Ibsen’s Ghosts rise up again at the Seattle Rep
Some spirits never laid to rest
LORI ANN REINHALL
The Norwegian American
I have to admit that when I first heard that the Seattle Repertory Theatre’s company was staging a new production of Henrik Ibsen’s 1881 play Ghosts, I asked myself what a play over 141 years old would have to say to us today. The world of today is so different, and recently it has been changing even more rapidly than before. But after re-reading the play (it had been at least 40 years) and seeing it again, I came to the realization that some spirits are never laid to rest …
Before seeing the new production on opening night at the Rep’s Bagley Wright Theatre on April 6, I was fortunate to sit down for a Zoom chat with the play’s director, Carey Perloff, and its translator, Paul Walsh, where I asked this very same question: What makes Ibsen’s Ghosts relevant to us today and what inspired them to bring it to the stage again? A lively and illuminating discussion ensued.
“Well, it’s really interesting,” said Walsh. “Coming out of two years of COVID lockdown, a lot of us dealt with internal struggles.” He explained how he saw parallels with how the play’s lead protagonist, Mrs. Alving, has spent 10 years locked up, reading, thinking, and trying to conquer her demons from her past. In the same way, Walsh sees that the pandemic caused many of us to reconsider our own lives.
“It’s a late 19th-century, a turn-of-the-century play, but very prescient,” Perloff added. She then talked about how we think that there has been progress, that we’ve advanced, and that we think we’ve put certain things to rest, but new realities surface. To this point, while the new production has been many years in the making, rehearsals in Seattle began only a few days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“I think we actually sort of believed in the post-Cold War period, that liberal democracy was on the move, and that kind of gulag violence was a thing of the past,” said Perloff. “And looking at the ghosts that are rising up in Europe now, it is so horrifying, and we were unprepared for it … We actually thought, as Mrs. Alving does, that we had moved on, that these ghosts were buried.”
The tragedy we see is that all of this should be irrelevant.
The topics that Ibsen touches on with Ghosts—venereal disease, incest, women’s sexual freedom and self-expression, euthanasia, and an overall questioning of societal norms—were considered so controversial that, initially, no Norwegian theater company was willing to touch it, and Ghosts first premiered in Chicago in 1882. Critics panned the play as “morally repugnant,” a judgment that stuck with it for many decades.
Yet even today, we have not come to terms with these taboo themes, as we ponder on women’s reproductive rights, the right to die in dignity, class differences, and social injustice, with an overall questioning of the norms of our society.
“The tragedy we see is that all of this should be irrelevant,” Walsh said. “We should have dealt with these issues, yet they continue to haunt us, to reverberate with us, partially because [Ibsen] was struggling with himself, struggling with the advent of modernity.”
Later in our conversation, Perloff, who has her training in Greek tragedy, talked about what makes for great literature and just why the play still speaks to us today.
Literature is news that stays news.
“Literature is news that stays news,” she said. “This is the sign of a great play and why we shouldn’t ever think about dispensing with the classical canon, even if some of the plays say things or represent things that we don’t believe in anymore. They are news, they will always be news, and we should always continue to reinvestigate them.”
The conflicted self
Much has been written about the dichotomies in Ibsen’s own life, conflicts that rise to the surface in his work, and this play is no exception. There is the overall clash between duty and the joy of life, and we see this very clearly in the widow Helene Alving and other characters in Ghosts.
Mrs. Alving has been described as the “Nora who came back home,” in reference to Ibsen’s famous play A Doll’s House, in which the lead protagonist leaves her husband and children to first find herself as a human being, so she can fulfill the roles of wife and mother she left behind.
But in Ghosts, we learn that these kinds of actions come at very high price. Perhaps just as daring as Nora, we learn that a young Mrs. Alving left her philandering husband, seeking happiness with the man she truly loved, a scandalous act for any woman of her day. But that man, Pastor Manders, was too conventional or actually believed in the values and norms of his calling as a clergyman to enter into a relationship with her. The sexual attraction between the two has to be buried, and their happiness is sacrificed. Mrs. Alving goes home to make the best of her lot in life, staying with her husband and eventually sending away her only son to protect him from the poison that has infected their home.
Reckoning with the past
If we learn anything from Ghosts, it is perhaps that appearances can be deceptive. While we never encounter Capt. Alving on the stage, we know from all accounts that he had been the dashing life of the party of whom no one would have wanted to think ill, despite rumors that may have surfaced. Even Pastor Manders has been unaware of what Mrs. Alving has endured.
Manders is shocked to learn that Capt. Alving seduced one of the household domestics and that the relationship had consequences, that Mrs. Alving’s housemaid Regina is actually the daughter of her husband, not a wayfaring foreigner, as he was told by the man who adopted her, Jakob Engstrand, a conniving alcoholic, who does what he can to get ahead in life. It is during this conversation between Mrs. Alving and Pastor Manders that the most ghastly apparition in the play appears, when she sees her son embrace Regina, as the memory of her lecherous husband comes back to life.
Sins of the fathers
Heredity is a strong theme in Ghosts. Despite his mother’s attempts to protect him, Osvald has inherited his father’s illness, and he will not be able to escape his terrible destiny. Like his father, he is driven by his physical desires. He is drawn to the robust and sensual Regina, who like the father who raised her, is willing to do what she needs to do in life.
Osvald is drawn to a life that is lighter and freer than the one he was born into in Norway. In the dark gloomy world of his mother’s home, he can no longer work as an artist who brings beauty into the world. Tragically, he sees his only redemption in Regina, his sister.
Redemption by fire
Ghosts, while considered to be a classic example of Ibsen’s social realism, tends toward the expressionism of his later plays. Symbols figure predominantly throughout, first the illness that is eating away at the family and then the orphanage and the fire that destroys it. Ghosts are lurking everywhere.
Mrs. Alving believes that with the construction of the orphanage, all suspicions about the past can finally be laid to rest. Ironically, she chooses to build an orphanage, although she has deprived two children, Osvald and Regina, of their father. The new building stands as a monument of hypocrisy, not charity.
It is a doomed effort. When the orphanage burns down, everyone’s life is laid to ashes, as life’s illusions go up in smoke. Regina learns the truth and sets out to an uncertain future, and Osvald is shocked into a new, helpless child-like phase of his illness. As he calls out for the sun at the end of the play, we don’t know whether his mother will have the courage to end is life or if he will be left to suffer a state of prolonged deterioration
From beginning to end, this a brilliant production.
Out of date? By no means. This new production of Ghosts at the Seattle Rep brings age-old questions of self-authenticity to the forefront, as you leave the theater asking yourself if you’ve buried your own ghosts. With Ibsen’s well-made play and this new well-crafted production, key existential questions are laid bare, but Ibsen never provides the answers. All his life, the playwright fought his own “trolls in his heart,” and with his work, he exhorts you to do the same.
There is much to enjoy with this new staging of Ghosts. Walsh’s new American English translation brings the dialogue to life, each word carefully chosen. There is original music by David Coulter, and an innovative set allows him to be seen playing a variety of instruments. This is superb acting by a cast that includes veteran actor David Strathaim. But it is Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio who steals the show as Mrs. Alving, keeping her audience captive for every moment she appears on stage. Two hours fly by.
From beginning to end, this is a brilliant production. The play will run through May 1 at the Seattle Rep’s Bagley Wright Theatre, but if you can’t make your way to the Emerald City to see it, you are not out of luck. An online performance will be available for streaming between April 13 and May 22 at seattlerep.org/plays/202122-season/ghosts.
Enjoy a sneak preview of the Seattle Repertory Theatre’s new production of Ghosts: