I read a great essay in The Telegraph* written by Richard Eyre, the man who adapted our version of Ghosts (and directed the first productions in London and New York ). Eyre mentions that Ibsen has been sort of “appropriated, perfectly reasonably, by the feminist movement…” but he's keen to point out that Ibsen wouldn’t likely see himself that way. He didn’t really write while grinding a particular axe, “he was not a polemicist...he wrote what he saw.”
It’s easy, though, to think of Ibsen that way since, while being fascinated by women, he never seems to give them the exotic bird treatment. He writes them out thoroughly, frankly, and as the perfect window into a private struggle. Still, in showing Hedda’s, Nora’s, Mrs. Alving’s efforts to create existences beyond their assigned roles, he can’t avoid lifting up how unfit an authentic woman is against the landscape of her people. According to his notes for A Doll’s House, “a woman cannot be herself in modern society” since society is populated by “laws made by men” with “prosecutors and judges who assess feminine conduct from a masculine standpoint.” But it’s ironically the human-ness of his women that puts them out of place in the culture, not their femininity.
While serving up complex women as the square pegs of society, he winds up creating cyphers for “humankind.” Individual humans, male and female, all have to come to grips with being deposited into a society that they have no consciousness of making. We do make it, of course, but it doesn’t feel like it’s us. We usually perceive ourselves at odds with its motion, while creating motion. We’re the judges and executioners of the world, and yet we feel constantly on trial. Ultimately, I think of him as a uniquely humane playwright. Any person open to accepting what a human being looks like will likely find what they’re looking for in his work.