Exploring the greatest new and classic plays


Hattie Morahan as Helene Alving
Sam Wanamaker Theatre
December 2023
Photo by Marc Brenner


074 – Ghosts, by Henrik Ibsen

Jan 15, 2024 | Podcast Episodes | 0 comments

Although Henrik Ibsen’s dark family drama Ghosts was written more than 140 years ago it still retains the power to shock. Its treatment of sexual disease, incest and euthanasia caused outrage in 1881, with critics describing it as “unutterably offensive”, “an open drain: a loathsome sore unbandaged”, a “putrid play”. Booksellers returned copies unopened, and no European theatre would produce it. The play did not receive its English language premiere until 10 years later, and that evaded the censor only by being presented in a single private performance. The play’s unflinching portrait of repressed truths and social hypocrisy has proven enduring because the conflcit between truth and hypocrisy is a universal source of human drama.

As we record this episode a new adaptation of Ghosts, written and directed by Joe Hill-Gibbons, is playing in the Sam Wanamaker theatre at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London until 28th January 2024.

To discuss this wonderfully powerful play, I am joined by Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, who is Professor of English and Theatre Studies at St Catherine’s College, Oxford University. Kirsten’s research interests include the relationship between modernism and theatrical performance, and more specifically for our purposes, the writings of Henrik Ibsen.

During our conversation, Kirsten and I referred several times to Ibsen’s earlier play A Doll’s House, which was the subject of our very first episode:
001 A Doll’s House, by Henrik Ibsen

Kirsten Shepherd-Barr

Kirsten Shepherd-Barr is Professor of English and Theatre Studies at St Catherine’s College, Oxford University. She received her B.A. in English from Yale University, after which she spent a year studying Nordic Literature and Languages at the University of Oslo before earning her D.Phil. from Oxford. She has held teaching posts at the Universities of Birmingham and North Carolina State before joining the English faculty at Oxford in 2007.

Kirsten’s research interests include the relationship between modernism and theatrical performance, and more specifically for our purposes, the writings of Henrik Ibsen. Her first published book wasIbsen and Early Modernist Theatre, 1890-1900  published back in 1997, since when her other publications include The Cambridge Companion to Theatre and Science (2020), Modern Drama: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2016),  and Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett (Columbia University Press, 2015), as well as numerous contributions to journals and critical collections.

Kirsten has been a guest on Melvyn Bragg’s “In Our Time” on the episode devoted to Ibsen, and has acted as consultant on productions at the National Theatre, the Oxford Playhouse, the Old Vic, and most recently her article “Challenging the Brand” appeared in the programme for the current production of Ghosts at the Globe Theatre.


Recommended Play

Kirsten recommended Wit by Margaret Edson.

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