While we were talking about Ibsen’s Ghosts today, I mentioned that the play resonated with the 1980s AIDS crisis. I poked around the New York Times archives after class and found a 1982 review that mentions how ubiquitous the play had recently become but doesn’t yet mention AIDS (though it describes Mrs. Alving’s truth-telling as a “coming out”), and one reviewing an Irish production in 1990 that explicitly updates the play and changes Oswald’s disease from syphilis to AIDS. The first of those reviews, from 1982, seems to reproduce the problem of remaining silent about the obvious. It refers to the play as “an intimidating classic that, for some most mysterious reason, has been too much with us of late.” Could the reason have been so mysterious? The fact that the paper couldn’t just name the advent of HIV/AIDS as the “mysterious reason” anticipates what would become a major activist critique (see the poster above) of the Reagan administration’s failures in confronting the crisis, which will return as an issue when we read Kushner’s Angels later this semester.
(For an interesting look at the effects of the New York Times’s early AIDS coverage, which began in 1981 with a now infamous article on a new “gay cancer,” see this take from the Covid era.)
While I was looking at these older reviews I also found this clip, which I hadn’t seen before, of Lesley Manville (who played Mrs. Alving in recent productions in London and New York) reading some lines out of costume: she’s staggeringly good, and really makes plain just how modern the play can still feel.
I’d seen another clip before, of her in costume on stage, performing the scene we’ve spent so much time discussing. She’s amazing. Enjoy.
Ibsen’s Ghosts deals heavily with the idea of personal agency and the impact of inherited traits. Last week, I finished watching the new Netflix documentary on the Burari deaths, a case that presents several of the same themes. (SPOILERS AHEAD) Back in 2018, 10 members from 3 generations of the Bhatia family were found hanging in a strange pattern from the roof of their house, and the grandmother, the oldest member of the house, was found nearby, strangled. As the police tried to uncover what had happened in the seemingly normal and happy family, they learned that the younger son, Lalit, believed that the ghost of his dead father, Bhopal Singh, had lodged himself within him and began writing diaries with instructions, apparently from Bhopal. Bhopal was a harsh man with very distinct mannerisms, so when Lalit began speaking and writing exactly like Bhopal, the family believed that Lalit truly was Bhopal incarnate and began following his instructions exactly. It was difficult for the police to comprehend that the younger members of the family, including a 15 year old and 25 year old, would willingly hang themselves simply because an older member of the household told them to, but the fact was that they fully believed it was Bhopal speaking to them, and Bhopal’s knowledge and power superseded everything. Bhopal’s impact was so strong, the family did not know how to live after he died, so when Lalit claimed that he had inherited his father’s ghost, the family felt as though some normalcy had returned to their lives. Ibsen’s interrogation of the idea of a child being a parent’s incarnate took place in 1881, but the concept still remains hauntingly relevant in 2021.
Since I wasn’t in class on Monday, I am not sure whether you have discussed that or not, but Ghosts immediately reminded me about the debates over gene editing. One of the most prominent examples is the CRISPR technology, which is considered to be a panacea in some circles. However, the ethics of use are in question.
A little bit of a personal note – I have shared before that I have a chronic condition. I learned that there is “some genetic element to it,” and I was having a hard time dealing with this knowledge since then. One can imagine all the different thoughts, fears, and anxieties people might have upon learning such details. But no more to it, here are the links for the interesting videos:
Henrik Iben’s play, Ghosts, alludes to the inevitable inheritance of family mistakes, social expectations, amongst other things that live as sort of passive ghosts within each of us. Building on our discussion from class, I immediately thought back to a show I had watched called Big Little Lies (spoiler alert below), in which a single mother’s son is accused of hitting a little girl, and the single mother believes that her son may have inherited violence towards girls from his violent father. It later turns out that it’s the little boys half-brother who inherited those traits from his abusive father and was bullying the girl.
Ibsen’s play alongside Big Little Lies, made me think of how ghosts manifest within us. Mrs. Alving claims the ghosts are just “lodged” within us, passive in a sense. While the show implies that such ghosts are active. Nonetheless, the ghosts are a sort of disease, there are the asymptotic carriers and the symptomatic ones. Big Little Lies has a plethora of characters that are symptomatic and suffer because of past family mistakes, social expectations, and patriarchal indoctrination amongst other things. The show brilliantly ties together how parental mistakes live on through children in both subtle and clear ways. While the characters of the show run parallel to the characters of Ghosts in terms of how they deal with inherited issues, the corruption, irony, and morality ( or lack thereof) coincide brilliantly.
In our previous discussion on Ibsen’s Ghosts, we interpreted what Mrs. Alving means by her use of ghosts in the following passage:
“Ghosts. When I heard Regine and Oswald in there, it was just like seeing ghosts. But then I’m inclined to think that we are all ghosts, Pastor Manders, every one of us. It’s not just what we inherit from our mothers and fathers that haunts us. It’s all kinds of old defunct theories, all sorts of old defunct beliefs, and things like that. It’s not that they actually live on in us; they are simply lodged there, and we cannot get rid of them” (Ibsen, p.120)
We reached a possible interpretation of the ghosts Mrs. Alving refers to: social constructs, gender norms, culture, family rituals…etc we inherit that we have no control over. We do not have the power or opportunity to choose the kinds of things to inherit, to what extent they influence us, or even when they start affecting us. Thus raises the question: Are we capable of escaping this predicament?
Earlier this year in February, New Mexico Supreme Court upholds the murder sentence of Anthony Blas Yepez, who was convicted in 2015 for beating George Ortiz, a 75-year-old man, to death in 2012. According to the testimony given by his girlfriend, Yepez struck the man in the face, leading to his death. Yepez claimed that he didn’t remember what exactly happened next, only that when he woke up, he was lying on top Ortiz’ body. The couple then poured cooking oil over the corpse and set it ablaze, leaving the crime scene by fleeing in Ortiz’ car.
Yepez’ public defender tried to present evidence about Yepez’ genetic information and history of childhood abuse. However, the Supreme Court rejected the evidence, with the state District Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer saying that she felt “iffy” about whether it was “reliable enough to prove what it proposes to prove.” The warrior gene theory dates back to a discovery made by a Dutch scientist in the 1990s, which claimed that all the male relatives from a family in New Zealand with a history of aggressive violence lacked a specific gene critical for regulating anger. The theory has been hotly debated ever since.
The finding naturally leads to this question: if the theory is true, is anyone accountable for the crimes they committed? Who should be responsible for their crimes? Is it the offender, or is it the lineage which he or she has no control over? Mrs. Alving proclaims we are all ghosts, and that when she “picks up a newspaper,” she seems to “see ghosts gliding between the lines” (p.120). Perhaps ghosts not only lurk in newspapers, they also lurk in our genes.
The play Ghosts by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, written in 1881 and first staged in 1882, sparked a lot of scrutiny from critics and the public. As it openly talked about venereal diseases, incest, religion and more. Thus, it brought in a new perspective on tragedy as a genre, since instead of discussing consequences of breaking moral code, it talks about the consequences of not breaking it (Wikipedia, 2021). And these consequences become ghosts for characters of the play. As Mrs. Alving says herself:
“Ghosts… I’m inclined to think that we are all ghosts….. It’s not just what we inherit from our mothers and father that haunts us. It’s all kinds of old defunct theories … and things like that. It’s not that they actually live on in us; they are simply lodged there, and we cannot get rid of them.”
Although Mrs. Alving doesn’t want her son to inherit anything from his father and Oswald has no good memories of his father, they are unable to stop the genetic inheritance that Oswald receives. Despite having no connections to his father, he inherits illness in the form of Neurosyphilis from him which questions the concept of nature vs nurture. Did growing up as an artist in Paris affect him enough to shape a different person or, like Oedipus, is he bound by fate after all? Manders does point out “When Oswald was standing there…. He looked the very spit and image of his father.” But Oswald also inherits much of his personality from his mother.
Both the mother and the son are drawn to new and contagious ideas about the world. Early in the play, Pastor Manders confronts Mrs. Alving over books she is reading; although we don’t know their contents, we can imagine by his reaction that they challenge established ways of thinking.
MRS. ALVING: What is it in fact you’ve got against these books?
MANDERS: Got against them? You don’t think I waste my time examining publications of that kind, surely
Note here Manders’ confidence to be entitled to judge things he had not read to begin with. This is a recurring theme within some texts for this semester – Bob, without much merit, quickly determined that nostalgia caused Alice to be fevered in Severance. He is similarly shocked later on when Oswald describes his friends in “illicit relationships.” Despite the pastor’s horror, Oswald challenges his reaction and insists that his friends are moral people, and Mrs. Alving later agrees. Ibsen emphasizes the book’s discussion of taboos by including this parallel thread contrasting the pastor’s 19th century morality with Mrs. Alving and Oswald’s new ways of imagining the world.
It is interesting how when a group is exposed to a new form of contagion, a new value (moral solidarity in this case) is created to distinguish allies and enemies: if you agree you’re a friend, if you digress you’re the outsider. An interesting question then arises: where did this set of morals originate from? Is Manders, posing as a servant to God’s will, the de facto creator for the group moral? Or is he merely a guardian conforming to a collective will of the group?
When discussing A Feast During the Plague in class, we briefly went over some reasons why the group might be throwing a feast in the middle of the street during a plague. We talked about how it was a way for them to mourn their loved ones that they lost and to forget about their sorrows through hedonistic indulgence. We (sort of) concluded that Walsingham was probably a madman and that the translation didn’t do a great job of showing that.
We did briefly mention how in Walsingham’s hymn, he sings about a war against “queen” pestilence. It seems like he is challenging the plague to battle, with the rest of his group as his fearless soldiers who are ready to die.
In this photo is a young gent who’s ready to party, who seems like he’ll fit right into Walsingham’s feast, standing amidst rubble. In June 2021, a tornado struck the Czech Republic and caused much damage. Despite the carnage, Moravská Nová Ves, the town in the image that was severely affected by the tornado, still held the Feast of St. Jacob, with the family of the boy featured in the image having lost their home to the tornado. Despite the damage, they throw a (Christian) feast to restore people’s spirits, as if challenging nature itself (or maybe God) to battle.
Similarly, Walsingham and the others also seem to be showing off a defiance of sorts — to prove to either society, the dead, or God that nothing can stop them. They seem to want to represent a hope that life can be lived normally and with joy.
It could also be that the Czech feast was a way for people to forget their sorrows brought about by disaster, similar to what Walsingham seems to be doing in the play, or maybe as a plea to God (which is definitely not what happens in the play, as we can see from the priest that gets driven out).
Maybe defiance, hope, raising morale, and forgetting sorrows are just excuses for people to get drunk and party. No matter what, feasting in the face of disaster seems to be a human thing to do. Living life with hedonistic pursuits even when it is dangerous to do so is something that has happened before, and will happen again.
How can music help us process grief during an epidemic?
In A Feast During the Plague, Pushkin’s characters turn to song as a way of enhancing their celebrations. After they drink to the death of one of their friends, Walsingham requests that Mary sing “…something sad and haunting, / To make us turn again to our merrymaking / With a wilder spirit, like one who is seized / And carried away by some unearthly vision” (28-31). The desire to enliven the party contrasts with an impulse to connect with a mournful and “unearthly” song, but to Walsingham, these two ideas are not contradictory; he is claiming that depressing music will actually lift the group’s spirits. Not all of the partygoers agree on this: later one of them requests that Walsingham sing “a bold and lively song …. A rowdy song, a song in Bacchus’s mode / One inspired by foaming goblets!” (126-129). But even though Walsingham does respond with a song that centers around drinking and partying, he is reluctant to identify it as such, and initially introduces it, sarcastically, as “a hymn in honor of the Plague” (131).
In our modern age of music consumption, where we can stream high-quality performances at the click of a button, we have a very different relationship with music than Pushkin’s cast, but when it comes down to it, we still face the same issue as Walsingham and his drinking buddies: what kind of song will make us feel better when nothing else in the world makes sense? Today our soundtrack options extend far beyond the melodic memory of our peers. The pandemic may have strangled the live music industry, but it also produced a plethora of online performances, accessible to a wider number of people than a single concert. Not every project hit the mark—when Gal Gadot assembled a celebrity lineup to sing a jarringly off-key rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” the video became a running joke online and an example of the disconnect between upper class and lower class experiences of the pandemic. But other pieces resonated and made more positive waves across the internet.
For two wildly different examples of successful pandemic music projects, I point you to Taylor Swift’s folklore and Bo Burnham’s “Inside” — one project a lush journey through interwoven storylines inspired by the songwriter’s escape into movies during the pandemic, the other a dark comedy reflecting upon social isolation in a hyperconnected age. In some ways, the difference between folklore and “Inside” reminds me of the difference between Mary and Walsingham’s songs in A Feast During the Plague : one functions through escapism, the other through a sort of brazen comedy. Rather than force the parallel, though, I want to return to my initial question about grief. Swift and Burnham, in different ways, both appeal to young audiences who are grieving not only for the loss of life around them, but the loss of their youth, their future, and their planet. Neither project explicitly centers around themes of illness or death, but perhaps it is because of this that they are impactful for so many people. They offer an opportunity to both reflect and escape. I don’t think Pushkin’s priest would have anything good to say about them. But in a time when so many of us essentially curate soundtracks for our daily life, music strikes me as a crucial part of our communal grieving rituals, and it makes a difference when it has been produced in the same cultural moment that we are struggling through.
UPD: As I am writing this, the first malaria vaccine was approved by WHO. Sincere congratulations!
I want to add the context in which the play was written – it was the First Cholera Pandemic, and cholera at that time was almost unknown to Europeans. The disease is said to originate in the Bengal region, and although cholera was circulating there previously, in 1817 it came to prominence and spread to many countries in Asia and Europe. Here are the similarities I want to draw between the cholera epidemic and COVID-19:
It is suggested that it first spread through contaminated rice. Just like a “bat soup” theory for COVID. Why do we come to these conclusions? We know that the bat soup theory at this point is not evidence-based, yet it somehow became common knowledge for many people around the world.
The disease was not of great interest to Europeans until the British soldiers got infected. We are still just reactionaries, and anyone who is warning people about the coming problems is regarded as an alarmist. I wonder what should change in us, in order to prevent a terrible future.
Pushkin wrote the play in Boldino, and he actually finished other critically-acclaimed works there. In fact, he was so prolific during his stay at Boldino, his time there was named “Boldino autumn.” It is similar (and this links us back to Defoe) to Newton’s “Year of Wonders” in 1665-1666. It reminds me that many people during COVID encouraged each other to follow these examples, and try to stay productive during the quarantine. Unfortunately, not everyone has the privilege to stay productive. Bring in here the example of Ramanujan, who died from cholera-ish disease because of his health history when he was 32. I imagine that we, as humans, cannot comprehend the idea of a deadly disease, just as we cannot comprehend some scientific paradoxes. Diseases are much more brutal than we can imagine.
P.S. I will leave you with a link to a great website on culture and history. This one is an article about Pushkin’s letters during the Boldino period. Unfortunately, the website is mainly in Russian. But I think that Google Translation does a fair job.
Feasts, songs, staycations at Italian villas, stories, Netflix, and even pornography*. These are all things people have used to escape from the reality of a pandemic – the first two in Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague, the second two in Boccacio’s Decameron, and the last two in our world during Covid-19. These things divert people’s attention and help them catch a breath amid the overwhelming pandemic that’s in every nook and cranny of their lives.
The theme of escapism is especially prominent in Pushkin’s play A Feast During the Plague. The play begins with the chairman Mr. Walsingham urging everyone to celebrate the living instead of grieving for the dead. Together, they feast, toast to their dead friend, and sing songs describing the plague in action. It’s not that they are unaware of the deadliness of the plague. As we can see (or hear) from Mary’s song, they are aware that “the dead are carried out / To burials that never cease, / The living pray in fear and trembling.” Also, unlike the young men and women in Decameron who are almost unaffected by the plague and go on their trip to the villa as if it’s a spring outing, the people at Pushkin’s feasting table have suffered personal losses to various extents: they lost their friend Jackson; Mr. Walsingham lost his wife and his mother; Mary seems to have lost her parents, …
All these pitiful people gather at the feasting table for an escape from the horrid reality of the plague and the grave consequences that have befallen them, as Mr. Walsingham tells us: “I am bound here / By despair, by terrible remembrance, by the knowledge of my lawlessness, and by horror of that dead emptiness which greets me now in my own house.” Notice the word “bound.” He seems to suggest that he is not feasting by choice but rather compelled to be there because there is nothing else he can do without directly confronting the tragedy in his house.
Reading about their gathering, we wonder if they are afraid of contracting the plague themselves. One answer to this question is that they are afraid of the contagion, but they have moved beyond the state of fear to a state of irrationality. This reminds us of the Covid-19 parties in Alabama when organizers purposefully invited guests that have tested positive. Granted, our feasters in the play may be slightly more rational (and perhaps more intelligent) than these party-goers in Alabama. But a similar form of irrational escapism is found in both: when there’s too much plague-ness in their life, people do irrational things like these under the slogan “youth loves gaiety” to shun the scary or saddening thoughts they are tired of having.
Coupled with irrationality, there’s also a sense of fatalism in their escape from reality. In Mr. Walsingham’s song, he sings “All, all that threatens to destroy / Fills mortal hearts with secret joy / Beyond our power to explain – / Perhaps it bodes eternal life! And blest is he who can attain / That ecstasy in storm and strife!” It almost seems like he desires to contract the plague and die, but at the same time he is calling the plague “a queen of dread” (We will come back to this personification later).
With all of these said about escapism, we would like to invite you to think about the following questions:
Should we attempt to escape from reality when it’s too much for us to handle? If so, for how long? The duration of a feast? Or perhaps a few weeks of staying at Boccacio’s Italian villa?
Aside from the theme of escapism, we would also like to bring your attention to a few other questions that intrigued us:
First, how does each character depict and react to the plague? Does how we think of and react to the plague have any consequences?
The dialogues in this play, especially Mary’s and Mr. Walsingham’s songs, are filled with imagery, analogy, and personification of the plague that reflected people’s reactions to the plague.
One interesting point is how Mr. Walsingham personifies the plague to be “the queen of dread.” This use of female personification to describe something as horrible as the plague is very different from how we tend to use female personification today: we mainly use female personification to describe things that are beautiful or bountiful, such as the earth. Related to this use of personification, is the overall contrast between males and females in this play. Men, such as the chairman, have leadership positions and the song they sing are “bold and lively;” on the other hand, women are quarreling or having fainting fits, and the song they sing is “sad and haunting.”
A variety of responses to the plague are displayed in this play. Mary’s song is a melancholic reminiscence of the past in the face of the vivid cruelty of the present. Louisa’s personification of the plague as the “hideous demon, black all over, with white eyes” shows her fear of death during the feast. In striking contrast, the chairman’s song is a declaration of war against their enemy, the plague, that confronts and celebrates death (A great conveners’ post from last year’s class that also touches upon this analogy to war can be found here.). These descriptions, although different, all evoke powerful emotions that repeatedly shift the mood of the feast. The chairman’s speech at the end even prompted the crowd to drive out the priest because of his attempt to dismiss the feast.
The spread of emotional responses to the plague is also present in A Journal of the Plague Year by Defoe. The city of London was filled with fear, panic, and hysteria. People are in no way capable of controlling their emotions and responses in these situations, but stabilizing public reaction plays a crucial factor in minimizing the damage of a pandemic. What’s worse in today’s society is that the usage of social media in our daily life polarizes the information we receive about the pandemic, even more so during quarantine when the internet is our only source of news, and this adds a further challenge (or opportunity?) to controlling public reaction during pandemics.
So how should we treat and respond to detrimental shocks like the plague? Is there a proper timeline or principle to moderate this shock to prevent mass hysteria and misinformation? A Feast During the Plague, especially through the emotional conflicts of the chairman and the priest, raises questions of much weight do our words, with the use of literary devices, truly hold in affecting the public?
(Interesting side note: today, climate activists treat climate change as “the war of humankind”. The idea of fighting against a phenomenon parallels the chairman’s speech in the reading. Would you say it is an effective way of appealing to emotions and motivating people with a sense of urgency? Or is it creating an opposite effect?)
Second, is it really morally shameful to pursue selfish personal enjoyment during a pandemic, or can it be justified as a redemption of the human spirit in the face of darkness?
Contagious diseases like Covid and the plague create a challenging dilemma for all of us, humans, to reevaluate our relationships with each other. Humans are like hedgehogs, it is inescapable that we stay together for warmth, but if we are too close, too connected, we hurt each other. We are all involved in a community, but we also survive as individuals. Pandemics pose a challenge for us to reconstruct the interdependent relationship between ourselves and our community. Our safety and happiness can no longer be obtained in a group setting, what should we do?
In both A Journal of the Plague Year and A Feast During the Plague, society very quickly created a new moral construct to regulate people’s actions in order to maintain the fulfillment of a common goal – combating the plague. People are then bound – morally and sometimes legally – by this new social construct. Even nowadays on our campus, we shame those who host parties and prioritize their personal enjoyment over our community’s safety. These new moral constructs ask us to downplay our personal interests, quarantine, struggle with mental health, and be responsible for the interest of a larger community. But to what extent can we sacrifice ourselves? Moreover, How do we balance our personal interest with heroism and responsibility to the world? AFeast During the Plague presents us with this challenge through the conflict between Mr. Walsingham and the priest. Is it really shameful, like the priest says, to pursue selfish personal enjoyment during a pandemic, or is it justified during the days of darkness?
With that, we leave you here. Hope you enjoyed Pushkin’s play and our blog post.
– Amna, Chi-Ting, Sophia, Vivi
*See here for an interesting study done on pornography consumption during Covid-19.