Written by Verena Pichler
Naturalism came into being in the 19th century when authors and playwrights started to do something against the social situation back then. In contrast to the plays people wrote before, naturalists focused their stories onto common problems that happened all the time mostly among middle-class people. Naturalists wanted to rebell against the hierachy of their society and most of all they wanted to show the higher-class people what life was like in poorer classes. They presented them poverty, miserable children, unhappy marriages and adultery, the situation of illegitimate children, the exploitation of workers, alcoholism, violence, crime and much more. By opening the readers’ eyes, naturalists wanted to evoke the conscience of wealthy people.
Emile Zola (1840-1902) and Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) can be regarded as one of the most important naturalists that have ever lived. Zola wrote down a theory, “Le roman emperimental” which said that people’s fate was determined by their genes, their race and the social environment they grew up in.
In his plays, Henrik Ibsen draws the audience’s attention onto the “life-lie” in general. He wants his audience to understand that the truth is always better than wearing a mask for a life-time. His most famous books were “Ghosts”, “A Doll’s House” and the “Wild Duck”.
Ghosts is a typical naturalistic play. It shows the world as it was in the 19th century and teaches the audience that you cannot escape the truth. The plot is simple which makes it even more realistic. At the beginning of the play, Mrs. Alving, the widow of Captain Alving who was a well-known and respected man in the village, is planning to open a children’s home dedicated to her husband. Mrs. Alving receives Pastor Manders, an old friend of hers, to discuss the bureaucratic details and the opening event itself. In the course of their conversation the Pastor accuses her of not having led a moral life due to the fact that she left her husband a short period after their marriage and even tried to seduce the Pastor. He reminds her that she has not fulfilled a wife’s duty and that she only thought of her own needs and not of that of others. He also complains about her decision back then to send her 7-year old son abroad and regards that as a neglect of her obligations as a mother.
This is Mrs. Alving’s reply to these accusations:
You have had your say, Pastor Manders, and tomorrow you will be making a speech to honor my husband’s memory. I won’t be speaking tomorrow, but I do have something to say to you now, just as you had to me[...] After nineteen years as my husband he was as lecherous, as degenerate in his desires, at any rate, as he was before you married us [...] When Osvald was born, things seemed to get better, but it didn’t last long. Then it was twice as bad. I fought a life-and-death struggle to prevent people from knowing what kind of a man my son had for a father [...] I had my little son to bear it for. But when the final humiliation came, when my own maid…then it had to stop. So, I took charge of the house, complete charge. I controlled him and everything else. Now I had a weapon, you see. He didn’t dare say a word. I was then that I sent Osvald away. He was nearly seven and he was beginning to notice things and to ask questions, as children do. I couldn’t bear it, Manders, I felt as though the child was being poisoned, simply because he was breathing the infected air of his own home. That’s why I sent him away, and that’s why he never set foot in his own home while his father was alive. No one knows what it has cost me.
This is a preview of the whole essay
Now Mrs. Alving also tells him that Regina, her maid is really the daughter of Mr.Alving, but that her mother was quickly married to a craftsman when her pregnancy was discovered. Pastor Manders is horrified and shocked about these revelations and what is more he is hurt that noone has ever told him about these things. He is also angry at Engstrand, the “official” father of Regina, who on the contrary defends himself by saying that the promise to a woman is to be kept, which was in that case the promise not to tell anyone who Regina’s real father was. When Mr.Alving was still living, Mrs.Alving always made people believe that he really was a loving husband, mostly because of her son Osvald. Mr.Alving’s way of life should not influence Osvald’s later habits and therefore she sent him to Paris. Now he has come back after years of absence to have a vacation from his artistic profession. Without his mother’s knowledge he successfully flirts with Regina, who hopes for a wealthy life with him. Mrs.Alving suddenly finds out what is going on between the two of them and is shocked. Osvald admits that he suffers from a mortal illness, Syphillis. Osvald, thinking of his father as the perfect human being, thinks it is his fault that he has acquired this illness. He cannot work anymore and is only waiting for his lethal attack. Mrs.Alving doesn’t want to hear that. She has dedicated her whole life to her son, has lied about her husband for him. She refuses to accept the truth but finally realizes that she has to ease Osvald’s conscience by telling him and Regina the entire truth. As a result, Regina leaves the house and Osvald to make a last attempt of changing her life. In the meantime Pastor Manders is desperate and sets the children’s home on fire. Engstrand witnesses his crime but later promises not to tell the people of the village. In the last scene Osvald makes his peace with his mother and his life and tells her that this house always was a joyless place and that he couldn’t live but only die here. Mrs.Alving now realizes that her husband really died due to the cheerless and dutiful society and that she even supported his illness.
OSVALD: Ah, the joy of life, mother; that's a thing you don't know much about in these parts. I have never felt it here. [...] And then, too, the joy of work. At bottom, it's the same thing. But that too you know nothing about. [...] Here people are brought up to believe that work is a curse and a punishment for sin, and that life is something miserable, something we want to be done with, the sooner the better. [...]Have you noticed that everything I have painted has turned upon the joy of life? always, always upon the joy of life?--light and sunshine and glorious air, and faces radiant with happiness? That is why I am afraid of remaining at home with you.
MRS.ALVING: Osvald, you spoke of the joy of life; and at that word a new light burst for me over my life and all it has contained. [...]You ought to have known your father when he was a young lieutenant. He was brimming over with the joy of life! [...]He had no object in life, but only an official position. He had no work into which he could throw himself heart and soul; he had only business. He had not a single comrade that knew what the joy of life meant--only loafers and boon companions---- [...]So that happened which was sure to happen. [...]Osvald, my dear boy; has it shaken you very much?
In a last attempt of giving Osvald an idea of happiness she dances around with a bottle of Champagne but to no avail. He has already surpassed this point of no return and demands of her to give him the deadly capsules of morphine after his next attack, so that he doesn’t have to suffer for a longer period of time than he has to. Shortly afterwards Osvald has his final attack and dies.
Konstantin Stanislavski (1863-1938) was one of the most important theorists in theatre history. In 1906 he developed the “System” a theory that would later on help many actors to act convincingly. The System consists of 9 points: “action” (as an actor you have to know why your character is doing what he does, or what your purpose is when entering the stage), “If” (think about how you would react in a certain situation and then reflect this feeling onto your character), “the given circumstance” (an actor should create an environment before acting out a scene),”imagination” (imagine all different aspects of your character), “unit and objectives” (what is the character thinking, feeling? when would you end one scene and start another?), “super-objective and through-line action” (what is the character’s goal? What is the theme of the entire play?), “emotion memory” (can you remember a situation in which you felt like your character? Were you in a similar situation?) and “tempo-rhythm in movement” (decide who are the quiet and slow characters! Who goes hurriedly through life?).
At the beginning of Act 2 Mrs.Alving has just disovered that her son and Regina are starting to have a relationship. She is shocked because of her knowledge that Regina is actually Osvald’s halfsister. Still she tries to comfort Pastor Manders because his view of the world as he has known it, has definitely fallen apart. The dinner must have taken place without much talking, it’s unlikely that Pastor Manders and Mrs.Alving were very communicative. I’m sure that Mrs.Alving thought intensely about whether or not to tell Regina and Osvald that they were so closely related to each other. She thinks that again, she will not have the courage to tell Osvald the truth. She feels she has already gone too far.
MRS.ALVING: If I had true courage I would take Osvald aside, look him in the eye, and say, “Listen, your father was a disgusting, degenerate human being.” ... And then I’d tell him everything, everything that I’ve told you.
All these thoughts wind through her mind as she is entering the garden room with Pastor Manders. Helene Alving closes the door after Regina has gone out so that noone can hear her conversation with Pastor Manders. She hopes that Mr.Manders will be able to help her decide on what to do now, but already fears that he is as helpless in that situation as she is, maybe even more because of the fact that he has only just been told about everything that has happened since the marriage between Helene and Mr.Alving. Helene Alving is nervous and is evidently the more restless character in that scene. Mr.Manders is still in a state of numb confusion and acts therefore very passively. In the course of their discussion Mrs.Alving comes to the conclusion that she really will tell Osvald the truth. First of all, because there are little other opportunities, secondly because she has learned that the truth is always better than a lie and thirdly because she could not bear see him making himself responsible for all his problems. They talk about what has happened in the past and Helene regards it as a fault that Pastor Manders didn’t let her stay and only talked about her duty as Mr.Alving’s wife. She makes it again evident that she was once in love with Pastor Manders and maybe even still is. Probably he was also in love with her but chose the path of being a Pastor. Helene seems to be getting melancholic but manages to control herself and change the subject again. When Engstrand enters everything is back to normal again.
If I was acting out the part of Mrs.Alving I would focus onto all her wishes and regrets. She thinks she should have run away and stayed away after her marriage with Mr.Alving. She regrets that she couldn’t stay with Pastor Manders or even marry him. In the scene I’m going to describe Helene Alving recognizes all the mistakes she has made and sees everything clearer than ever and even finds the courage to tell it to Pastor Manders.
MRS.ALVING: I should never have lied about Alving[...] But out of duty and convention I lied to my own son. Year after year. What a coward…what a coward I’ve been[...]When I heard Regina and Osvald in there, I felt as though I were seeing ghosts. I almost think that we are all ghosts, Pastor Manders. It’s not just what we have inherited from our mothers and fathers that haunts us. There are all sorts of dead ideas, all sorts of dead beliefs. They are not alive in us but they remain within us nonetheless, and we can’t ever get rid of them[...] They lie as thick upon us as grains of sand, and we’re all so desperately afraid of the light[...] When you drove me back into the paths of duty and righteousness, when you praised as right and noble all the things that my soul rebelled against, things that I knew were obscene, then I began to examine the fabric of your “teachings”. I only wanted to pick at a single thread … but when I pulled it, and it came loose, the whole thing started to unravel. It was sewn by a machine.
MANDERS: Is this the reward for my life’s hardest struggle?
MRS.ALVING: Call it rather your most pathetic defeat.
MANDERS: It was my life’s greatest victory, Helene, a victory over myself.
MRS.ALVING: It was a crime against both of us.
If I acted Helene Alving it would be very hard for me to identify with the situation she is going through. I have never been forced to marry someone or never had to live with a man who betrayed me all the time and never did anything even though people thought he was dilligent and sympathetic.
Nonetheless I know the feeling when your life seems full of regrets and when you wish you had done everything differently. There are thoughts like: “I wish I had studied for that test” “ I wish I had just sad ANYTHING to him” “I wish I had told her what I really think about her” There are regrets everywhere even though one does not always notice it, because they often disappear as quickly as they first came up. Still, I can use these feelings of regret, that I already know from my own experience, for the acting of my character.
QUESTIONS I WOULD ASK HELENE ALVING (AND MY ANSWERS TO THEM):
1) What would you change if you could turn back time? Naturally I would say that I wouldn’t marry Mr.Alving a second time, but on the other hand I wouldn’t have Osvald now, if there hadn’t been that marriage. I can’t express how empty my life would be without Osvald.
2) Why didn’t you marry Pastor Manders if you both loved each other so much? First of all Mr.Manders wanted to become Pastor and that was his priority. Secondly I’m not sure if my family would have let me marry him because he was not as wealthy as Mr.Alving. And last but not least I’m not even sure if Mr.Manders ever really loved me at all.
3) Do you still love Mr.Manders? Yes, indeed, I do. Still, I have learned to cope with the fact that I will never again have more than memories with him and that I can only have him as a good friend. However I’m glad that I have at least once in my life really loved someone.
Mrs.Alving’s superobjective would probably be that she can never escape the Ghosts that are inside of her. Her life is filled with guilt. She blames herself for having married Mr.Alving. She regrets having lied to Osvald all these years. On the other hand she would do the same thing again because she knows that it would hurt Osvald so much to know that his father was so degenerate. It is painful to her to think of how her husband betrayed her and what is even more to remember the day she left her husband and came to Pastor Manders crying, “Here I am. Take me.” She will never forget his reaction. He drove her back into the paths of duty and righteousness, even though it was her husband who had come off the way from the beginning. But the Pastor only blamed her and never stopped telling her about her duty. Maybe this was his way to cope with that hopeless love.
MANDERS: To expect happiness in this life is a form of arrogance, Mrs. Alving. It is the sign of a rebellious soul. What right do we have to happiness? We must do our duty, Mrs.Alving, and your duty was to stand by the man whom had chosen as your husband, the man to whom you were bound by the most sacred bonds... It was your humble duty to bear the cross which a higher power had chosen fo you. But instead, that rebellious soul of yours flings down that cross[...] I was only a humble instrument in the hand of a great purpose. You returned to your duty and to obedience: hasn’t that proved a blessing for you ever since?
The GHOSTS from her past will never leave Helene Alving.
In his Drama Henrik Ibsen demonstrated the passive society of the 19th century or even nowadays and the hypcritical morals of the Church back then. The climax at the end prevents any illusions of bourgeois conventions. People can’t cope with the truth because they would then realize that their whole life was a lie, which leads us on to the often discussed matter of the life-lie. If someone finally admits the truth to himself and his fellow citizens, he will have the freedom to actually change his life and not only complaining about it. All in all Ghosts is another play that shows us that the truth will always sooner or later come to the surface and that it’s better to see things the way they are, than be disillusioned later on.
Written by Verena Pichler