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Ghosts | Study Guide

Henrik Ibsen

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Ghosts | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts, written in 1881 and first performed in 1882, was perhaps the playwright's most controversial work. Written when conservative Victorian values were prevalent across Europe, the play deals with difficult topics including incest, euthanasia, and venereal disease. As a result, Ghosts was banned in many countries for decades, and the play received harsh criticism for its content. A review from London's Daily Telegraph called it "candid foulness" and "gross, almost putrid indecorum." Since the early 20th century, however, critics have reevaluated the play, and many consider it Ibsen's greatest triumph. Both reviled and praised, Ghosts truly can be said to have been ahead of its time.

1. King Oscar II of Norway told Ibsen he did not like Ghosts.

The monarch was very blunt with the playwright when he said outright that he was not a fan of the play, though he did not provide a particular reason. In response Ibsen simply stated, "Your majesty, I had to write Ghosts."

2. Ghosts was rejected for performance across northern Europe.

As a Norwegian playwright, Ibsen naturally first pitched Ghosts to a number of theaters across Scandinavia. However, because of the controversial subject matter of the play, it was rejected for performance across northern Europe. The first performance of Ghosts was indeed staged by a Danish theater group—but in Chicago.

3. Norwegian artist Edvard Munch was commissioned to create stage designs for Ghosts.

Munch, renowned for his famous 1893 painting The Scream, was a great fan of Ibsen's Ghosts. A director in Berlin commissioned Munch to provide sketches for the scenography for a performance of the play in 1905, one year before Ibsen's death. Munch also cited Ibsen's plays as a great inspiration for his artwork.

4. Despite its importance to the plot, syphilis is never mentioned by name in Ghosts.

Although Ibsen received a great deal of criticism for featuring the sexually transmitted disease in his play, he did not reference the illness by name in the text. In the late 19th century, syphilis carried with it a great stigma of sinfulness and promiscuity, so naming the disease would've only further encouraged theaters to ban the play.

5. Ibsen may have purposefully misrepresented the ways syphilis can be contracted in Ghosts.

Syphilis can only be transmitted to a child from the mother, not the father, and it is not passed on genetically. Critics have argued that Ibsen misunderstood how it's transmitted, but others find it likely that he did understand and is therefore implying that Osvald's mother is also a carrier of the disease. Whether or not she is aware of this has been described as "a matter of interpretation."

6. Ghosts was banned in Saint Petersburg, Russia, for nearly 70 years.

Ghosts was banned in the Russian city of Saint Petersburg beginning in 1890 for religious reasons, particularly because of the sexually explicit content, and the ban wasn't lifted until 1958. An even more aggressive approach was taken in Spain, where all of Ibsen's works were purged under the Franco regime in the 1930s.

7. A theater society helped Ibsen get around censorship laws to perform Ghosts in London.

In 1892 the Lord Chamberlain of England banned performances of Ghosts. However, the Independent Theater Society, which was dedicated to helping censored plays find venues and audiences, found a way around the ban by renting private theaters for one-time performances. The society attracted famous literary figures as members, including writers Henry James and George Bernard Shaw.

8. The play's title, Ghosts, has been criticized as a bad translation.

The original Norwegian title of the play is Gengangere, a word that more closely translates to "the revenants" or "the ones who return." Since there was no single English word that corresponded to this Norwegian term, translator William Archer decided "ghosts" was the best option.

9. Some critics claim Ibsen is the second-most important playwright in the world, after Shakespeare.

Despite Ibsen's initial controversy and lack of critical acclaim during his writing days, scholars have come to view him as a critically important playwright. He's notable as an example of "uncritical realism," which combines ordinary people, settings, and language. Critics have linked this theatrical style to many elements of modern literature that followed in the 20th century. Ibsen described his portrayal of characters by noting, "The language must sound natural and the form of expression must be characteristic of each individual person in the play; one person certainly does not express himself like another."

10. The 100th anniversary of Ibsen's death was named "Ibsen year."

In the theatrical world, 2006 was dubbed "Ibsen year" to commemorate the work of the playwright. Celebrations included worldwide performances of his plays. Ironically many of these performances occurred in cities such as London, where Ghosts was banned during Ibsen's lifetime.

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