At daybreak in a dark Norwegian valley at the head of a gloomy fjord, a young man who has struggled vainly for light and happiness sees the distant morning on far-away peaks. He speaks flatly to the woman who moments ago had made a decision to face the truth; thereby, she thought, guaranteeing this happiness: “Mother, give me the sun.”
And again Henrik Ibsen sums up man as he has come to sense himself in the twentieth century: his hopes and fears, his understanding for the world, and his intuition of his place in this world.
In about 1877, Ibsen shifted from writing romantic dreams (including Peer Gynt, which is likely his best-known work) to writing realistic dramas which presented problems of social importance, and he did so in an unorthodox manner that could not be ignored. With The Pillars of Society, A Doll’s House, An Enemy of the People, and particularly with Ghosts, Ibsen became the first spokesman and most influential dramatist of modern theatre. He was a hero to progressives and anathema to conservatives.
With publication in 1879 of A Doll’s House, which was a reflection on woman’s dependent status in society, Ibsen drew a storm of protest against his heroine Nora’s leaving her husband, and in fact the play was not performed for several years without an alternate ending which Ibsen agreed to write in which Nora stayed home for the sake of the children.
Ghosts was a logical sequel to A Doll’s House, and when Ghosts was published two years later in 1881, Ibsen was pilloried as perpetrator of the greatest scandal of modern times. In the earlier play a wife left her home after discovering that she was the useless property of her husband and had been reared in ignorance of the world outside his interests. For this Nora had been roundly denounced as having behaved “unnaturally.”
In Ghosts, Ibsen reversed his situation. By heeding the clergyman, Pastor Manders, and not leaving her husband, Mrs. Alving became guilty of an act far more “unnatural” than anything that could have been charged against Nora. In this case, the play exposed social traditions that sanctioned a loveless marriage to a debauched husband who left his wife with a son doomed to hereditary venereal disease. Irony could go no further than Mrs. Alving’s reward for obeying conventional precepts. The wages of “virtue” are paralysis for the son and desperation for the mother. Mrs. Alving, in fact, becomes a Nora who stayed. It is not difficult to understand why the play should have outraged the circumspect, for whom the mere mention of Oswald’s “social disease” on stage would have been sufficient provocation.
Yet Ghosts is important for reasons other than the scandal it caused. In many ways it is the most powerful of Ibsen’s plays. It is a remorseless morality play on the “sins of the fathers,” being exemplified by the presence of hereditary disease in the son; but the failure of the mother and the pastor, who had been in love with her, to recognize that outworn ideas and standards of conduct are even more deadly ghosts--because they stand in the way of love--is likewise an essential idea of the play.
No other of Ibsen’s plays so infuriated his public. In Norway the leading newspaper declared, “This book has no place on the Christmas table of a Christian home.” In England Ghosts was castigated as “An open drain; a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly.” Discussions of the play inevitably became discussions of divorce, venereal disease and mercy killing.
A century has passed, and time has vindicated Ibsen’s exploration of human ideas and emotions. Society has corrected some of the abuses against which Ibsen preached, yet his expressed wish remains valid: I would like “to depict human beings, human emotions and human destinies upon a groundwork of certain social conditions and principles of the present day.” In Ghosts, the rising sun casts its luminous rays on a dark drama of guilt and retribution.