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A Bluffer's Guide to Henrik Ibsen's 'Ghosts', Now Showing at Belvoir

If you haven't seen this 19th century play, don't go in blind — use our breakdown to get the most out of the show.
By Hugh Robertson
October 13, 2017

A Bluffer's Guide to Henrik Ibsen's 'Ghosts', Now Showing at Belvoir

If you haven't seen this 19th century play, don't go in blind — use our breakdown to get the most out of the show.
By Hugh Robertson
October 13, 2017

in partnership with

It was just a matter of time, really. Belvoir's new artistic director Eamon Flack has been rummaging through the canon again and came across Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts. Flack is directing his own adaptation of the 1881 play, which stars Pamela Rabe, Colin Moody and Robert Menzies.

Ibsen's the 19th century's master of the dirty secret, and you can get acquainted — or reacquainted — with Ghosts in the Upstairs Theatre until October 22. Even though this play is ancient, its themes are still strangely (and sadly) relevant to some of modern society's biggest issues: marriage equality, euthanasia, individual freedom. If you're heading along, don't go in blind. We've done some homework so that you can get the most out of the experience — and have some discussion points ready for post-show wines.


When Ghosts premiered in 1882, it caused an outrage. That's not so remarkable considering how easily outraged audiences were back then; what is remarkable is that it remains outrageous today, 130 years on.

Ghosts is an incredibly modern and confronting work, one that openly and boldly tackles issues such as euthanasia, domestic abuse, sexually-transmitted disease, even incest – topics that remain controversial even today. But equally confronting is the way Ibsen presents yet another strong female character as living a life constrained and limited by the burdens of marriage, motherhood and overwhelming pressure from a patriarchal society — a woman actor Pamela Rabe describes as "moving towards freedom, moving towards 20th century", but still very much constrained by her gender.

Written in 1881, Ghosts centres on Mrs Helene Alving, a widow, with the action taking place the day before she is to open a new orphanage that she has built in her late husband's memory. Though Captain Alving has been dead for ten years, this orphanage will cement his legacy as a charitable man who put his wealth to good works — an image reinforced by Helene and her business partner and old friend, the local priest Pastor Manders.

Oswald, the child of Helene and Captain Alving, has returned home to Norway for the dedication of the orphanage. Now in his mid-twenties, Oswald is an artist living in Paris, and infuriates Pastor Manders by revealing that many of his friends live with their partners, even with children, despite not being married — which was illegal in Norway in 1881. The pastor is outraged by the immorality of Oswald's life, and after Oswald leaves the room Manders berates Helene for the 'failures' of life, reproaching her for being wilful and weak, and allowing her son to live without morals or decency or parents as role models.

But Helene has secrets that she has been carrying all these years, secrets that will shake Pastor Manders' faith, shatter Oswald's worldview and irrevocably change the lives of those around her.


Like Ibsen's other great plays, Hedda Gabler and A Doll's House, Ghosts seeks to challenge those traditional cornerstones of society: marriage, religion and patriarchy. What was remarkable then (and, sadly, is still remarkable now), is that Ibsen chose female characters to voice his challenges. Like Hedda Gabler and Nora Helmer in those other works, Helene Alving is clearly a woman of tremendous ability and strength who has been crushed under the weight of society's expectations of her from a very early age, and the audience's sympathy for them gives Ibsen's iconoclastic arguments emotional, as well as intellectual, weight.

But Ghosts is a thoroughly modern play for reasons other than its critique of gender. Another key tension of the play is of individual freedom and individual rights versus the strictures and moral codes of religion and tradition — a tension that continues to frame so much in life, and indeed one that is at the very heart of the same-sex marriage postal survey.

Ghosts also deals with the morals of euthanasia, sexual liberation, toxic masculinity and abusive relationships and how we as a society condemn the victims of them. The character of Oswald speaks of his life in Paris: a new life lived free of the restrictions of the past — one dedicated to discovering and revelling in 'the joy of life — but that idyllic, modern life is poisoned and ultimately killed by a very literal ramification of patriarchy and toxic masculinity. The play grapples with the tension at the very heart of human society: that any move towards collectivism and cohesion demands the sacrifice of individualism and individual freedoms for the greater good. We see this tension play out in debates around same-sex marriage, around cybersecurity and the surveillance state, around gun rights and among anti-vaccination activists.

When Helene speaks of being haunted by the ghosts of her past, it is framed as flashbacks and visions of her late husband, but really it is the looming spectres of morality and tradition that seek to keep us locked in stasis, to prevent society from changing and evolving and to make the people that grew up in a different time, under different moral codes, relaxed and comfortable.


If you have read this far then you know the plot and have a few points of discussion to think about during the show. But the great strength of Ghosts is its timelessness. The language is not difficult, and the translation and updating by director Eamon Flack are clear and strike an excellent balance between preserving Ibsen's language and modernising slightly for a contemporary audience.

Ibsen's text is clear and direct and doesn't hide behind metaphor or analogy. Remarkably, the play remains almost as current and as challenging to our morality in 2017 as it did in 1881 — something we suspect Ibsen would find disappointing, if not wholly predictable.

It is definitely worth reading the director's notes in advance, and also listening to the podcast that Belvoir has put together featuring director Eamon Flack, lighting designer Nick Schlieper and actors Pamela Rabe and Tom Conroy. It's only 11 minutes long but does a wonderful job of introducing the themes of the play as well as some specific elements of this production.

Ghosts is now showing at Belvoir St Theatre, Surry Hills until Sunday, October 22. To book tickets visit

Images: Brett Boardman. 

Published on October 13, 2017 by Hugh Robertson

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