By Henrik Ibsen
Translated by Rick Davis and Brian Johnston
Directed by Jonathan Moscone
Main Season · Roda Theatre
February 27–April 11, 2004
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
Ghosts, Ibsen’s 19th century classic, is a searing portrait of a community whose repressive and hypocritical sense of morality devastates lives. Timely for its piercing insight into the dire consequences of maintaining appearances at all costs, Ghosts reminds us why Henrik Ibsen remains one of the most important playwrights of all time.
Rick Davis · Translator
Brian Johnston · Translator
Jonathan Moscone · Director
Neil Patel · Scenic Design
Meg Neville · Costume Design
Scott Zielinski · Lighting Design
Jake Rodriguez · Sound Design
Nicole Galland · Dramaturg
Kimberly Mark Webb · Stage Manager
Michael Suenkel · Assistant Stage Manager
Amy Potozkin · Casting
Janet Foster · Casting
Emily Ackerman · Regina Engstrand
James Carpenter · Pastor Manders
Davis Duffield · Osvald Alving
Ellen McLaughlin · Mrs. Helene Alving
Brian Keith Russell · Jakob Engstrand
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
Secrets. The very word connotes something sinister, something repressed, some fact, fear or desire that cannot bear to be revealed, some story that cannot bear telling. We all have secrets, of course. We’d like to think that we don’t perhaps, but we do. However small or inconsequential, however innocent or dark, they weave through the fabric of our lives waiting for our decision to reveal them or to keep them “safe” within the unseen folds of our consciousness. Ironically, it is one of the most shared aspects of our experience, this desire not to tell. Such desires can form a pattern, the overall arc of which becomes a key component of our character.
Henrik Ibsen understood the power of such patterns and the dramatic affect they can have on our lives. He was far ahead of his time in that regard. Before Freud began publishing his psychological case studies, Ibsen was creating portraits of people whose behavior was directly connected to the stories they withheld; the revelation of which was so powerful that they threatened to not only undo individual lives but the entire social structure of society. There were legendary riots after the performance of Ibsen’s plays, so great was his talent for creating recognizable people and unleashing secrets that were collectively held by the audience.
To bring this enigmatic play to life we have called on our colleague and friend, Jonathan Moscone, artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theater. Artistic directors are always talking about working for each other, but it rarely happens. There are many obstacles to such a seemingly benign event: conflicting schedules, play selection, differing aesthetic sensibilities, etc…But there is an additional secret at play: organizations are afraid of losing their artistic identity. There is a strong feeling among many theatre professionals that the vision of an artistic director is in some way owned by the institution and that to produce the work of another artistic director, especially one residing in the same geographical area, is to diminish one’s corporate identity.
It’s time to renounce this mythology. I have known Jonathan for over twenty years. He was an intern at Berkeley Rep when he was barely more than a teenager, before heading off to Yale and to a career in the theatre that has fortunately brought him back to the Bay Area. We welcome him and his entire cast, which features Bay Area stalwarts Emily Ackerman and Brian Keith Russell, third year ACT MFA student Davis Duffield (appearing through the generous support of our colleagues across the Bay), the inestimably talented Ellen McLaughlin and the return of James Carpenter, a veteran of countless memorable productions at Berkeley Rep.
What a luxury it is to watch them tell us their secrets…
“I do but ask; my call is not to answer.”—Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906)
“When men stop believing in God, it isn’t that they then believe in nothing; They believe in everything.”—Umberto Eco
In Henrik Ibsen we see a man of almost unrelenting contradictions. He was a socialist and yet a royalist. He was obsessed with the radical demand for political and individual liberty, and yet for years he was claimed by the conservative party of Norway as “their” poet. He examined Scandinavian society minutely—but from a distance, during 27 years in self-imposed exile. He detested Society for forcing people to conform and live according to conventional expectations, and yet was obsessed with being renowned by and winning honors within that same Society. He is hailed for his “feminist” plays, but in later years he insisted he was not a feminist. He was intensely private, and yet suggested to his publisher that he offer a biographical sketch of what was going on in his life as a preface to each of his published scripts. He wrote feelingly about the consequences of illegitimate children and unfulfilled family relationships, yet he fathered out of wedlock a child he had virtually nothing to do with, and at the age of 22 unceremoniously broke off contact with his parents (in fact in his mother’s ailing years he twice promised to come visit her, and broke the promise both times). “He was like one who raises a people to revolt, and cannot lead them when revolted,” wrote Haldane MacFall, an early biographer. “He has the iron will but the doubting heart. He set up the worship of self—and came to doubt even that.” He was, to his credit, entirely aware of all the contradictions within himself, and it was his striving to come to terms with them that made him such a champion for self-realization.
And yet it is dangerous to apply that label—or any label—to the man. Almost every defining comment ever made about him by a biographer or critic can be, and likely has been, refuted or contradicted by another biographer or critic just as insightful and familiar with his life and work. His dramatic writing, several of his biographers have suggested, is a sort of living Rorschach test, for each person to approach with their own prejudices and respond to according to those prejudices. To make absolute comments about his ideals or values is folly. He did not have an agenda, a belief system or a credo the way Tolstoy or other great thinkers of the age did. His task, he believed, was not to answer, but to question. In later life he was invited by a friend to become president of a social club and he declined with this explanation: “I have to tell you, I must always belong to the opposition.” He could have been speaking of his relationship to life and society in general.
In a sense, Ghosts is the most Ibsenesque of Ibsen plays. Although a brilliant example of clarity and economy of story, it refuses to give pat answers to any of the various issues it addresses—all of which were incendiary when the play premiered. There is no way for us in the 21st century to begin to appreciate the uproar the play caused, for its outspokenness about taboo subjects and its seeming attack on the sanctity of marriage. The current social tension about marriage in today’s society almost pales in comparison; the only artistic parallel in living memory which can approach it (at a distance) is the furor over the 1989 exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs in Cincinnati. Righteous wrath was leveled not only against the play and its creator, but against everyone who did not revile him for having written it. A London paper wrote, when Ghosts debuted there in April 1891, that “97 percent 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.”
Ibsen was unprepared for such venom, but hardly disheartened, for he believed—as he later told the King of Sweden—“I HAD to write Ghosts.” It was, he felt, a necessary response to the furor caused by his previous play, A Doll’s House. At the end of A Doll’s House, Nora realizes her marriage (and therefore her life) is a sham and walks out on her husband and children in order to find out who she really is. Critics reviled him for creating a woman who could so abandon home and hearth. And so, “after Nora, Mrs. Alving had to follow,” Ibsen famously declared; Mrs. Alving is the woman who, upon realizing the sham, made the societally correct choice to stay the course.
But Ghosts is far more than a rebuttal to criticism of A Doll’s House. It deals with many issues that society at the time could not bear to see broached publicly—including incest, syphilis, prostitution, the hypocrisy of the Church, adultery and illegitimacy. In bringing these issues to the stage, Ibsen was throwing in society’s face its own need to embrace cover-ups, its unwillingness to address (or even admit the existence of) real-life social problems.
But he was not doing this to make a point. He was doing it because such circumstances have intrinsic dramatic fascination, and he was a dramatist. He was interested in character—in the real psychological struggle of real human beings finding themselves in impossible circumstances. He was among the first dramatists to bring these issues to the stage, and in doing so he brought them to the attention of the world at large. He was advocating on behalf of an international community dedicated to addressing real life with an honesty that had not been part of polite society at all. Psychology dealt with these issues but it was a nascent field, of interest mostly to the medical profession. Because of Ibsen’s plays, topics were discussed in salons, newspapers and tea-rooms that had never been discussed in such places before. For encouraging such open discourse, Ibsen was scorned by polite society, which equated questioning traditional values with actively seeking their ruin. Mrs. Alving asks Pastor Manders if we obey the laws of society because we respect them or because we fear them; moralists and ministers responded to this as if Ibsen himself were a malcontent trouble-maker, despite the fact that he himself obeyed the laws of society, and despite the fact he adamantly denied that any of the characters spoke for him. He never wavered in his assessment of himself as the one who questions, not the one who answers. In fact, late in his life, when he was asked by William Archer what happens after the curtain goes down on Ghosts, Ibsen, laughing, replied, “I don’t know. Everyone must work that out for himself.”
“The Impossiblist,” as William Archer referred to Ibsen, was born in the coastal town of Skien, son of a prosperous merchant whose sudden bankruptcy interrupted Ibsen’s education. He was apprenticed to a pharmacist; later, he failed the entrance exams to train as a physician, and found himself earning a modest income as a writer. After being appointed a “stage poet” in 1851, he soon found himself running a small theatre in Bergen, where he wrote a series of plays that were concerned largely with Norwegian folklore and history. In 1858 he married Suzannah Thorensen, with whom he had a son, Sigurd, the following year (he had already fathered a child out of wedlock with a servant a dozen years earlier). His theatre went bankrupt a few years later. Growing disillusioned with his own country, Ibsen was assisted by friends who helped to secure a grant for him to travel abroad in 1864. This was the beginning of his self-imposed exile which lasted 27 years, most of which he spent in Italy and Germany. During this time he became, ironically, one of the most famous Norwegians alive. As an expatriate, he wrote the “realistic” plays that defined his middle years, and eventually developed the more introspective and symbolic style of drama that culminated in When We Dead Awaken. He moved back to Norway in 1891, settling in Christiana (now Oslo). He died in 1906, a few years after suffering a debilitating stroke.
A performance history
Ibsen wrote Ghosts in the summer of 1881; it was published in Norway that December. Although Ibsen was a celebrated success (most recently for the extremely controversial A Doll’s House), no theatre in Scandinavia would risk mounting such “pathological and titillating material.” In 1882, it had its premiere performance in, of all places, Chicago. In August of the following year it was finally given its European premiere in Sweden, with the young Swedish actor August Lindberg both directing and playing Osvald. He became obsessed with the project, visiting children’s syphilis wards in Copenhagen and suffering recurring nightmares from the whole experience. The play was received with wild enthusiasm and in 1890 it played in private theatres in Germany and France (the latter at the insistence of Emile Zola). Its single-performance British debut in 1891 lead to a histrionic outcry of moral indignation, although it was re-staged a few years later and attended by both Queen Victoria and the Archbishop of Canterbury without ado. Ghosts has remained popular in the European repertoire, attracting the great Edvard Munch as a set designer in the 1906 Berlin production directed by Max Reinhardt.
A social disease
In late 19th century Europe, syphilis was seen as a scourge upon society. It evoked the same hysteria, stereotyping and paranoia that the AIDS epidemic did a century later. The infected were social outcasts and considered culpable for their own infection. A medical encyclopedia from the era indicated the dominant social perspective of the disease:
“The contagion cannot be transmitted to the lower animals, man being the only animal subject to this loathsome and degrading disease…Illicit intercourse is responsible for the great proportion of cases, though the patient always declares that it has occurred accidentally. The lustful gratification of the passions is perhaps responsible for seventy-five percent of all cases.”
In the 1870s, the moral and social implications of syphilis underwent a severe change with the scientific assertion that syphilis could be hereditary. As a general rule, medical wisdom held that only husbands (after debasing themselves with prostitutes) could bring syphilis into the home, where it was then transmitted to their honest wives—and therefore to their offspring.