Ibsen’s play was written and set in 1881. Our production isn’t set in 1881 so much as set now in a room where nothing has changed since 1881. Think of the mind of Tony Abbott. I wouldn’t date it precisely at 1881 but somewhere in that brain is a vortex into a past world where men knew best, marriage was a holy alliance, and the lives of others were to be ruthlessly constrained by the terrified, angry strictures of the faithful. Same with this play.
We may think that mean old world has passed, we may wish with all our hearts that it has, but then there comes, for example, the “national postal survey” on marriage equality and suddenly the dead walk again. Nothing has changed. Same with this play. Pastor Manders walks the earth still, issuing us, from the chilling pulpit of his own terrified inadequacy, with brutal instructions on how to love. We are never done with the past. It never goes away.
Ibsen and his characters didn’t know what the future was going to be. We do, because their future is our past. It really wasn’t clear to Oswald or Mrs Alving or Pastor Manders or Henrik Ibsen if the things they believed in most would survive. What of their struggles might live on beyond them? It might be too late for them to save themselves, but they may, just may, strike into existence a new truth, a new ideal, which will be a life-buoy for a future Mrs Alving, a future Oswald, even a future Pastor Manders.
This is a play about learning to speak the truth, however we can. Sometimes we only find out how to when it is too late. But we must do it anyway. We must. We live for the future as much as for ourselves. The best we can do is redeem the struggles of people who came before us, so that the people who come after us get to live better lives than we do. Or at least lives as good as ours.
The play argues that not all people are going to get to live a good life. Some people will suffer. Some places will be shrouded in a fog of misery and injustice. In that sense it’s really not a rosy-eyed play. It takes a tough view of life. It doesn’t pretend life is an open book for everyone. But it also exhorts us to imagine what life and the world might be. Not in a megalomaniacal way – there’s no grand plan here, no surpassing visions – no Nazism, no American Exceptionalism. Just a simple exhortation to deal as simply, as plainly, and as truthfully as possible with the basic joy of life. It’s not a lot to go by, and yet people cross seas in flimsy boats for it. In its pursuit we rally for equal marriage rights. We tear down statues. We rage against insults. We build theatre companies. We take kids to parks. We visit art galleries on rainy days. We argue with our parents. We leave home. We love. Most of life unfolds from this pretty simple understanding of our situation: just to be alive is good. So in spite of the murk and fog of this play, it has a strikingly beautiful idea as its heart. Just to live. It sounds so simple…
A word about the adaptation. On the one hand Ibsen is a supremely logical writer. The verbal surface of the play is precise and interlocking, almost unfeeling. On the other hand he is a murky and difficult writer who becomes lost inside his characters’ contradictions. The precise surface of the play masks a heaving underworld of uncertainty and double-vision. It makes him a treacherous writer to adapt. Even a single misplaced word can send the action of the scene spinning off in the wrong direction. We’re in our third week of rehearsals now and we still pore over our literal translation. Every day, still, we make tiny changes to a dozen or so lines. Today, for example, we wondered if “never” in Norwegian has a different weight and rhythm to the word in English, in which case although Ibsen has Oswald say it twice – “Never, never” – would we be better off saying it only once? (We settled on once.) If the word for “blame” can also mean “judgement” should we use “blame” or “judgement”? (We settled for blame.) These little problems can create big difficulties, in the same way as a slight error in setting the course of a plane can end up sending the thing into a mountain rather than onto a tarmac. (We hope for the tarmac.)
I’ve added lines here or there, mostly to open up ideas which were current in Ibsen’s time that aren’t current now. The word “ideals”, for example, meant something slightly different then, so I’ve added a few lines to tune us in to the “ideals” of the time. Sometimes I’ve cut lines. Ibsen’s characters can say too much, which was really his way of helping 19th century actors act the right things so that 19th century audiences got the unspeakable subtext of what was, then, a scandalous play. Our approach to acting is different now – we know how to say less, and things that were scandalous to audiences then are like running water to us. So there have been little cuts.
The play was contemporary when it was written. Now it’s a historical play. I’ve tried to find ways for the play to feel like the past while still talking directly to us. On the whole this adaptation is an attempt to come up with a fairly direct rendering of Ibsen’s play into a language that makes sense to us but still retains the feeling of the past – which still pulls us into the murky otherworld of Ibsen’s 1881. The gap between then and now is interesting. Much has changed. But our anxieties about love, marriage, sexual violence, disease, death – these things remain very much alive.
The published script is now several weeks old. We continue to make many changes in rehearsals. So much of the finesse we’ve found has come from the actors. I owe them a huge debt of thanks. Since I first wrote this note, the “never” has come back and gone away again. Our work is never finished! Our work is never finished…
Ghosts plays at Belvoir 16 September to 22 October. Find more information or purchase tickets here.