A Modern Marriage: Ibsen & A Doll's House  in context

Economic exile

Born in 1828, Henrik Ibsen’s early life and career were marked by financial struggle. His father was a merchant, but the family went bankrupt when Henrik was seven years old and was forced to move to a coastal port city. Even in financial difficulty, the Ibsens kept servants and maintained a certain level of affluence or at least the public image of it. “The Ibsens had been rich; then they became not poor, but much less wealthy; and yet they were keen to keep up appearances,” Erica Wagner writes for The New Statesman, tying Ibsen’s childhood to one of the core themes of his later career. “This conflict between reality and appearance is what still draws audiences to Ibsen's work.”

Ibsen’s path to playwriting took a circuitous route. He became an apothecary’s apprentice at the age of 15, and he fathered a child with the maid at the shop at the age of 18. Though they did not marry, he paid child support for 15 years. Some biographies of Ibsen skip over the chapter in his young life as incidental, but others see it as a formative chapter in Ibsen’s development. As scholar Toril Moi writes, “For a young penniless woman, the birth of an illegitimate child would have meant the end of any hopes of an education, let alone of any chance to write. For a young man with no money, it meant a burdensome struggle to pay child support for a son he probably never met.” In her book Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism, Moi quotes Ibsen’s letter to the judge: “I am now in my twentieth year; I own absolutely nothing, except some shabby clothes, shoes, and linen, and will shortly leave the Grimstad pharmacy where I have lived as an apprentice, that is to say without any other pay than my food.” Ibsen moved to Christiania (now Oslo), and though he planned to go into medicine, he failed critical exams. He decided to pursue writing.

The first decade of his writing career is largely forgotten. At the age of 20, Ibsen published his first play Catalina under a pseudonym, though it was never performed. His second play The Burial Mound was produced at the Christiania Theatre. Ibsen was only 23 when he was invited to serve as resident playwright at the nationalist Norwegian Theatre in Bergen, a position he held from 1851 to 1857. During this period, he wrote a number of plays, primarily verse dramas that explore Norwegian history or myth — in addition to directing, designing, and managing the operations of the theatre. From 1858 to 1862, he led the Norwegian Theatre in Christiania (Oslo) until the theatre went bankrupt. Through this period he is sued for his debts several times, and barely escaped debtors' prison. To pay for his expenses, he pieced together a series of grants; in 1864, on receipt of a grant to write abroad, he moved to Rome and did not return to Norway for ten years. All the belongings he left in Norway were sold at auction.

Living abroad changed Ibsen. (“Life out here in Europe is after all freer and more refreshing, and larger,” he wrote in a letter.) His verse play Brand — his first play to establish his core theme of the false morality of modern society — led to him being awarded an annual grant from the Norwegian government, which finally stabilized his economic status. He was able to devote himself to writing. He soon wrote Peer Gynt, another verse play (the first play of Ibsen’s that is still widely performed today).

The year 1877 marked a turning point when Ibsen firmly abandoned verse for prose. Scholar and translator Eric Bentley writes, “It isn’t that this prose can do more than that verse, but that the prose is part of a complex (character, milieu, tone) that constitutes a far more expressive form of psychological theatre. Verse overstates, prose understates. […] People in Brand say the maximum, in Ghosts or The Wild Duck the minimum. Sentences are short. They may even be broken off. Silences are awesome and full of juice.” After transitioning to prose, Ibsen’s first play was The Pillars of Society, examining the hypocrisy of business. The second play he wrote in this period was A Doll’s House.

Worldwide sensation

Ibsen borrowed the broad outlines of the story for A Doll’s House from a woman he knew, Laura Kieler (Kieler wrote a novel that was a sequel to his play Brand, and she asked him for an endorsement to help get it published; Ibsen refused). In 1876, Kieler forged her husband’s signature to borrow money; her husband ultimately committed her to a sanitarium for a time.

In 1879, living in Rome, Ibsen wrote an outline that he titled “Notes for a Modern Tragedy.” It begins: “There are two kinds of moral laws, two kinds of conscience, one for men and one, quite different, for women. They don’t understand each other; but in practical life, woman is judged by masculine law, as though she weren't a woman but a man.” (Some critics see the play he wrote as an extension of this initial impulse; contemporary scholar Sandra Saari advances the theory that Ibsen discarded this notion and “embraced an entirely different fundamental premise […] in order to demonstrate the radical transformation of Nora from female to human being.”)

Ibsen wrote the play in just a few months, and productions quickly followed in Denmark, Germany, and Norway. Contemporary Halvdan Koht wrote: “A Doll’s House exploded like a bomb into contemporary life. The 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.”

The play shocked conventional morality of the time, and therefore held an irresistible attraction for theatregoers to talk about it. “Such furious discussion did Nora rouse when the play came out that many a social invitation given in Stockholm during that winter bore the words ‘You are requested not to mention Ibsen’s Doll’s House,’” wrote Henrietta Frances Lord, a translator living in Stockholm at the time.

Though his following play Ghosts was banned in some countries for its scandalous plot, no future play of Ibsen’s was to catch the cultural and political zeitgeist to the extent that A Doll’s House did. Quickly and enduringly the play was championed by members of the women’s movement, even without Ibsen’s encouragement. “[I] must disclaim the honor of having consciously worked for the women’s rights movement,” Ibsen said in a 1898 speech. “I am not even quite clear as to just what this women’s rights movement really is. To me it has seemed a problem of humanity in general.”

Though he was briefly an anarchist, Ibsen rarely participated in politics and distrusted politicians. For some, that only burnished his reputation. In 1914, anarchist feminist Emma Goldman wrote, “Uncompromising demolisher of all false idols and dynamiter of all social shams and hypocrisy, Ibsen consistently strove to uproot every stone of our social structure."

Ibsen in translation

At the time of Ibsen’s death, A Doll’s House was available in ten languages. Today, it is published in 78. The feat is remarkable for a playwright who wrote in a relatively obscure language. Only 1.4 million people could read Norwegian when Ibsen began writing. William Archer, the first English translator of Ibsen, wrote, “In respect of language, Ibsen stands at a unique disadvantage. Never before has a poet of worldwide fame appealed to his worldwide audience so exclusively in translations.”

Scholars do not even generally agree on how the title of A Doll’s House should be handled. The original title Et Dukkehjem does not use the possessive, so some translators choose A Doll House. But it is not the same word that would have been used in Scandinavia for a literal doll’s house (dukkehus). Instead of hus, Ibsen chose hjem, the Norwegian word for “home.” Every word could have this level of debate over choice and nuance.

The adaptation for the Huntington production is by British feminist playwright Bryony Lavery, one of the few translations by a woman. Lavery chose to leave the “clockwork” plot of the original play largely untouched. “I try to remember that I am trying to serve another writer to have their work presented in another language,” says Lavery in an interview with the Manchester Library Theatre in England. “So the task is simply to find the shortest path through the forest. The big reminder I had in my head was to not think of it as Victorian, but to obey the internal rules of the play’s culture.”

Lavery’s main focus instead was on maintaining the play’s tension for a modern ear. “The main license I took was deciding that, as it was a domestic drama, people who live together and know each other rather well, often talk over one another,” says Lavery. “I simply decided where the next speech should cut in to the former, which I think gives the scenes a lack of formality and intensity of repressed frustration that helps the airless landscape of the play.”

The Lavery translation has never had a professional production in America; it has been in wide use in the United Kingdom, including a revival for the Royal Exchange in 2014, where critics celebrated its grasp on the heart of the play. As Dominic Cavendish writes for The London Telegraph, “Lavery’s subtly modern version [understands,] crucially, that it’s what’s not being said between husband and wife that counts most.”


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