Nora’s Sisters In Israel

“While I sense anticipation among the women, I feel a slight — if not apprehension, then perhaps nervousness — among the men,” With these words, seemingly only half in jest, the Norwegian ambassador to Israel Jakken Biorn Lian opened his remarks before an overflow audience at Tel Aviv.

One hundred one years after the death of Henrik Ibsen, almost 180 since his birth, the work of this trenchant Norwegian dramatist continues to be extensively performed. Among Ibsen’s central themes: the quiet and not-so-quiet desperation of women trapped in society’s strictures.

Ibsen wrote during the 19th century of a small frigid country in northern Europe, the setting often in small dark towns on the wild isolated coast. Yet his themes of oppression, suffering and betrayal are relevant internationally to both the modern and post-modern worlds.

Everybody will remember the first Ibsen play she saw. Mine was Ghosts, which my mother took me to see at age 13 in a Greenwich Village off-off-Broadway production on a dark wintry afternoon. Traveling back uptown on the subway she explained to me what I had just seen — the meaning of venereal disease and why the mother raged against her deceased husband for transferring it to their son. Since then I have been horrified by the bitterness of Hedda Gabler, watched hypocrisy triumph in An Enemy of the People, and attended several versions of Nora breaking out of her symbolic cage.

From India to Egypt, from Mozambique to China, from Norway to Italy, the centenary of Ibsen’s death was commemorated by a series of conferences in his honor, a tribute fittingly entitled “Nora’s Sisters.” In May 2007 “Nora’s Sister’s” came to Tel Aviv, with Ibsen experts from academia and the theater. Among them were the directors of the Norwegian and Israeli theaters and Tel Aviv University professor Gad Kaynar speaking on evolving gender relations in performances of Ibsen.

Ibsen lived a stormy life both professionally and personally. “Ibsen’s marital discord in his plays came straight from his own marriage,” maintained University of Oslo Professor Astrid Saether. And although Nora has become an icon for feminists, A Doll’s House is less a play about marital conflict than an indictment of all mankind, claimed Ms. Ba Clemetsen, director of the Ibsen festival in Norway.

Today hereditary syphilis, of which Ibsen wrote in Ghosts, is almost eradicated, but its lethal curse has been replaced by AIDS. A woman’s property rights may not longer by legally subordinated to a man’s, but in many societies her economic status still depends upon her partner. Young women are still bedazzled and seduced by powerful public figures (The Master Builder), still kept as trophy wives (A Doll’s House), and still led to suicide over love (Rosmersholm). Ibsen phrases might be spoken by women anywhere in the world: “I thought it was love but it was just overwhelming lust”; “You bought me; I agreed; I sold myself.”

The Israeli conference included a local touch. It gathered for the first time on one stage the leading women of Israeli drama. Hanna Meron, Gila Almagor, and five other actresses performed a collage of monologues from the dramatist’s plays. A panel discussion featured a sampling of high-profile Israeli women discussing the challenges of gender relations. Orna Angel, a politician who directs the Tel Aviv Port, said, “If I come home late then I’m viewed as neglecting my family, whereas my husband can set up an appointment for anytime — 7 or 8 P.M. — because he is the ‘provider’ of the home.” Television journalist Dana Weiss was told by her former husband, “There isn’t room under this roof for two stars.”

Ms. Gry Larsen, political adviser to the Norwegian foreign minister, best expressed Ibsen’s continued power and pull: “How do we respond to betrayal? How do we live truthfully? How do we achieve freedom? These are questions I ask myself every day.”