Tuesday, 3 September 2013



Henrik Ibsen
Trans. James McFarlane
Four Major Plays
Oxford, OUP, 2008, p89-164

Now I am back to school, it is a real challenge to keep up with reading for pleasure, as there is just so much to do! As such, I thought I would ease myself back in with a play - and what better way to start than some Norwegian family drama (which was apparently originally written in Danish).

Ghosts is a domsetic play about a mother trying to exorcise the presence of her deceased husband from her life and the life of her son, Oswald. It is the eve before the Captain Alving Foundation Oprhanage is due to be opened - a project Mrs Alving has dedicated her life to. She is discussing finalities with Pastor Manders, when she reveals to him her husband's philandering misdeeds. She explains that the oprhanage is not a shrine to his greatness, but her way of spending all the money left upon the death of her husband, so Oswald avoids inheriting anything from his father.

But Mrs Alving soon discovers that, despite her most ardent attempts to protect her son, he has been cursed with the same traits of his father; and she is ashamed that he has fallen in love with Regine, the housemaid and Oswald's half-sister.

Although written in 1881, this play feels timeless and contemporary. This may, in part, be a result of James McFarlane's greatly-praised translation. But the themes of family pride and social status still run through many more recent works of fiction.

I am an admirer of all things Scandinavian: theatre, art and design are all dowsed in this powerful, dark, emotional tone. When it was first performed, Ghosts caused outrage and was slated by many reviewers. Moral decay, represented through Oswald's inheritance of his fathers sins, distressed Ibsen's contemporary audience.

Today, I find it thought provoking. Mrs Alving has dedicated her life to protecting her son, only to find he has caused his own ruin. All around her, men are creating chaos - her husband was a drunk who fathered an illegitimate child; the Pastor fails to take responsibility for convincing her to return to her wasted husband when she tries to run away; and despite being given the best opportunities, her son returns to her home full of love for the maid. Standing alone in the centre of this madness, Mrs Alving remains incredibly strong and sober - it is for her that I feel distress.

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