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A Doll's House ( ) is an 1879 play by Norwegianmarker playwright Henrik Ibsen. Written one year after The Pillars of Society, the play was the first of Ibsen's to create a sensation and is now perhaps his most famous play, and required reading in many secondary schools and universities. The play was controversial when first published, as it is sharply critical of 19th century marriage norms. It follows the formula of well-made play up until the final act, when it breaks convention by ending with a discussion, not an unravelling. It is often called the first true feminist play. The play is also an important work of the naturalist movement, in which real events and situations are depicted on stage in a departure from previous forms such as romanticism.

Plot synopsis

A Doll's House opens as Nora Helmer is telling Helene to hide the Christmas tree. Nora is treated as a silly, childish woman by her husband, Torvald. Her friend Kristine Linde, recently widowed and short of money, has heard about Torvald's recent promotion to head the bank and comes to ask Nora for help in persuading Torvald to give her (Kristine) a job. Nora promises to ask Torvald to give Kristine a position as secretary. Nora confides to Kristine that she once secretly borrowed money from a disgraced lawyer, Nils Krogstad, to save Torvald's life when he was very ill, but she has not told him in order to protect his pride. She then took secret jobs copying papers by hand, which she carried out secretly in her room, and learned to take pride in her ability to earn money "as if she were a man." Torvald's promotion promises to finally liberate her from having to scrimp and save in order to be able to pay off her debt. However, she has continued to play the part of the frivolous, scatter-brained child-wife for the benefit of her husband.

Meanwhile, Dr. Rank, a family friend, flirts with Nora before revealing that he is terminally ill with Tuberculosis of the spine (a contemporary euphemism for congenital syphilis), with only a month to live, and that he has been secretly in love with her.

Frightened after being fired by Torvald from his minor position at the bank, Krogstad approaches Nora, declaring he no longer cares about the remaining balance of her loan but will preserve the associated bond in order to blackmail Torvald into not only keeping him employed, but giving him a promotion. Krogstad informs Nora that he has written a letter detailing her crime (forging her father's signature of surety on the bond) and puts it in Torvald's mailbox, which is locked.

Nora tells Kristine of her predicament. Kristine says that she and Krogstad were in love before she married, and promises she will convince him to relent.

Torvald tries to check his mail before he and Nora go to a Boxing Day party, but Nora distracts him by showing him the dance she has been rehearsing for the party. Torvald declares that he will postpone reading his mail until the evening. Alone, Nora contemplates suicide to save her husband from the shame of the revelation of her crime, and more important to pre-empt any gallant gesture on his part to "save" her.

Kristine tells Krogstad that she only married her husband because she had no other means to support her sick mother and young siblings, and that she has returned to offer him her love again. Krogstad is moved and offers to take back his letter to Torvald. However, Kristine decides that Torvald should know the truth for the sake of his and Nora's marriage.

Back from the party, Doctor Rank gives his letters of death to the Helmers, and Nora talks to him as if nothing is going to happen. Torvald goes to check the mail; Nora does everything to stop him but fails. Torvald goes to read his letters and Nora prepares to take her life. Before she has the opportunity, Torvald intercepts her, confronting her with Krogstad's letter. In his rage, he declares that he is now completely in Krogstad's power—he must yield to Krogstad's demands and keep quiet about the whole affair. He berates Nora, calling her a dishonest and immoral woman and telling her she is unfit to raise their children. He says that their marriage will be kept only to maintain appearances.

A maid enters, delivering a letter to Nora. Krogstad has returned the incriminating papers, saying that he regrets his actions. Torvald is jubilant, telling Nora he is saved as he burns the papers. He takes back his harsh words to his wife and tells her that he has forgiven her. He also explains to her that her mistake makes her all the more precious to him because it reveals an adorable helplessness, and that when a man has forgiven his wife it makes him love her all the more since she is the recipient of his generosity.

By now Nora has realized that her husband is not the man she thought he was, and that her whole existence has been a lie. Her fantasy of love is just that—a fantasy. Torvald's love is highly conditional. She has been treated like a plaything, first by her father and then by her husband. She decides that she must leave to find out who she is and what to make of her life. Torvald insists she must fulfill her duty as a wife and mother, but Nora believes she also has duties to herself. From Torvald's reaction to Krogstad's letters, Nora sees that she and Torvald are strangers to each other. When Torvald asks if there is still any chance for them to rebuild their marriage, she replies that it would take "the greatest miracle of all": they would have to change so much that their life together would become a real marriage.

The play ends with Nora leaving, marked by a famous door slam, while Torvald hopefully ponders the possibility of "the greatest miracle of all".

Alternative ending

It was felt by Ibsen's German agent that the original ending would not play well in German theatres; therefore, for the play's German debut, Ibsen was forced to write an alternative ending for it to be considered acceptable. In this ending, Nora is led to her children after having argued with Torvald. Seeing them, she collapses, and the curtain is brought down. Ibsen later called the ending a disgrace to the original play and referred to it as a 'barbaric outrage'.

Productions

The play made its American premiere on Broadway at the Palmer's Theatre on 21 December 1889, starring Beatrice Cameron as Nora Helmer. Other productions in the United States include one in 1902 starring Minnie Maddern Fiske and a 1997 production starring Janet McTeer at Belasco Theatermarker, which received four Tony Awards and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Revival of a Play. The first British production opened on 7 June 1889, starring Janet Achurch as Nora.. Achurch played Nora again for a 7-day run in 1897. A new translation by Zinnie Harris is currently playing at the Donmar Warehousemarker, starring Gillian Anderson, Toby Stephens, Anton Lesser, Tara Fitzgerald and Christopher Eccleston.

Film, television and radio adaptations

A Doll's House has been adapted for several film releases including two in 1973: one directed by Joseph Losey, starring Jane Fonda, David Warner and Trevor Howard; and one directed by Patrick Garland with stars Claire Bloom, Anthony Hopkins, and Ralph Richardson. In 1992, David Thacker directed, with stars Juliet Stevenson, Trevor Eve and David Calder. Dariush Mehrjui's 1992 film Sara is based on A Doll's House, where Sara, played by Niki Karimi, is the Nora of Ibsen's play.

A version for American television was made in 1959, directed by George Schaefer and starring Julie Harris, Christopher Plummer, Hume Cronyn, Eileen Heckart and Jason Robards. A 1938 US radio production starred Joan Crawford as Nora and Basil Rathbone as Torvald. A later US radio version by the Theatre Guild in 1947 featured Rathbone with Wendy Hiller, his co-star from a contemporary Broadway production.

Critics

A Doll's House criticises the traditional roles of men and women in 19th-century marriage. To many 19th-century Europeans, this was scandalous. Nothing was considered more holy than the covenant of marriage, and to portray it in such a way was completely unacceptable; however, a few more open-minded critics such as the Irish poet George Bernard Shaw found Ibsen's willingness to examine society without prejudice exhilarating. In Germanymarker, the production's lead actress refused to play the part of Nora unless Ibsen changed the ending, which, under pressure, he eventually did. In the alternative ending, Nora gives her husband another chance after he reminds her of her responsibility to their children. This ending proved unpopular and Ibsen later regretted his decision on the matter. A Doll's House was originally banned in Britain by the Lord Chamberlain under the 1737 licensing act. Virtually all productions today, however, use the original ending, as do nearly all of the film versions of this play, including Dariush Mehrjui's Sara (the Argentinemarker version, made in 1943 and starring Delia Garcés, does not; it also modernizes the story, setting it in the early 1940s).

Much of the criticism is focused on Nora's self-discovery, but the other characters also have depth and value. The infected Dr. Rank and Nora both suffer from the irresponsibility of their fathers: Dr. Rank for the father who infected his family, Nora for the father she likely married to protect. Dr. Rank's disease becomes a metaphor for the poison infecting the Helmers' marriage and society at large. Mrs. Linde provides the model of a woman who has been forced to fend for and find herself - a self-aware, resourceful woman.

References

  1. A Doll’s House ... Translated by W. Archer. [Illustrated with photographs.] L.P., T. Fisher Unwin: London, 1889. Kept at the British Library.


Further reading

  • William L. Urban. "Parallels in A Doll's House." Festschrift in Honor of Charles Speel. Ed. by Thomas J. Sienkewicz and James E. Betts. Monmouth College, Monmouth, Illinois, 1997.


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