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Ghosts – Footnotes

Jan 18, 2024 | Footnotes | 0 comments

The Footnotes to our episode on Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts include more on the storm that greeted the original publication of the play, an appreciation of Ibsen’s mastery of structure, his use of sexual disease as a moral metaphor, Mrs Alving missing out on “the joy of life”, and the symbols that enrich this naturalistic drama. 

Not listened to the episode yet? You’ll find it here.

Publication and Production History
As we highlighted in the podcast, Ghosts had a difficult entry into the world. As with his other plays, Ibsen wrote Ghosts in Danish, the common written language of Denmark and Norway at the time. The text was published in Copenhagen on 13 December 1881, in time for Christmas sales, in an edition of 10,000 copies. However, it met with an unexpectedly hostile reception. Ibsen wrote that “my new play has come out, and has created a violent commotion in the Scandinavian press.” His publisher informed him that booksellers were returning copies, either because they did not sell or because they were deemed moral contraband. The negative publicity affected sales of his existing titles, which was financially a severe blow for Ibsen. A subsequent print run of the text was not published until 1894.

Furthermore, initially no European theatre would put the play on. The first production actually took place in the United States, where in May 1882 it was performed in Chicago in Danish for Scandinavian immigrants by a Danish-Norwegian cast. The production toured to Minneapolis and other cities of the Mid-West which contained large Scandinavian populations.

The first European performances were a year later in August 1883, when a young producer took the risk of mounting a production in a regional theatre in Sweden. This was enthusiastically received by the audiences, and it was followed by successful runs in Copenhagen, Stockholm and finally in Norway in October 1883. The daring producer provides a vivid description of the audience reaction to the premiere performance in Norway: “When the curtain was raised, it felt as though the public held its breath. The scenes of the play unfolded in a silence worthy of a spiritual seance. When the final curtain fell, the silence continued for a good while before the ovations started.” This groundbreaking production continued touring, but it wasn’t until 1890, nine years after publication that Ghosts was acted by a Norwegian company in their capital city. The play later received many European performances, including in 1906 a production in Berlin, for which the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch was commissioned to create the stage designs. That is a show I’d loved to have seen!

As we mentioned in the podcast, the first English language performance did not take place until ten years after publication, in London in 1891. This was an extraordinarily singular event, not only because it consisted of a single performance only, but because it was the inaugural production organised by the newly-founded Independent Theatre Society, who counted among its first members Thomas Hardy, George Meredith and Henry James. The Society was, in the words of Charles Archer, the brother of Ibsen’s English translator William Archer, “a modest organisation of most slender resources, intended to give the non-commercial drama, both native and foreign, a chance upon the stage, by means of occasional subscription performances in theatres hired for the purpose. Since no money was to be taken at the doors, the performances would be technically private.” This arrangement meant that the production could not be prohibited or censored by the Lord Chamberlain. As we described in the podcast, it was this single performance that provoked the disproportionate avalanche of criticism in the press, with over 500 printed articles. According to his biographer, Michael Meyer, the response made Ibsen a household name “even among those Englishmen who never went to the theatre or opened a book.” Perhaps all of the initial bad publicity would turn out to be not a bad thing for Ibsen’s reputation or fortunes in the end.


First Edition of Gengangere (Ghosts), 1881

Edvard Munch Set Design for Ghosts 1906

Paul Hilton as Pastor Manders and
Hattie Morahan as Mrs Alving
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
December 2023
Photo by Marc Brenner

Ibsen’s mastery of structure
We talked in the podcast about Ibsen’s “retrospective technique”, in which as the play proceeds he gradually reveals details from the characters’ past lives. In this way the structure of the play embodies the very process and themes that he wants to express, as the repressed sins of the past inevitably force themselves to the surface.

Ibsen’s mastery of structure is also apparent in how carefully he connects all of the characters with their interlocking truths. The fact that Mrs Alving and Manders have a charged romantic history between them, for example, adds another layer to their intellectual and emotional arguments. Or the detail of Engstrand’s account that Regine’s father was a rich foreigner who arrived in town briefly on his yacht, because that is what Regine’s mother told him happened, further complicates the matrix of who knows what about Regine’s origins, and lends ironic colour to his plan for a hostel for visiting sailors. As does the pointed twist that it will be the lowly hostel that will be named after Captain Alving, rather than the lofty orphanage.

Ibsen’s structural skill is also on display in how tightly he manages the theatrical drama in the play. This is no doubt a skill he acquired from his years producing plays in the theatres in Bergen and Christiania in the first phase of his working life. Act One, for example, ends on a devastating moment of dramatic staging with Mrs Alving hearing Osvald attempting to seduce Regine, replicating the encounter between her husband and the maid all those years previously, which prompts her horrified exclamation “Ghosts”, and the revelation that Regine is in fact Osvald’s half-sister. It is a chilling moment, and it is also thematically so evocative. With her whispering of the play’s title, Mrs Alving conjures the ghost of her husband, who haunts her life, and now re-appears in the form of his son, as he replicates his father’s behaviour in seducing the maid of the house. Ibsen sets an unassuming detail earlier in Act one that foreshadows the idea of the son following the father, when Manders remarks on first seeing Osvald how much he looks like his father, to which Mrs Alving responds slightly too vehemently – “How can you possibly say that. Osvald takes after me.” Manders has touched a raw nerve in highlighting their similarity, which Mrs Alving is determined to deny.

The second act ends fantastically dramatically as well, with Mrs Alving about to tell Osvald and Regine the truth about their shared father, when she is interrupted by the fire at the orphanage. Ibsen proves to be a master of dramatic suspense, in addition to psychological and social truth.


Sins of the Father
A symbol of the theme of the father passing on his sins to the next generation is the implication that Oswald has inherited syphilis from his father. However, it is likely that Ibsen knew that syphilis cannot be genetically passed down from the father, so his use of this conceit is clearly metaphorical. In fact he combined the medical and metaphoric in a similar way in A Doll’s House, where Dr Rank also says that he inherited his fatal disease because of the dissolute behaviour of his father.

The idea that Osvald could be physically or morally infected just by Captain Alving’s presence also has a precedent in A Doll’s House. Helmer describes his disgust at the morally destitute character of Krogstad, believing that his house is filled with germs that will contaminate his children. Mrs Alving uses exactly the same metaphoric language: her child “would be poisoned just by breathing the air of this infected home.”  The pathologising of parenthood is obviously an image Ibsen found too powerful not to reuse.

Hattie Morahan as Mrs Alving
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
December 2023
Photo by Marc Brenner

The Joy of Life
“Mother, have you noticed that everything I’ve painted has been about the joy of life? Always, always about the joy of life?” Osvald’s phrase “the joy of life” pierces Mrs Alving. Her hearing of the spirit and freedom of her son’s alternative life abroad prompts her to review her own constrained life with regret. In fact, she also attributes her husband with having the “joy of life” when he was young, a joy that she says was snuffed out of him by being stuck in this provincial town, and by her not sharing this joy. In her account to Osvald and Regine about her married life, she goes as far as to blame herself, that she “made this home unbearable for him”. In the balance of responsibility, it seems somewhat unjust for her to shoulder the blame for his behaviour.

That said, the real regret is her loss in not having had the opportunity or freedom to experience “the joy of life” herself. The tragedy is that just as she reaches this realisation, the ghosts of the past overwhelm her.


Symbols in the play
Ibsen is renowned in the history of theatre for creating a new realism in his drama, in his presenting settings and characters that were recognisable to modern audiences from their daily lives. As Kirsten noted in the podcast, their dialogue is everyday speech. He was also not afraid to expose the realities of personal morality and social hypocrisy. That said Ibsen does inject symbolic images into this naturalistic form, especially as the intensity of events rises at the end of the play. The glow in the sky of the fire at the orphanage, for example, the conflagration represents the end of the lie about the respectable character of Captain Alving, but also perhaps a general cleansing of the lies of society, of the ghosts of “old dead opinions” and “doctrines…living throughout the entire land” as Mrs Alving describes them. Although it was painted a decade or so later, this image made me think of Munch’s painting The Scream, with its lurid sky and the universal energy that infuses his landscape. You can almost hear the scream of horror that Mrs Alving is experiencing as she cradles her sick son.

In the final symbol in the play, Osvald yearns for the sun – another image of fire – but also of light, against the darkness of this landscape and the life that is endemic here. “How dark it is here…On all my visits home I can’t remember ever seeing the sun shine” he laments. The sun does shine out as the dawn breaks at the end, finally dispersing the prevailing cloud and rain. Is it a false dawn that Mrs Alving looks vainly to for hope? Or is it a symbol of a renewed society built on truth? As with Mrs Alving’s horrible dilemma as the curtain falls, the result remains ambiguous.


The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1893

The Texts
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