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Saturday, April 22, 2006

Review: Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House

Ibsen has aptly been described as the father of modern theatre and he’s also lionized for his realism – both qualities on display at times in his A Doll’s House. I’ll dispense with comments on the acting in the Off-Broadway production in Ann Arbor Friday night, other than to say I thought it was excellent, and get right on to the play itself. Ibsen wrote it while residing, not in his home country of Norway, but in Germany. It was published in 1879. The main characters are Nora and her husband Torvald Helmer. The play opens Christmas Eve. Nora is quite giddy this year because her husband has just been promoted to the position of manager at a bank and she can finally be more free in spending his money. He on the other hand, tells her not so fast – the money is not in hand yet and nothing is more morally reprehensible than borrowing money. After all, a slate tile may fall on his head and strike him dead and she’ll be left holding the bag. She is depicted, like most women of her day, as nothing more than a grown child whose only source of power is her ability to manipulate first her father while he lived, and then later her over-bearing husband – the latter with flattery and her good looks. She’s a doll living in a doll’s house and both Nora and Torvald appear to like it that way. In particular she especially likes to manipulate him to get some extra spending money, and he enjoys playing the father figure and telling her she burns through it irresponsibly.

As the plot unfolds we find out, however, that Nora has done at least one independent and naughty thing in her life – she had illegally contracted with her father’s forged signature a loan of 10,800 Crowns to pay for a year of living in Italy so that Torvald could recover from some consumptive affliction there. Torvald, being the patriarchal tightwad that he is, of course had refused to borrow the money to save himself. Shortly after taking out the illegal loan, Nora’s father dies so it appears her secret is safe as long as she can pay her creditor. Naturally, the real reason she is always wheedling Torvald for money is to pay off said creditor, not simply for lavish spending on herself as at first we believed.

Torvald’s first act as manager of the bank is to fire a certain Nils Krogstad because of his questionable ethics. Krogstad, however, turns out to be the one who loaned Nora the money, and he also figures out that she forged her father’s signature. He threatens to expose her double life and to ruin her Barbie-doll existence unless she can cajole her husband to rehire him. Nora fails in her appeals to her husband because he cannot countenance his underlings believing his judgments can be overridden by his wife, nor will he stake his own reputation at the bank on a man like Krogstad. When Nora realizes that she will be exposed, she contemplates suicide, but cannot bring herself to carry it out. When the secret comes out, Torvald naturally castigates his wife’s profligacy and deception because it now threatens his own reputation and standing at the bank because some may believe he actually persuaded his wife to forge her father’s signature to save his own skin. While being excoriated, Nora realizes that she is nothing more than a trophy wife for Torvald and she has an awakening. Krogstad, then suddenly reverses his threats to bring them both down and he sends the forged document to Nora to destroy. It is intercepted by Torvald who reads it, is elated that the story will be kept secret, and he throws it in the fire. For Torvald all is now well, and he wants to resume their life in Barbie-land after a small bump in the road.

OK, so far so good. Ibsen has brilliantly captured the real standing of women in his era as nothing more than childlike dolls as well as the men who want to keep them that way. But it’s at this point where the plot becomes preachy and Ibsen fails to plumb the depth of realistic theatre. Husband and wife have a long heart-to-heart as adults – something they’ve never done. Rather than acquiesce to her husband’s wishes and return to their safe existence, Nora decides to go off to become an adult. While an emotive ending, I thought it did not confirm to Aristotle’s eikos – that is a realistic portrayal of what would have likely happened. Rather, I would have thought it better to have either Nora run away immediately without any word and only later have the tête-à-tête with Torvald, or more likely temporarily re-submit and then let the awakening percolate up to the point that she could no longer take it and then leave. Any kind of lengthy conversation with Torvald the very night of the exposure would have been out of the question. Also, he was the kind of man who would have become violent with his wife rather than let her harm his reputation by running off. Perhaps that kind of ending was just too much for Ibsen’s day and we should be thankful for how far he did push the envelope of realistic theatre.


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