Thursday, March 22, 2012

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen

Source of Book: I own this – have Ibsen’s major plays in a book club hardback given to me by Dale Brooks.

Preliminary notes: I am pretty sure this is the classic William Archer translation, but I am not sure. For some reason, the book does not bother to attribute the translation. I believe the book was printed in the 1950s or 60s, when Archer's translation would have been the common one. Archer was largely responsible for bringing Ibsen's work to the attention of the English speaking public.

This review contains serious plot spoilers. If you care, read the play first before the review.

Henrik Ibsen was a Norwegian writer who spent most of his writing life living abroad, first in Italy, and later in Germany. He eventually returned to Norway nearly 30 years after he left, and died there at the age of 78. His final words were appropriately curmudgeonly. A visitor asked how he was doing, and his nurse responded that he was doing better. Ibsen sputtered, “On the contrary!”

In his scathing dismantling of Victorian hypocrisy and societal double standards, Ibsen was the literary ancestor of such later playwrights as Shaw, Wilde, and O’Neill.

Ibsen did not like the title, Ghosts, which he felt was an incorrect translation. A more literal rendering would be, “again walkers”, or perhaps, “those who return”. In an idiomatic sense, the term is used, somewhat pointedly, for those who frequent the same places, such as pubs or fashionable parties. I think, in the context of the play, “ghosts” is reasonable, since there really isn’t a great parallel in English.

A quick summary of the plot: Mrs. Alving, a widow, has paid for the construction of an orphanage using the funds of her late husband, a sea captain. She decides to confide in Manders, the clergyman, that she has concealed a dark secret from the world. Her husband was a notorious philanderer, who was supposed to have reformed. However, he did not, although Mrs. Alving was able to keep up the appearance of respectability. At one point, she fled her husband and took refuge with Manders, who encouraged her to return to her husband. After that, Captain Alving seduced a servant and impregnated her. The servant convinced Engstrad, a carpenter, to marry him and blackmail Captain Alving. The child of this liaison, Regina, later becomes a servant of Mrs. Alving, who has pity on her. Oswald, the Alving’s son, has returned from abroad in broken health. He is discovered to have fallen in love with Regina, who he does not know is his half-sister. After all is revealed, Oswald reveals that he has congenital syphilis which has begun to affect his brain. As he loses his grip on reality, he asks his mother to euthanize him.

Certainly a dark tale, and rather typical of Ibsen. The play is compact and economical – also a characteristic of Ibsen’s work. The entire play takes place within a 24 hour period, in the same location (the Alving residence), and deals with a single theme. It thus adheres to Aristotle’s unities. Only five characters inhabit this play, with the deceased Captain Alving and Joanna as characters which exist only in the memory of the others. Ibsen wastes no time on subplot or comic relief. This makes the play relentlessly pessimistic, but also fairly short. It would seem to naturally pair with a lighter work to make a balanced evening of drama.

A few other things stood out to me while reading this. Engstrad seems to be a foreshadowing of Shaw’s Alfred Doolittle (from Pygmalion and therefore My Fair Lady), except that Engstrad has no likeable or humorous side. His insistence on “what a child owes her father” is quite familiar, however.
Engstrad is backed up by Manders, who also has strong ideas of duty – at least as they apply to women or children. Everything is about keeping up appearances, as becomes apparent when Manders disapproves a certain book (which he hasn’t read) that Mrs. Alving has on her table.
Mrs. Alving: In fact, you don’t know anything about what you are denouncing?
Manders: I have read quite enough about these books to disapprove of them.
Mrs. Alving: Yes, but your own opinion –
Manders: My dear Mrs. Alving, there are many occasions in life when one has to rely on the opinion of others. That is the way in this world, and it is quite right that it should be so. What would become of society, otherwise?
At the apex of the play, the turning point, Mrs. Alving reveals the history of Captain Alving and Engstrad’s wife. She was paid a modest sum to keep quiet.
Manders: Just think of it – for a paltry seventy pounds to let yourself be bound in marriage to a fallen woman!
Mrs. Alving: What about myself, then? – I let myself be bound in marriage to a fallen man.
Manders: Heaven forgive you! What are you saying? A fallen man?
Mrs. Alving: Do you suppose my husband was any purer, when I went with him to the altar, than Joanna was when Engstrad agreed to marry her?
Manders: The two cases are as different as day from night –
Mrs. Alving: Not so very different after all. It is true that there was a great difference in the price paid, between a paltry seventy pounds and a whole fortune.
This is where Ibsen’s point is the clearest. There is a double standard which does persist to this day, although tolerance for promiscuous women has increased a bit. Still, I have a hard time imagining a prominent man staying with a philandering woman.
Ibsen then allows Mrs. Alving to state the theme of the play.
I am half inclined to think that we are all ghosts, Mr. Manders. It is not only what we have inherited from our mothers and fathers that exists again in us, but all sorts of old dead ideas and all kinds of old dead beliefs and things of that kind. They are not actually alive in us; but they are dormant, all the same, and we can never be rid of them.

Ibsen uses the idea of the “ghosts” lurking dormant in the characters as a parallel with the syphilis that is dormant in Oswald, but has eaten his body from the inside out. The actual word used by Ibsen for the disease means “eaten by wormwood”, a euphemism necessary as the use of the actual term would have been even more scandalous. (The most scandalous thing about the play at the time was that it suggested that respectable upper class people could get venereal disease.)

Another interesting parallel in the play is between fiction and Ibsen’s real life. Prior to his marriage, Ibsen fathered a child with a household servant girl. Although Ibsen never saw the boy, he paid for his upbringing. Perhaps Ibsen wished to imagine what would have happened had the facts been concealed from society.

One more literary device intrigued me. During most of the play, the stage directions indicate that it is pouring rain outside. This continues through both the day and the night of the first two acts, but clears at the end of the final act. The coming of day brings with it the revealing light of the sun. The lighting of the darkness is not a positive thing, ultimately; just as the revealing of the terrible truth has no positive effect. The damage has been done by the concealment, and all that comes to light are the sad consequences.

In this respect, Ibsen follows in the tradition of the great tragedians. Oedipus learns he has murdered his father and married his mother. Lear realizes Cordelia is the one child who truly loves him, but she is already dead. Mephistopheles drags Faust to hell. It is for us, who still have hope, to learn from the mistakes of others and attempt to avoid the same fate. At what cost do we keep up appearances?

One final note: It occurs to me that Ibsen and Matthew Arnold would have been finalists in the great 1800s facial hair showdown. 

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