This Day In Writing History
On March 13th, 1891, Ghosts, the classic play by the legendary Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, opened in London. Like Ibsen's previous classic play, A Doll's House, it dealt with women suffering at the hands of self-centered, hypocritical, weak men.
However, Ghosts proved to be even more of a shocker to Victorian English audiences and critics because it also dealt with adultery, venereal disease, incest, and euthanasia.
The play opens with the widowed Helene Alving about to open an orphanage she built in dedication to her late husband, the respected Captain Alving. She also built the orphanage to prevent her son Oswald, a degenerate painter, from inheriting his father's wealth.
It turns out that the late, respected Captain Alving was far from respectable. He was a compulsive philanderer who died of syphilis. His wife Helene's clergyman, Pastor Manders, advised her not to leave her husband, believing that Helene's love would ultimately reform him. It never happened.
Still, Helene remained with her husband, but not because she still loved him. Her top priority was to protect the family's reputation from scandal. So, she projected a phony air of respectability and superiority. But now, she's paying the price for her moral smugness.
Her son, Oswald, has inherited Captain Alving's depraved character. He's having an affair with Regina Engstrand, his family's serving maid. His mother soon learns that Oswald also inherited his father's syphilis, condemning him to the same fate: progressive, incurable insanity and death.
Helene's wall of denial finally crumbles when it's revealed that Regina Engstrand's real father wasn't Jacob Engstrand, the carpenter who raised her - it was Captain Alving. Oswald has committed incest with his own half-sister.
At the end of the play, knowing that he will suffer the same fate as his father, Oswald asks his mother to euthanize him. Helene is left to contemplate her decision, and the audience never knows what that is.
Ghosts was perhaps the most controversial play of its time, shunned by most European theaters. Even copies of the play script were banned, but that didn't stop young libertines from gathering for secret readings and impromptu performances.
How then, you might ask, did the play's London producers get around the Lord Chamberlain - England's ferociously strict theater censor - and stage an uncensored production of Ghosts?
The same way they got around the censor to put on other controversial plays like George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession. They formed a private club called the Theatre Society and bought their own private theater where they staged plays behind closed doors for members only.
Speaking of Shaw, he attended the premiere of Ghosts, which was a one-night-only performance, due to its extremely controversial nature. He described the audience as being "awe-struck" throughout the play.
Critics, who were either Theatre Society members themselves or guests of members, also attended. They reacted with absolute horror. Ghosts was described as:
An open drain; a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly... gross, almost putrid indecorum... Nastiness and malodorousness laid on thickly as with a trowel... As foul and filthy a concoction as has ever been allowed to disgrace the boards of an English theatre... Maunderings of nook-shotten Norwegians... If any repetition of this outrage be attempted, the authorities will doubtless wake from their lethargy.
The author, Henrik Ibsen, was described as "a gloomy sort of ghoul, bent on groping for horrors by night," and his London audience was comprised of "lovers of prurience and dabblers in impropriety."
The critics also expressed outrage that the Lord Chamberlain would allow such plays to be staged even behind closed doors for the members of a private club. Fortunately, he didn't move to censor private theatrical clubs.
Years later, Ibsen's Ghosts would be staged again in London, and the legendary Irish writer James Joyce saw the play. He loved it. Remembering how he had been denounced by moralists over his classic epic novel, Ulysses, Joyce was inspired to write a poem called Epilogue to Ibsen's Ghosts:
... Since scuttling ship Vikings like me
Reck not to whom the blame is laid,
Y.M.C.A., V.D., T.B.,
Or Harbourmaster of Port-Said.
Blame all and none and take to task
The harlot's lure, the swain's desire.
Heal by all means but hardly ask
Did this man sin or did his sire.
The shack's ablaze. That canting scamp,
The carpenter, has dished the parson.
Now had they kept their powder damp
Like me there would have been no arson.
Nay, more, were I not all I was,
Weak, wanton, waster out and out,
There would have been no world's applause
And damn all to write home about.
Quote Of The Day
"People want only special revolutions, in externals, in politics, and so on. But that's just tinkering. What is really is called for is a revolution of the human mind." - Henrik Ibsen
Today's video features a complete performance of Henrik Ibsen's classic play, Ghosts, starring Dame Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh, which aired as an episode of the BBC TV series, Theatre Night. Enjoy!