A Doll's House at the Abbey

A Doll's House, Ibsen's play about the liberation of one middle class housewife, is now playing at the Abbey

When Ibsen's A Doll's House was first produced in 1879 it caused an uproar. To 19th century Europe the idea of a woman forsaking her marriage vows, abandoning her chilldren, rejecting the idea of obedience to her husband, was almost indecent. That the play should actually make the husband, not the rebellious wife, look small, was particularly outrageous. However, the controversy made the playa success in Norway. Published in 1879 it was reprinted twice in 1880.

In Germany the theme was so unnpalatable that Ibsen had to change the ending for the 1880 German producction. Nora this time didn't walk out. Her husband, Torvald, makes her look at her sleeping children and the curtain falls just after she drops her travel cases in resignation.

The single most extraordinary thing about A Doll's House, (now playing at the Abbey) is that the play could be so relevant today. Ibsen's heroine, Nora, is the scatterbrained housewife who grows up from the doll-child of her father to the doll-wife of her husband. Her devastating moment of truth comes when she realises that there is nothing more to her. life than this supperficial existance.

In America in the 1960s Betty Freidan hit the nerve of feminine disscontent when she described "the prooblem that has no name". - the sense of emptiness of the American middleeclass housewife. But clearly the same problem existed in 19th century Norway and this forms the central theme of A Doll's House.

Nora's key to survival was first her father and then her husband. Her selffdefined function is solely to please him. She is his "little skylark", "little squirrel", "little songbird", or when she is naughty his "little spendthrift", "little prodigal". However inane the nicknames, the inequality of the relaationship is believable and uncomforttably recognisable in modern terms.

Yet, beneath all this saccharin, there is more substance to Nora. In desperaation, to save her husband's life, she has borrowed money, and she has broken the law and forged her father's name as guarantor, to do so. Her hussband doesn't know. "Torvald has his pride - most men have - he'd be terribly hurt and humiliated if he thought he owed anything to me. It would spoil everything between us and our lovely happy home would never be the same again."

Of course she doesn't really believe this. She really believes that when the truth comes out her husband will stand by her because he loves her. In the event, he doesn't stand by her:

"You've completely wrecked my happpiness, you've ruined my whole future ... I'm brought so pitifully low all because of a shiftless woman."

Nora, at this moment realises that her life has been a fraud and she makes the decision to leave her husband. He reminds her of her duty: "Before everything else, you are a wife and mother"; to which she replies: "I don't believe that any longer. I believe that before everything else I'm a human being - just as much as you are ... or at any rate I shall try to become one." ,

The question of the discontent of housewives would seem to be more contemporary than Ibsen's 19th century drama. Most mothers and wives of the 19th century were not unnduly worried about the relevance of their role. They were involved in a domestic economy which included an enormous amount of productive work (making of clothes, tools, food, canndles, soap, medicines etc.) It was fairly obvious that their role in the commuunity was important.

Ibsen's discontented housewife is from a particularly affluent class 0a class where women were seen to be decorative, and the home was a happy place to which the harassed man of the world could retreat. The leisure of this Victorian middle-class housewife, obbviously depended oil the exploitation of other women - the women who saw to it that her house was clean, her dinners cooked, and her children reared so that the decorative woman of leisure could be a decorative woman of leisure.

Ibsen, shrewdly enough, realised that the bargain struck by middle class housewives - financial security and social respectability in exchange for devotion, obedience and sexual parttnership - was not only a lopsided, unnsatisfactory arrangement, it wasn't even a particularly stable or secure one. There's no job security in being a housewife.

Nora's childhood friend Kristine Linde comes to visit. Mrs. Linde is a widow - the only respectable option for a single woman. She threw over the man she loved and any hope for perrsonal happiness to marry a man who appeared to offer financial security to both herself and her widowed mother. As it turned out, the unnloved husband died, left her nothing and she has had long bitter years tryying to work to support herself and her mother. Kristine Linde accepted the status quo, struck the bargain, and lost. She is a changed woman because of it: "When you've sold yourself once

for the sake of others, you don't do it a second time."

The vapid nature of middle class housewifery did not become a public issue until the 1960s, when the combined historical effects of western affluence and birth control produced large numbers of well educated women who having reared their small, welllspaced families, sat back in their suburban homes and asked, is there life after coffee mornings? These women began to feel that they, like Ibsen's Nora, were cheated of their own lives when they struck the bargain offered in marriage.

Nora's comments on dependence within marriage are apt: "When I lived at home with Papa, he used to tell me his opinion about everything, and so I had to hide it from him or he wouldn't have liked it. He called me his little doll, and he used to play with me just as I played with my dolls. Then I came to live in your house ... I passed out of Papa's hands and into yours. You arranged everything to suit your own tastes, and so I came to have the same tastes as yours ... or I pretended to. I'm not quite sure which ... perhaps it was a bit of both - sometimes one and sometimes the other. Now that I come to look at it, I've lived like a pauper - simply from hand to mouth. I've lived by performing tricks for you, Torvald. That was how you wannted it. You and Papa have committed a grevious sin against me: it's your fault I've made nothing of my lif~."

Today, the questions raised by the economically dependent role of women in the family home are still unanswered. Women today are not so much discontented at the role of wife and mother, but object to the second class status that role seems to imply. According to the recent report by the Council for the Status of Women on the status of Irish women at home, "Women in the home do not have an identity or status. Examples of the lack of status were: married women being unable to undertake hirechase agreements in their own right; and married women being asked for their husband's occupation on hospiital admittance forms."

The examples of contemporary second class status .are relevant since Ibsen's Nora's big crime was to trick a money lender into giving her a loan. Married women were not allowed loans without a male guarantor, and to comply with this stipulation, Nora forges her father's name. Nora can't believe that this act of love was a crime: "I simply don't believe that. Hasn't a daughter the right to prootect her dying father from worry and anxiety? Hasn't a wife the right to save her husband's life? I don't know much about the law, but I am quite certain that it must say somewhere that things like that are allowed."

But things like that are not allowed.

This is inexplicable to Nora because like millions of women, and poorer men and women, she is outside the law-making culture of that society. Nora's triumph is that she concludes that she is right and the law and connvention are wrong.

Today's Nora's point of view is no longer perceived as startling. There are millions of Noras. But the structure and attitudes of society are still laden with the thinking of the Torvalds. The philosophers, including Ibsen, have interpreted the world, the Noras have yet to carry through the job of changging it. •