November 16, 2018

Critics and Ibsen’s Ghosts

I used to dislike Ibsen.  So did the critics.  Well, maybe not hate Ibsen, I just couldn’t finish his plays.  And, I’m the kind of person who likes to read plays.

There are acquired tastes.  Dark chocolate, spicy food, and Ibsen’s theatre.

It’s actually easier, in a way, to read Shakespeare’s plays than 19th century theatre (except for some comedy).  Drama from the 19th century seems to be designed for line-producers: they list all the scenery before the action starts; but they aren’t designed for casual readers.  Oscar Wilde is pretty easy to read, but he’s an exception.

That said, Ibsen made most of his money from the sale of playscripts.  Performance was a tiny consideration.  So, perhaps it was something about the translation, or I had to get used to the typeface and layout.

Early 20th century plays are much simpler, probably because playwrights expected publication, and probably because, being still in copyright, publishers spend more money on layout and design. I finished Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons” in one sitting as a teenager.  And I used to read George Bernard Shaw’s plays on the bus.  But the first time I attempted Ibsen, it felt like homework.

I’m not the only one.  The San Francisco Call said “Horrors in Ibsen’s Ghosts are forgotten in watching Shaw’s Candida.”  The Courier said, “One of the most weird productions that ever went on tour is “Ghosts” by Ibsen.”

However, it’s the reception in Europe which was much worse.  Ghosts was even banned from production in some countries.  While American critics never said anything directly negative, European critics weren’t so kind.  (According to the introductions to the translations I’ve read, anyway.)

As stated before, Ibsen made more money from print outs of his plays than productions, more people read his plays than saw it performed.  That’s kind of hard to imagine, in the days when there are all these websites where you can read scripts for free, and where it’s hard to even find modern play scripts in the local library.  But, in the 19th century, many plays were meant to be read, and not necessarily performed.  (There were also home theatre books, to perform plays as a kind of party treat.  And sheet music was very big before radio.)

Ibsen made quite a lot of money from his plays, so someone must have liked them, even if the authorities didn’t.

The Fairmont West Virginian, writing about Alberta Gallatin, shows the actresses range, from comedy to her performance of Mrs Alving in Ghosts.  Mrs Alving is called “one of the heaviest roles in drama.”

Mrs Alving is the main character in Ghosts, but her son, Osvald, though a minor part in terms of lines, is a major part in terms of story and emotion. According to the Evening Statesman, “Osvald Alving in Ibsen’s “Ghosts”, so far as mental stress and storm is concerned, the part equals Hamlet.”  Still, I would say that Mrs Alving is more challenging to play.

(Spoiler alert)

So, what do I think of Ghosts now?  I disagree with Ibsen’s apparent worldview, shared by Zola and others in the 19th century, that behaviour is inherited and perhaps genetic (or epigenetic.)  That seems to be the premise of the action, like father like son, even if the father and the son hardly knew each other.

The kind of terrible family cycle isn’t the kind of play or film I’d normally like to watch or create.  However, there’s something about the storytelling, the way the characters interact, that make it interesting.

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