A recent visit to Oslo led me to the Ibsen museum, home of and homage to the great playwright who helped pioneer realist theatre in the late 19th-century with works such as Hedda Gabler, Peer Gynt and, most famously, A Doll’s House. How, you say, is he relevant to The Beatles – who utilised a different art form, in a different country, over sixty years later? The fascinating exhibition, nestled inconspicuously behind Oslo’s Palace Park, forms the link for us: and further fascinated research on my part has strengthened this unlikely pairing.
It might be known to many Beatles superfans that their 1968 album The Beatles, often referred to the White Album, was actually recorded under the working title ‘A Doll’s House.’ A mere coincidence? Perhaps not. It was thought to have been Yoko Ono that had introduced Lennon to Ibsen, who was already interested in literature and a published poet in his own right. Ibsen’s 1879 play A Doll’s House told the story of Nora, a frivolous and powerless housewife who begins to see her downtrodden condition at the hands of her loving, yet controlling husband, with increasing certainty. After various events unfold, including Nora attempting to conceal a shocking secret, she decides that she must educate herself and find true freedom and knowledge, leaving her husband and children to do so.
At the time, it was seen as utterly shocking; it was a protofeminist text in many ways, challenging established views that a woman must be utterly subservient to her husband and role as a housewife. Indeed, “while Ibsen demanded that each individual should seek freedom, create change and act in accordance with their own personal beliefs”, the exhibition explains, “Lennon wanted to challenge the political power structure through personal engagement and popular movements.” This is evident in a myriad of his songs: Revolution, Give Peace a Chance, and Power to the People, just to name a few.
The most climactic point in A Doll’s House is perhaps when an emboldened Nora says to her husband: “and that is why I’m leaving you.” It can be seen as oddly prophetic, with The Beatles splitting not so many years after the White album was released. With members starting their own solo projects, they are like modern day Noras – breaking away from what was a family, with a desire to literally find their own voice. It can even be argued that Lennon took style tips from the Norwegian playwright, sporting his classic round glasses and sideburns. John and Yoko even tied the knot on March 20th – Ibsen’s birthday.
Perhaps had it not been for the band Family naming their album ‘Music in a Doll’s House,’ the White album of 1968 would have held a different name – the working title is even inscribed on some early bootleg recordings.
Ibsen Museum, Henrik Ibsens gate 26 0253 Oslo