Ghosts and translation

On August 25th, Plan B Theatre company in Salt Lake City will have a script-in-hand reading of my translation of Henrik Ibsen’s play Ghosts.  I am also directing.  The show is basically sold out, unfortunately, but it’s possible day-of tickets may come available.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Henrik Ibsen’s play Gengangere (Ghosts) was the most radical, subversive, dangerous and heavily censored play ever written.  Its one main challenger, in fact, may well be the Ibsen play that preceded it, Et Dukkehjem (A Doll House).  A Doll House is Ibsen’s ferocious dissection of  Victorian marriage, and concludes with a scene in which a woman leaves her husband.  Ghosts describes the consequences for a woman who chooses not to leave.  Specifically, she contracts a sexually transmitted disease, which she passes on in utero to her son.  More than that, though, Ghosts lays bare the hypocrisy of the sexual double standard.  It shows us, frankly and without apology, what happens to women in a world constructed for and by men.

A Doll House could barely be discussed, quietly, whispered in the darkest corners of Victorian polite society.  Ghosts couldn’t be talked about at all, anywhere; it was social suicide to admit to having read it. A Doll House was produced in a few small theatres in various cities in Europe.  Ghosts couldn’t legally be produced at all, anywhere.  And yet people did read it, and young theatre artists were desperate to produce it.  So across Europe, censorship laws were carefully searched for loopholes that would allow Ghosts to be produced.  In France, Andre Antoine (a clerk at a gas company) established the Theatre Libre as a ‘private club,’ charging ‘membership fees’ instead of selling tickets; their first season, in 1887, featured a production of Ghosts.  In 1889, critic Otto Brahm founded the Freie Bühne; their first production was Ghosts.  In England, Bernard Shaw and William Archer and J. T. Grein founded the Independent Theatre (using Antoine’s ‘private club’ model), and opened, of course, with Ghosts. And Shaw, in his Quintessence of Ibsenism, had a lot of fun quoting some of the reviews:  “an open drain, a loathsome sore unbandaged, a dirty act done publically, poisonous, fetid, indecent, delirious, literary carrion.”  And so on.  My favorite, a review in the Sporting and Dramatic News, which calculated, with mathematical precision, that “97% of the people who go to see Ghosts are nasty-minded people who find the discussion of nasty subjects to their taste in exact proportion to their nastiness.” 

What’s astonishing today, of course, is to read those reviews and then see the play, this powerful, deeply moving family tragedy.  One really does wonder what all the fuss was about.  But the play still packs a punch.  My wife and I were talking about it just last night, the central idea of the play, the idea that we’re surrounded by ghosts—by rotting dead ideas that permeate our culture, that bind us and limit us and suffocate us—ghosts of inequality, sexism, homophobia, racism. 

When I decided to translate the play, it was for the most prosaic of reasons—having done A Doll House, the next project had to be Ghosts.  But I began researching the play’s production history, and realized that our ideas about Ibsen himself were being stifled by ghosts, by a production history that threatened to choke the life out of the play. 

Case in point: a really stellar 1986 production broadcast on BBC, available today on Netflix.  Michael Gambon as Manders, Judi Dench as Mrs. Alving, Kenneth Branagh as Oswald.  It is, of course, superbly acted.  But it’s dreary, humorless, a well-nigh perfect example of the ‘gloomy old Ibsen’ tradition.  I saw Robin Phillips marvelous production in 1999, with Anthony Andrews as Manders, and Francesca Annis as Mrs. Alving.  I took a group of students with me, and we all agreed it was very moving.  If, sadly, somewhat dreary. 

The British respect Ibsen, and produce his plays with great fidelity and care, and most of the leading Ibsen translators have either been British, or working in a British idiom—Michael Meyers, Rolf Fjelde, Brian Johnston.  My intention has been to give the plays an American gloss, to translate them into a perhaps less stuffy American idiom.  I want to translate with integrity, honoring the Norwegian text.  But I want to capture something vital that I think has been lost; Ibsen’s ferocious, savage wit. 

Pastor Manders is often described as the play’s villain.  But his villainy is many years in the past—his role in the play’s timeframe is mostly to sputter indignantly at Mrs. Alving’s appalling intellectual proclivities, to natter ineffectually at Oswald’s heresies, to notice, and comment (but no further, not he!) on Regina’s nubile physical charms, and to be swindled by the unscrupulous Engstrand.  He is, in other words, a fusspot, a hypocrite and a fool.  Ibsen makes the good pastor his richest comic creation, in a play that’s as much satire as it is tragedy.  And translating Manders’ diction, with his fondness for multisyllabic locutions, and his constant fussing over what people will say (his entire theology: ‘don’t get caught’), well, I kept laughing out loud. 

It’s certainly true that Ibsen can feel rather old-fashioned.  His audiences weren’t used to dialogue full of sub-text and subtlety.  They required dialogue that spelled everything out, and the result is a kind of ‘I’ve learned. . . .’ ‘you mean. . .?’ ‘yes!  It’s true!  You are the. . . .’ sort of pattern.  It’s not until The Wild Duck and Rosmersholm that Ibsen first experimented with what we see as a fully realist dramatic idiom—with non sequitars, lines trailing off, topics discarded mid-sentence, subtext implied.  His contemporary and rival, the Swede August Strindberg led the way with Miss Julie, though Ibsen, in his later plays, may well have surpassed him.  (Ibsen and Strindberg never met, but in his final years, Ibsen kept a portrait of Strindberg above his writing desk, for inspiration). 

But the ideas of Ghosts are still relevant.  And the plays are so perfectly constructed, so superbly realized, that translating Ibsen is like taking a graduate seminar in playwriting.  I am honored to have had the opportunity to bring this tremendous exercise in theatrical transgression to life. 

One thought on “Ghosts and translation

  1. Julie Saunders

    “But it’s dreary, humorless, a well-nigh perfect example of the ‘gloomy old Ibsen’ tradition.”

    My Russian lit professor used to have this same complaint about Chekhov. His dream was always to do a transgressively comic version of The Cherry Orchard, with the Orchard personified by an actor who could actually react to conversation about its inevitable destruction on stage with the other characters. I don’t think we necessarily need to upend these productions like that, but there are certain playwrights and certain shows that just get, sort of, canonized in this way, as if there is one given interpretation and the most anybody can do is come up with the best version of that same fabled debut production that they possibly can.

    We do this with all kinds of cultural documents and narratives, of course. Certain seminal works become sacred, and then there’s just no messing with them (even if the “messed” version is closer to the original version or intent than what we now imagine the original to be). I don’t know how we’ve escaped this with Shakespeare, somehow; are Ibsen and Chekhov just not getting taught at enough high schools, with a resulting need to liven them up for disinterested audiences? Or is it just that not enough time has passed?

    Anyway, I know I came to this post late, but now I’m thinking of all sorts of “ghosts,” and the way that holding something in too high regard can stifle its best qualities, and the flexibility of art and ideas, so here’s a comment.


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