Ghosts – Resisting the temptation to separate. (Theatre Review)
16 Sept – 22 Oct
In the afterword to The Birth of Tragedy, added fourteen years after its initial publication, Friedrich Nietzsche refutes the Wagnerian-Schopenhauerian impulses of his youthful work. “What a pity,” he writes, “I did not dare to say what I had to say at that time as a poet; perhaps I could have done it!”[i] The Birth of Tragedy was written ten years before Ghosts, and while we know Ibsen wasn’t a great reader, we equally know he was struggling with the principles of classical tragedy just as Nietzsche was. What is Mrs. Alving’s tragedy if not her relationship to the tradition? Nietzsche struggles to reconcile the robust joie de vivre represented by the balance between the Dionysian and the Apollonian (loosely translated ‘rationality’ and ‘chaos’) in Greek tragedy with the Socratic process of self-realization. Helene Alving will experience a belated self-knowledge, the gradual insights and awakening characteristic of Sophocles. These truths, however are gleaned too late for her to take a course of action, but equally she decries her own behavior in restricting her husband’s joyful and life affirming character in her efforts to create a home of decency. In this her fault lies in passively taking over the expectations of bourgeois culture, but we know from the character of Pastor Manders, that to refuse this culture would have brought its own tragedies upon her household. However, when read through Nietzsche, Ibsen can be seen to asking something else from us, revealing Ghosts to be attempting a “living modern theater, a theatre that can break through the reflective mindset of us moderns and reconnect with dimensions of reality that escape the discursive forms of philosophy and science on the one hand and the otherworldliness of religion on the other.”[ii]
In the decade leading up to the writing of Ghosts, the debate about modern tragedy was staged as a debate about our relationship to classical Greek tragedy. This largely argued that in light of rationality, theatrical tragedy occurs as sheer imitation and the kind of theatre Nietzsche decried as passive entertainment and largely soulless. A new of way of examining tragedy did not focus on self-knowledge or truthfulness of the protagonists but rather on the theatrical experience, the dialectic between play and audience. This shifts Ghosts from being a tragic analysis of Helene Alving’s self-knowledge to a plea or a call for us to transcend the temptation to turn the piece into an object for moral or political reflection.
Consider this that Mrs Alving states from the translation by director Eamon Flack:
I almost believe we’re all ghosts. Every one of us. Everything we do has already happened, everything that has already happened is in us. It all returns. Not just what we inherit from our parents. Everything. Dead ideas. Dead ideas. Dead beliefs. Dead customs. Lodged in us. And we cannot be free of them. You read the news every day and there they are, underneath it all, the ghosts. As many ghosts as grains of sand. And we think we know who we are. We have no idea.
A temptation exists to turn Ghosts into a didactic artifact that mirrors the way Greek art oftentimes emerges to us: grand, fascinating and yet somewhat museum-like and dead in the sense that it presents a set of values that are no longer ours. This is a perspective Eamon Flack want’s to counter. It is equally unhelpful, however to use Ghosts as a plastering over contemporary political issues in order to ‘legitimise’ it (domesticate it to make it approachable) as contemporary. As soon as we think of Ghosts as being ‘about’ the impact of bourgeois thought on contemporary life (think of the current Australian debate about same-sex marriage) we run the risk of exposing Ghosts to its counter proposal: that didactic thought insists on same sex marriage and to impose this on our political process is the very bourgeois act Ghosts attempts to refuse. This argument exposes an issue such as same-sex marriage to the accusation that it represents repression and a refusal of freedom of speech. Seen as a Socratic, rational play, as an object of moral or political reflection, Ghosts can be wielded as a sword for either side of any political debate.
The real tragedy of Ghosts, in a significant sense, is not simply one of retrospection and the gradual unfolding of the past. Instead, it starts when Oswald drifts into madness: His mother knows she now faces the choice of whether or not to kill him. Mrs. Alving will have to live with the consequences of her decision and through her decision, we the audience are left with the realization of how the past shapes and gives structure to the horizon of the present. It is through certain minimalist structures such as a small cast and setting of a single ‘garden-room’ transformed only by the enormity of the elements outside it, Ibsen asks us to suspend judgement. Unity of time and unity of place, means we are in the room, not observing it. Ibsen refers to a dead and stifling tradition, but equally uses it to construct his play. Interestingly, Ibsen subverts a traditional demand for clean form and structure, and this was the only defense in Ghosts’ favour when it played to the audience of its day. Those offended by the subjects of incest, debauchery and euthanasia were forced to defend the work because of its embodiment of tradition and its imitation of classical tragedy. However, read through Nietzsche and the dramatic concerns of the day, Ibsen’s creation of a tragedy in which the audience is drawn, so to speak, into the experiential centre of the play, allows it to take each of us, from all perspectives, to understand the power of tradition in our life, without the clumsy didacticism of rationalism that calls forth its own immediate refutations. We are better to notice the way we embody tradition, and examine our arguments inside the chaos of our togetherness than shout moral and political insistences at each other.
In this way, Ghosts becomes to the most contemporary of plays and by default is legitimized. Eamon Flack has clad the stage in Michael Hankin’s set wall to wall such that we are drawn into the room, which still manages to appear small rather than large. Grey plants and endless rain give us a sense, not of isolation, but of being close with the cast in the room. Julie Lynch’s costumes are claustrophobic and work against the patterns of the set, in that they are physical barriers that separate, rather than unite. The room itself could be something we see in any modern house, but we have no relationship to those tight, restricting clothes that work to keep bodies from finding each other. This clever device serves to confuse our proximity rather than set the play in another time. Sydney mainstage’s suffer from that global contemporary disease of over production (perhaps making up for some perceived lack imposed by television and film) but Eamon Flack’s Ghosts navigates this rather well with the director understanding the importance of closeness by refusing passivity.
Although all the cast are strong, there is no doubt the production is underpinned by the exceptional work of Pamela Rabe as Helene Alving. Her Helene is a dignified, intelligent woman, stifled by lack of choice, but she is no Nora Helmer in her life. Pamela Rabe’s Mrs. Alving is a far more contemporary woman, managing the household estate and seeking to weild the horrors of patriarchy and conformism to get what she needs for her children. The performance is subtle and sublime, serving to draw the audience in to an intimate connection such that we feel we know her.
This current adaptation is Ghosts has its problems, but that is part of its joy. It is refreshing to see main stage theatre in Sydney that is not immaculately polished, calling forth our own chaos and control experience. It’s a fascinating night at the theatre that will have you talking about Helene’s choices long into the night.
[i] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, in The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings, trans. Ronald Speirs, ed. Raymond Geuss and Ronald Speirs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 6; henceforth BT, followed by page number.
[ii] Tragedy and Tradition. Ibsen and Nietzsche on the Ghosts of the Greeks. Kristin Gjesdal. Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal, The new School.