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Illustreret Tidende (C. Thrane)

Premiere of A Dollís House at The Royal Theatre, reviewed by C. Thrane in Illustreret Tidende (Illustrated News), Copenhagen 28 December 1879 (No. 1057, 21st Volume, pp. 145-148).
The Royal Theatre.
"A Dollís House", Play in 3 Acts by Henrik Ibsen.

Henrik Ibsenís new play "A Dollís House" is a Christmas present of an usual kind, not suitable, however, to be enjoyed fleetingly and then put aside, but rich in content, and inviting reflection. The play is both entertaining and suspenseful and interesting, but these descriptions badly suit a work, whose ethical gravity is so very prominent. The playwright stands like a clergyman and holds the mirror up to his congregation, only a little worried that one should find him much too strict and unbending. The theatre must, when "A Dollís House" is performed, make its "not for pleasure alone" twice as big.

In pure dramatic terms, the play is already a masterpiece. The focus of the action is accomplished to perfection; nothing is superfluous; every supporting role, every scene and every line serve to illuminate the main action, the relationship between the lawyer Helmer and his wife Nora. We are invited into their "dollís home" and become witnesses to what seems to be a rare matrimonial happiness. Helmer wishes nothing more than that Nora shall be happy and content; he makes allowances for her childish little errors, he gives in, if at all possible, to her wishes and has only endearing terms and the friendliest words for her. And Nora in her turn loves him deeply. She is a childish creature, of sanguine temperament, and reminds us in some respects of Charles Dickensí "child-wife" Dora. But Helmer is no David Copperfield. He is surprised when his lark "speaks like a human being", but he does not put a price on it; he is prone to forgiving the extravagant "playbird" her sins, because they almost set her childishness in relief, and he wants to have her exactly as she is, dancing for him, dressing up, declaiming, because that is how she shows herself in all the grace of her youth and her naivety. That the couple have had three children, does not make the least difference; Helmer is an intelligent, clever businessman, but has, side by side with his practical talents, his own taste for the beautiful and the artistically balanced; this taste must at any cost be satisfied in the home, and Nora, whose whole personality is extremely suited to giving it nourishment, fulfils it in every way. This is how their lives are lived as a lovely game in this dollís home. Yet the strong sunlight does not lack the necessary shadow. Ghostlike, an intimate friend of both husband and wife wanders around, the half-dead Doctor Rank, who mocks life and the existence he knows he shall soon leave. Helmer perceives of this eerie figure almost aesthetically, as "the shadowy background for our sunlit happiness"; Nora, whom Rank loves, is very fond of him, as she often feels somewhat freer in conversation with him than with Helmer, who of course has to have everything his way. But neither Helmer nor Nora has any idea that Rank, who soon, as a farewell to their home, leaves his visiting card as a death sign, is the symbol that the dollís home itself contains the germ of its own demise. Nora is burdened by a secret. In the early days of her marriage Helmer became dangerously ill and nothing could cure him but a sojourn in the Mediterranean; a journey they could not afford; but Nora, who otherwise was a frivolous child, showed manly energy when it came to the life of her loved one, and executed an action, the only thing she, in her heart, is proud of, because it was an expression of the sacrifice of love: she took up a loan by writing a certificate of debt in her fatherís name ó and her father had at the time already been dead for a few days. Nora had no concept of having committed an act that could be branded a crime; she has not been able to speak openly to her husband about taking up the loan, as she did not dare to reveal his true condition to him, and she was even less willing to write how things were to her absent father, who was on his deathbed, in fear of hastening his death; she knew that her father would give his consent, had he been asked, there was no time to lose ó she acted and believed that she acted correctly, and her instinct tells her constantly that the laws could not be brought to bear on it. In this she was not wrong either ó exactly because of the presumed consent ó as long as the dubious circumstance did not step in to complicate it, that her fatherís death had happened before she wrote it; however, this was a point that it was perfect to exploit for those who wanted to hurt and worry her, and as it happens, the lender, the broken solicitor Mr. Krogstad, suddenly has a reason to bring the case to the doll home. Nora has earlier, when she proudly looked upon her action as the most beautiful and best, refused to confess the secret to Helmer: "Thorvald, with his male pride ó how awkward and humiliating it would be for him to know that he owed anything to me. It would upset the whole balance of the relationship between us, our lovely, happy home would no longer be what it now is." In other words, she could not bear to show her true self; she had an instinctive feeling that it was as a doll that she was loved, and this happiness of love she was reluctant to disturb. And now Krogstad turns up and tells her that her action is a crime, and threatens to report it to Helmer. The moment seems to have arrived when she can no longer hesitate to reveal everything to her husband, but she finds it even more impossible than before. While on the one hand the usual lack of exchange of thoughts when it comes to deeper concerns restrains her, on the other, she regards with ideal sanguinity that if Helmer knew about the matter that threatens disgrace and misfortune, he will show his love from its noblest side; he will stand up as the knight of her honour, he will take the shame upon himself ó the "wonderful" thing will happen, that he will love and admire the woman in her; but this sacrifice must not take place, she shall die without experiencing the "wonderful" thing in order to save her husbandís happiness and honour. One rarely gets to see such tragically devastating scenes as those that develop, while Nora still for a while tries to prevent that Krogstadís fatal letter falls into Helmerís hands. That the not quite faultless, but in her heart innocent and pure woman, in the middle of her home and at her husbandís side, stands so alone and abandoned in all her anguish, is an unusually stirring sight; she feels that she has entered circumstances she cannot come to grips with and understand; Krogstad, who himself is guilty of falsehood, speaks to her in a confidential conversation, as when one criminal gives advice to another, and the unsuspecting Helmer lets her dance the tarantella for him ó as a rehearsal for the next eveningís costume ball ó and fails to understand, when she gives expression to her despair and angst in the dance itself, that she is suffering spiritually and needs his help: "Youíve forgotten everything Iíve taught you," he says; "I see you need more guidance."

So far we have, without difficulty, followed the authorís portrayal. It is so natural and often so ordinary that we give ourselves up to it and believe we see an image of something that often takes place. This pleasant home, these turtle doves, this nice aesthetic relationship, are altogether things we know well; we acknowledge the author for his insights into their souls, and have a feeling that poor Nora suffers too much; but everything could still turn out well. Many authors would not have hesitated to resort to some turnaround, whereby the characters in question found happiness after enduring sufferings, before the curtain came down for the last time. At least that is what often happened in the old days, when the authors preferred harmony to the strictest psychological consequence. But our author spares his audience as little as he does his characters; it is for the now approaching catastrophe that he has written the whole play; in that lies the lesson, he wants to preach, and it has to be admitted, that even if there is something about the ending, which opposes oneís immediate emotion, even if what happens causes a swarm of doubts and objections, he has twisted the threads in such a way that one bows to them almost against oneís wishes.

When Helmer learns what has happened from Krogstadís letter, he passes the test he is subjected to in the worst way possible. His egotism breaks out in all its force, and far from thinking about his wifeís love or sacrificing himself in the name of her honour, he showers her with reproaches, and his only thought is to cover up everything for the eyes of the world. Still, this is not the worst. Because of a change in his own circumstances, Krogstad gives up all plans of exploiting the situation and offers Helmer the debt certificate on which Nora has signed her fatherís name. In his joy, he forgets everything Nora has done and suffered for his sake, which he earlier despaired about. He is merciful and magnanimous: "Do you think you are less dear to me because you donít have the judgement to act on your own? I wouldnít be a real man if your feminine helplessness didnít make you twice as attractive in my eyes. I have forgiven you, Nora; I swear to you, I have forgiven you." To him, Nora is still the one who visits the cake shop or eats macaroons against his express wish, yes, he feels, with the same pleasure as before, that offering his forgiveness gives him the right to start the game with his lovely doll all over again. "Donít worry about anything, Nora; just open your heart to me, and I shall be your will and your conscience." With this portrayal, the author passes a hard judgment on men, and the question begs asking, if Helmer really has shown any signs in the preceding action that he would reveal such moral turpitude in this the most serious of moments. His is not a deep nature, he is pretty egoistical, with a touch of sensuality, but his faults towards Nora are close to being of the negative kind, of not acting; he did not want to change what appealed to him so much, he did not want to interfere, where he saw no reason to; he seemed, rather, like quite a good and amiable man. The author, however, saw in the little testimonies what was to come out in the big one. Helmerís whole married life was a witness to the fact he has never loved his wife, but had just "been in love with her", and that he has never had the slightest idea about the moral meaning of marriage. You donít overcome such a big step in your maturing development in a moment, and instead of revealing a better nature, he merely reveal his own self and shows the abyss, which throughout the marriage, has stood between him and his wife. Nora understands this, Nora whose ideal longing for love receives its death blow, and the wonderful happens: having matured to a clear understanding during these days of misfortune, she sees in Helmer merely a stranger, and she sheds her love like the jewellery she has just taken off. The relationship has suddenly been turned around: she is the superior partner, she is the one who judges, and the sentence is this, that she cannot continue in a marriage, which is not a marriage, and she leaves her home, husband and children. It is this, which to weak, mortal peopleís feelings, is too harsh. So be it, that the dissonant ending is almost unbearable ó of course, the author refuses to worry about this aesthetic consideration ó but is not the dissonance itself a result of the fact that the action cannot immediately be justified? The ethic of marriage demands that both partners are equally respected as people, but what does it say about the offended wifeís duties, when it comes to her children? It might have been better for the play, if these children did not exist. Even as regards Helmer, the punishment seems far worse than the crime; and one must not forget that Nora, if we leave out the one misdeed, was a child-wife, who in many ways showed that she was not very open to seriousness and reason; her faults were many; she was used to making herself guilty of many small untruths, she taught the children falsehood, she was imprudent and wasteful; her ideal nature she kept hidden, almost wilfully. How can she then let her husband take the whole responsibility, she who herself probably helped him continue on the less than praiseworthy road? Was it not time for her, who had become so emancipated, to begin to teach him? She herself feels that, to learn to distinguish truth from untruth and right from wrong, she must leave this home which led her astray; but could she not also achieve that in her home, if duty told her to stay there. However, that is not her duty, according to the author, and she cannot stay with the stranger, who has deserved his punishment as the one, who in his capacity as a husband, has the greatest responsibility in the marriage and who so frivolously has played with his wifeís soul. If it is the authorís intention that a bridge never can be built over the abyss between the married couple, this is certainly a big question. The last words between them were about "the most wonderful", about the possibilities that "a life together could become a marriage" and Helmerís last exclamation "The most wonderful?!" happens as "a hope wells up in him"; however, at the same time there is the sound of a gate slamming shut downstairs ó it is Nora leaving the house, and the sound does not augur well. But this symbolism, which perhaps, however difficult it may be to believe, is a small concession to a theatrical effect, does not have the meaning which the author leads us towards in the middle of the play. We saw in Dr. Rank a warning of the imminent misfortune and thus we are also obliged to take note of lucky warnings: such a one is pretty obvious in what happens to Mrs. Linde and the solicitor, Krogstad, who loved each other in the days of their youth and parted from each other and after great trials find each other again and enter the union of marriage. It seems, as if Nora for the time being will begin a working life just like Mrs. Linde before her, and Nora will possibly, after a few years, like her friend, take the first step towards a reconciliation. In the theatre, we want everything to be this tangible and are thus very dissatisfied with being referred to the future; but during difficult circumstances one must be happy with a mere wink, and the author cannot be annoyed that the audience member grabs hold of this and becomes preoccupied with it; because although the moral cannot be preached pressingly enough, it is human to want an expiation of the crime, and that true happiness at one stage will make its triumphant march into this home which still had the advantage over so many other homes, that it was a home of beauty.

The play, which on the whole is performed well, has given occasion to two theatrical achievements of great interest and importance: Mr. E. Poulsenís Helmer and Mrs. Henningsí Nora. That Mr. Poulsen understands Ibsen as only the few do, he has often shown; Helmer is perhaps his most perfect role in the Ibsen repertoire. No nuance, no subtlety in the transitions escape his attention, and he executes his role with such a truthfulness that his portrayal utterly convinces. If we at certain times are close to thinking better of Helmer than he actually deserves, some of the reason lies in the fact that his whole personality carries the stamp of the sense of beauty that Helmer possesses, in too high a degree. The actor does not lead us astray, however, and stresses strongly enough the egotism and the sense of superiority in the middle of the childish games with Nora. The portrayal in the last act of the light champagne intoxication, the erotic atmosphere and all the changing emotions from rage to joy is especially masterly; the performances have a flight of their own, and the many details are brought together to a large and full picture. Mrs. Hennings, who in her capability as an ingťnue so often has had to play less important roles or characters, which distinguished themselves as not being characters, has as Nora been given one of the most arduous roles, one which has a very unusual character development. That this artist would be able to portray the role as the "child wife" with excellence, was of course a given; on the other hand she prepared a surprise by following through and portraying the whole character with the greatest assurance. Her nimbleness and grace, which are so necessary for this role, did not fail at any point, and she acted with such fine nuances and such a sensitivity that the whole growth from child wife to a particular personality had a natural quality. And thus the audience also showed their enjoyment at seeing her talents so excellently used on a large scale.

C.


(Translated to English by May-Brit Akerholt.)