Monday, April 19, 2010

Hell's bells

Could there be a secular hell house? This question came up the first time we taught "Religion and Theater" but none of us couldn't imagine one. The answer was staring us in the face, later in the syllabus.

We didn't ask the question this time, but one of the students put two and two together on his own, and saw that Ibsen's "Ghosts" is an atheistic hell house. How right he is! A chamber of horrors, Henrik Ibsen's most scandalous play offers every deadly sin spiced with incest, syphilis and assisted suicide. And all of this is the result in some way or other of the dead hand of Christendom, with its misguided suffering for others, money-laundering charitable institutions and self-defeating efforts to raise your children on false ideals. Hell Houses suggest that devils are waiting in the wings to drag you to hell for your sins - and you might die at any moment. "Ghosts" suggests that Christians are devils to themselves and in hell already; their lives of duty, repression, sanctimony and vengeance are worse than death.

MRS. ALVING:
I am half inclined to think we are all ghosts, Mr. Manders. It is not only what we have inherited from our fathers and mothers that exists again in us, but all sorts of old dead ideas and all kinds of old dead beliefs and things of that kind. They are not actually alive in us; but there they are dormant, all the same, and we can never be rid of them.

Indeed, it wouldn't surprise me if the title Gengangere, apparently untranslatable but closer in meaning to the French revenants than anything in English, in its way refers to the undead namesake of the Christian religion. (The 1882 cartoon is from here.)

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