Ghosts pretty much scared the shit out of people when it was first published in 1881. As David Zesmer points out in his program notes for the new Court Theatre production, Henrik Ibsen’s three-act drama about lurid doings at the Alving estate horrified even the playwright’s putative friends. The European theatrical establishment recoiled from it, and early independent productions of it met with responses like that of London critic Clement Scott, who called it an “open drain; a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly; a lazar house with all its windows open.”
They were perfectly right to be frightened. Ibsen made Ghosts the occasion for an attack on everything hypocritical, everything repressive, everything bigoted, everything mean and dark and joyless—that is to say, everything sacred—in bourgeois society. The Danish playwright Erik Bogh knew what he was up against, if not what he was talking about, when, according to Zesmer, he characterized Ghosts as “a repulsive pathological phenomenon which, by undermining the morality of our social order, threatens its foundations.”
You want a vindication of the rights of women? See Ghosts. You want rhapsodic defenses of free thought and free love? See Ghosts. You want digs at pious jerks? Visions of a corrupt patriarchy? Class war? Syphilis? Mercy killing? You want a discussion of the theology of fire insurance? You know where to go.
Ibsen was after more than an issue or two, though—he was out to expose an entire syndrome: an ethos based on lying and denial; a moral economy that exalts appearance over reality, duty over natural pleasures, dead structures over living energies, creating a tension that, having no release, has no choice but to build till it blows. Till it blows with a force powerful enough to rock a whole house down. The Alving house, for instance.
People like Erik Bogh evidently recognized this intention. Or sensed it, anyway. And I think that may have scared them more than Ibsen’s waving syphilis in their faces ever did.
We’d do well to be a little nervous, too. From Jimmy Swaggart to Marion Barry, from Bush’s phony war on drugs to his refusal to treat AIDS, the Ghosts syndrome continues to haunt us. Denial has become the central fact of our culture.
Unfortunately, you’re not likely to pick up a healthy dread from this production. The only thing scary about this Ghosts is the extent to which it’s been bungled.
Confronted with Ibsen’s fervent but schematic script, director Bernard Hopkins has for some reason chosen to throw out the fervor and play up the schematics. There’s not a bit of energy here, but plenty of foreshadowing. Heavy, heavy foreshadowing. Foreshadows over foreshadows. Every significant line is underlined and circled in red. Someone asks a servant girl why she’s so interested in her young master’s welfare and she falls backward, halfway across the room, so we’ll know she’s in love with him; Mrs. Alving says her son, Osvald, takes after her and then turns to give the audience a big look, so we’ll know there’s more here than meets the eye.
And so on. When Hopkins’s direction isn’t ridiculously pointed, it’s ridiculous in its pointlessness: the actors are made to move in great, nonsensical circles around the stage, as if they were learning to polka as they talk.
Larry Yando snivels like Fagin as the low-life villain, Engstrand, making it extremely hard to believe that he can deceive even Larry Brandenburg’s thick-witted Pastor Manders. Manders’s thick-wittedness, in turn, makes it extremely hard to believe that he could ever have been loved by Linda Stephens’s neurasthenic Mrs. Alving. Jeffrey Hutchinson, meanwhile, is just extremely hard to believe as a brooding Osvald.
Though Stephens gives intimations of the vivid Mrs. Alving she’s capable of playing, and though Lia Mortensen smuggles in a bit of genuine anger as the servant girl, the only really successful element of the show is the combination of Richard Isackes’s bleached-out set—with its gorgeous evocation of rain—and Ron Greene’s believably brooding lights. Everything else could go.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Sutton.