When discussing the heated topic of adultery, if anyone ever needs an example of how one man’s immorality can affect everyone he comes in contact with, the Henrik Ibsen play, Ghosts, is it. In our haste to condemn all divorce, especially at the behest of our innocent and inexperienced clergy, we often foster much more damage than expected.
This 1986 movie captures the usual dark and foreboding undertones of Ibsen’s work, such as A Doll’s House, and Hedda Gabler, and represents a stellar portrayal of anguish in a showcase of English acting royalty: Judi Dench plays the distraught mother, Kenneth Branagh the agonized son, Natasha Richardson the illegitimate daughter, and Michael Gambon (most popularly known as the second Dumbledore) plays the easily duped parson.
When we talk about women’s roles in the family, there is no other author than Ibsen who has looked so realistically at women’s problems. He examines what makes a good mother, what makes a good wife, and never fails to shock his audience with some question of morality, whether it be seeing a mother walk out on her children; a woman kill herself to avoid bearing the child of a man she doesn’t deem worthy; or, in this case, come to terms with the impending death of her son, who has requested she help end his life due to the STD his father transferred to him.
Ibsen burrowed his way into the marrow of people’s souls and motivations and undoubtedly understood the feminine imperative, but focused on the feminine dilemma. This nineteenth century Norwegian playwright is often called “the father” of modern theater and wrote what are referred to as “problem” plays. They are designed to get you thinking, and think you will.
This play, more so than what I remember in the other two I studied, showed the female lead acknowledging her part in the disaster that was her marriage. Much as Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible eventually comes to the understanding that her lack of joy and keeping a cold house caused her husband to stray, there came a moment in this play when Mrs. Alving realized her complicity in the events that unfold.
She calls herself a coward for protecting her husband and not allowing his deeds to ruin his reputation and blames herself for being a poor mother for sending her son away at the age of seven so that he would not be infected by his father’s influence. Yet, she also reproaches the parson (who thinks he did her a great service in sending her back to her husband) with the knowledge that when he rejected her love and refused her amnesty, he did her no favor; although to outward appearances her life improved, behind closed doors, it remained the same.
Oh, how easy it is to judge others without knowing their full stories. And, as the parson finds out, how easy too it is to slip and find oneself as low and dejected as those one never believed one could have anything in common with. Watch the movie and see the grim results for yourself. As Oscar Wilde, another great playwright, stated, “Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.”