Better to snuggle beneath a duvet plumped with comfortable lies than to shiver through naked honesty? It's a question I 've often asked myself during the eight years since my divorce. Had I known the truth, would I have turned a blind eye and have gone with the flow, as wives tend to, terrified by the thought of disintegration and withdrawal of all I held dear ? I sometimes wish that I'd had the choice. I didn't.
Is ihonesty still relevant, or has truth had its day? Just because it mattered to the ancient Romans, who worshipped goddess Veritas as the mother of virtue; to Confucius, who declared it to be the foundation of love, fairness and communication; and to the children of Israel, for whom the Ninth Commandment given at Mount Sinai taught against bearing false witness, should it matter to us? Everyone seems to lie these days. We all seem to be getting away with it. We 'know' that truthfulness is the foundation of positive human relationships and personal integrity, but with such abandon do we cast it aside in the name of 'love' and the pursuit of our 'truest' desires.
It's not something I dwell on, truth be told. But last night. I was at the Almeida Theatre Islington, for Sir Richard Eyre's provocative revival of Henrik Ibsen's 'Ghosts.' Bear in mind that Ibsen penned the play in 1881, ripping into the hypocritical morals of of Victorian society with such rage that he was vilified for it. Denounced as a 'cesspit of a play', it was also called 'sordid', 'shocking' and 'blasphemous', at a time when promiscuity and sexually-transmitted diseases were never acknowledged in polite circles.
The wealthy Widow Alving reveals to her Pastor the long-hidden, shameful secrets of her late husband's infidelity. Having denied herself the privilege of motherhood by banishing her young son to protect him from his father's debauched lifestyle, she is overjoyed and empowered by the boy's return. But the great Dane contrived a hell of an ending for Ozzie. He has the young man fall in love with Helen's housemaid, Regina – who turns out to be the bastard of the late Captain Alving himself. Oswald is smitten by his own half-sister. The union can never be. The sins of the father appear visited upon the child. He succumbs, in the end, to hereditary syphilis. Helen is faced with the unthinkable decision of whether to administer the morphine and euthanize her offspring out of his misery. We never know which way this goes. Such torture.
Helen is portrayed by the phenomenal Lesley Manville (of Mike Leigh's 'Secrets & Lies', 'Another Year' and 'All or Nothing') as a brave but hopeless dame. It is revealed that she had acted on the stern advice of the Pastor, a man she once loved romantically. Duty, respectability, charity and philanthropy were prized above all in that patriarchal age. The hideous Victorian Compromise had much to answer for. But what choice, for females of her ilk? Helen condemned herself to keeping up dishonest appearances and concealed hideous truth. Her morality is corroded. How she regrets the unfortunate business now.