A Doll's House

A Doll's House A Performance History of the Play

The world premiere of A Doll’s House (Et dukkehjem) took place at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen on December 21, 1879. The premiere date was fitting for the Christmastime setting of the play. Two weeks earlier, a print run of 8,000 copies of the script had been published, and it already had sold out. Some critics likely had read the text well in advance of the production. The production, largely naturalistic, retained a symmetrical arrangement of furniture along the walls, giving perhaps a slightly abstracted feel. Betty Hennings was the first Nora, and the production was directed by H. P. Holst.

Contrary to popular belief, word spread reasonably slowly about the play. It was two years before the play was performed outside Scandinavia and Germany, and ten years before a recognizably faithful version was seen in England or America. France did not see the play until 1894. By the time it took its place in the European theatre annals, Ibsen was over sixty.

The year 1880 saw the German production of A Doll’s House starring a well-known actress, Hedwig Niemann-Raabe, who wanted to play the lead role but who refused to play the final scene as written because "I would never leave [my] children." Ibsen accepted the difficult challenge of writing an alternative, "happy" ending himself rather than have someone else do it for him. In this version, Nora does not leave the house, but she is forced by Helmer to the doorway of the children’s bedroom. Nora sinks by the door, and the curtain falls. It was this version that opened in Germany. Notably, Niemann-Raabe eventually reverted to the original text.

Ibsen’s play has maintained its place in the popular repertoire and is regularly performed. Actresses such as Claire Bloom, Janet McTeer—who won a Tony Award (Antoinette Perry Award for Excellence in Theatre)—for the role, Cheryl Campbell, and Tara Fitzgerald have portrayed Nora onstage. This has fast become one of the most coveted female roles in drama. Helmer, the play’s second lead, it is probably fair to say, has attracted fewer first-rank actors. One of the most unusual modern productions was a fascinating 2007 production by Lee Breur, which played at the Edinburgh Festival and which cast dwarves in the male roles in order to play with the gender bias in Nora’s society. This version rendered comic Torvald’s insistence on patronizing his "poor little Nora," especially since he was small enough to be (at one point, actually) picked up by his wife.

There have been three major film versions. Patrick Garland’s film stars Claire Bloom as Nora, Anthony Hopkins as Torvald, and Ralph Richardson as Dr. Rank. Joseph Losey’s stars Jane Fonda and rather awkwardly depicts some of the events that occur before the play. A low-budget version by David Thacker looks dreadful in some ways but nevertheless contains a series of fine performances, not least from Trevor Eve as Torvald.