A Doll’s House

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Author: Henrik Ibsen  | Date: 1879

INTRODUCTION

by William Archer

ON June 27, 1879, Ibsen wrote from Rome to Marcus Gronvold: "It is now rather hot in Rome, so in about a week we are going to Amalfi, which, being close to the sea, is cooler, and offers opportunity for bathing. I intend to complete there a new dramatic work on which I am now engaged." From Amalfi, on September 20, he wrote to John Paulsen: "A new dramatic work, which I have just completed, has occupied so much of my time during these last months that I have had absolutely none to spare for answering letters." This "new dramatic work" was Et Dukkehjem, which was published in Copenhagen, December 4, 1879. Dr. George Brandes has given some account of the episode in real life which suggested to Ibsen the plot of this play; but the real Nora, it appears, committed forgery, not to save her husband’s life, but to redecorate her house. The impulse received from this incident must have been trifling. It is much more to the purpose to remember that the character and situation of Nora had been clearly foreshadowed, ten years earlier, in the figure of Selma in The League of Youth.

Of A Doll’s House we find in the Literary Remains a first brief memorandum, a fairly detailed scenario, a complete draft, in quite actable form, and a few detached fragments of dialogue. These documents put out of court a theory of my own * that Ibsen originally intended to give the play a "happy ending," and that the relation between Krogstad and Mrs. Linden was devised for that purpose.

* Stated in the Fortnightly Review, July 1906, and repeated in the first edition of this Introduction.

Here is the first memorandum:-

NOTES FOR THE * TRAGEDY OF TO-DAY

ROME, 19/10/78.

There are two kinds of spiritual laws, two kinds of conscience, one in men and a quite different one in women. They do not understand each other; but the woman is judged in practical life according to the man’s law, as if she were not a woman but a man.

The wife in the play finds herself at last entirely at sea as to what is right and what wrong; natural feeling on the one side, and belief in authority on the other, leave her in utter bewilderment.

A woman cannot be herself in the society of to-day, which is exclusively a masculine society, with laws written by men, and with accusers and judges who judge feminine conduct from the masculine standpoint.

She has committed forgery, and it is her pride; for she did it for love of her husband, and to save his life. But this husband, full of everyday rectitude, stands on the basis of the law and regards the matter with a masculine eye.

Soul-struggles. Oppressed and bewildered by belief in authority, she loses her faith in her own moral right and ability to bring up her children. Bitterness. A mother in the society of to-day, like certain insects, (ought to) go away and die when she has done her duty towards the continuance of the species. Love of life, of home, of husband and children and kin. Now and then a womanlike shaking off of cares. Then a sudden return of apprehension and dread. She must bear it all alone. The catastrophe approaches, inexorably, inevitably. Despair, struggle, and disaster.

* The definite article does not, I think, imply that Ibsen ever intended this to be the title of the play, but merely that the notes refer to "the" tragedy of contemporary life which he has had for sometime in his mind.

In reading Ibsen’s statement of the conflict he meant to portray between the male and female conscience, one cannot but feel that he somewhat shirked the issue in making Nora’s crime a formal rather than a real one. She had no intention of defrauding Krogstad; and though it is an interesting point of casuistry to determine whether, under the stated circumstances, she had a moral right to sign her father’s name, opinion on the point would scarcely be divided along the line of sex. One feels that, in order to illustrate the "two kinds of conscience," Ibsen ought to have made his play turn upon some point of conduct (if such there be) which would sharply divide masculine from feminine sympathies. The fact that such a point would be extremely hard to find seems to cast doubt on the ultimate validity of the thesis. If, for instance, Nora had deliberately stolen the money from Krogstad, with no intention of repaying it, that would certainly have revealed a great gulf between her morality and Helmer’s; but would any considerable number of her sex have sympathised with her? I am not denying a marked difference between the average man and the average woman in the development of such characteristics as the sense of justice; but I doubt whether, when women have their full share in legislation, the laws relating to forgery will be seriously altered.

A parallel-text edition of the provisional and the final forms of A Doll’s House would be intensely interesting. For the present, I can note only a few of the most salient differences between the two versions.

Helmer is at first called "Stenborg"; * it is not till the scene with Krogstad in the second act that the name Helmer makes its first appearance. Ibsen was constantly changing his characters’ names in the course of composition- trying them on, as it were, until he found one that was a perfect fit.

* This name seems to have haunted Ibsen. It was also the original name of Stensgard in The League of Youth.

The first scene, down to the entrance of Mrs. Linden, though it contains all that is necessary for the mere development of the plot, runs to only twenty-three speeches, as compared with eighty-one in the completed text. The business of the macaroons is not even indicated; there is none of the charming talk about the Christmas-tree and the children’s presents; no request on Nora’s part that her present may take the form of money, no indication on Helmer’s part that he regards her supposed extravagance as an inheritance from her father. Helmer knows that she toils at copying far into the night in order to earn a few crowns, though of course he has no suspicion as to how she employs the money. Ibsen evidently felt it inconsistent with his character that he should permit this, so in the completed version we learn that Nora, in order to do her copying, locked herself in under the pretext of making decorations for the Christmas-tree, and, when no result appeared, declared that the cat had destroyed her handiwork. The first version, in short, is like a stained glass window seen from without, the second like the same window seen from within.

The long scene between Nora and Mrs. Linden is more fully worked out, though many small touches of character are lacking, such as Nora’s remark that some day "when Torvald is not so much in love with me as he is now," she may tell him the great secret of how she saved his life. It is notable throughout that neither Helmer’s aestheticism nor the sensual element in his relation to Nora is nearly so much emphasised as in the completed play; while Nora’s tendency to small fibbing- that vice of the unfree- is almost an afterthought. In the first appearance of Krogstad, and the indication of his old acquaintance with Mrs. Linden, many small adjustments have been made, all strikingly for the better. The first scene with Dr. Rank,- originally called Dr. Hank- has been almost entirely rewritten. There is in the draft no indication of the doctor’s ill-health or of his pessimism; it seems as though he had at first been designed as a mere confidant or raisonneur. This is how he talks:-

HANK. Hallo! what’s this? A new carpet? I congratulate you! Now

take, for example, a handsome carpet like this; is it a luxury? I

say it isn’t. Such a carpet is a paying investment; with it

underfoot, one has higher, subtler thoughts, and finer feelings,

than when one moves over cold, creaking planks in a comfortless

room. Especially where there are children in the house. The race

ennobles itself in a beautiful environment.

NORA. Oh, how often I have felt the same, but could never express

it.

HANK. No, I dare say not. It is an observation in spiritual

statistics- a science as yet very little cultivated.

As to Krogstad, the doctor remarks:-

If Krogstad’s home had been, so to speak, on the sunny side of

life, with all the spiritual windows opening towards the

light,... I dare say he might have been a decent enough fellow,

like the rest of us.

MRS. LINDEN. You mean that he is not....?

HANK. He cannot be. His marriage was not of the kind to make it

possible. An unhappy marriage, Mrs. Linden, is like small-pox: it

scars the soul.

NORA. And what does a happy marriage do?

HANK. It is like a "cure" at the baths; it expels all peccant

humours, and makes all that is good and fine in a man grow and

flourish.

It is notable that we find in this scene nothing of Nora’s glee on learning that Krogstad is now dependent on her husband; that fine touch of dramatic irony was an afterthought. After Helmer’s entrance, the talk is very different in the original version. He remarks upon the painful interview he has just had with Krogstad, whom he is forced to dismiss from the bank; Nora, in a mild way, pleads for him; and the doctor, in the name of the survival of the fittest, * denounces humanitarian sentimentality, and then goes off to do his best to save a patient who, he confesses, would be much better dead. This discussion of the Krogstad question before Nora has learnt how vital it is to her, manifestly discounts the effect of the scenes which are to follow: and Ibsen, on revision, did away with it entirely.

* It is noteworthy that Darwin’s two great books were translated into Danish very shortly before Ibsen began to work at A Doll’s House.

Nora’s romp with the children, interrupted by the entrance of Krogstad, stands very much as in the final version; and in the scene with Krogstad there is no essential change. One detail is worth noting, as an instance of the art of working up an effect. In the first version, when Krogstad says, "Mrs. Stenborg, you must see to it that I keep my place in the bank," Nora replies: "I? How can you think that I have any such influence with my husband?"- a natural but not specially effective remark. But in the final version she has begun the scene by boasting to Krogstad of her influence, and telling him that people in a subordinate position ought to be careful how they offend such influential persons as herself; so that her subsequent denial that he has any influence becomes a notable dramatic effect.

The final scene of the act, between Nora and Helmer, is not materially altered in the final version; but the first version contains no hint of the business of decorating the Christmas-tree or of Nora’s wheedling Helmer by pretending to need his aid in devising her costume for the fancy dress ball. Indeed, this ball has not yet entered Ibsen’s mind. He thinks of it first as a children’s party in the flat overhead, to which Helmer’s family are invited.

In the opening scene of the second act there are one of two traits that might perhaps have been preserved, such as Nora’s prayer: "Oh, God! Oh, God! do something to Torvald’s mind to prevent him from enraging that terrible man! Oh, God! Oh, God! I have three little children! Do it for my children’s sake." Very natural and touching, too, is her exclamation, "Oh, how glorious it would be if I could only wake up, and come to my senses, and cry, ’It was a dream! It was a dream!’" A week, by the way, has passed, instead of a single night, as in the finished play; and Nora has been wearing herself out by going to parties every evening. Helmer enters immediately on the nurse’s exit; there is no scene with Mrs. Linden in which she remonstrates with Nora for having (as she thinks) borrowed money from Dr. Rank, and so suggests to her the idea of applying to him for aid. In the scene with Helmer, we miss, among many other characteristic traits, his confession that the ultimate reason why he cannot keep Krogstad in the bank is that Krogstad, an old schoolfellow, is so tactless as to tutoyer him. There is a curious little touch in the passage where Helmer draws a contrast between his own strict rectitude and the doubtful character of Nora’s father. "I can give you proof of it," he says. "I never cared to mention it before- but the twelve hundred dollars he gave you when you were set on going to Italy he never entered in his books: we have been quite unable to discover where he got them from." When Dr. Rank enters, he speaks to Helmer and Nora together of his failing health; it is an enormous improvement which transfers this passage, in a carefully polished form, to his scene with Nora alone. That scene, in the draft, is almost insignificant. It consists mainly of somewhat melodramatic forecasts of disaster on Nora’s part, and the doctor’s alarm as to her health. Of the famous silk-stocking scene- that invaluable sidelight on Nora’s relation with Helmer there is not a trace. There is no hint of Nora’s appeal to Rank for help, nipped in the bud by his declaration of love for her. All these elements we find in a second draft of the scene which has been preserved. In this second draft, Rank says, "Helmer himself might quite well know every thought I have ever had of you; he shall know when I am gone." It might have been better, so far as England is concerned, if Ibsen had retained this speech; it might have prevented much critical misunderstanding of a perfectly harmless and really beautiful episode.

Between the scene with Rank and the scene with Krogstad there intervenes, in the draft, a discussion between Nora and Mrs. Linden, containing this curious passage:-

NORA. When an unhappy wife is separated from her husband she is not

allowed to keep her children? Is that really so?

MRS. LINDEN. Yes, I think so. That’s to say, if she is guilty.

NORA. Oh, guilty, guilty; what does it mean to be guilty? Has a

wife no right to love her husband?

MRS. LINDEN. Yes, precisely, her husband- and him only.

NORA. Why, of course; who was thinking of anything else? But that

law is unjust, Kristina. You can see clearly that it is the men

that have made it.

MRS. LINDEN. Aha- so you have begun to take up the woman question?

NORA. No, I don’t care a bit about it.

The scene with Krogstad is essentially the same as in the final form, though sharpened, so to speak, at many points. The question of suicide was originally discussed in a somewhat melodramatic tone:-

NORA. I have been thinking of nothing else all these days.

KROGSTAD. Perhaps. But how to do it? Poison? Not so easy to get

hold of. Shooting? It needs some skill, Mrs. Helmer. Hanging?

Bah- there’s something ugly in that....

NORA. Do you hear that rushing sound?

KROGSTAD. The river? Yes, of course you have thought of that. But

you haven’t pictured the thing to yourself.

And he proceeds to do so for her. After he has gone, leaving the letter in the box, Helmer and Rank enter, and Nora implores Helmer to do no work till New Year’s Day (the next day) is over. He agrees, but says, "I will just see if any letters have come "; whereupon she rushes to the piano and strikes a few chords. He stops to listen, and she sits down and plays and sings Anitra’s song from Peer Gynt. When Mrs. Linden presently enters, Nora makes her take her place at the piano, drapes a shawl around her, and dances Anitra’s dance. It must be owned that Ibsen has immensely improved this very strained and arbitrary incident by devising the fancy dress ball and the necessity of rehearsing the tarantella for it; but at the best it remains a piece of theatricalism.

As a study in technique, the re-handling of the last act is immensely interesting. At the beginning, in the earlier form, Nora rushes down from the children’s party overhead, and takes a significant farewell of Mrs. Linden, whom she finds awaiting her. Helmer almost forces her to return to the party; and thus the stage is cleared for the scene between Mrs. Linden and Krogstad, which, in the final version, opens the act. Then Nora enters with the two elder children, whom she sends to bed. Helmer immediately follows, and on his heels Dr. Rank, who announces in plain terms that his disease has entered on its last stage, that he is going home to die, and that he will not have Helmer or any one else hanging around his sick-room. In the final version, he says all this to Nora alone in the second act; while in the last act, coming in upon Helmer flushed with wine, and Nora pale and trembling in her masquerade dress, he has a parting scene with them, the significance of which she alone understands. In the earlier version, Rank has several long and heavy speeches in place of the light, swift dialogue of the final form, with its different significance for Helmer and for Nora. There is no trace of the wonderful passage which precedes Rank’s exit. To compare the draft with the finished scene is to see a perfect instance of the transmutation of dramatic prose into dramatic poetry.

There is in the draft no indication of Helmer’s being warmed with wine, or of the excitement of the senses which gives the final touch of tragedy to Nora’s despair. The process of the action is practically the same in both versions; but everywhere in the final form a sharper edge is given to things. One little touch is very significant. In the draft, when Helmer has read the letter with which Krogstad returns the forged bill, he cries, "You are saved, Nora, you are saved!" In the revision, Ibsen cruelly altered this into, "I am saved, Nora, I am saved!" In the final scene, where Nora is telling Helmer how she expected him, when the revelation came, to take all the guilt upon himself, we look in vain, in the first draft, for this passage:-

HELMER. I would gladly work for you night and day, Nora- bear

sorrow and want for your sake. But no man sacrifices his honour,

even for one he loves.

NORA. Millions of women have done so.

This, then, was an afterthought: was there ever a more brilliant one?

It is with A Doll’s House that Ibsen enters upon his kingdom as a world-poet. He had done greater work in the past, and he was to do greater work in the future; but this was the play which was destined to carry his name beyond the limits of Scandinavia, and even of Germany, to the remotest regions of civilisation. Here the Fates were not altogether kind to him. The fact that for many years he was known to thousands of people solely as the author of A Doll’s House and its successor, Ghosts, was largely responsible for the extravagant misconceptions of his genius and character which prevailed during the last decade of the nineteenth century, and are not yet entirely extinct. In these plays he seemed to be delivering a direct assault on marriage, from the standpoint of feminine individualism; wherefore he was taken to be a preacher and pamphleteer rather than a poet. In these plays, and in these only, he made physical disease a considerable factor in the action; whence it was concluded that he had a morbid predilection for "nauseous" subjects. In these plays he laid special and perhaps disproportionate stress on the influence of heredity; whence he was believed to be possessed by a monomania on the point. In these plays, finally, he was trying to act the essentially uncongenial part of the prosaic realist. The effort broke down at many points, and the poet reasserted himself; but these flaws in the prosaic texture were regarded as mere bewildering errors and eccentricities. In short, he was introduced to the world at large through two plays which showed his power, indeed, almost in perfection, but left the higher and subtler qualities of his genius for the most part unrepresented. Hence the grotesquely distorted vision of him which for so long haunted the minds even of intelligent people. Hence, for example, the amazing opinion, given forth as a truism by more than one critic of great ability, that the author of Peer Gynt was devoid of humour.

Within a little more than a fortnight of its publication, A Doll’s House was presented at the Royal Theatre, Copenhagen, where Fru Hennings, as Nora, made the great success of her career. The play was soon being acted, as well as read, all over Scandinavia. Nora’s startling "declaration of independence" afforded such an inexhaustible theme for heated discussion, that at last it had to be formally barred at social gatherings, just as, in Paris twenty years later, the Dreyfus Case was proclaimed a prohibited topic. The popularity of Pillars of Society in Germany had paved the way for its successor, which spread far and wide over the German stage in the spring of 1880, and has ever since held its place in the repertory of the leading theatres. As his works were at that time wholly unprotected in Germany, Ibsen could not prevent managers from altering the end of the play to suit their taste and fancy. He was thus driven, under protest, to write an alternative ending, in which, at the last moment, the thought of her children restrained Nora from leaving home. He preferred, as he said, "to commit the outrage himself, rather than leave his work to the tender mercies of adaptors." The patched-up ending soon dropped out of use and out of memory. Ibsen’s own account of the matter will be found in his Correspondence, Letter 142.

It took ten years for the play to pass beyond the limits of Scandinavia and Germany. Madame Modjeska, it is true, presented a version of it in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1883, but it attracted no attention. In the following year Messrs. Henry Arthur Jones and Henry Herman produced at the Prince of Wales’s Theatre, London, a play entitled Breaking a Butterfly, which was described as being "founded on Ibsen’s Norah," but bore only a remote resemblance to the original. In this production Mr. Beerbohm Tree took the part of Dunkley, a melodramatic villain who filled the place of Krogstad. In 1885, again, an adventurous amateur club gave a quaint performance of Miss Lord’s translation of the play at a hall in Argyle Street, London. Not until June 7, 1889, was A Doll’s House competently, and even brilliantly, presented to the English public, by Mr. Charles Charrington and Miss Janet Achurch, at the Novelty Theatre, London, afterwards re-named the Kingsway Theatre. It was this production that really made Ibsen known to the English-speaking peoples. In other words, it marked his second great stride towards world-wide, as distinct from merely national, renown- if we reckon as the first stride the success of Pillars of Society in Germany. Mr. and Mrs. Charrington took A Doll’s House with them on a long Australian tour; Miss Beatrice Cameron (Mrs. Richard Mansfield) was encouraged by the success of the London production to present the play in New York, whence it soon spread to other American cities; while in London itself it was frequently revived and vehemently discussed. The Ibsen controversy, indeed, did not break out in its full virulence until 1891, when Ghosts and Hedda Gabler were produced in London; but from the date of the Novelty production onwards, Ibsen was generally recognised as a potent factor in the intellectual and artistic life of the day.

A French adaptation of Et Dukkehjem was produced in Brussels in March 1889, but attracted little attention. Not until 1894 was the play introduced to the Parisian public, at the Gymnase, with Madame Rejane as Nora. This actress has since played the part frequently, not only in Paris but in London and in America. In Italian the play was first produced in 1889, and soon passed into the repertory of Eleonora Duse, who appeared as Nora in London in 1893. Few heroines in modern drama have been played by so many actresses of the first rank. To those already enumerated must be added Hedwig Niemann-Raabe and Agnes Sorma in Germany, and Minnie Maddern-Fiske and Alla Nazimova in America; and, even so, the list is far from complete. There is probably no country in the world, possessing a theatre on the European model, in which A Doll’s House has not been more or less frequently acted.

Undoubtedly the great attraction of the part of Nora to the average actress was the tarantella scene. This was a theatrical effect, of an obvious, unmistakable kind. It might have been- though I am not aware that it ever actually was- made the subject of a picture-poster. But this, as it seems to me, was Ibsen’s last concession to the ideal of technique which he had acquired, in the old Bergen days, from his French masters. It was at this point- or, more precisely, a little later, in the middle of the third act- that Ibsen definitely outgrew the theatrical orthodox of his earlier years. When the action, in the theatrical sense, was over, he found himself only on the threshold of the essential drama; and in that drama, compressed into the final scene of the play, he proclaimed his true power and his true mission.

How impossible, in his subsequent work, would be such figures as Mrs. Linden, the confidant, and Krogstad, the villain! They are not quite the ordinary confidant and villain, for Ibsen is always Ibsen, and his power of vitalisation is extraordinary. Yet we clearly feel them to belong to a different order of art from that of his later plays. How impossible, too, in the poet’s after years, would have been the little tricks of ironic coincidence and picturesque contrast which abound in A Doll’s House! The festal atmosphere of the whole play, the Christmas-tree, the tarantella, the masquerade ball, with its distant sounds of music- all the shimmer and tinsel of the background, against which Nora’s soul-torture and Rank’s despair are thrown into relief, belong to the system of external, artificial antithesis beloved by romantic playwrights from Lope de Vega onward, and carried to its limit by Victor Hugo. The same artificiality is apparent in minor details. "Oh, what a wonderful thing it is to live to be happy!" cries Nora, and instantly "The hall-door bell rings" and Krogstad’s shadow falls across the threshold. So, too, for his second entrance, an elaborate effect of contrast is arranged, between Nora’s gleeful romp with her children and the sinister figure which stands unannounced in their midst. It would be too much to call these things absolutely unnatural, but the very precision of the coincidence is eloquent of pre-arrangement. At any rate, they belong to an order of effects which in future Ibsen sedulously eschews. The one apparent exception to this rule which I can remember occurs in The Master Builder, where Solness’s remark, "Presently the younger generation will come knocking at my door," gives the cue for Hilda’s knock and entrance. But here an interesting distinction is to be noted. Throughout The Master Builder the poet subtly indicates the operation of mysterious, unseen agencies- the "helpers and servers" of whom Solness speaks, as well as the Power with which he held converse at the crisis in his life- guiding, or at any rate tampering with, the destinies of the characters. This being so, it is evident that the effect of pre-arrangement produced by Hilda’s appearing exactly on the given cue was deliberately aimed at. Like so many other details in the play, it might be a mere coincidence, or it might be a result of inscrutable design- we were purposely left in doubt. But the suggestion of pre-arrangement which helped to create the atmosphere of The Master Builder was wholly out of place in A Doll’s House. In the later play it was a subtle stroke of art; in the earlier it was the effect of imperfectly dissembled artifice.

The fact that Ibsen’s full originality first reveals itself in the latter half of the third act is proved by the very protests, nay, the actual rebellion, which the last scene called forth. Up to that point he had been doing, approximately, what theatrical orthodoxy demanded of him. But when Nora, having put off her masquerade dress, returned to make up her account with Helmer, and with marriage as Helmer understood it, the poet flew in the face of orthodoxy, and its professors cried, out in bewilderment and wrath. But it was just at this point that, in practice, the real grip and thrill of the drama were found to come in. The tarantella scene never, in my experience- and I have seen five or six great actresses in the part- produced an effect in any degree commensurate with the effort involved. But when Nora and Helmer faced each other, one on each side of the table, and set to work to ravel out the skein of their illusions, then one felt oneself face to face with a new thing in drama- an order of experience, at once intellectual and emotional, not hitherto attained in the theatre. This every one felt, I think, who was in any way accessible to that order of experience. For my own part, I shall never forget how surprised I was on first seeing the play, to find this scene, in its naked simplicity, far more exciting and moving than all the artfully-arranged situations of the earlier acts. To the same effect, from another point of view, we have the testimony of Fru Hennings, the first actress who ever played the part of Nora. In an interview published soon after Ibsen’s death, she spoke of the delight it was to her, in her youth, to embody the Nora of the first and second acts, the "lark," the "squirrel," the irresponsible, butterfly Nora. "When I now play the part," she went on, "the first acts leave me indifferent. Not until the third act am I really interested- but then, intensely." To call the first and second acts positively uninteresting would of course be a gross exaggeration. What one really means is that their workmanship is still a little derivative and immature, and that not until the third act does the poet reveal the full originality and individuality of his genius.

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Chicago: Henrik Ibsen, "Introduction," A Doll’s House, trans. William Archer Original Sources, accessed September 19, 2020, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=RKZZNDAIEYP1X3C.

MLA: Ibsen, Henrik. "Introduction." A Doll’s House, translted by William Archer, Original Sources. 19 Sep. 2020. originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=RKZZNDAIEYP1X3C.

Harvard: Ibsen, H, 'Introduction' in A Doll’s House, trans. . Original Sources, retrieved 19 September 2020, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=RKZZNDAIEYP1X3C.