Making Clear the Haunted Social Messages of Ibsen's 'Ghosts'

The plays of Henrik Ibsen have been called many things by his detractors--remote, stilted, melodramatic--but never timid. More than a century ago in "Ghosts," which opens Friday at the Alternative Repertory Theatre in Santa Ana, Ibsen scandalized Victorian audiences with his dramatization of such subjects as venereal disease.

You never hear the word "syphilis" uttered in the play. But that is precisely what Helene Alving, the tragic heroine, means when she claims her secretly philandering husband was "debauched" at the time of his death. Audiences who saw the play in 1881 immediately understood the reference--so much so that even the liberal critics of the time savaged Ibsen for his frankness.

But words change, to say nothing of mores. Today, despite an increasingly cautious attitude to casual sex engendered by the fear of AIDS, modern audiences are liable to think that Alving "just meant her husband was fooling around," says ART director Patricia Terry. "That would be a major mistake."

While the play deals with a lot more than venereal disease--it is also about incest and mercy killing, for starters--to miss Alving's pointed reference to syphilis is tantamount to ignoring the meaning of the play entirely.

So to gain as much clarity in the language as possible, and to lend a contemporary tone within the bounds of Ibsen's 19th-Century setting, Terry chose a colloquial translation from the Norwegian by British playwright Christopher Hampton. Too many translations of Ibsen's prose are staid and flowery, she says. "Hampton cuts out all of that. His language gives the characters more color and dimension."

In fact, Hampton does better than translate. He adapts, and with considerable success. His version of Chekov's "Uncle Vanya" is widely admired. His adaptations of Ibsen's "A Doll's House" and "Hedda Gabler," both starring Claire Bloom, were Broadway hits back in 1971. Last year, he scored again on Broadway with "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," his adaptation of Choder de Laclose's 18th-Century French novel. (It opens Oct. 20 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.)

Many scholars have gone to great lengths to underscore the deeper theme of "Ghosts," principally that the dead hand of the past casts a claustrophobic pall over society. The congenital transmission of syphilis from the late Capt. Alving to his son Osvald, whose life is ruined because of it, simply serves as a palpable symbol of generational guilt--the sins of the fathers being visited upon the sons.

As Helene Alving herself explains during the second act (in Eva LeGallienne's translation of the passage that is, ironically, even more striking than Hampton's):

" . . . The longer I live, the more convinced I am that we're all haunted in this world--not only by the things we inherit from our parents--but by the ghosts of innumerable old prejudices and beliefs--half-forgotten cruelties and betrayals--we may not even be aware of them--but they're there just the same--and we can't get rid of them. . . . You have only to pick up a newspaper to see them weaving in and out between the lines. . . . If we only had the courage to sweep them all out and let in the light!"

The Victorian Age strove to hide everything, so, Terry says, she has tried to work "the concept of layering" into both the play's physical production and the psychological portrayal of the roles. The set has rugs on rugs, lace on furniture. The costumes are thick with jewelry, ruffles, corsets. But when it comes to the acting, says the director, "we hope to strip away the characters layer by layer to get to the meaning that Ibsen intended."

GHOSTS OF A DIFFERENT KIND: Ghost writers who turn conspiracy theories into best-selling pulp fiction are haunting the Second Stage at South Coast Repertory in Eric Overmyer's "In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe."

The play, which opened over the weekend, explores the paranoid intersection between Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu fiction and the CIA's cloak-and-dagger reality. It is illustrated by, among other things, jokes told in Chinese without translation and punch lines about anti-Semitic white supremacists.

The 37-year-old playwright, a Seattle native who lives in New York City, says he penned "In Perpetuity . . . " for its male lead, Tzi Ma, after becoming friendly with him at the Center Stage in Baltimore. "It's tough being a minority actor," Overmyer says, "and being an Asian actor is very hard. There aren't many roles." In this play, at least, Ma gets to portray two characters--as do most of the others in the cast.

Meanwhile, Overmyer is working on an SCR-commissioned play with the working title "Days in the Trees." That is, when he is not busy being the head writer on "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd," the NBC series that will get a second life on cable this season after being bumped from prime time last year, despite raves from the critics, because it was a ratings disaster.

THANKS BUT NO THANKS: Speaking of playwrights and television, Rafael Lima says Columbia Pictures canceled its TV option for his play "El Salvador," currently at the Gnu Theatre in North Hollywood, after studio execs read an interview with him in The Times.

Lima was participating in SCR's Hispanic Playwrights Project when he gave the interview, which quoted him as saying that he would be willing to write a pilot but not the rest of the series because scripting episodic television would harm his talent for writing plays.

"They read the story and called me up," Lima said. "They told me if I wasn't going to be on staff, the deal was off."

Though the playwright regrets Columbia's decision, he believes that it was inevitable. "I would have told them the same thing I told you," he said. "If that's how they feel, they would have canceled everything anyway when we got into negotiations."

Lima, however, left the Hispanic festival with one major compensation: He snared an SCR commission for a new play after his autobiographical "Parting Gestures" received a successful reading on the Second Stage.

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