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on 5 November 2013
I was lucky to see Richard Eyre's production of this version at the Almeida Theatre shortly after seeing Stephen Unwin direct his new version at the Rose, and so this review is a companion to my review of Unwin's text (see Ghosts). In his introductory essay, Eyre describes the rough reception this play got in the 1880s: the "outcry of indignation against the attack on religion, the defence of free love, the mention of incest and syphilis." Booksellers were "embarrassed by the presence of the book on their shelves" and the original print run remained unsold (which goes to show that not all publicity is good publicity). Ibsen has outlasted his critics, however, and most importantly his plays continue to be performed. Eyre observes how Ibsen's great women characters "batter against convention and repression" and Helene Alving - the mother and widow at the heart of this play - is no exception.

When she asks Pastor Manders: "Do you think my husband was any more chaste than Johanne was when he stood beside me at the altar?" Manders replies: "That's utterly different." Mrs Alving here draws our attention to the double standards used in judging men and women who have affairs. She is also making a moral case, while Manders, the man of God and a man who prides himself on his moral acumen, sidesteps the moral issue and takes refuge in the biological differences between male and female. Although he is almost certainly ignorant of the science (he talks in terms of "God's design"), he happens to be right that extra pair copulation does serve different evolutionary strategies in mammalian species, but wholly wrong in his instinct that this fact could justify his double standard when it comes to a moral concept like "chastity".

A comparison of the language used in the Eyre and Unwin versions is instructive. In the opening scene Eyre doesn't hold back on the profanity: where Unwin chooses words like "hussy", "b-" and "that word" Eyre goes in for full-throttle swearing. I'm not sure Eyre's got this right: although most working-class men living in a seaport would no doubt swear like sailors, Jacob Engstrand is deferential towards figures of authority like Pastor Manders and he strives to be pious. Just as he would never swear in front of the vicar I don't think he would swear in Mrs Alving's house.

One of the first things Engstrand says in Unwin's version is "as God is my witness" - which is cut from this version, perhaps a victim of Eyre's desire to produce a text "spontaneous to an audience of today." If by this he means that few people today would use such a phrase in ordinary speech, he's obviously right. But so what? This isn't a contemporary play (although it does have contemporary relevance), and by treating this kind of language as dispensable he's actually throwing out an important cultural marker and a key to Engstrand's character. In her excellent Holy S***: A Brief History of Swearing, Melissa Mohr writes that, while today swearing refers to both oaths and obscene words, "from the earliest Old English texts right to the end of the nineteenth century, the word swearing referred to oaths alone." (I'm assuming swearing followed a similar trajectory in Scandinavia.) According to Mohr, swearing in the biblical sense meant "calling on God to witness that a person is telling the truth" and while Eyre goes for the modern understanding of swearing Unwin's Engstrand more accurately reflects the historical belief.

Eyre asserts, rather unnecessarily, that all translations "make choices and the choices we make are made according to taste, to the times we live in and how we view the world." What counts, of course, is the quality of the choices made, and Eyre's choice to have a sweary Engstrand is I think to the detriment of the character and therefore not the best one he could have made. This is one of the reasons why I think Eyre's version, although very good, suffers in comparison with Unwin's, and is the weaker of two.

Elsewhere, Eyre is also not shy of introducing explicit references to religion. That Mrs Alving smokes a cigarette on stage marks her out as a bit of bohemian, but much more shocking is her conclusion: "God and the law! There you have the cause of all the misery in the world." This time, it's Unwin who leaves out God (he sticks to the law, and leaves us to infer the responsibility of the ultimate author of the law). Again, I think Unwin's is the more nuanced version. Although she is admirable in the way she develops her independent opinions and tries to think for herself, Mrs Alving is not a campaigning atheist like, for example, Harriet Law (who toured England in the 1860s, giving lectures on how religion oppressed women, and getting punched in the face by Christian men for her trouble).

The ending, too, is very different. [Spoiler alert] Eyre gives Oswald a final question - "Mama, where's the sun?" - which leaves no room for interpretation: we can see the rising sun, flooding the dining room with fiery red morning light, but all is darkness for Oswald. He's already blind, and clearly very ill. His mother retrieves the bottle of pills and the strong suggestion is that she hastens her son's death. Both Eyre and Unwin produce powerful and moving interpretations of Ibsen's ending. In both, the dawning of a new day supplies an extra poignancy, as we rage against the dying of Oswald's light.

Eyre's suspicion that we might be tempted to "bask in the glow of progress" and think ourselves superior to our 19th-century forebears is itself worryingly relativist. Of course we're superior in some respects, in ways in which artists like Ibsen and the many social reformers who also exposed unfairness and injustice would recognize and celebrate. Only by recognizing that moral progress is possible, and by recognizing that we are still flawed, is it worth making the effort to change what is wrong with the world. Indeed, Eyre himself, perhaps unwittingly, identifies a theme that is highly relevant to a modern audience: as with Chekhov, "Ibsen sees boredom and indifference as insidious viruses that infect all society." Fear of leisure, fear that we wouldn't know what to do with ourselves if we had more time, is one reason why we still work so hard in the affluent West, according to the Skidelskys in How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life. We may have reduced religion to an irrelevance and eradicated smallpox, but resisting the spread of the market society may prove as daunting a challenge as any we have faced, and the most important, for it cuts to the core of that most fundamental of questions: what is the good life?
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