Saturday, September 24, 2022

Douglas Messerli | "Life Meeting Art" (on Carey Perloff's Pinter and Stoppard: A Director's View)

life meeting art

Carey Perloff  Pinter and Stoppard: A Director’s View (London: Bloomsbury / Methuen Drama, 2022)

Theater director Carey Perloff’s 2022 publication Pinter and Stoppard: A Director’s View is many things at one time: a memoir of her own encounters as both director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 1992-2018 and before that of New York’s Classic State Company from 1986-1992 with the two most significant British playwrights of the 20th century Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard; a handbook of how to direct their plays, particularly given the fact that on several occasions she worked in close collaboration with the playwrights during the rehearsals and early productions; and, perhaps most importantly, a sophisticated analysis of their works based on her own readings, their personal comments, and the history of critical dialogue that proceeded her involvement with their works.

      I can’t recall when I so enjoyed a book of theater history and artistry. But then Perloff has long been an acquaintance and over the years those of us who have known her are no longer surprised by her intellect and immense knowledge of theater, her instinctual insights into each work she and her companies have produced, and her utter enthusiasm for all things concerning language, particularly that of the theater.

     One’s first reaction to the book, obviously, is that she could not have chosen two more different British playwrights, differences with she herself summarizes in her “Introduction”: 

“…It might appear that the differences between these two writers outweigh the similarities, when viewing them across the landscape of post-war English theater. Pinter is a playwright of intense observation, with an uncanny ability to mine the simplest of situations for the hidden current of menace, violence, and power play underneath. His is a drama mystery, of subtext, of terror. ….His plays usually take place in a single space, in an atmosphere so denuded of superfluous detail that the slightest move is a radical act. He is uniquely able to take seemingly ordinary speech and lift it onto the plane of poetry without ever disconnecting it from the guts and heartbeat of his characters. Stoppard, by contrast, is a writer of ideas. Following his own internal dialectic, he sets off the create characters and situations that can best reveal his own debates in dramatically satisfying ways. ‘I’m a playwright interested in ideas and forced to invent characters to express those ideas,’ Stoppard told the critic Mel Gussow in 1979.”

     Yet by the time she is finished, we recognize that, despite the vast differences of how the works mean and are performed on the stage, there are perhaps just as many similarities between the two major figures of the late English theatrical revolution of the second-half of the 20th century.

      The most important similarity, perhaps, is that both playwrights are profoundly Jewish, something which has previously received little attention, but to which Perloff devotes an entire highly revealing first chapter. Her first paragraph indeed summarizes her discoveries about these two writers:

“If finding a playwright’s ‘voice’ is a key to realizing their work onstage…a crucial aspect of both Pinter’s and Stoppard’s life histories is that both are Jewish. Not only Jewish, but Central European Jews who came of age in the traumatic period of the Second World War and the Holocaust. ….In the New York, where Judaism is pervasive, the fact that these two major figures happened to be Jewish may seem inconsequential. I would like to argue that Pinter’s and Stoppard’s Jewish heritage ultimately had a profound impact upon their plays and is a useful angle to explore in the rehearsal room.”

       Speaking extensively of his ties to family and the Jewish traditions he inherited from his growing up in Hackney in London’s East End to parents very much bound up their Jewish heritage, Perloff quotes Pinter himself: “I’ve no religious beliefs whatsoever, but I’m still Jewish. I don’t know what that means, really, nobody ever does.” Through her discussions of The Birthday Party, The Homecoming, and Mountain Language Perloff shows how the centrality of language, the continual sense of loss and displacement, and the importance of ritual in characters such as Goldberg in the first play, and the entire patriarchal family in The Homecoming echo from his cultural and religious roots. In The Caretaker she observes how a characters such as Davies, “a man robbed of his name and identity and desperate to find a way to get to Sidcup to get his papers,” reveals just how permeated is Pinter’s consciousness by the Jewish world which often shared a sense of non-belonging with Kafka, one of Pinter’s favorite writers.

       By the time she was finished, I saw Pinter in an entirely new way, realizing just how radically different he was from the first wave of British playwrights of the 1950s and 1960s such as Alan Bennett, David Storey, Edward Bond, Alan Ayckbourn, Michael Frayn, John Arden, Simon Gray and Caryl Churchill and even from fellow Jewish writers such as Arnold Wesker who dealt specifically with Jewish themes and characters. For Pinter power lies in language and when that is taken away, even momentarily, it evidences a loss that is immediate and devastating.

       Stoppard, born in Czechoslovakia in 1937 with the name Tomas Staussler, was the son of a Jewish surgeon employed by the company hospital of the Bata shoe factory. That company’s owner had arranged for the evacuation of his Jewish employees to various world-wide factories to escape the inevitable invasion by Hitler. Accordingly, the young Stoppard, nicknamed Tomik, with his parents ended up in Singapore for two years before heading to Australia and being diverted to India, where by that time the boy called “Tommy” ended up with his mother and his elder brother Peter in Darjeeling. It was only later that he was told that his father had died.

       Stoppard’s memory of that revelation was: “For my part, I took it well, or not well, depending upon how you look at it. I felt almost nothing. I felt the significance of the occasion but not the loss. How had my father died? At sea? No one seemed to know. As far as I was told, he had simply disappeared.”

       The family remained in India for the duration of the war, an experience that Stoppard fondly recalls, afterwards moving to England (Retford, Derbyshire) where he attended school and quickly grew up to be an “honorary Englishman,” adopting the new language along with a new identity that only occasionally resulted in a slip that made him conscious of his transformation. Perloff quotes him in a Guardian interview: “I fairly often find I’m with people who forget that I don’t quite belong in the world we’re in. I find I put a foot wrong—it could be a pronunciation, an arcane bit of English history, and suddenly I’m there naked, as someone with a pass, a press ticket.” Perloff demonstrates how that sense of alien being, the temporarily loss of identity, haunts a play such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in which the two characters are not quite certain of who they are or what role they are to play in Hamlet’s world in which they find themselves.

       Yet Stoppard did not actually explore his own roots until later in his life, a lacuna driven primarily by his mother’s refusal to talk about her life in Czechoslovakia and her own family. When he finally met a distant cousin Sarka as a full adult at the National Theatre, when he asked, “How Jewish are we?” she replied that the family was completely Jewish and that most of the family had been lost to the gas chambers. He hadn’t even been quite certain that his own mother was Jewish. And it was only when Stoppard later met the daughter of one of his mother’s best friend, Vera, that she and Sarka took him to the Pinkas Synagogue, next to the famous Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague, where he witnessed in the 1990s the names if 80,000 Czechs murdered by the Nazis during the war, names that included both the Becks (his mother’s maiden name) and the Strausslers.

       These discoveries eventually made their way into his plays, particularly in the Czech-based 2006 play Rock n’ Roll which Perloff bravely directed in San Francisco and in Leopoldstadt, which as I write this piece is about to have its premiere on Broadway. When Stoppard and his wife made a surprise visit to San Francisco in 2018 in celebration of Perloff’s farewell party from the A.C.T., they drove after down to Los Angeles to visit her mother Marjorie, whose parents had left with her from Vienna the day before the Anschluss. Marjorie had written a memoir The Vienna Paradox about growing up as a child in pre-war Vienna and traveling with her family to resettle in the US. And clearly those very issues were very much on Stoppard’s mind as he was working on that play, which premiered and quickly closed in London in 2020 because of the COVID pandemic. As Perloff reports: “Over a long afternoon, he asked her innumerable questions about pre-war Jewish life in Vienna. She was amused by how surprised he was about certain aspects of that complicated, assimilationist, culture-obsessed Jewish universe, and tried to make nuances clear to him,” just such issues that arise in Leopoldstadt. The guilt Stoppard now clearly felt for his previous ignorance of the truths of his own ancestors was played out, so Perloff reveals, in his Rock ‘n’ Roll, The Hard Problem, and The Invention of Love, discussed in a chapter titled “Anatomizing Guilt.”

      These two very different authors also shared a remarkable interest in observing, commenting on, and in Stoppard’s case actually remaking their plays in pre-production. Despite the many warnings Perloff had received about Pinter’s difficulty, given his media outbursts and his well-known disliking of US politics, the young director found the former actor and director completely caring and accommodating with regard to her actors David Strathairn, Peter Riegert, Richard Riehle, Miguel Perez, Jean Stapleton, Bill Moor, and Wendy Makkena at CSC. Although only occasionally interrupting Perloff’s own directorial comments, he was loathe to tell the actors how to play their roles and respected the characters he had created as individuals who were as unknowable as the humans around him, on several occasions quietly asking questions and posing answers that helped his fellow thespians to come to terms with his works and the figures they portrayed. Indeed, Perloff found his presence necessary and reassuring, and enjoyed the pleasure of working with someone who had had years of acting experience himself and was a brilliant director as well.

       With Stoppard she corresponded for long hours via fax wherein he would completely explain seemingly impenetrable scenes, often rewriting passages to make them clearer. Working with her in New York on his early play Indian Ink, he completely reconceived the ending of the play, restructuring it thoroughly and rewriting various moments.

        In both cases she appears to have become close friends with the playwrights neither of whom threatened her role as director but contributed to the final fuller dimensions of the actual productions.

        When I was younger I had long imagined, given my deep interest in theater, that I might someday be a theater director. With my abilities to rather thoroughly analyze theater works and my managerial affinities, I might have, in fact, been somewhat successful in such a role. But I cannot imagine conceiving the play with regard the wide range of details that Perloff outlines in relationship to the sets, lighting, and props. Particularly in Pinter’s plays in which the space is so particularly defined and free from unnecessary objects one has to think about how to reveal a staircase, as in The Birthday Party that leads to an invisible upstairs which is both a fortress to Meg and her boarder Stanley, and a territory to be breeched by Goldberg and the other intruders, or another, much longer staircase in The Homecoming which represents an entire kingdom to the males of the house and later to Ruth who will reign as their queen after her husband Lenny leaves her to them almost as a “homecoming gift.”

        How do you represent a box of Cornflakes to the audience, one of the most important props in The Birthday Party, particularly to viewers who cannot comprehend the importance of that staple in the post-World War II British diet? How do you shred newspapers into even strips as McCann is required to in the same play? Or how do you destroy a toy drum each evening, as the same play requires, without buying endless numbers of such drums for each production?

      How to create lighting that conveys the vast shifts of time and place that occur throughout Stoppard’s plays? These questions are not only brilliantly answered by Perloff, but the significance of their roles in these plays is thoroughly explained by the writer in terms of ambience and overall thematics.

      By the time I had finished Perloff’s book describing the works she had directed by Pinter and Stoppard—in a couple of cases in two different productions—I could not imagine them differently than the way she described them, and I wished to rush out immediately and see productions of them, even if they were conceived by other directors in completely different manners. I discovered, alas, that I had missed a production of The Birthday Party by a small Glendale-based theater by just a few weeks!

      If nothing else, I was convinced at book’s end by the genius of both the playwrights—both of whose work I had long admired—and their director. I have always believed that coincidence has something to do with evidence that one has made the appropriate decisions in life. And I was absolutely delighted, accordingly, when Perloff reported that in the midst of their A.C.T. production of Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, the cast met up by accident with the band that had helped to inspire the play. The Plastic People of the Universe had regrouped long after the events in the play, had somehow managed to stay together, and were suddenly performing in San Francisco.

      Perloff writes:

“We could not quite believe that those famous ‘pagans’ had shown up on our doorsteps just as we were trying to tell their story onstage. The night before their gig at the Independent, they came to see our production (in which we had used their music at strategic moments), and afterwards met with the audience, chatted with the cast, and sold merchandise which we all eagerly bought. …The next night, when our curtain came down, we all descended upon the music venue in our “Plastic People of the Universe” t-shirts, exulting at the sight of a group of passionate aging Czechs playing their unique brand of cacophonous, rebellious rock ‘n’ roll. The rest of the San Francisco audience, totally unaware of what this band had done to change the world, bopped along, happy in their ignorance. It was a surreal and moving example of life meeting art.”

Los Angeles, August 23, 2022

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Jackie Shane | "Walking the Dog" [link]

Jackie Shane "Waking the Dog" [link}

Douglas Messerli | "The Best of All Possible Productions--To Date" (on Bernstein's Candide)

the best of all possible productions—to date
by Douglas Messerli

Hugh Wheeler (book, adapted from Voltaire), in a new version by John Caird, Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Leonard Bernstein (lyrics), Leonard Bernstein (music) Candide / LAOpera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion / Howard Fox and I attended the work on Sunday, February 11, 2018

It is something short of a miracle that Leonard Bernstein’s Candide ever came to be produced. Spear-headed, in part, by Lillian Hellman’s desire to work with Bernstein, after having a touch of operatic experience with composer Marc Blitzstein, who adapted her The Little Foxes into an opera he retitled Regina, the tough-minded Hellman contacted Bernstein about the idea of adapting Voltaire’s satiric polemic against Leibniz’s concepts and all religious proclamations.
      She (and Bernstein) and other of their friends, including Bernstein’s mentor Aaron Copland, had recently been targets of U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, and had all accumulated rather thick files in J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI investigations. Just a few years previous, Arthur Miller, also attacked by McCarthy and Hoover, had written The Crucible, an attack, using the Salem witch trials as a metaphor, about McCarthy and his committee’s activities. And Hellman, even more a polemicist than Voltaire, and without his light satiric abilities, thought the material perfect for the time. I’m sure Bernstein felt that he couldn’t resist it.
      She wanted academic poet Richard Wilbur to write the lyrics, but—fortunately, at least at first—he declined. So this pair of high celebrities turned to clever lyricist John Latouche (previously the lyricist for Vernon Duke’s lovely Cabin in the Sky, Jerome Moross’ Ballet Ballads and the same composer’s The Golden Apple), despite knowing that he, as word had gotten out, was difficult to work with. Bernstein had long been a friend with Latouche, and the lyricist was also friends with nearly every major figure of the large gay-filled world of the 1950s, including Copland, Virgil Thomson, Marc Blitzstein, playwright Tennessee Williams, writers Jane and Paul Bowles, W. H. Auden, Frank O’Hara, and numerous others, bedding with many of them or simply enchanting them with his recontour wit. If perceived as a difficult figure, he was also much beloved, most, as friend Carson McCullers recalling, ignoring his occasional eccentric behavior. In that last five years of his life he lived with poet and later opera lyricist, Kenward Elmslie.
      Hellman, who despite her liberal pose in society and her supposed advocation of lesbianism in her early play The Children’s Hour, immediately took a dislike to Latouche, in part because he was “queer.”
      But very soon, everybody, except evidently Bernstein, became intimidated by her imperial hand, and the music ground down to a halt, also due to Latouche’s weekly disappearances and his other commitments—a situation in which he continually found himself throughout his short life—including the libretto for Douglas Moore’s highly successful opera, The Ballad of Baby Doe. Even Bernstein, also working on his musical West Side Story decided to take a break from the difficult musical.
      Bernstein, finally frustrated with Latouche’s lack of attention to his project, replaced him with Wilbur, who had now signed on, despite his lack of experience with theatrical lyricism, and the musical further suffered from his continued re-adaption of Latouche’s quite clever lyrics in Act I and his often clumsy renditions of Act II songs, many of which were originally attempted by Bernstein and Hellman themselves, only one of which, the Old Lady’s tango “I’m Easily Assimilated,” written by Bernstein with Spanish lyrics by his wife Felicia, and whose tempo was wryly noted by the composer as “moderato hassidicamente,”was quite wonderful, the others of which fell flat of Latouche’s first act pieces.
      The witty Dorothy Parker was also brought aboard to write lyrics, but soon left, leaving only one piece behind “The Marquise’s Gavotte,” which has now completely disappeared in the newest incarnation which I saw at the LA Opera production. Parker soon fled the scene as well, declaring that it had “too many geniuses.”     
     Poet, novelist, and critic James Agee also was briefly asked to contribute lyrics, but his death in May 1955, when the production was finally beginning to gel, precluded his involvement.
   Latouche presumably continued with the project, retreating to his Calais, Vermont retreat—presumably not yet hearing that he had been replaced by Wilbur—to further work on the lyrics, he also dying of a “coronary occlusion” in August 1956, before the work’s premiere.
      In the months before the Broadway production, most of Latouche’s lyrics were revised by Wilbur, many of them of them no so felicitously. Howard Pollack, in his recent biography of Latouche recounts at least one such revision, which is retained in the LA Opera version.

             latuoche’s version:
                 Dearest lady, pray explain,
             I had thought you slain;
             Thought you rudely violated too.

             wilbur’s version:
                 Dearest, how can this be so?
                 You were dead, you know.
                 You were shot and bayoneted, too.

The later clearly moves away from Voltaire, completely ignoring his illusion to her rape.
     In another last moment change, Latouche’s clever “This is a perfect day for an auto-de-fé” was expunged because it was presumed no one might know what auto-de-fé meant. Characters were deleted, songs dropped, others replacing them. By the time Candide, after a tryout in Boston, reached New York, it was, as critic Walter Kerr declared—despite its marvelous music, incredible costumes and sets, and an incomparable cast of Barbara Cook, Robert Rounseville, Max Adrian, and Irra Petina—“a really spectacular disaster.” Candide was a musical flop, lasting only 73 performances, despite several other very positive reviews.

       Over the years, Bernstein constantly revised it, throwing out songs and adding new ones, and others continued to rewrite it along with him. I saw a failed production of the musical at the Washington, D.C. The Kennedy Center in the 1970s. Even given my desire for the success of the production, I remember it as a failure. 
     The new LAOpera production, which I saw the other evening has completely expunged Lillian Hellman (good riddance) for a new adaptation by Hugh Wheeler, in yet a new version by British John Caird, who rewrote it for the Royal National Theatre. Our program lists further lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Now it is extraordinarily difficult to know who has written what, although it seems that Latouche’s “Auto-de-fé” lyrics have been returned, and his early versions of “The Best of All Possible Worlds” and other songs have been retained.

      The first act of this opera remains still a remarkable piece of theater, with Bernstein’s amazing overture, the best of almost any opera/theatrical piece—whatever you want to call the work—that has ever existed, and James Conlon, despite the limited acoustics of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, did it justice. I just wish it had sounded as blended as I sure it does up closer.  
     The cast, with Kelsey Grammer playing both Voltaire, now a link connecting the various aspects of an extraordinarily episodic plot, and Pangloss; the wonderful Broadway singer Christine Ebersole playing the Old Lady; and two gloriously new singers, who I am sure we will be hearing more of soon, Jack Swanson as Candide and Erin Morley as Cunegonde.
      Morley has already begun an illustrious career as an opera singer, and I’m sure she will go further quickly. Swanson, a relative neophyte, was the real surprise of the night. A wonderful singer, a handsome and appealing actor, I can only hope he makes a career as a delightful operatic presence; he was certainly appealing in this role.
      Christine Ebersole, whom I have seen in other roles, was simply marvelous as The Old Lady, but I wanted more! And the role simply didn’t provide it. Just another song would have been perfect.
      Grammar, a good actor and a passable singer, simply didn’t have the acoustical lungs to lift his words up to the balcony. I may be gradually losing my hearing, but most of us agreed he simply couldn’t be heard when he spoke. Ebersole came through nicely, and all the music came across quite accessibly, but Grammar’s voice just didn’t have the lung power to reach the entire audience, alas.
      Yet, overall, despite the problems of the second act’s episodic adventures, already laid out in the first act—which I would argue is the real problem with this Bernstein work (too bad Latouche was not retained to create a more clever body of poetry for the second act)—the theater piece which even Bernstein could never quite define, and is, after all, even after its hundreds of revisions, a truly “holy mess,” worked beautifully, stirring up the entire audience to rounds of applause.
       And why complain? As James Conlon has described it in his brief introduction:

“Bernstein’s Candide wanders the musical world in a kaleidoscopic succession of styles and acquisitions: jazz, Broadway, Stravinsky, neo-Baroque, operetta, tango, the world of his American contemporaries and even, in some versions, a Schoenbergian 12-tone row. And, of course, there is Mahler, a composer with whom Bernstein identified deeply.”

      Then there is Kurt Weill, the great German composer of so many of Brecht’s most serious dramas. Even Lotte Lenya, Weill’s wife, recognized Bernstein’s understanding of that composer’s work. In Weill’s wild assimilation of popular and classical musical tropes, he tried to bring the masses into a far more serious operatic tradition than they might have imagined they were experiencing. Bernstein wanted the same thing.

      And I think, in the performance I saw the other night, Bernstein achieved that. I was amazed how the audience, a wide range of individuals, did not suddenly stand in immediate obeisance of what they had just experienced—a standard procedure of LAOpera audiences—but sat in their seats applauding again and again and again in delight for the performances. I think we were all, after the last Mahleresque ballad, which is the true heart of so many Bernstein works, “Make Our Garden Grow,” we were all in tears:

             And let us try before we die
             to make some sense of life.
             We’re neither pure nor wise, nor good:
             we’ll do the best we know.

     I knew, as I think the audience also did, that I had just seen the best version of this terribly flawed musical extravaganza that might be possible. And, yes, it is the best of all possible productions. As Pangloss asks: “Any questions?”

Los Angeles, February 13, 2018

Scott LaFaro | Some Other Time [link]

Scott LaFaro with the Bill Evans Trio at the Village Vanguard. You have to hear this if you love jazz.

Monday, September 19, 2022

Douglas Messerli | "Zombies" (on Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts)


Henrik Ibsen Ghosts, adapted by Richard Eyre / directed by Bart DeLorenzo, Los Angeles, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble / the performance I attended was on September 18, 2022

As director Bart DeLorenzo writes in his short introduction to the program for the current production of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, now running through October 23rd at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble:

“I feel that 2022 is a kind of ‘after’ moment. Like we’re crawling out of the wreckage and we can finally look around at all the damaged, collapsed structures that have never supported what we want out of our world. And we can maybe see more clearly how we’re continuing to hurt each other and how we might progress. Like Oswald in the play, we’re asking the past, ”What kind of life have you given me? And as we rethink and remake our world, maybe we can begin differently.”

     To me, at least, it appears that these days we are only digging in deeper into our own ghosts, haunting our own horrible pasts. Certainly the central subjects of Ibsen’s 1881 play read like headline banners of our tabloids and our entertainment news stations—as translator Richard Eyre reiterates them: the problems and effects of patriarchy and class distinctions, free love, prostitution, religious hypocrisy, heredity, incest, and euthanasia.

     These obviously, were subjects that got Ibsen’s play Gengangere rejected for production by nearly all Scandinavian theaters—the play had its premier with a Danish touring group in Chicago in 1882—performed finally in Norway in 1883. Even the King of Sweden told Ibsen that it was not a good play. It was banned in England, just as today books with far lesser controversial subjects are being banned from libraries and schools all over the US.

     But even more disturbing than his outre subjects, perhaps, was his play’s unmitigated attack on bourgeois social and religious values, values still held by millions throughout the world and certainly in our country in this time of the rising pressures of conservative thought. Reverend Manders (here played by Barry Del Sherman) condemns nearly everything with which he comes in contact in the home of Helene Alving (Pamela J. Gray), from the books on social economics and women’s independence, to the way Helene has raised—or perhaps we should say, “not cared properly”—for her son, Oswald (Alex Barlas), having sent him away early to live in Paris to remove from the evils of her own home.

      Manders dismisses the books even if he has never read them, and equally mocks the free lives of the Bohemian artists with whom Oswald has been living, without apparently having been to Paris. Oswald angrily defends the open relationships of his Parisian friends suggesting that they live more loving relationships with their unmarried women and bastard children than almost anyone he knows in the provincial Norwegian world from which he has come. And his mother argues that his views are no different from her own, an even more amazing revelation for the pastor who is about to spend a day and long night being shocked by the truths that are paraded before him.

       No sooner has he finished his flustered conversation with Oswald than he brings up Helene Alving’s own past, which began soon after her marriage to the so-called “Captain” when she attempted to leave him, visiting her then youthful friend Manders, a young seminary student at the time whom she believed she loved him, to confess how her arranged marriage to Alving was simply untenable given his notorious drunkenness and womanizing.

       Manders is proud to have refused temptation having sent her back to her husband, convinced now that she is about to dedicate a newly built orphanage on her own land in memory of her husband, that it’s all been for the best.

       But Ibsen takes the opportunity, the long day before that dedicational ceremony, to allow Helene to catch him up on the facts, since he has dared not visit her since her “disgraceful” attempt to escape the marriage. In fact, so Helene reveals, the marriage did not improve, but merely worsened, Alving’s drunkenness and personal abuse of her increasing. Even his affairs grew more licentious as he nightly bedded her own maid, Johanna, who bore his daughter, the current maid of Helene’s household, Regina Engstrand (Viva Hassis Gentes). That fact even further inculpates Manders who, through Jacob Engstrand’s (J. Stephen Brantley) lies—he who is currently the head carpenter of the orphanage—has confirmed by his own signature Regina into the church registry as Jacob’s legal daughter.

      Helene further reveals that it was not her husband who developed their land, making them rich, but she herself who usurped the duties he had abandoned, through intelligence and fortitude developing her farmstead into a source of income so that she can now spend precisely what was left of her husband’s estate on the false memorial of the orphanage, while leaving her own monies to her son at her death.

      In short order, in other words, Helene reveals the mendacity, hypocrisy, and utter stupidity of men like Manders of her community, who advises her not even to take out an insurance policy on the new building because people might gossip about his own lack of faith in God to protect it. How Helene ever imagined that she once loved Manders, who even she describes as a “baby,” is one of the many mysteries of this play.


      Once Ibsen has established his feminist heroine, one might have thought he could rest in his dramatic revelation of the mean and narrow-thinking patriarchal societies of provincial Norway. But the playwright does not at all rest on his abilities to demonstrate the rotten foundations of the lives of wives and children such as Helene and Oswald, but turns the table, so to speak, to show us even more startlingly how a strong-willed woman like Helene and even a free-thinker like Oswald are both facilitators and victims of such closed-off worlds. 

       Indeed, it is Ibsen’s remarkable analyses of how hurt and revengeful women such as Helene help create the worlds in which men like her husband attempt to escape, and how both of them working together help to pass on their own dreadful failures to their children that transform this play into a statement of global indignation. In this case, as nearly anyone who has even heard of this play knows, she has passed on deadly syphilis to Oswald, forced to visit not because he necessarily wanted to return to the barren and utterly boring wilds of small town in Norway but because of what the doctor has described as “the softening of his brain.” He has fevers, increasing blindness, and an inability to work.

      Ghosts are truly everywhere in Helene Alving’s house, the ghosts of her own loves and those she has not permitted. But even that word “ghosts,” which Ibsen himself found as an unsuitable translation of “gengangere” which, as Eyre points out, literally means “a thing that walks again,” is far too romantic to convey the horror that both wife and son discover within themselves. Perhaps we should use the word “zombie,” that suddenly popular demon of our own time, to describe the specters of this work which are not afraid to devour the bodies of their own flesh and kind.

       Even Oswald must eventually admit that he is repeating his father’s life with his temporary escape in alcohol and races around the table with Regina, although at least he recognizes that only she might be strong enough to finally, when things get really bad, to jab the syringe of morphine into his veins (in this play version, alas, the morphine comes in pills, which in fact is easier to swallow by oneself than by the force of another as we witness in the last scene). What Frau Alving and even Ibsen won’t admit is that her son’s syphilis could not be inherited from Oswald’s father except through a sore in her vaginal channel upon his conception—unless it was immaculate.

        If nothing else, the horror tale that Ibsen tells is not in the least possible of being described as that most despised condition that both Oswald and his mother can imagine: boredom. If anyone who carefully watches the spiraling revelations of this work were to describe it to me as boring, I’d sentence them to engage with the endless jabber of fabrications of QAnon for the rest of eternity. For Ibsen’s play, as he and others now for almost a century have come to recognize, is sadly based solely on the dreadful truths of our often shabby lies and lives.

      The trio of actors, Gray, Sherman, and Barlas, do a credible job of re-creating Ibsen’s house of horrors despite, at times, Richard Eyre’s somewhat rambunctious updating of the former staid British translations and his own devouring of a great deal of the poetry of the original.  

     For the most part scenic designer Frederica Nascimento did a decent job of condensing three separate rooms, living room, dining room, and bedroom onto one stage. But I cannot imagine what a series of boxes full of a jumble of objects spread out upon apron of the set might signify. I suspect it is meant to represent Captain Alving’s old mementos packed up and perhaps ready to be sent off to the orphanage when it opens. Clearly, it is meant to represent further aspects of the ghostly presences that surround Helene and her son. But it still creates a confusing blockade between the actors and the audience, the closeness of which is one of the delights of the Odyssey stages.

      And finally, do we really did an upside down hanging symbol of the orphanage building ready to come crashing down when it all catches on fire and is ready to be destroyed—without insurance of course? To me it merely served as yet another scenic intrusion to an already very busy set and series actions as those who fight the fire return and leave the house.

      But these are minor cavils in what otherwise was a most commendable production of play that seems suddenly very necessary, as DeLorenzo hints, for our own time.


Los Angeles, September 19, 2022

Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (September 2022).