Director Richard Eyre distills “Ghosts”
A new production of Ibsen’s Ghosts was headed to Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. This one was being directed by Richard Eyre, who is so respected that he has a Sir before his given name.
Ibsen’s Ghosts, written in 1881, was perhaps his most controversial work because it spoke about syphilis, euthanasia, and free love, and questioned the authority of the church. The response in his day was overwhelmingly negative.
In fact, its first performance was staged outside Europe, in Chicago, a year after it was written, and performed by amateur Scandinavian actors for an audience of Scandinavian immigrants; theaters in Scandinavia had declined to perform the play. In Britain it was banned by the Lord Chamberlain, but one club dared to offer a single performance in 1891. One critic called the ban “wise and warranted,” and the play “revolting and blasphemous,” and “a dirty deed done in public.” Those descriptions alone would have enticed me to see what all the hullabaloo was about.
It seems the rejection was not due to the fact that Ibsen was shining a light on issues that were inconceivable, but rather how dare he bring up these realities? When Pastor Manders in the play says that Oswald (the son of Mrs. Helene Alving and Captain Alving) and Regina (the current maid of Mrs. Alving) need to know they share a father (Captain Alving fathered Regina with the Alvings’ former maid) before they get more involved, Mrs. Alving asks why and the pastor responds “Because that’s his sister.” Helene replies, “Is that unique around here?” It wasn’t, and Ibsen did not back down from speaking the truth.
When the play was seen in Norway in 1883 (it had some success with 75 performances), the King of Sweden saw it and let Ibsen know that “it was not a good play.” In some exasperation, Ibsen responded: “Your Majesty, I had to write Ghosts!”
Thank God for Ibsen’s stubborn tenacity, because it has been running ever since; performed countless times in countless ways. It was shown on the Lower East Side (NYC) in 1894 with notable Russian actors. Munch was asked to design the set for a 1906 production in Berlin. In 1984 Kevin Spacey made his Broadway debut as Oswald and Liv Ullmann starred as Mrs. Alving.
So, one wonders why do it again? Well, for one the Almeida Theatre has had great success with Ibsen, staging Hedda Gabbler in 2005 (adapted by Richard Eyre), Rosmersholm in 2008, and The Master Builder in 2010. So, could it still shock? But more importantly, was it still relevant more than 120 years later?
BAM offered a talk titled “Ghosts with Richard Eyre,” which I attended. Eyre was witty and insightful, a true explorer and examiner of Ibsen. He was grounded in his answers to the questions posed by Larissa MacFarquhar, of the New Yorker.
Two things he spoke about dealt with the essence of Ibsen: Ibsen’s intention and how Eyre strove to distill it. The first was how Ibsen objected to the English translation of the title he had given the play, Gjengangere. Eyre in his notes wrote, “It means a thing that walks again, rather than the appearance of a soul of a dead person.” Because of the clumsiness of “Againwalkers,” Eyre stuck with Ghosts.
Knowing this about Ibsen’s title helps the English language audience or reader. Perhaps it would be best to think that this play is about those things and people who haunt us and linger. Billie Holiday’s lines “You got to my head and you linger like a haunting refrain” come to mind. Added to this is the sense of inheritance, that our children not only inherit our fortunes, but also their character and illnesses. In this case, womanizing and syphilis. The play also illustrates the haunting of our past deeds and how they affect those around us in each character in this play.
The director’s other concern came from an observation. He went back to the original text and saw that one Norwegian line would be translated into four English ones. Although he did not speak Norwegian, he knew that making the rhythm more like the original was important. He explained that these people are intelligent and would have spoken quickly rather than ponderously lecturing and pontificating. He worked with a native Norwegian and etymological dictionary to get to Ibsen’s essence.
After listening to him, I was pumped to see the production and I was not disappointed. Eyre offers a fresh look, because like Luther he went back to the original source. In Eyre’s own words, “What I have written is a version or adaptation or interpretation of Ibsen’s play, but I hope that it comes near to squaring the circle of being close to what Ibsen intended, while seeming spontaneous to an audience of today.”
He has succeeded: the rhythm of the play was quick and witty. The humor felt true to how we make jokes in everyday conversation, with a turn of words or an impromptu insight. The agile tempo of the language kept audience members engaged, as if we were part of the conversation in the Alving home.
I would be remiss if I did not also mention the beautiful set designed by Tim Hartley. Elegant, tasteful, and moneyed comes to mind, with crystal chandeliers and blackish translucent walls. One of the ushers described them as “mirror-like.” Eyre at his talk had spoken about how Ibsen is a unique playwright because he is “very visual and that is why light is so important” in this play. This was the perfect set to make Ibsen’s words ring visually.
The first scene is dark and ominous: you can hear the sound of rain and see the pines outside, surrounded by a purple-blue sky. This set makes the light and darkness from outside the home seep in. There is transparency between the two walls, so the audience can see through all. The wall closest to the audience separates two rooms. The second outside wall is the skin of the home and is also translucent, allowing the environment to permeate the home and its inhabitants. And we know how much the environment is part of the Scandinavian psyche.
This concrete set symbolizes the human interior, where once-murky things hiding below the surface are revealed. It also allows people’s images to touch, separate from their bodies. When the mother’s (Mrs. Alving’s) silhouette in the interior room faces her son’s (Oswald’s) profile in the outer room, it is stunning, and gets to the heart of the play, the layers of connections between us, and the ghosts that linger because of these connections.
What is truly wonderful in this production is how well one hears the strength of Ibsen’s words and how his words allow the characters to define themselves so concisely. Do you want to know who Pastor Manders is? Just listen to one line of his lines in Ibsen’s dialogue. When Mrs. Alving speaks to the pastor about how she was 19 and in love with him, he answers, “We don’t have the right to expect happiness. We have a duty.” From this short statement you know exactly who he is.
Lesley Manville is outstanding as Mrs. Helene Alving: glib, insightful, and understated. When she finds out about the uninsured newly built orphanage named after her husband and built with her son’s inheritance, (uninsured because the pastor thought if it had been insured, his faith in God might be questioned) she responds, “Two good things from this. One it can’t happen again and two you don’t have to make your speech.” But as the play progresses she becomes more introspective and confesses the injustices she has inflicted on her husband, her culpability and her responsibility in squashing her husband’s light, his joy.
The ending scene with her son in so much pain (he suffers from syphilis that has spread to his brain), begging for his mother to take his life is chilling. Anyone who has lain by the bedside of a dying loved one would empathize with Mrs. Alving. In fact this performance transports you to relive those tender, touching, excruciating moments.
• BAM website has section that includes a note from the director, a who’s who, and an interview with the designers: www.bam.org/media/3061212/Ghosts_FINAL-PRINT-Prog-Only.pdf?utm_source=Blog&utm_medium=Social-BAM&utm_content=2015_04_03_IbsensGhosts_InContext&utm_campaign=WinterSpring
• In England the West End Theatres held cinema screenings of the production, which can be watched digitally at: www.digitaltheatre.com
This article originally appeared in the May 15, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.