Upstage Magazine – A Doll’s House, Part 1

Date posted: August 24, 2018

When Henrik Ibsen’s deathbed nurse assured a friend that he was “a little better,” Ibsen sternly protested, “on the contrary!” Fittingly, those were the playwright’s last words. Contentious to his last, Ibsen is perhaps best remembered for the fascinating, powerful protagonist Nora Helmer in his 1879 masterwork, A Doll’s House. Lucas Hnath gathers up this remarkable legacy in A Doll’s House, Part 2, and imagines what happens after Nora turns her back on her husband, her children and middle-class domesticity in the original play’s sensational conclusion.

Ibsen’s original play begins on Christmas Eve. Nora is celebrating her husband Torvald’s recent promotion at the bank after years of penny pinching. Torvald constantly belittles Nora, scolding her for spending too much on gifts and sprinkling her with condescending pet names. Meanwhile, one of Torvald’s underlings arrives to blackmail Nora, threatening her husband’s new position. This danger stems from one of Nora’s only independent acts: she illegally borrowed money to care for Torvald when he fell ill from overwork.

As the exposure of Nora’s crime creeps closer, she begins to feel less like Torvald’s partner and more like his possession, an ornament on his perfect, bourgeois life. Her fears are confirmed when she is finally discovered: Torvald cruelly insults Nora, calling her a liar, a criminal and an unfit mother. He soon recants—once he learns that his position at the bank is safe after all—but it’s too late. Nora condemns his craven hypocrisy, refuses to be treated as a doll any longer, and walks out on her marriage and three children—slamming the door behind her.

That door slam reverberated across Europe. Not since Ancient Greece had a female lead so soundly rejected masculine dominance. Ibsen has been widely credited with creating the role of the modern woman in Western theatre—a woman no longer confined to narrow definitions of domestic servitude or motherhood, and whose mind and body are hers to govern as she sees fit.

The play premiered to great acclaim, but, as you can imagine, no small degree of controversy. Ibsen was ordered by the producers of the first German production to create an alternative ending (a move he later deeply regretted), in which Nora remains ultimately unable to leave her children. The work incited fierce debate about the roles of women and assumptions of male superiority. Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl, organized one of the first productions of the play in English in 1886 to support the women’s emancipation movement. The amateur affair took place in a Bloomsbury drawing room, and featured none other than George Bernard Shaw as Krogstad[1]. For many, Ibsen not only shows Nora’s liberation, but how Torvald is also enslaved by gender roles—and coerced into defending the bourgeois institutions that humiliate him.

But it’s not only Ibsen’s feminist principles that sparkle in A Doll’s House; the Norwegian’s trademark realism generated a bracing, intricate plot and some of the most memorable characters in twentieth-century drama. Nora’s complex ethical code and awesome transformation have attracted many of the stage’s finest talents, including Ethel Barrymore, Claire Bloom and Janet McTeer. Shaw’s reading of Krogstad in Eleanor Marx’s drawing room launched a love affair with Ibsen that lasted his entire career.

Nora announces her return in A Doll’s House, Part 2 with a loud knock on the same door she first slammed 140 years earlier. The grip Ibsen’s Nora exerts on audiences hasn’t weakened in the slightest; now that 15 fictional years have passed in the Helmer household since that decisive day, you can bet Hnath’s Nora—now successful in her own right—hasn’t lost her mettle.

Michael Stewart is a freelance writer and an English instructor at Camosun College. He lives in Victoria.

[1] Britain, Ian. “A Transplanted Doll’s House: Ibsenism, Feminism and Socialism in Late-Victorian and Edwardian England.” Transformations in Modern European Drama, edited by Ian Donaldson, Macmillan, 1983, pp. 14-54.