" Ghosts " Revisited
Ibsen's Ghosts is not only a dramatic masterpiece but it is among the outstanding monuments of the liberal epoch. As such it is almost bound to excite in us feelings of reaction, not because we ourselves are reactionary but because our own revolution, Christian, communist or totalitarian, Is a much less respectable affair.
Mrs. Alving's revolt against orthodoxy is curiously negative and Oswald's is curiously naive. You may remember how he has gone to Paris to study painting and how he comes home, stricken with a mortal and hereditary disease -the legacy of a dissolute father.
But when Pastor Menders, whom his mother has loved for years and who in his timid way has even, we are persuaded, loved her, comes to see him, Oswald can say that it is among the artists of the Latin Quarter that he has discovered the joie de vivre.
It is often said that Ghosts is a dated play, and the same can be said of any play in so far as it concerns itself with contemporary social problems. But nowhere is it so distinctly of its period as in this remark of Oswald's. Its innocence is quite bewildering. Had Ibsen ever been to Paris? Was he acquainted with the arthe tic life of the city during the last two decades of the nineteenth century?
Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine and Van Gogh—were these tragic figures of what Mr. Gents has called the Tragic Generation" conspicuous for their joie de vivre? Liberal optimism is a hydra-headed monster, but surely it can never have raised three such happy and misguided cheers as in Oswald's rhapsodies over Montparnasse.
It is a poor comment on both the orthodoxy and the revolt of Ibsen's time that the arguments of both are so ridiculous. It is astonishing that a man of his genius could not have given us that perpetual conflict through the opposition of more worthy antagonists.
Pastor Islanders is always the problem of this play. He is so nearly a marionette; and it was not the least merit of Dr. Lindberg's recent production at the Duke of York's that he allowed Mr. Oliver Johnson to discover a real, though arrested, humanity in the man. He is the mouthpiece of an orthodoxy that is quite impotent to defend itself, from which the springs alike of charity and intelligence are dried up.
The Senthnental Iconoclast One is more surprised, however, to find how shallow is Mrs. Alving's revolt. It is directed to no stated end. It is simply
protestant. It resembles the dissentient voice at the public meeting which cries aloud, " I protest "—and then sits down. Mrs. Alving certainly had ideas of her own, and so far as one can make out they were rather like Mrs. Pankhurst's, but, unlike Mrs. Pankhurst, she sat down.
Oswald's arguments, too, are curious to follow. He describes to Menders the irregular homes in Paris where he spends his Sunday afternoons, but he does not explain why, if people can live together and have children, they should find it too expensive to marry. Ibsen would have hated to be called a sentimentalist, for the iconoclast tends to be particular about his title. But what is sentimentality if it is not the exaltation of feeling to the point where it is wholly divorced from reason? Intellectual liberalism, which gave birth to Ghosts, was the fruit of a profound indifference, and that is why it is dying. It had not the creative energy, which Communism has, to erect another deity in the place of the God it has dethroned.
A Classic Play
But if Ghosts betrays the spiritual bankruptcy of its era, it remains, nevertheless, a masterpiece of dramatic art. There is no greater tragedy in the modern theatre, for tragedy it is in its emphasis on consequence and doom. The sins of a father are visited on his child in a way which excites the utmost of pity and awe. To sit through a satisfactory performance of Ghosts is to experience a real purgation. Aristotle would have applauded it. It is classical in feeling and in form.
In no other play, I think, does Ibsen show his consummate craftsmanship to such advantage. Nowhere also does he so startle you by beginning many years after another dramatist would have begun. In a sense, everything in Ghosts has happened long before the curtain goes up. Alving has lived and died. Oswald has been born and is now in the shadow of death.
Menders and Mrs. Alving have loved after their own fashion; Mrs. Allying has run away from her husband, and Menders has sent her back to him. Regina has grown to womanhood, Alving's unacknowledged daughter. And even in the aftermath of these events, which is the subject of the play, all the crises, except the last catastrophe, happen out of sight of the audience.
A Fine Production
Dr. Lindberg, who recently produced the play for Miss Nancy Price, wisely emphasised the classical essence at the expense of the bourgeois accidents. He lifted it out of time and place and thereby secured its significance. We are not likely to see a better interpretation of Ghosts, for Dr. Lindberg cast it well throughout and registered its constant alternation of mood by subtle changes of lighting. These were much trumpeted in the press, but they made their effect without distracting the attention. Their handling was not only a stroke of genius: it was a triumph of tact.
As Mrs. Alving, Miss Price showed us a woman into whose soul the iron has entered but without destroying her tenderness. She won our sympathy by rigidly refusing to play for it. Nor did she try to mitigate an extreme intellectual unrest, but played the part in the same sharp, austere key in which the author wrote it. Mr. Byarn Shaw gave us all the morbid sensibility of Oswald, relieved by an admirable vigour of attack, and Mr. Morris Harvey was a racy and authentic Engstrand. Finally, Miss Betty Price threw a new light on Regina in the last act, giving her Ilse passion and the vulgarity of a spoiled child.
I very much hope London may have another opportunity of seeing this production at a season when it is more disposed for it. Dr. I.indberg's work is luminous with inspiration.