Archive for March, 2014

Ghosts by Almeida Theatre

If you guys haven’t come across it already, London’s Almeida Theatre adapted and produced Ibsen’s Ghosts last year. Here’s the trailer for it, featuring the quote by Mrs. Alving. The quote, however, is a bit different in the trailer. Do the differences between this one and the original change or add anything to the way we think about the “ghosts” in the play? Or is it just a really good paraphrase? Either way, I think it’s beautifully made.

Here’s the original for comparison:

“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. I’ve only to pick up a newspaper and I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines. Over the whole country there must be ghosts, as numerous as the sands of the sea. And here we are, all of us, abysmally afraid of the light.” (pg. 126)

Give it a watch!

– Sarah

A Ghostly Disease

With all the talk on ghosts and the supernatural, I thought it would be interesting to look into some of the more mundane aspects of the play. More specifically, what role does syphilis itself play in Ibsen’s Ghosts?

In the various works we have read for the class so far, it is clear that disease often represents or signifies a certain level of moral corruption. In Oedipus, it represented the corruption in Oedipus’ life and kingdom. In Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year, it brought out the worst in people, making the community fall prey to an immoral way of life.

I believe that Ghosts may take the relationship between disease and corruption a little further.

Oswald’s doctor did say that he had inherited the disease from his father in the quote, “He said: The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children” (Ibsen 138).

However, we do know that this couldn’t have been more than an indirect relationship, as Oswald couldn’t have gotten syphilis if his mother hadn’t been infected as well (whether Oswald was infected from fooling around in Paris is debatable, since his symptoms are consistent with those of congenital syphilis). That means that Mrs. Alving must have been an asymptomatic carrier. Following the path of the disease, we can conclude that Johanna and Regine have a decent chance of being carriers as well; even Jacob Engstand could be infected from Johanna if she had been infected with the disease from Captain Alving. Finally, if Pastor Manders had consented to being in a relationship with Mrs. Alving, he too would have come in contact with syphilis. It would seem that the disease is just as prevalent in the live of the characters as the corruption and misfortune.

We have definitely established that the ghost metaphor has several dimensions, but perhaps there is yet another layer to Ibsen’s “ghost”. Perhaps the syphilis itself is the ghost. Think about it: They have all come in contact with, if not afflicted with, the disease. For some, it was the result of corruption. For others, it was an unlucky inheritance. Either way, it plays a role in the lives of each of the characters, in the same way Mrs. Alving describes its presence in each of them. Talking about the supernatural could have in some ways been as publicly unacceptable as the mention of syphilis was. The parallel is also there when we consider that ghosts are the remnants of a troubled past; in many ways, syphilis is too. The syphilis, or the “sin of the father”, haunts the family from beyond the grave.

Actually, syphilis is sort of the ghost of the play as well. Though the word “syphilis” isn’t mentioned in Ghosts at all, it still plagues the play with the affliction it hauls along – a sort of “ghost sickness”, if you will (on a slightly unrelated note, “ghost sickness” was actually a thing among Native American tribes). It is neither seen nor mentioned, but always lingers behind the shadows of their actions.

Much like a real ghost, no?

– Sarah


The Plague is Feminist

Katherine Anne Porter’s collection of three short novels Pale Horse, Pale Rider was published in 1939. The short novel in focus for us is entitled Pale Horse, Pale Rider and we accompany the main character Miranda in 1918 through American civilian life during WWI, the influenza epidemic, and love and life, lost and found.

The permeating patriotism in the novel seems to be linked to the subjugation of women. When the two men come into Miranda’s office at the newspaper and threaten her to buy liberty bonds, they are anonymous, hostile, and similar to gang members, holding enormous power over civilians through politically illegitimate sources. They threaten Townsey and Miranda, the two women in the office who barely earn any money. When Miranda and her colleague Townsey refused to report on the ugly details of an abusive affair due to respect for the female victim, the rival newspaper published it instead and Miranda and Townsey were demoted into writing in “routine female” sectors, “one to the theaters, the other to society” (149). Men throughout the novel constantly pick on women and point out their lack of worth. Chuck Rouncivale, Miranda’s colleague says that “women should just keep out of [the war]. They just add skirts to the horrors of war” (165). Miranda additionally notices that all the rejected men had “a guarded resentment which said, ‘Don’t pin a white feather on me, you bloodthirsty female. I’ve offered my meat to the crows and they won’t have it'” (171). The story points out the overwhelmingly threatening patriotism that pervades the community and the resulting degradation of women in society during this time period.  Perhaps all this war is a big testosterone party, and those who weren’t invited feel emasculated and those who are women… too bad. America is just a man’s club, and patriotism seems to be the best way to participate.

Happy International Women’s Day, guys.

Patriotism in this novel is certainly not glorified but rather eerie-fied, with the accompaniment of apocalyptic Biblical references. The title of the book comes from one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, namely the fourth Horseman, Death. Each of the four horsemen are allegorized in the novel. There is War, obviously, embodied by the Red Horse armed with a bow. Bow and Arrows, as you may remember, make an appearance in Miranda’s dream in which “the arrows struck her cleanly through the heart and through his body and he lay dead, and she still lived” (191). Ah, a premonition of the things to come. Famine, embodied by the Black Horse, strikes home, while the soldiers are off in foreign lands. In the hospitals during the influenza epidemic, there are a lack of resources, simply because the country needs the people to “buy Liberty bonds and do without sugar and wool socks” (175) to devote more resources for the soldiers at war. The White Horse, understood as Conquest, appears at the end of the novel when the Americans win the war. But some argue that the white horse, in an alternative translation, is actually pestilence. The pestilence in this novel is influenza, “this funny new disease” because of which “[t]he men are dying like flies out there” (158) and which gets political connotations when people speculate that “it is really caused by germs brought by a German ship to Boston” (162). The last horse to come is the Pale Horse, who lends his name to the novel’s title. It is Death, the sum of all that came before.

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Religious imagery is also evoked in one of Miranda’s trance-like and prophetic dream states: she describes seeing everyone she had ever known, recognizing them as pure identities without distinguishing their names. An idea of the afterworld not unlike Christian heaven, especially accompanied by idyllic nature scenes, Christian prayers, and spiritual songs. “Death always leaves one singer to mourn” (190) is how one of them ends – and it did, death left Miranda while taking her lover. Perhaps it’s meaningful that the flushed, sickly Miranda with “one foot in either world” (207) survived whereas her lover Adam, a fresh, manly soldier with a large appetite who “had never had a pain in his life” (160) succumbed to the plague (not war!). Perhaps the plague is feminist.

Ghosts: A Fantasy Fiction Horror Story

I always have been interested in the idea of the supernatural and those that lingered behind. While reading Ibsen the vocabulary the characters decided to use in more than one occasion directed my mind to the supernatural. Oswald while talking about his affliction; “Like a living death! Mother, can you imagine anything more horrible?” (Ibsen 137) and Engstrand when he is discussing his motives “Isn’t it right and proper for a man to try and raise the fallen?”(Ibsen 131) It is apparent that this play does not contain any supernatural elements but the specific vocabulary and the name of the play invited me to give it another read, this time as if the ghosts were real!

Before diving into Ghosts again I researched 19th century Norway and the understanding of ghosts in that era. The prominence of the “ghost pictures”  that recently popped up added to the social hype that surrounded the supernatural. People believed that ghosts were spirits that failed to transition into the afterlife and were bound to the mortal world. Sometimes with the will of another and sometimes by an object. The manifestations of these usually present themselves as a reenaction of a certain scene from the now fading life of the ghost.

(Taken from Megan Garber’s article “When Cameras Took Pictures of Ghosts“)

Reading the play once again with my “I See Dead People” glasses on made me realize that Mrs.Alving could actually have been a summoner of ghosts! A specific ghost, Mr.Alving in this case. Throughout the play Mrs.Alving tries to keep the situation of Mr.Alving a secret. Never sharing the “debauched” reality with anyone, bearing all the burden by herself. Sadly, her adamant attempts at trying to remove him from her life makes Mr.Alving present in every aspect of her life. The fact that Oswald smokes his father’s pipe can also add to the strength of the ghosts presenting an actual object that bounds him to mortal world. The manifestations of Mr.Alving shows himself as the terrible affliction Oswald has and more importantly in the looping events that happen between Regine and Oswald. 

Even though this approach is nothing more than a farfetched supernatural reading, I think it helps us have another look at the way Mrs.Alving interacts with the world. She definitely is haunted by the memory of Mr.Alving and the burden of keeping the reality of her marriage hidden from the world.

It’s not that they actually live on in us; they are simply lodged there, and we cannot get rid of them. I’ve only to pick up a newspaper and I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines. Over the whole country there must be ghosts, as numerous as the sands of the sea. And here we are, all of us, abysmally afraid of the light. (Ibsen 126)

Mrs.Alving might be reading between the lines, placing the ghosts there herself just to convince herself that what she has been through is shared with other people hidden from plain sight. Ghosts might not be real for other characters but it is definitely real for Mrs.Alving and regardless of Oswald’s belief in ghosts he is haunted by one.

Maybe in order to be safe they just need to salt and burn the pipe.

Casper, Syphillis or Strigoi?

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 126)

I don’t how it all happened with you guys…But when I read these words in Ghosts by Ibsen, I was somewhat confused. What on earth did Mrs. Alving mean by “ghosts”? And, more importantly, what is that to do with the play?
It didn’t seem that Mrs. Alving was actually haunted by supernatural things she saw. It wasn’t like in the Ghost Busters movie, it wasn’t anything like Casper.

So how was it? Why was the play named Ghosts, after all?

Trying to answer this question, I familiarized myself with one of, what seems, the funkiest Romanian beliefs. Belief in the Strigoi.

What is Strigoi?

 In Romanian mythology,[citation needed] strigoi (English: striga, poltergeist)[1] are the troubled souls of the dead rising from the grave.” (

As far as I understood, nowadays, the not so well-known “Strigoi” is the famous “Vampire”.
According to Wikipedia, “strigoi date back to the Dacians. The strigoi are creatures of Dacian mythology, evil spirits, the spirits of the dead whose actions made them unworthy of entering the kingdom of Zalmoxis.
In short, “Strigoi” is a lost soul that wasn’t able to enter neither Heaven, nor Hell and hangs somewhere between those spaces on Earth i.e. troubled.

Considering this information, I started wondering whether Oswald himself is a… Strigoi?
What if his sinful father’s soul, after death, didn’t find peace and settled in his son’s body? Can Oswald be considered a Strigoi? Can this actually explain and acquit Oswald’s behavior? Furthermore, maybe the soul perishing him is his sickness? Not syphilis — but a Ghost who killed the poor young man?

If we look deeper into the last scenes of the play, we would see an echo of Regine’s mother in Regine herself. Did her mother’s soul settle into her body too? Would this soul perish Regine’s future? We don’t know.

Furthermore, we don’t really know what Mrs. Alving wanted to say by mentioning “ghosts”.
However, we can guess. And my guess is that she has seen Strigoies.


Thank you for your unghostly (or maybe ghostly?) attention,





Ibsen round-up

You might find it interesting to know that Edvard Munch, the Norwegian painter, was a big Ibsen fan. Ibsen was 30-odd years older than Munch and they only met a few times. But Much was pretty taken with him. Here’s a brief essay on the relationship between their work, including comments on Munch’s 1906 set designs for Ghosts (see above, Oswald sitting in the chair in the final scene, the sun rising outside as visible through the big picture window). I like this observation in particular:

To see was the most important thing for both Ibsen and Munch – but certainly not in an external, photographically recording sense. The artist’s ability and task is to see inwards – so that external motifs and inner, mental agitation are “lived through” (to use one of Ibsen’s favourite expressions) and melted together into valid expression. I do not paint what I see, but what I have seen, Munch once said – and Ibsen could have said the same about his “poetic visions”.

And here are a couple links to last year’s posts: the conveners’ post; one on humor (how much of this should we read as comedy?); and one on fatherhood — especially bad fathers — as one of Ibsen’s particular obsessions.

The Truth Will Set Us Free… Or Will It?

[image source]

Ghosts tells the story of the Alving household.  Oswald, a young artist living in Paris, comes back to his mother’s house just in time for the inauguration of an orphanage in memory of his father, Captain Alving.  Shortly before the opening, widow Helene Alving confesses to Pastor Manders that she has been hiding her husband’s vices in order to save her family’s reputation, and that the orphanage is a way of ending the rumors about his debauchery.  A chain of lies is then revealed and we are confronted with the inheritance of guilt, the appeal of immorality, and with the tension that arises when society compromises the truth in order to maintain the social order.

Oswald states that “all [he remembers] about [his father] is that he once made [him] sick” (pg. 158). through imposing him the smoking of a cigarette. The smoking and cheating that went on in the house caused Mrs. Alving to fear that her son “would somehow be poisoned simply by breathing the foul air of [the] polluted house” (pg. 118). Captain Alvin’s debauchery ends up not only polluting the household but also the inside the of his son’s mind, Oswald, in the form of Neurosyphilis. The play’s failure to identify Oswald’s disease, Syphilis, acts as a social commentary criticizing society’s taboo against immorality.

“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. I’ve only to pick up a newspaper and I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines. Over the whole country there must be ghosts, as numerous as the sands of the sea. And here we are, all of us, abysmally afraid of the light.” (pg. 126)

A universal truth is explained: we are afraid to face the truth and come to terms with our hypocrisies. After the truth is set free, the sun finally appears in the play. The legacy of Captain Alvin contributes to the echo of immoral practices that plagues the Alving household, but the ghosts do not stop there. The ghosts that haunt us are our own selves and our tendency to act immorally. They plague Mrs. Alving when she lies to cover up the ugly truth with ideals. They plague Oswald when he pursues a level of incest with Regine — regardless of the knowledge (cue Oedipus). They plague Engstrand when he blackmails Pastor Manders to fulfill his dreams of creating a Seamen’s Home.

In the climax, Mrs. Alving untangles the web of lies she has set up around her. Regine finds out she is Captain Alving’s illicit child, and Oswald gets to know that his syphilis is inherited. Mrs. Alving can finally be at peace. She broke the shackles of social norms that expected her to be an obedient wife and protective mother and that oppressed her for so long. However, the revelation that Mrs. Alving makes is bittersweet. Once sweet Regine turns out to be a calculating woman, who hoped “to make the most of things” and enjoy “this joy of life” (pg. 156) by getting involved with Oswald. Oswald admits plainly that although he doesn’t love his mother “at least [he] knows [her]” and she could be “extremely useful” to him. And as the sun rises and “the glaciers…and mountains gleam in the morning light” (pg. 163), Oswald suffers a major relapse, which leaves him mumbling “the sun” (pg. 164) repeatedly. The lies were unraveled, but did this bring any good? Mrs. Alving loses her orphanage, the services of Regine, and the support of Pastor, and is faced with the decision to euthanize her own child. She is a ruined woman.

Ibsen criticizes the lies that pervade society, but he leaves us with a question: Was the outcome of revealing the truth favorable over concealing the truth with ideals? There may be something attractive about Ms. Alving’s world of lies relative to her new state: lies are contagious because they are so sweet.

A Feast During the Plague as a global text

When thinking about the relationship between Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague and Wilson’s The City of the Plague, from which it was adapted, we are on the wrong track if we are preoccupied with labeling it as a “translation” or an “adaptation” or something else entirely. The set of questions we should be asking is related to the effects it has as a work of world literature and the language used to transport it across time and cultures.

David Damrosch, a scholar of Comparative Literature and a researcher in the field of world literature, writes in his book What is World Literature? (2003) that it is “not an infinite, ungraspable canon of works but rather a mode of circulation and of reading” (5) “encompass[ing] all literary works that circulate beyond their culture of origin, either in translation or in their original language” (4). The key means of enabling a text’s circulation is translation, which Damrosch does not renounce as a destroyer of meaning but sees as a tool to help a work of world literature gain additional meanings. In another book, How to Read World Literature (2008), Damrosch describes translation as “an expansive transformation of the original, a concrete manifestation of cultural exchange and a new stage in a work’s life as it moves from its first home out into the world” (66), focusing less on specific cultures in which the texts of world literature originate and more on the ideas they communicate. It is therefore important to read in translation and be critically aware of the translators’ choices, both linguistic and social.

The subtitle in English (“From Wilson’s Tragedy The City of the Plague“) is a word-for-word translation of the original (“Из Вильсоновой трагедии: The City of the Plague”), where the word “from” or “из” does not shed any light on how Pushkin saw his play against Wilson’s. When thinking about translation and the use of language, it is noteworthy that we are reading a Russian adaptation of an English play – in English. What is even more interesting is how Pushkin’s translation choices (intended or not) used language as well as the element of language to alter the meanings constructed in his play. Nancy K. Anderson points out in her critical essay Survival and Memory that in Wilson’s play the driver is the one who mutters in an unknown language while in Pushkin’s it is the dead; according to Anderson, this “inspired misunderstanding,” as she sees it, helps reaffirm the disconnect between two separate communities, the living and the dead. Perhaps this was a conscious decision on Pushkin’s part to convey a specific cultural message through the use of the motif of language, a metafictional device referring to the reality where translation loses some of the original meanings, but at the same time gains new ones.

Damrosch also discusses the idea that literature has expanded beyond its fundamental meaning of “written with letters” to include a wide range of cultural productions, from oral texts to movies as works of cinematic narrative. There is no doubt Wilson’s The City of the Plague entered into world literature. One of its occurrences is Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague, but plenty more iterations of Pushkin’s play have appeared since its publishing: including but not limited to several translations into other languages, Russian stagings of the play (Пир во время чумы, see parts 1 and 2), numerous English renditions (see here and here), a 1990 Russian opera Feast in Time of Plague by César Cui (Anatoly Moksyakov’s performance of the Chairman’s Hymn to the Plague is available here) etc. A Russian rock band took its name and inspiration from the title of the Pushkin’s play, and a Russian stand-up comedian Mikhail Nikolayevich Zadornov used the title for one of his books as well as played a pun on it in one of his performances.

Without looking further into the constellation of themes and messages revealed to us through a close reading and focusing only on the abovementioned aspects of it, A Feast During the Plague already proves to be a global text, migrating not only through different cultures and languages but across the domains of literature and art as well.

So… Which one of you is Pushkin?

To fully understand the context of this play, it is important to consider how much of the playwright’s own life influenced the story. After being held in quarantine for three months due to the infection, Pushkin experienced a surge of ideas and thus wrote many of his finest works, including ‘Feast In the Time of the Plague.’ He had faced many hardships prior to this incidence and yearned for love for many years in the midst of a terrible epidemic.

“Pushkin’s drawings at this time show constant preoccupation with the persecution and hangings of his friends; surrounded by “spies, whores, and drunkards” he soon was pining again for the simplicity and peace of country life, for his nanny Arina Rodionovna—and she for him (“To my Nanny”). Even a bright new company of musicians, gypsies, and the great exiled Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz, whom Pushkin befriended in Moscow, did not much console the poet.” [] 

During time of persecution, political conflict and disease, Pushkin and his friends regularly submerged themselves in social gatherings and feasts. This may have been the perfect setting for them to neglect their hardships or to grieve in a comfortable setting. In reading the play, then, it is not hard to see that two characters in particular may directly mirror Pushkin’s situation and state of mind at the time; the priest and Chairman (Walsingham). 

I don’t know one like that – here’s what I’ll sing:
A hymn in honor of the Plague. I wrote it
Late last night, after we had parted.
I found I had a strange poetic impulse

Much in the same way that Pushkin had, Walsingham also finds himself strangely inspired by the pain and suffering that surrounds him. He alludes to both his lack of and loss of love (as he had had various unstable relationships in the past) as well as the insecurities that arose from his loneliness. He clearly craved family and “the simplicity and peace of country life” which he had lost at a very young age. Thus, Walsingham’s story closely represents Pushkin’s own life. The Priest’s also plays an important role. He could either be representative of a different perspective that Pushkin had on the idea of celebrating during times of suffering or may even illustrate his friends’ reactions to his ways of dealing with grief. Nancy K. Anderson also touches upon this idea but does not expand on it fully.

Either way, Pushkin sure liked to party and had his characters do the same.

[Image via]

– Sheba