Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.
Week 2: Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen (1881)
I’m off to see The Master Builder at the Old Vic in February so thought I’d get to grips with some other Ibsen plays first. I studied A Doll’s House at A-Level and, much like The Tempest in high school, wasn’t enamoured by the play or the teaching of it. Trying to reclaim an appreciation for Ibsen I saw Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic and it was partly successful. The almost cinematic production was served well by a formidable cast including the perhaps oddly-matched Sheridan Smith and Adrian Scarborough. Also, Lez Brotherston’s prism of a set, which let in and trapped light as much as Hedda’s surroundings trap her, was stunning . Yet the play still seemed like a museum piece to me despite some of its relevancies.
So, when I dug out a copy of ‘Ghosts and other plays’ from a library at my local theatre, I was expecting to continually put off reading the plays or for it to take me ages to slog my way through them. Yet I’ve just finished reading Ghosts in under 2 days. It reads a lot like a thriller. And although I was imagining it being performed, it was interesting to read in the introduction that Ibsen often thought specifically about readers because a run of 12 performances back then was considered to be a success and that most of the royalties/ takings came from bookshops.
First written in 1881, but not performed until 1882 in Chicago after being rejected by Scandinavian theatres, the play is a domestic drama in 3 acts. There are many issues at play but the key one is of the ghosts of a father ruining the life of his wife and son, Mrs Alving and Oswald. This copy of the text is a translation by Peter Watts from the 1960s, and he keeps the setting in its original time and place setting but has apparently updated some of the dialogue so as not to make it appear stilted. I think he’s achieved this latter point but it does point up an interesting dilemma about translations and ‘versions’: how far can you update a play (if so wanted) to adhere to contemporary theatre practices and yet also stick to the original impetus of the play? Simon Stephens has argued that every adaptation is perhaps a failure in some way. He wrote a brilliant article about this when translating Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard for the Young Vic, which can be read here.
One of the interesting aspects in the play is the interplay between desire and the ‘joys of living’, and duty and expectations. It is striking how often the word ‘naturally’ is spoken, often about the evangelical Pastor Manders, when referring to how characters might have behaved. But what he holds up as ‘natural’ and proper behaviour may be different to Osvald’s world view, he being more artistic and having travelled. After all, Manders spends most of the play in a state of shock or apprehension, not only at the behaviours of the late Captain Alving, but also at the books Mrs Alving chooses to read and at people living together without being married. Then there's all that fuss over the insurance. It is hinted that Manders perhaps once had a flame for Mrs Alving, thus he’s a man who could be prone to ignoring his desires. It would be interesting to see how all that came out in a performance.
I was thinking about how space could be used in performance too. At times, Mrs Alving goes over to the window when talking about how she tried to protect her husband’s memory. It is as if she’s looking out of the window for clarity, maybe, but the perpetual rain and dreariness outside won’t provide her with a pathway. Reading reviews of Richard Eyre’s production at the Almeida, Tim Hatley’s transparent design seems like it could have been effective to give the audience an idea of the house’s surroundings. Then there's the red light of the orphanage fire at the end of act two, adding an intense heat on the scene but acting as a reminder of the sins of Captain Alving (but the fire also strangely lifts those?). Act three opens with all the doors open and the bright sun rising at the end of the play (a let-up for all that Norwegian rain and murkiness), evoking happiness and hope but also acting as a painful reminder of the lifestyle Osvald wants but one which his illness stops him from attaining. Maybe even ‘the glaciers and the peaks’ that the sun shines off at the end of the play is a hint at the idea of ascension that I keep reading about in Ibsen’s plays (Ibsen 1977: 101).
It is through Ghosts that my under-appreciation and slight ignorance of Ibsen’s work has begun to be lifted.