Horror fans will be disappointed to learn that there are no spectral figures commonly identified as ghosts in Henrik Ibsen’s groundbreaking stage drama Ghosts. The “ghosts” of the title are metaphorical only, and refer to outdated traditions and the lingering strains of the sins of the father that continue to infect the path of genetic evolution.
When audiences attended the 1882 premiere, they were shocked to hear dialogue openly discussing topics that had also existed only as ghosts that had made their presence known but were never seen or heard: incest, euthanasia, and venereal disease. All had been incorporated into drama before Ghosts, but none had taken center stage as the topic of discourse. The audience may have been shocked, but many were prepared to follow Ibsen on his journey of discovery. Of course, just as many were prepared to follow the lead of theater critics who accused him of overstepping the boundaries of taste and decorum.
Ghosts is significant in Ibsen’s development from crafting traditional, realistic drama to situating himself at the vanguard of expressionist theater. Ghosts and its follow-up, An Enemy of the People, would draw the curtain on the playwright’s realist period before moving into more symbolic experimentation with The Wild Duck and Hedda Gabler.