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Ghosts | Context

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Realism in the Arts

Henrik Ibsen's major plays are part of a 19th-century artistic movement called Realism that strove to represent real life faithfully. In novels such as those by Charles Dickens in the 1860s and 1870s, characters are drawn from the the middle and lower classes rather than the exalted ranks more familiar in classical literature. The physical environment of the stories is accurately presented, and the connection between a character's thoughts and behavior is explored. In visual arts the rise of photography reflected the desire to see the "real" picture rather than an artist's interpretation of a subject. Journalism became an endeavor dedicated to reporting facts and events objectively without the veil of an author's viewpoint. Thus, in his major plays, Ibsen focuses on ordinary people and their imperfections as he presents what he sees as an unvarnished view of society. His new kind of realistic drama and theater brought this artistic movement to 19th-century audiences.

The Shift to Realism in Theater

Although Ibsen's plays and theatrical productions might appear traditional and old-fashioned now, in the last half of the 19th century they were considered radical because of their realism. In the first half of the 19th century, European theaters staged productions that were anything but realistic. Melodramas with stereotypical characters and simple plots that ended happily dominated popular theater. Sweeping historical spectacles or tragedies with lofty heroes expressing exaggerated emotions passed as serious drama. Acting was formal and stylized, and sets consisted of painted backdrops.

The formulaic "well-made plays" of French playwright Eugene Scribe were also a staple of European theater. Scribe's comedies and dramas were carefully structured. The cause-and-effect plots built to a suspenseful climax when secrets were revealed at the end. These theatrical traditions did little to reflect the experiences and lives of ordinary people.

Although Ibsen borrowed from Scribe's drama, his plays created something new for the time. Ibsen boldly tackled social issues, showing the corruption and sadness often found below the surface in the midst of seemingly happy, prosperous families. Characters were ordinary people with real problems. The stage became a realistic room filled with furniture, knickknacks, windows, and doors. The performances in Ibsen's plays were equally realistic. Actors whispered, gasped, laughed, and shrieked to reflect the characters' emotions. Ibsen's realism showed middle-class characters and sets that looked much like the homes of the middle-class audience.

Psychology and the Stage

Ibsen was writing his major plays as a new form of science emerged. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, pioneered the study of the mind. Freud's focus on how past experience shapes behavior in his patients parallels Ibsen's interest in more fully realized characters in his plays. Earlier dramatic genres (such as melodrama) leaned heavily on contrived action to move the plot. Characters were generally stereotypes—the damsel in distress, the villain—with little depth of personality and little meaningful personal history. While Freud's work probed an individual's past for clues to explain present actions and illness, Ibsen likewise emphasized personal history, which is especially central to character and plot development in Ghosts. Like Freud's later patients, Ibsen's characters are products of events that occurred long before the plays begin.

Before and After Ghosts

Ghosts (1881) and the plays written just before and after it established Ibsen as a social critic. In A Doll's House (1879), a young wife and mother searches for equality in her marriage and in society. Ibsen achieved global fame with the play, which challenged society's position on women's rights. The play's protagonist, Nora Helmer, leaves her husband and children to search for a life as an independent woman. Nora's actions led some to celebrate Ibsen's progressive thinking and others to severely criticize him for creating such an immoral character for the time. In Nora, Ibsen chose to push past a more traditional happy ending to examine real problems faced by women in society.

The themes and reception of A Doll's House in a sense laid the groundwork for the story presented in Ghosts. To combat the criticism of Nora's behavior in A Doll's House, Ibsen showed what could have happened had she stayed in her stifling marriage. In Ghosts Mrs. Alving chooses to follow society's rules at the expense of her own well-being. Ibsen shows how the results of such a choice are devastating. Mrs. Alving endures a faithless husband and the effects of that choice are a son dying of supposed inherited syphilis, a potential case of incest, and the dilemma of euthanasia. People were outraged. Newspapers who had hailed Ibsen as a liberal thinker in A Doll's House abandoned him after Ghosts. The play's first performance took place in Chicago in 1882 because no Norwegian or European theater would produce it.

Afterward, although Ibsen had the idea for Enemy of the People (1882) as he was writing Ghosts, the later play, in large part, reflects Ibsen's anger over the popular and critical response to his "scandalous" play. In Enemy of the People Dr. Stockmann tries to expose the town's contaminated water supply but is eventually rejected by the townspeople. Likewise, Ibsen had attempted to expose the toxicity of gender relations in his previous two plays but was rejected by popular and critical opinion. Dr. Stockmann is heard, then ignored. Ibsen was heard, then condemned. In a turn of situational irony, Enemy of the People was well received, even though its message is critical of a public that does not want change.

As a whole, people were often dismayed and angered, or at least confused, by Ibsen's plays. Perhaps the struggles of the characters on stage hit too close to home. Perhaps bringing difficult social issues into the light and onto the stage disturbed people as they saw themselves reflected in Ibsen's plots.

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