Ibsen said ‘I could not let A Doll’s House be my last word. After Nora, Mrs Avering had to come.’
In many ways Ghosts is the inevitable successor to A Doll’s House, sharing many similar themes, such as the tyranny of patriarchy, the stultification that comes from unhappy marriages and the acting out of societally proscribed roles at the cost of true selfhood.
I could go on endlessly about the myriad intersecting themes in Ibsen’s work, but for the sake of brevity, I want to examine the title Ghosts a little bit and what it means to the play.
Early on, Mrs Avering (played incredibly powerfully by Lesley Manville in this adaptation) says that ghosts “don’t vanish. They just come again’. At that point, she is referring to the traits she feels her son has inherited from his dead father – traits that scare her – excessive drinking and flirting with the household maid (we learn her husband was a big drinker and had many affairs). So there’s the idea of ghosts living on within us, in terms of the characteristics we derive from our parents.
But cultural ghosts also loom large in the play. Oswald, Mrs Avering’s son, challenges feeling an obligation to ‘love our parents because they are our parents – these sayings are parroted’. Loving our parents is a concept that goes unquestioned simply because it’s lived on through the ages, but should this be accepted so blindly? And, in fact, should any beliefs that have permeated our cultural consciousness be unduly credited? Or should long-standing ideologies in fact be challenged and reformed if necessary?
Ibsen floods my brain with alternative ways of thinking. The subject matter of his plays scandalised polite society in the 19th century and many of the topics he covered are considered countercultural even now. After all, Ghosts’ intimations of incest and the questions it raises around euthanasia are not exactly topics we are comfortable addressing as a society. Ibsen makes you question the underlying belief systems that we all too often take for granted. He also forces us to acknowledge that ‘every man shares the responsibility and guilt of the society to which he belongs’. That includes you and me.
If you haven’t yet uncovered the genius of Ibsen – please, please do.