Study Guide

Ghosts Introduction

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Ghosts Introduction

Guess. Just guess where the premiere of Henrik Ibsen's play Ghosts took place. You won't get it, because it's completely crazy. The very first performance of Ghosts happened in Chicago on May 20th 1882, at a place called Aurora Turner Hall. It was the first time an Ibsen play was performed in the United States. The actors were mostly Norwegian and Danish amateurs; the play was performed in Norwegian for Scandinavian immigrants.

But wait, isn't Ibsen supposed to be a big deal? Like, the Father of Modern Drama kind of big deal? Couldn't he have a grander opening that that? Not with Ghosts, which he wrote between A Doll's House and Enemy of the People. Ghosts was a serious hot potato nobody had touched since its publication a year before. Thousands of copies were returned to the publisher. The play was met in Denmark and Norway with shock and horror because of its defense of iconoclasm (the attack of settled beliefs), satire of the church, and discussion of taboo topics like syphilis, incest, and assisted suicide. There were just too many firecrackers in that box.

The most explosive reaction came from Londoners in 1891, when one performance was presented at J.T. Grein's Independent Theatre. Critics and public alike flogged the play, calling it "an open drain; a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly" and so on. Ibsen contemporary and translator William Archer compiled a whole litany of abuses in his article "Ghosts and Gibberings" in The Pall Mall Gazette.

The particular topics that scandalized early audiences don't hit us in the same way today. We have difficulty seeing protagonist Mrs. Alving as a radical when many of her revolutionary ideas have become more mainstream. Premarital sex, religious protest, dysfunctional marriage – she owns up to them, but many of us do too. Think about substituting some of today's radical concepts into the play to give yourself an idea of just how shocking it could be to have a character on stage discussing controversial ideas. Even if particular social arguments have changed, the play is still terrifyingly powerful in its story of a woman exorcising her ghosts.

What is Ghosts About and Why Should I Care?

You've probably heard a lot about "Change" recently. Since Obama successfully ran on Change with a capital C, it's washing all the advertisements. "Change" is the new "Green." Change is on the Dr. Phil billboards, it's on those cotton grocery bags, it's selling cola and sports shoes. The self-help and fitness industries make millions convincing us we can easily change – and selling us the book, DVD, or podcast that shows us how.

In Ghosts, Ibsen presents a very different view of change. In his play, change is a grim, excruciating reality to which he subjects Mrs. Alving. This lady is not just changing her clothes, she is peeling herself apart. This kind of change – the difficult unseating of long-held beliefs – hurts. It's hard.

Mrs. Alving is a middle-aged woman. She could be taking it easy, having coffee with her friends and complaining about her husband. But that's not her. She's seeking, she's questioning, she's open to reinventing herself. Though she had always viewed herself as a the victim of an alcoholic, unfaithful husband, Mrs. Alving realizes that her husband had been suffocated by convention.

This is a woman who courageously faces the story she tells herself about her life, and changes it. She watches the ground underneath her disappear, and she redefines herself. Would you have the courage to start over from scratch, like Mrs. Alving?

Ghosts Resources

The place to go for all things Ibsen: biography, pictures, current productions, production history, etc. It's awesome.

Ibsen Voyages
Features the articles of renowned Ibsen translator and scholar Brian Johnston, whose teaching influenced this module a good deal.

Check it out. This is where Mrs. Alving lives. Beautiful but pretty austere.

All you need to know about the sexually transmitted disease that Oswald and Captain Alving suffered from.

More about Ibsen's turf.

Movie or TV Productions

Ghosts, 1981
The 1981 BBC production with Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh. Check it out as part of the Henrik Ibsen Collection available here:

Gespenster, 1966
A West German version.

Winter Light, 1966
If you want to get in a good Scandinavian groove – and get to know a provincial priest much like Pastor Manders – watch this wonderful Ingmar Bergman film. Just watch any Ingmar Bergman film. The guy's a genius.

Historical Documents

Review by Emma Goldman
Of course the famous anarchist dug this play. Check out her 1914 review here.

Manuscript Title Page
Written in the hand of the man himself.

Letter to Hegel
More of Ibsen's penmanship. He's writing to his publisher to predict the furor that Ghosts will provoke. It may be worth learning Norwegian for this. Let us know.


Excerpt from 1986 Film
Check out part of Act 3. Judi Dench has amazing eyebrows.

Gespenster Trailer
Gespenster is the German title for Ghosts. You don't have to speak German to enjoy this cool trailer and think about the play in a different way. Mrs. Alving is super-sexy, as is Pastor Manders, Oswald's not that attractive. You'll recognize the round table in this minimalist set.

Choreographer Cathy Marston's Adaptation of Ghosts
If you're into dance, check out this trailer and pick out who's who.

Norwegian Landscape
Wow, it's gorgeous there. Take a look.

Stella Adler on Ibsen
The great acting teacher talks about her approach to Ibsen. You might just want to get her terrific book, Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov.


Solveig's Song
Edvard Grieg was a fellow Norwegian and collaborator of Ibsen's. He wrote songs for Peer Gynt and other poems. This gorgeous song is from Peer Gynt and sung by Lucia Popp.


Ibsen in 1878
Ibsen just a couple of years before Ghosts came out.

Ibsen in 1888
A few years after Ghosts came out. Nasty critics will turn your hair white.

Ibsen on his deathbed (1906)
Yeah, it's a little dark, but Ibsen was a dark guy.

Henrik Ibsen's Juleklap
An 1881 cartoon depicting the response to Ghosts. Lots of other great cartoons on this site.

Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916)
This Danish painter was a contemporary of Ibsen's. Checking out some of his paintings may give you an idea of how the Scandinavian world looked at that time.

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