is also integral to Ibsen’s particular character and power. His admiring contemporary, Henry James, put it this way: “I call the fascination of Ibsen charmless (for those who feel it at all) because he holds us without bribing us; he squeezes the attention till he almost hurts it, yet with never a conciliatory stroke.” Ibsen is as uncompromising as Sophocles, the dramatist he may most resemble. His play is really one extended exposition, moving forward by further revelations of the past from which it cannot escape. The present is haunted and stifled by the past, by the dead spirits that walk again among the living. The play’s Norwegian title, Gengangere, means “spirits that return” and it seems to me Ibsen had something in common with the post-mortem photography that was so popular in the 1880’s, where the recently deceased were dressed up and posed in group portraits with family members, so it was difficult to tell the living from the dead. Like Oedipus, Mrs. Alving struggles to set herself free, yet finds herself inescapably trapped by the dead that return in the living. “So we beat on,” Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Unlike The Great Gatsby, Ibsen’s play is not elegiac or nostalgic. He had fled the constrictions of provincial Norway twelve years earlier, and was to remain an expatriate for nearly 30 years. But even in the torrid summer heat of Sorrento, where he wrote this play, his thoughts remained preoccupied with his homeland, and with the accumulated frozen life of its society. The syphilis that produced such fury in his audiences is an actual reality in Ghosts, but even more powerfully it is a metaphor for the state of bourgeois life, which, like the French doctor in the play, Ibsen diagnoses as vermoulou (“worm eaten”). In one sense the play is a kind of forensic study, an autopsy of what appears to be the healthy body of his society, but which in fact is revealed as diseased and rotting. Ghosts is Ibsen’s angriest play, a protest against the traditions and conventions that stifle the joy of Iife.
This all may sound a bit unpleasant, and perhaps you are beginning to think this might be the show to miss this season. But in fact Ghosts is enormously exciting. It’s a detective story with actual consequences. From start to finish the stakes are high and the characters full of fire. The play is a blow torch burning through ice. Let us go back to Knausgaard, listening to his friends chatting during intermission about how awful the production they were seeing was. He tells us he was more reserved in his dismissal, because “despite the small cramped feeling of the act, which colored the play and the visions it was supposed to be depicting, there was an anticipation of something else, as if it were lying there and waiting. . . And there was. Everything was raised, higher and higher, the intensity increased, and within the tightly set framework, which in the end comprised only mother and son, a kind of boundlessness arose, something wild and reckless. Into it disappeared plot and space, and what was left was emotion, and it was stark; you were looking straight into the essence of human existence, the very nucleus of life . . . “
We can’t promise to replicate Knausgaard’s remarkable theatre experience for you —it’s not the sort of thing that can be bottled. But after spending the last few months working on our adaptation of Ghosts, and paring it down to 100 minutes of playing time, I will take an oath that at least the potential is there in the play. Out of ordinary speech and conventional dramatic practices, Ibsen created something as deeply primal, unfathomable and essential as Greek tragedy. Step by step he takes us into “a terrible, but real and therefore beautiful place.” Almost before you know it, a conventional middle class home in rural Norway is sucked towards a black hole in the heart of the universe. But the closer it comes to extinction the more alive it is, until we are somewhere close to what Knausgaard calls the nucleus of life. You can’t ask much more of theatre than that. It’s quite a ride.