Ghosts – Ibsen the Godfather

Haymarket Theatre

Imagine that you’re part of an audience out for an evening’s entertainment. It’s July 14 1914, you’re at the Haymarket Theatre in the West End of London. You’re about to see a performance of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts.  There’s a buzz of expectation in the audience.  Why is that?

The play was written in 1881.  This is the first ever public performance in England.  Ghosts has been banned for public performance in England for 33 years.

Ibsen wrote Ghosts as a scathing commentary on the morality of the society in which he lived.  The play deals with a raft of issues that just weren’t mentioned in polite (or any sort of) society.  Considered so shocking when first written it was banned virtually everywhere in Europe.

Ghosts is about the relationship between Helene Alving and her son Oswald … between Regina and her father Engstrand … and between Helen and Pastor Manders, who have been close acquaintances for a long time.  It’s also about all of their relationships with Captain Alving.  He doesn’t appear in the play but casts a long shadow over it.

Henrik Ibsen is not the first to write tales about powerful Scandinavian characters.  They go back well over 1000 years – starting from Beowolf, the great Norse saga. There have been great stories about the darkness in Scandinavia for a long time.

Ibsen took those compelling but rather long Norse sagas – a dramatic storytelling tradition – and distilled them down into a series of compact stories.  You could make a very good case that Henrik Ibsen is the Godfather of the current phenomena of BBC4 Scandi-Noir drama.

John McCormick

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