Ghost Stories by Ibsen

Written by:
Nina Nichols
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Ghost Stories by Ibsen

Ibsen’s Rosmersolm is a dark, spooky play featuring one Rebecca West, arguably the most demonic heroine in all dramatic literature, including Lady Macbeth. Set in a ghostly, old manse near a flooding llrace where the former Mrs. Beata Rosmer leapt to her death, the action moves forward in play time by moving backward in remembered time until the dead woman’s story is told. By then, Johannes Rosmer–formerly a minister, and his platonic companion Rebecca West– have succumbed to the ghastly spirits brooding over the house: his guilt for rebellion against his god and embrace of political ‘free thinking’; Rebecca’s guilt for the ‘soul murder’ of Beata, whom she lured to suicide, and her flaunting of ‘free love’ by living openly with Rosmer. Rebecca is the more dimensional of the two characters and receives the fullest portrayal among Ibsen’s women. Her crime repeats the pattern of an ‘Oedipal’ incest with her mother’s second husband, Dr. West, after her mother’s death. Yet, although Ibsen’s repeated belief in ‘self realization’ lends some ambivalence to Rebecca as a villain, Rosmer and Rebecca in the end go hand in hand to find their punishment at the millrace in a double suicide.

The strategy of revealing the past through gradual, incremental disclosures, Ibsen’s famous technique, works with marvelous efficiency in Rosmersolm. The plot, typically simple yet diabolical, it hinges on visitors from the outside world. At the play’s opening, the couple have been living an Ibsen ideal of individual fulfillment. Rebecca West works at her vocation as an amateur photographer unperturbed by the villagers’ views of her impropriety. She has some of Hedda Gabler’s imperiousness, but none of her neurotic wilfulness. She and Rosmer share a ‘beautiful, pure friendship,’ Rosmer, one of Ibsen’s semi-autobiographical characters, intends to profess his belief in morality beyond law or religion; for his own life provides others with proof in the possibility of the ideally free man. He hopes they will join him in creating a ‘new democracy,’ he fairly ‘glows’ with this mission, says his brother-in-law Professor Kroll, nonetheless shocked by Rosmer’s plan to surrender his ministry.

This much should have given audiences a good chill and an Ibsen headache from carrying the weight of words unsaid. Typically, an Ibsen sentence carries at least one level of meaning casting a pall of dread on the spoken fact. One member of the audience was overheard to say, ‘It only lasts ninety minutes, not enough time for me to get depressed.’ Nor did the acting project any hint of gloom or darkness-more of this momentarily. Pleasant looking people moved about chatting and fluffing up cushions in a dull, provincial parlor. Revisiting the past is precipitated by the visit of Professor Kroll, who tries to enlist Rosmer as chief editor of a new, conservative journal to fight the excesses of growing political radicalism. Kroll complains that a younger generation, including his children, is championing a nearly anarchical movement. Rosmer declines the position as he rejects taking any role in public life. He must attend to perfecting his mind and soul as a newly free man. During Kroll’s visit, Rosmer’s former teacher arrives for a stay in the neighborhood, one Professor Brendle, who can afford neither new political principles nor a decent suit. He hints at a grand mission still to come; everyone expected him to accomplish great things, so now he claims he will require a large public hall, also some borrowed clothing and pocket money. The significance of Brendle’s indigence now as against his former position as intellectual guardian, and the rebellion of Kroll’s children together imply that the country’s cultural legacy has collapsed into bankruptcy.

Still another layer of lies come unraveled on the following day, as if change were prompting more disturbing memories, this again typical of Ibsen moving backward into the past yielding up discovery in the present. Kroll returns to Rosmer the next day: ‘Until last night I had no idea you were an atheist and that the woman sharing your home was a free-thinker.’ And finally he arrives at his true question: he probes for certainty that the cause of his sister Beata’s suicide was indeed her madness. Each fragment of new information in their talk breaks down poor Rosmer’s reserve. A year before, his wife had written to her brother hinting about mischief at Rosmersol. Apparently towns-people were gossiping even then about Rosmer’s menage a trois and his imminent renunciation of his ministry. (The tight-lipped, superstitious housekeeper offers the only dramatic evidence on stage of the town’s attitude.) Rosmer feels the hold of the past and his dead wife reaching out to him. What tips him into abject despair is Rebecca’s disclosure of ‘soul murder’–that she baited and lured Beata to her death. At one point Rosmer asks Rebecca if she loves him enough to chop off her pinky finger for him. Strindberg’s Miss Julie goes to the chopping block with her canary, but the echo is a tease about the relationship between the two playwrights. Love is not at stake in Rosmersolm.


Nothing like Ibsen had been seen since the Elizabethans; the 19th century in any case produced mainly novels. Thomas Hardy saw and admired three of Ibsen’s works in London 1893, Rosmersolm, Hedda Gabler and Master Builder * , and as is well known Hardy’s heroine Sue Bridehead in Jude the Obscure bears a kinship to Rebecca West. Probably a larger role in bringing Ibsen to London stages was played by William Archer, translator and entrepreneur. For about twenty five years Ibsen had been writing plays featuring his Norwegan mythology of trolls and giants. Then he adapted historical themes with heroic models, before he finally turned to realism, to provincial characters, and to women, especially their inner worlds, staged for the first time. Ibsen’s women synthesize strange, demonic imaginings, a catalogue of neurotic behaviors that came from his own depths, figurations of the ‘id’ well before Freud described such a thing. Not to imply a negative judgement here about his men, terrible enough. Rather that in the dozen plays beginning with Doll House (1879), Ibsen takes the conventional male and female characteristics and wrings them dry: hers the inner world made dreadful, his the public life gone bad.

Whether in dramatization or representations she is death bound: the Dying Woman trapped in the rocks in painting of the artist Lyngstrand in Lady from the Sea.; or the eerie woman Ellida in the same play; or mysterious sprite Hilde, in Master Builder, who may be a psychic projection of Solness. Or Hedda Gabler where ‘id’ is dispersed throughout the action of Hedda playing with her father’s pistols before turning one on herself. Regine in Ghosts quite capable of murdering the sick Osvald, though the task falls to poor Mrs. Alving, who has no ‘id’ at all; nor has the little girl Hedvig in Wild Duck., led to her suicide by her innocent imagination. In Rosmersolm Rebecca, the master psychologist, murders the mad Beata and then turns executioner of Rosmer and herself.

Ibsen’s heroes to the contrary are public figures, either measured by or failing to take a responsible place in their communities: Helmer versus Nils Krogstad in Doll House; Lynstrand the artist in Lady From the Sea; Hjalmar, the indolent, lying ne’er-do-well in Wild Duck (maybe the greatest play after Hamlet); the dangerous neurotic Gregers in the same play, with his quest for absolute truth; indeed all the feckless boarders in Wild Duck, for that matter, who eat up substance and pay no rent, like Penelope’s suitors. But they are not death bearers, possess no rancid spirits. They fail because they are busy playing the reformer, like Stockman in The Enemy of the People, or like the mean minded, righteous Helmer in Doll House; or even the spiritually myopic Tesman in HeddaGabler, who tries to transform Hedda into a provincial wife. Or they fail simply because the model of success supplied by the first generation of men in these plays is unattainable in the second: Captain Solness (Master Builder); Capt Alving (in Ghosts); old Werle, the dead god (Wild Duck). The many social-political discussions in the first group of plays named above dominate the action, leading critics to see Ibsen as a banner waving activist and champion of self realization. Well activist, perhaps not; but he developed the theme of self realization with ever greater subtlety from first to last. Even socio-political talk in the early plays never suppresses the essential Ibsen: the idea of the romantic rebel, prefigured in Lovborg, who grows steadily stronger and more mystical in the dozen plays after Doll House, until he takes over completely in When We Dead Awaken . The situation is more ambiguous when a ghost hovers over the present: it is dead wife in Rosmersolm but dead Captain in Ghosts

*translated by William Archer Edmund Goss

Nina daVinci

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