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Theater 34.3 (2004) 134-142

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Playing with Dolls and Houses

A Doll's House directed by Carey Perloff. American Conservatory Theater. San Francisco January 2004.
Dollhouse directed by Lee Breuer. Mabou Mines at St. Ann's Warehouse. Brooklyn November 2003


In Ibsen's Et Dukkehjem (A Doll House) lies are currency, and the demand for prevarications, obfuscations, and self-delusions far exceeds the supply. But no additional Krogstads stand waiting to grant secret loans of deception and, inevitably, Nora's toxic life-lie is exposed. When she recognizes the world of playacting she inhabits, she takes action, and the results set a precedent in dramatic literature. Few theatrical moments are as iconic as her door slam: Agamemnon marching up Clytemnestra's red carpet, Mother Courage circling her wagon, and Stanley bellowing Stella's name come to mind, but perhaps no single gesture has left a more indelible mark on modern drama than Nora's set-rattling exit.

Her final gesture was a radical dramaturgical move by which Ibsen thwarted the well-made play's trademark tidy resolution. For nineteenth-century audiences the formal innovation ushered in by this "door slam heard around the world" was upstaged by [End Page 134] the startling social implications of a middle-class woman abandoning her family. Ever since it first caused controversy, A Doll House has been altered to suit producers and directors, beginning with Ibsen's own rewrite for the German stage.

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Figure 1
Maude Michell as Nora and Mark Povinelli as Torvald in Lee Breuer's Dollhouse, 2003. Photo: Richard Termine

Ibsen's emendation was written to satisfy Hedwig Niemann-Raabe, a prominent actress in the German theater, who wanted to play Nora but refused to perform the ending as first written, claiming she would never leave her children in such a manner. Ibsen decided to provide his own alternate ending to preempt someone else from doing so. He later described the now "happy" ending, which he called a "barbaric outrage," in a letter to a Danish newspaper: "Nora does not leave the house but is forced by Helmer to the open doorway of the children's bedroom; here a few lines are exchanged, Nora sinks down by the door and the curtain falls." (Eventually Niemann-Raabe discarded Ibsen's rewrite and performed the ending as originally written.)

Such parochialism endures: a theater administrator recently observed that A Doll House is "a surprisingly interesting play, considering that it's over a hundred years old." Perhaps his backhanded apology merely articulates theatergoers' hunger for "challenging" contemporary plays—as opposed to the supposedly musty antiques written by a Norwegian with bushy facial hair. But there is a particular irony in viewing A Doll House as staid, outmoded drama. The play opened on December 21, 1879, just a few days before the holidays that feature prominently in its setting: Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day. It quickly earned the reputation of a rallying cry for the New Woman, engendering excitement for decades after its premiere. Nora's rebellion became propaganda for one side of the argument and evidence of moral decay for the other. According to one critic, "All Scandinavia rang with Nora's 'declaration of independence.' People left the theater, night after night, pale with excitement, arguing, quarrelling, challenging."1 Halvdan Koht, one of Ibsen's biographers who was a young boy at the time of the premiere, wrote that the play "exploded like a bomb into contemporary life. Pillars of Society . . . though it attacked reigning social conventions, still retained the traditional theatrical happy ending, so that it bit less sharply. But A Doll's House knew no mercy; ending not in reconciliation, but in inexorable calamity, it pronounced a death sentence on accepted social ethics."2 Others described the play as "technically excellent, but written by a vulgar and evil mind" and Nora's final gesture as a "Satan ex machina."3 [End Page 135]

Many twentieth-century critics felt compelled to rescue the play's literary reputation by distancing it from feminist appropriation and arguing that Nora, as an...


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