Uncle Vanya, Ghosts and When the Crows Visit
There is a long history of contagion as a metaphor for the proliferation of desire in theatre. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Benvolio advises Romeo to get over Rosalind by taking ‘some new infection to thy eye, / And the rank poison of the old will die’ (I.ii.46-7). In Twelfth Night, Olivia laments, upon falling in love with Cesario/Viola: ‘How now?/ Even so quickly may one catch the plague?’ (I.v.248-9) In a recent essay in the book Theatres of Contagion, Shani Bans described how metaphors of sickness in Shakespeare’s plays represent the circulation of desire and love as unwilled and accidental contamination.
Sometimes, it is desirability itself that presented and contagious, curiously collapsing the positions of subject and object. In Conor McPherson’s new translation of Uncle Vanya, currently being performed at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London, Astrov accuses Yelena of spreading lassitude in her wake. ‘You infect people’ he says, as though Yelena is deliberately deploying her beauty in a quest to spread lovesickness. Yelena, for what it’s worth, has no time for this and quite accurately points out that the male lethargy which seems to have taken hold of the house is not her fault.
The illness or lovesickness metaphor here is fairly straightforward. The play represents a dangerous spreading of affect, from Vanya to the previously vigorous Astrov and eventually to the rest of the family. The spread beings with the return of Vanya’s brother-in-law, the Professor. At the same time, Vanya and Astrov fall in love with Yelena, the Professor’s young and beautiful wife.
The current production quietly sends up the idea that the contagion is Yelena’s fault. It is clearly disillusionment, in this production, which begins the slide into nothingness. Vanya is disillusioned in the Professor’s work, which he previously idolised, and Astrov worn down by the scale of misery he faces in both his medical and environmental work. Astrov’s preoccupation with and subsequent abandonment of his forests strikes a chord with questions of climate optimism and despair, which surely preoccupy many in the audience.
Arriving in the context of the seeping away of hope and purpose, Yelena provides an object of interest and then of desire for both men. Only when she fails as a satisfactory desired object – when she does not, by virtue of her presence, change/reform/save the boys’ laziness but actually partakes in it – does Astrov identify her as its source. The accusation is unconvincing and stereotypical. Clumsily wielded by Astrov, the infection metaphor reveals its inadequacy. When love doesn’t save you, blame your problems on lovesickness instead.
McPherson’s Uncle Vanya gives the lie to the love/contagion metaphor. As Fintan Walsh reminds us in his introduction to Theatres of Contagion, contagion as the movement of affect is often something we reach for: ‘the fantasy of and desire for contagion is often more powerful as any biological fact’. Infection provides a metaphorical framework for hetero-patriarchal structures, making sense of the spread of affects and assigning blame on women. (We might think of the ways in which the contagiousness of the corona virus is currently providing a structure and vocabulary for the spread of racism against East Asian people in the UK at this very moment.)
The scene in Uncle Vanya reminded me of another theatrical overlaying of desire and sickness which I have been struggling to write about. (Note the absence of blogs in January…)
Anupama Chandrasekhar’s When the Crows Visit premiered at The Kiln Theatre in October 2019. It adapts Ibsen’s Ghosts, to tell the story of Akshay’s return from Mumbai to his mother’s house in Chennai. Here, Chandrasekhar flips the script on the contagion-as-desire metaphor with chilling results.
Ibsen, of course, gives us some of the most famous examples of infection metaphors being put to misogynistic use. As Walsh reminds us:
[The] gendered dimension to the Victorian imagining of contagion can be discerned in the first act of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879), in which Torvald Helmer grounds the dysfunction of his household with Nora’s contaminative dishonesty: ‘A fog of lies like that in a household, and it spreads disease and infection to every part of it,’ he says. ‘Every breath the children take in that kind of house is reeking with evil germs […] Practically all juvenile delinquents come from homes where the mother is dishonest’ ( 2008: 33). While Ibsen continues to expose a more complex worldview, Torvald would have us blame Nora from the outset.
In Ghosts too, contagion stands clearly as a metaphor for sexual corruption. Osvald returns to his mother’s home from Paris, where he has been suffering from both moral and medical sickness. Dejected and unable to paint, he is diagnosed with syphilis as his doctor dramatically declares ‘the sins of the father are visited upon his children’ (238). The (scientifically inaccurate) diagnosis leads not only to a revelation about the ‘depraved’ life lead by his father Captain Alving before his death, but also to the repetition of Alving’s sexual depravity by his son. Mrs Alving is haunted by her son’s inevitable repetitions of her husband’s faults, as the transmission of his syphilis is collapsed into the transmission of sexual licentiousness. When Ghosts opened in London in 1891, it provoked outrage in the press. As Kristen Shephard-Barr notes, newspaper reviewers engineered a moral panic, suggesting that the immorality represented in the play could ‘infect’ the audience itself (Shepherd-Barr, 2019).
Chandrasekhar’s re-writing of Ghosts uses Ibsen’s themes and structure address a greater sexual taboo. The play was written in response to the gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, which took place on a bus in Delhi in 2012. Here Chandrasekhar stages the return of a son who has inherited his father’s predisposition to serious sexual violence. In When the Crows Visit Akshay suddenly returns home to a seemingly overbearing mother and bed-ridden grandmother. As the play unfolds, news of a woman’s violent rape and mutilation in Mumbai reach Chennai, and Akshay is placed close to the scene. The eventual revelation that Akshay was one of the perpetrators is at once deeply chilling and expected. His mother Hema negotiates her own complicity with his violence, even as she continues to be haunted by the years of abuse and rape which she suffered at the hand of his father. Crows circle outside the house, visiting the sins of the father on his mother, wife and child.
The play follows Ibsen’s concerns with hereditary structures, replacing the revelation of Osvald’s syphilis with the revelation of Akshay’s perpetration of a violent gang rape. Despite drawing on the contagious structures of Ibsen’s original, Chandrasekhar’s play uses metaphors of blood, animality and haunting rather than sickness to discuss the transmission of the father’s violence to the son. In his deeply disturbing and unrepentant confession, Akshay describes being possessed by an ancestral instinct for extreme violence:
My head, my heart … I felt feral, like I was inhabiting the body of a beast. I felt sleek … and powerful. I liked that. I liked who I became… A warrior… A lion. […] I felt connected with those men… We belonged together for a brief time.
Remember though, it’s his blood inside me. And yours. (Scene 12)
Whilst immorality eventually debilitates in Ghosts and reeks its revenge in the form of syphilis, in When the Crows Visit sexual violence breeds a sense of intoxicating male power and connection, and only results in further violence.
The absence of a sickness metaphor perhaps contributed to the mixed reception of When the Crow’s Visit. Chandrasekhar’s play absolutely refuses to provide the kind of explanatory framework which Ibsen provides. Kate Wyver’s review in The Guardian gave the show two stars, deeming it ‘an uncomfortable watch devoid of hope’, and stating that it ‘is not a show I would recommend to anyone who has experienced sexual assault’. Whilst I would agree that this was a performance which required (and provided) a barrage of trigger warnings, my experience was that the play was generative and necessary – even if it was not enjoyable and is indeed ‘devoid of hope’.
Increasingly harrowing, When the Crows Visit looked squarely in the face of a question which most contemporary discussions of rape simply refuse to ask: Why do men commit acts of extreme sexual violence? The play provides no answer. But it goes to places we emphatically tend to avoid: that perpetrators of rape are knowing, that they find pleasure and comradeship in extreme violence, that they are aided by complicit members of their communities – that they are, in fact, not sick. Or at least not ill.
These are indeed taboos. We do not want to think them, let alone see them dramatized before us. And yet they are also questions which need to be asked, if we are to begin to imagine a path to a world without sexual violence. As I reflected on the play, I was reminded of several of the findings of Joanna Bourke’s important book on the history of rape. As Bourke demonstrates, the actions of rapists are historically and socially contingent and rapists rarely feel that they have done anything wrong. When the Crows Visit casts a stark eye on the perpetration and circulation of sexual violence. A profoundly disturbing work, it allowed for the complexities which Bourke identifies in her extensive study to play out and remain unresolved.
A final note to end this discussion – which is difficult to end. Whilst it is certainly not the main takeaway from the play, I felt When the Crows Visit returned something to Ghosts. The blurb to the new Penguin translations of Ibsen’s works describes Ghosts’ preoccupation with ‘family secrets and sexual double-dealing’. But Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik’s new translation opens the play up to a reading which is about more than moral hypocrisy. In any translation of Ghosts, Mrs Alving overhears Osvald and the maid Regine in the conservatory, and believes she is hearing the ghost or repetition of her late husband’s philandering. In the new translation, she overhears the words ‘Osvald! Are you mad? Let me go!’. These words can of course be delivered a number of ways on stage – with a giggle, in a stage whisper etc. But they also gesture however obliquely to the issues which Chandrasekhar so harshly exposes. ‘Let me go!’ – speaks simply to how power, captivity, class and kinship structures facilitate the degradation of women’s bodies. These are the structural issues which are so often elided in illness metaphors (as Susan Sontag famously pointed out). This new translation, and McPherson’s and Chandrasekhar’s plays, give me hope that theatre is finding its way out of this metaphorical elision.
Bans, Shani, ‘Look not upon me, for thine eyes are wounding’: Infectious Sights in Shakespeare’s Theatre of Contagion’
Shephard-Barr, Kirsten ‘ Plague Inc.: Theatre’s Engagement with Mechanisms of Contagion and Containment’
Walsh, Fintan, ‘Introduction: Contagious performance: between illness and ambience’
—- all in Fintan Walsh (ed.), Theatres of Contagion: Transmitting Early Modern to Contemporary Performance (London: Bloomsbury, 2019)
Bourke, Joanna, Rape: A History from 1860 to the Present (London: Virago, 2015)
Ibsen, Henrik A Doll’s House and Other Plays, trans. Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik (London: Penguin Random House 2016)