Theatre: A Doll House

By Jerry Rapier

A conversation about a new translation of the first “truly feminist” play.

Playwrights Eric Samuelsen and Debora Threedy share an affinity for the work of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Eric recently completed a new translation of Ibsen’s legendary play “A Doll House,” and Debora is including a discussion of it in her forthcoming book The Subversive Sex. So we sat down to chat.

JR: Why a new translation of “A Doll House”?

ES: Some of the most important conversations my wife and I have had about our marriage were prompted by good productions of “A Doll House.”

I love the play inordinately because it’s so warmly, richly human: funny and painful and rich. But I love it better in Norwegian than in any of the English translations I’ve read. I think it’s a genuinely great play that more Americans would love if they knew it as I know it.

JR: Take us inside the play.

DT: It follows Nora’s transformation from spoiled “child-wife” to independent, free-thinking woman. The plot turns on the fact that Nora forged a legal document in order to borrow money to save her husband Torvald’s life. When the lender discovers the forgery, he threatens to blackmail Nora unless she convinces her husband to give him a job. When Torvald does find out, he makes it clear he will give in to the blackmailer’s demands rather than see his reputation ruined. Nora, realizing he is not the man she thought he was, walks out on her marriage—the door slam heard round the world.

JR: “A Doll House” is regularly referred to as the first truly feminist play.

DT: At its most obvious, it’s feminist because it has a female protagonist, something that was—and to some extent still is—unusual.

Feminists, however, disagree on how to interpret Nora’s story. Some concentrate on how Nora embraces an ethic of care and places her duty to save her husband’s life above the positive commands of law. Others focus on the last scene, where Nora rejects a patriarchal notion of womanhood constructed by men and vows to decide for herself what is right and wrong.

Ironically, because Nora undertakes a classic hero’s journey of self-discovery, some scholars argue that her story is not feminist at all, but rather a universal story. But as feminist scholars have responded, this ignores the historically specific and gendered context for Nora’s story: in the late 19th century, a man would not feel social pressure to be a “child-husband” supported and governed by his wife, and a man would not be prohibited from borrowing money in his own name and so be driven to forge his father’s name. Most importantly, as Torvald says to Nora, “a man would never sacrifice his integrity for love”; as Nora responds, “thousands of women have.”

ES: It is the greatest of all feminist plays. I call it “A Doll House,” instead of the more traditional “A Doll’s House,” because it’s a more accurate translation of the Norwegian title “Et Dukkehjem.” When we buy children a house for them to play with their dolls, we call it a dollhouse. Norwegian children play with a dukkehjem.

With that subtle change I suggest that it’s not Nora’s house at all. It’s Torvald’s, it’s her insufferable husband’s house.

JR: What was Ibsen’s inspiration for the play?

DT: Laura Petersen Kieler, a Norwegian journalist and author, was Ibsen’s protégé. For a time, she lived with him and his wife, becoming something of the daughter they never had. Laura married a Danish schoolmaster, Victor Kieler, and after he fell ill with tuberculosis, his doctors prescribed he spend time in a warmer climate. Victor refused to borrow money, so Laura secretly took out a loan. She thought she could repay the loan with money from her writing, but miscalculated. She sent Ibsen a manuscript, asking him to recommend it to a publisher. Ibsen refused, calling the book rushed, and urging Laura to “put everything in your husband’s hands.’”

Pregnant and desperate and knowing well her husband’s intransigent nature, Laura forged a note to repay the loan. When the forgery came to light, Victor demanded a legal separation, took custody of their children (including the newborn infant), and had his wife committed to a mental asylum. Although she was released after a month, it was two years before Victor allowed her to return home to her children. Ibsen rewrote the ending of Laura’s story, giving his Nora the strength to walk away from her husband’s ‘forgiveness.’

ES: But let’s not watch it smugly. Let’s not think, “Boy, isn’t it great how much more enlightened we are today.” In some ways we are. But we’re also a society of trophy wives and plastic surgery and botox. A society where women can own property and go to law school and serve as Secretary of State—two in a row, as it happens. We’re also a pornogrified society.

In the Ibsen museum, in Oslo, my favorite exhibit is of a party invitation from 1880. A grand doyen of Oslo society invites her friends to attend a particular soiree. In big letters on the bottom, it says “‘A Doll House’ will not be discussed.” Was she warning people off, giving notice? Or was this an incentive—you can attend the one “Doll House”-free party of the summer? But it gives some idea how the play was thought of. Dangerous, incendiary, and oh, so enticing. Ibsen would have appreciated that rich joke. ‘Will not be discussed.’

But it will, now, by us.”

Jerry Rapier is the producing director for Plan-B Theatre, where the plays of Eric Samuelsen and Debora Threedy are regularly produced. CATALYST is a sponsor of Plan-B’s 2010-2011 season.

This article was originally published on July 29, 2011.