Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879) was born in a time of revolution in Europe. Charged with the fever of the 1848 revolution, a new modern perspective was beginning to emerge 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 both read and performed throughout Europe (in numerous translations) like no other dramatist before. ‘A Doll’s House’ was published and premiered in Copenhagen.
His success was particularly important for Norway and the Norwegian language. 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 the theme of realism. Ibsen quickly became Norway’s most popular dramatic figure. But, it is the universality of Ibsen’s writings and particularly ‘A Doll’s House’ that has made this play a classic.Order now
‘A Doll’s House’ was the second in a series of realist plays by Ibsen. The first, The Pillars of Society, penned in 1877, caused a stir throughout Europe, quickly spreading to the avant-garde theatres of the island and 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 and in women in general, later writing a series of psychological studies on women.
One of the most striking and oft-noted characteristics of ‘A Doll’s House’ is the way in which it challenged the technical tradition of the so-called well made play in which the first act offered an exposition, the second a situation, and the third an unravelling. This had been the standard form from the earliest fables up until ‘A Doll’s House’. Ibsen’s plays were notable for exchanging the last act’s unravelling for a discussion. Critics agree that, up until the last moments of the play, A Doll’s House could easily be just another modern drama broadcasting another comfortable moral lesson. 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, this one related to character. Namely, Ibsen’s realist drama disregarded the tradition of the older male moral figure. Dr. Rank, the character who should serve this role, is far from a moral force; instead, he is sickly–rotting from a disease picked up from his father’s earlier sexual exploits–and lascivious, openly coveting Nora. The choice to portray both Dr. Rank and the potentially matronly Mrs. Linde as imperfect, real people was a novel approach at the time.
The real natures of Ibsen’s characters were and remain 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 range and genuineness of emotion and conviction.
A more obvious importance of A Doll’s House is the feminist message that stunned the stages of Europe when the play was premiered. Nora’s rejection of marriage and motherhood scandalized contemporary audiences. In fact, the first German productions of the play in the 1880s had an altered ending at the request of the producers. Ibsen referred to this version as a “barbaric outrage” to be used only in emergencies.
In large part, Ibsen was reacting to the uncertain tempo of the time; Europe was being reshaped with revolutions. 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 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 read it wasï¿½the printed version of A Doll’s House sold out even before it hit the stage) that make the play so interesting. Each new generation has had a different way of interpreting the book, from feminist critique to Hegelian allegory of the spirit’s historical evolution. The text is simply that rich.