Contemporary Reviews and Critical Writings: a doll’s House Contemporary reviews

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Contemporary Reviews and Critical Writings:

A Doll’s House

Contemporary reviews

Many Europeans found the ending scandalous and inconceivable. One notice from June 1889 in the Daily News read, “…but stranger still is the change that comes over her character and her conduct in the end in deserting her home, her husband, and above all her children, simply because she finds that her husband is angry with her, and inclined to take a selfish view of the dilemma when the exposure comes.” (103, Henrik Ibsen: The Critical Heritage) This was a common critique of the play, as the audience felt that Nora’s decision to leave was ridiculous and only disproved Ibsen’s message, by showing how women are fickle and do things on a whim, rather than thinking things through like their male counterparts. They also saw Nora as a monster and unnatural woman who indulged in –god forbid– her self, rather than considering her family’s needs.

The critics also felt that this behavior set a dangerous example for women of the time by teaching that, “marriage must be wholly cancelled, and all the relations it has brought with it must be broken through, if ever the ground is to be cleared for anything better in the future…[and] every imperfect relation should be eradicated in order to make way for a better.” (112, Henrik Ibsen: The Critical Heritage) The theatrical reviews posed the question whether Ibsen was trying to tell their wives that they could do better by leaving everything they know, in search of some truth that they have been hidden from. People viewed his play to be a direct attack on the custom of marriage and family life.

The Earl of Jersey, Governor of Australia and his wife refused to see A Doll’s House; she wrote a letter stating, “she had heard too much about Ibsen’s play to wish to see one of it, and that she did not think that any actress who would appear in them could be considered a lady.” —1880

For Eleanor Marx, a feminist socialist who translated A Doll’s House in 1886, Nora’s predicament was a metaphor for the exploitation and oppression of labour where “women are the creatures of an organized tyranny of men, as the workers are the creatures of an organized tyranny of idlers”. —1886
Thanks to A Doll’s House, “marriage was revealed as being a far from divine institution, people stopped regarding it as an automatic provider of absolute bliss, and divorce between incompatible parties came at last to be accepted s conceivably justifiable.”— August Strindberg (playwright), 1884
“It is long since any new play brought so much that is original to the stage, but it is beyond memory since a play so simple in its action and so every day in its dress made such an impression of artistic mastery . . . Not a single declamatory phrase, no high dramatics, no drop of blood, not even a tear; never for a moment was the dagger of tragedy raised . . . every needless line is cut, every exchange carries the action a step forward, there is not a superfluous effect in the whole play . . . the mere fact that the author succeeded with the help of only those five characters in keeping our interest sustained through a whole evening is sufficient proof of Ibsen’s mastery”. — Eric Bogh (Danish playwright) 1879
I have never written any play to further a social purpose. I have been more of a poet and less of a social philosopher than most people seem inclined to believe”— Ibsen, in a speech to the Norwegian Association for Women’s Rights, 1898
Later criticisms

Instead of a drama of action or incident or character [Ibsen] offers us a theatre of monstrous epiphany, a perception of some illuminating truth arising out of dialectical conflict. —James Joyce, 1900

“A room to [Ibsen] is a room, a writing table a writing table, and a wastepaper basket a wastepaper basket. At the same time, the paraphernalia of reality have at certain times to become the veil through which we see infinity.”— Virginia Woolf, The Death of the Moth, 1942
“[A Doll’s House does not go deeper than the usual mechanism of intrigue; it does not undercut the assumptions of romantic drama, with its mechanical versions of experience; it merely provides a reversal within the romantic framework; it is simply anti-romantic”— Raymond Williams, Drama from Ibsen to Brecht, 1952
The theme of A Doll’s House was the need of every individual to find out the kind of person he or she really is, and to strive to become that person. He knew what Freud and Jung were later to assert, that liberation can only come from within. ‘What is really wanted’, he declared, ‘is a revolution of the spirit of man’” — Michael Meyer, 1965
“Nora confronted every convention and the chivalrous masculine prejudice that caged her within a child’s toy structure, hoping to ensure that she would remain a housepet and infant there forever.” — Kate Millett, Sexual Politics, 1971,

On the role of women in literature

“But for women, . . . these difficulties were infinitely more formidable. In the first place, to have a room of her own, let alone a quiet room or a sound-proof room, was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble, even up to the beginning of the nineteenth century. Since her pin money, which depended on the goodwill of her father, was only enough to keep her clothed, she was debarred from such alleviations as came even to Keats or Tennyson or Carlyle, all poor men, from a walking tour, a little journey to France, from the separate lodging which, even if it were miserable enough, sheltered them from the claims and tyrannies of their families. Such material difficulties were formidable; but much worse were the immaterial. The indifference of the world which Keats and Flaubert and other men of genius have found so hard to bear was in her case not indifference but hostility. .”— Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 1928

.” . . women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time — Clytemnestra, Antigone, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Phedre, Cressida, Rosalind, Desdemona, the Duchess of Malfi, among the dramatists; then among the prose writers: Millamant, Clarissa, Becky Sharp, Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Madame de Guermantes — the names flock to mind, nor do they recall women ‘lacking in personality and character.’ Indeed, if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some think even greater.5 But this is woman in fiction. In fact, as Professor Trevelyan points out, she was locked up, beaten and flung about the room.
“A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband. ”— Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 1928
I”t remains a strange and almost inexplicable fact that in Athena’s city, where women were kept in almost Oriental suppression as odalisques or drudges, the stage should yet have produced figures like Clytemnestra and Cassandra Atossa and Antigone, Phedre and Medea, and all the other heroines who dominate play after play of the “misogynist” Euripides. But the paradox of this world where in real life a respectable woman could hardly show her face alone in the street, and yet on the stage woman equals or surpasses man, has never been satisfactorily explained. In modern tragedy the same predominance exists. At all events, a very cursory survey of Shakespeare’s work (similarly with Webster, though not with Marlowe or Jonson) suffices to reveal how this dominance, this initiative of women, persists from Rosalind to Lady Macbeth. So too in Racine; six of his tragedies bear their heroines’ names; and what male characters of his shall we set against Hermione and Andromaque, Berenice and Roxane, Phedre and Athalie? So again with Ibsen; what men shall we match with Solveig and Nora, Heda and Hilda Wangel and Rebecca West?” — F. L. Lucas, Tragedy, pp. 114-15.

The Alternative ending

Frau Hedwig Niemann-Raabe, who was to play Nora in the Copenhagen premiere of the play, refused to perform the final scene, saying: “I would never leave my children!”. Ibsen was outraged, but was forced to write a “happy” ending in which Nora does not leave the house, but is forced by Helmer to the doorway of the children’s bedroom; a few lines are exchanged, Nora sinks down by the floor and the curtain falls. This ending was never a success and even Frau Niemann-Raabe was forced to return to the original text.

Reviews of recent productions

The Guardian

The Express

The Financial Times

New York Times Review of a 1997 performance
Study Guides

A Doll’s House, York Notes Advanced (ISBN 1405896159) ESSENTIAL

The Cambridge Guide to Ibsen (ed. James McFarlane, Cambridge, ISBN: 052142321X)

The Art of Dramatic Writing (Lajos Egri, Touchstone, ISBN 0671213326)


Overview of Ibsen

Excellent website about Ibsen

Ibsen society

Married Women’s Property Act
Literary context

An overview of the development of 19th century drama

Ibsen and Realism/Naturalism article
Women in A Doll’s House

Extra stuff

A comic parody of the ending of A Doll’s House, written in 1891

A modern take on A Doll’s House by director Carrie Cracknell

UCL Academy Eng Dept/A2 Level/ Critical writings and reviews of A Doll’s House/TCT

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