Ghosts is Henrik Ibsen’s effort to substitute the modern scientific concept of heredity for the Greek idea of fate. More important, it is a mordant attack on society and societal standards. In explicitly stating that these standards are responsible for Mrs. Alving’s tragedy, Ibsen inflamed even the liberal sensibilities of his day. The play can still be read as a study in what has come to be known as the science of semantics—the disruptive effect caused when words or concepts are, in society, divorced from the realities for which they are supposed to stand.
Frequently called the founder of modern drama, Ibsen, like Pablo Picasso in painting and Igor Stravinsky in music, was a dynamic innovator whose far-ranging experiments had a continuing influence on Western theater and culture. Ghosts, Ibsen’s most celebrated, at one time even notorious, play, was the key document in his “social-realistic” period during the 1870’s and 1880’s. To some extent, the play obscured the fact that he was a protean writer whose social-realistic phase occupied only two decades of a career that spanned half a century, from 1849 to 1899, during which he explored many social, psychological, and metaphysical problems in a wide range of theatrical styles.
In the 1880’s, however, Ghosts was a red flag to the conventional theater audience and a defiant banner for the avant-garde. Ibsen’s earlier social play, Et...
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