Ibsen’s ‘Ghosts’ premiered in Chicago ­— of all places

Bruce Hatton Boyer


hile Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) never visited America, he does have one little-known connection with Chicago — it was here that the world premiere of his play Ghosts occurred on May 20, 1882.

Why such an important premiere should have occurred here is a curious tale, which will help us see how misunderstood Ibsen was in the English-speaking world, where his championing by two of the most influential voices in theater, William Archer and George Bernard Shaw, far from securing his reputation, nearly scuttled it!

Ghosts occupies the central position in Ibsen’s works. Chronologically, it lies near the middle of his output, the 17th of 26 plays. More significantly, it lies at the center of Ibsen’s thematic output, for in no other of his works did he as explicitly examine the central theme of his oeuvre — that social environment imprisons and dooms the individual.

The plot of Ghosts is quickly recounted. It takes place in the household of Mrs. Alving, widow of the late Captain Alving, a noted (and notorious) member of the society in a small Norwegian town. At the play’s opening, Mrs. Alving has established an orphanage in her late husband’s memory, just as her only son Osvald returns from Paris, where he has been living as an artist. We soon learn that Osvald has inherited not only his father’s philandering ways but a fatal, unnamed venereal disease. By play’s end, Mrs. Alving is forced to see the curse her husband has laid upon her life as the orphanage burns down and, in one of the most wrenching moments in all European theater, she helps Osvald commit suicide to spare him the ravages of his disease.

Ghosts represented the high-water mark of the naturalist revolution then sweeping Europe. The father of the revolution was the French novelist, Emile Zola, who saw life as a struggle for survival and that the outcome of that struggle was determined by the collision between genetics and environment. That Ibsen was familiar with Zola’s theories is evidenced by his famous remark that “Zola descends to the gutter to bathe in it while I descend there to cleanse it!”

However, the two men looked at life through distinctly different prisms. Zola came to literature through journalism, and he quite deliberately saw literature as an engine of social reform. He was no great stylist and his best novels, Therese Racquin, Germinal and Nana, are crude polemics compared to those of his nearest competitor in France, Gustave Flaubert. But what they lack in aesthetic refinement, they more than make up for in shock value. Zola’s description of the harrowing life in Flemish coal mines led to many needed reforms, and his depiction of Nana’s depraved sexual encounters rocked the country.

Ibsen, on the other hand, began his career as a poet and was never interested in social issues per se. Indeed, he spent most of his life in exile from Norway, first in Italy and later in Germany. He was a loner and an introvert, the opposite of Zola, whose great moment was not literary but political, when he defended the wronged Captain Adolph Dreyfus.

Unfortunately for Ibsen, however, the surface resemblances were strong. Both men believed that restrictive social conventions caused personal unhappiness and for them, as for so many other writers of the period, venereal disease was the perfect metaphor for depicting a corrupt society. It mixed both biology and social repression into a perfect Darwinist cocktail.

It was this similarity with Zola that proved Ibsen’s undoing in English-speaking countries, and the greatest malefactor in this regard was none other than George Bernard Shaw. Shaw, like Zola, was a social reformer at heart, and he saw the theater as a place where he could vent his Fabianist ideals. Witty, charming, and acerbic as he was, Shaw was a second-rate dramatist and a fourth-rate psychologist. Yet, when Ibsen’s star rose on the continent, Shaw insisted on seeing a kindred spirit. He turned Ibsen into what he wanted Ibsen to be, and the result was his catalog of misperceptions, the Quintessence of Ibsenism.

The result? Ibsen was seen in England as a social radical, not as an astute observer of human psychology. Worse, he was seen merely as dirty-minded. Ghosts was forbidden public performance in England for nearly 40 years, and even then it was only allowed performance in front of British troops departing for France during World Wear I — the original VD movie we all suffered through in high school sex education classes! And the idea of Ibsen as a social reformer lingered hard — the present author remembers an otherwise-revered Oxford-trained professor’s remarking that “the problem with Ibsen is that once you’ve invented penicillin, he’s obsolete!”

As was the custom in those days, Ghosts was published before it was performed, and theaters across the continent were afraid to stage it lest censors shut them down. The reaction in England was especially adverse. A sample of contemporary criticism tells us all: “An open drain. . . Candid foulness . . . Absolutely loathsome and fetid . . . Gross, almost putrid indecorum.”

Given this environment, it is hardly surprising that the first performance had to occur far from a shocked European establishment, and Chicago in the 1880s certainly fit the bill. It was, by any standards, a city not easily shocked. Its unrestrained gambling, drinking, and prostitution were so pronounced that even Mayor Carter Harrison declaimed that “you can’t make people moral by ordinance and there’s no use trying.”

In the 1880s, Chicago was still primarily a Germanic and Scandinavian town. The Swedes and Norwegians had settled north and west of downtown, around what is now Kedzie and Diversey. Norwegians were especially plentiful. Between the Civil War and World War I, for example, there were some 565 Norwegian-language newspapers and magazines published in America.

In Chicago, the leading paper was Norden, edited by a Synod minister named Hallvard Hande. Contrary to its counterparts on the continent, Norden did not shrink from controversy. In 1880, it carried a heated debate over A Doll’s House, even while English-speaking literati in Chicago remained ignorant of the play’s existence. The native-language theater was active as well and, while records are spotty, we do know that there was enough demand that the Norwegian actor Thorvald Koht founded the Norske Folketeater in Chicago in 1913 and for the next decade produced works by Ibsen, Holberg, and Bjornson. All this was, remember, while England was still keeping Ibsen out of theaters at all costs!

We know nothing of who produced Ghosts in Chicago. That it was a semi-professional production is attested to by the presence of the Danish actress Helga von Bluhme as Mrs. Alving. Following the single performance in the Aurora Turner Hall “before a large audience with a successful outcome,” it subsequently toured to Minneapolis and other Midwestern cities. The most striking fact about the performance, however, is that there were no riots and no bellicose statements from the clergy. In the words of another paper, Verdens Gang, the play’s “reprimand of vices in certain portions of the upper level of Norwegian society [was] no hindrance to its acceptance in Chicago.” The absence of attacks from the English-speaking clergy is especially significant because at the very same time, the Protestant clergy was engaged in an active campaign to curtail English-speaking theatrical activities in Chicago.

Why the marked difference between the reactions here and abroad? Victorian prudishness is part of the answer, although Scandinavian Lutheranism of the 1880s was hardly more tolerant than the American Methodism of the day. The answer lies in part, I believe, in how Ibsen had been translated into English.

William Archer, Ibsen’s first English translator, was a member of Shaw’s circle and a noted dramaturge himself. Archer happened to speak Norwegian by a fluke; as a youth, he had summered in Orkney, halfway between Scotland and the Scandinavian mainland, where Norwegian was common. So it was sheer coincidence that, when Ibsen took the continent by storm, there was waiting for him in England someone who not only spoke Norwegian but who had a keen interest in the theatre.

Unfortunately, Archer, like Shaw, had a social agenda, and his translations — while literally accurate — tended toward the melodramatic. Generations of English-speakers, prejudiced by Shaw’s misconceptions and weaned on Archer’s stilted language, have seen Ibsen as a social critic shuffling cardboard characters around the stage. It was not until the 1960s that the starchy Ibsen of Archer yielded to the more nuanced and psychological Ibsen of Michael Meyer and Rolf Fjelde, both translators who spent their lives immersed in Scandinavian languages. In their hands, the character of Pastor Manders in Ghosts,1 for example, traditionally seen simply as an attack on the church, emerges as a narcissist with great sexual charm, an understandable temptation to the emotionally-battered Mrs. Alving. So, too, Mrs. Alving’s sexual and emotional needs become apparent enough to make her tragedy a distinctly human one. Ghosts becomes a play not about venereal disease but about doomed people, just as Pillars of Society loses its theme of “leaky boats” and Enemy of the People its theme about “polluted water.” The result, for anyone willing to go back and revisit Ibsen in new translations, is an Ibsen far closer to the one those Norwegian-Americans saw with such clarity 140 years ago in our very own city.

1 Even Archer’s translation of the play’s title is misleading. The title in Norwegian is Gengangere, a gerund structure better translated as “those who have gone before.”

Title page for first edition of Ibsen’s Gengangere (Ghosts) (1881), a play first produced in Chicago. Used through cooperation with the Norwegian-American Historical Association, Northfield, MN.

Aurora Turner Hall, 3124 N. Clark St., where Ibsen’s Ghosts was first performed. This image shows the building in a 1905 Chicago Sun-Times photo, when the hall was a bowling alley. Used in cooperation with the Chicago Historical Society.

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