Ghosts (play)

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A performance of Ghosts in Berlin, 1983.

Ghosts (original Danish title: Gengangere) is a play by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. It was written in 1881 and first staged in 1882.[1] Like many of Ibsen's better-known plays, Ghosts is a scathing commentary on 19th-century morality.

The play was originally written in Danish. The word "Gengangere" is not Norwegian. The Norwegian word is "Gjengangere" but the translation is reasonable, literally translated as "again walkers". Norwegians also use the term about people who frequently show up in the same places, be they pubs, parties or first nights or other places or occasions.


Ghosts was written during the autumn of 1881 and was published in December of the same year. As early as November 1880, when Ibsen was living in Rome, he was meditating on a new play to follow A Doll's House. When he went to Sorrento, in the summer of 1881, he was hard at work upon it. It was finished by the end of November 1881[2] and published in Copenhagen on 13 December. Its world stage première was on 20 May 1882 in Norwegian in Chicago.[3]

Plot summary[edit]

Helen Alving is about to dedicate an orphanage she has built in the memory of her dead husband, Captain Alving. She reveals to her spiritual advisor, Pastor Manders, that she has hidden the evils of her marriage, and has built the orphanage to deplete her husband's wealth so that their son, Oswald, might not inherit anything from him. Pastor Manders had previously advised her to return to her husband despite his philandering, and she followed his advice in the belief that her love for her husband would eventually reform him. However her husband's philandering continued until his death, and Mrs. Alving was unable to leave him prior to his death for fear of being shunned by the community. During the action of the play she discovers that her son Oswald (whom she had sent away so that he would not be corrupted by his father) is suffering from inherited syphilis, and (worse) has fallen in love with Regina Engstrand, Mrs. Alving's maid, who is revealed to be an illegitimate daughter of Captain Alving, and thereby Oswald's own half-sister.

The play concludes with Mrs. Alving having to decide whether or not to euthanize her son Oswald in accordance with his wishes. Her choice is left unknown.


  • Mrs. Helene Alving, a widow
  • Oswald Alving, her son, a painter
  • Pastor Manders
  • Jacob Engstrand, a carpenter
  • Regina Engstrand believes she is the daughter of Jacob Engstrand, but is actually Captain Alving's child. She is also Mrs. Alving's maid
  • Captain Alving, never on stage due to being deceased, but is spoken of


Hedvig Winterhjelm as Mrs. Alving and August Lindberg as Osvald in the 1883 Swedish performance.

Ghosts was not performed in the theatre until May 1882, when a Danish touring company produced it in the Aurora Turner Hall in Chicago.[1] Ibsen disliked the translator William Archer's use of the word "Ghosts" as the play's title, whereas the Norwegian "Gengangere" would be more accurately translated as "The Revenants",[4] which literally means "The Ones who Return".

The play received its first performance in Sweden at Helsingborg on 22 August 1883.[2]

The play achieved a single private London performance on 13 March 1891 at the Royalty Theatre. The Lord Chamberlain's Office censorship was avoided by the formation of a subscription-only Independent Theatre Society, which included George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Hardy and Henry James among its members.[5]

Ghosts was first produced in New York City on 5 January 1894, and by the New York Independent Theatre, in 1899, with Mary Shaw as Mrs. Alving. Alla Nazimova, with Paul Orleneff gave a notable production of Ghosts in a small room in the Lower East Side. When Nazimova was a student in Russia she wanted to “play Regina for my graduation piece at the dramatic school at Moscow, but they would not let me. Ghosts was at that time prohibited by the censor, because it reflects on the Church.”[2]

A Broadway revival ran from 30 August to 2 October 1982 at the Brooks Atkinson Theater and starred Kevin Spacey in his Broadway debut as Oswald. The cast also included Edward Binns, John Neville (who also directed the production) as Pastor Manders, Liv Ullmann as Mrs. Alving and Jane Murray as Regina.[6]

A touring UK production, designed by Simon Higlett and inspired by Edvard Munch's original stage designs for a 1906 staging in Berlin, began performances at Kingston's Rose Theatre 19 September 2013 prior to an official opening on 25 September. Directed by Stephen Unwin, the cast included Patrick Drury as Pastor Manders, Florence Hall as Regina, Kelly Hunter as Mrs Alving, and Mark Quartley as Oswald.[7]

An award-winning 2013–14 London production opened at the Almeida Theatre on 26 September 2013 and transferred to the West End at Trafalgar Studios on 9 December, running through 22 March 2014.[8] Adapted and directed by Richard Eyre, it featured Lesley Manville, Jack Lowden, Will Keen, Charlene McKenna, and Brian McCardie. Manville and Lowden won Olivier Awards for their performances;[9] Manville also won the Critics' Circle Theatre Award for Best Actress, and Lowden also won the Ian Charleson Award.[10][11] Eyre won the Evening Standard Award for Best Director.[12] The production also won the Olivier Award for Best Revival, and received Olivier Award nominations for Best Director and Best Lighting Design. A filmed February 2014 performance of the production screened in more than 275 UK and Irish cinemas on 26 June 2014.[13][14][15] The entire filmed performance is viewable online.[15][16]


Much like A Doll's House, Ghosts was deliberately sensational. What most offended Ibsen's contemporaries was what they regarded as its shocking indecency, its more than frank treatment of a forbidden topic. An English critic was later to describe it as "a dirty deed done in public",[17] and to many it must have seemed simply shocking rather than in any profound intellectual sense revolutionary.

At the time, the mere mention of venereal disease was scandalous, but to show that even a person who followed society's ideals of morality had no protection against it was beyond the pale. Mrs. Alving's is not the noble life which Victorians believed would result from fulfilling one's duty rather than following one's desires. Those idealized beliefs are only the "ghosts" of the past, haunting the present.

The production of Ghosts scandalised Norwegian society of the day and Ibsen was strongly criticised. In 1898 when Ibsen was presented to King Oscar II of Sweden and Norway, at a dinner in Ibsen's honour, the King told Ibsen that Ghosts was not a good play. After a pause, Ibsen exploded "Your Majesty, I had to write Ghosts!"

The following quotes are a collection of remarks regarding the play from a variety of newspapers and sources, written at the time that the play had its debut.

"Ibsen's positively abominable play entitled Ghosts.... An open drain: a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly.... Gross, almost putrid indecorum.... Literary carrion.... Crapulous stuff" – Daily Telegraph

"Revoltingly suggestive and blasphemous .... Characters either contradictory in themselves, uninteresting or abhorrent." – Daily Chronicle

"Morbid, unhealthy and disgusting story.... A piece to bring the stage into disrepute and dishonour with every right-thinking man and woman." – Lloyd's

"Nauseating and menacing .... Infects the unsuspecting audience member with the same syphilitic disease of the mind that so afflicts Oswald." – Ockham's Quarterly

"Lugubrious diagnosis of sordid impropriety.... Characters are prigs, pedants and profligates.... Morbid caricatures.... Maunderings of nookshotten Norwegians" – Black and White

"As foul and filthy a concoction as has ever been allowed to disgrace the boards of an English theatre.... dull and disgusting.... Nastiness and malodorousness laid on thickly as with a trowel." – Era

"Ninety-seven percent of the people who go to see Ghosts are nasty-minded people who find the discussion of nasty subjects to their taste, in exact proportion to their nastiness" – Sporting and Dramatic News

"Ugly, nasty, discordant, and downright dull.... A gloomy sort of ghoul, bent on groping for horrors by night, and blinking like a stupid old owl when the warm sunlight of the best of life dances into his wrinkled eyes" – Gentlewoman

"The socialistic and the sexless.... The unwomanly women, the unsexed females, the whole army of unprepossessing cranks in petticoats.... Educated and muck-ferreting dogs.... Effeminate men and male women..... They all of them–men and women alike–know that they are doing not only a nasty but an illegal thing.... The Lord Chamberlain [the censor] left them alone to wallow in Ghosts.... Outside a silly clique, there is not the slightest interest in the Scandinavian humbug or all his works.... A wave of human folly" – Truth


  • Book Background, Penguins Classics, Henrik Ibsen: Ghosts and Other Plays ISBN 0-14-044135-2


  1. ^ a b Hanssen, Jens-Morten (10 July 2005). "Facts about Ghosts". All about Henrik Ibsen. National Library of Norway. Retrieved 2014-09-23. Thus the very first performance of Ghosts took place at the Aurora Turner Hall in Chicago on May 20th 1882. 
  2. ^ a b c Wikisource-logo.svg Montrose J. Moses (1920). "Ghosts". In Rines, George Edwin. Encyclopedia Americana. 
  3. ^ "English first performances". 2004-05-12. Retrieved 2013-02-08. 
  4. ^ Watts, Peter. Notes, p. 291, in Henrik Ibsen, Ghosts and other Plays, Penguin Classics, 1964.
  5. ^ Theatreland Timeline (London Metropolitan Archives) accessed 11 Oct 2007
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^ Ghosts Screening (clip).
  14. ^ Billington, Michael. "Let's stop pretending that theatre can't be captured on screen". The Guardian. 18 June 2014.
  15. ^ a b "Richard Eyre's GHOSTS, Starring Lesley Manville and Jack Lowden, Out Online Sept 18". Broadway World. 19 August 2014.
  16. ^ "Ghosts, by Henrik Ibsen, adapted and directed by Richard Eyre".
  17. ^ Krutch, Joseph Wood. "Modernism" in Modern Drama: A Definition and an Estimate. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1953. p. 9.

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