27 March 2018
With Mozart’s Don Giovanni having the ‘ghost’ of the Commendatore playing such a pivotal role as a statue come to life, we thought we’d take a look at the use of ghosts as a plot device by dramatists throughout the history of ‘theatre’. Did you know there is even a degree module on ‘Ghosts & Hauntology in Theatre and Performance’ at the University of Exeter? (We won’t even go into the propensity for tales of ghosts haunting the physical theatres – and some of our venues seem to have a fair few between them!)
Ghosts in plays appear [pun unintentional, but quite apt!] to have been around since ‘theatre’ began – writers such as Seneca, Thomas Kyd, and of course, Shakespeare included ghosts in their works. Often appearing as a means to urge revenge, although sometimes the opposite, as in Cyril Tourneur’s The Atheist’s Tragedy where the ghost is on the side of leaving ‘revenge’ in the Hands of Divine Providence.
Macbeth (both the play and opera, as included in our Autumn 2016 Shakespeare400 Season) and Hamlet are the obvious examples when you think of Shakespeare’s plays, but don’t forget the role of ‘ghosts’ in his other works, such as Richard III and Julius Caesar. A ghostly plot device seems to have been one that Shakespeare took full advantage of, whether to forewarn or simply to prompt a specific course of action.
There are even ghosts in musicals, from the misnomer of The Phantom of the Opera which doesn’t actually feature a phantom but a living man, to Ghost: The Musical which does. There’s also Les Misérables and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel, both of which use ghosts to guide the way to happiness, whether on earth or in heaven.
The use of ghosts as a plot mechanism continues right up to the modern day, with dramatists including Mark Ravenhill (Ghost Story), August Wilson (The Piano Lesson – from The Pittsburgh Cycle) and of course, Susan Hill with The Woman in Black, carrying on the tradition. And then there’s Jeremy Dyson & Andy Nyman’s Ghost Stories which, like The Woman in Black, has just ‘debuted’ in film version. The change from stage to screen necessitates certain rewrites to make it work, but the ghost device remains crucial to the narrative.
But to bring it back to our artform specifically, there are opera’s that use this technique too – think Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, and of course as mentioned at the start, Mozart’s Don Giovanni – which you can still catch as part of our Spring Season. For more information go to our Don Giovanni page, and see where we are still to perform it and our other Rabble Rousing operas: wno.org.uk/giovanni