Henrik Ibsen has always been one of my favorite playwrights and, for whatever reason, I recently remembered and decided to re-read one of his pieces that always kept a place in my literary thoughts: the impeccably concise and supremely structured Ghosts — first staged 130 years ago in of all places, the United States (specifically Chicago, Illinois, in May 1882). Its themes reverberate as strongly now as they did when I read it in younger years.
It is Ghosts that’s based upon that famous line we’re all familiar with, “the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children.” And Ibsen, already having given us an early prefeminist icon with his character of Nora in A Doll’s House, followed that up with Helene Alving here – a woman whose realizations about the verisimilitudes to be found in freedom (“the joy of life”) may appear quaint now, but were quite revolutionary at the time. (As were many of the topics addressed in the play, from premarital sex to venereal disease and assisted suicide. In England, the work was greeted as “An open drain; a loathsome sore unbandaged.” And that was one of the kinder reviews.)
So many truths, so little time: it’s still a wonder how Ibsen manages to navigate 30 years in the mere 12 hours that are the basis of the play. The decades are melded together by incredibly crafted expositionary dialogue that seamlessly moves the story forward while at the same time taking it back. The scene settings, with their dreary backdrop of rain-washed Norwegian fjords, create the perfect atmosphere for the dark drama taking place on the stage.
I guess what resonates the most philosophically (again, not a novel concept, but consider the context) is the theme of repression as the perpetrator of all that chokes the human spirit, as true then as it is now. As is the idea that it’s more or less impossible to escape those legacies that we are at a loss to change (as the character of Osvald says to his mother Helene, “I didn’t ask you for life…I don’t want it – take it back again!”)
And it is Osvald who utters that beautiful line at the end of the play, the devastating entreaty, “Mother – give me the sun.”
Magnificent literature – and perfect for a rainy day.