Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Ibsen's Ghosts - His answer to Hamlet?

From the library, got four DVDs of Dame Judi Dench in this, that and the other for the BBC, most notably The Cherry Orchard and Ghosts. Hadn't seen either play in donkey's years.

Ghosts is an all-star treatment: Kenneth Branagh as Oswald, Michael Gambon as Pastor Manders, Natasha Richardson as Regina. The play was a shocker when written because the very word "syphilis" was not uttered in polite society outside a doctor's consulting room, and it is not uttered in the play either -- nor does it come into focus until the very end. (If you watch it waiting for sex to come to the fore, you'll have a long wait.) The play's more pertinent issues are hypocrisy of society, church, state, men, women -- even incest gets a bit of an airing. One has to wonder, because the play is such a well-made machine, each irrelevant bit of dialogue turning out to hint at other themes that grow larger until they engulf the story, what sin Mrs. Alving has committed that she is so very terribly punished by the final curtain. The fact that she is beginning to open her mind, to consider things her society condemns, makes her sympathetic in the early scenes, and she remains more honest than the grown men of the play. But her lies for the husband she had grown to hate, and her lies to the son she worships, evidently lead step by step to the awful end. What has she done? (It is unlike Ibsen to condemn women, except unloving women, as in John Gabriel Borkman.)

But the reason I bring this up on this newsgroup is that it struck me during the scenes where Mrs. Alving is obliged to disillusion her adored Oswald about the personality of his father (and connive with Pastor Manders in concealing that father's vices) that the model for this story is that play all Scandinavians know, Hamlet: the Gertrude-Hamlet relationship (and the relationship of both to the ghostly dead king) that is the crux of the relationships in that play.

And I wondered if anyone has written about this, or noted it: the madness of the son, the necessary killing of the reputation of the dead father, the way his ghost lingers anyway (unseen, unheard) in his house, the mother who has never admitted that she loved, and attempted to run away with, another man, the more-than-brotherly love the son feels for the girl who turns out to be his sister, the cheerful fate she goes to that the older woman tries to save her from, the misbegotten councils of the girl's ridiculous old father, the boy sent abroad to keep him from knowing his father's fate, the fate that follows him anyway, in his corrupt heredity.

Well it renews my respect for Ibsen, though I still can't regard it as ranking among his great plays (Wild Duck for me).

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