A Doll's House Introduction
In A Nutshell
You're in Henrik Ibsen's debt and you probably don't even know it.
Imagine what Law and Order would be like in verse—Oh, dearest judge, do not slam your gavel; for if you do, justice will unravel. (No. Just... no.)
Or what Orange is the New Black would be like if the inmates broke out in weird, flowery soliloquies at the drop of the hat. Or if True Detective were set in a castle or among the upper-upper classes... because that's just where drama took place.
Ibsen is often called "the father of modern drama" because he helped popularize realism, which a good portion of today's entertainment imitates without even knowing it. Just about every show on television that a) doesn't preoccupy itself with only the super-rich, b) examines real-life situations, and c) uses normal-sounding language owes a little something to Ibsen.
Yep, even Game of Thrones—despite its very unrealistic subject matter and love of all things gold n' shiny—tips it hat to theatrical realism. The line is "You know nothing, Jon Snow," and not "Thou knowest naught, Jon Snow," after all.
And if Ibsen is the Big Daddy of theatrical realism, then A Doll's House is his prodigal son, er, daughter.
After a few smaller successes with plays such as Brand, Peer Gynt, and Pillars of Society, Ibsen took the world by storm with A Doll's House. Boy, was it controversial. Nora's door-slamming exit from her marriage is sometimes described as a shot heard around the world. The very idea that a woman might have something to do other than keep house and raise children was pretty scandalous in the Victorian Era.
Party invitations were sent out requesting that people not discuss the play. Hosts were afraid their elegant engagements would turn into all-out brawls. Many critics were just as scandalized. They scathingly criticized Ibsen for undermining society's most sacred institution: marriage. However, a few critics, such as George Bernard Shaw, championed Ibsen because he was unafraid to challenge societal norms.
Though the play is often pigeon-holed as a feminist manifesto, Ibsen denied it. Once, when he was being honored by the Norwegian Society for Women's Rights, he said, "I am not even quite sure what women's rights really are. To me it has been a question of human rights."
To Ibsen, it isn't necessarily about the fact that Nora is a woman; it's about the fact that she's a human being. He thought that all people, men and women alike, should have the courage to stand up against society and form their own opinions. Think about it—in a way, Torvald, Nora's husband, is just as caged by society as his wife. Society has programmed them both into their prescribed roles: dominant, provider husband; submissive, homemaking wife.
In Ibsen's mind, all human beings have a sacred duty to themselves. Yup: our Henrik was way ahead of his time, in terms of both his style (yay, realism!) and his free-thinking individualism.
Why Should I Care?
The story of A Doll's House: a woman is infantilized by her hubby, and she leaves him and her kids.
The gut-churning responses to reading A Dolls House: infinite. And for every reaction to A Doll's House, there is an equal and opposite reason why you should care.
Is your knee-jerk response "How could she leave her family?" Well, this play asks you to think—really think—about how it would feel to be reduced to nothing but a cute little object even when you're responsible for running a household... to say nothing of saving your husband's life (like Nora does).
Is your knee-jerk response "What a jerk of a husband! I hope he suffers"? Well, this play asks you to think—again, really think—about how whether Torvald could act differently when society has conditioned him to treat women as overgrown children.
Is your knee-jerk response "Marriage is messed up. Marriage should be abolished"? Well, this play asks you to think super-crazy-hard about both the good aspects and terrible aspects of marriage. There are characters—Christine and Nils—who end the play finding happiness and security and hope in each others' arms. And then there are Nora and Torvald.
Ibsen will dodge your every immediate reaction to this play. He's too nuanced, too contemplative, and too dang slick a writer of three-dimensional characters to let you think of one convenient reason to care and leave the theater with a smile on your face, thinking "Ah! I cracked it!"
But he does offer one bracket of reasons to care: our guy Henrik is not a fan of blind obedience to the rules of society.
Ibsen seems to think that people are often herded like sheep by societal demands. He's famously quoted as saying, "The strongest man in the world is he who stands alone." And dangit if he's not onto something. People often get swept up by popular opinion, giving little thought to whether what's happening is right or wrong in their own minds. We have a sneaky suspicion that this might be just as true today as it was in Ibsen's time. We also suspect that it might be just as relevant to our children and grandchildren.
So, feel free to stand alone (you strong person, you) and come up with your own reason why A Doll's House is worth caring about. But we're 100% certain of one thing—and no, we're not under the spell of societal rules here—you will find a reason. A really, really good one.