Henrik Ibsen

‘Ghosts’ at the Royalty

Source: Anon., ‘Ghosts’ at the Royalty, The Daily Chronicle, 14 March 1891

Production: Henrik Ibsen, Gengangere [Ghosts], Royalty Theatre, London, 13 March 1891

Text: Mr. J.T. Grein, the “founder and literary manager,” and apparently general superintendent of “The Independent Theatre of London,” has, perhaps unconsciously, done the Lord Chamberlain’s department an exceedingly good turn. He last night at the Royalty demonstrated that there must be some value in an office that can save the general public — that is to say the public paying money at the doors of a theatre, and not always sure of the performance that is to be witnessed — from a domestic drama so revoltingly suggestive and so blasphemous as Ibsen’s “Ghosts.” By resorting to an invitation representation of this loathsome production, the disciples of the Norwegian playwright have at last carried out the idea they are believed to have long entertained, and the time has now arrived when it would be injurious to the interests of the English stage to do otherwise than speak plainly. The large audience, which included more females than might have been expected, considering the nature of a play of which very few persons knowing anything of the modern drama can be ignorant, consisted solely of members or guests of the “Independent Theatre” association, but this circumstance did not prevent one healthy-minded individual at the fall of the curtain on a deplorable picture of youthful insanity, constituting the inheritance of a father’s unbridled passion (they call it in “Ghosts” “The joy of life”), exclaiming, “It’s too horrible!” Mr. Grein, however, was loudly summoned by the more appreciative majority, and stating that he should like to explain his views respecting the “Independent Theatre,” proceeded to say that he desired to foster a more literary species of drama than that now prevailing on the English stage, that he intended to bring forward masterpieces for the benefit of our younger dramatists, and that generally he wished to stimulate more artistic productions. The hopes of the advanced school of dramatic authors — by which we mean those who in one way or another may be anxious to emulate Ibsen — must have been considerably raised by Mr. Grein’s further declaration that he should “stand firm” in his endeavour to elevate the literary standard of stage work. With a plea for help in his undertaking, and thanking the assemblage for their “gracious reception” of what he admitted was a terrible although artistic play, Mr. Grein retired. Some people appeared to consider this little march somewhat of a mistake, but there were others who were grateful to learn the speaker to which they are henceforward to look for the regeneration of the drama in this country.

We have alluded to “Ghosts” as revoltingly suggestive and blasphemous. Justification of the former term would involve a more detailed explanation of the relations of three of the characters towards each other than we care to enter upon; of the second charge it is sufficient perhaps to say that a vile elderly being, as distorted in person as he is in mind, whose darling design it is to employ a young girl — supposed by some to be his daughter, though he knows to the contrary — as a decoy at a “sailors’ tavern,” where there shall be “singing and dancing, and so forth,” is allowed to say to an extremely simple-minded clergyman, whom he is partly befooling and partly threatening, that he knows “a man that’s taken others’ sins upon himself before now,” emphasising the statement by raising his right hand to heaven. “Ghosts,” however, as a play contains greater faults even than those of lack of decency or of respect for religious convictions. The characters are either contradictory in themselves, uninteresting, or abhorrent. The only really respectable individual in the piece, Pastor Manders, is nerveless just when courage is required, is an easy prey to schemers, and is rather too addicted to figuratively bringing the pulpit into private houses. To Mrs. Alving — the long-patient wife of a dissolute husband — we should by no means like to pin our faith. She has loved the pastor, and in the course of conversation with him makes one or two remarks that are certainly not in good taste respecting what might have been in the past had the clergyman succumbed to temptation when she left her drunken spouse and sought Manders’s roof. Nor can we forgive her — although her life is bound up in that of her son — for not setting her face to the very end against the association of Oswald, “worm-eaten from his birth,” with Regina. As the just and outspoken critic last night declared, “It’s too horrible!” This Regina, it should be added, is quite as artful as Rebecca West in “Rosmersholm,” though she is less constant and more self-seeking. She attempts to captivate the son of the kindly woman who has dragged her from a life of squalor and degradation, but when she learns that Oswald is ill, and that she cannot wed him, coolly throws him over, and says, with a shrug of the shoulders, “A poor girl must make the best of her young days, or she’ll be left out in the cold before she knows where she is.” This same minx, when she learns that her mother was betrayed by her employer, says, “So mother was that kind of woman after all.” Of the reputed father of this girl and of the melancholy insane youth who persistently cries for “the sun” as the curtain descends, after he has striven to persuade his mother to give him a fatal dose of morphia to free him from the dread by which he is possessed, we have sufficiently spoken. The one is detestable in his craft and hypocrisy, the other a pitiful, mean, and abject creature in the exposition of the doctrine of heredity.

If anything could have made the play last night tolerable to those not stricken with the Ibsen fever it would have been the excellent acting it obtained. Few professional actresses could have given a more realistic or forcible impersonation of the distressed Mrs. Alving than Mrs. Theodore Wright; whilst the Oswald of Mr. Frank Lindo and the club-footed Jacob Engstrand of Mr. Sydney Howard were also embodiments that commanded approval for unswerving faithfulness to the cause in hand. Mr. Leonard Outram too did his best to avoid prosiness as the lecturing and eventually frightened Pastor Manders, and Miss Edith Kenward’s representation of Regina had several meritorious points. The interpretation, indeed, far exceeded in harmoniously artistic quality the worth of the play from the theatrical aspect. There were times last night when laughter was evoked by the commonplace utterances of some of the characters, but on the whole the audience behaved decorously. As there is such a tendency in the Ibsen “social dramas” to throw a strong light upon “the seamy side of life,” it is as well that occasionally — either purposely or by accident — excuse should be afforded for merriment. Finally, the experience of last night demonstrated that the official ban placed upon “Ghosts” as regards public performance was both wise and warranted.

Comments: Henrik Ibsen‘s Gengangere, given the title Ghosts by its English translator William Archer, was written in 1881 and first staged in Chicago in 1882 by a Danish touring company, after it had been rejected by Scandanavian theatre companies, alarmed by its themes of free love, syphilis, incest and its attacks on religion. It enjoyed some performances in continental Europe through the 1880s, but the first British production (using Archer’s translation) was not until 13 March 1891, in a private performance by the subscription-based Independent Theatre Society (founded by critic Jacob Grien). It was held at the small Royalty Theatre in Soho, in defiance of the Lord Chamberlain’s ban on the play. The outrage caused by the single performance is encapsulated in the above review.

Links: Copy at All About Henrik Ibsen (National Library of Norway)