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Customer Review

on 3 November 2013
Stephen Unwin begins with an undated quote from William Archer (from around a century ago) about how Ibsen's fame relies almost exclusively on translations. In the past month I've been lucky to see two major productions of the play in London, in two very different new versions by acclaimed theatre directors. Unwin directed his version at the Rose Theatre in Kingston and Richard Eyre directed his version at the Almeida Theatre. Both productions were excellent, but in terms of the text I think Unwin's version shades it as the better of the two. For the reasons why, see my review of Eyre's Ghosts.

Here, I want to pick out a couple of details that point up Ibsen's critique of religion. While the young servant, Regina, is barely civil to her father, as soon as Pastor Manders arrives nothing is too much trouble. She is solicitous of his every need and even places a footstool under his feet. Such respect and deference are what the clergy expect in every community.

Comfortable, however, is what Manders rarely is, given his role as a moralizing policeman checking up on everyone else's behaviour. He's horrified by the books on Mrs Alving's table ("those terrible freethinkers and their vile, seditious books"), and tells her, "My dear Mrs Alving, there are some occasions in life when one should rely on the opinion of others." This is not just a northern Protestant fastidiousness; Catholics too are good at monitoring which books are fit for the faithful to read. Indeed, pretty much every religion must be on guard to prevent its followers from discovering too much about the world outside their sect. People must not be allowed to think too much for themselves.

In his implicit criticism of religious conformity, Ibsen echoes an epigram of his contemporary Friedrich Nietzsche: "The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently." The last thing Pastor Manders wants to encourage is curiosity about religion: that way surely lies unbelief (see The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True for what happens when believers adopt an informed scepticism towards faith).

The working of his religious mind is brought out most bizarrely over the question of insuring the orphanage. Manders tells Mrs Alving about the "body of opinion" that would be shocked by what seems to us the perfectly reasonable expedient of taking out an insurance policy: "Well, they might conclude that we showed insufficient faith in divine providence."

[Spoiler alert] When the orphanage goes up in flames, Manders knows why: "How terrible. Mrs Alving, this fire is a judgment on this house of sin." In fact, Engstrand knows the real reason (the pastor didn't snuff out a candle properly, and the smouldering wick caused the fire), and once he's made this clear Manders changes his tune: "It was terribly bad luck all the same." Well, which is it? Providence or chance? These are logically exclusive explanations, and both can't be true. (For how the Lucretian denial of Providence aggravated Christians for centuries, see Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began.)

The pastor, like the medieval priests who regarded the Black Death as a punishment for sin, seems perfectly content that God should wreak havoc in this way, although he doesn't relish being a direct instrument of God's wrath. In the end he changes his metaphysical tune to save his skin. Fortunately, he doesn't get the last word, which is Osvald's heartbreakingly brief paean to a different way of life: "The sun - the sun."
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