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...
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