Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts surprises modern audiences with some of the issues that it discusses, including out-of-wedlock children, venereal disease, incest, infidelity, and euthanasia. It is the story of a woman, Mrs. Alving, who is preparing for the opening of an orphanage in memory of her husband, Captain Alving, on the tenth anniversary of his death. The captain was an important and respected man in his community, and Mrs. Alving plans to raise this one great memorial to him so that she will not have to ever again speak of him. She wants to avoid the awful truth: that he was a cheating, immoral philanderer whose public reputation was a sham. Their son Oswald has come home from Paris with the news that he is dying of syphilis, which he contracted in the womb, and planning to marry the family’s maid. He hopes that she can nurse him as his illness progresses, and Mrs. Alving has to tell him that the maid is actually Captain Alving’s illegitimate daughter.
The ‘‘ghosts’’ in this play are the taboo topics that cannot be openly discussed. This drama is one of Ibsen’s most powerful works, but also one of his most controversial. Its initial publication sold only a few copies, with most of those printed returned to the publisher and no new edition printed until thirteen years later. It was not performed in Ibsen’s native Norway for almost a decade after its world debut in Chicago. In 1898, at a dinner in Ibsen’s honor at the Royal Palace in Stockholm, King Oscar II expressed the opinion that Ghosts was not a good play, and that Ibsen should not have written it. After a moment of silence, the playwright replied, ‘‘Your majesty, I had to write Ghosts.’’