When in the fall of 1881 Ibsen sat down to write Ghosts, he was already well known throughout Scandinavia and on the way toward having an international reputation that would eventually include being called by many the most important dramatist since Shakespeare. He had received many decorations and honors, had had the distinction of representing Norway at the opening of the Suez Canal, and had been awarded an honorary doctorate from Sweden's venerable University of Uppsala. He had written a number of plays dealing with Norwegian history and folklore as well as important figures from world history. Of the more than a dozen plays of this type, only Brand and its philosophical converse Peer Gynt attracted international attention and have remained of general interest.
It is one of the great ironies of literary history that Norway's most famous writer wrote most of the plays upon which his reputation rests while living abroad. In 1864 Ibsen became so frustrated with what he perceived as an unbearable narrow-mindedness on the part of his fellow Norwegians and so angered by the ethically unconscionable refusal of Norway and Sweden to go to the aid of Denmark during the Dano-Prussian War that he left Norway. Except for short visits home, Ibsen and his family lived in Germany and Italy for the next twenty-seven years.
Ibsen was approaching his fiftieth birthday and dividing his time between Munich and Rome when he turned away from historical themes and began writing the realistic prose dramas about contemporary life upon which his fame now rests. These plays all deal with social problems which remain as pressing today as they were in Ibsen's day. Although each play is independent and complete in itself, each play also emerges out of, and develops from the preceding. Collectively they are often called Ibsen's social dramas, but in a very important sense they are anti-social dramas in that they critically investigate the various ways in which society impinges on the healthy and integrated development of the individual.
Following closely on the heels of Pillars of Society and A Doll's House, Ghosts is the third drama in this series. Ibsen once wrote to a friend that after Nora, the heroine of A Doll's House, Mrs. Alving had to come. A Doll's House had caused something of scandal in its portrayal of a woman deserting her family because she could no longer tolerate her husband's inability or unwillingness to recognize her fundamental rights as a human being. As Ibsen labored feverishly during the fall of 1881 to finish Ghosts so that it would be available in book form for Christmas giving, he did not anticipate the more heated furor that this drama would occasion. It was published in an edition of ten thousand copies but was immediately branded as scandalous, indecent and obscene—not a book to have around the house. Bookstores returned hundreds of copies to the publisher, and theaters throughout Europe refused to mount productions of the play.
Ghosts, curiously, had its world premiere the following year in Chicago in the original language before an audience made up largely of Scandinavian immigrants. Eventually hostilities subsided in Europe, and by the end of the decade performances were given in several cities. What so shocked and offended Victorian sensitivities was the dramatic treatment of hereditary venereal disease and Mrs. Alving's open rejection of conventional religion and morality as represented by Reverend Manders. The closing portrayal of Oswald's rapid physical and mental deterioration just at sunrise and Mrs. Alving's uncertainty as to whether she can provide the euthanasia she had promised raised questions that nineteenth-century audiences were scarcely prepared to consider and that remain problematic even to this day.
The Norwegian title of the play, Gengangere, is now universally translated into English as Ghosts but could just as well be rendered "Phantoms." Like many of Ibsen's titles, it has a double meaning. It alludes on the one hand to the sins of the fathers that are inflicted on their children, here in the form of a syphilitic condition which Oswald has been told he inherited from his father. The term on the other hand refers, perhaps more directly, to old beliefs, ideas, and prejudices that haunt the mind and dominate society.
These psychological ghosts are no less real to Mrs. Alving than are the furies to Orestes. In a world that was moving ever more rapidly away from traditional mythologies and toward unbridled confidence in science, Ibsen masterfully accomplished the difficult task of creating ghosts that are believable. Such phantoms dwelling within surely provide at least one context in which modern tragedy is possible.