Ghosts’ by Henrik Ibsen

‘Ghosts’ is another excellent three-act problem play by the writer of ‘A Doll’s House’- Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906). It was written and published in 1881 and staged in 1882. Originally titled- ‘Gengangere’, it means ‘the revenants’, ‘the again-walkers’ or ‘the ones who come back’ in Norwegian language. Its English title- ‘Ghosts’ suggests not just the continuing influence of a dead father over his son, discerning in his hereditary disease, but also those dead beliefs and ideas which continue to exert their impact on coming generations.

The plot of this play is woven of two distinct strands. The first one incorporates the elements of an intrigue play, consisting of the preparation for inauguration of the Orphanage set up in the memory of late Captain Alving by his wife- Mrs. Alving, its destruction by a mysterious fire and the consequent blackmailing of Pastor Manders by Jacob Engstrand. The second, a simple one, revolves round Mrs. Alving’s son- Oswald’s disease; its origin, its nature and its attack on him in form of softening his brain. Both these strands run parallel and often criss-cross each other. Both the strands are linked together by the presence of Mrs. Alving, the protagonist, and her basic concern to save her son from the sins of his dead father. But the past proves inexorable and insurmountable as Oswald falls in love with Regina who is a maid-servant in Mrs. Alving’s house and also the illegitimate child of Captain Alving and Joanna Engstrand- the legally-wedded wife of Jacob Engstrand. Regina is half-sister of Oswald but this truth is not known to either of them. Mrs. Alving tries to save her son from the pernicious effects of her husband’s profligacy by keeping him away from home and by not allowing him to inherit his father’s property. But she miserably fails to do so. In the end, she is left with an extremely difficult choice.

The action of the play takes place on Mrs. Alving’s country estate by a large fjord in western Norway. It’s a tragedy which deals with the issues like incest, sexually transmitted diseases, illegitimate pregnancy and the role of a woman in the male-domineering society. Besides written on sociological and ideological planes, it also discusses problems on a metaphysical level. Ibsen believed that the root of one’s present sufferings lies in her or his past which determines and shapes her or his present. The continuing and crippling effects of the past are represented in the play in two forms, hereditary disease and the sway of old beliefs and ideas. They both are two facets of the same coin- the physical or biological aspect and the psychological aspect but the latter is given a greater importance.

The play created a lot of controversies and did not receive a good response from its critics as well as audiences when it was performed as the thinking process of the playwright seemed much ahead of its time. But today, it is appreciated as a realistic writing. This believer of Naturalism and Darwinism has succeeded in presenting the social problems, which are mostly least thought about, in an appropriate manner.

Aditi Swami