“There is no ideal man of Ibsen” – G. K. Chesterton

Carys Kresny, a professor in the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre, adapted and directed Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, on November 9-12 at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. While Ibsen’s original was premiered in Denmark in 1879, Kresny’s adaptation takes place in a post-war America with an abridged, modernized script, impressive technical effects, and a stellar cast.

A Doll’s House presents the audience with an intimate view of the Helmer family, whose life together first appears picture-perfect until the audience begins to perceive the cracks. 

Notre Dame junior Kate Turner played Nora Helmer, the apparently ditzy and sweetly charming housewife of lawyer Theodore (originally Torvald) Helmer, played by Parker Fulton Felterman, a Notre Dame first-year law student. Although Nora desperately desires to do right by her family, she becomes increasingly fretful and anxious as a secret from her past threatens to become known and risks Theo’s career and reputation.

Reflecting on Nora’s psyche, Turner said, “Nora’s intentions are so good. She loves the people around her, and she wants to do what’s right. But she’s doing it through this lens of who she thinks she needs to be, and that’s where everything falls apart.” Nora’s past mistakes (which involve fraudulent money-borrowing) are only the exposition to the play; the play’s plot is Nora’s desperate attempt to repair the damage secretly until the quick-tempered Theo eventually discovers it.

This need for secrecy, or fear of candor, is one of the central dilemmas for the Helmer household. Turner finds that Nora struggles with feeling the persistent need to be “wearing a mask” of perfection. Felterman says, “Theo is so far from contemplation. I don’t think, ever in his life, did he take a moment to analyze himself, or why he wants what he wants … I’ve struggled with his lack of self-awareness.” Ultimately, their home is divorced from the truth, which raises the questions addressed in the dramatic conclusion: Did Theo ever really love Nora? Is it possible to form real relationships of love when honest emotional intimacy is avoided?

The genre of theater is especially unique in its ability to engage with questions like these. The playwright raises the question and suggests an answer, but it is up to the director and cast to continue the conversation. Turner suggests that the play challenges the audience to consider the questions “What does it mean to be happy? What masks are you wearing?”

Felterman adds, “Who do we have a duty to, and why? I think that’s the central question … Ibsen, like a lot of his peers and playwrights who came after him, puts such an emphasis on the individual. It always seems to come down to individual vs. society in some sense, and that definitely holds in A Doll’s House.” And in the case of A Doll’s House, the tension of “individual vs. society” is made even more local, questioning the duties and relationship of the individual to the family.

The play’s controversial ending depicts Nora, desperately confused about her own identity, walking out on her husband and children. When Theo asks Nora how she can justify walking out on her “sacred duty” to her family, Ibsen, through Nora, asserts that there is a higher duty: one’s “duty to self.” Ibsen’s villain argues that a woman’s identity as wife and mother are most important, while his heroine cares most about her identity as a reasonable human being. In a rather sinister way, Ibsen asserts a false dichotomy between the two.

G. K. Chesterton, who respected Ibsen’s undeniable talent, was strongly critical of his philosophy of human happiness and the sacred institution of the home. Chesterton says, “Dante describes three moral instruments—Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell, the vision of perfection, the vision of improvement, and the vision of failure. Ibsen has only one—Hell.”

The success of modernist playwrights like Ibsen stems in part from their provocative and rebellious challenging of ordinary European family life and morals. And in many ways, their critique is well-founded. Within A Doll’s House and especially in the character of Theo, Ibsen is criticizing the Puritan-esque “hatred of ugliness,” which characterized much of northern European and American culture. The false sweetness of the post-Puritan household is ultimately a kind of sickly sweet—it feels like too much icing meant to disguise a bland cake, or when insecurity leads to too much make-up.

This is what Chesterton’s criticism comes down to: Ibsen is especially adept at depicting the ugliness of the culture, the brokenness of homes built on dishonesty and fear, and the desperation of the hopeless. But he does not offer an alternative or solution apart from abandonment. He offers no glimpse of Purgatory or Heaven; he knows only Hell.

And yet, since Ibsen does not offer a satisfactory solution to the problem he poses, it is the audience’s duty to consider whether a broken home can be redeemed. Turner offers a hopeful solution to Ibsen’s problem rooted in the self-sacrificial love of Christian charity: “The show offers an image of imperfect gender roles in a broken home, but more than that, it’s a reflection on human relationships. Everyone emphasizes the gender roles part, but even deeper than that, it’s about selflessness and how that relates to being truly happy.” 

Notre Dame senior Libby White reiterated this idea: “I found the play’s ending, though impressive from both tech and talent perspectives, not at all satisfying. My main disappointment … is the misunderstanding of what love is and what marriage is.” Perhaps loving well does demand a knowledge of self, but more than that, it demands knowing Love Himself.

James Whitaker is a graduate student in the Department of Theology. An avid fan of theater, Chesterton, and domestic life, he was thrilled to be invited into the Culture Section. To see him in his usual haunts, visit the Humor Section or email him at jwhitak5@nd.edu.

Photo Credit: Notre Dame FTT Department

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