Sherman Theatre, Cardiff (1996).

Ibsen wrote GHOSTS in 1881, two years after A DOLL'S HOUSE.  He said: "Ghosts had to be written.  I could not let "A Doll's House" be my last word; after Nora, Mrs Alving had to come."  He was well aware that writing a play about sexual disease would create a storm.  It did.  "One of the filthiest things ever written; a repulsive pathological phenomenon which, by undermining the morality of our social order, threatens its foundation." (Royal Theatre, Copenhagen.)  "An open drain: a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act, loathsome and fetid." (Press reaction to London production in 1891.)

     And so the play has remained, ever since, as the shocking drama that took the lid off sexual disease.  Nonetheless, Ibsen's stature grew.  He became known as the First Modern Writer.  He was Serious - when you consider the themes - the emancipation of women, dirty politics, the corrosions of greed, personal ambition - these are themes for a giant.  Ibsen can easily seem to be a chilly God, up there on Parnassus where the oxygen is thin and the air bites the nose.  Respect, yes.  But respect in theatre is deadly.

        How does one approach a classic?  You look for the truth, mine out what has pierced the imagination.  And the first, general, blazing truth about Ibsen is that, unlike the cool, detached Dr Chekhov with his sly scalpel, Ibsen is not cool at all.  He is white-hot.  There is nothing of the aloof Thomas Mann about him and nothing of the academician, thank God.  Ibsen rages with feeling.  Like Hemingway's Old Man of the Sea, he fishes with a long line - and hauls up strange denizens of the deep.  A dramatist who writes about sexual disease in Norway in 1881 is a very courageous man.  His reward is to be acclaimed, eventually, for brave social commitment and given international approval.

       The irony is, that this isn't the play at all.  We are led to believe that Ghosts is about a woman desecrated and infected by a libidinous husband, and passing on fatal infection to her beloved child.  True.  But that is only part of it.  Mrs Alving's voyage of discovery is even more shocking.  The play, we discover, is about passion, about lust for life - sexual life - and the deadly consequences of its denial.  Yet how can it be possible, given the tragic consequences of inherited syphilis in the tertiary stage, not to condemn licence?  Ibsen's portrayal of Hélène Alving, one of the great female roles in the theatrical canon, is breath-taking in its daring.  It is she, rather than Nora in A Doll's House, who is the proto-feminist.  It is Mrs Alving who becomes aware that she is not a victim (the fatal aberration of much neo-feminism) but a protagonist.  An adult human being is not a helpless pawn of sex or social circumstances but a creature capable of and impelled to make choices.  She understands, too late, the fatal inadequacy of remaining in the unquestioning obedience of the child-state.  At the end of the play, in pain for Osvald's terrible destiny, we see that his father is to blame and not to blame.  Mrs Alving realizes that her youthful imprinting has been, at best, inadequate, making her a dutiful and dreary non-wife, denying herself as well as her husband full and joyous union and driving him to solace and relief elsewhere.

    For a play that is Tragic in essence, there is a lot of humour (not always seen in production.)  The minor characters are portrayed with wonderful mischief.  Regine, Osvald's illegitimate half-sister, is a bitch - a Becky Sharp.  She is, as Osvald notes wistfully, a survivor.  Uninfected, she survives by sagacity and a hard heart.  Of all the people in the play, she is the realist.  Jakob Engstrand, her putative father, is an outrageous rogue - liar, drunkard and manipulative sponger.  His arias of benevolent righteousness as he effortlessly gulls Paster Manders are glorious to watch.  The Pastor himself is a lethal tilt at the self-delusory power of the cloth.  Manders is not a bad man.  Nonetheless, he creates moral mayhem wherever he treads.  He is a walking miasma of received beliefs, with deadly feelers of interference in the lives of others.  Mrs Alving, who loves him, does not judge him for being a gullible fool.  She does judge him for destroying both their lives by his earlier unwillingness to face truth - in particular, sexual truth.  Denying truth means you die or go bad inside.

        Ibsen's characters are like us.  They are unpredictable.  They don't obey their own rules, they surprise themselves, and us.  They get in a mess, like us.  They survive at a price, like us.  They are jealous, heroic, frightened, amusing, despicable, shrewd and wilful.  Like us.  And like us his protagonists were faced with sexual dilemmas.  Those dilemmas have changed radically in these post-existential times of chemical mutation and the side-lining of fecundity, giving too many choices in place of too few.  But Ibsen's theme is as potent as ever.  Grow up, the play says, or go to the devil.  His piercing humanity is not Tolstoy's.  It does not spill over in our laps.  But it is there.  Heart-breaking, and enough to melt mountains.

                                                                                                                                   Pam Gems

This version of Ghosts was produced by the Sherman Theatre Company in Cardiff, Wales in 1993 with the following cast:

Regine Lisa Palfrey

Engstrand Dorien Thomas

Pastor Manders John Quentin

Mrs Alving Sian Phillips

Osvald Brendan O'Hea

Director Sean Mathias