Taught in literature classes and performed in drama schools, A Doll’s House continues to be frequently revived and hotly debated by theater folk and academics. In 2006, the centennial of Ibsen’s death, it was the most performed play of the year.
First performed in 1879, A Doll’s House presented radically critical views of 19th-century marriage. While insisting that the work was not deliberately intended to support the women’s rights movement, Ibsen said the play was inspired by his belief that “a woman cannot be herself in modern society,” because it is “an exclusively male society, with laws made by men and with prosecutors and judges who assess feminine conduct from a masculine standpoint.”
When audiences first meet Nora, she doesn’t seem to have a care in the world. She is sweet and childish, and—depending on the actress playing her—perhaps a bit annoying. A well-to-do housewife and mother of three children, Nora lives a comfortable life of privilege.
Her worst problem is a sweet tooth, which makes her husband Torvald constantly rebuke her. It is obvious that Nora and Torvald’s relationship resembles that of a father and daughter more than that of a husband and wife. He calls her his “little sparrow” and his “squirrel.” In return, she performs for him, playing the role of a light-hearted, high-spirited wife who is cared for by her older and wiser husband.
As Nora’s story unfolds, hidden financial problems emerge and she is blackmailed by Krogstad, a lowly employee at the bank where Torvald has just been promoted to manager. She also experiences a transformative epiphany about her life, and, more specifically, her marriage.
During what she says is the first serious talk she and Torvald ever had, she informs him, “I have existed merely to perform tricks for you, Torvald. But you wanted it like that. You and father have committed a great sin against me. It is your fault that I have made nothing of my life. Our home has been nothing but a playroom. I have been your doll-wife, just as at home I was father’s doll-child; and here the children have been my dolls.”
“A barbaric act”
To the shock of her husband and the audience, Nora announces her decision to leave him and build her own life, independent of any man. She leaves, slamming the door behind her.
Most audiences and critics in 1879 were appalled. M.V. Brun wrote of the play’s conclusion in Folkets Avis (Copenhagen’s “The People’s Paper”):
“I ask openly: is there a mother among thousands of mothers, a wife among thousands of wives, who would act as Nora acts, who would leave husband and children and home so she herself first and foremost can become ‘a human being’? And I answer most decidedly: No, absolutely not! There is not, in her pretentious effort of justification…a single point which justifies her action, and the transformation of her character, which the playwright forces to happen, is so untruthful, unattractive and unmotivated, that we are surprised that a playwright like Ibsen will admit paternity.”
The critic in Fædrelandet, another Danish newspaper, said the show is “painful to watch. One may learn a great deal from it; one gets to hear or understand many truths; but there is nothing uplifting, no one at all who stands on a higher and more assured level than this mutually guilty married couple; one leaves with a despondent feeling of common human frailty, of what is hollow and disappointing in much of so-called human happiness, but—without any of the joy.”
A Doll’s House was so shocking that Ibsen reluctantly wrote a different ending in which Torvald Helmer forces Nora into the doorway of their children’s nursery as they sleep, rendering her seemingly unable to leave. Ibsen described it as “a barbaric act of violence” that was “absolutely contrary to my wishes.”
While some viewed Nora’s abandoning her husband and children as “untruthful, unattractive and unmotivated,” others saw it as uncommonly brave. The issue of whether a woman’s action is “attractive” is, sadly, much too relevant to present-day culture—just ask Amy Poehler and Tina Fey.
But now, thanks to the Orlando-born playwright Hnath, Nora is back, and it is very good to see her. Played by the formidable Laurie Metcalf in the play’s Broadway premiere at the John Golden Theatre, she is a single woman, a successful writer, and a loud and proud advocate for women’s rights. As she reunites with Anne Marie (Jayne Houdyshell), her former housekeeper and nanny, Nora proclaims, “I’ll tell you what: I’m not the same person who left through that door. I’m a very different person.”
Indeed, she is. Prosperous and proud, Nora is also an outspoken opponent of marriage, declaring it “as cruel, and it destroys women’s lives.” In fact, she has written extensively about the subject. This escalates into a problem when she learns she is, in fact, still married to Torvald (Chris Cooper). He never filed for divorce, an omission that could land Nora in prison for living her life and conducting business as an unmarried woman.
It’s deeply satisfying to witness Nora’s return as a confident, successful writer pleased with the life she has built for herself as an independent woman. Long stifled by her existence as a daughter, wife, and mother, she has found her voice writing about women “and the things women do and want and don’t want and don’t do. And the way the world is towards women and the ways in which the world is wrong.”
A Doll’s House, Part 2 casts her as a forerunner to Betty Friedan, whose landmark 1963 study The Feminine Mystique identified how suffocating domesticity drove women to depression and suicide.
One of the “wrong” aspects Nora and the play addresses is gendered economic restrictions and how they limited women in the past and still do. Nora’s return home predates the era in which women were first able to claim ownership of property and finances.
Zeal of the convert
The continuation of Nora’s marriage to Torvald threatens her personal autonomy. As she tells Anne Marie, “I’ve signed contracts, done business, had lovers—all sorts of things that a married woman isn’t allowed to do, that are illegal, that amount to fraud… . On paper, we’re married, and that means as my husband he has claim to all of it—all the money that I’ve earned for myself.”
Demonstrating the zeal of the convert, Nora at times comes across a little too strongly in A Dolls House, Part 2. But given all she’s achieved and all she can lose, who can blame her? The woman has completely transformed her life, but she hasn’t accomplished it without repercussions.
In the eyes of some, Nora is unquestionably selfish and villainous because she left her children without a word—a standard that women are held to, whereas men aren’t. When Anne Marie mentions Nora’s sons and daughter, Nora’s immediate response is, “Don’t bring up the children as though that drowns out anything I have to say about why I did what I did and whether what I did was right. Is that not enough? Men leave their families—happens all the time… but if a woman does it – she’s a monster, and the children are ruined.”
She makes a valid and timeless point. Mothers’ expected levels of responsibility continue to be much higher than those of fathers. Though Nora says abandoning her children was the hardest part of leaving her life behind, Hnath never implies she should have stayed. In contrast to Ibsen’s Nora, who built a web of lies entangling everyone around her, Hnath’s Nora is bracingly honest.
Nora’s life on her own has been defined by her independence. She didn’t ask anything of anyone after she left Torvald, instead choosing to live in solitude until she was no longer haunted by memories of the men in her life—her husband, her father, and her pastor—who had influenced her decisions. Determined to be true to herself, she has acted with admirable discipline, and the result is apparent from the moment she walks on stage.
An honest woman
“It’s really hard to hear your own voice, and every lie you tell makes your voice harder to hear, and a lot of what we do is lying,” she tells Torvald. “Especially when what we want so badly from other people is for them to love us. So I find that I’m best—that I’m my best self if I’m by myself.”
What Nora cannot do herself is get a divorce. The only way she can file for one is to claim that Torvald abused her, but she will not stoop to lies or besmirch her husband. Emmy (Condola Rashad), her now-grown daughter, urges Nora to fake her own death in order to protect her family’s reputation. Again she refuses, saying, “I’m already in a prison if I’m having to rely on Torvald to give me a divorce… .”
While Nora acknowledges the double standards that continue to exist in the world, she remains hopeful about the possibility of change. Talking with her daughter, she says, “The world didn’t change as much as I thought it would, but I know that someday everything will be different, and everyone will be free—freer than they are now.”
It’s inspiring, and yet disheartening to hear Nora speak of her hope for the future. That future, of course, embraces our present. Nora has arrived on Broadway at a time when women’s rights are being threatened by the recently elected Trump administration. It’s not the the future she has worked for.
But she does seem able to inspire acceptance of her actions in her estranged husband, which is a start. Reunited momentarily, Nora and Torvald talk candidly. She remains adamant that she did what she needed to do. She explains herself to him, and he listens. Even if he doesn’t completely understand, he hears her, and after she leaves the house again, it is Torvald who shuts the door behind her.
So much has changed, but so much has remained the same. It is clear the world needed people like Nora Helmer in the late 19th century. We still need them.
A Doll’s House, Part 2 continues through July 23 at the John Golden Theatre, 252 W 45th Street, New York, NY 10036. Ticket information can be found here.