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Salient: Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Vol. 32, No. 5. 1969.

Drama — The Haunting of the Past


The Haunting of the Past

IBSEN wrote Ghosts believing that man is continually haunted by the past. The past is always with us ana while we progress in some respects in others our movement forward is hampered by outmoded beliefs, ideas, and attitudes.

Coupled with this belief is Ibsen's view that man is afraid to challenge these stifling ideas. In the play's second act Mrs Alving speaks to the Minister:

"I'm inclined to think that we're all ghosts, Pastor Manders; it's not only the things that we've inherited from our fathers and mothers that live on in us, but all sorts of old dead ideas and old dead beliefs. . . . They're not exactly alive in us, but they're rooted there all the same, and we can't rid ourselves of them . . . . I should think there must be ghosts all over the country—as countless as grains of sand. And we are all of us, so pitfully afraid of the light."

The most disturbing thing about seeing the Downstage production of Ghosts is that we realise that this is true. The play was written almost 90 years ago and yet many of the attitudes in it that shocked people then still shock people now.

When Osvald tells the Pastor that he has known men and women to live happily and decently together and to raise families outside wedlock the Pastor is horrified. An honest look at our "enlightened" society of 1969 would, I am sure, see the majority of people sharing the Pastor's horror.

To dramatise the stifling effect of the past on the present Ibsen has employed an elaborate device. Osvald, a young artist, inherits syphilis from his father. The disease will destroy his mind. Osvald goes out into the world and discovers what is for him a new morality, a fundamental morality based on human feelings rather than social pressures. He then discovers his illness and blames his way of life for it. When he returns home he learns that his is not guilty, it is the sin of the father.

To say that the play is dated because the progress of the disease is not as Ibsen described and anyway we can now cure syphilis, is to ignore the point. The young man, who should have been leading society into the future, is prevented from doing so by a past which was beyond his control.

Within the play Ibsen contrasts the fundamental morality Osvald discovered with the established, conventional, morality where duty and convenience determined people's lives rather than love and affection.

Ibsen finds the conventional morality wanting and condemns both the society that bred it and the church that continues to nurture it.

It seems almost unnecessary to point out the relevance of Ibsen's play today. It has a significance that has not been destroyed by the discovery of penicillin.

Anthony Taylor who produced Ghosts for Downstage has allowed the play the Dace it demands. His production is unhurried, allowing the audience time to assimilate Ibsen's ideas, but it never drags.

Mr. Taylor has also extracted fine performances from his cast and particularly from Dorothy McKegg who as Mrs Alving deserves considerable praise. She manages to convey the strength and intelligence of a women who has been able to examine the beliefs on which her life has been based, and also the anguish of a woman who has found those beliefs wanting.

Colin McColl as Osvald is to be thanked for keeping the role of the syphilis-riddled son within the bounds of credibility.

Alex Trousdall does not quite manage to convey the almost fanatical zeal of Pastor Manders but does show us the short-sightedness of the character and the self-interest which allows him to succumb to blackmail.

Matthew O'Sullivan and Elizabeth Coulter as Engstrand and Regina deal effectively with their parts Mr. O'Sullivan prevents his character becoming the caricature of an uneducated working man that a lesser actor might have settled for, and miss Coulter endows her character with the attributes of cunning and design early in the play which makes her sudden departure in the third act credible.

The whole production is enhanced by Grant Tilly's set and Rex Griffilan's lighting both of which work to provide an atmosphere that complements both the play and the cast.

Ghosts is essentially an "old style" play, the construction is unfamiliar in many respects. It is a tribute to Mr Taylor that the adjustment a modern audience has to make to this play is minimal in his production.