Ghosts, perhaps Henrik Ibsen’s most unremittingly bleak play, caused a scandal when it was first performed in 1882. It was memorably denounced as an ‘open sewer’ by one critic, for its frank exploration of sexual promiscuity and venereal disease.
Ghosts has a very small cast of characters: just five, in fact. There’s Mrs Helene Alving, a widow; her son, Osvald Alving, who is a painter; a pastor, named Manders; a carpenter, named Jakob Engstrand; and Regine, who is Mrs Alving’s maid but also Engstrand’s daughter.
Manders is managing the orphanage which Mrs Alving has set up in memory of her husband, who died ten years earlier. Meanwhile, Engstrand wants to set up his own establishment, a home for retired seamen, but it’s hinted that it’s really going to be a house of ill repute (in other words, a brothel). He wants Regine to come and work for him there.
We also learn that, years ago, Manders persuaded Mrs Alving to go back to her husband after Mr Alving was unfaithful to her. As a man of God, Manders played upon her moral responsibility to her son, whom she had abandoned when she walked out. Mrs Alving reveals that, among her husband’s various infidelities, he had an affair with the servant girl. Meanwhile, Osvald, her son, is busy trying to seduce Regine, the maid.
However, Manders has discovered that Regine is not actually Engstrand’s daughter at all: she’s the illegitimate daughter of Mr Alving, who sired her when he had an affair with Johanna, a maid. Johanna then married Engstrand, who raised Regine as her own. This means that Osvald and Regine are related: Regine is Osvald’s half-sister!
More secrets come out: we also learn that Mrs Alving was in love with Manders, after she left her husband. Osvald reveals to his mother that he has a debilitating illness which he believes is a punishment for his sins (such as lusting after Regine); Mrs Alving goes to tell him the truth – that he had inherited syphilis from his dissolute father – but before she can do so, Regine arrives with the news that the orphanage is on fire.
It turns out, the following day, that Manders was responsible for the fire, but started it by accident. Manders agrees to give Engstrand the money he needs for his establishment, if Engstrand agrees to take the public blame for starting the fire. Mrs Alving, desperate to exorcise the ‘ghosts’ of her family’s past, tells her son the truth about his father, and Regine the truth about her father. Regine walks out, in pursuit of Manders.
Osvald tells his mother that his condition is fatal, eating away at his brain, and that if he should become incapacitated, he wants his mother to put him out of his misery with the morphine tablets he provides. The play ends with the sun coming up at the start of a new day, and Osvald in a chair, paralysed. Ibsen ends the play with Mrs Alving with the morphine pills, and refuses to show us whether she agrees to her son’s wishes or not.
Ibsen once memory said that ‘we sail with a corpse in the cargo’. In other words, we are all journeying through life carrying terrible secrets, the ghosts of our pasts. Perhaps nowhere is this more clear than in Ghosts itself, in which the sins of the father are very much visited upon the son.
Kenneth McLeish and Stephen Mulrine, in their introduction to Ibsen Three Plays: “A Doll’s House”, “Ghosts”, “Hedda Gabler”, call Ghosts the first modern tragedy: like the classical tragedies which Aristotle praised for their unity and strong moral focus, Ghosts observes the unities of time, place, and action, with many of the events which inform the play having occurred ‘off-stage’, years earlier. But what was revolutionary about Ghosts was Ibsen’s engagement with taboo subject matter.
The symbolism of the orphanage is key to an analysis of the themes of Ghosts. Orphan children are fatherless, of course, so it’s ironic that Mrs Alving is setting up an orphanage to honour her dead husband, who fathered Regine and then failed to raise her himself. And, of course, his reckless pursuit of ‘free love’ leads to his contracting syphilis and then passing it on to his own son, who will die from it. When the orphanage burns down, the lie that it represented is exposed, just as Mrs Alving finally tells Osvald and Regine the truth about their father.
The fact that Manders is the one who, by accident, burns down the orphanage is also significant. Ibsen had little love for organised religion and holy men, but he seems to be implying that this ‘accident’ can be interpreted as an act of God – something that’s hinted at early on in the play, when Manders and Mrs Alving are discussing the insurance plans for the orphanage, and Manders tells her that insuring the building would show a lack of faith in the will of God, or Divine Providence.
Ibsen’s plays often interlink in curious ways, with his next play building on his previous one. This is clear in Ghosts, where Mrs Alving, as critics have often remarked, is what Nora Helmer would have turned into if she had stayed at home with her husband, rather than striking out on her own and – famously – walking out on him and their children at the end of A Doll’s House (1879), a play we have previously analysed here.
Ibsen wrote his plays to be read first, performed second. And he often talked of ‘readers’ as much as he did ‘audiences’. By the time Ghosts was published in 1881, Ibsen was a famous figure in the world of European theatre, and his publisher printed 10,000 copies of Ghosts, hopeful that the play would sell well, especially in the run-up to Christmas. However, such as the opprobrium which the play attracted, that many copies of the play had to be remaindered.
It’s easy to see why Ghosts caused such an uproar. Ibsen himself later told the King of Sweden that he had to write the play; elsewhere, he wrote that he knew the play would shock readers, and that if it didn’t, he wouldn’t have needed to write it in the first place. He knew he needed to give society a glimpse of itself in the mirror, what Oscar Wilde, a few years later, would call ‘the nineteenth century dislike of realism [as] the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.’
At first, no European theatre would dare to stage Ghosts: it remained a play on the page rather than stage, largely unsold, and Ibsen’s name was mud for a while because the play provoked such a strong negative response when it was published. Curiously, the first performance of the play was in Chicago, of all places. When a London theatre (eventually) staged it, one critic called it ‘an open sewer’. Ibsen, always quick to build on such constructive feedback, decided that his next play, An Enemy of the People, would be about just that: a man who finds out the water supply is polluted but nobody wants to listen to him and believe the ugly truth.