This Day In Writing History
On December 21st, 1879, A Doll's House, the classic play by legendary Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, opened in Copenhagen. Ibsen, born into an affluent family in Skien, Norway, took up writing while studying as an apprentice pharmacist. At this time, his parents, who were both descended from some of Norway's oldest and most respected families, experienced sudden financial ruin.
Ibsen's father plunged into severe depression. His mother sought solace in religion. They would both serve to inspire the characters in their son's plays, which often dealt with financial adversity, moral conflicts, and the hypocrisy and dark secrets that often lurk beneath cloaks of respectability. Henrik Ibsen would become one of the greatest playwrights of all time - and one of the most controversial. A Doll's House would become his most famous play.
A Doll's House opens with Nora Helmer, a middle class housewife and mother, returning home after doing her Christmas shopping. Her husband, Torvald, has a new job as a bank manager, and both he and Nora believe that their finances will improve. Torvald is terrified of debt; Nora behaves childishly, but her husband enjoys treating her like a child. He instructs her like a parent and indulges her whims.
Nora's old girlfriend Christine Linde arrives for a visit. Christine is a childless widow whose husband left her no money, so she has supported herself by doing various jobs. She's looking for more work, preferably work that's not too physically demanding.
Nora tells Christine the secret she's been keeping from her husband: when Torvald fell seriously ill, Nora borrowed money from disgraced lawyer Nils Krogstad to save his life. To protect her husband's pride, Nora made him and everyone else believe that she inherited the money from her father, who had died at the time.
Nora has been repaying her debt by skimming money from her housekeeping budget and secretly working, making handwritten copies of papers. Being able to earn her own money "as if she were a man" makes Nora proud. Now that her husband has a new job, the extra money he'll give her, combined with her secret earnings, will finally enable Nora to pay off her debt completely.
Nora asks Torvald to give Christine a secretarial job at his bank. He agrees. Later, Nora is approached by Nils Krogstad, who also works at Torvald's bank. He fears that he will be laid off to make room for Christine's position and demands that Nora help him keep his job. When she refuses, he threatens to reveal that she forged her husband's name on the loan bond.
Krogstad warns her that her reputation will be ruined like his if he exposes her forgery. He doesn't go into detail about his own indiscretion, but says that he did it for the same reason as Nora - to provide for a seriously ill spouse.
Krogstad leaves, but Torvald, who had seen him, asks Nora if Krogstad tried to get her to help save his job. Nora asks about Krogstad's indiscretion, and Torvald tells her that he committed forgery, then escaped prosecution by playing a "cunning trick."
Torvald would have trusted Krogstad had he admitted his guilt, but by continuing to feign innocence, Krogstad "has lost all moral character." Torvald believes that a parent who "lives a lie" poisons his children and causes them to become criminals as well. This distresses Nora greatly.
When Krogstad does lose his job, he arrives to tell Nora that while he no longer cares about the loan he made her, he intends to use the forged bond to blackmail Torvald into not only retaining his position but giving him a promotion as well. When Nora tells Christine of this, Christine reveals that she and Krogstad were in love once, and she'll talk to him.
Christine tells Krogstad that she always loved him and was forced to marry her husband out of financial desperation. She blames herself for Krogstad's disgrace. Moved, Krogstad abandons his blackmail plan, but Christine believes that Torvald should know the truth, for the sake of his and Nora's marriage.
When Torvald learns the truth about Krogstad's loan to Nora, he explodes. He berates Nora, denouncing her as a dishonest and immoral woman and an unfit mother. He declares that their marriage is over, and will only be preserved for the sake of appearance.
When Krogstad tells him that he has no intention of blackmailing him, Torvald burns the incriminating evidence and takes back his harsh words to Nora. But instead of recognizing the agonizing choice Nora made for the sake of his health, he attributes her actions to her foolishness, which is one of her most endearing feminine traits.
Nora finally realizes that the strong and gallant man she thought she'd married is a weak-willed, hypocritical, self-absorbed narcissist whose love for her was really love for himself for being a wonderful husband.
The play ends with Nora declaring that her sham of a marriage is over. She's leaving Torvald and her children and will live alone while she tries to find out who she is and decide what to do with her life. All her life, she's been treated like a doll - a plaything - first by her father, then by her husband, and she's not going to take it anymore.
Torvald insists that Nora do her duties as wife and mother, but Nora says that her first duty is to herself. She reveals that she had planned to kill herself to save Torvald's reputation because she thought that he would sacrifice his reputation to save hers.
Now she knows that would have been a pointless act, as Torvald only cares about himself. Before the curtain falls, Nora lets herself out of the house, leaving behind her wedding ring and keys. Her narcissistic husband is left behind as well, in a state of confusion.
A Doll's House was received with a mixture of high praise and loud cries of outrage. Ibsen's fellow playwright, George Bernard Shaw, found the play exhilarating. Most of Ibsen's fellow Scandinavians loved it; at the time the play premiered in Copenhagen, sales of printed copies were record breaking. But some critics saw in the play a direct assault on the sanctity of marriage.
For the play's debut in Germany, Ibsen was forced to write an alternate ending. The lead actress refused to play Nora as she was written, and producers demanded that the ending be changed as well, to make the play more palatable to conservative German audiences.
So, in that production, instead of leaving her husband, Nora decides to stay with Torvald for the sake of their children. Ibsen later condemned the alternate ending as a disgrace to the original play, calling it a "barbaric outrage."
A Doll's House would later be adapted for the radio, screen, and television. It is rightfully considered to be one of the greatest plays ever written.
Quote Of The Day
"The majority is never right. Never, I tell you! That's one of these lies in society that no free and intelligent man can help rebelling against. Who are the people that make up the biggest proportion of the population -- the intelligent ones or the fools? I think we can agree it's the fools, no matter where you go in this world, it's the fools that form the overwhelming majority." - Henrik Ibsen
Today's video features a clip from a rare 1959 live TV production of A Doll's House, featuring Julie Harris and Christopher Plummer as Nora and Torvald. Enjoy! Note: You'll have to click on Watch On YouTube to see it.