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A Doll's House | Study Guide

Henrik Ibsen

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Henrik Ibsen | Biography


Henrik Ibsen, born in Skien, Norway, on March 20, 1828, is known as the father of modern drama, and he devoted his life to inspiring individualism in society through his plays. Both loved and loathed by critics and audiences of his time, Ibsen challenged the hypocrisies of the late Victorian era and brought in a new era in dramatic storytelling. The realism of his plays overturned traditional plot structures and incorporated natural speech.

A Doll's House was written and produced in 1879, first in Copenhagen, next in Stockholm, and then in Christiania (now Oslo) when Ibsen was in his 50s. The play was the second of twelve thematically connected dramas known as The Ibsen Cycle, and Ibsen intended them to be read as well as produced. In his mid-career, when he was most successful, Ibsen's plays went directly to bookshops and theaters. When he lived in Italy and Germany, dockworkers would wait for his next play to arrive in Copenhagen by ship. A Doll's House had to be reprinted twice within three months of publication and was translated into German, Finnish, English, Polish, Russian, and Italian. The play caused a sensation, bringing Ibsen fame across Europe and America for the first time.

The first English performance of A Doll's House took place in London, in March of 1884. Although Torvald Helmer's character was portrayed as an ideal husband and hero, the play was called Breaking a Butterfly. The first American production, titled The Child Wife, took place in Milwaukee in 1882. Ibsen was forced to rewrite the ending of A Doll's House for the first German production (1880) because the actress playing Nora, Hedwig Niemann-Raabe, refused to portray a woman who left her husband. The play was also produced extensively in Germany with Ibsen's original ending, where it was more successful than it had been in Norway.

Before A Doll's House became a rallying cry for the feminist movement and an inspiration to up-and-coming writers, Ibsen's critics called him "insane," "subversive," and "immoral," railing against him as though he were trying to destroy the very roots of society. Norwegians became obsessed with the play, discussing it both publicly and privately. While attacking social norms, A Doll's House accurately reflected the society that made up its audience. It outraged conservatives but inspired just as many artists and forward thinkers with its new techniques and assertions.

Ibsen often commented about how the source of his ideas and characters derived from experiences he lived through emotionally; however, he constructed fictional situations to explore these emotions. The example of Nora's papa from A Doll's House aligns with Ibsen's real-life family tragedy. Ibsen's father, Knud Ibsen, squandered all the wealth, properties, and businesses he had obtained through marrying his wife, Marichen Altenburg, when he took control of the inheritance after her father died. Ibsen was seven years old at the time, aware enough of being reduced to poverty and his family's suffering public humiliation to scar him for life. At age 15, without enough money for further education, Ibsen had to move to Grimstad and work as an apothecary's assistant, struggling to study for university entrance exams among acquaintances he referred to as "those empty heads with full pockets." Although he did make a few lifelong friends from that painful period of his life, having been pushed out of society helped cultivate Ibsen's skepticism, dislike of clubs and collectives, and tendencies toward a loner position. The result is manifest in his laser focus on the individual who, to him, only found "salvation ... in being true to himself," which is epitomized in A Doll's House through the character of Nora.

Today, Ibsen is not only a national hero in Norway, he is also one of the most produced playwrights in the world, second only to Shakespeare. A Doll's House is frequently performed in the United States and England, trailing only behind Ibsen's Ghosts, which is a rebuttal to critics of A Doll's House. The Ibsen Society of America holds conferences to continue and celebrate the playwright's legacy, and numerous theatrical awards in Ibsen's honor are given yearly to aspiring playwrights who show talent, originality, and concern for gender equality and human rights.

Ibsen died on May 23, 1906.

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