We encountered Richard Eyre’s revival of Ibsen’s Ghosts in a clip we watched in class to start our discussion of the play. It also came up in a post from earlier this week, “Can you see my ghosts?”, which draws from an interview with Eyre. Thinking about this 2013 version, being screened over a century after the original (written in 1881, first staged in 1882), I was struck by how stories are passed inter-generationally. Eyre’s Ghosts is an adaptation, not a line for line performance of Ibsen’s text. Even the short clip we watched differs significantly from the language used in the 19th century English translation of the original. This made me think about contagion in regard to how certain stories get transmitted over time, in the form of a cultural inheritance. Ghosts was a groundbreaking play, better appreciated in retrospect. It went on to become a great work for many. It has literally lingered in the theatrical imagination. In a sense, it has infected this imagination, becoming part of a large corpus of celebrated stories told on stage.
However, what interests me is Eyre’s choice to change around the language of the piece (a full version of which is available at https://www.digitaltheatreplus.com/education/collections/digital-theatre/ghosts) to better suit modern audiences. He edited and rewrote Ibsen to convey the idea at the center of the work more accessibly. Even though the core elements and themes of the play stayed fixed, and remain relevant in today’s world, the way these are expressed needed modification, in Eyre’s eyes. The argument is that the 21st century now has a version of Ghosts that appeals to it more naturally, and this is a good thing.
This raises questions and concerns. Firstly, if Ghosts is a great play, why does it need modern adaptation, especially in the same medium it was originally meant to be seen in. Classics are considered great in their particularity, isn’t changing things a disservice to the writer who created it?
Secondly, the idea of a contagious piece of literature seems like one way to understand the spread of ideas in texts over time and space, but what about the differing expectations from and responses to literary works in new settings? Eyre’s version of Ghosts is still Ibsen’s play – which is in itself complicated, given the differences in language leading us to wonder whether dialogue or story beats find prominence here – but it is also not. What happens when something spreads, such as a disease, but manifests itself differently in specific contexts? Also, since the 21st century Ghosts is different from the 19th century one, in content and response, why should they be the same play if so much has changed in between? This is similar to the question of inheritance between Oswald and his father, where similarities exist, but questions remain to how alike they are in their ways, and who we is more redeemable, or at least more worthy of empathy?