When I was reading Ghosts, I did not immediately understand that Oswald had inherited syphilis from Captain Alving until I did some readings about the play. In the play, they never mention the word “syphilis”, but unlike me, apparently, the audiences who saw the play in the late 19th century immediately understood its reference, as syphilis had become a widespread disease at that time. In a Guardian article, Richard Eyre, an English theater and film director who also wrote his own adaptation of Ghosts, recounts some of the initial responses of the play:
In England the lord chamberlain, the official censor, banned the play from public performance but there was a single, unlicensed, “club” performance in 1891 on a Sunday afternoon at the Royalty theatre. It detonated an explosion of critical venom: “The experience of last night demonstrated that the official ban placed upon Ghosts as regards public performance was both wise and warranted”; “The Royalty was last night filled by an orderly audience, including many ladies, who listened attentively to the dramatic exposition of a subject which is not usually discussed outside the walls of an hospital”; “It is a wretched, deplorable, loathsome history, as all must admit. It might have been a tragedy had it been treated by a man of genius. Handled by an egotist and a bungler, it is only a deplorably dull play”; “revoltingly suggestive and blasphemous”; “a dirty deed done in public”.Richard Eyre
Eyre explains that these responses were due to the play’s attack on religion, defense of free love, mention of incest, and syphilis. The stigma surrounding the topic of STDs has always been around, and this stigma is a very prevalent issue we witness today with the coronavirus pandemic. We see this stigma carried out in different forms. One would feel the discomfort in telling others that they have gotten the virus. We saw the discriminatory behaviors against people of certain ethnic backgrounds, especially to East Asians during the pandemic. One might face a loss of status because of the perceived link with a disease. (See the WHO’s guide on Social Stigmas associated with COVID-19)
I found myself pondering the question of how these social stigmas affect us when talking about contagious diseases. Does that make us more vulnerable to the disease, or does it provide us with comfort in not having to openly discuss it? What does the euphemism mean to Oswald? Does Mrs. Alving keeping Captain Alving’s true nature secret from Oswald benefit him? In response to the initial responses of the play, Ibsen said, “It is reasonable to suppose that Ghosts will cause alarm in some circles; but so it must be. If it did not do so, it would not have been necessary to write it.” Although Ibsen seems to encourage us to speak of the stigma, whether it is related to STDs or patriarchy, is he himself still haunted by the shadow of the “ghosts”, by not mentioning for once the name of the disease and simply describing Captain Alving as “debauched”? Do we see ourselves today giving different reactions compared to the ones given to the responses that were given in England in 1891?