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.
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 countries. Also, questions of marriage and sexuality, which would have been left to church decree in the Catholic countries of Europe, were open to discussion in Norway, which was predominantly Lutheran. Ghosts was still a shock to Norwegian audiences when it debuted, but it would have been unthinkable to raise some of the issues it raises in a less progressive country.
Realism Ibsen is considered one of the most important figures in the realist movement that came to dominate literature in Europe and America in the last half of the 1800s. Realism was a reaction to romanticism, which dominated the first half of the century. The romantic movement was about individual freedom—...
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the most important writers of that period generally shared the belief that reality was flexible, subject to human interpretation. Beauty was assumed to have its own distinct existence, aside from the world people live in, and it was assumed that people had the power to interpret reality as they saw fit. Leading romantic writers were the poets Keats and Shelly, the essayist Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Edgar Allan Poe. After a while, romantic idealism came to be seen as too dependent on wishful thinking and not connected strongly enough to reality. The realist movement took romantic principles and, in effect, reversed them.
Realism recognized that individuals do not control their environment, but most struggle with it constantly. Realist ideas are evident in Ghosts in the way that the reality of disease puts a stop to Oswald’s artistic ambitions, and the ways that social expectations put limits on what Mrs. Alving is able to do with her life. It was a time when the invisible rules of social interaction were being explored. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution defined the capabilities of the body and drew attention to heredity; Karl Marx proposed the principles of historic inevitability; Sigmund Freud worked at mapping the unseen mechanism of the mind. In the arts, realists like Ibsen, Tolstoy, and Zola did not shy away from showing the miseries that followed when the freethinking individual was hemmed in by society, but they usually showed misery for a purpose, to shake up old expectations and move people to demand change.
Syphilis Syphilis is an infectious disease, seldom fatal today but incurable in Ibsen’s time. It is usually spread by sexual intercourse with an infected person; because the spirochete that carries the disease cannot live very long in the open, it is almost impossible for syphilis to be transmitted without an exchange of bodily fluids. The first known cases of syphilis in Europe occurred in 1493, leading medical historians to believe that the disease was brought back to the continent by the crew of Christopher Columbus’ first expedition to the Americas in 1492. In the following decades, it became a major disease. Its symptoms are similar to those of other diseases, which led to constant confusion about its characteristics before a blood test for diagnosing the disease was developed in 1905. Ibsen’s use of the disease in Ghosts shows several misconceptions about syphilis, most notably the idea that a child born with it can develop symptoms as late as his twenties; infected newborns sometimes do not develop symptoms until a few weeks after birth, but it does not lie dormant for years.
The first effective treatment for syphilis was developed in 1909, when German-born bacteriologist Paul Ehrlich found that the compound Salvarsan was effective in killing off the spirochete that caused it. Unfortunately, Salvarsan contained arsenic, a deadly poison. In 1943, penicillin was found highly effective as a treatment, and that method is used today. Using an antibiotic program centered on penicillin, doctors have the power to contain syphilis, but in treating the disease scientists are confronted with public attitudes. People with the disease sometimes put off treatment, afraid or ashamed because of its connection with sexual promiscuity. As a result, not all treatable cases are reported to doctors early enough to be cured.
Realism 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.
Setting 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 incidental.
This one particular location is meaningful because it is where the past, which affects the present in a ghostly way, took place. This house is where Captain Alving lived; through the doors is the dining room where Helena Alving saw him accost the maid; the bleak fjords on the landscape outside of the windows have defined Mrs. Alving’s world for most of her life. No other set would convey as much about what life was like in that house thirty years earlier, when the Alvings were newlyweds, when the trouble all began. If ghosts haunt this family, this specific setting is the locus of their haunting ground.
Symbolism A writer of Ibsen’s caliber will always present objects that resonate with meaning beyond their actual function in the play. In Ghosts, several stand out as particularly noteworthy. The most obvious is the orphanage. An orphanage is, of course, a place for children who are left alone in the world without parents. By erecting an orphanage as a memorial, Mrs. Alving is able to accomplish two aims at once. She creates a public institution that benefits the community and enhances the prestige of the person it is named after, but, in making the memorial an orphanage, she also creates a subtle, sarcastic commentary on how the captain treated his own children. In the course of the play, the orphanage, which was to be a tribute to a man who did not deserve one, burns down, indicating that such deception is destined to fail.
The second most important symbolic element is Oswald’s disease. Although the script does not aspects of syphilis make it symbolically important in a story like this. The first is the fact that it is spread through intercourse; Captain Alving would never have had the disease if he had been the morally proper man that he and those around him pretended he was. The second aspect is that it can be passed down from parents to unborn children—as Oswald quotes his doctor, ‘‘The sins of the father are visited upon the children.’’ There is also a biblical reference to the doctrine of Original Sin, which states that all humans are born sinful because of the sin of the first human, Adam. The doctor, after examining him, told Oswald, ‘‘You have been worm-eated from your birth.’’
A minor, but significant, object that has meaning beyond its actual existence is the champagne glass. In Act II, Regina is invited to drink champagne with Mrs. Alving and Oswald. Because she is the maid, she is apprehensive, but since she does have hopes of marrying Oswald she can believe that the invitation is legitimate. Before they can drink, though, they are interrupted, first by the entrance of Pastor Manders and then by the orphanage burning in the distance. When they come back from the fire, the champagne bottle is still unopened, and Mrs. Alving tells Oswald and Regina that he is her brother. Before leaving the house, Regina takes a bitter glance at the champagne that she was not able to have and remarks, ‘‘I may come to drink champagne with gentlefolks yet.’’ Although she lived there and, as she tells Engstrand in the first act, was ‘‘treated almost as a daughter here,’’ drinking champagne represents a class barrier that she has been unable to cross.
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, installs its first mechanized form of public transportation: electric cable cars that can travel twenty blocks along a straight street in half an hour.
Today: Underground trains and elevated trains can take passengers out of the city to the airport in that same amount of time.
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.
Sources 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.
Further Reading 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 published in 1900, this review of a minor, seldom-discussed Ibsen piece, When We Dead Awaken, touches on all of the plays in the author's long career.
Lebowitz, Naomi, Ibsen and the Great World, Louisiana State University Press, 1990. This book is an indepth look at how Ibsen's environment shaped his characterizations. Difficult and rich.
MacFarlane, James, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen, Cambridge University Press, 1994. An indispensable guide, with crossreferences to all of Ibsen's major works and annotations about the references made in them. MacFarlane, who oversaw the publication, is one of the world's great authorities on Ibsen.
Meyer, Hans Georg, ‘‘Ibsen's Dramatic Technique,’’ in Henrik Ibsen, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1972, pp. 9-18. Focuses mostly on the earlier plays Brand and Peer Gynt to draw generalizations about how Ibsen's style evolved throughout the different phases of his life.
Salome, Lou, Ibsen's Heroines, Black Swan Books, 1985. For thorough appreciation, the chapter about the main character of Ghosts should be read along with Salome's analyses of Ibsen's other important female characters.
Theoharis, Constantine, Ibsen's Drama: Right Action and Tragic Joy, St. Martin's Press, 1996. Theoharis delves deeply into the underlying psychology of each of the characters and how their interlocking needs hold the plays together.
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 television.
Valency, Maurice. The Flower and the Castle: An Introduction to Modern Drama. New York: Schocken Books, 1982. Readers interested in Ibsen as the founder of twentieth century drama will find rewarding material in this study, the first in Valency’s modern drama series. The author devotes more than 100 pages to Ibsen, and his comments on Ghosts are a good introduction to the play.