Ghosts / Henrik Ibsen

Because A Year of Feminist Classics is reading A Doll’s House for March 2011, I read three Ibsen plays last month. You can read what I’ve already written about Pillars of Society and A Doll’s House. Today is Ghosts, the third of the three plays in The Oxford Ibsen, Volume 5.

August Lindberg as Oswald Alving & Hedvig Winterhjelm as Helene Alving

Ghosts is essentially an extended conversation between Helene Alving (the widow of the well respected Captain Alving) and Pastor Manders. Mrs. Alving is about to start up a orphanage and Pastor Manders is both the financial and legal advisor for the project as well as the sponsor. Her son Oswald has returned from living abroad for the dedication of the orphanage. Jacob Engstrand and his daughter Regine make up the remainder of the cast of characters. He’s a carpenter who’s worked on the orphanage, but Regine is a servant in Mrs. Alving’s house. Father and daughter do not get along.

Where both Pillars of Society and A Doll’s House meandered up to their political points, Ghosts heads straight into the discussion. Pastor Manders castigates Mrs. Alving for being headstrong. He feels that it is the cause of Oswald’s becoming a free-thinking artist. In the past, she’d nearly left Captain Alving due to his formerly wanton ways, or so Pastor Manders thought. Manders thought it was her duty as a wife to be subservient to Mr. Alving, and had talked her into going back to him. And didn’t Captain Alving turn out to be a fine upstanding citizen? Oswald is obviously not, so it must be her headstrong failing as a mother that has lead him to that path.

Mrs. Alving quickly corrects him. Unknown to anyone but her and Jacob Engstrand, Captain Alving never reformed. He drank to oblivion many days, and was incapable of running the family affairs at all. Instead, Mrs. Alving ran everything in his name, letting the Captain have the credit. She sent Oswald to be raised in school by others, lest he pick up his father’s ways. And lastly, Captain Alving schtupped a servant, fathering a young girl. Rather than have the scandal implicate the household, Mrs. Alving arranged for Jacob Engtrand to marry the servant and raise the girl as his own. It’s no charade, for he considers Regine to be his own child despite not having actually fathered her.

The entire play is constructed to use Pastor Manders as the proponent of outdated societal mores, and then to have other characters present new facts to him to challenge his preconceived notions of how things work. Mrs. Alving was the genius behind the Alving household. Engstrand is a fine citizen who thinks not about his own well-being. Even Oswald challenges the Pastor’s thoughts on the necessity of marriage.

Of the three plays, by far Ghosts has the most interesting and complex characters. In addition, where Pillars of Society left the societal taboos intact when criticizing them, and A Doll’s House presented them as about to be broken, Ghosts shows them as already having been broken. At some points, it condones breaking taboos we still hold today (particularly those against incest).

Oswald is the most tragic character. He has something that resembles syphilis. and has returned home for some comfort in what he believes will be his last days. He certainly carries a bit of his father’s narcissism. On meeting Regine, he decides to pursue her because her outlook on life will make his more enjoyable.

When attending theater, I generally prefer to see more recent plays, rather than the classics. Many of them are too didactic for me to enjoy. The characters are there to represent a position, rather than a person. However, I think I’d attend a showing of Ghosts, where I wouldn’t for Pillars of Society or A Doll’s House. There’s a bit of didactic earnestness here, but it’s subtle (comparatively) and does not overwhelm the actual story.

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