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9 december 2016

As Michael Meyer points out in his 1962 translation of Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts, the characters "spend much of the time circling around a subject they dread referring to directly" (125). Several subjects, in fact: sexual license, parentage, alcoholism, blasphemy, incest, disease, homosexuality – these people circle around the point so much that one may suspect them of avoiding subjects they've never even dreamt of avoiding. Ghosts became one of the most reviled plays of all time by barely talking about things that its audiences barely wanted to realize existed.

Ghosts would eventually become one of the most celebrated of all plays, too. Oblique though it may be, it landed a direct hit on patriarchy, faux family values, double standards, and stifling conventions.

Mrs. Alving is a widow who lives in suspended animation, a living testimonial to her late husband's greatness. She has an artist son, Oswald, who's been abroad in Paris and she has plans for an orphanage that will further hype his father's memory. Things fall apart when the orphanage burns down, during a visit from one of her advisors, the stuffy Pastor Manders. Many years before, Manders had taken Alving in when she fled her libertine husband's house; but despite attraction kindling between them, he'd persuaded her to return, and be unhappy the rest of her life.

In a subplot, Engstrand the carpenter wants his daughter Regina, the Alving housemaid, to come live with him and manage a home for sailors (also in Captain Alving's memory). Except … Engstrand isn't Regina's father; Alving was – which means that Oswald is actually Regina's sister, which means he really shouldn't be hitting on her. The fraught situation is complicated by Oswald's congenital disease – unnamed on stage, but always diagnosed by audiences as syphilis – which is fixing to carry him off melodramatically at any moment.

Unlike An Enemy of the People, which Ibsen wrote as a reaction to the reaction to Ghosts, the earlier play thus only gives one of its characters (Engstrand) a really strong motivation. The carpenter, a wheedler who knows too many secrets, wants to get a situation out of the situation (and maybe a young woman he could hit on quasi-unincestuously, yuck). Regina clearly wants out (she really needs to meet other men), but isn't quite sure how to make the break. Everybody else is simply running from their past or stalling their future. Ghosts has the structure of a mystery, but one without a detective, one where nobody wants the case to be solved. No wonder it's oblique.

Meyer points out that Manders in particular is a difficult part to play. Michael Hordern played the role several times in the mid-20th century, and from the few times I've seen him on screen would seem well-cast in the character's baffled mix of keen desires and fussy ineffectuality. But the starring role has shifted over the century from Oswald (who gets to do the whole syphilitic-decay shtick) to Mrs. Alving, now generally seen as the focus. She wants everything to come out and she dreads everything coming out: her youthful free spirit has been encased in decades of pretension. The play is highly rhetorical, but it is also the personal tragedy of someone learning that you can't have things two ways.

Ibsen, Henrik. Ghosts. [Gengangere, 1881.] Translated by Michael Meyer. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1962.