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 in Chicago, Illinois, in a production by a Danish company on tour.[1] 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,[2] it immediately generated strong controversy and negative criticism. Since then the play has fared better, and is considered a “great play”[3] that historically holds a position of “immense importance”.[4]


Ibsen originally wrote the play in Danish, with the title, Gengangere. The Norwegian word is Gjengangere, which can be literally translated as "again walkers", or "ones who return," or "revenants",[5] Norwegians also use this term for people who frequent the same places, whether pubs, parties, opening nights, or other occasions, so it has a different meaning and connotation than the English word "ghosts".

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[6] 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.[7]

Plot summary[edit]

Helene Alving is about to dedicate an orphanage she has built in the memory of her dead husband, Captain Alving. She reveals to Pastor Manders that she has kept hidden the negative aspects of her marriage, primarily due to the immoral and unfaithful behavior of her late husband. 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 did not leave 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.

When the sibling relationship is exposed, Regina leaves, and Oswald 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.[10]


  • Mrs. Helene Alving, a widow
  • Oswald Alving, her son, a painter
  • Pastor Manders
  • Jacob Engstrand, a carpenter
  • Regina Engstrand, Mrs. Alving's maid and purported daughter of Jacob Engstrand; learns she is Captain Alving's natural child.
  • Captain Alving, already deceased and never presented on stage; he is spoken of


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

Ghosts premiered in May 1882 in the United States, when a Danish touring company produced it in Chicago, Illinois, at the Aurora Turner Hall.[1] 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",[5] which literally means "The Ones who Return".

The play was first performed in Sweden at Helsingborg on 22 August 1883.[6]

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.[11]

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.”[6]

The play received many European performances. In its 1906 production in Berlin, the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch was commissioned to create the original stage designs.[12]

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.[13]

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.[12]

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.[14] 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;[15] Manville also won the Critics' Circle Theatre Award for Best Actress, and Lowden also won the Ian Charleson Award.[16][17] Eyre won the Evening Standard Award for Best Director.[18] 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.[19][20][21] The entire filmed performance is viewable online.[21][22] 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.[23]

Original reception[edit]

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."[9]

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".[24]

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!"[9]


  1. ^ 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.[8] 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."[9] (Dr. Rank in Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House is another character who claims he inherited syphilis from his father.)[8]


  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. ^ Ibsen, Henrik, Ghosts. Four Major Plays. Oxford World’s Classic. Oxford University Press. (1981) ISBN 0-19-283387-1
  3. ^ Ibsen, Henrik. Four Great Plays. Bantam Books (1984) ISBN 9780553212808
  4. ^ Ibsen, Henrik. Ibsen. Plays: 1: Ghosts; The Wild Duck; The Master Builder. Dramatists Play Service Inc. (1980) ISBN 9780413463302. Page 24
  5. ^ a b Watts, Peter. Notes, p. 291, in Henrik Ibsen, Ghosts and other Plays, Penguin Classics, 1964.
  6. ^ a b c Wikisource-logo.svg Montrose J. Moses (1920). "Ghosts". In Rines, George Edwin. Encyclopedia Americana. 
  7. ^ "English first performances". 2004-05-12. Retrieved 2013-02-08. 
  8. ^ a b Shepherd-Barr, Kirsten. Science on Stage: From Doctor Faustus to Copenhagen. Princeton University Press (2006) ISBN 9780691121505 page 158-159
  9. ^ a b c Eyre, Richard. "Theatre: In the Spirit of Ibsen". The Guardian. 20 September 2013.
  10. ^ Ibsen, Henrik, Ghosts. Four Major Plays. Oxford World’s Classic. Oxford University Press. (1981) ISBN 0-19-283387-1
  11. ^ Theatreland Timeline (London Metropolitan Archives) accessed 11 Oct 2007
  12. ^ a b "Ibsen's Ghosts to Be Staged in U.K. in Production Inspired by Edvard Munch's Berlin Designs". Playbill. Retrieved 20 May 2015. 
  13. ^ The Broadway League. "Ghosts - IBDB: The official source for Broadway Information IBDB: The official source for Broadway Information". Retrieved 20 May 2015. 
  14. ^
  15. ^ "Glitzy Olivier Awards honors 'Mormon', 'Ghosts',". Reuters. Retrieved 20 May 2015. 
  16. ^ Editorial Staff (24 March 2014). "Jessie Buckley, Jack Lowden and Olivia Vinall among Ian Charleson shortlist". Retrieved 20 May 2015. 
  17. ^ "Jack Lowden wins Ian Charleson Award", West End Theatre
  18. ^ "2013: How we chose the winners", Evening Standard
  19. ^ Ghosts Screening (clip).
  20. ^ Billington, Michael. "Let's stop pretending that theatre can't be captured on screen", The Guardian. 18 June 2014.
  21. ^ a b "Richard Eyre's 'GHOSTS,' Starring Lesley Manville and Jack Lowden, Out Online Sept 18", Broadway World. 19 August 2014.
  22. ^ "Ghosts, by Henrik Ibsen, adapted and directed by Richard Eyre",
  23. ^ "BBC Radio 3 - Drama on 3, Ghosts". BBC. Retrieved 20 May 2015. 
  24. ^ "The quintessence of Ibsenism". LONDON: WALTER SCOTT 24 WARWICK LANE. 1891. Retrieved 20 May 2015. 

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