At the time when he wrote Ghosts, Ibsen’s career had eased into a phase of social criticism. His previous work, A Doll’s House, was met with some objection, but it is easily his most popular and influential play to date. Today, critics consider Ibsen one of the most important playwrights of the modern period, pivotal in introducing a new, realistic way of presenting life on the stage. With the publication of Ghosts, though, his career almost came to a grinding halt.
Of all of Ibsen’s dramas, Ghosts is easily the most controversial, crammed tight with social and sexual themes that challenged the conventional morality. Readers rejected the play and refused to buy it when it was released in book form. Theatrical companies also found it too dangerous to risk offending their local communities. Most of the copies printed in the first edition were returned to the publisher, and they did not all sell for thirteen years. As Ibsen biographer Hans Heiberg explains in a chapter titled, ‘‘The Great Scandal’’:
From December 1881 and throughout the whole of 1882, a hurricane continued to blow all through Scandinavia over Ibsen’s new play. And it was not only the conservatives who let out a howl. The liberals, too, and most radicals, were so shaken by the explosion that they neither realized what a masterpiece it was, nor that there was balance in it. Most people thought that Ibsen, through the mouth of Mrs. Alving, wanted to legalize incest and advocate sexual license and nihilism.
Scandanavian theaters would not put the play on, and its debut occurred across the ocean, in Chicago, which had a large Norwegian population. Eventually, a company directed by August Lindberg had success with the play in Helsinki, and their subsequent tour met with increasing popularity.
In the following decade, Ibsen’s reputation as a masterful playwright who challenged conventions had become even more solidified by his successes with An Enemy of the People (1882) and Hedda Gabler (1890). William Archer, Ibsen’s contemporary, recognized Ghosts’ power in capturing reality, and dismissed its critics for trying to limit what an artist can write about. ‘‘If art is ever debarred from entering upon certain domains of human experience,’’ he wrote in 1889, ‘‘then Ghosts is an inartistic work. I can only say, after having read it, seen it on the stage, and translated it, that no other modern play seems to me to fulfill so entirely the Aristotelian ideal of purging the soul by means of terror and pity.’’ The unpleasant elements, in other words, were good for audiences, who could free themselves of their own problems through the act of watching.
Because of his strongly-stated political views, Ibsen became a favorite of political activists, who advocated change in almost all areas of life, from woman’s rights to socialism to sexual freedom. Early in the twentieth century, Ibsen’s works, especially Ghosts, were hailed as heroic achievements, as political unrest against the status quo swelled in Europe and in America. A prime example is Emma Goldman, possibly America’s most famous anarchist, who devoted considerable space to the play in her 1914 book The Social Significance of Modern Drama. ‘‘The social and revolutionary significance of Henrik Ibsen is brought out with even greater force in Ghosts than in his preceding works,’’ Goldman wrote. ‘‘Not only does this pioneer of modern dramatic art undermine in Ghosts the Social Lie and the paralyzing effect of Duty, but the uselessness and evil of Sacrifice, the dreary Lack of Joy and of Purpose in Work are brought to light as most pernicious and destructive elements...
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of life.’’ The end of her review was filled with just as much praise, bordering on hyperbole:
The voice of Henrik Ibsen in [this play] sounds like the trumpets before the walls of Jericho. Into the remotest nooks and corners reaches his voice, with its thundering indictment of our moral cancers, our social poisons, our hideous crimes against unborn and born victims. Verily a more revolutionary condemnation has never been uttered in dramatic form before or since the great Henrik Ibsen.
Martin Esslin, one of the most respected and influential contemporary writers about drama, notes in his book about Ibsen that the great German playwright Bertolt Brecht considered Ghosts to have been rendered obsolete by 1928, owing to medical developments in suppressing syphilis. The play has continued, however, because audiences do not look at it as an old-fashioned criticism of our time, as Brecht might have, but as a work that was surprisingly ahead of its own time, that has kept its edge by emphasizing human attitudes over situations. Esslin emphasizes how Ibsen changed the performing world by having characters express their motivation gradually and indirectly through dialogue and action. This is something that audiences take for granted today, but the style of Ibsen’s contemporaries called for characters whose motivations were obvious the moment that they stepped out on stage. Esslin traces the development of this technique of spontaneity from Ibsen through Chekhov and the Moscow Theatre to modern avant-garde filmmakers like John Cassavettes and Robert Altman, as well as playwrights like Eugene Ionesco and Harold Pinter, whose characters rely on more than just their words to convey who they are.