Henrik Ibsen was born in Skein, Norway on March 20, 1828. After spending most of his early years in poverty, he eventually made a name for himself as one of the most respected playwrights of all time. He 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 owes a little something to Ibsen. Just 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. Weird.
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 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" (source). To Ibsen, it wasn'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.
As we mention in "In a Nutshell," Ibsen didn't see his controversial play, A Doll's House, as feminist. He saw it as humanist. He thought every person, man and woman, had a right to self-actualization, to be who they wanted to be.
Ibsen seems to think that people are often herded like sheep by society. He's famously quoted as saying, "The strongest man in the world is he who stands alone." 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 just might be as relevant to our children and grandchildren, and so on. The tension of the individual versus society will most likely never leave us.