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 dukkehjem(1879; A Doll’s House, 1880), in which a woman leaves her husband to achieve maturity, found stout defenders but also excited denunciation (in fact, the playwright was forced to produce a happy ending, in which Nora stays home, for German consumption). The controversy was in large part responsible for the play’s commercial success on stage and, even more emphatically, in book form. Ghosts, which deals with a woman who does stay home, was another matter, for this time the public concluded that the play was entirely too shocking, especially for its open treatment of venereal disease and its defense of unmarried cohabitation. Even the sales of Ibsen’s earlier plays dropped off. One newspaper critic summed up the general opinion when he wrote, “The book has no place on the Christmas table of any Christian home.” Eventually, the play became one of the pillars of literature.
One aspect of Ghosts is its attack on conventional morality. Pastor Manders embodies everything Ibsen hated in those conventions—the “ghosts” of the title. Manders is an unconscious hypocrite. Though he sees himself as a moral and ethical leader, he is motivated almost exclusively by fear of what others think of him. When he discusses the question of insuring the new orphanage, he states that he is not opposed to the principle of insurance—he himself is insured, and his parishioners insure themselves and their businesses—but he fears that by insuring the orphanage, his wealthier patrons may insist he is showing less reliance than he should on divine Providence. The decision not to insure the orphanage is based neither on an interpretation of God’s will nor out of concern for the orphans but for fear of public opinion. To Ibsen, the conventional moral code is itself hypocritical, and those who adhere to it are neither morally nor spiritually motivated.
In the closing act, fear of what others may think proves to be Manders’s undoing. After the orphanage burns to the ground, the unscrupulous, consciously hypocritical Engstrand convinces the pastor that he, Manders, caused the fire. Since Manders’s sole concern is his reputation, when Engstrand “accepts” the blame for the fire (and it is clear that he set it), the greatly relieved Manders agrees to provide financial support for Engstrand’s “Sailors’ Home”—a “home” that will clearly be little more than a brothel. To save his own skin, the spiritual mentor agrees to underwrite immorality.
Hypocrisy and opportunism pervade the moral landscape of the play. Engstrand is an obvious and...
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