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Picture of Henrik Ibsen, author of A Doll's House; playwright / dramatist; nineteenth century Norwegian Literature and drama

December 21, 1879
Henrik Ibsen   (1828 - 1906)
Playing With A Doll's House
by Steve King

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On this day in 1879 Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House opened in Copenhagen. This first production came as the published play was breaking sales records in Scandinavia, no doubt spurred on by comparisons to the dropping of "a bomb into contemporary life," and "a death sentence on accepted social ethics." Theatrically, the bomb was signaled by Nora's exit from her house and gender-roles at the end of Act V -- the "door slam heard 'round the world," as it was described:
    NORA. ...I was your little skylark, your doll, which you would in future treat with doubly gentle care, because it was so brittle and fragile. (Getting up.) Torvald--it was then it dawned upon me that for eight years I had been living here with a strange man, and had borne him three children. Oh, I can't bear to think of it! I could tear myself into little bits!
    HELMER (sadly). I see, I see. An abyss has opened between us -- there is no denying it. But, Nora, would it not be possible to fill it up?
    NORA. As I am now, I am no wife for you.
    HELMER. I have it in me to become a different man.
    NORA. Perhaps--if your doll is taken away from you....
Those happy with the challenges Ibsen was making to conventional thinking and stagecraft applauded wildly -- Shaw and the Suffragettes in England, for example -- while those who thought his plays "written by a vulgar and evil mind" joined the Anti-Ibsen League and lobbied to have him banned.

Neither the political agenda nor the approbation interested Ibsen much. He appeared to retreat from his radical views when he agreed to rewrite the play with a more palatable ending -- Nora is made to return inside, and sink to her knees before her children's bedroom -- but this was merely because such a "barbaric outrage" on the play was planned by one German production, and having no recourse to stopping it, Ibsen preferred to do his own dirty work.

The same copyright problems left Ibsen defenseless to the first English translation of A Doll's House in 1881. This was by T. Weber, a Danish schoolteacher who seems to have approached the task trusting to his good intentions and his Danish-English dictionary. If the following bits from Act V are representative, the results could only have been received with blank-stare confusion, or worse:
    HELMER. Don't utter such stupid shuffles.... Doff the shawl!... From this moment it depends no longer on felicity; it depends only on saving the rests, remnants, and the appearance.

    HELMER. You are first of all a wife and mother.
    NORA. ... I believe that I am first of all a man, I as well as you -- or at all events, that I am to try to become a man.

    NORA. As I am now, I am no wife for you.
    HELMER. I have power to grow another.

    HELMER. Change yourself in such a manner that--
    NORA. --that cohabitation between you and me might become a matrimony. Goodbye.
Michael Meyer's biography of Ibsen, from which much of the above is taken, quotes Harley Granville Barker saying that this last line tempted him "to offer a prize at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art to the student who could manage to speak [it] without making the audience laugh." Or the spouse, he might have added.

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Related authors:  George Bernard Shaw, J. M. Barrie
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