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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Haunting Ghosts

Will Keen, Jack Lowden, Lesley Manville in Ghosts. Photo: Hugo Glendinning
By Alicia Dhyana House

The revolutionary and Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen (1828—1906), radically changed the history of the stage by writing about the real problems in life. Ibsen’s affinity for tearing the veil off late 19th-century hypocrisies and defiantly exposing the dirty underbelly of human nature eventually garnered him the title, “Father of Modern Drama.” Ghosts, which comes to the BAM Harvey Theater April 5—May 3, tackles social conventions and their harmful consequences on domestic life, revealing a woman caught in a repressive society. It centers on widow Helene Alving who spent her life suspended in an emotional void after the death of her cruel but outwardly charming husband.

Adapted and directed by the revered English director Richard Eyre and featuring an Olivier-Award winning performance by Lesley Manville, this rapidly paced intermission-less thriller is described by The Guardian as a play that “grabs you by the throat and never releases its grip.” Ghosts originated at London’s Almeida Theatre and was the winner of the 2014 Olivier Award for Best Revival. Heralded by The Times (UK) as “a masterpiece of compassion,” Eyre’s gripping new version filled with fresh poetry and dark humor arrives at the BAM Harvey Theater from April 5—May 3.

Unlike his contemporaries, Ibsen was uninterested in writing about glorified heroes and stock characters for pure entertainment value. Instead, he created fully-developed realistic characters with insightful psychological depth. He wrote in prose, the way people spoke to each other in real life, about everyday human suffering. “Everything that I have written is most minutely connected with what I have lived through, if not personally experienced,” Ibsen wrote to a friend while working on Ghosts. “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 judgement of oneself.” He compared the process of composition to his pet scorpion’s emptying of poison: “From time to time the brute would ail; then I would throw in a piece of ripe fruit, on which it would cast itself in a rage and eject its poison; then it was well again.”

Jack Lowden and Lesley Manville in Ghosts. Photo: by Hugo Glendinning
In Ghosts, after years of being trapped in a lifeless and oppressed marriage, Helene Alving at last confronts the ghosts of her past. Courageously she stands up to Pastor Manders, with whom she has some unfinished business to address. “I’m not afraid of God, only of the ghosts in my life, the things that come out of the past.” She goes on to say, “It’s what we inherit from our parents—dead ideas, dead customs, dead morals—they hang around us and we can’t get away from them… smothering us as if we are buried alive under sand.” In this intimate and complex portrayal we witness a woman who finally learns to speak the truth.

Considered scandalous at the time, the play induced a hysterical frenzy because of its iconoclasm, satire of the church, skewering of the patriarchal and class systems, and the discussion of taboo subjects like infidelity, free love, incest, and euthanasia. In The Guardian, director Richard Eyre describes Helene Alving as “yearning for emotional and sexual freedom but too timid to achieve it.” The theaters of Scandinavia all rejected Ghosts, as did numerous countries including Britain. It was first performed in Chicago in 1882 by Norwegian and Danish amateurs for a Scandinavian immigrant audience. A year later, a production appeared first in Denmark and then in Norway. Ten years later it was finally performed in London where The Telegraph described it as “an open drain; a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly.” In Ibsen’s own country, it took over a decade for him to be forgiven.

Today Ibsen is the most frequently performed dramatist after Shakespeare. Over a hundred years later his plays still shock us with their brutal honesty. They mirror our sometimes lying hearts and remind us what happens when we betray ourselves. In Ghosts, we find ourselves yearning to speak our truths… before it is too late.

Alicia Dhyana House is a freelance theater director based in New York City. She is currently on faculty at Fordham University Lincoln Center where she teaches directing. 

Ghosts plays the BAM Harvey Theater April 5—May 3.

Reprinted from March 2015 BAMbill.


  1. This sounds great. I am intrigued and want to see this production. I'll leave my ghosts at home.

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