Ghosts as a Modern Tragedy
Henrik Ibsen was a Norwegian writer and outstanding dramatist whose influence spread far beyond the boundaries of his native country. Early in life Ibsen began to regard with sorrow and contempt the manifestations of servility and cowardice displayed by the poverty-stricken bourgeois toward the upper classes. Living amid such social surroundings, and in such a frame of mind, it was natural for Ibsen to turn radical and tragic in his writing.
Ibsen’s Ghosts is a story about intrigues, false images, secrets, and lies. Staged at the historical Geva theatre in downtown Rochester, the play was performed on a gradient stage. The scene, a parlor, a room with four doors: the first door (upstage left) leading to bedrooms, the second (downstage left) leading to the kitchen and laundry areas and then outside, the third (downstage right) opens to the dining room and later the cellar, and the last (upstage right) goes to a foyer or coat room of some sort and then outside.
To be tragic Ibsen’s cycle must be the imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and possessing magnitude: to be modern, it need accumulated the results, including the conflicts, of this history. An adequate, modern tragic drama would have to encompass this. To take up a limited area of modern reality and then to offer an impassioned but partisan and partial account of it is the way the discourse of the world is conducted.
To be tragic in this modern-or modernist-drama, the individual must be awakened into becoming a vehicle for the ghosts on which the modern world for the most part, has turned its back. Ibsen’s plays, in fact, have as much the nature of scences as of psychoanalysis. The awakened individual becomes the medium through which the banished powers speak This makes the Ibsen scene haunted ground where inadvertent action can trigger off the archetypal drama.
In the beginning of Ghosts, the confident joyful self-justifying Mrs. Helene Alving is ineluctably journeying towards the distraught and horrified tragic figure of the final curtain in a play as dialectically relentless as Oedipus Tyrannos. Yet the devastating action also is a tragically transfiguring one, as archetypes from Greek drama.
Getting us to take in the tragic perspective might be one way of snatching a shred of utility from the devastation of tragedy, but it is a fairly tough-minded concession. In Ghosts, tragedy is the privilege of only Oswald and Helene Alving, spiritual aristocrats who refuse the wary ethical myopia of Manders. Engstrand and Regina, and are transfigured but devastated in consequence. Tragedy is something one would never wish on one’s friends, but which one demands for one’s most admired dramatic characters. No one wants Antigone to give in to Creon and avert the calamity that comes down on her and upon so many others, nor do we side with Tiresias, Jocasta and the old shepherd, wanting Oedipus to stop his investigation even as we see, and reluctantly admire, the infernal machine that is being so superbly assembled against him.
Ghosts, a bigger play than A Doll House, is less often anthologized because, like Rosmersholm or John Gabriel Borkman, it is more difficult to misread as meliorist and therefore as intrinsically optimistic. The optimists, in fact, once declared the play redundant, from a utilitarian point of view, because of the discovery of penicillin-though a rescue operation now is being mounted for its new relevance to the AIDS crisis.
The path Ibsen is taking us down in Ghosts, however, is a metaphysical, not a medical one. The grin game the tragedy is tremendously playing demonstrates that modern reality, under imaginative and rigorous analysis, reveals a tragic structure, an inescapable clash of irreconcilable imperatives.
In Ghosts, the Cycle recollects and re-enacts our Hellenic heritage, whose supreme artwork was tragedy. The horror and execration with which the play was received shows how unprepared the nineteenth century was for the Greek tragic vision when stripped of classicizing costume and applied directly to the texture of the modern world
In Ghosts, more starkly perhaps man in the rest of the Cycle. Ibsen presents our humanity as an inchoate identity made up of an uncertainly recollected and conflicted past voyaging to a problematic future within a cosmos we still cannot comprehend; one by one the sustaining fictions we have constructed as faith, morality, truth, are stripped away. The sun that rises at the end of the play illuminates a total multi-perspectival devastation.
Ibsen’s tragic vision is inseparable from an equally unsettling comic one, as Ghosts, for one, attests. Audiences often are surprised to discover how deliberately funny much of the play is, and many productions, convinced that an Ibsen play must be pervasively solemn, especially one with such a title equally discomforting.
The gods of Greek tragedy are amorally powerful forces and, like the cosmic forces of modern scientific thinking, they ultimately elude the human categories by which we try to identify them. This is the Vision so unsettlingly recovered in Ghosts, where the tragic nemesis lies waiting in the blood of its innocent victim, and an indifferent sun rises to illuminate the scene of human devastation.
The understandable tendency of modern audiences is to protest, like Johnson, against the tragic rhythm taking over events. It simply is not fair that Helene or Oswald Alving, the most admirable characters in Ghosts, should suffer so appealingly even as the play builds up the logic that requires them to. Tragedy requires us to override moral perspectives and to recognize the tragic structure ultimately underlying reality.
Ghosts answers Ibsen’s quest as to what can be the result when women are deprived of education to match their talents, prevented from following their mission, deprived of inheritance mistreated as wives and daughters, left feeling embittered and lonely. Alienation and madness sprout from the depths of patriarchal society. This play is no tragedy and Ibsen calls it a Domestic Drama.
There is no sense of reconciliation at the end, nor is there any moment of realization (anagnorisis). Oswald’s lapse into madness and Mrs. Alving’s terror when she fails to decide whether to give her son the lethal morphine tablets he has requested, or to nurse him in his child-like state of madness, provides no catharsis, but provokes the readers or audience to think.