Ibsen’s Dolls House caused quite a stir when it first surfaced at the Royal Theatre in Denmark almost 140 years ago. Productions of it, alongside much of Ibsen’s repertoire, regularly grace stages across the world today, while audiences, educators and students still vigorously debate its merits. Should it remain on a syllabus, for example? Is it any better than an average episode of any average soap? I have heard many a student, struggling with its characters and language, express a preference for Eastenders! What’s the big deal?
Yes, the play focuses on the predicament of its central character, Nora, so it inevitably raises issues of women’s rights, even though Ibsen denied consciously writing about them. But during my preparatory work and rehearsals, it soon became evident it was about much more than that. Ibsen’s world, not only the world of his play but the world he lived within, was comprehensively a world of men. These men who governed, taught, preached and judged also husbanded. This governance dictated societal behaviour. It ruled, often relentlessly and misogynistically, and it is this world dictating Ibsen’s classic – the men’s issues create the struggle for the women within it.
As rehearsals progressed I constantly questioned how far our modern society has actually moved from all these issues at the play’s central core, from its humanity. Nora leaving her husband and children should still be shocking today. Not solely the act itself, but the motivation behind her action – the conditions thrown at her by an unacceptable world that she has been expected to exist within. To survive. But how different is her ‘nineteenth century’ world to that of our own? The reasons why the play is still popular, why it should not be abandoned by academics or students soon became abundantly clear.
Perhaps the real question should be : how far have men progressed?
Perhaps we have not moved very far at all.