Setting: Norway – late 1800s
Ghosts, by Henrik Ibsen, takes place in home of the wealthy widow, Mrs. Alving.
Regina Engstrand, the young servant of Mrs. Alving, is attending to her duties when she reluctantly accepts a visit from her wayward father, Jakob Engstrand. Her father is a greedy schemer who has fooled the town’s clergyman, Pastor Manders, by posing as a reformed and repentant member of the church.
Jakob has nearly saved enough money to open up a “sailor’s home.” He has claimed to Pastor Manders that his business will be a highly moral institution dedicated to saving souls. However, to his daughter, he reveals that the establishment will cater to the baser nature of the seafaring men. In fact, he even implies that Regina could work there as a barmaid, dancing girl, or even a prostitute. Regina is repulsed at the idea, and insists upon continuing her service to Mrs. Alving.
At his daughter’s insistence, Jakob leaves. Soon after, Mrs. Alving enters the house with Pastor Manders. They converse about the newly built orphanage that is to be named after Mrs. Alving’s late husband, Captain Alving.
The pastor is a very self-righteous, judgmental man who often cares more about public opinion rather than doing what is right. He discusses whether or not they should obtain insurance for the new orphanage. He believes that the townsfolk would see the purchase of insurance as a lack of faith; therefore, the pastor advises that they take a risk and forgo the insurance.
Mrs. Alving’s son, her pride and joy, Oswald enters. He has been living abroad in Italy, having been away from the house most of his childhood. His travels through Europe have inspired him to become a talented painter who creates works of light and happiness, a sharp contrast to the gloominess of his Norwegian home. Now, as a young man, he has returned to his mother’s estate for mysterious reasons.
There is a cold exchange between Oswald and Manders. The pastor condemns the sort of people that Oswald has been associating with while in Italy. In Oswald’s view, his friends are free-spirited humanitarians who live by their own code and find happiness despite living in poverty. In Manders' view, those same people are sinful, liberal-minded bohemians who defy tradition by engaging in pre-marital sex and raising children out of wedlock.
Manders is disappointed that Mrs. Alving allows her son to speak his views without censure. When alone with Mrs. Alving, Pastor Manders criticizes her ability as a mother. He insists that her leniency has corrupted her son’s spirit. In many ways, Manders holds great influence over Mrs. Alving. However, in this case, she resists his moralistic rhetoric when it is directed at her son. She defends herself by revealing a secret she has never told before.
During this exchange, Mrs. Alving reminisces about her late husband’s drunkenness and infidelity. She also, quite subtly, reminds the pastor how miserable she was, and how she once visited the pastor in hopes of igniting a love affair of her own.
During this part of the conversation, Pastor Manders (quite uncomfortable with this subject) reminds her that he resisted the temptation and sent her back to the arms of her husband. In Manders’ recollection, this was followed by years of Mrs. and Mr. Alving living together as a dutiful wife and a sober, newly reformed husband. Yet, Mrs. Alving claims that this was all a façade, that her husband was still secretly lecherous and continued to drink and have extra-marital relations. He even slept with one of their servants, resulting in a child. And – get ready for this – that illegitimate child that was sired by Captain Alving was none other than Regina Engstrand! (It turns out that Jakob married the servant and raised the girl as his own.)
Pastor is astounded by these revelations. Knowing the truth, he now feels very apprehensive about the speech he is to make the following day; it is in honor of Captain Alving. Mrs. Alving contends that he must still deliver the speech. She hopes that the public will never learn of her husband’s true nature. In particular, she desires that Oswald never know the truth about his father – whom he barely remembers yet still idealizes.
Just as Mrs. Alving and Paston Manders finish their conversation, they hear a noise in the other room. It sounds as though a chair has fallen over, and then the voice of Regina calls out:
REGINA. (Sharply, but in a whisper.) Oswald! take care! are you mad? Let me go!
MRS. ALVING. (Starts in terror.) Ah--!
(She stares wildly towards the half-open door. OSWALD is heard laughing and humming. A bottle is uncorked.)
MRS. ALVING. (Hoarsely.) Ghosts!
Now, of course, Mrs. Alving does not see ghosts, but she does see that the past is repeating itself, but with a dark, new twist.
Oswald, like his father, has taken to drinking and making sexual advances on the servant. Regina, like her mother, finds herself being propositioned by a man from a superior class. The disturbing difference: Regina and Oswald are siblings – they just do not realize it yet!
With this unpleasant discovery, Act One of Ghosts draws to an end.