Even since its publication in 1879, Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is one of the most performed plays on stage across the globe, each performance trying to interpret it into its own language and culture. How was the play received in its early productions? How was it interpreted and re-interpreted in different time and different places? What are the impacts of films and TVs on modern theatre? Which performance is a more truthful production for you? Which performance continues to challenge its contemporary audience? Which performance speaks the most to you? The performing reception of the play has kept the work alive and this article will provide a glimpse into these questions.
- The very first performance of Henrik Ibsen A Doll’s House was H.P. Holst’s A Doll’s House at Det Kongelige Teater in Copenhagen, Dec. 21, 1879.
The performance was controversial and it received acclaim as well as criticism:
“The Royal Theatre performed tonight, for the first time and of course to a filled house, Henrik Ibsen’s three-act play “A Doll’s House”, published 3 weeks ago. It was obviously followed with great excitement and fascination, at least up to the last scene, and the applause was strong both after the first and second acts, as it was after the final curtain. But we do want to ask the honourable audience members, if the impressions they received were of the kind they are used to getting from a genuinely poetical work of art, and if the mood in which they left the theatre was the joyful, happy and buoyed one in which the pleasure of such events usually puts them, whether the content is tragic or comic? Perhaps the answer will sound a little different; because the general audience easily becomes, according to its nature, sentimental, and Mr. Ibsen is not free from using this weakness to his advantage; but at least it seems doubtful to us, if his latest work, its great technical merit and rich psychological interest not withstanding, is a step in the right direction or — on the wrong track.”
“Finally an event at The Royal Theatre, and an event of the first class! This play touches the lives of thousands of families; oh yes there are thousands of such doll-homes, where the husband treats his wife as a child he amuses himself with, and so that is what the wives become. . . Who, after seeing this play, has the courage to speak scornfully about run-away wives? Is there anyone who does not feel that it is this young and delightful young woman’s duty, her inescapable duty, to leave this gentleman, this husband, who slowly sacrifices her on the altar of his egotism, and who fails to understand her value as a human being.”
- German Interpretation of the Play: Glotz’s 1880 version
A revised version of A Doll’s House with an alternate ending premiered in Flensburg, Germany in 1880. The actress playing Nora, Hedwig Niemann-Raabe, was outraged at the notion that a mother would leave her children and thus refused to perform the play as written. Ibsen decided to avoid the ending being re-written by a lesser dramatist and offered an alternate ending where Nora does not leave. The curtain instead falls after Torvald shows Nora the children and she sinks to the ground.
NORA. … Where we could make a real marriage out of our lives together. Goodbye. [Begins to go.]
HELMER. Go then! [Seizes her arm.] But first you shall see your children for the last time!
NORA. Let me go! I will not see them! I cannot!
HELMER [draws her over to the door, left]. You shall see them. [Opens the door and says softly.] Look, there they are asleep, peaceful and carefree. Tomorrow, when they wake up and call for their mother, they will be – motherless.
NORA [trembling]. Motherless…!
HELMER. As you once were.
NORA. Motherless! [Struggles with herself, lets her travelling bag fall, and says.] Oh, this is a sin against myself, but I cannot leave them. [Half sinks down by the door.]
HELMER [joyfully, but softly]. Nora!
[The curtain falls.]
“The Alternative Ending of A Doll’s House.” National Library of Norway: All about Henrik Ibsen. 30. May. 2005. Web. 16. Jan. 2017.
However, after several protests at the Residenztheater in Berlin against the “distortion of the play,” Niemann-Raabe reverted back to the original script.
- 1884- Although the original script was forbidden to be performed in London, an adaptation of A Doll’s House by Henry Arthur Jones and Henry Herman renamed Breaking a Butterfly premiered at the Princess Theatre in London (“Breaking a Butterfly”).
- 1889- American début on Broadway at the Palmer’s Theatre (William and Kissel).
In addition to many different versions of film and TV adaptations, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is much alive on modern stage across the globe, each performance trying to interpret it into its own language and culture.
- The most striking performance has been Lee Breuer’s “Mabou Mines Dollhouse,” at Edinburgh Festival, 2007 as the director has cast an less-than-4-feet tall actor playing Torvald, the overbearing husband of Nora. Breuer has also included puppets and toy furniture to accentuate the sense of “madeness” and control in A Doll’s House. The performance has even risked nudity and sex scenes to struck the modern audience to increase the play’s daring and bold challenge.
- Another notable version is Simon Stephens’ digital theatre and A Doll’s House is one of the classic plays that have been staged to a camera and aired online. The format is in-between a TV series and an actual play (you will realize the impact of film and TV on theatre here). The introduction to the play goes:
“A Doll’s House features Hattie Morahan (star of the BBC’s Sense and Sensibility and Outnumbered) and Dominic Rowan (seen on Law & Order: UK and the Royal Court Theatre’s The Village Bike).
An intense emotional thriller… Ian MacNeil’s set is like a spinning doll’s house come to life…Hattie Morahan’s Nora offers a piercing study in desperation.”
The Case of Chinese Reception and Stagings
Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, and Ibsenism in general has an indispensable impact on modern Chinese theatre (speech plays, hua ju). To trace the process in fact requires further research, even another book to have it fully explained. Here are some highlights concerning the reception and rendition of A Doll’s House in China.
- Ibsenism inspired many writers and playwrights in early 20th century including Hu Shi who adapted A Doll’s House into a Chinese story The Greatest Event in Life (终身大事);
- many young women were encouraged by reading and discussing A Doll’s House, aspiring to leave home and avoid arranged marriage. However, the reality wasn’t as promising as it seemed. Lu Xun gave a talk at the peking Women’s Normal College, titled “What Happens After Nora Leaves Home?” on 26 December 1923, elaborating on the importance of gaining financial independence for women.
- A Doll’s House continued to be a popular piece on Chinese stage with variations and localization in its storyline, for example, Chinese National Theatre staged a version in 2006 surrounding a western woman marrying into a Chinese family and moving to China, while the 2014 version conversely situated the story in a typical Chinese family.
References and Further Readings:
Note: This entry is also posted to Purdue World Literature, a website I created and collaborated with other Purdue world literature instructors for course materials.