Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 742
In Norway, A Doll's House was published two weeks before its first performance. The initial 8,000 copies of the play sold out immediately, so the audience for the play was both informed, excited, and eagerly anticipating the play's first production. The play elicited much debate, most of it centered on Nora's decision to leave her marriage at the play's conclusion. Reaction in Germany was similar to that in Norway. Ibsen was forced to provide an alternative ending by the management of its first German production, since even the actress playing Nora refused to portray a mother leaving her children in such a manner. Ibsen called the new ending, which had Nora abandoning her plans to leave upon seeing her children one last time, "a barbaric outrage to be used only in emergencies." The debate was focused not on women's rights or other feminist issues such as subordination or male dominance; instead, people were consumed with the question, "What kind of a wife and mother would walk out on her family as Nora does?" The play's reception elsewhere in Europe mirrored that of Norway and Germany with the debate still focused largely on social issues and not on the play's challenge to dramatic style.
Another issue for early reviewers was Nora's transformation. Many critics simply did not accept the idea that the seemingly submissive, flighty woman of the first two acts could display so much resolve and strength in the third act. According to Enrol Durbach in A Doll's House: Ibsen's Myth of Transformation, one review of the period stated that Ibsen had disgusted his audience by "violating the unconventional." Many reviewers just could not visualize any woman displaying the kind of behavior demonstrated by Nora. It was beyond their comprehension that a woman would voluntarily choose to sacrifice her children in order to seek her own identity. Durbach argued that the audience and the critics were accustomed to social problem plays but that Ibsen's play presented a problem without the benefit of a ready or acceptable solution. In fact, the critics identified with Torvald and saw his choice of so unstable a wife as Nora as his only real flaw. In 1879 Europe, A Doll's House was a problem play, but not the one Ibsen envisioned. Instead, the problem resided with the critics who were so consumed with the issue of Nora's decision that they ignored the deeper complexities of the play. Early in the first act, it becomes clear that Nora has a strength and determination that even she cannot acknowledge. When her eyes are opened, it is not so much a metamorphosis as it is an awakening.
In England, the play was embraced by Marxists who envisioned an egalitarian mating without the hierarchy of marriage and an end to serfdom when wives ceased to be property. But many other Englishmen were more interested in the aesthetics of the play than in its social content. Bernard Shaw embraced Ibsen's dramatic poetry and championed the playwright's work. Since the first performance of A Doll's House in England occurred ten years after its debut in Norway, the English were provided with more time to absorb the ideas presented in the play. Thus the reviews of the period lacked the vehemence of those in Norway and Germany. Rather, according to Durbach, Ibsen was transformed into a liberal championed by English critics more interested in his dramatic poetry than the nature of his argument. In her 1919 book, Ibsen in England, Miriam Alice Franc declared that Ibsen "swept from the stage the false sentimentality and moral shams that had reigned there. He emancipated the theatre from the thraldom of convention."
Initial responses in America were even less enthusiastic than in Europe. Many critics dismissed Ibsen as gloomy and pessimistic and as representing the "old world." But by 1905, a production starring Ethel Barrymore was embraced by early feminists. Durbach noted that Barrymore's performance occurred within the context of the American woman's efforts at emancipation, and Ibsen became an "Interpreter of American Life." In his introduction to The Collected Works of Henrik Ibsen, which was published between 1906 and 1912, William Archer remarked: "It is with A Doll's House that Ibsen enters upon his kingdom as a world-poet." Archer added that this play was the work that would carry Ibsen's name beyond Norway. In a 1986 performance review, New York Times contributor Walter Goodman declared that A Doll's House is "a great document of feminism, and Nora is an icon of women's liberation."
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