Features and Occasionals

The Theatrical Transgression of Ghosts

By Eric Samuelsen

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Henrik Ibsen’s play Gengangere (Ghosts) was the most radical, subversive, dangerous and heavily censored play ever written. Its one main challenger, in fact, may well be the Ibsen play that preceded it, Et Dukkehjem [A Doll House] (1879). A Doll House is Ibsen’s ferocious dissection of Victorian marriage, and concludes with a scene in which a woman leaves her husband. Ghosts (1881) describes the consequences for a woman who chooses not to leave.

Specifically, she contracts a sexually transmitted disease, which she passes on in utero to her son. More than that, though, Ghosts lays bare the hypocrisy of the sexual double standard. It shows us, frankly and without apology, what happens to women in a world constructed for and by men.

A Doll House could barely be discussed, quietly, whispered in the darkest corners of Victorian polite society. Ghosts couldn’t be talked about at all, anywhere; it was social suicide to admit to having read it. A Doll House was produced in a few small theatres in various cities in Europe. Ghosts couldn’t legally be produced at all, anywhere.

And yet people did read it, and young theatre artists were desperate to produce it. Across Europe, censorship laws were carefully searched for loopholes that would allow Ghosts to be produced. In France, Andre Antoine (a clerk at a gas company) established the Theatre Libre as a ‘private club,’ charging ‘membership fees’ instead of selling tickets; their first season, in 1887, featured a production of Ghosts. In 1889, critic Otto Brahm founded the Freie Bühne; their first production was Ghosts. In England, G. Bernard Shaw, William Archer and J. T. Grein founded the Independent Theatre (using Antoine’s ‘private club’ model), and opened, of course, with Ghosts. And Shaw, in his 1891 essay, “The Quintessence of Ibsenism,” had a lot of fun quoting reviews: “an open drain, a loathsome sore unbandaged, a dirty act done publically, poisonous, fetid, indecent, delirious, literary carrion.” And so on. My favorite, a review in the Sporting and Dra­ma­tic News, put forth with mathematical precision that “97% 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.”

What’s astonishing today, of course, is to read those reviews and then see the play—this powerful, deeply moving family tragedy. One really does wonder what all the fuss was about. But the play still packs a punch.

My wife and I were talking about it just last night, the central idea of the play, the idea that we’re surrounded by ghosts—by rotting, dead ideas that permeate our culture, that bind and suffocate us; ghosts of inequality, sexism, homophobia, racism.

When I decided to translate the play, it was for the most prosaic of reasons—having done A Doll House, the next project, logically, had to be Ghosts. But I began researching the play’s production history, and realized that our ideas about Ibsen himself were being stifled by ghosts —a production history that threatened to choke the life out of the play.

Case in point: a stellar 1986 production broadcast on BBC, available today on Netflix. It is superbly acted by a luminary cast. But it’s dreary, humorless example of the “gloomy old Ibsen” tradition. The British respect Ibsen, perhaps to a fault. My intention in translating the play into a less stuffy American idiom is to translate with integrity, honoring the Norwegian text, and also capture something vital that I think has been lost: Ibsen’s ferocious, savage wit.

Pastor Manders is often described as the play’s villain. But his villainy is many years in the past—his role in the play’s timeframe is mostly to sputter indignantly at Mrs. Alving’s appalling intellectual proclivities, to natter ineffectually at Oswald’s heresies, to notice, and comment (but no further, not he!) on Regina’s nubile physical charms, and to be swindled by the unscrupulous Engstrand. He is, in other words, a fusspot, a hypocrite and a fool. Ibsen makes the good pastor his richest comic creation, in a play that’s as much satire as it is tragedy. And translating Manders’ diction, with his fondness for multisyllabic locutions, and his constant fussing over what people will say (his entire theology: “don’t get caught”)— well, as I worked, I kept laughing out loud.

It’s true that Ibsen can feel old-fashioned. His audiences weren’t used to subtext and subtlety. They required dialogue that spelled everything out, and the result is a kind of “I’ve learned. . . .” “you mean. . .?” “yes! It’s true! You are the. . . .” sort of pattern. It’s not until The Wild Duck (1884) and Rosmersholm (1886) that Ibsen experimented with what we see as a fully realist dramatic idiom —with non sequiturs, lines trailing off, topics discarded mid-sentence, subtext implied.

The ideas of Ghosts are still relevant. Ibsen’s plays are so perfectly constructed, so superbly realized, that translating them is like taking a graduate seminar in playwriting. I am honored to have had the opportunity to bring this tremendous exercise in theatrical transgression to life.

Eric Samuelsen is resident playwright at Plan-B Theatre Company, where his plays MIASMA, AMERIGO and BORDERLANDS have received their world premieres. The entire 2013/14 season is devoted to his work (details at planbtheatre.org), kicking off with this reading of his translation of Henrik Ibsen’s GHOSTS.

Script-in-Hand Series: Staged reading
Plan-B Theatre Company, in partnership with Planned Parenthood of Utah (ppau.org) will present a free staged reading of GHOSTS. The cast of Jason Bowcutt, Topher Rasmussen, Robert Scott Smith, Christy Summerhays and Jessamyn Svensson is directed by Eric Samuelsen.
Sunday, August 25, 4pm
Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center (Jeanne Wagner Theatre)
Tickets: free but required – secure them at http://planbtheatre.org

This article was originally published on July 30, 2013.