Ghosts (Bokmål: Gengangere) is a play by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. It was written in 1881 and first staged in 1882 in Chicago, Illinois, in a production by a Danish company on tour. Like many of Ibsen's plays, Ghosts is a scathing commentary on 19th-century morality. Because of its subject matter, which includes religion, venereal disease, incest and euthanasia, it immediately generated strong controversy and negative criticism. Since then the play has fared better, and is considered a “great play” that historically holds a position of “immense importance”. Theater critic Maurice Valency wrote in 1963, "From the standpoint of modern tragedy Ghosts strikes off in a new direction.... Regular tragedy dealt mainly with the unhappy consequences of breaking the moral code. Ghosts, on the contrary, deals with the consequences of not breaking it."
- Mrs. Helene Alving, a widow
- Oswald Alving, her son, a painter
- Pastor Manders, an old friend of Helene Alving
- Jacob Engstrand, a carpenter
- Regina Engstrand, Mrs. Alving's maid and purported daughter of Jacob Engstrand, who learns she is Captain Alving's natural child
Helene Alving is about to dedicate an orphanage she has built in the memory of her late husband, Captain Alving. She reveals to Pastor Manders that her marriage was secretly a miserable one, primarily because of her husband's immoral and unfaithful behavior. She 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. But her husband continued his affairs until his death, and Mrs. Alving stayed with him to protect her son from the taint of scandal, and 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 to avoid his being corrupted by his father) is suffering from syphilis that he inherited from his father.[a] She also discovers that Oswald has fallen in love with Regina Engstrand, Mrs. Alving's maid, which is a serious problem because Regina is revealed to be an illegitimate daughter of Captain Alving, and therefore Oswald is falling in love with his half-sister.
A sub-plot that concludes before the play's denouement involves a carpenter, Jacob Engstrand, who married Regina's mother when she was already pregnant (though he is unaware, or pretends to be unaware, that Captain Alving was Regina's father) and regards Regina as his own daughter. Having recently completed his work building Mrs. Alving's orphanage, Engstrand announces his ambition to open a hostel for seafarers. He tries to persuade Regina to leave Mrs. Alving and help him run the hostel, but she refuses. The night before the orphanage is due to be opened, Engstrand asks Pastor Manders to hold a prayer-meeting there. Later that night, the orphanage burns down. Earlier, Manders had persuaded Mrs. Alving not to insure the orphanage, as to do so would imply a lack of faith in divine providence. Engstrand says the blaze was caused by Manders' carelessness with a candle and offers to take the blame, which Manders readily accepts. In gratitude Manders offers to support Engstrand's hostel.
When the sibling relationship between Regina and Oswald is exposed, Regina leaves, and Oswald, who is in love with her, is in a state of despair and anguish. He asks his mother to help him die by an overdose of morphine in order to end his suffering from his disease, which could put him into a helpless vegetative state. She agrees, but only if it becomes necessary. The play concludes with Mrs. Alving having to confront this decision: whether or not to euthanize her son in accordance with his wishes.
As with his other plays, Henrik Ibsen wrote Ghosts in Danish, the common written language of Denmark and Norway. The original title, in both Danish and Norwegian, is Gengangere, which can be literally translated as "again walkers", "ones who return", or "revenants". It has a double meaning of both "ghosts" and "events that repeat themselves", so the English title Ghosts fails to capture this double meaning.
Ibsen wrote Ghosts during the autumn of 1881 and published it in December of the same year. As early as November 1880, when he was living in Rome, Ibsen 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. He finished it by the end of November 1881 and published it in Copenhagen on 13 December. Its world stage première was on 20 May 1882 in Norwegian by a Danish company in Chicago, Illinois.
Ghosts premiered in May 1882 in the United States, when a Danish touring company produced it in Chicago, Illinois, at the Aurora Turner Hall. Ibsen disliked the English translator William Archer's use of the word "Ghosts" as the play's title, as the Norwegian Gengangere would be more accurately translated as "The Revenants", which literally means "The Ones Who Return".
The play achieved a single private London performance on 13 March 1891 at the Royalty Theatre. The issue of Lord Chamberlain's Office censorship, because of the subject matter of illegitimate children and sexually transmitted disease, was avoided by the formation of a subscription-only Independent Theatre Society to produce the play. Its members included playwright George Bernard Shaw and authors Thomas Hardy and Henry James.
Ghosts was first produced in New York City on 5 January 1894. It was produced again in 1899 by the New York Independent Theatre with Mary Shaw as Mrs. Alving. Russian actress Alla Nazimova, with Paul Orleneff, gave a notable production of Ghosts in a small room on 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.”
A Broadway revival of Ghosts ran from 30 August to 2 October 1982 at the Brooks Atkinson Theater in New York City, and starred Kevin Spacey as Oswald in his Broadway debut. The cast included Edward Binns, John Neville (who also directed the production) as Pastor Manders, Liv Ullmann as Mrs. Alving, and Jane Murray as Regina.
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 in the United Kingdom on 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.
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. 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; Manville also won the Critics' Circle Theatre Award for Best Actress, and Lowden also won the Ian Charleson Award. Eyre won the Evening Standard Award for Best Director. 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. The entire filmed performance is viewable online. The production was also adapted for radio by director Richard Eyre, broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 15 December 2013 and re-broadcast on 26 April 2015.
Ibsen's contemporaries found the play shocking and indecent, and disliked its more than frank treatment of the forbidden topic of venereal disease. At the time, the mere mention of venereal disease was scandalous, and to show that a person who followed society's ideals of morality was at risk from her own husband was considered beyond the pale. According to Richard Eyre, "There was an outcry of indignation against the attack on religion, the defence of free love, the mention of incest and syphilis. Large piles of unsold copies were returned to the publisher, the booksellers embarrassed by their presence on the shelves."
Upon being produced in England in 1891, the play was reviled in the press. In a typical review at the time, The Daily Telegraph referred to it as "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".
When Ghosts was produced in Norway it scandalised Norwegian society 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!"
Ghosts has been filmed, and adapted for film and television, numerous times in various languages. It was adapted at least three times for silent films. In 1915, George Nichols directed a film of the same name for producer D. W. Griffith. Mary Alden and Henry B. Walthall starred. Also in 1915, it was filmed in Russia, directed and adapted by Vladimir Gardin. In 1918, the Italian production company Milano Films released an adaptation titled Gil spettri, starring Ermete Zacconi and his wife Ines Cristina Zacconi.
- The play implies that Oswald inherited syphilis from his father. However syphilis is not genetically passed down from a parent in the genetic code, but is instead caused by a bacterium and is either transmitted sexually or congenitally transmitted to a child from the birth mother. In 2013 director Richard Eyre wrote in The Guardian, "It's often said that Ibsen misunderstood the pathology of syphilis, that he thought – as Oswald is told by his doctor in Ghosts – that it was a hereditary disease passed by father to son. It's much more probable, given that he had friends in Rome who were scientists (including the botanist JP Jacobsen, who translated Darwin into Norwegian), that he knew that the disease is passed on through sexual contact, and that pregnant women can pass it to the babies they are carrying. He knew too that it's possible for a woman to be a carrier without being aware of it, and perhaps he wants us to believe that Helene knows she is a carrier. It's a matter of interpretation." (Dr. Rank in Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House is another character who claims he inherited syphilis from his father.)
- 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.
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