Written in 1881 and first performed on stage in 1882 in Chicago, Illinois by a touring Danish company, Henrik Ibsen’s play, “Ghosts, A Domestic Drama in Three Acts”, is a brilliant commentary on the hypocrisy prevalent in the nineteenth century. It’s subject matter of incest, euthanasia, religion and venereal disease brought strong controversy and negative comments.
The venerated widow of Captain Alving is working with her pastor to dedicate an orphanage she built in the name of her deceased husband. The orphanage is the latest step in the reverence she has built in his name. But, through the conversation with her pastor, who is extremely bigoted, the audience learns that her marriage was not happy. Her husband was a debauched drunk. And although she tried to leave him once, this same pastor told her to go back to her husband and try harder. So, instead of releasing them both from a loveless marriage, they stayed together, and she hid his misdeeds from the world and his son. When their son was young, she sent him away to school and the only way he knew his father was through his mother’s flowery letters.
At one point she caught her husband raping the housemaid and gave her money to leave. The woman married and had her illegitimate daughter, who then grew up to work as the new maid. When the Alving’s son tries to have a romantic relationship with the girl, the mother finally reveals the whole story. She also tells her son that his health problems were caused by his father’s venereal disease. In the end the son’s health has taken such a turn that he wants his mother to help him kill himself.
This play takes place in the home of Mrs. Alving that overlooks her garden. There is a large room in the front and a smaller room in the back. The room in the back overlooks a fjord covered in mist. The play opens with Regine arguing with her ‘father’ Jacob Engstrand at the door by the garden. She is the maid of the house and the young master, Oswald is sleeping upstairs and she wants Engstrand to leave before he wakes him. But, Engstrand wants to talk to her about a business venture he is planning, a sailor’s establishment. He plans on using the money he earned while working at an orphanage. His plan includes her coming along to work for him. He tries to lure her by mentioning ways to earn her way in the world, such as marriage or maybe prostitution.
He hints at the three hundred dollars her mother earned by sleeping with a yachtsman when she became pregnant with Regina. She doesn’t want to go with him because of his drinking, bad behavior and the way he treats her. Regina shoves the man out the door telling him that she is quite happy with the job she has. Meanwhile, Pastor Manders comes up the walk. Even though Engstrand is angry that she turns him down, he leaves so he can avoid the pastor.
The next part of the scene involves the pastor. Regine is happy to see him and begins to ask him who he thinks she should marry, especially after he points out how well she is filling out. He tries to veer the conversation away by asking her if everything is ready for the dedication of the orphanage. He tries to convince her to help her father since he needs someone to care for him. Finally, he asks to see Mrs. Alving.
While he is waiting for Mrs. Alving, he looks at the books on the table. Mrs. Alving wants to talk about her newly arrived son who has been gone for two years as she enters. Soon they sit down to go over the paperwork involved in the orphanage. Suddenly he interrupts her and asks about her books. Although he does not approve of the books, she tells him that they make her feel confident when they confirm her opinions. His opinions are based on the opinions of others; he has never read them himself. The pastor begs her to keep her opinions to herself, especially in regards to the orphanage.
As the two go over the contracts involved in the orphanage, the two discuss buying insurance for it. He tells her that he doesn’t think the influential people in the town would approve because the insurance would show them to have little faith in God. After some convincing, she finally agrees. Their conversation moves onto Jakob Engsrand and the pastor thinks he is showing vast improvements by visiting his daughter every day. But, Mrs. Alving tells him the man doesn’t visit that often. “When he is sober.” The pastor argues back that if she released Regina from her position she could keep him on a good path. Mrs. Alving disagrees violently. “Oh, I know what sort of a father he’s been to her. No, she’s not going back to him if I can help it.” When she hears Oswald coming in she tells the pastor to drop the subject.
In comes Oswald smoking a pipe and wearing a light overcoat. The pastor notices how the young man resembles his father, a fine upstanding man. When the pastor muddles his way through an apology about his opinions about the young man’s previous life, Mrs. Alving is proud of how adult her son reacts. Mrs. Alving asks her son not to smoke the pipe in her garden room, but when Oswald says he was only trying it because it was his father’s and he has memories of his father urging him to try it when he was a small child and he became ill. Mrs. Alving tells him that he must have dreamed it.
As the conversation continues, Oswald brings up more subjects that shock the pastor, especially the families he has lived with. Mrs. Alving lends her support to her son’s arguments while Oswald fervently complains about the hypocrisy of people who disclaim the lifestyle he loves because it is more bohemian.
After Oswald leaves the pastor begins to berate Mrs. Alving on her own personal choices. He reminds her about the time she tried to seek shelter with him when she ran from her husband. The pastor tells her she was wrong to place judgments on her husband. He tells her it was her feelings of rebellion that caused the problems and she was wrong to jeopardize his own reputation by seeking help from him. Because he blames her for the faults of her son by putting on her earlier mistakes, he tries to pass on feelings of guilt to her. But, she tells him that when she came back to her husband he did not improve. She just learned how to hide it better. She endured his long nights of drunkenness when she would drink with him in order to keep him in his room at night. Especially after she caught him making a pass as their young housekeeper.
When their son was seven and old enough to ask questions, she sent him away to school so he would not be “poisoned by the air” in their house. Then she worked at building up the business and their home, although her husband received full credit while he slept the days away and drank the nights away.
The pastor asks her if she is trying to restore her late husband’s reputation by making the orphanage a monument to him, but she replies to the negative. She put the money he brought into their marriage into the orphanage, so that when her son inherits he will only inherit from her and not from his horrible father. The pastor finally apologizes for his assumptions and agrees that she had a lot to endure. As the two continue talking it is revealed that Regine’s mother was the housemaid that Captain Alving attacked. Mrs. Alving paid Jacob Engstrand three hundred dollars to marry the woman.
Soon Oswald returns from his walk and goes to help Regine with dinner. While he is gone the pastor tells Mrs. Alving that although he will have difficulty finding encouraging words to say about the late Captain Alving, he will do his duty to avoid a scandal. The two are horrified when they hear Regine calling from the kitchen for Oswald to let her go. Mrs. Alving attributes it to ghosts and tells the pastor not to say anything.
When dinner is over the pastor and Mrs. Alving talk of mundane things until Oswald and Regine are off to their separate tasks and they have privacy to continue their conversation of earlier. Although the pastor wants Regine to go to her father so she will be safe from Oswald, Mrs. Alving just thinks the flirtation was a whim. But, when the pastor thinks of Engstrand he considers how many times Engstrand lied to him. Engstrand had told him how sorry he was for making Regine’s mother pregnant before their marriage. Now he realizes that Engstrand is hypocritical, especially when he thinks about the money he must have gotten for marrying her.
Mrs. Alving tries to get him to see his hypocrisy by pointing out that her marrying Captain Alving for his money was no difference from what Engstrand did. She tells him that Regine’s mother was no more a “fallen” woman than Captain Alving was a “fallen” man. She also reminds her that she was in love with someone else when she married Alving.
Mrs. Alving wishes that she had told Oswald, the truths about his father, but the pastor reminds her not to. That it is her duty to keep her son happy. In a mood of rebellion, Mrs. Alving tells the pastor that she would approve the marriage of Regine and Oswald as long as they were made aware of their kinship. She tells the pastor that he has probably married quite a few couples in the village who were related.
Since the subject is something he can’t justify, the pastor changes the subject to asking her why she calls herself a coward. She has told him that she felt a coward for not leaving her husband and keeping the truth from their son. She also tells him that she is haunted by “ghosts.” When he asks her what she means by ghosts she explains, “I’m inclined to think that we are all ghosts, Pastor Manders, every one of us. It’s not just what we inherit from our mothers and fathers that haunts us. It’s all kinds of old defunct theories, all sorts of old defunct beliefs, and things like that. It’s not that they actually live on in us; they are simply lodged there, and we cannot get rid of them. I’ve only to pick up a newspaper and I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines. Over the whole country there must be ghosts, as numerous as the sands of the sea. And here we are, all of us abysmally afraid of the light.”
The pastor disregards her opinions as coming from the kind of books she’s been reading. She disagrees and tells him her ideas stem from the sense of “duty” he put in her when she ran to him. He admits that it had been hard for him to do his duty that night and send her back to her husband because he also had feelings for her. She tries to tell him that when she had come to him and he turned her away it was a crime to do so, but then he turns the conversation back to Engstrand.
Suddenly Engstrand knocks at the door. He comes in his Sunday Best and is penitent. The pastor is still angry at him for misleading him, but he smooths the water by telling him about the prayer sessions he has led and asking the pastor to conduct a service for the workmen after the orphanage is complete. He also justifies his marriage to Regine’s mother by saying that he was helping her and he didn’t want to tarnish her name by spreading the truth of their circumstances around. The pastor once again leans toward his fellow man. He apologizes to Engstrand for doubting him and when Engstrand misconstrues his idea for a home for sailors as a kind of refuge, instead of the bar it will be, the pastor offers his help. After he sends Engstrand off to prepare the orphanage for the service, he asks Mrs. Alving what she thinks. She chides him for his naivety. But when she tries to embrace him as he is leaving he pushes her away and leaves. The scene ends with her sighing and staring out the window again.
Soon Mrs. Alving walks into the dining room where she sees her son drinking. He says the dampness is making him drink, and although he is happy to be home, he can’t paint because of the weather. He sits next to her and tells her about some health problems he’s been having. He went to the doctor in Paris and was told he was being visited by the sins of the father. But, he showed them his mother’s letters to prove that his father was a saint, so they blame his health on his lifestyle choices.
Mrs. Alving becomes more and more agitated. When he asks for more to drink she calls Regine to bring in some champagne. He asks her to join them and with Mrs. Alving’s permission, she does. He has told his mother that Regine is the only one who can help him and that she had been looking forward to joining him in Paris. He says that she is the warmth he needs.
Seeing that her son is very unhappy, Mrs. Alving prepares to tell him the whole truth, when the pastor comes back. He still insists that Regine returns to Engstrand, but Oswald suggests that he and Regine should marry. Now, Mrs. Alving wants to come clean, but the pastor is still trying to prevent it when they hear voices from outside. The orphanage is on fire. While the pastor states that the fire is a result of the sinfulness of the household, he also bemoans the lack of insurance on the building.
Act three begins in the dark with a faint glow coming from the dying embers of the orphanage fire. As Regine and the pastor are talking about the fire, Engstrand enters. He begins to insinuate that the fire started because the pastor wanted lit candles for the service therefore it is his fault. Then Mrs. Alving enters and insists the pastor take the papers for the orphanage away and never talk to her about it again. He tries to think what will happen with the funds left over and what the congregation will think of him. Engstrand slyly tells him that he will help him keep the secret of the cause of the fire if he will devote the funds to his “home for sailors.” Engstrand helps him to justify his actions of donating the money to his “home” by comparing him to Jesus. Then Engstrand says he will name the home “Captain Alving’s Home” in his memory.
As the pastor is leaving Oswald enters. He tells Engstrand that the “home” will probably burn, too, since that seems to happen to all memories of his father. Then he pulls Regine and his mother close and tells them that he needs their help. His mother has decided on a way to reveal the truth without completely destroying his father to him. She tells him that his father was full of life, and that she and the town were too tame for him. He sought the company of drunkards to fill the empty places in his life. Then she hints about Regine’s true parentage in a way that she understands even if Oswald doesn’t. She is angry and asks to leave. Soon she overtakes the pastor and demands her inheritance from the money promised for the saloon since she should have been raised the daughter of a gentleman.
Oswald is a little surprised at the revelations, but it doesn’t help with his own condition. His mother tries to tell him that every child should love his father, but Oswald asks her if she still believes such superstitions. “Yes, surely you realize that, Mother. It’s simply one of those ideas that get around and…” To which she replies, “Ghosts.” When she asks if he loves her he says that at least he knows her, he never knew his father. Then he asks her is she can help him with his feelings of dread. He tells her that if Regine was still there she would have without a thought. His mother says he is all she lives for, of course she will help, until she learns the help he wants is to commit suicide. He shows her four morphine tablets that were given to him by his doctors. He says that when the sun rises the dread settles over him so heavily that he can’t keep going.
At first, as the dawn breaks she thinks she has helped him over the worst part until he seems to sink into his chair and tonelessly asks her to give him the sun. As she watches him, she begins to hysterically look for the pills. But, she can’t find them as his voice comes from his vacant face asking for the sun as she screams.
Mrs. Helene Alving – widow of Captain (and Chamberlain) Alving for the last ten years. She lives in a large house in the Norwegian countryside. She has lived a very unhappy life. She married the then Lieutenant Alving on the advice of her relative. But, her husband was an alcoholic and unfaithful. After she caught him seducing the housemaid she tried to leave him and go to the pastor who she had an affection for. When he sent her back to her husband, she discovered the maid was pregnant. She paid her three hundred dollars and sent her out. Mrs. Alving endured his debauchery, but when her son was seven years old and she felt she could no longer protect her son from finding out his father’s depravity, she sent him away to school. Then she wrote carefully worded letters to him praising his father, so he never actually knew him. She also covered for his inadequacies with the town by doing the work. She took care of the businesses and their home while her husband got all the praise.
Mrs. Alving has taken all the money her husband was paid to marry her and used it to start an orphanage in his name. She wanted to protect the good name she built and maintained for him, but she has been reading radical books for the time and starts to question the hypocrisy she sees around her. She begins to think she should tell her son the truth about his father.
Oswald Alving – the son of Mr. and Mrs. Alving. He is an artist and has come home to spend the winter with his mother. He suffers from great depression and doesn’t know the basis for his feelings of unease. He blames himself since his father was such a wonderful man. When he finds out his father was a horrible and depressed man, himself he begins to see it is not his fault.
While in Italy he took up a more bohemian lifestyle and began to drink heavily. The Pastor is quick to blame his mother for allowing him to live such a wild life. Oswald has begun to show interest in Regine, the housemaid. Although pursuing the housemaid makes him seem more like his father, what he doesn’t know is that she is his half-sister.
Pastor Manders – a hypocritical man who is quick to pass judgment on members of his parish. He thinks Mrs. Alving was wrong to allow her son to live in Paris and work as an artist. Even though he was aware of the debauchery of Captain Alving he sent Mrs. Alving back to him when she tried to leave him. He is quick to make allowances for the lack of morality of men but not in women. He is also quickly moved by public opinion. He is naive and believes Engstrand when he tells him he is opening a “home for sailors” where they will be cared for, instead of the saloon it will be.
Henrik Johan Ibsen Biography
Henrik Johan Ibsen was born in Skien, Grenland, Norway in 1828. He is known as the father of modern drama. His plays deal with psychological and social problems. His parents were Knud Ibsen and Marichen Attenburg. They were both from some of the few most well to do merchant families in the small port town of Skien. The close familial relationship of his parents and others in his town was a subject he included in a few of his plays.
When his father’s finances took a turn for the worse when Henrik was seven years old, they moved to the country and lived in more reduces circumstances. This was another subject he brought into his writings. His plays often dealt with financial difficulties as well as moral conflicts. The characters in his plays would often be based on people in his life, including the long-suffering woman. This helped women watching the plays to identify with them.
Ibsen briefly assisted an apothecary and began medical studies before changing into a lifetime association with the theater. He started as a stage manager and playwright at the National Theater at Bergen from 1851 to 1857 and then became director of the theater at Christiania (which is now Oslo) from 1857 to 1862. During this time he wrote his first plays.
From 1863 to 1891 Ibsen lived in Italy and Germany chiefly. He had married Suzannah Thoresen in June of 1858, and they had their only child, Sigurd in December of 1859. Their financial circumstances were so poor they quickly became unhappy with Norway, and that is what prompted the relocation. When he finally returned to Norway, it was twenty-seven years later, and he was a famous if controversial playwright. In 1873 Henrik Ibsen was knighted, then in 1892 he received the Grand Cross of the Danish Order of the Dannebrog, and the Grand Cross of the Swedish Order of the Polar Star, and he was also given the Knight, First Class of the Order of Vasa.
On the one-hundredth anniversary of his death in 2006, the Norwegian government pulled out all the honors for a world wide celebration honoring this great playwright. They organized the Ibsen Year. Several prizes were awarded in his name including, the International Ibsen Award, honoring an individual, institution or organization that had brought a new artistic dimension to drama or theater. There was also the Norwegian Ibsen Award, an award given only to playwrights to promote Norwegian drama. It has been given every year since 1986 by the town Ibsen grew up in, Skien.
Since 2008 the city of Delhi, India hosts an annual Delhi Ibsen Festival. They coordinate with the Norwegian Embassy in India. They perform plays by Ibsen, and the artist represents various parts of the world and varied languages and styles. In 1906, at the age of seventy-eight, Ibsen died after suffering a series of strokes. When a visitor asked his nurse about his health, she said he was doing better. To which he replied, “On the contrary.”
Asteroid number 5696 was named Ibsen in his memory in the year 1995.