This week, Ghosts director Richard Eyre reflects on Ibsen's female characters...

Earlier this week Nicky Morgan MP delivered a speech at the CBI Annual Conference entitled Raising Ambition For All. The principle focus was on gearing the nation's young people up in all sorts of ways so that they can compete with their international peers "securing their future, and the economic future of our country". 

Opportunity, Rigour and Core Skills, Character, The Role of Business and All Businesses were the section headers. I was immediately drawn to Character. Nicky talked about the investment that's being made in character education and the help that’s being given to develop potential. All this is great if not a bit of a mixed message given her position on arts education in schools. It does feel a tad cynical and it made me wonder just what she understands character is all about.

The dictionary determines it in the following ways:

the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual

the quality of being individual in an interesting or unusual way

strength and originality in a person's nature

a person's good reputation

And of course:

a person in a novel, play, or film: "the author's compassionate identification with his characters"

We're honoured that this week's DTP blog is written by knight of the theatre, Sir Richard Eyre. Richard knows a thing or two about character himself, but in this article bows to Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen, whose understanding of the human psyche plunges the depths of how we all function as distinctive individuals. Look to the classics to learn about character, look to the stage, look to music and dance, and art and theatre (all recently given short shrift by Ms NM). These are the things that give us an education in character.

We learn about ourselves through the experience of others. We develop an understanding of how to function in the world by working out our place in it. Plays and players offer a wonderful window from which to watch and learn. Get actors into schools. Get plays into schools. Place Drama as core on the curriculum. That's an education in Character.


When he was working on Ghosts Ibsen wrote this to a friend:

“Everything that I have written is most minutely connected with what I have lived through, if not personally experienced...for every man shares the responsibility and the guilt of the society to which he belongs. To live is to war with trolls in heart and soul. To write is to sit in judgement on oneself.”

The audience for a play has to be left with the impression that the characters exist independently of the writer and have come to life spontaneously. “Sitting in judgement on oneself” means mediating one’s ideas, emotions and anxieties through one’s characters, who in their turn have to absorb the subject matter into their bloodstream – in the case of Ghosts: patriarchy, class, sex, hypocrisy, heredity, incest and euthanasia. In that sense Helene Alving, the protagonist of Ghosts, is as much an autobiographical portrait as Hedda: yearning for sexual freedom but too timid to achieve it, fearing the wrong moral choice, longing for love. “Ghosts had to be written,” said Ibsen, “I could not let A Doll’s House be my last word. After Nora, Mrs. Alving had to come.”

Ibsen’s great women characters - Nora, Hedda, Rebecca West, Hilde Wangel, Petra Stockmann, Helene Alving – batter against convention and repression. Some, like Nora, triumph; others, like Helene, fail. Ibsen empathises, actually identifies, with women both as social victims and as people. “If I may say so of an eminently virile man, there is a curious admixture of the woman in his nature,” said the 18 year-old James Joyce. “His marvellous accuracy, his faint traces of femininity, his delicacy of swift touch, are perhaps attributable to this admixture. But that he knows women is an incontrovertible fact. He appears to have sounded them to almost unfathomable depths.”

Yet in spite of – or is it because of? – his sympathy for women and morbid view of the state of society, you emerge from Ghosts with a sense of exhilaration. In the face of the bones of true experience, you feel that the great enemy, apart from social repression and superstition, is to be bored with life and indifferent to its suffering.