Ibsen: Alive and Well (and Angry)
October 10th, 2016
When discussing Ibsen with others I find there is either a lot of hate or a lot of love for the father of realism. Detractors claim that Ibsen is no longer relevant. In 1881, Ghosts was banned from public performance and was the cause of outrageous scandal, but so what? The world has greatly changed since 1881. Ibsen has died, divorce is common, and syphilis is treatable. Are Ibsen’s plays just ghosts of radical ideas from the19th and early 20th centuries?
When discussing Ibsen with others I tend to fall into the love category. Ibsen has a way of looking at and studying the human condition that traverses generations. Sure, divorce is no longer taboo in every culture, but the trend of societal norms restricting an individual’s ability to choose is still applicable to the world I live in.
Not only does Ghosts explore how societal norms can control one’s life, but it also explores class and gender privileges that persist. Although dead, Captain Alving is continuously given the benefit of doubt throughout the story because of his gender and wealth. When Helene Alving attempts to appeal to Pastor Manders’ sense of morality with anecdotes of Captain Alving’s affairs and alcoholism, Manders- and then later to a lesser extent Helene-chalks it up to Captain Alving “sowing wild oats” and just doing what a man does. The narrative of a “man just being a man” continues in today’s narrative when those in authority connect sexual assaults and rape that men commit against women to what a woman was wearing, or when a man is forgiven for sexually aggressive comments because it was just “locker room talk.”
Wealth, or the appearance of wealth, continues to engender a sense of trust, and lack of wealth-or the appearance of a lack of wealth-tends to engender mistrust and dislike.
In addition, Regina’s place in the world, like many lower class women today, is quite narrow. Regina believes the only way to climb the social ladder in her time is to marry Oswald. When she discovers she cannot, her only other option is to turn to another man, either Jacob Engstrand or Pastor Manders. While women in contemporary times are no longer quite as restricted by their socially constructed gender, women still experience narrow options of upward mobility and a lack of resources in certain fields especially if from a low class.
Lastly, as a contemporary viewer I cannot help but connect the stigma of syphilis to the stigma of AIDS. Oswald’s doctor’s disgust is palpable as Oswald describes how he was told about his illness. Syphilis was connected with immoral behavior and those who had it were deemed invalids. When the AIDS epidemic first came to light, the prejudice experienced by the LGBTQ community was also palpable-and still is.
Therefore, when someone tries to tell me that Ibsen is no longer relevant to a contemporary audience, they should consider the dynamics of power and privilege, which still exist, and the prejudices that are not ghosts, but are still alive and well.