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12LIT - Ghosts: Home

This guide contains resources related to the study of 'Ghosts' by playwright Henrik Ibsen.

Henrik Ibsen


(1828–1906). The first great modern playwright was Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian. His plays show a wide variety of styles, ranging from the realism of ‘Hedda Gabler’ to the fantasy of ‘Peer Gynt’. He is admired for his technical mastery, symbolism, and deep psychological insight.

Henrik Ibsen 2016. Britannica School. 

Historical context

Rosenvold Estate, Norway in the 1880s

Rosenvold is the Alving's estate on the west coast of Norway. It is remote, encompassed by mountains and fjords (deep, narrow and elongated sea, with steep land on three sides), and enshrouded in rain. In October, for example, there's precipitation 25 days of the month. Think Seattle, but colder. By setting the play in Norway, Ibsen highlights the contrast between a duty-bound life in the North and the life-loving ethos in southern places like Paris. 


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About the play

Written by Norwegian Henrik Ibsen in 1881, the play Gengangere (Ghosts) deals with such topics as marital infidelity, public hypocrisy, and venereal disease in a frank and open manner that shocked the audience of the time. A troupe of Scandinavian actors first performed Ghosts in Chicago in 1882, and it opened in Scandinavian capitals in 1883. A 1914 production in England went badly, and the play incurred a public backlash in both Europe and America.

The central character of Ghosts is Mrs. Helen Alving, the widow of Captain Alving, in whose memory she is building an orphanage. In the course of the play it becomes apparent that Captain Alving was a debauched philanderer who passed syphilis on to their son Oswald and who had an illegitimate daughter with their maid. While her husband was alive, Mrs. Alving attempted to escape from him, but she was convinced by Pastor Manders, whom she loved, to return to her husband. After her husband’s death, Mrs. Alving continued to hide her husband’s life from the public for fear of being blamed for his actions and judged for his transgressions. During the course of the play she is finally forced to acknowledge her husband’s true character to both Manders and Oswald. As the play ends, Oswald, stricken with the inherited disease, succumbs to insanity.

The play analyzes relationships—between Mrs. Alving and her husband, society and the individual, and Oswald and his father. It also attacks the hypocrisy that traps Mrs. Alving in an unbearable situation that she must tolerate and even defend in order to be viewed as moral by society.

Ghosts 2016. Britannica School. Retrieved 22 June 2016, from


Published on Apr 24, 2015

Richard Eyre, director of Ghosts (at the BAM Harvey Theater through May 3) responds to a question about his statement that "in spite of—or because of—Ibsen's sympathy for women and morbid view of the state of society, you emerge from Ghosts with a sense of exhilaration, albeit underscored by the conclusion that it's impossible to achieve joy in life."

From his Apr 9 talk with New Yorker staff writer Larissa MacFarquhar.

Feature Film - "Theatre Night"