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Study Guide

Ghosts

The Story | Artists | Context | Enrichment Activities

 

Almeida Theatre and Sonia Friedman Productions
By Henrik Ibsen
Adapted and directed by Richard Eyre

Aside from the two decades or so that William Shakespeare was active in the London theater scene, has any playwright in history had such a run of brilliant, durable successes as Henrik Ibsen did in the last two decades of the 19th century? Scarred by a difficult childhood, Ibsen had struggled for years in obscurity, both in his native Norway and in various locations throughout Europe. With plays like Brand and Peer Gynt, he began to establish his reputation, and it was with the publication and success of The Pillars of Society in 1877 that Ibsen began what is known by most critics and historians as his great period. For the next two decades, he published a series of plays, usually at the rate of one every other year. These include some of the masterworks of social realism, including A Doll’s House (1879), Ghosts (1881), An Enemy of the People (1882), The Wild Duck (1884), Hedda Gabler (1890), and The Master Builder (1891) among many others.

Most theater of Ibsen’s time was either melodrama, sappy romance or farcical comedy. What makes Ibsen’s work revolutionary is the emphasis on realism and the attention to social issues of the day, such as the oppressive and hypocritical nature of contemporary domestic life on display in Ghosts. Of all these masterworks, Ghosts is perhaps the most grim and unrelenting; unlike most of the other plays, there is no escape here from the prisons we build for ourselves and those which society constructs for us. When told by the King of Norway that Ghosts was not that good a play, Ibsen’s response was simple: “Your majesty, I had to write Ghosts.” Responding later that year to a slew of merciless reviews, Ibsen said, “It is reasonable to suppose that Ghosts will cause alarm in some circles; but so it must be. If it did not do so, it would not have been necessary to write it." [more]

Ghosts is yet another example of the great theme of Ibsen’s major plays, which is how the individual soul and spirit are imprisoned by the laws and obligations that society imposes. One way Ibsen impresses this theme in Ghosts is that the entire play takes place in a single room, in a house so isolated that one may only reach it by ferry. That house belongs to Helene Alving, the widow of Captain Alving, a man of great respect in the community who has been dead for a decade. As the play begins, we meet Helene’s maid Regina, who is visited in the house by Jacob Engstrand, a worker from town whom we are told is Regina’s father. Engstrand has been working to help construct an orphanage in town, paid for by Helene as a tribute to her late husband. Engstrand tries to get Regina to move back to town with him to help him set up his new enterprise, a “home for sailors.” Regina refuses, and shows him out the back way. Parson Manders enters and, believing Engstrand to be a good man, tries to convince Regina that her duty as a daughter is to obey her father’s wishes; Regina clearly has other plans in mind.

At this point, Helene enters, and has a long and fraught conversation with the Parson over the final business details of the orphanage. At this point, we meet the final major player: Oswald, Helene’s son. Oswald was sent away at a very young age to boarding school, and has lived the bohemian life as an artist for all of his adult life. Now he has returned home, to show his respect for his late father at the dedication of the orphanage, and perhaps for other reasons as well. Parson Manders expresses his disapproval of the life Oswald has chosen, and Oswald criticizes Maneders and his kind for their moral hypocrisy. Oswald decides to go out for a while, but not before making it clear to the audience that he has some kind of romantic interest in Regina. Left alone with Manders, Helene reveals the darker nature of their connection. We learn that long ago, after one horrible year of marriage, Helene had abandoned Captain Alving due to his drunkenness and womanizing and sought refuge with the Parson. Manders, though it is hinted that he and Helene had feelings for each other, convinced Helene that it was her duty and responsibility to go back to the marriage and try to make it work. Helene followed his advice and returned, but what Manders and the rest of the town never realized was that the Captain never changed his ways. To the end of his days, the Captain was abusive, alcoholic and a compulsive womanizer. Helene next reveals the final awful truth: the Captain was having an ongoing affair with their maid, Joanna, and Regina was the product of that relationship. Helene tells Manders that this was the reason she sent Oswald away from the house; she wanted to get him away from the lies but still have young Oswald have respect for his father. As Act I ends, she reveals her true motivation for building the orphanage: she wants to spend every penny she got from her late husband to build it, ensuring that everything she leaves to Oswald when she dies is hers and hers alone.

As Act II begins, so begins a string of secrets revealed. Helene, seeing Oswald and Regina flirting behind the glass window, is brought back to the horrifying moment when she saw her husband and Joanna in the exact same position all those years ago. Helene muses that she is surrounded by ghosts. She calls herself a coward, and berates herself for never letting Oswald or anyone else know the truth about her husband’s real self. She explains to a confused Manders about Regina’s true parentage, and Manders reacts in horror at the (unknowingly) incestuous relationship between Regina and Oswald. Engstrom enters, and the Parson berates him for lying in saying that Regina was his daughter. Engstrom admits that he perpetrated a lie in marrying Joanna and claiming Regina as his own, but argues that he did so as an act of Christian charity rather than for the money he was offered to do so. Manders is convinced of Engstrom’s decency, but after Engstrom leaves, Helene ridicules the Parson for his naiveté. Manders returns to town to make the final arrangements for the dedication of the orphanage, leaving Helene and Oswald alone for the first time. Oswald makes a shocking revelation: he has been diagnosed with syphilis, a venereal disease that is eating away at his body and his mind, rendering him unable to work. He cries to his mother that there is no one to blame but himself, for although it was believed by many in those days that syphilis could be passed on from parent to child, there is no way that could be so for him, since his father was such an honorable man. He confirms that he plans to return to Paris with Regina, where he will live out the remainder of his days in her care. As Helene prepares to reveal everything to her son, a bright light is seen outside and a clamor is heard. The orphanage is on fire.

As Act III opens, we hear that the orphanage has burned to the ground. Manders suggests that it was divine vengeance for all of the immorality that went on under the Captain’s roof. Helene is not sorry in the least, and turns over all the details of the orphanage and the land to Manders’ care. Engstrom enters, and he and Manders discuss the details of the fire in private. Its origin is unclear, but Manders sees how his own reputation might be ruined if the fire is blamed on him in one way or another. The scheming Engstrom sees an opportunity. He will swear to the investigators that it was he who accidentally started the fire, thus clearing the Parson’s name. In return, Engstrom will receive the clergyman’s financial help in building his sailor’s home, which in truth, of course, will be a house of prostitution. Eager to keep his reputation intact, Manders agrees. Regina enters, and soon learns that she is in love with her half-brother, who is dying of syphilis. With no hope, Regina decides to leave Helene’s service and return to the town. Perhaps, she says, she is no different than her own mother, and may very well end up working for her “father” in his “sailor’s home.” as he had suggested at the start of the play. The play ends with the final confrontation between mother and son. Oswald now knows that his condition may have been his father’s fault and not his own, but it doesn’t matter. The thought of wasting away slowly is intolerable to him, and he has a plan. Since Regina is no longer around to help him, he turns to his mother and asks her for one final favor. Helene promises to help in any way she can, until Oswald reveals that his plan is to commit suicide with an overdose of morphine. As Helene frantically wonders about what she should do, Oswald has an attack that leaves him mumbling two words over and over: “The sun.” The play ends with Helene standing over her stricken son, desperately deciding whether or not to agree to his final wish. [/more]