Ibsen, Glaspell, and the test of time

It’s a lottery as to whether a play you wrote still appeals generations later. Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts has stood the test of time well; less so for Susan Glaspell’s Springs Eternal.

Playwrights have different ways of measuring success. A big-hitter on the West End might measure success in ticket sales. A resident playwright at a subsidised regional theatre might measure success by the number of four- and five-star reviews in local papers. A pretentious and incomprehensible playwright might measure success by the approval they receive from other pretentious incomprehensible playwrights, who of course know better than anyone else, and a student group in wild overestimation of their own abilities might measure success by the number of plugs given by their mate who edits the theatre column on their student paper. But I firmly believe that what most playwrights really want is for people to look back at their plays, years or decades later, and say to each other “Wasn’t that good?”

If you want future generations to revere your work, the obvious thing you have to do is write something that’s good and preferably original. That’s firmly in your hands. But there is something else you have to do: you have to write something that people in the future relate to. And that is very much out of your hands and instead is pure guesswork. We cannot possibly predict how plays written today will fare in the 22nd century. But we can look back at plays written generations ago and see how they fare today. And from my recent theatre binge in London, I have two prime examples of old plays with differing fortunes.

Mrs. Alving and Osvald in GhostsThe play that stands the test of time better is Ghosts, by Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen in a 19th-century playwright, probably best known for A Doll’s House, a play was about a woman stuck in a marriage that looks happy on the outside but miserable on the inside. At first glance, this plot seems ordinary and unoriginal, until you look at the historical context of the time, where even contemplating the possibility that a marriage is less than okey-dokey was a scandal. Cue uproar from the respectable class – perhaps not the wisest move, because anyone today can tell you that foaming with anger over mildly contentious issues only encourages these people to do it again. But Ibsen’s follow-up, Ghosts, was no shock-for-the-sake-of-shock piece. His own words about the inevitable upcoming furore probably put it best:

Ghosts will probably cause alarm in some circles, but that can’t be helped. If it didn’t, there would be no necessity for having written it.”

And, as it happens, most of the contentious issues in the play are still recognisable today. Like A Doll’s House, there is unhappy marriage, but this time, it’s not merely a self-obsessed husband; the late Mr. Alving is a violent alcoholic philanderer. And yet he is regarded as some sort of saint, and his widow (Kelly Hunter) is expected to open an orphanage in his memory. Already you can hear polite society tutting. And now for the ace card – her Priest, Pastor Manders (Patrick Drury) is cowardly apologist who openly believes it is “not a woman’s place to judge her husband”. Sounds familiar? Not in those days, when the Church could do no wrong and choirboys hadn’t been invented yet. Her beloved son Osvald (Mark Quartley), whom she tried so hard to keep ignorant of her husband’s brutality, seem to be turning into his father. He wants to marry Regina (Florence Hall) a servant of her mother’s trying to escape her self-centred father Engstrand (Pip Donagchy). Except that Regina is not actually Engstrand’s daughter, but a product of the late Mr. Alving’s philanderings. All in all, Ghosts was written well ahead of its time – and at the time it provoked so much outrage it took ten years before a British theatre would agree to stage it.

This revival is Stephen Unwin’s swansong as artistic director at the Rose. The only other production of his I’ve seen was Noël Coward’s The Vortex back in February, but it’s clear from both of these productions that Unwin is an expert at identifying old plays that still resonate with a modern audience, and making the most of it. The production as a whole is a perfectly competent one, but the best touch was the staging. One of the greatest fans of Ghosts was Edvard Munch (of The Scream fame), and he went on to design the set for a subsequent production. We don’t know exactly what the set looked like – only his drawings survive – but this was used as the basis for designer Simon Higlett’s set, which did a superb job of evoking the bleakness of rural western Norway in the fog.

Ghosts doesn’t survive the test of time perfectly. The theme of the sins of the father being visited on the sins of the son is Osvald inheriting his father’s syphilis. Unfortunately, the mentions of the symptoms that a 19th-century audience might pick up means little to your average 21st-century punter where syphilis largely belongs in the history books. I can let Ibsen off for that – if someone wrote references in a play today, you wouldn’t reasonably expect them to worry about whether people would still follow that in the late 22nd century. Other than that, however, Ibsen has, be it by accident or design, managed to produce a surprisingly modern play for its day. I hope he’d agree that the furore and ostracisation of the time was worth it.

Scene from Springs EternalSo now I move on to Springs Eternal by Susan Glaspell – another old play taking on contentious issues of the day. Susan Glaspell is often said to be one of the greatest discoveries of the Orange Tree Theatre. Glaspell was once a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, now virtually forgotten. And I cannot understand why she has been forgotten, because the one that won the 1931 Pulitzer Prize, Alison’s House, is a beautiful play set in the days when simply falling in love with someone already married – even if you never act of it – was a scandal that had to be hushed up. So instead poet Alison Stanhope writes endless beautiful poems about the man she couldn’t talk about …

And so the Orange Tree Theatre have been going through her back catalogue. Sam Walters (also in a swansong period as artistic director) did an excellent job faithfully reproducing Alison’s House and he does the same job here. So it really pains me to say this. after all the diligent work that’s gone into making this this, but this production I think was doomed from the start. Nothing wrong with the directing, acting or writing – just the unfortunate reality that this particular play is fundamentally unsuited to an audience 70 years later.

Springs Eternal explores the issue of conscientious objection. Written in 1943, when an allied victory over Germany was still far from guaranteed, this centres around an 18-year-old who doesn’t want to kill Germans or Japs – he just wants to paint. His father is an ex-political idealist disillusioned by the way the world’s ended up at war. The father’s housekeeper’s son has just been captured. Now, there are some good moments in this, such as the boy’s narcissistic mother who has decided to write her life’s memoirs and wallows in self-fabricated emotion. And it did make some interesting points, about whether it’s fair to conscientiously object and let someone else take your place fighting who may not want to be there any more than you do. But the irreconcilable problem with the play is the longs speeches about issues – issues that I’m sure Glaspell felt very strongly enough about to speak out this way – that mean little to a modern world where world wars and conscription are no more. And, worse, the play goes on well over two hours – good for in-depth discussions of current affair, but not so great for in-depth coverage of not-current-any-more affairs.

There are still people who I’d recommend this play to. If you’re a fan of Susan Glaspell and know several of her works, then I’m sure this is a good way of getting to understand her as a person, and from that understand what made her the writer she was. Likewise, for someone with an interest in history, this is a very interesting snapshot of what people were thinking about a very difficult issue of the day. Sadly, for the rest of us, this play doesn’t Glaspell justice, and other plays of hers which are worth seeing more. But it just goes to show that the test of time is difficult for even the best of playwrights. To write something that is treasured generations later requires lot of skill, but a lot more in the way of luck.

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