Ibsen, Glaspell, and the test of time

It’s a lottery as to whether a play you wrote still appeals generations later. Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts has stood the test of time well; less so for Susan Glaspell’s Springs Eternal.

Playwrights have different ways of measuring success. A big-hitter on the West End might measure success in ticket sales. A resident playwright at a subsidised regional theatre might measure success by the number of four- and five-star reviews in local papers. A pretentious and incomprehensible playwright might measure success by the approval they receive from other pretentious incomprehensible playwrights, who of course know better than anyone else, and a student group in wild overestimation of their own abilities might measure success by the number of plugs given by their mate who edits the theatre column on their student paper. But I firmly believe that what most playwrights really want is for people to look back at their plays, years or decades later, and say to each other “Wasn’t that good?”

If you want future generations to revere your work, the obvious thing you have to do is write something that’s good and preferably original. That’s firmly in your hands. But there is something else you have to do: you have to write something that people in the future relate to. And that is very much out of your hands and instead is pure guesswork. We cannot possibly predict how plays written today will fare in the 22nd century. But we can look back at plays written generations ago and see how they fare today. And from my recent theatre binge in London, I have two prime examples of old plays with differing fortunes.

Mrs. Alving and Osvald in GhostsThe play that stands the test of time better is Ghosts, by Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen in a 19th-century playwright, probably best known for A Doll’s House, a play was about a woman stuck in a marriage that looks happy on the outside but miserable on the inside. At first glance, this plot seems ordinary and unoriginal, until you look at the historical context of the time, where even contemplating the possibility that a marriage is less than okey-dokey was a scandal. Cue uproar from the respectable class – perhaps not the wisest move, because anyone today can tell you that foaming with anger over mildly contentious issues only encourages these people to do it again. But Ibsen’s follow-up, Ghosts, was no shock-for-the-sake-of-shock piece. His own words about the inevitable upcoming furore probably put it best:

Ghosts will probably cause alarm in some circles, but that can’t be helped. If it didn’t, there would be no necessity for having written it.”

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