December 21: On this day in 1879 Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House opened in Copenhagen. This is the first of the half-dozen plays regarded as Ibsen’s masterpieces, these produced to great controversy throughout the next decade. The Doll’s House premiere came as the published play was breaking sales records in Scandinavia, no doubt spurred on by those critics who compared it to the dropping of “a bomb into contemporary life,” and “a death sentence on accepted social ethics.” Theatrically, the bomb was signaled by Nora’s exit from her house and gender-roles at the end of Act V – this moment described as a “door slam heard ’round the world”:
NORA. …I was your little skylark, your doll, which you would in future treat with doubly gentle care, because it was so brittle and fragile. (Getting up.) Torvald-it was then it dawned upon me that for eight years I had been living here with a strange man, and had borne him three children. Oh, I can’t bear to think of it! I could tear myself into little bits!
HELMER (sadly). I see, I see. An abyss has opened between us-there is no denying it. But, Nora, would it not be possible to fill it up?
NORA. As I am now, I am no wife for you.
HELMER. I have it in me to become a different man.
NORA. Perhaps-if your doll is taken away from you….
Those happy with the challenges Ibsen was making to conventional thinking and stagecraft applauded wildly – the list included Shaw and the Suffragettes in England, and a young James Joyce – while those who thought his plays “written by a vulgar and evil mind” joined the Anti-Ibsen League and lobbied to have him banned.
Rebecca West (Cicely Fairfield) was born on this day in 1892. Admiring Ibsen’s attempt to introduce “the dynamism of ideas” into modern drama, West took her pseudonym from a character in his Rosmersholm (1896). She seems to have regretted this, however:
But as I grew older I began to realize that Ibsen cried out for ideas for the same reason that men call out for water, because he had not got any. He was a moralist for an extremely simple sort, who had heard, but only as a child might hear the murmur of a shell, the voice of the philosophical ocean.
This comment comes in the Epilogue to Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), regarded as a classic of travel literature and indispensable reading for anyone who wishes to understand the history of the Balkan region.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.