Although Henrik Ibsen was already a respected playwright in Scandinavia before the premiere of A Doll’s House, it was this work that catapulted him to international fame. The earliest of Ibsen’s social-problem plays, this drama must be read in its historical context to understand its impact not only on twentieth century dramaturgy but also on society at large.
Most contemporary theater up to the time, including Ibsen’s earlier work, fell into two general categories: the historical romance and the so-called well-made (or “thesis”) play. The well-made play was a contrived comedy of manners revolving around an intricate plot and subplots but ultimately suffocated by the trivia of its theme and dialogue as well as by its shallow characterization. There was also the occasional poetic drama—such as Ibsen’s Brand (1866) and Peer Gynt (1867)—but poetic form was often the only distinction between these plays and historical romances, as the content tended to be similar.
Into this dramaturgical milieu, A Doll’s House injected natural dialogue and situations, abstained from such artificial conventions as the soliloquy or “aside” and observance of the “unities” of time and place, and insisted on the strict logical necessity of the outcome without attempting to wrench events into a happy ending. These theatrical innovations constitute Ibsen’s fundamental contribution to the form of realistic drama. This kind of drama emphasizes believability, yet there is no attempt to achieve the comprehensiveness of photographic reality; rather, realism is selective and strives for representative examples in recognizable human experience. Through selectivity, realism implicitly assumes a critical stance. Thus the Helmers’ domestic crisis had, and still has, an immediate impact on theater audiences for being potentially true of the audience as well. Drama changed radically after A Doll’s House, for which reason Ibsen is called the father of modern drama.
Ibsen’s influence on twentieth century drama was twofold, for he combined both technique and content in the realism of A Doll’s House. Specifically, Ibsen elevated playmaking to a level above mere entertainment by validating the respectability of plays about serious social issues. One of the most volatile issues of his day was the position of women, who throughout virtually all of Western society were at that time considered by law and by custom chattel of fathers and husbands. Women were denied participation in public life; their access to education was limited; their social lives were narrowly circumscribed; and they could not legally transact business, own property, or inherit. In the mid-nineteenth century, chafing under such restrictions, some women began to demand autonomy. They pushed for the right to vote and the opportunity for higher education and entry into the professions. By the last two decades of the nineteenth century, this had turned into open defiance, which in turn evoked outrage from many.
Against this turbulent background, Ibsen presented A Doll’s House. The response was electric. On the strength of the play, suffragists construed Ibsen as a partisan supporter, and their opposition accused the playwright of propagandizing and being an agent provocateur. However, Ibsen was neither a feminist nor a social reformer. Indeed, Ibsen personally deplored the kind of emancipation and self-development that brought women out of the domestic sphere into the larger world; he saw women’s proper role exclusively as motherhood. His feminist sympathies were but a facet of his realism. He did no more than try to describe the problems as he saw them; he did not attempt to solve them. Nevertheless, he had a sharp eye and many sharp words for injustice, and it was the injustice of Torvald’s demeaning treatment of Nora—a deplorably common occurrence in real life, Ibsen conceded—that provided the impetus for the play.
In the raging debate over the morality of Nora’s behavior, however, it is altogether too easy to neglect Torvald’s dramatic function in the play. This smug lawyer/bank manager is meant to represent the social structure that decreed an inferior position for women. Torvald is, in effect, a symbol for male-dominated and authoritarian society. Thus he establishes “rules” for Nora—the petty prohibition against macaroons, for one, the requirement that she act like a child and believe in the rightness, empirical as well as ethical, of his view in all matters. (In fact, Ibsen remarks in his “Notes” for the play that men make the laws and judge a woman’s conduct from a man’s point of view, “as though she were not a woman but a man.”) His contemptuous attitude toward Nora’s intelligence and sense of responsibility—he calls her his “little lark,” his “little squirrel,” his “little featherbrain,” his “little spendthrift,” and so on—actually reflects the prevailing view that many men had of women: that they are owned property, playthings, dolls to be housed in toy mansions and be indulged, but only sparingly.
In this Neanderthal context, it is difficult not to view Torvald as a thoroughgoing villain. Like society, however, Torvald is not completely devoid of redeeming grace, for otherwise Nora would not have married him, or committed forgery at great personal risk and used her utmost ingenuity to protect him from shame. Nora is both sensible and sensitive, despite Torvald’s disparaging insinuations, and her awareness of her own worth is gradually awakened as the play unfolds—and with it her sense of individual responsibility. When at last she insists on her right to individual self-development, the spoiled girl-doll becomes a full-fledged woman. She slams the door of the doll house in a gesture symbolic of a biblical putting away of childish things and takes her rightful place in the adult world. Needless to say, that slam shakes the very rafters of the social-domestic establishment, and the reverberations continue in the present. Such a powerful echo makes a powerful drama.