Now that we’ve met the author, Henrik Ibsen, let’s meet his famously strong female characters that appear in Val Caniparoli’s Ibsen’s House in Extremely Close April 12-14 at Peter Martin Wege Theatre.
First up is Nora Helmer from his 1879 three-act play, A Doll’s House, which premiered at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, Denmark on December 21.
The play is significant for the way it deals with the fate of a married woman, who at the time in Norway lacked reasonable opportunities for self-fulfillment in a male-dominated world. It aroused a great sensation at the time, and caused a “storm of outraged controversy” that went beyond the theater to the world newspapers and society.[Wikipedia]
Nora invites you into her immaculate sitting room, not too expensively furnished, but neat and orderly. She appears on first glance as the ideal nineteenth-century wife: dainty and saccharine-sweet like the macaroons she offers you. However, as you chat longer, you notice something is amiss. The doll-like existence she lives doesn’t fully suit her; her husband, Torvald (played by company dancer Nathan Young), treats her delicately, as though she is a child, without any agency. He draws attention repeatedly to her beauty and talks endlessly about their happiness. Stealing bites of macaroon as he looks away seems to be the only way she exercises her own power.
As her husband leaves the room, Nora leans in closely in confidence. Her previous smiles have vanished and a fire burns behind her eyes. She confesses she has recently taken out a secret loan to help pay for her husband’s medical treatment. At this point in history, women can’t partake in such financial endeavors so she cunningly forged a signature and she’s dealing with the fallout of it: blackmail.
“Something glorious is about to happen,” she whispers. Her husband is about to learn she has been performing “tricks” with other men in an attempt to pay off the debt ensued for his health. She believes he will sacrifice his reputation to protect her. You nod slowly, not wanting to mar her optimism, but leave with a queasy feeling about the matter.
No word comes from Nora over the next few weeks until a neighbor asks if you’ve heard of the Helmer’s scandal. “She just left,” your gossiping neighbor whisper-yells. “Walked out on him and the children. Can you even begin to fathom….?”
But you can. You have seen the fire in her eyes, you know of her defiance. Her husband failed her expectations, sacrificing his devotion and integrity to the woman he has married for the public theater of happiness and dignity. She was done playing the role of the doll. As the scene ends with the slam of a door, you wonder if you will see her again, free in the wild world outside the doll’s house.
For tickets to Extremely Close, call 616.454.4771 x10 or tap or click here.
Grand Rapids Ballet’s next production, Extremely Close, includes Ibsen’s House, a ballet by Val Caniparoli (the choreographer of our production of The Nutcracker). This piece features a collection of literature’s most dramatic, complex, and emotive female characters including Nora from A Doll’s House, Hedda from Hedda Gabler, Rebecca West from Rosmersholm, Ellida from Lady from the Sea, and Mrs. Alving from Ghosts. But, before we meet these powerful women, we must meet the equally powerful playwright, Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), himself.
Depending on what year you choose, you could encounter Henrik in Norway, Italy, or Germany. Born Norwegian, Ibsen’s controversial plays led him to self-exile in Italy and Germany from 1862-1891. However, he was welcomed in his home country as a literary hero upon his return.
Ibsen’s plays observe the human condition. Known as the “father of realism,” he wrote pieces of theater that pick apart societal norms and peer inside the perfect Victorian facades to reveal the human struggles, angst, and complication within the living rooms.
If you met him at a party you may try to engage with him on the topic of women’s rights. After all, he was the first male playwright to incorporate female characters that existed on their own merit, rather than as a foil for the male role. Ibsen’s women pursue their own desires and fight for self-realization. However, Ibsen would cringe if you called him a feminist.
“That is not my agenda,” he may respond. “I write with no agenda. I am no feminist, but believe in the individual and their right to live with their personal beliefs and truth. Call me an observer. A realist, if you must.”
Ibsen certainly did pinpoint the uncomfortable, hidden effects of accepted social practices and taboos of the time. He had no problem with controversy. In fact, if you met him on his death bed, you would hear his final words: “Tvertimod (To the contrary)!”
Extremely Close runs April 12-14 at Peter Martin Wege Theatre. Tickets are available at online or by calling 616.454.4771 x10.