Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879), written while Ibsen was in Rome and Amalfi, Italy, was conceived at a time of revolution in Europe. Charged with the fever of the 1848 European revolutions, a new modern perspective was emerging in the literary and dramatic world, challenging the romantic tradition. It is Ibsen who can be credited for mastering and popularizing the realist drama derived from this new perspective. His plays were read and performed throughout Europe in numerous translations like almost no dramatist before. A Doll’s House was published in Copenhagen, Denmark, where it premiered.
His success was particularly important for Norway and the Norwegian language. Having been freed from four centuries of Danish rule in 1814, Norway was just beginning to shake off the legacy of Danish domination. A Doll’s House was written in a form of Norwegian that still bore heavy traces of Danish. Ibsen deliberately chose a colloquial language style to emphasize local realism, though Torvald Helmer does speak in what Michael Meyer has described as “stuffy Victorianisms.” Ibsen quickly became Norway’s most popular dramatic figure. But it is the universality of Ibsen’s writings, particularly of A Doll’s House, that has made this play an oft-performed classic (see “A Stage History” for details of the play in performance).
It is believed that the plot of A Doll’s House was based on an event in Ibsen’s own life. In 1870 Laura Kieler had sent Ibsen a sequel to Brand, called Brand’s Daughters, and Ibsen had taken an interest in the pretty, vivacious girl, nicknaming her “the lark.” He invited her to his home, and for two months in the summer of 1872, she visited his home constantly. When she married, a couple of years later, her husband fell ill and was advised to take a vacation in a warm climate–and Laura, like Nora does in the play, secretly borrowed money to finance the trip (which took place in 1876). Laura falsified a note, the bank refused payment, and she told her husband the whole story. He demanded a separation, removed the children from her care, and only took her back after she had spent a month in a public asylum.
Laura and Nora have similar-sounding names, but their stories diverge. In Ibsen’s play, Nora never returns home, nor does she ever break the news to her husband. Moreover—here the difference is most striking—it is Nora who divorces her husband. The final act of the play reveals Torvald as generous and even sympathetic.
A Doll’s House was the second in a series of realist plays by Ibsen. The first, The Pillars of Society (1877), had caused a stir throughout Europe, quickly spreading to the avant garde theaters of the island and the continent. In adopting the realist form, Ibsen abandoned his earlier style of saga plays, historical epics, and verse allegories. Ibsen’s letters reveal that much of what is contained in his realist dramas is based on events from his own life. Indeed, he was particularly interested in the possibility of true wedlock as well as in women in general. He later would write a series of psychological studies focusing on women.
One of the most striking and oft-noted characteristics of A Doll’s House is the way it challenges the technical tradition of the so-called well-made play in which the first act offers an exposition, the second a situation, and the third an unraveling. This was the standard form from the earliest fables until the time of A Doll’s House, which helped usher in a new, alternative standard. Ibsen’s play was notable for exchanging the last act’s unraveling for a discussion, one which leaves the audience uncertain about how the events will conclude. Critics agree that, until the last moments of the play, A Doll’s House could easily be just another modern drama broadcasting another comfortable moral lesson. Finally, however, when Nora tells Torvald that they must sit down and “discuss all this that has been happening between us,” the play diverges from the traditional form. With this new technical feature, A Doll’s House became an international sensation and founded a new school of dramatic art.
Additionally, A Doll’s House subverted another dramatic tradition. Ibsen’s realist drama disregarded the tradition of featuring an older male moral figure. Dr. Rank, the character who should serve this role, is far from a positive moral force. Instead, he is not only sickly, rotting from a disease picked up from his father’s earlier sexual exploits, but also lascivious, openly coveting Nora. The choice to portray both Dr. Rank and the potentially matronly Mrs. Linde as imperfect humans seemed like a novel approach at the time.
The real complexity (as opposed to a stylized dramatic romanticism) of Ibsen’s characters remains something of a challenge for actors. Many actresses find it difficult to portray both a silly, immature Nora in the first act or so and the serious, open-minded Nora of the end of the last act. Similarly, actors are challenged to portray the full depth of Torvald’s character. Many are tempted to play him as a slimy, patronizing brute, disregarding the character’s genuine range of emotion and conviction. Such complexity associates A Doll’s House with the best of Western drama. The printed version of A Doll’s House sold out even before it hit the stage.
A more obvious importance of A Doll’s House is the feminist message that rocked the stages of Europe when the play premiered. Nora’s rejection of marriage and motherhood scandalized contemporary audiences. In fact, the first German productions of the play in the 1880s used an altered ending, written by Ibsen at the request of the producers. Ibsen referred to this version as a “barbaric outrage” to be used only in emergencies.
The revolutionary spirit and the emergence of modernism influenced Ibsen’s choice to focus on an unlikely hero, a housewife, in his attack on middle-class values. Quickly becoming the talk of parlors across Europe, the play succeeded in its attempt to provoke discussion. In fact, it is the numerous ways that the play can be read and interpreted that make the play so interesting. Each new generation has had a different way of interpreting the book, from seeing it as feminist critique to taking it as a Hegelian allegory of the spirit’s historical evolution. This richness is another sign of its greatness.
Yet precisely what sort of play is it? George Steiner claims that the play is “founded on the belief…that women can and must be raised to the dignity of man,” but Ibsen himself believed it to be more about the importance of self-liberation than the importance of specifically female liberation—yet his contemporary Strindberg certainly disagreed, himself calling the play a “barbaric outrage” because of the feminism he perceived it as promoting.
There are many comic sections in the play—one might argue that Nora’s “songbird” and “squirrel” acts, as well as her early flirtatious conversations with her husband, are especially humorous. Still, like many modern productions, A Doll’s House seems to fit the classical definition of neither comedy nor tragedy. Unusually for a traditional comedy, at the end there is a divorce, not a marriage, and the play implies that Dr. Rank could be dead as the final curtain falls. But this is not a traditional tragedy either, for the ending of A Doll’s House has no solid conclusion. The ending notably is left wide open: there is no brutal event, no catharsis, just ambiguity. This is a play that defies boundaries.