What was it Oscar Wilde said about the death of Little Nell? Heart of stone or no, I couldn’t make it through the D.C. Shakespeare Theatre’s new “adaptation” of Ibsen’s Ghosts without laughing. My lady friend tried a few quiet zingers but by the end, she’d gotten all the way to open mockery.
The husband-and-wife tag team, writer-director Edwin Sherin and leading lady Jane Alexander, were about as subtle as a pair of steroid addled pro wrestlers pummeling a helpless opponent. Anything worthwhile in the original was squeezed out by the sheer weight of the poor direction and the annoying rewrite. Set in the 1980s, Helen Alving is transformed from interesting widow and genuinely strong woman into a shrill feminist, and that’s just for starters.
In this version, Mrs. Alving’s son Oswald (played by the talented but horribly miscast Alexander Pascal) is whiny, preachy, and dying not of syphilis but of AIDS. This might be a novel twist but it erases the murky origin of the disease which was so crucial to Ibsen’s story. To wit, Oswald insisted that he did nothing to bring this on himself, so he was either lying or he got it from his mother, in which case the tragedy wasn’t likely to end with his death. The modern Oswald dispels this ambiguity by confessing to having had sex with anything that moved.
And so it goes. Sherin’s Pastor Manders is a stuffed suit, arrogant Christer, and hypocritical buffoon. Not once does he manage to sound like the reasonable or caring human being who occasionally peaks through in the original. In an innovation that only a drunken pill-popping mother could love, the set is surrounded by nude canvasses of some of the poor slum dwellers of New York, which both Oswald and Helen use to anger and shame the prudish Manders. Pascal inexplicably spends the last 20 minutes or so in the buff (though usually covered by blankets).
Afterward, the small group of theatergoers I had joined sat at a nearby café and tried to figure out what exactly that was all about. We agreed that it was unbelievably bad (“If you only see one play this season, don’t see this one,” said one wag) and on most of the general broad criticisms (e.g., too preachy, too unbalanced, too gay), but I was frustrated that we were unable to get at the core of the play’s badness.
Sure, it was a weak production but let’s face it, Ghosts is a bit heavy-handed to begin with, and it lends itself to lefty agitprop by virtue of its attempts at social relevance. When it originally opened in London, the conservative Telegraph critic called it “an open drain; a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly.” The accompanying booklet says that the modern version was shooting for “the same disruptive effect” as the original.
Then again, there is something to be said for the purist argument. That is, they should have staged Ibsen, not Sherin. By making the characters less grating, the old playwright sucks you in and makes the moralizing and questioning more palatable. By grounding it firmly in the idea of original sin, he was able to call conventions and mores into question far more effectively than by churning out rants against religion and paeans to sexual liberation.
But as we hashed it out, these criticisms only carried us so far in describing why we hated it. Its badness seemed to be finally irreducible, or it was until my agitated seatmate decided to check the brochure for the names of the sponsors. In the “$100,000 and above” category was listed the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. “How about that,” she said. “Your tax dollars at work.”