Authored by Tara Schaefle
Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House boldly defies societal constraints of 19th-century Norway, liberating succeeding generations of theater from needing to conform to the naïve societal ideals previously perpetuated by the Romantic era. Ibsen explores how the period’s expectations of propriety are in truth a suffocating façade that stifles rather than civilizes the human spirit through the story of Nora, wife of Torvald Helmer and mother of three. Nora, outwardly submissive and dutiful to her husband, is haunted by a past incident where, because of her position in society, the only available means for her to save her ill husband were to commit forgery and illegally borrow money. The fragile pretense of a blissful marriage and ultimately Nora’s dignity as a woman is threatened by the social implications and consequences of her actions. The illusion of bourgeois contentment crumbles as the stakes continue to rise, and the play culminates in a grand confrontation during which Nora chooses to leave behind her subservient life in Helmer’s “doll house.”
Ibsen depicts Nora’s flaws not to chastise such failings but instead to demonstrate a person strangled by stringent expectations. The social structure into which Nora is born does not recognize her intelligence or dignity as an individual. Any personal growth or accomplishments are suppressed, and any chance to make meaningful contributions as a real partner to her husband is thus beyond reach. Only by making the radical choice to leave behind her home, marriage, and children can Nora claim control over her own life. Her husband Torvald is also playing the role expected of him by society; he is both the supporter of and ultimate authority over the household. Throughout the piece, the supporting characters of Krogstad, Mrs. Linde, and Dr. Rank all wrestle with the consequences to their reputation and livelihood if they are unable to measure up to society’s standards in their own way.
The gravity of Nora’s final decision may not be immediately evident to audiences in the 21st century, especially considering the present day separation and divorce rates of married couples. The very institution of marriage is weakening as cohabitation becomes an acceptable alternative. The strength of a union between two people in the 21st century is based more on the depth of emotional commitment to one another than only societal necessity; Nora’s decision to leave an emotionless marriage could then appear obvious to modern audiences, rather than the eye-opening shock that Ibsen intended. The weight of Nora’s decision is also lessened by the value of individualism in many contemporary Western cultures and the broad social progress that has been made to accommodate those previously oppressed by society, including women and minorities. Modern audiences could easily and understandably interpret Nora’s struggle in A Doll’s House through the gender lens, but in doing so the entirety of the show’s message is compromised.
We challenge the audience and the production team to resist reading A Doll’s House as strictly a feminist piece, because what allows the piece to remain timeless is the suffering that extends beyond gender roles that Ibsen sought to address. The nuances in all the characters, male and female alike, communicate a universal human struggle to realize one’s true self within the overwhelming pressure of social conformity created by the behavioral regulations of a society. By specifically examining both the idealized and practical role of gender, family, and marriage within the Norwegian society of the 19th century, we hope to stage the production in such a way as to emphasize the overarching metaphor of human beings living in a “doll’s house” rather than a true home, as well as offer a critique on the marginalizing cage of social constraints and the possibility of liberation that Ibsen fought for in his work.
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