Nordic Noir – Frank McNally on Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, past and present

The Scandinavian gloom deepened steadily for an hour and 40 minutes

During the opening scene of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts at the weekend, I found myself deeply impressed by the Abbey Theatre’s surround-sound effects.

As incessant Nordic rain fell back-stage, steaming up the glass conservatory in which the action unfolds, a rumble of thunder rolled along the wall to my upper left.

It was so realistic that, when it happened a second time, I wondered if it was actual thunder. Then the truth dawned.

It wasn’t thunder. It was the Luas red line tram rumbling down Abbey Street. And gazing up at the source of the noise, I was surprised to realise that my seat was below street level, although I had entered via the theatre’s upstairs doors.


The street noise was soon forgotten, however, because Ibsen’s play plumbs far greater depths than the Abbey architects did.

His Scandinavian gloom deepened steadily for an hour and 40 minutes. It was all so rivetingly grim, I hardly noticed the lack of an interval.

With themes including sexual promiscuity, syphilis, incest, and euthanasia, Ghosts must have been astonishingly candid for its time (1881).

It’s no surprise to learn that performances were banned in these islands for many years after, the 1891 London debut being facilitated by a private theatre club formed by GB Shaw and others.

What’s more surprising is that the ban was lifted as early as 1917, when a touring London production visited Belfast and squeezed in a one-off “flying matinee” at the Dublin’s Theatre Royal.

The leading Irish theatre critic of the era, a man who went by the pseudonym “Jacques”, was surprised too, and strongly disapproved.

Jacques was the real-life John Rice, one of a group of Corkmen who dominated Independent Newspapers in those years.

Of conservative outlook, he considered Charlie Chaplin “vulgar”, accused the Abbey of “morbidity”, and thought the Playboy riots of 1907 were evidence of the audience’s good taste.

The lifting of the Ghosts ban had been for reasons “not wholly explained”, he told readers, adding: “It is vaguely suggested that [...] it might be used as a form of propaganda to prove that the ‘sins of the fathers shall be visited on the children’”.

As for himself, he thought any moral instruction needed on this point was better sought from reading the Bible, at home or in church.

The canny promoters, meanwhile, only emphasised the play’s notoriety, reminding everyone it had been “banned for twenty-five years” and adding gratuitously that it was “for adults only”.

The posters also included generous quotes from the 1891 reviews, which had condemned Ghosts as “this mass of vulgarity, coarseness . . . dismal and repulsive . . . revolting, suggestive, and blasphemous . . . Ibsen’s putrid play . . . noisome.”

Also helping to boost ticket sales was a meeting of concerned Catholics that day beforehand at which a priest was reported saying that “if he were a young man he would stand at the door of the Theatre Royal tomorrow and would take the names of every Catholic who went in ...”.

Standing outside a theatre taking names was hardly over-vigorous work, whatever his age. In the event, other volunteers took up his challenge.

Their notebooks must have been full. Thanks to all the bad publicity, the performance was a sell-out.

The intrepid Jacques suspended his distaste for the exercise to turn up 30 minutes before the 12.30pm opening so that he could review audience as well as play. He noted that those attending were predominantly female, “mostly of the professional, leisured, and military classes”.

One young lady passed time before the performance by reading a book.

Another had brought an old and “very feeble” companion whom she called “Nannie”. He watched a third woman “hand a pet poodle over to the care of an attendant” on the way in.

But despite all the controversy, the Dublin premiere of Ghosts passed quietly. There was a certain “restiveness” apparent in the stalls towards the end. Unlike Synge a decade earlier, or O’Casey a decade later, however, Ibsen did not provoke a riot.

The intervening century has robbed the play of most of the shock value it once had. Although in general a boon to humanity, the rise of antibiotics has had a near fatal effect on Ibsen’s plot. Still, somehow, the drama survives.

There is a marked improvement in the on-stage weather during the last act, when the rain finally stops. But this is ironic, as the protagonists’ relentlessly bleak descent into hell continues. It came as another surprise to climb out of the Abbey back to street level afterwards and find that it was still daylight.