Written in 1881 and first performed in 1882, Ghosts
is a play by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Like most of Ibsen’s work, the play is a bruising indictment on nineteenth-century morality. Set in Norway, the three-act tale centers on the widow Mrs. Helen Alving who continues to grapple with her late husband’s chronic infidelity. A decade after her husband’s death, Helen is to memorialize an orphanage is his name. Helen’s son Oswald, who remains unaware of his father’s womanizing ways, returns home for the ceremony. Upon his return, Oswald is attracted to the housemaid, Regina Engstrand, who happens to be his half-sister. The troubled romance forces Helen to confront her own marital “ghosts.” The play was negatively received at the time it was produced due to the controversial subject matter that includes religion, incest, illegitimacy, sexually transmitted disease, assisted-suicide, and other taboo topics. The play has since been recognized as a major dramatic achievement. In 1963, theater critic Maurice Valency said, “Ghosts
strikes off in a new direction…Regular tragedy dealt mainly with the unhappy consequences of breaking the moral code. Ghosts
, on the contrary, deals with the consequences of not breaking it.”
Act I begins on Rosenvold, the estate of Mrs. Helen Alving in Norway. Jakob Engstrand, a carpenter, attempts to persuade
his daughter, Regina, to work at the new hostel he plans to open for seamen. Regina is too proud of working as a maidservant to Helen to take the position. When Jakob leaves, Pastor Manders enters and tries to convince Regina to assist her father. Regina badgers Pastor Manders to secure her a job among the upper crust of Norway. Regina exits and Helen enters. Then Helen’s son, Oswald, enters. Oswald has been touring Europe for twenty years and has not been home since he was a child. He argues with Pastor Manders about living out of wedlock. When Oswald exits, Pastor Manders confronts Helen over allowing her son to grow into such a lecherous man. He also accuses Helen of leaving her husband once in the past. Helen confesses to Pastor Manders that her husband was secretly drunk, unfaithful, and ill. She claims that her husband made her so miserable, she sent Oswald away so he would not inherit his father’s womanizing ways. Helen admits that Regina is the illegitimate lovechild of her husband and their former servant, Johanna. At the commencement of dinner, Helen and Pastor Manders hear a cry coming from the kitchen. Evidently, Oswald is making sexual advances on Regina, whom he had planned to marry upon his return.
Act II begins after dinner. Helen and Pastor Manders discuss the untoward romance between Oswald and Regina. Pastor Manders senses how irate Oswald is at Jakob for never telling him the truth about Regina. Jakob enters and asks Pastor Manders to give a prayer service at the orphanage built in the name of Helen’s husband. Pastor Manders interrogates Jakob, who responds by claiming he only kept Regina’s identity a secret to protect Johanna’s reputation. Jakob and Pastor Manders exit. Helen goes to speak with Oswald. Oswald imbibes alcohol. Helen desires to inform Oswald about his father’s true nature. Before she can do so, Oswald explains that he contracted syphilis from his father at birth. A Parisian doctor told Oswald that the sins of a father would inevitably corrupt his son. Oswald goes on to lament his personal despair and the hypocrisy of Norway writ large. His feelings contrast with Helen’s joyful attempt to tell Oswald and Regina the truth about their father. Act II ends with the realization that the orphanage has gone up in flames.
Act III begins as Jakob and Pastor Manders return to Rosenvold. Upon their return, they announce that the orphanage has burned to the ground. Jakob persuades Pastor Manders to believe that a public disgrace will ensue and that he will be held accountable for negligently allowing the candles to start the blaze. Jakob offers to take the blame, which Pastor Manders happily accepts. In exchange, Pastor Manders decides to fund Jakob’s seafaring lodge, which Jakob vows to turn into sailor reformatory. Jakob and Pastor Manders exit. Helen finally informs Oswald and Regina of the truth about their father. She explains that their father was a miserable drunk and sought to heal his pain through sexual gratification. The result was the unintended consequence of Regina’s birth. Regina feels swindled and storms off to collect part of her inheritance. Oswald, on the other hand, though somewhat relieved by the news, tells his mother that he is gravely ill. Oswald points Helen to morphine pills and asks her to give them to him in case of a setback. As the sun comes up, Oswald slinks into his chair in a vegetative state and begins to speak unintelligibly. Helen desperately scrambles to find the morphine pills to give to her son. At the end of the play, Helen stands before her son with the morphine unsure of what to do. Helen has ostensibly given up on her son and everyone else in the house.Ghosts
has been adapted to the big and small screen several times since debuting in 1882. Three silent film versions of the play were adapted, including a 1915 version directed by George Nichols for producer D.W. Griffith. In addition, in 1915, a Russian film adaptation of the play was directed by Vladimir Gardin. In 1987, BBC adapted Ghosts
as a television series starring Judi Dench as Helen Alving, Kenneth Branagh as Oswald, Michael Gambon as Pastor Manders, and Natasha Richardson as Regina. In 2014, a filmed version of Richard Eyre’s award-winning stage adaptation starring Leslie Manville and Jack Lowden was released in several cinemas and made available for online viewing.