Thursday, 2 November 2017

HENRIK IBSEN A Doll's House (1879)

Penguin Classics UK, 2005

NORA:  It's true, Torvald.  When I lived at home with Papa, he used to tell me his opinion about everything, and so I had the same opinion.  If I thought differently, I had to hide it from him, or he wouldn't have liked it.  He called me his little doll, and he used to play with me just as I played with my dolls.  Then I came to live in your house ––– 

Translated by PETER WATTS

The Play:  On 21 December 1879 a recently published Norwegian play titled Et Dukkehejm [A Doll's House] premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in Copenhagen.  Opening just a few days before Christmas –– that most traditional of 'family' holidays –– the play scandalized its first night audience by offering it an unflinching depiction of a dysfunctional modern marriage in which a supposedly scatterbrained young wife is dominated and morally betrayed by her hypocritical and patronizing older husband.

What the play's first night audience found so confronting was not the situation itself –– one many would have recognized as being identical or at least reflective of their own marital arrangements –– as much as the wife's unexpected and, for the time, unimaginable response to it.  After spending her life, married and otherwise, obediently accepting the idea of male superiority (and secretly resenting the men in her life for forcing her to be subservient to them), Nora Helmer decides to walk out on her husband Torvald and their three small children –– clearly the behaviour, in the eyes of a paternalistic and misogynistic society, of a woman suffering from some form of chronic mental illness.

Yet Nora is anything but deranged.  When the play begins she's shown as a sweet and dutiful young housewife, arms laden with Christmas parcels after returning home from a shopping expedition, grateful that she and Torvald finally have enough money, after years of strict economizing, to allow them to splurge on expensive gifts for their friends and family.  Torvald's initial response to his wife's extravagance is to tease her about it, calling her his 'little featherbrain' when she suggests they can always borrow money to pay their household bills until he begins earning the high salary he's due to receive in the New Year as the recently promoted manager of the local bank.  'But seriously, Nora,' he tells her before their terminally ill friend Dr Rank arrives to speak with him, 'you know what I think about that sort of thing… There's something constrained, something ugly even, about a home that's founded on borrowing and debt.'

Debt –– financial, social and moral –– is one of the central themes of A Doll's House.  Nora, it turns out, illegally borrowed money from an old school friend of her husband's, a man named Krogstad, to pay for a trip to Italy –– a trip that had to be taken to save Torvald's life after he became seriously ill as the result of stress and overwork.  Torvald knows nothing of this loan, believing the money for their journey was given to Nora by her father shortly before his death –– a belief which allows him to fire Krogstad who, after experiencing several personal and financial setbacks of his own, has become one of his employees.  

Krogstad's crime was to forge a customer's signature on a document –– a crime the self-righteous Torvald finds morally repugnant, never guessing that it's a crime his 'own little skylark' could ever conceive of, let alone be capable of committing.  (Under Norwegian law of the time, no woman was permitted to sign her name to a loan agreement without at least one male relative serving as her 'sponsor' and co-signatory.)  Rather than worry her father with such an unpleasant business while he was dying, Nora forged his signature on the document Krogstad gave her, unwittingly placing herself in an ideal position to be blackmailed.

Dover Thrift Edition US, c. 1970
The choice that Krogstad offers Nora is a simple one –– intercede with her husband on his behalf to ensure he retains his position at the bank or have him tell Torvald the truth about the money and what she did to obtain it.  Terrified of being exposed as a liar and a fraud, Nora pleads with her husband not to dismiss Krogstad and give his job to her poor, recently widowed friend Kristina Linde, only to have her pleas fall on deaf ears.  Nora, her husband says, should not concern herself with such matters.  She should focus on the ball they're planning to attend together on Christmas night, where he expects her to perform the tarantella, an energetic peasant dance she learned during the idyllic time they spent on the Italian island of Capri while he was convalescing.  

When Nora pushes him, begging him again to reconsider his decision, Torvald explains that it's impossible because, while he might 'at a pinch' have been able to forgive Krogstad's 'moral failings,' he cannot forgive him for undermining his authority by addressing him by his first name in front of his other subordinates.  When Nora accuses him of being petty and childish, Torvald responds by asking their maid to take a letter to Krogstad which, to her horror, turns out to contain her blackmailer's termination notice.

Having received this letter, Krogstad soon reappears at the Helmer home where he once again threatens Nora with exposure, this time demanding that she gain him a promotion in addition to having him reinstated.  'Inside a year,' he predicts, 'I shall be the Manager's right-hand man.  It'll be Nils Krogstad who runs the bank, not Torvald Helmer.'  Nora insists that her husband will never agree to this but Krogstad holds all the power now and, what's more, has no compunction about using it to destroy her unless she agrees to his demands.  He tells Nora that he's written her husband his own letter –– a letter he drops in their locked mailbox as he leaves the house.  But Krogstad, whose own life has been filled with enough trouble to understand and even sympathize to some degree with the damning position his attitude has now placed Nora in, allows himself to be talked out of going through with his plan by her friend (and, it turns out, his former sweetheart) Kristina.  Krogstad offers to retrieve his letter, only to have Kristina reject the idea on the grounds that Torvald has a right to know what his wife did behind his back even if she did it, as she's so frequently insisted, in order to save his life.

Torvald, aroused by Nora's spirited (if desperation-fuelled) performance of the tarantella at the ball, brings her home early so he can have sex with her, only to have this plan foiled by the arrival of their fellow ball guest Dr Rank.  Eventually, however, he reads Krogstad's letter while Nora, her options non-existent as she perceives it, decides she must commit suicide because her actions have disgraced her husband and will make a laughingstock of him at the bank and throughout the town.

Penguin Classics UK, c. 1990
With Rank gone –– and never to be seen again after confessing that he's not far from death –– Torvald lets fly at his wife.  'You've completely wrecked my happiness,' he tells her, 'you've ruined my whole future!… I'm in the power of a man without scruples; he can do what he likes with me –– ask what he wants of me –– order me about as he pleases, and I dare not refuse.  And I'm brought so pitifully low all because of a shiftless woman!'  Their marriage, he insists, can only be a marriage maintained for appearances' sake from this point on.  'You shall remain here in my house –– that goes without saying –– but I shall not allow you to bring up the children… I shouldn't dare trust you with them.'  Moments after making these grim pronouncements, a messenger arrives, bearing a letter for Nora which, when Torvald snatches it from her hand and opens it, turns out to contain the loan document, sent by Krogstad, bearing the forged signature of Nora's dead father.  Torvald is delighted and quickly changes his tune after burning this incriminating piece of evidence in the stove, telling Nora he forgives her while she, calm and self-possessed in spite of everything, removes her peasant costume to once again reveal herself as his 'poor, frightened, helpless little darling.'

But Nora is no longer the person she was before the evening began.  The silly girl she was when she arrived home a few days earlier, arms weighed down with Christmas presents, has been replaced by a wiser if sadder woman who confesses that she's never been happy with her husband, only 'gay' in order to please him and maintain the illusion that theirs has been a contented and mutually satisfying marriage.  'For eight whole years,' she tells the shocked Torvald, '–– no, longer than that –– ever since we first met, we've never exchanged a serious word on any serious subject… we've never sat down in earnest together to get to the bottom of a single thing.'  Torvald is astonished, unable to realize, or even comprehend, that his wife, his 'darling little skylark' can finally see him for what he is:  a spiteful, petty-minded narcissist incapable of caring for anyone but himself and a man, for this and other reasons, whose wife she no longer wishes to be.  Torvald, for his part, feels wounded and betrayed by her statements, reminding Nora that she has a duty to him and their children, only to be told that her primary duty, as she views it, is to be true to herself.  'I believe that before everything else,' she adds, 'I'm a human being –– just as much as you are… or at any rate I shall try to become one.  I know quite well that most people would agree with you, Torvald, and that you have warrant for it in books; but I can't be satisfied any longer with what most people say, and with what's in books.  I must think things out for myself and try to understand them.'  Torvald begs her not to leave, to at least let him write to her occasionally, but Nora refuses and, after suggesting that her coming back to him would be 'the greatest miracle of all,' walks out of the house, slamming its door behind her as she goes.

With that single courageous act, that one decisive slamming of a door, Henrik Ibsen virtually invented modern literary realism as we understand the term today.  Not only did A Doll's House horrify and disturb contemporary audiences –– so much so that Ibsen was forced to write an alternative, more 'hopeful' ending before the play could be performed in Germany –– it also paved the way for almost every other controversial yet similarly transcendent work of literature which followed it, including James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway (1925) and US playwright Eugene O'Neill's two towering dramatic masterpieces The Iceman Cometh (1940, first performed 1946) and Long Day's Journey Into Night (1941, first performed 1956).  The play continues to resonate with audiences because it addresses dilemmas that remain fundamental to the human condition –– to grow up or remain a child, to face reality or foolishly deny it, to educate yourself or live in the kind of ignorance that, while it may feel blissful for a time, can only end in a delayed but extremely painful awakening to the truth.  Nora is more than every woman who has ever been repressed, exploited and betrayed by her husband, just as Torvald is more than every man who considers it his right to treat his wife as his personal plaything, his 'doll' to be cossetted and patronized according to his whims.  They are oppressed and oppressor, victim and tyrant, locked in a struggle for control and self-determination that remains as old as time itself.

The Writer:  Like many a clear-eyed realist before and after him, Henrik Ibsen (20 March 1828 – 23 May 1906) began his career as something of a fabulist, reinterpreting Nordic myths and fairy tales in verse plays like The Vikings of Helgeland (1857) and the popular epic Peer Gynt (1867).  It wasn't until 1869, with the performance of his first prose play The League of Youth, that Ibsen began to develop the realistic style for which he remains best known today.

Success did not come to Ibsen quickly or easily.  Although his parents, Knud Ibsen and Marichen Altenburg, were  members of two of the wealthiest shipping families in the southern Norwegian port town of Skien, his father suffered severe business reverses when the future playwright was around seven years old which resulted in the family losing a substantial part of its fortune.  Forced to sell their city home to pay his debts, Knud Ibsen moved his family to Venstøp, its much smaller summer home on the outskirts of town.  It was in Skien that the future playwright attended school, doing so very sporadically until the age of fifteen when, with his father now legally declared bankrupt and no longer able to support him, he moved to an even smaller town named Grimstad with the aim of studying for the university entrance exam he hoped would allow him to one day obtain a medical degree.

In October 1846 the eighteen year old Ibsen fathered an illegitimate child by a servant girl named Else Jendstatter –– a son he was legally obligated to support until the boy, who was christened Hans Jacob Henriksen, became a teenager.  It was also during his stay in Grimstad, before he went to Kristiana (now known as Oslo) to re-sit the university matriculation exam he'd previously failed, that he wrote his first poems, began painting and produced his first work for the stage, a blank verse drama set in Ancient Rome titled Catiline.  This play was published in April 1850 under the pseudonym 'Brynjolf Bjarme' in a small private edition funded by his friend, benefactor and staunchest supporter Ole Schulerud.  (Like all of Ibsen's plays, Catiline was written in Danish which was the common written language of Denmark and Norway.)

A second one-act verse play, titled The Burial Mound and published under the same pseudonym, was performed later that year in Kristiana but received little attention from the critics or the Norwegian capital's theatre-going public.  By this time Ibsen –– whose feelings about earning a medical degree had always been ambivalent at best, an ambivalance reinforced by his continual failure to pass his matriculation exam and his increasing interest in supporting radical causes –– had given up on his plan to become a physician to devote himself full-time to writing.  Having earned a small reputation as a satirist and poet of unfulfilled promise, he was approached by Ole Bull, an internationally renowned violin virtuoso, and offered the job of director, producer and 'play provider' at his newly opened Norwegian Theatre in the western city of Bergen. (This was the first theatre in Norway to feature specifically Norwegian works performed by exclusively Norwegian actors).  Apart from an 'educational visit' to Germany in 1852 which introduced him to the work of Shakespeare, Ibsen would remain in Bergen until 1858, writing and publishing five more verse plays based on Nordic myths, before returning to the capital to become creative director of the well-established and well-attended Kristiana Theatre –– a post that unfortunately did not empower him to move beyond the light comedies and pastoral romances that were the prevailing theatrical fashion throughout Scandinavia and most of Europe at the time.

In June 1858 the playwright married Suzannah Thoresen, an artistically-minded young woman he'd met in Bergen following the minor commercial success of his sixth play The Feast at Solhaug (1855) and had been engaged to since January 1856.  Their only child, a son named Sigurd, was born in December 1859.  (Sigurd Ibsen would go on to serve as Norwegian Prime Minister between 1903-1905 and became instrumental in gaining his country its long desired independence from Sweden.)  Ibsen, along with Suzannah and Sigurd, relocated to Italy in 1864 –– a trip that marked the end of a four year 'dark period' that saw him lose his job, begin to drink heavily and struggle to write, all the while supported by his wife who remained, as she did throughout his life, his most consistent source of encouragement.

Cygnet Theatre UK, 2013
The trip to Italy began a period of self-imposed exile from his homeland that would endure for the next twenty-seven years and see Ibsen firmly establish himself as one of the world's most daring and controversial dramatists.  It was during his time abroad –– a period which saw him go from obscure regional playwright to major theatrical force in Germany –– that he produced Brand (1865), his popular 'mythic' satire Peer Gynt (1867, with incidental music composed by his fellow Norwegian Edvard Grieg), The League of Youth (1869), Emperor and Galilean (1873, a play based on the life of Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate which he personally considered to be his most important achievement) and what were to be his earliest experiments in the kind of stark theatrical realism that soon became his trademark –– The Pillars of Society (1877) and A Doll's House (1879).

The latter play, which in addition to becoming Ibsen's most notorious work also became his most successful, was inspired by the life of a friend named Laura Kieler, a young writer who asked him to help her find a publisher because she desperately needed money to allow her sick husband to be treated for tuberculosis –– a lung disease, also known as 'consumption,' which was usually fatal before the creation of antibiotic drugs made it possible to successfully treat and cure.  Desperate to save her husband's life, Kieler asked Ibsen to advance her the money she needed to pay for his treatment, thinking she would repay the playwright from the sales of her books, only to have Ibsen refuse her proposal, leaving her no choice but to forge a cheque in order to gain the necessary funds.  Her husband discovered what she'd done and briefly had her committed to a mental asylum, initiating divorce proceedings against her soon afterwards.  Although they later reconciled and Laura went on to find success as a writer of plays and historical novels, she was forever known as the inspiration for 'Ibsen's Nora' and felt hampered by it until her death, in her adopted homeland of Denmark, at the age of eighty-three.

But Laura Kieler was not Ibsen's only inspiration for Nora.  'A woman cannot be herself in modern society,' he noted in 1878 while living in Rome, '[since it is] an exclusively male society, with laws made by men and with prosecutors and judges who assess feminine conduct from a masculine standpoint.'  It was these beliefs, as much as the sad story of his would-be protégé, which inspired the play and helped to make it a revered text among Suffragettes and other proponents of the Feminist movement after it was translated into English by critic William Archer and published in London in 1889.

A Doll's House was followed by the equally controversial Ghosts (1881) and An Enemy of the People (1882) in which the hypocritical conduct of an entire community is put under the microscope.  Ibsen's next work for the stage The Wild Duck (1884) –– an autobiographical play concerning a young man who returns to his hometown after a period of self-imposed exile where he's reunited with a married friend who, in what had become his signature style, is shown to be living a life founded on destructive self-deception –– is often considered to be his greatest play and, despite the undisputed greatness of later 'psychological' works including Rosmersholm (1886, loosely based on the lives of his parents), The Lady From The Sea (1888), Hedda Gabler (1890) and The Master Builder (1892), remains for many his most characteristic achievement, paving the way for later generations of dramatists, including Anton Chekhov and Eugene O'Neill, to present audiences with their own, often shocking visions of damaged human beings struggling to recognize, accept and overcome their social, personal and moral limitations. 

The success of these works saw Ibsen elevated to the status of a national icon, an artist whose reputation made him the ideal candidate to become his country's international representative in both the theatrical and the political sense.  In December 1869 he was Norway's envoy at the opening of the Suez Canal, while his seventieth birthday in 1898 saw widespread celebrations held in his honour throughout his homeland.  Neither his fame nor his age prevented him from engaging in a series of short-lived affairs with a host of women much younger than himself, the most notorious of which was conducted with an Austrian girl named Emilie Bardach who spoke openly of their relationship and sought to profit from her association with the man who had, by 1899, come to be regarded as 'Norway's greatest tourist attraction.'

Ibsen's final play was When We Dead Awaken, a dreamlike piece he subtitled a 'A Dramatic Epilogue' which had its premiere at London's Haymarket Theatre in December 1899.  In March of the following year he suffered a series of debilitating strokes at his home in Kristiana which caused significant brain damage and robbed him of the ability to recognize or utilize any form of written language.  He lingered in this unhappy state until 23 May 1906, when, after displaying some small signs of improvement, he finally died after uttering what was to be his last-ever word 'Tvertimod!' [On the contrary!].  By now an iconic figure whose work had been translated into many different languages and performed all over the world, his loss was widely mourned by the artistic community in whose eyes he remained one of the 'founding fathers' of Modernism.  After the works of his idol William Shakespeare, A Doll's House remains the world's most frequently performed play, its most recent production –– featuring the controversial 'alternative' ending –– having opened in the UK in June 2015.  

Click HERE to visit the website of THE IBSEN SOCIETY OF AMERICA, an academic organization founded in 1979 for the purpose of studying and preserving the works of HENRIK IBSEN.

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