Archive for August 8th, 2018

“A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen

All quoted passages are taken from the translation by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik, published by Penguin Classics

Ibsen once denied that A Doll’s House is a “feminist” play, claiming he did not even know what feminism meant. He was being disingenuous, of course: he knew fine well what he had written, and he meant every word of it, but I think I can understand his frustration: while his very specific intentions were eagerly seized upon, his more general themes seemed obscured: the play was seen as primarily didactic rather than as exploratory. That is probably the case even now: although we are no longer shocked by the play’s feminist manifesto – indeed, we tend nowadays to nod along in agreement with its didactic flow – we still think of it primarily as a social play, a play in which the hypocrisies of society are denounced, and social change demanded. And since the society it depicts has largely changed in the direction that Ibsen had advocated (at least in the western world), far from being perturbed by it, we may even find it comfortable, vindicating as it does our liberal values.

For A Doll’s House is surely Ibsen’s “greatest hit” (closely followed, I’d guess, by An Enemy of the People and by Hedda Gabler). Nora is still the part that our leading stage actresses queue to play. One can see why: it is a terrific part – although, I’d venture, Ibsen wrote a great many roles for leading ladies that are at least as challenging (Mrs Alving, Rebecca West, Ellida Wangel, Ella Rentheim, Gunhild Borkman, etc.) But it is this role, and Hedda Gabler, that has captured our collective imagination more than the others.

The overall plot is well-known – so much so that I don’t think I need to put up a spoiler warning” before I summarise it (and if a “spoiler warning” is required, it’s possibly best not to read on): a seemingly happily married middle-class woman, with three children, discovers that her marriage is a sham, and walks out on her family. Contemporary audiences certainly found it deeply shocking (as was intended), but perhaps we moderns should not be entirely shockproof on the matter: a parent, of either sex, walking out on parental responsibilities should rightly shock. Our failure to be shocked, or, possibly, our determination not to be shocked, can but rob that extraordinary final scene of its dramatic edge.

A Doll’s House has always been the English title of the play, although the Norwegian dukkehjem, literally translated, means “doll home”; it is Ibsen’s own coinage, and refers not to a toy house that a child may play with, but to a real home where the lady of the house is no more than a mere doll. Towards the end of the play, Nora says:

[Father] called me a doll-child, and he played with me, just as I play with my dolls. And then I came into your house … I went from Daddy’s hands over into yours.

First her father’s doll, and now her husband’s: the one person she has never belonged to, the one person she has never been, is herself, and, as a consequence, she does not even know what her true self really is. When her husband Torvald, in desperation, asks if she has moral sense, she, far from replying in the affirmative, can only say:

Oh, Torvald, that’s not easy to answer. I simply don’t know. I’m in such confusion over these things.

And yet, only a few lines later, when Torvald claims she is ill and feverish, she replies:

I’ve never been so clear and sure as I am tonight.

There’s actually no contradiction between Nora’s two statements. She does not know whether she has a moral sense or not because she does not know herself; but she is perfectly clear and sure about the fact of her own ignorance.

Peer Gynt, for different reasons, does not know himself either: always choosing to be whatever had been most convenient at the time, he finds he is like an onion, layer after accumulated layer, but with no real core. And it may be that Nora, having been what first her father and then her husband had wanted her to be, has no core either: but she is determined to find out for herself. Having been forced to be a Peer Gynt all her life, she now shows the steely, uncompromising determination of a Brand.

This famous final scene always takes me by surprise, even though I know full well what it contains. Its tonality is very different from the rest of the play. We had been led to believe that the play was essentially about blackmail: Nora, for the noblest of motives (to save her husband’s life, and not to worry her dying father) had imprudently forged a signature, and now, an employee in her husband’s bank on the verge of being sacked tries to blackmail her. Her desperation rises almost to fever pitch: at the end of the second act, she dances on stage a wild tarantella, and she dances with such intensity that Torvald can’t help commenting “You’re dancing as if your life depended on it”. And, without realising it, he is not far off the mark: she is indeed desparate, and has already contemplated suicide. But the crisis set up by the end of the second act isn’t really what the play is about: for the theme that was lying underneath all the while, even if we perhaps didn’t notice it at the time, was the state of Nora’s and Torvald’s marriage itself, and the terrible lie upon which that marriage had been based.

Here, we see the continuation of themes from The Pillars of Society: that play had focussed on the lies underpinning social respectability and prosperity; here, Ibsen considers the same theme, but in a domestic sphere, within the sanctified institution of marriage itself. Even that which we hold most sacred is based on lies, and we would see that for ourselves if only, with a Brand-like insistence upon truth, we determine to look upon it without equivocation, without compromise.

By the end of the play, Nora has become a sort of Brand: the absolute truth must not merely be faced, it must also be acted upon, without compromise. But this is certainly not as she had appeared at the start. When we see her first she is a scatterbrain, extravagantly spending her husband’s money (and being told off for it), eating macaroons secretly despite her husband’s wishes. And when husband and wife talk, it is not the talk of two mature adults:

TORVALD:  When did my squirrel  get home?

NORA: Just now. … Come  out Torvald, and you will see what I have bought.

TORVALD: … Has my little spending bird been out frittering money again? … we can’t be extravagant.

NORA: Oh but Torvald, we can be a little extravagant now, surely. Can’t we? Just a teeny-weeny bit. After all, you’ll have a big salary now and be earning lots and lots of money.

And so on. Nora is the scatter-brained child, to be gently admonished if need be; and he, Torvald, is the responsible adult, indulgent up to a point, but making sure, for her own good, that his wife is not too naughty. We soon see that Nora, though not conversant with the ways of the world outside (having never had the opportunity to be part of it), is far from unintelligent. So why does she speak to her husband in that manner? She speaks to no-one else like that. Why does she behave like a child? Why does she allow herself to be reprimanded?

The answer is surely that she is playing a role. She is wearing a mask that gives her an appearance that is acceptable in society. She plays the child to allow her husband to play the adult. To enable him to play the protector, she must play the part of the creature who needs protecting. She wears this mask not because, like Peer Gynt, it is necessarily a convenient mask to wear, but because, in her position in society, this is the mask she is expected to wear. And, at this point of the play at any rate, she sees no reason not to wear it. And if she wears the mask expected of her, so does Torvald: he is the man, the protector. And Nora takes this at face value. And we have to wait till the very final scene for this issue to be dramatically resolved.

But until then, Ibsen adroitly directs our attention elsewhere. He introduces the blackmail theme. Nora is terrified – not so much because her husband will discover her secret, but because she is so utterly convinced that when he does, he, her protector, will protect her, and take the blame upon himself; that he will accept shame and disgrace and ruin, all for her sake. The thought that he will do so almost drives her mad: Nora believes in the mask her husband wears: she thinks it his real face.

But the resolution of the play is not the resolution of the blackmail plot; that is resolved quite unexpectedly, and with surprising ease. And then the real theme, which had been introduced in the very first scene between husband and wife, and which has been simmering beneath the surface while Nora’s attention (and ours) had been distracted by other things, establishes itself again centre stage. And when it does take centre stage, we realise that it had been there all along. For when the crisis does break, Torvald’s mask falls: he is no protector. He cannot even think of such a thing. The idea of protecting his wife by sacrificing himself does not even occur to him. Instead, he turns on her, and speaks the cruellest, most hurtful things a wife could ever expect to hear from a husband.

But then, suddenly, everything is all right: the crisis has passed, and the threat of blackmail no longer hangs over them. And, as far as Torvald is concerned, they can go back to being as they were. But Nora had seen the mask fall, and she cannot believe in it any more. And, far from the baby talk she had put on for his benefit, she speaks clearly, adult to adult: there is, as she says, a “reckoning” to be made.

We have been married now for eight years. Doesn’t it occur to you that this is the first time the two of us, you and I, man and wife, are talking seriously together?

No, it hadn’t occurred to him. It occurs to her, for she is the more intelligent of the two, despite her having acted otherwise. Once his mask is off,  there’s no putting it back on again, and she must unmask herself also.

Torvald, in this final scene, is, of course, shocked, but he does accept what she says. For, like Nora, he too has been wearing a mask that had not suited him, and he too does not know who or what he really is. After eight years of marriage, after eight years of living on lies, lies about their marriage, lies about their own selves, they, for the very first time, speak to each other. And it is deeply moving. So used have they become to the masks they wore, now that these masks are off, neither knows who they really are.

Some productions make Torvald the villain of the piece. This is wrong. He is simply an ordinary man, not too bright perhaps, but a man who, like, perhaps, most of us, does not question the values of the society he lives in. He is no villain. In one production I have seen, Torvald, when he loses his head, actually strikes his wife. This is a grotesque misjudgement. Nora is leaving not because of domestic violence: she is leaving for reasons far more complex, and the introduction of physical violence is not only uncalled for in Ibsen’s text, it detracts from the true motivations. Nora leaves not because she has been physically abused (she hasn’t): she leaves because she has to know the truth. As with Brand, living a life based upon lies is not an option, and, no matter whom she hurts in the process – her husband, her children, even her own self – it is the Truth that has to take precedence. In that final, solemn scene, there is no room for further subterfuge.

It has perhaps become too easy nowadays to nod away in agreement with Nora in the final scene. That was the way society used to be, but we are so much more enlightened now. We may even congratulate ourselves on it. But Ibsen had intended that scene to be uncomfortable, and the production would fail badly if this scene serves but to reassure us in our modern certainties.

For that final scene, even in our more enlightened times, genuinely is shocking. The masks we nowadays find ourselves wearing may not be the ones worn by Nora and Torvald, but it is not possible to live in any sort of society without wearing some mask or other, and allowing our faces to grow into them. Inevitably, all our lives are based on lies or deceptions of some sort or other: we wouldn’t be able to live in peace with our fellow human beings if we were to be uncompromisingly our own selves: like Brand, we would have no choice but to exile ourselves from society, and, perhaps, find our own pristine Ice Church, untouched by human corruption.  To live amongst our fellow humans is to compromise, that is, to lie, to deceive – at least up to a point. And what becomes of our true selves then? Is it then even reasonable to talk of such things?

This is not to say that Ibsen had not written a social drama, a feminist drama advocating – indeed, insisting upon – independence and autonomy for women. Despite anything he may have said to the contrary, this is an accurate description of A Doll’s House.  But if we see no more than this, we tame the play, as it were, we domesticate and make palatable that which, I think, retains still its power to disturb.

Perhaps thankfully, most of us are not Brand. We aren’t Nora either. We do not insist on the Truth at all costs, however much we may like to think we do: we compromise ourselves as individuals to be able to live in peace with our fellow humans; and, since we have to compromise, since we have to deceive ourselves a bit in  the process, we find ways of justifying it to ourselves. (That is, if we notice  it at all.) Perhaps that is the sensible thing to do. But Ibsen couldn’t allow matters to rest there: in his very next play, Ghosts, published just two years after A Doll’s House, he presents an unflinching look at the consequences of living our lives upon convenient deceptions. The vehement slamming of the door as Nora walks out on her husband and children at the end of A Doll’s House marks the end of one story, but there are many others still to be told.