A Doll’s House


In A Doll’s House, written by Henrik Ibsen in 1881 and dealing with the abandonment by a married woman of her husband and young children, was an immediate succès scandale.  The sound of the slamming door as Nora left her home at the end of the play is said to have reverberated throughout Europe.  Conventional society was shocked.  How could a woman - any woman, let alone a woman of background - break such a fundamental human law, not only of her society, but of her very sex.  A female abandon her young?  No mammal, human or animal could surely be capable of such an act unless deranged.

      The play was like a key in a door.  Attention was focused on the social situation of women and their place in society.  In times of rapidly increasing industry and commerce, with a concomitant need for nimble female fingers in factory and office, such a potential source of energy began to attract serious consideration.  Among the lowest working classes women had always worked outside the home in order to sustain life for themselves and for their children, since a man's labouring wage was low.  But, with the increase of lower managerial, office and retailing opportunities, a new kind of worker was required.  Female labour began to acquire an enhanced commercial value.  It was possible for a woman to find clean, dry, seated work and freedom from the ubiquitous bondage of domestic employment - "service" as it was traditionally and appropriately known.  If a woman could Do, as well as BE, the prospects for her life were exponentially widened and increased.  Women everywhere were alerted by the possibility of new horizons, a new, unthinkable independence.

       A Doll’s House is a seminal play.  Here we have a woman who has been thrust into traumatic decision by the illness of her young husband.  She saves his life, at a cost to herself - debt and secrecy dog her for years.  When the truth is revealed her husband is appalled, both by her deception and the position she has put him in.  His reputation, by her act, will be tarnished - he will be professionally ruined.  He turns on his wife in recrimination and judgmental fury.

        It is a revelation to her.  Like Saul on the road to Tarsus, Nora's eyes are opened.  She sees for the first time that the promise of male protection is, at best, conditional.  She is shattered by Torvald's lack of fidelity and personal devotion.  And she is deeply disturbed when she realises that, as a female dependant on the male hegemony, she is inadequately provided with the weapons needed not only for contribution to society but for personal survival.  She asks "Who am I?  Where do I stand?"  And, in order to find answers, decides that she must abandon her husband, her home and her children.

    Very often, with classics, productions carry the whiskers of a first exposure, understandable if there has been éclat.  In A Doll’s House, Torvald is often played as a stuffy, time-serving bourgeois, as a pompous, unimaginative idiot, as a bully.  Torvald Helmer, in fact is a very good husband.  He is an attractive, hard-working and loyal partner.  He adores his wife and children and fulfils faithfully what society imposes as his role - he is provider and protector.  At a time when childbirth and the rearing of children was still full of dangers, women with kind and effective husbands were fortunate.  Even in the 1930s, 50 years later, deaths in childbirth were not infrequent - children were extinguished by diphtheria and TB, and measles was a dread.  So Nora was well-placed.  She had a very good husband - productions which portray him as otherwise beg the play...who wouldn't walk on a humourless bully, despot or an unfeeling twit?  But Nora leaves a marriage in the middle of its conjugal celebration.  What she gives up is tremendous and in Ghosts, written two years later, Ibsen continues with his theme - that of the necessity for maturation - for the need for human beings to grow up.  Ghosts is much harsher on the penalties of failure to do this and both plays are still breathtaking in their audacity.

     We played this version of A Doll’s House in Newcastle where it was received with intense interest.  After the first night there was a civic reception and discussion of the play with aldermen's wives was sober and searching.  At the end of the evening there were cordial farewells.  As the ladies left, one of them paused in the doorway, turned back suddenly and, bending down, whispered softly in that wonderful Newcastle accent: "But she wouldn't have left those children, would she?"  True.

                                                                                                                                   Pam Gems