Friday, April 17, 2015

"Ghosts" at BAM: No Longer My Cup of Nihilism

I know what I would have made of the current production of Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music if I had seen this production 40 years ago.

I was a young actor who knew Ibsen as a key to the canon: one of the first “great” modern playwrights you had to read. I would have overlooked Ibsen’s anti-clerical jokes and nihilistic outlook. I would have admired the feminism and fine performances, and I would have stood with everyone else during the standing ovation.

Instead, last night, no longer a young actor, an old Catholic instead, I sat on my hands.

I felt sad over a New York audience wildly cheering a play in which—

  • a pastor (Lutheran?) is the butt of all the jokes (biggest laugh line of the night: "God and the law are the cause of all misery")
  • a mother bemoans her deceased husband, an alcoholic womanizer, only to discover that the sins of the father have been visited like ghosts upon her only son;
  • somehow the only person held accountable for this family catastrophe is the pastor, who made a value-driven decision not to sleep with the mother early in her marriage but is now shown to be hypocritical and laughably superstitious;
  • and then—because she has to, I guess—the mother euthanizes her syphilitic son as the curtain comes down. 

Yikes. Asked what I thought of the production by a young person with me, I said that I found it terribly bleak; that all the laughs were at the expense of religion; and I, for one, find consolation in religion.

Without some sort of religious or moral compass, how does a family like this ever exorcise its ghosts? Answer: They don’t. They have to kill one another.

When “Ghosts” was first published and produced in the 1880s, it was scandalous. Critical of religion, supportive of women’s rights, it was “ahead of its time.” Now—cheered wildly by a liberal New York audience—it is somehow right in step with our irreligious, nihilistic, pro-death age.

How sad.

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