The reliably high-caliber Ensemble Theatre Company will offer its lively new production of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts (1881) starting this Thursday, March 31, and continuing at the Alhecama Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara St., through April 24. The first two performances will be previews; the official opening night is this Saturday, April 2.
The ensemble’s executive artistic director, Jonathan Fox, will direct. The cast includes Maureen Silliman as the haunted Mrs. Alving, Gregory North as the clueless Pastor Manders, Wyatt Fenner as the pitiful Oswald Alving, Michael Rothhaar as the wily Engstrand and Jessica Spaw as “well-developed” Regina.
Much of the contemporary interest in Ghosts is based on the mistaken impression that it is mainly about sex and venereal disease. But those things are merely elements; as much as they are on the minds of the characters, they remain — like so many important issues in the 19th century — largely unspoken. In fact, although every audience since the play’s premiere has confidently assumed that Oswald is dying of syphilis, contracted congenitally from his reprobate father, no disease is named in the text and all we have to go on is Oswald’s statement that his Parisian doctor blamed “the sins of the father.”
But think about it: You can’t “inherit” syphilis, spirochetes can’t insert themselves into the DNA, and Oswald couldn’t get syphilis from his father unless dad first gave it to his mother, which he clearly did not, since she shows no symptoms whatsoever. No, while syphilis was rampant in the 19th century, it was also wildly overdiagnosed; doctors frequently pinned a syphilis diagnosis on any problem showing symptoms of mental deterioration (as appears to have been the case, for instance, with Friedrich Nietzsche and Randolph Churchill). So, while Ibsen may well have had a venereal disease in mind, some sort of inherited neurological disorder makes more sense.
In any event, Ghosts is not so much about repression, sexual or otherwise, as oppression. The main character is not Oswald, but his mother. Before Oswald was born, when her husband’s uncontrolled profligacy was already apparent, she tried to leave him for Parson Manders, with whom she had fallen in love, and Manders talked her into going back to hubby. Now, with considerable justification, she blames the clergyman for her present agony.
In one scene, when she is talking to Manders about what she means by ghosts — “all sorts of old dead ideas and all kinds of old dead beliefs and things of that kind. They are not actually alive in us; but there they are dormant, all the same, and we can never be rid of them” — he castigates her for reading the works of liberals and freethinkers.
“You are wrong there,” she says. “You are the one who made me begin to think; and I owe you my best thanks for it … by forcing me to submit to what you called my duty and my obligations; by praising as right and just what my whole soul revolted against, as it would against something abominable. That was what led me to examine your teachings critically. I only wanted to unravel one point in them; but as soon as I had got that unraveled, the whole fabric came to pieces. And then I realized that it was only machine-made.”
Like Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House, Ghosts is about the struggle of women to become free-standing souls in the most patriarchal society history has yet produced. Contrary to his reputation for Northern gloom, Ibsen dramatizes this story with surprising delicacy and even more surprising wit. If you feel like laughing at some of the fatuous things Manders says, it is not at all an inappropriate response.
Ghosts plays at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays, with a special 4 p.m. matinee on Saturday, April 9, and a 7 p.m. performance on Sunday, April 17. Tickets range from $30 to $55, with discounts for seniors and students. Tickets are available through the Ensemble Theatre box office at 805.965.5400, or click here to order online.
— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor. He can be reached at email@example.com.