Literary Daybook, March 13

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors

Published March 13, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On March 13, a bomber group receives order to bomb Moscow.
-- "Fail Safe" (1962)
by Eugene Burdick

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

- - - - - - - - - - -

Today in Literary History
On this day in 1891, Ibsen's "Ghosts" premiered in London, an event so "controversial and epoch-making" that, says biographer Michael Meyer, it is now regarded as "one of the most famous of theatrical occasions." Though published a decade earlier, and not his first attack on social convention and propriety, the play's references to syphilis, free love, incest and euthanasia had provided Ibsen's critics with a lot of ammunition. In this case, at least, Ibsen's self-proclaimed mission to "torpedo the ark" had resulted in shooting himself in the foot: All over Europe the play had been constrained by censors, shunned by most major and state theaters and regarded as too shameful to even have around the house in print -- in some cities, the young and modern-minded would gather secretly for readings and impromptu performances.

The London producers dodged 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," but the press also attended and they reported, wrote William Archer, 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 Suffragist-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.'"

Theater historians report that 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."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

the Salon Books Editors

MORE FROM the Salon Books Editors

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Richard Blumenthal