There are times, when a play has had such an impact, that I’m moved to double-check the date it was written.
In the case of ‘The Father’ and its anachronistic references, doing so revealed my error. Microwaves had not been invented in 1887. Nor had Augustus Strindberg predicted the construction of the channel tunnel by a century.
I turned to Billington’s book at the end of the ‘A Doll’s House’ at the Medway Little Theatre to confirm the date of its original publication in 1879. A time when women across Europe were denied suffrage and citizenship, and subjected to all kinds of legal and moral control and censure.
Yet we have Ibsen’s main character, Norma Helmer, walking out on her husband, young children and comfortable bourgeois life in order to realise herself as an individual. Here is a small part of one of the final exchange between Nora and her husband:
Nora: What do you consider my most sacred duties?
Helmer: Do I need to tell you that? Are they not your duties to your husband and your children?
Nora: I have other duties just as sacred.
Helmer: That you have not. What duties could those be?
Nora: Duties to myself.
Helmer: Before all else, you are a wife and mother.
Nora: I don’t believe that any longer.
She goes on to dismiss marriage, religion and the law as an instruments of patriarchy, before telling Helmer that she no longer loves him.
We don’t need to ask how shocking this kind of radical humanism must have been. History tells us. Some of Ibsen’s contemporaries, including Strindberg, were appalled at Norma’s apparent selfishness. This opening night reviewer was riled by Ibsen’s ‘false reflection’ on the institution of marriage. Nora should, it seems, have saved her union in the name of family and motherhood. One actress even boycotted the role, such was her disgust at Nora’s decision.
Nora’s eloquence in the climactic scene is all the more bracing, given how alternately child-like and edgily manic her previous behaviour has been.
Her child-like behaviour is understandable, given the way she is infantilised by society in general and her husband in particular. She is his “little singing-bird”, to be sheltered, coddled and occasionally scolded when she speaks out of turn or indulges in sugared candies.
Likewise, it is not surprise she veers lives on the edge of a nervous breakdown, given the weight of social pressure to play the role of pliant doll-wife. As Billington points out, we are watching the evolution of romantic and spirited soul toward a form of actualisation that will be financially and socially precarious.
In rejecting the role society has designed for her, Norma walks away to a totally unknown future. As Germaine Greer put it in ‘The Female Eunuch’, revolution is the festival of the oppressed.
Away from the text, I was really impressed by the staging of this production, the charm of the aptly named Medway Little Theatre and the very powerful performance of Rebecca Bland as Nora.
12 down – 89 to go
Image credit – @neilthornephotography via https://www.facebook.com/medwaylittletheatrerochester/