Friday, April 25, 2014

Ibsen: Ghosts - The Return of the Dead

Music to accompany this article: Peer Gynt, The Death of Åse (Grieg)

As a dramatic poet, Ibsen stands next to Shakespeare and ancient Greek tragedians. His unique gift to particularise universal truths in modern drama is unparalleled, and while his characters are very believable and come alive on stage, his overall dramatic design transports his art into an almost cosmic sphere. Ibsen’s heroes and heroines enact eternal, archetypal dramas. In the realm of drama, he became an heir to the great Greek tragedians, and his Sophoclean economy of expression is superior to Shakespeare’s.

                                                     "Evening on Karl Johan Street" by Edvard Munch

   Ibsen was greatly influenced by Hegel’s philosophy, and particularly by his Phenomenology of the Spirit. He was able to articulate Hegel’s philosophical thoughts in meaningful and artistic terms; he made his philosophy come alive (much as Wagner did with the philosophy of Schopenhauer). In his dramas, the dialectical action and development took precedence over character analysis, and any theatre director who does not recognise this fails as Ibsen’s interpreter. Ibsen saw the world of everyday reality rather like Plato did in his allegory of the cave; we live in the world of falsehood and illusion, beyond which there is a world of universal reality. His mission was to strip that ‘veil of Maya’ and reveal the underlying fabric of the world in general and the human soul in particular. For this reason, Wilson Knight called his method a “spiritual strip-tease”.

   Ibsen wrote Ghosts in 1881, during his long sojourn in Rome. Perhaps this ‘eternal city’ and his relative solitude, away from his native Norway, provided him with the necessary distance to see things clearly. Do we not see most clearly only from a distance? In the opening scene of the play, we are transported to the large garden-room of Mrs Helen Alving, the widow of Captain Alving. Though the glass, a view of the gloomy fjord, enveloped in mist, can be seen. Almost immediately we are confronted with two worlds: one immediate and obvious, the other hazy and archetypal. By the end of the play, we will have circumnavigated both.

   Mrs Alving, rather like Clytemnestra in the Oresteia, is preparing for a disingenuous memorial celebration to honour her dead husband. This pious, all too pious woman had despised him for his debauchery and did all she could to shield her son Osvald from him and his way of life. Osvald, who is an artist and has led a decadent life abroad, returns to join his mother in the festivities. Unexpectedly, he tells her about his fear of having a fatal disease, a disease which the doctor in France had diagnosed as a ‘softening of the brain’. This is a euphemism for tertiary syphilis. With his artistic powers paralysed, Osvald feels doomed to disintegrate into a state of helpless dependency. In many ways, he is like his father – he loves life and now he is going to pay the price for it. It is not clear whether he has inherited the disease from his father or acquired it independently. In Act II, he says: “If only it had been something I’d inherited – something I wasn’t to blame for...” In Act III, however, he says: “This disease that I have inherited – [he points to his forehead and says very softly] is seated here.” Almost certainly, he has inherited his father’s life-loving temperament, and this is interpreted as sin in what Nietzsche called anti-life Christian morality. Osvald ironically quotes the Bible: “The sins of the fathers are visited on the children...” (Exodus: 2015). The dead have now returned to haunt!

   In a moment of tragic peripeteia, Mrs Alving realises that it was her own deadened view of reality that drove her husband to destruction. Now, her own son asks her to administer a poison to him so that he does not have to live through a degrading illness. Rather like Orestes, he avenges his father but he does it not by killing his mother physically but by killing her through lodging a deep guilt in her heart. After the father has thus been avenged, there is a powerful invocation of the sun, rather like in Aeschylus’ The Libation Bearers. “Mother, give me the sun”, Osvald pleads. The ending of the play is ambiguous as we do not know whether Helen Alving will give her son the poison or not.

                                                                     "The Sun" by Edvard Munch

   Humanity has feared the return of the dead for millennia and this fear may be the origin of religious practice and myth. Elaborate burial and memorial practices, including the binding of the dead body before burial and leaving precious objects beside it, were to prevent such a return. Ibsen’s Ghosts deals with this very fear, which is metaphorically expressed by Osvald’s dread at having inherited the deadly sin (be it the disease itself, or his life-loving temperament) from his father.

   From the medical perspective, Mrs Alving should have had secondary syphilis for Osvald to have been infected with the disease in utero. Of this there is no evidence in the play. He would have had a number of inborn mental and physical handicaps which he clearly does not have. In a recent stage production in London, directed by Richard Eyre, Osvald, who was previously looking normal and healthy, descends into some kind of syphilis-triggered epileptic fit at the end of the play. This is unconvincing and an unnecessary distraction from the deeper meaning of the play. Osvald’s disintegration in fear of his disease mirrors the disintegrating worldview of his mother. Regrettably, the director felt compelled to concretise the metaphor.