“A profound poetic dramatist – the best since Shakespeare” was the phrase used by theatrical critic Richard Hornby when describing 19th century playwright Henrik Ibsen. Best known for his landmark 1879 play, A Doll’s House – which incidentally in 2006 became the most performed play in the world – this Norwegian writer and social moralist certainly merits the acclaim and trepidation which has come to be synonymous with him
Born into an affluent family at the top of Norway, Ibsen’s fortunes fell rapidly. His father’s financial resources were depleted, and the family were forced to sell their grand home and in sacrificing their social position, moved permanently into their dilapidated summer house. But the scars of Ibsen’s childhood left its mark upon his work – financial difficulty and the role of suffering women are at the intransigent core of his most famous plays.
At 18, he fathered an illegitimate child with a maid, and combined with his family’s desire to conceal their financial difficulties, the concept of hiding and the concealment of truth is one of the central strands of his work – the first word of A Doll’s House – “Hide”, only serves as a reminder of the dramatic intrigue of Ibsen. His characters are laced with appeal, with layered motives and scandalous secrets.
The role of Nora Helmer has seemingly become a staple for female actors as the ultimate role, with those from Jane Fonda to Gillian Anderson taking the weight and expectation of the character. Ibsen’s Nora transcends the domestic sphere, and after enduring three long acts, and demonstrably a lifetime, of being patronised and degraded, Nora just walks out on the oppressive marriage which encages her.
The original ending to A Doll’s House was considered so radical by its contemporary audience that in Germany Ibsen was forced to reconstruct the ending to his masterpiece. The original ending sent ripples throughout the Norwegian bourgeoisie – ripples that turned into waves.
For middle-class men, who ventured with their wives obliviously into theatres all across Europe, I imagine an awkward and panicked silence on the journey home. After all, if a well-respected and obedient member of the bourgeoisie – a wife, a mother – could simply turn her back on her family and her womanly duty with no concern for her husband or children, then what could prevent their wives from following suit?
It is this that I find so interesting about Ibsen’s plays. Whilst A Doll’s House, through my eyes at least, remains his crowning achievement, his 1881 play Ghosts follows a similar thread. Steeped in the stiff nineteenth century context of Ibsen’s lifetime, Ghosts is another highly didactic piece of fiction and a commentary on nineteenth century morality. A thinker and dramatist remarkably ahead of his time, Ibsen’s stoic appearance and comically Victorian beard do not appear to contain the thoughts of a radical.
There is a clear reason why, year after year, new performances of his plays, with a glittering assemblage of actors waiting to land the roles of his intricate characters – they resonate with our modern mindsets and appeal to 21st century egalitarian persuasions. We gain a sense of justice to see a trapped woman eclipse the domestic sphere and regain the shattered fragments of her pre-marital identity. In an interview before her performance as Nora in 2012’s production of A Doll’s House, Hattie Morahan recalls how somebody approached her and said, “That’s the play that broke my parents’ marriage up.” Few words written in 1879 could have such power in the modern day.
But that’s Ibsen’s trick – his work continues to send cultural ripples throughout audiences, and convince us all that nineteenth century Scandinavian literature does not have to be austere, irrelevant and uninviting.