Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Alving home. Family estate located in Rosenvold on one of western Norway’s fjords. The house’s garden provides the play’s primary setting. This room has a door on the left and two doors on the right. Also on the left wall is a window, in front of which is a small sofa with a worktable in front of it. In the center of the room is a round table covered with books, magazines, and newspapers. Chairs are positioned around the table. The back of the room is a glass conservatory, and a glass door leads to the garden. All in all, it is a very prosaic, if expensively furnished room, in the style of the late nineteenth century.
The glass wall at the back of the garden room sets the atmosphere for the drama as it shows and reflects what is happening in and around the estate. Most of the time, the scene is a gloomy fjord shrouded in mist, which prepares the audience for the subject matter of the play. Later, a huge fire that destroys a new orphanage is visible through the glass. As the play ends, the new day’s dawn sunlight comes through the window. The reading materials on the table also show something about the house and its owner. These items represent the publications of new findings in science at the time, and as the play is a debate over science, they reinforce the subject matter of the script: that a fine house and wealth do not guarantee personal happiness.
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Norway in the 1880s
Ibsen lived away from Norway from 1863 to 1891. Rather than distancing him from the character of the Norwegian people, though, critics note that this separation helped him understand his native land better. Throughout the 1800s, Norway was a land of peaceful self-assurance, left alone to rule itself while still formally under the control of Sweden. This period of independence was a result of the Napoleonic Wars, which changed the organization of Scandinavia as much as they changed almost all of Europe’s political structure. Norway had been a province of Denmark for several centuries, from 1381 to 1814, but was taken from Norway, which supported Napoleon, and given over to Swedish rule because Sweden had supported the Russians, who eventually defeated the French. Sweden allowed Norway a great deal of independence. The Norwegian constitution, drafted in 1815, gave more political power to the Norwegian king’s council than to ministers from Sweden, whose power was limited to advising. Norway came to be one of Europe’s most independent and also one of its wealthiest countries, with the third largest merchant navy on the planet.
One result of this peace, prosperity, and independence was that social issues were examined with greater seriousness than they were in countries just struggling for subsistence. Issues of moral conduct were examined by radical social organizations that would have been outlawed in stricter...
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Realism, as a literary movement, flourished in the United States and Europe in the late 1800s, which is when Ghosts was written. In response to romanticism, which presented a version of reality that was twisted through human perception, realism marked an attempt to capture the truth about life, especially the ugly elements of truth that people would rather ignore. Realist literature is often associated with suffering, with disease and corruption, because these are the elements of life that romantic literature shied away from. Ghosts comes from a period in Ibsen’s career that is considered his realist period, during which he wrote about social issues that disturbed him and his audience, with the hope that examining such unpleasant truths would lead to social change. In this play, he is unmasking the hypocrisy that is usually behind memorials to great civic leaders, looking at the damage that a man with a great reputation might leave in his wake, the ‘‘ghosts’’ that linger.
All three acts of this play take place in the same setting: the garden-room of Mrs. Alving’s house. Keeping the action contained to this one place gives the play several distinguishing aspects. First, the small, enclosed, limited set keeps audiences’ attention focused on the characters and how they are interacting with one another. The human drama takes precedence over the exterior trappings that are necessary, but...
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Compare and Contrast
1882: German engineer Gottlieb Daimler invents the first internal combustion engine.
Today: Automobiles are so common that they create constant problems of crowding and pollution in urban and suburban areas around the globe.
1882: Major industrial areas, such as New York and London, are experimenting with electrical lighting to replace gas lights.
Today: Most areas in the world have been reached with electrical cables from huge nuclear or hydroelectric generators.
1882: The first birth control clinic in the world is opened in Amsterdam by Aletta Jacobs, who is the first woman to practice medicine in Holland.
Today: Birth control is still a controversial subject, even in areas where the rates of birth to single mothers have skyrocketed.
1882: Six years after Alexander Graham Bell develops the first working telephone, Western Electric began producing telephone units.
Today: Wireless telephones and e-mail devices that use the same radio waves are among the most popular consumer products.
1882: The romantic image of the western outlaw is developed after the death of Jesse James, a bank robber who was killed by his cousin for reward money.
Today: Criminal figures are still romanticized in popular culture, particularly in rap music.
1882: Chicago, where Ghosts premiered,...
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Topics for Further Study
Parallels have been drawn between this play’s treatment of syphilis and the current AIDS epidemic. Make a list of suggestions of changes that would have to be made to Ghosts if it were to be played as if Oswald had AIDS.
Write a short scene taking place between Captain Alving and Mrs. Alving, giving your audience a sense of the tension in their household when she was trying to control his cheating.
When Pastor Manders says that Johanna was a fallen woman when she was married, Mrs. Alving points out that, using the same reasoning, Captain Alving was a fallen man. In small groups, discuss how much people make such sexists distinctions in contemporary America.
The last scene of Ghosts deals with mercy killing, a subject that has become even more pertinent as medicine has learned to extend the lives of terminally ill people. Research outside sources that have weighed in on the euthanasia debate and write a paper explaining what you think Mrs. Alving should do about Oswald.
Research the world of Parisian artists in the 1870s and 1880s. Was their worldwide reputation for loose morals deserved? Give some examples that Ibsen might have had in mind when he was writing this play.
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Ghosts was adapted as a silent film in 1915, starring Erich von Stroheim and Mary Alden. It was produced by D. W. Griffith.
There is a modern version, produced in 1986, with Judi Dench as Mrs. Alving, Kenneth Branagh as Oswald, and Natasha Richardson as Regina. Elijah Moshinsky directed.
An unabridged audio cassette, with Flo Gibson reading it as text (not ‘‘performing’’ it as a play) was released in 1993 by Audio Book Contractors of Washington, D. C.
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What Do I Read Next?
Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People was started before Ghosts but was not finished until after the latter play. It is a scathing indictment of social standards, as a doctor who points out contamination of a town’s water supply goes from hero to enemy when his revelation upsets the local economy. Viking Press has a 1987 edition edited by Arthur Miller, the author of Death of a Salesman.
At the same time that Ibsen wrote in Norway, August Strindberg was the leading playwright in Sweden. Both playwrights explored the new realistic forms. Miss Julie, Strindberg’s 1888 drama about an aristocratic girl and her affair with her conniving butler, is considered his best.
The Russian author Anton Chekhov is considered one of the greatest authors of short stories and dramas in history. He cited Ibsen as one of his main influences. All of Chekhov’s plays are important, but The Cherry Orchard (1904) in particular examines some of the same themes as Ghosts.
Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw was a supporter of moderate Socialist ideas. His political analysis of Ibsen is printed as a book, The Quintessence of Ibsenism, available in a 1994 Dover Books edition.
Ibsen’s life and ideas come alive in the 1970 publication Correspondence of Henrik Ibsen, edited by Mary Morrison.
The way that writers treat the weaknesses of the body, like Ibsen’s use of syphilis...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Archer, William, ‘‘Ibsen and English Criticism,’’ in Fortnightly Review, Vol. 46, No. 271, July, 1889, pp. 30-37.
Derry, T. K., A History of Scandinavia, University of Minnesota Press, 1979.
Esslin, Martin, ‘‘Ibsen and Modern Drama,’’ in Ibsen and the Theater: The Dramatist in Production, New York University Press, 1980, pp. 71-82.
Goldman, Emma, The Social Significance of Modern Drama, Gorham Press, 1914.
Heiberg, Hans, in Ibsen: A Portrait of the Artist, translated by Joan Tate, University of Miami Press, 1987, p. 217.
Archer, William, ed., From Ibsen's Workshop: Notes, Scenarios and Drafts of the Modern Plays, translated by A. G. Charter, Scribner, 1978. This reprint of the 1913 study shows the process of development of Ibsen's most important works. Included is an introduction by Archer, who was one of Ibsen's most knowledgeable critics.
Clurman, Harold, ‘‘In Full Stride,’’ in Ibsen, Macmillan Publishing Co., 1977. A chapter in Clurman's critical survey of Ibsen, which covers Ghosts and A Doll's House. This analysis examines the approach actors need to take in order to fully understand the characters in the play.
Joyce, James, ‘‘Ibsen's New Drama,’’ from The Critical Writings of James Joyce, Viking Penguin, 1959. Originally...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Clurman, Harold. Ibsen. New York: Collier Books, 1977. This introductory study provides the general reader with a good starting place for reading about Ibsen. Clurman, a renowned stage director, discusses the plays as theater as well as literature. His discussion of Ghosts clarifies a misunderstanding about the play’s title and explores at some length the motivations of the characters.
Fjelde, Rolf, ed. Ibsen: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965. Sixteen essays that cover Ibsen’s conception of truth, realism, and stage craftsmanship, among other topics. Francis Fergusson discusses the realism, suspense, and tragic nature of Ghosts.
Lyons, Charles R., comp. Critical Essays on Henrik Ibsen. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. A thorough and useful volume of essays that includes discussions that address topics like realism and dramatic form in Ibsen’s works. The remarks on Ghosts explore the use of asides, disease, and dramatic language.
McFarlane, James, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Sixteen newly written essays on Ibsen’s life and work provide a good resource. Chapters 9-13 discuss Ibsen’s working methods and the stage history of the plays up through the age of film and...
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