A Gilded Gadfly
By Gabriel Blanchard
Ibsen is among the most influential—and controversial—of modern dramatists.
Henrik Ibsen was a Norwegian dramatist of the nineteenth century, contemporary with Queen Victoria. His plays, most of which came out during the “Gilded Age” in American history, were artistically revolutionary. Drama was traditionally one of the most stylized, even artificial, of the arts. Ancient Greek drama developed from religious rites, and right down to the eighteenth century, certain elements of drama (like speaking in verse) retained a somewhat ritual aspect.
Ibsen took a very different approach. Prose in drama was not unknown before him, but more than half of Ibsen’s work featured no verse at all. Nor was it only the forms of drama that he revised. The subject matter of his plays was often highly controversial, as he attacked or satirized respectable society and morals; in this he was followed by playwrights like George Bernard Shaw and Eugene O’Neill. Ibsen was particularly critical of nineteenth-century ideas about the family, and above all of conventional restrictions on the role and rights of women.
Perhaps his most celebrated play, A Doll’s House, puts the rights of women front and center. The protagonist, Nora, is a doting and dutiful wife, who has secretly forged a check in her father’s name in order to afford a trip to Italy for Torvald, her husband, to recover his health; laws at the time prevented women from conducting almost any financial business without a father or husband, hence the forgery. A blackmailer discovers Nora’s secret, and, afraid that not only she but Torvald will be ruined, she plans to commit suicide—until the blackmailer relents, sending the evidence he had to Nora and her husband. At first, Torvald is enraged on learning of the blackmail; he blames everything on Nora and tells her she is unfit to be a wife and mother. But when he learns that the criminal will leave them alone, he forgives her, telling her that it was only her feminine stupidity that put her in that mess and that he loves her for being helplessly dependent on him.
At this, Nora revolts. It has become clear to her that Torvald never loved her as well as he loved himself. She had broken the law and would have killed herself to protect him, and he would never have done the same for her. He tells her that she has a duty to stay, as a wife and mother—the very duties he had berated her with being unfit for only moments earlier. In a sense, Nora agrees; she tells her husband that she can be neither a good mother nor a good wife until she understands and respects herself as a person, and she leaves.
Another of Ibsen’s works, Ghosts, touches on similar themes in an even darker manner. The action of that play is set in motion when a widow reveals to her pastor that her marriage had been completely miserable due to her husband’s unfaithfulness. He, the pastor, had once advised her to remain with her husband in the hope of reforming him, and she had dutifully done so; but not only had he never given up his affairs, he had contracted syphilis, which he then passed on to their son.
Both Ghosts and A Doll’s House shocked and outraged audiences across Europe and in North America. Depicting something as sacred as the family and the marriage covenant as oppressive, unhappy, and even corrupt was considered intolerable. In Germany, reaction against the conclusion of A Doll’s House was so strong that Ibsen consented to write an alternate ending for German-language productions. (One thinks of Pygmalion, Shaw’s 1913 play that formed the basis of My Fair Lady; in the film, Eliza Doolittle returns at the last moment, whereas in the play, she simply leaves. The man who changed the ending told Shaw that “My ending makes money; you ought to be grateful,” to which the incensed Shaw replied, “Your ending is damnable; you ought to be shot.”) But the social criticism that Ibsen was making was inseparable from the harsh realism of his plotting and characterization. And this is true whether or not we approve of Ibsen’s various messages. No just standard can be challenged without provoking backlash from decent people; conversely, no injustice can be confronted without angering the people who profit from it.
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