Saturday, January 21, 2017

"Ghosts" (1917)

From the June 1917 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is not many years since Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts was laughed from the stage. But we are now told that the life of those byegone years rang false; children were born into the shame of Peace, while the men-folk slept in the dull, deep dreams of the quiet of a prosperous world. All were wrapt in politics as shallow as Gladstone, were steadfast to the prudery of Victoria, read the feeblest novels, worshipped academic paintings and German sculpture. Never was an age fitter for the pen of the satirist nor for the reign of a queen without ability. Since it was dead as a doornail a great deal has been written to belittle the Victorian age, but if only we think of the old hostility towards Ibsen’s masterpiece we get one of the saddest, one of the gravest comments on the softness of that age it is possible to obtain.

The age demanded Purpose in everything so that in the end ethics became bracketed with art, became almost synonymous with art. This falsity and sentimentality was personified in Ruskin. He instructed the nation in life. He became artistic dictator. Under his powerful influence the picture became a scientific lecture, and the book a biblical homily. Landscape paintings became like naturalists' studies, while innumerable authors set to work to prove that the Lord Jesus had a hand in the fabrication of the primrose and the apple.

Some few did not submit to this vice, this cramp. The spirit of unrest was personified in Whistler. By the excellence of his work combined with the sting and brilliance of his wit he succeeded in lessening the power of the degenerative spirit. In literature the innovating spirit of romance was personified in Oscar Wilde. In painting, then, and in literature the principle of beauty, the principle of charm without Purpose, triumphed over the old principle of Purpose without loveliness.

Definite ethics, precise instructions on how to live, were forgotten in the passions of the new ideals. There was personality and not humanitarianism or science in the new nocturnes and landscapes, while in the new books the question of the divinity of Christ, even of the genesis of primroses, was lost in the fashioning of phrases.

This new movement in England with Wilde, Beardsley, Whistler at its head, with Shelley and Keats and some Frenchmen at its roots, soon became virile, influential, established. Slightly artificial at its birth, it soon added strength to its charm, till at last the pioneers decided to test their influence with the public by the supremely modern “Ghosts." I do not here pretend to give a complete account of the battles of the books and wits of that transitionary time, nor do I contend that the one or two masters of art named here were entirely responsible for the staging of "Ghosts." There were many men, who were sick and tired of the old stuff, who worked to further the interests of the new movements. But I do maintain that the revolt of these remarkable men against the straight-laced interests of the Victorian era made possible the production of "Ghosts." The public failed the play. The spirit of the public was not so fine or noble as the spirit of the play. The public, despite years of romantic tuition, was still interested in the theme of the play— in " what it was about." They were still spellbound by Ruskin and Carlyle and their principle of Purpose. They could not understand that what was purposeless and useless, even that which they might call immoral, might still be beautiful.

Now the play is again staged. The people go in thousands to see it. It is successful, and in consequence we are told that people have become enlightened People have become nothing of the kind. The play is successful because it has been boomed. It has been boomed by the authorities not because it is interesting to them as a wonderful drama, but because, owing to changed conditions, it has become useful as an ethical tract. The truth of the business is that at the time of the first presentation of "Ghosts" in England the masters had no use for it even as a tract. Not understanding the beauty and strength of its art, none of its characteristics appealed to them technically; its gravity and thought, its passion and lucidness, could not be seen by them. The mere theme of it was evident enough, but what Purpose could it serve, what good could it do to a generation nursed among bibles and crinolines?

Ghosts” deals with the tragedy of inherited diseases. The pitiful condition of the young art student, Oswald Alving, is given with tragic tremendous power, and, although the interest in the theme is secondary to the real interest one should feel in “Ghosts" as a dramatic creation, it undoubtedly appeals very powerfully to anyone who takes even a slight interest in morality. To the utterly inartistic this ethical theme must come like a storm.

Well, it is this ethical thunderstorm that the masters need now. And this is why. Every man is needed for the Army. Yet the military cannot get every man, for thousands are severely suffering with syphilis; other thousands are suffering in varying degrees with this and other venereal diseases. To say thousands is no exaggeration. The numbers are so huge, and the diseases are spreading so rapidly, as to seriously weaken the armed forces. The only ways the authorities can try to stop the plague are by legislation and personal appeal. A bill dealing with these contagious diseases has recently become law; the personal message is being delivered in such dramas as “Damaged Goods” and this “Ghosts.”

But be the laws never so stringent, the sorrows of venereal diseases presented in never so pitiful a wav, still most this generation pay in pain and anguish for the generations of ignorance that have preceded it. It it useless to try and remedy the damage and wreckage of ignorance, of generations of capitalistic schooling and social conditions, with s couple of dramas, be they the greatest in the world. Dramas are not the palliatives of injustice, they are the tragic or sweet fruit of our lives. A man here and there may appear to change after having witnessed some didactic drama, yet he only alters in so far as his earlier life has prepared him for an acceptance of the play’s pronouncements. A development of emotions is what we should expect from plays, only that, and not any change in our ideas. Dramas should be beautiful and useless as music.

So the authorities are quite mistaken again as to the nature of Ibsen’s “Ghosts.” It is neither an immoral play as they first thought it, nor is it moral as they now think it It cannot be crushed for being the one, nor exploited as the other. It is almost worthless as a tract for soldiers. It is useless for the authorities to get soldiers with syphilis to go to the playhouse; it would be more remedial, by means of some royal proclamation, to get them to set spinach.

Poor Ibsen! It would have been better had your poor “Ghosts" rested this while in the shadows of the contumely of its earlier years than be dragged and boomed onto the robbers’ stage for as churchy a purpose as preserving army divisions. Still must those wonderful words in that gem of composition be the precious keepsake of the lonely student—at least till social wisdom brings the great reconstruction and brotherhood.

Then will a play be, not a thing like Synge's "Playboy of the Western World" to be hissed at for heterodoxy, or a thing like “Ghosts” to be given prominence as a moral tract, but a thing of beauty only (and both the above plays may be considered as such) to thrill and cheer and inspire those whose liberated minds can grasp the might and sublimity of dramatic construction. Science then will have its own just dominions; the theatre will have its own. When the world is free, when the harvests of the earth are sensibly gathered and distributed, then will the peoples congregate in the theatres for the enjoyment of the artistic presentation of all the beautiful, jubilant and woeful pageants of the world—and that only.
H. M. M.





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