Naturalism: Ghosts

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Theatre Arts

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Naturalism: Ghosts

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.

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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 ...

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