On this day in 1891, Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts premiered in London, an event so "controversial and epoch-making," says biographer Michael Meyer, that it is now regarded as "one of the most famous of theatrical occasions." Theater historians report that the scandal over this single performance elicited over 500 printed articles and made Ibsen "a household word even among those Englishmen who never went to the theatre or opened a book."
Although published a decade earlier, and not the first volley in Ibsen's attempt to "torpedo the ark" of social propriety, the play had provided his critics with a lot of return ammunition. Because of its references to syphilis, free-love, incest and euthanasia, the play had been damned, constrained by censors, and shunned by most major and state theaters in Europe. It was regarded as too shameful to even have around the house in print, forcing the young and modern-minded to gather secretly for readings and impromptu performances in some cities.
The London producers dodged the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain's office by forming a subscription-only Theatre Society -- Thomas Hardy and Henry James were among its first members -- and mounted a single performance of Ghosts at the Royalty Theatre in Soho. Shaw attended and reported the audience "awe-struck"; the press, wrote William Archer, uttered a unanimous "shriek of execration" that "has scarcely its counterpart in the history of criticism":
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.
Ibsen was "a gloomy sort of ghoul, bent on groping for horrors by night"; the playgoers were "lovers of prurience and dabblers in impropriety." The Suffragette-minded found themselves especially outcast: "The unwomanly woman, the unsexed females, the whole army of unprepossessing cranks in petticoats. . . educated and muck-ferreting dogs. . . effeminate men and male women. . .the Lord Chamberlain left them alone to wallow in Ghosts."
James Joyce later saw a performance of the play, after years of having been similarly censored and denounced for Ulysses. The occasion inspired "Epilogue to Ibsen's Ghosts," in which he becomes "the ghost of Captain Alving" in order to take his own shot at the finger-pointers who wanted to save the age by condemning Ibsen:
. . . 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.