Guess. Just guess where the premiere of Henrik Ibsen's play Ghosts took place. You won't get it, because it's completely crazy. The very first performance of Ghosts happened in Chicago on May 20th 1882, at a place called Aurora Turner Hall. It was the first time an Ibsen play was performed in the United States. The actors were mostly Norwegian and Danish amateurs; the play was performed in Norwegian for Scandinavian immigrants.
But wait, isn't Ibsen supposed to be a big deal? Like, the Father of Modern Drama kind of big deal? Couldn't he have a grander opening that that? Not with Ghosts, which he wrote between A Doll's House and Enemy of the People. Ghosts was a serious hot potato nobody had touched since its publication a year before. Thousands of copies were returned to the publisher. The play was met in Denmark and Norway with shock and horror because of its defense of iconoclasm (the attack of settled beliefs), satire of the church, and discussion of taboo topics like syphilis, incest, and assisted suicide. There were just too many firecrackers in that box.
The most explosive reaction came from Londoners in 1891, when one performance was presented at J.T. Grein's Independent Theatre. Critics and public alike flogged the play, calling it "an open drain; a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly" and so on. Ibsen contemporary and translator William Archer compiled a whole litany of abuses in his article "Ghosts and Gibberings" in The Pall Mall Gazette.
The particular topics that scandalized early audiences don't hit us in the same way today. We have difficulty seeing protagonist Mrs. Alving as a radical when many of her revolutionary ideas have become more mainstream. Premarital sex, religious protest, dysfunctional marriage – she owns up to them, but many of us do too. Think about substituting some of today's radical concepts into the play to give yourself an idea of just how shocking it could be to have a character on stage discussing controversial ideas. Even if particular social arguments have changed, the play is still terrifyingly powerful in its story of a woman exorcising her ghosts.
Why Should I Care?
You've probably heard a lot about "Change" recently. Since Obama successfully ran on Change with a capital C, it's washing all the advertisements. "Change" is the new "Green." Change is on the Dr. Phil billboards, it's on those cotton grocery bags, it's selling cola and sports shoes. The self-help and fitness industries make millions convincing us we can easily change – and selling us the book, DVD, or podcast that shows us how.
In Ghosts, Ibsen presents a very different view of change. In his play, change is a grim, excruciating reality to which he subjects Mrs. Alving. This lady is not just changing her clothes, she is peeling herself apart. This kind of change – the difficult unseating of long-held beliefs – hurts. It's hard.
Mrs. Alving is a middle-aged woman. She could be taking it easy, having coffee with her friends and complaining about her husband. But that's not her. She's seeking, she's questioning, she's open to reinventing herself. Though she had always viewed herself as a the victim of an alcoholic, unfaithful husband, Mrs. Alving realizes that her husband had been suffocated by convention.
This is a woman who courageously faces the story she tells herself about her life, and changes it. She watches the ground underneath her disappear, and she redefines herself. Would you have the courage to start over from scratch, like Mrs. Alving?