The theatre is a place to tell stories to entertain, inspire, and provoke thought and discussion. Thus, it often becomes a place of controversy. For today’s Theatre Bite, I’m looking at Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, a play that shocked audiences when it premiered in 1880.
A Doll’s House centers around Nora, a middle class woman, and her husband Torvald, who has just been promoted at his job. While at the onset their marriage seems perfect, cracks begin to appear when the audience learns that Nora has kept a secret from Torvald in order to save his life, one which has come back to haunt her as one of Torvald’s coworkers attempts to blackmail her to keep his job.
As the secret is revealed and her husband acts as he thinks he should, Nora’s meekness turns into a steely resolve to change her life for the better, leaving her husband in what has been referred to as “the door slam heard ’round the world.”
Contributions to Theatre
A character evolution like Nora’s had never been seen before on stage, causing Ibsen’s characterization to become a template to be copied since. The idea that a woman would leave her husband to find herself was unheard of, so much so that when the German translation premiered, Ibsen was forced to write a conclusion that fit into societal expectations of female domesticity and family life. While Ibsen himself did not call himself a feminist, the play has been seen as the first to speak to feminist values that still resonate.
Today, A Doll’s House stands as one of the essential plays of the Western theatre canon, present on any introduction to theatre class syllabus. There’s even a sequel by Lucas Hnath that is currently running on Broadway, A Doll’s House, Part 2, that explores what happened to the characters after Nora leaves. In the final climatic scene, Torvald (here noted as Helmer, their last name) and Nora argue over what exactly is her place in the world:
Nora: What do you consider my most sacred duties?
Helmer: Do I need to tell you that? Are they not your duties to your husband and your children?
Nora: I have other duties just as sacred.
Helmer: That you have not. What duties could those be?
Nora: Duties to myself.
Helmer: Before all else, you are a wife and a mother.
Nora: I don’t believe that any longer. I believe that before all else I am a reasonable human being, just as you are–or, at all events, that I must try and become one. I know quite well, Torvald, that most people would think you right, and that views of that kind are to be found in books; but I can no longer content myself with what most people say, or with what is found in books. I must think over things for myself and get to understand them.
Nora’s desire to grow and find herself are incredibly relatable for the world today, if revolutionary for Ibsen’s audience at the time. The arguments about individual choice and autonomy that A Doll’s House portrays are still in discussion today, as the rights for all humans to exist as their own independent beings is seemingly under constant threat. In A Doll’s House, Ibsen uses the troubles of Nora to demonstrate how people can break free from their societal cages, a revolutionary act in and of itself.