How was Ibsen's play, A Doll's House, received in its day?Ibsen's A Doll's House was written in the 19th century.
Ibsen hoped for positive reactions to his play that focused on (1) the play's radically new dramatic style and (2) the feminist stance Ibsen champions in the play. It was a great surprise when Norway's audiences and critics alike, then general European ones, focused solely upon Nora's social role and her objectionable decision to walk away from her children, a decision that still plagues modern readers/audiences today.
Nora. Tomorrow I shall go home--I mean, to my old home. It will be easiest for me to find something to do there. [...] I must try and get some sense, Torvald. [...] It gives me great pain, Torvald, for you have always been so kind to me, but I cannot help it. I do not love you any more. ... Yes, absolutely clear and certain. That is the reason why I will not stay here any longer.
It was when the play opened in England, ten years after the Norway debut, that dramatic style and feminist issues were first noted. Since the play toured the world, the play’s reception "in its day" covers more than a decade and goes through a couple of patterns of reaction.
The social issues and women's role represented in the play were the big topics of debate after the play's launch in Norway. People were incredulous that any woman actually could behave as Nora did; that any woman could put her own desire for understanding and knowledge above the care and raising of her children. Yet, later in England, Marxists saw in the women’s issue the conflict between power and equality in Nora's revolt against Torvald: they envisioned a future egalitarian equality that joined couples without regard to power and male patriarchal dominance. Other English critics were entranced by the radical innovations Ibsen made to dramatic style. It was George Bernard Shaw who praised Ibsen as a dramatic poet for lines like the following prose:
Helmer. How warm and cosy our home is, Nora. Here is shelter for you; here I will protect you like a hunted dove that I have saved from a hawk's claws; I will bring peace to your poor beating heart. ... everything will be just as it was before.
The American reaction was eventually similar to England's, eventually focusing on the radical dramatic style and deeming Nora a champion of the woman's emancipation movement. Yet at first, Americans rejected Ibsen's depressing play as gloomy and unappealing. It was Ethel Barrymore's performance in America that called Nora to the attention of American feminists who saw in her character a kindred spirit and heard a joint call for emancipation of women. At last, Ibsen's play came to be seen and valued in its day in the way he envisioned it would be, as a feminist treatise introducing a new style to modern dramatic works.
Given that the play openly challenged dominant gender relations it's actually surprising how positive its overall critical reception was. Even if many couldn't accept the full import of Ibsen's radical social critique, they still admired the obvious skill and artistry with which he had constructed A Doll's House. This attitude is ably expressed in the following extract from a reviewer in the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph:
It is quite possible to pass a thoroughly intellectual evening in "A Doll’s House" without being an immediate convert to Ibsenism.
At the same performance, however, a critic from a rival paper, The (London) Times, challenged Ibsen's social philosophy:
By Ibsen’s admirers this story is declared to inculcate a great moral lesson. The performance on the face of it, we are bound to say, proves nothing except that the heroine is an extremely petulant, headstrong, and impracticable young person, whose actions, whether in the frivolous or the serious vein, are not to be reconciled with ordinary experience or the dictates of common sense.
According to this reviewer, Nora's leaving of Torvald is not an act of emancipation, a break for freedom, but rather a petulant temper tantrum. When the critic refers to "common sense" he's talking about the social mores of late Victorian society, the very standards against which Nora is openly rebelling. At the same time, it's possible to read into this review a tacit acknowledgement that if Nora really is behaving childishly then Torvald only has himself to blame for keeping her in a state of child-like submission.
The ending of the play was thought scandalous to some. Many people simply couldn't conceive of a respectable married woman walking out on her husband and children and going out into the world alone to make her own way in life. Indeed, one German actress playing the part of Nora was so scandalized by the ending that she rewrote it. In the new version, Nora turns back at the last moment and collapses by the door, expressing her unwillingness to leave behind her children. It's a sign of the degree of acceptance that A Doll's House had already earned, however, that this Bowdlerisation of the play was widely rejected by critics and public alike, so much so that the German actress concerned eventually reverted to Ibsen's original script.