Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Only The Symptoms: Why "Ghosts" Is Not a Play About Syphilis

Ghosts, when it was first written by Henrik Ibsen back in the late 1800s, caused a major scandal. London critic Clement Scott described Ghosts as "an open drain; a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly." The subject matter was so repulsive that the first public staging of the play was in Chicago, half a world away from the society it was criticizing. Since then, society has changed and the taboos of the time have faded.

However, for many people Ghosts remains the show about syphilis, which is baffling since the word "syphilis" never appears in the script. In fact, how shocking was the onstage suggestion of syphilis if, as medical estimates of the time say, almost 50% of Europe had the disease? In fact, if Ghosts really was just a play about syphilis, it would be about as exciting and noteworthy as a 2nd grade informational film strip (pink cartoon syphilis microbes not withstanding). Still, audiences and critics continue to see the play through the lens of shock value, as Kerry Reid did in her recent review of BoHo's Ghosts in The Chicago Reader with the tag line "It’s a struggle to make Ghosts seem scandalous in the age of August: Osage County." The article went on to say that since the revelations in the story were no longer “gasp-worthy,” there was “a bit of creakiness in the play's bones.”

So it would seem that Ghosts is merely a late-19th century shock piece. But if that were the case, why would it still be performed today? If the only thing the play has up its sleeve is the visceral horror of an old Jackass episode, it too would have been left to the dustbin of history and forgotten.

Just because something was shocking in its day does not mean that shock was its only intent. The Beatle's "Helter Skelter" was a vulgar noise that proved to the uptight culture guardians of the 1960s that rock and roll was the music of the devil. Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers glorified serial killers and gore and made all the conservative talking heads of 1994 decry the death of decency. Yet these works are still enjoyed today because there was more to them than just shock. "Helter Skelter" has gone on to be a foundation of modern rock and metal music, and below the savagery of Natural Born Killers was a prescient examination of the media's fascination with fame and infamy.

Along these lines, Ghosts does contain elements of incest, disease, arson, and secret debauchery that rattled society at one time. But these are only elements, they are not the story; or as Oswald says in the climax of the show “those aren’t the sickness, they’re only the symptoms.” The story of Ghosts and the sickness it examines are secrets and repression. Is it good and right to keep something hidden in order to maintain a dignified public image, or to hide something from your children in order to protect them? On the other hand, is revealing truth for truth's sake always right, or can it do more harm than good? Can a middle ground be found between strangling restraint and wild hedonism?

Based on these themes, one could easily pluck Ghosts out of its 19th century Scandinavian setting and relocate it to modern America and it would still be timely. Reverend Manders, the upright voice of the conservative community, could just as easily be a conservative southern preacher; Oswald the artist living a Bohemian lifestyle in Paris, could just as easily be from New York or San Francisco.  In a political climate that pits stuffy conservatives against hippy liberals, a culture which craves dirty secrets and then deplores the people who reveal them, a society in which creating the public image you desire is a pain-staking life-long work, the real story of Ibsen’s Ghosts is just as relevant as ever.