Ghost In The Machine

I tend not to write about dead white european men (DWEM) here very often. Much of contemporary theatre practice can still be dominated by them. It’s not that I don’t think DWEMs are important – they are, and form a basis for much of what we do – but there is just so much else to write about. It therefore comes as a little bit of a surprise to me that I am writing about one for the second time in three days.

I really want to share an article about one of my favourite plays and playwrights, Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen’s plays have always drawn me to them, there is something about the way he creates characters capable of communicating so much about themselves to an audience, while failing to communicate with one another. Respected veteran director Richard Eyre is currently rehearsing a production of Ghosts and has written in The Guardian about adapting the play for a 21st century audience.

In the spirit of Ibsen

The premiere of Ibsen’s Ghosts caused an explosion of outrage and critical venom. Richard Eyre discusses his new production of the play, and how all acts of adaptation leave a trace of authorial presence

Richard Eyre (left) at a rehearsal of Ghosts

Richard Eyre (left) at a rehearsal of Ghosts

Ibsen said of Ghosts that “in none of my plays is the author so completely absent as in this last one”. Nine years later, when he was 61, Ibsen met an 18-year-old Viennese girl and fell in love. She asked him to live with her; he at first agreed but, crippled by guilt and fear of scandal (and perhaps impotence as well), he put an end to the relationship. Emilie became the “May sun of a September life” and the inspiration for the character of Hedda Gabler, even if Ibsen himself contributed many of her characteristics with his fear of scandal and ridicule, his apparent repulsion with the reality of sex, and his yearning for an emotional freedom.

Perhaps his disavowal of authorial presence in Ghosts was a little disingenuous. When he was working on the play he wrote to a friend: “Everything that I have written is most minutely connected with what I have lived through, if not personally experienced … for every man shares the responsibility and the guilt of the society to which he belongs. To live is to war with trolls in heart and soul. To write is to sit in judgment on oneself.”

The audience for a play has to be left with the impression that the characters exist independently of the writer and have come to life spontaneously. “Sitting in judgment on oneself” means mediating one’s ideas, emotions and anxieties through one’s characters, who in their turn have to absorb the subject matter into their bloodstream – in the case of Ghosts: patriarchy, class, free love, prostitution, hypocrisy, heredity, incest and euthanasia. In that sense Helene Alving, the protagonist ofGhosts, is as much an autobiographical portrait as Hedda: yearning for emotional and sexual freedom but too timid to achieve it, a rebel who fears rebellion, a scourge who longs for approbation and love.


Ibsen’s great women characters – Nora Helmer, Hedda Gabler, Helene Alving, Rebecca West, Hilde Wangel, Petra Stockmann – batter against convention and repression. He empathises, actually identifies, with women both as social victims and as people. “If I may say so of an eminently virile man, there is a curious admixture of the woman in his nature,” said the 18-year-old James Joyce. “His marvellous accuracy, his faint traces of femininity, his delicacy of swift touch, are perhaps attributable to this admixture. But that he knows women is an incontrovertible fact. He appears to have sounded them to almost unfathomable depths.”

Yet in spite of – or because of – his sympathy for women and morbid view of the state of society, you emerge from Ghosts with a sense of exhilaration, albeit underscored by the conclusion that it’s impossible to achieve joy in life. In the face of the bones of true experience, you feel that the great enemy, apart from social repression and superstition, is to be bored with life and indifferent to its suffering. The great political activist Emma Goldman wrote: “The voice of Henrik Ibsen in Ghosts sounds like the trumpets before the walls of Jericho. Into the remotest nooks and corners reaches his voice, with its thundering indictment of our moral cancers, our social poisons, our hideous crimes against unborn and born victims.” As with Chekhov, Ibsen sees boredom and indifference as the insidious viruses that infect all society.

Henrik Ibsen

Henrik Ibsen

Ghosts was written when Ibsen was living in Rome in the summer of 1881 and was published in December in Denmark. He anticipated its reception: “It is reasonable to suppose that Ghosts will cause alarm in some circles; but so it must be. If it did not do so, it would not have been necessary to write it.” He wasn’t to be disappointed. There was an outcry of indignation against the attack on religion, the defence of free love, the mention of incest and syphilis. Large piles of unsold copies were returned to the publisher, the booksellers embarrassed by their presence on the shelves.

Ghosts was sent to a number of theatres in Scandinavia, who all rejected it – it was first performed by Danish and Norwegian amateurs in a hall in Chicago in May 1882, for an audience of Scandinavian immigrants. The play was staged in Sweden the following year and this production then appeared in Denmark and, in late 1883, in Norway, where the reviews were good. Even the King of Sweden saw it, and told Ibsen that it was not a good play, to which, in some exasperation, Ibsen responded: “Your Majesty, I had to write Ghosts!”

In England the lord chamberlain, the official censor, banned the play from public performance but there was a single, unlicensed, “club” performance in 1891 on a Sunday afternoon at the Royalty theatre. It detonated an explosion of critical venom: “The experience of last night demonstrated that the official ban placed upon Ghosts as regards public performance was both wise and warranted”; “The Royalty was last night filled by an orderly audience, including many ladies, who listened attentively to the dramatic exposition of a subject which is not usually discussed outside the walls of an hospital”; “It is a wretched, deplorable, loathsome history, as all must admit. It might have been a tragedy had it been treated by a man of genius. Handled by an egotist and a bungler, it is only a deplorably dull play”; “revoltingly suggestive and blasphemous”; “a dirty deed done in public”.


In case we bask in the glow of progress and the delight of feeling ourselves superior to our predecessors, it’s worth remembering that the response to Edward Bond’s Saved in 1965 and Sarah Kane’s Blasted 30 years later was remarkably similar.

Shortly after Ibsen’s death in 1906, the director Max Reinhardt asked Edward Munch to design the set for the production of Ghosts that was to open his new intimate theatre in Berlin. Munch had no experience of stage design but helped the actors by doing sketches of the characters in different scenes, expressing what was going on in their minds. He designed a set that surrounded realistic Biedermeier furniture with an expressionistic setting, walls of sickly egg-yolk yellow fading to ochre. “I wanted to stress the responsibility of the parents,” he said, “but it was my life too – my ‘why’? I came into the world sick, in sick surroundings, to whom youth was a sickroom and life a shiny, sunlit window – with glorious colours and glorious joys – and out there I wanted so much to take part in the dance, the Dance of Life.”

Munch, profligate and alcoholic, feared syphilis as much as he feared madness. It’s often said that Ibsen misunderstood the pathology of syphilis, that he thought – as Oswald is told by his doctor in Ghosts – that it was a hereditary disease passed by father to son. It’s much more probable, given that he had friends in Rome who were scientists (including the botanist JP Jacobsen, who translated Darwin into Norwegian), that he knew that the disease is passed on through sexual contact, and that pregnant women can pass it to the babies they are carrying. He knew too that it’s possible for a woman to be a carrier without being aware of it, and perhaps he wants us to believe that Helene knows she is a carrier. It’s a matter of interpretation.

Which is, of course, what lies in the process of directing a play and translating it: it’s a matter of making choices. The first choice – and the first indication of the difficulty of rendering any play into another language – is what title to give the play. When Ghosts was first translated into English by William Archer, Ibsen disliked the title. The Norwegian title, Gjengangere, means “a thing that walks again”, rather than the appearance of a soul of a dead person. But “Againwalkers” is an ungainly title and the alternative “Revenants” is both awkward and French. Ghosts has a poetic resonance to the English ear.


I wrote a version of Ghosts six years ago when I was waiting for a film to be financed and was all too aware of the insidious virus of boredom. For some reason I couldn’t stop thinking of Oswald’s “Give me the sun…”, and I read the play, not having seen it for at least 20 years, with a sense of discovery: The producer, Sonia Friedman, commissioned it with a view to presenting it in the West End. It didn’t get produced because another production popped up and waved it away.

I worked from a literal version by Charlotte Barslund, and tried to animate the language in a way that felt as true as possible to what I understood to be the author’s intentions – even to the point of trying to capture cadences that I could at least infer from the Norwegian original. But even literal translations make choices, and the choices we make are made according to taste, to the times we live in and how we view the world. All choices are choices of meaning, of intention. What I have written is a “version” or “adaptation” or “interpretation” of Ibsen’s play, but I hope that it comes close to what Ibsen intended while seeming spontaneous to an audience of today.

If you haven’t seen the play, there is a full length version below with some excellent performances from the ‘A’ list of British actors.


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