Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Strindberg «deconstructs» Ibsen

Creio ter lido num jornal na internet há dias que Casa da Boneca, de Ibsen, vai estar num palco de Lisboa proximamente (ou já está). É interessante, por mil razões, dar uma vista de olhos ao que «o outro» grande dramaturgo escandinavo pensava da peça. Aqui fica um excerto elucidativo:


«Let us now take a look at how, for some unknown and incompre­hensible reason, Ibsen has caricatured the cultured man and woman in his play A Doll's House, which has become the gospel of all the zealots for the Woman Question.
A Doll's House is a play. Perhaps it was written for a great actress whose performance of a sphinx-like part could be guaranteed to be a success. The author has done the husband a great injustice. He has done nothing to help him by making excuses for him on the grounds of inherited characteristics, as he has for his wife, and the excuses he makes for her he presses home over and over again when he talks about her father. But let us carefully examine this Nora whom all our depraved, cultured women have adopted as their ideal.
In the first act she lies to her husband. She conceals her forgery, she smuggles away some cakes, she behaves shiftily over all kinds of simple matters, apparently because she has a taste for lying. Her husband, on the other hand, openly confides everything to her, even the affairs of his Bank, which shows that he treats her as his true wife. She, not he, is the one who never tells anything. It is consequently a lie to say that he treats her like a doll but true to say that she treats him like one. Surely no one believes that Nora did not know what she was doing when she committed forgery ? They may when they sit in the stalls and see an appealing actress in the footlights. I do not believe myself that she com­mitted forgery exclusively for her husband's sake, for she tells us herself how tremendously she enjoyed their journey Italy. No law, and no lawyer would accept that as an excuse. Thus we see that Nora is no saint; at best she is an accomplice who has also enjoyed the fruits of the theft. She incriminates herself. The author unintentionally gives her husband a further opportunity of showing how much he trusts and respects his wife when he lets him discuss with Nora the question of filling a vacancy at the Bank. But what a tyrant he is when he refuses to engage a forger as Head Clerk! What would Nora have said if Mr. Helmer had wanted to dismiss a maid? That would have been a very different story.
Then comes the scene in which she wants to borrow money from the syphilitic Dr Rank. Nora really is sweet in this scene. As a prelude to her negotiations about the money she shows him her flesh-coloured stockings. Nora: "Aren't they pretty? Of course it's dark in here now, but tomorrow. - No, no, no, you're only allowed to see the feet. Oh well, I'll let you see the upper part too !" Rank: "Hm!" Nora: "Why are you looking so disapproving? Don't you think they'll suit me?" Rank: "I'm not qualified to express an opinion on that subject." Nora: (looks at him for a moment) "Shame on you!" (strikes him lightly on the ear with the stockings.) "Take this then!" (Packs up the stockings.) Rank: "What are the other delights I'm to be allowed to see?" Nora: "You're so naughty I shan't let you see another thing" (she hums a little and looks for something in the box). – As far as I can see Nora is offering herself - in return for hard cash. That is realistic and charming, of course. All done out of love for her husband. To save him! But go to her husband and confess her dilemma, oh no, that would be too much for her pride! In Nora's language: she was not yet quite certain that he would respond by showing her the miracle of miracles.
Then comes the tarantella scene, which is introduced in order to throw a distorting light upon Helmer. The audience forgets that Nora is a hussy whom Helmer treats as a sensible woman, and is only allowed to see Helmer treating her merely as a doll. This is a dishonest scene, but it is very effective. In a word: it is good theatre.
That Helmer woos his wife that night simply shows that he is young, and that she is young. But the author makes it show that Helmer - who has not the least suspicion of the dirty game that Nora is playing - is nothing more than a sensual creature, sensual through and through, who has no appreciation whatever of his excellent wife's spiritual qualities, which she has not deigned to reveal, and this gives Nora a false halo of martyrdom. This is the most dishonest scene that Ibsen has ever written. After it comes the denouement, which is a line muddle, with a great deal of misrepresentation and man lies. Mr. Helmer wakes up, and finds that the wife to whom he is bound is a liar and a hypocrite. But the audience has been so impregnated with compassion for Nora that it thinks Helmer is wrong. If Helmer had witnessed the scene with the stockings he would not have begged Nora to stay, but of course he had not. Helmer learns that he, his wife, and his children have escaped social death and ruin. This makes him happy. Put your hand on your heart, you father of a family, and ask yourself if you would not be happy if you heard that your beloved wife, the mother of your children, was not going to be put into prison after all. But these feelings are too mundane. You must reach higher. Right up to the idealist's heaven of lies. Helmer must be chastised. He is the criminal. Yet all the same he speaks kindly to his deceitful wife. - "Oh," he says, "these must have been three dreadful days for you, Nora." But then the author regrets having been fair to the poor fellow, and puts some untrue words into his mouth. Of course it is clumsy of Helmer to tell Nora that he forgives her. And for her to accept forgiveness from one who has always trusted her, while she has lied to him would be far too simple-minded. No, Nora has grander ideas. She is so magnanimous about forgetting the past that she forgets everything that happened in the First Act. This is what she now says, and the stalls have forgotten the First Act too, for their handkerchiefsare out.
Nora: "Doesn't it occur to you that this is the first time that we two, husband and wife, have talked seriously to one another?" Helmer is so taken aback by this mendacious question that he (or the author!) answers: "Seriously - what do you mean by seriously?" - The author has achieved his object. Helmer has been made to look a fool. He should have answered: "No, my little pet, it doesn't occur to me at all. We talked very seriously together when our children were born, for we talked about their futur. We talked very seriously when you wanted to instal the forger, Krogstad, as head clerk in the Bank. We talked very seriously when my life was in danger, and about giving Mrs. Linde a job, and about running the house, and about your dead father, and our syphilitic friend Dr Rank. We have talked seriously for eight long years, but we have joked too, and we were right to do so, for life isn't only a serious business. We could indeed have had more serious talk if you'd been kind enough to tell me of your worries, but you were too proud, for you preferred to be my doll rather than my friend." But Mr Ibsen does not allow Helmer to say these sensible things, for he must be shown to be a fool, and Nora must be allowed her most brilliant answer which will be quoted for twenty-five years. This is her reply: Nora: "For eight (8!) long years - why longer - from the very first time we met, we have never exchanged a serious word on a serious matter." - But now, true to his unfortunate role of fool, Mr Helmer answers: "Would you have liked me to be for ever telling you of problems that you wouldn't have been able to help me with?" It is kind of Helmer to say this, but it is not honest, for he should have turned on her for not confiding in him. This scene is absurdly false. After it Nora has some very fine (French) replies, which consist of such hollow wisdom that they vanish when you blow at them.
Nora: "You have never loved me. You have only thought it amusing to be in love with me!” What is the difference? She also says: "You have never understood me!" Not an easy thing
for Helmer to do as she has always deceived him. Then poor Helmer is made to say some very stupid things like: ”I’m going to educate you.” That is surely the last thing a man should say to a woman. But Mr Helmer must be stupid, for the end is drawing near, and Nora is going to ‘turn the screw'. At that Helmer weakens. He begs for forgiveness; forgiveness because she has committed forgery, because she has lied, for all her faults.
Then Nora says a few sensible thing. She wants to give up her marriage in order to find herself. The question is whether she could not do that just as well in the same house as her children, in contact with the realities of life, and while struggling with her love for Helmer, for her love will not die instantaneously any more than any other love. But this is a question of taste. When she says that she is unfit to bring up her children she is lying, for not long before she had put herself on a pretty high pedestal when castigating the innocent Helmer. To be logical she ought to have stayed with her children if she really thought her husband was such a dolt that he would not be able to grasp the 'miracle'. For how could she leave the education of her children to such a poor specimen? All her babbling about the 'miracle' that would have happened if Helmer had taken the blame for her crime upon him-self is such romantic nonsense that it does not deserve discussion. That ‘hundreds of thousands of women' have sacrificed themselves for their husbands is a compliment to the ladies that Ibsen should be too old to pay. Nora rambles on pell-mell: she has loved him, he has loved her, and yet she can say that for eight years she has been a stranger to him, and borne three children to a man who has been a stranger to her. Helmer agrees that he has not been perfect, and promises to reform. This is handsome of him and there seems to be every guarantee that things will be better in future than they have been in the past. But of course this will not do in a play. The curtain must come down on a Bang. So Nora proves (?) that she has been a doll. Had it not been Helmer who decided where the furniture should stand? Maybe. But if only the mistress of the house had deigned to make her wishes known there would have been no doubt about who was the master.
Why did she not do so? Probably because she thought it did not matter, and she may have been right. If Nora was a doll, then upon my word it was not Helmer's fault, for he had always shown that he trusted her as a man should trust his wife. This was not what Ibsen wanted to prove, he wanted to prove the opposite, but he was not strong enough to do so, for he did not believe in his task, and his sense of justice broke through from time to time.
What its author himself really meant by A Doll's House we shall never know. The fact that it gave the impression of being, and was generally accepted as a manifesto for the oppressed woman immediately raised a storm in which the steadiest people lost their heads. For the play proves the direct opposite of what it is intended to prove. Or is it that the whole play is a proof of the danger of writing plays on serious subjects? Or, to take another point of view altogether: is it in fact not a defence of the oppressed woman, but simply an illustration of the effect of heredity upon character? If this is the case then the author should have been honourable enough to give Helmer's heredity as an excuse for his behaviour. Or is it Nora's bad upbringing? She herself places a lot of the blame on this. Why, then, cannot Helmer blame his bad upbringing? Or is it nothing more than play, pure and simple, an example of our modern courtship of the ladies? If so it should be put among the plays classed as ‘Public Entertainments', and not be regarded as a matter for serious discussion, still less have the honour of setting the two halves of humanity against each other.»


August Strindberg, Preface to Getting Married, translated from the Swedish by Mary Sandbach (Victor Gollancz, London 1972)