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COMPARATIVE drama 1 Volume 17 Winter 1983-84 Number 4 The Ending of A Doll House A / and Augier’s Maitre Guerin ' Thomas F. Van Laan Few plays in theatrical history have had the impact of A Doll House, which, according to Ibsen’s Norwegian biographer, “burst upon the contemporary scene like a bombshell.”l Today, as the conception of what constitutes modem drama broadens and grows more complex, one seldom hears the play spoken of as “the turning point in the history of drama” or its first per­ formance as “the birth of modem drama,”2 but such expressions used to be commonplace, and in any event there can be no doubt of the tremendous importance of the play for Ibsen’s career (its production nearly everywhere in Europe during the 1880’s made Ibsen a dramatist of worldwide fame), for con­ temporary social thought (the issues it raised were avidly discussed both publicly and privately, even to the extent that ultimately dinner invitations often contained a warning that discussion of the play would not be tolerated), and, of course, for the history of drama (for which A Doll House provided, if not a “turning point,” at least an exciting new model that other dramatists were quick to imitate). Several aspects of the play have been singled out in attempts THOMAS F. VAN LAAN, Professor of English and Chairperson of English at Rutgers University, has published widely in the area of modem literature. 297 298 Comparative Drama to account for this impact. One is the “technical originality” it achieves when, somewhere in its final act, it abandons the machinery of the well-made play and substitutes something new and more realistic for the usual artifice.3 According to Koht, what replaced the artifice was “the complete unveiling of the hidden forces and depths of the human soul . . . the inner, purely spiritual catastrophe,” while according to Shaw, in his influential The Quintessence of Ibsenism, it was “the discussion,” the extended conversation in which Nora and Torvald discursively analyze the implications of her situation: “it was by this new technical feature: the addition of a new movement, as musicians would say, to the dramatic form, that A Doll’s House conquered Europe and founded a new school of dramatic art.”4 Shaw’s further claim that A Doll House “gave Victorian domestic morality its death-blow” indicates another possible cause of the play’s impact, the extreme unorthodoxy of its apparent ideas—the “explosive . . . message,” as Meyer puts it, “that a marriage was not sacrosanct, that a man’s authority in his home should not go unchallenged, and that the prime duty of anyone was to find out who he or she really was and to become that person.”5 For most readers and spectators, however, the aspect of A Doll House that most invigorated or dismayed was probably not any of its ideas but rather a par­ ticular segment of its action, its concluding moment, when Nora, having decided to leave Torvald, actually goes out, and “from below is heard the boom of the entrance door being slammed shut.”6 It is this moment that Edvard Brandes called a “Satan ex machina” and that the prominent German actress, Hedwig Niemann-Raabe, refused to act, forcing Ibsen reluctantly to concoct for her a happy ending in which Nora realizes at the last minute that she cannot leave her children.7 Since the tremendous impact of A Doll House can be attrib­ uted to its final scene (Shaw’s “last ten minutes of an otherwise ‘well made’ play”8) and most likely to Nora’s exit, it is important to realize that this ending is probably not as original as it seemed at the time and now seems to us in retrospect. Fifteen years before the publication and first performance of A Doll House, in 1864, there appeared a new play by the leading French dramatist, Emile Augier, entitled Maître Guérin, which could well have provided Ibsen, and in my judgment probably did provide him, with not only the idea for his ending but also some of its most striking details. When Ibsen sat down Thomas F. Van Loan 299...


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