Introduces Modern Realistic Drama Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With the controversial play A Doll’s House, which centered on the subjugation of a middle-class married woman, Henrik Ibsen introduced the language, characterization, and structure that came to be known as modern realistic drama. The popular theater would never again be devoted solely to verse dramas or overdone melodramas, and all serious dramatists would follow Ibsen’s innovations in exploring realistic character psychology.

Summary of Event

Before writing Et dukkehjem (1879; A Doll’s House, 1880), Henrik Ibsen had become famous for highly romantic verse dramas about Norwegian myth and history. Indeed, his countryfolk were so proud of him for aggrandizing their culture that, although he was living abroad, the Norwegian parliament voted him a lifetime annual allowance. Ibsen’s background was middle class, having been born into the family of a well-to-do Norwegian merchant. When he was a young boy, Ibsen’s father lost his business and the family fell into poverty. Despite the problems of a poverty-stricken youth, Ibsen managed to obtain a reasonable education, and through his writings he became for a time a theater manager in Christiana, Norway. Always driven to writing, his work in the theater led him to create highly successful poetic plays. Doll’s House, A (Ibsen)[Dolls House, A (Ibsen)] Theater;Doll’s House, A[Dolls House] Theater;Norwegian Ibsen, Henrik Norway;literature [kw]Doll’s House Introduces Modern Realistic Drama, A (1879) [kw]House Introduces Modern Realistic Drama, A Doll’s (1879) [kw]Introduces Modern Realistic Drama, A Doll’s House (1879) [kw]Modern Realistic Drama, A Doll’s House Introduces (1879) [kw]Realistic Drama, A Doll’s House Introduces Modern (1879) [kw]Drama, A Doll’s House Introduces Modern Realistic (1879) Doll’s House, A (Ibsen)[Dolls House, A (Ibsen)] Theater;Doll’s House, A[Dolls House] Theater;Norwegian Ibsen, Henrik Norway;literature [g]Norway;1879: A Doll’s House Introduces Modern Realistic Drama[5035] [g]Scandinavia;1879: A Doll’s House Introduces Modern Realistic Drama[5035] [c]Literature;1879: A Doll’s House Introduces Modern Realistic Drama[5035] [c]Theater;1879: A Doll’s House Introduces Modern Realistic Drama[5035] [c]Women’s issues;1879: A Doll’s House Introduces Modern Realistic Drama[5035] [c]Social issues and reform;1879: A Doll’s House Introduces Modern Realistic Drama[5035]

In 1869, however, Ibsen, always a revolutionary at heart, abandoned verse for prose, and with De unges forbund (1869; The League of Youth, 1890), a satire on supposed liberals, he signaled a turn in the direction of social problems. There followed in 1877 a savage attack on the hypocrisy of the merchant class in Samfundets støtter (The Pillars of Society, 1880), which caused an uproar upon its production in Norway. Two years later the uproar would be even greater with the production in 1879 of his groundbreaking realistic drama, A Doll’s House. What exactly prompted Ibsen to take up the cause of middle class women’s rights is difficult to say, but it is known that he had read and been impressed with John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women (1869), in which women’s subjugation and freedom are strongly argued.

To understand the extent of Ibsen’s innovation in The Doll’s House one should consider also the nature of popular theater during the late nineteenth century. Audiences had enjoyed Romantic verse drama, as well as William Shakespeare’s Shakespeare, William [p]Shakespeare, William;in nineteenth century theater[Nineteenth century theater] works, but the stage in Norway had been virtually dominated by the popular melodrama. In melodrama during that time, the emphasis had been on highly contrived incidents and clearly defined and conventional emotions. Villains were always completely wicked, and women were divided into two categories: the simple and innocent girls and wives and the fallen and conniving courtesans. Men were either brave and strong or evil and scheming. The dialogue, even if it were in prose, tended to be overblown and rhetorical. A Doll’s House soon appeared and caused a revolution in the theater world.

Set in a staid middle-class home headed by a dominant and domineering husband who is a successful banker, A Doll’s House is centered on the life of Nora Helmer, a quiet and dutiful housewife and mother. Nora’s husband, Torvald, regards her in a manner typical of the society of the day: as a grown child who is to be treated as such by her husband. Nora’s home is a “doll’s house,” where she plays at being a mother and wife. In another innovation that comes out of the play, Ibsen presents this picture in the ordinary prose dialogue of everyday life.

Change appears in the Helmers’ household, as Nora has a secret that her husband is about to discover. As the story goes, several years earlier, when Torvald had been very ill, Nora had to forge her father’s name on a loan application to get enough funds to aid her husband medically. That secret ends up being revealed by the clerk who witnessed the forgery. Torvald discovers the secret and berates his wife unmercifully, as if she were a rebellious teenager, furious with her that she dared, as a “mere” woman, to make decisions about money without consulting him. The clerk then sends a letter saying he regrets having told the secret and promises not to discuss the matter further. Torvald, now relieved, apologizes to Nora for being so harsh. Nora, however, has had enough of being treated as a lesser human being. She leaves Torvald and the children, slams the door on her doll’s house, and sets out to become the full human being she is.

In more modern times, Nora’s decision to leave her children and husband would have been understood as, at minimum, psychologically Psychology;in literature[Literature] sound. The full psychological complexity of Nora’s situation is fully presented by Ibsen. Nora was acting in the best interests of her husband when she forged her father’s name for the loan to help her husband. Torvald was too sick to be consulted, and Nora’s father was also incapacitated. Nora loved her husband, and she was equally devoted to her children. Throughout the play, however, Nora is considered an immature girl by her husband. One climactic scene shows her attempt to prevent her husband from reading the clerk’s letter about the loan by dancing the tarantella, a dance considered a bit risqué for the period. She is stopped in her dance and berated by her husband for being immature and not showing restraint and dignity in his presence.

Nora leaves her “doll’s house,” but Ibsen does not allow for an easy solution to Nora’s newfound problem. Nora declares her independence to herself and the world, but she has no way of making a living for herself. Furthermore, Victorian society would not have allowed that she ever again see her children. Her life would prove to be extremely difficult, and Ibsen ends the play on that note. The outcry that came with the play’s performance when it opened in Norway is evidence of how difficult Nora’s life would be in such a world. Indeed, under extreme pressure from critics, Ibsen had to agree to a different ending to the play, in which Nora repented her decision to leave. Nevertheless, A Doll’s House started a literary revolution, and the play’s fame, along with that of the playwright, spread across Europe and the United States, as audiences and dramatists embraced the new realistic prose drama.


During the late nineteenth century the Western world had become dominated by the middle class, and the middle class was built upon the institution of marriage. Moreover, marriage was seen as union between a significant male, who was head of the household, and a less significant female. The role of the husband was to earn a living for the couple and their children and to take part in the organization and government of his house and of society as a whole. The role of the female was to be a good mother and wife and to make a home that was pleasant for and supportive of her husband. For a woman, always, to violate this tradition was to call into question the whole social order. This ideal was without question psychologically Psychology;in literature[Literature] unsound, and Ibsen revealed its indignities in a single play.

It has been said that when Nora closed the door on the doll’s house she in turn opened the door for modern realistic drama. Ibsen quickly followed with other prose dramas exploring the psychology of the middle-class woman. Most notable are his works Gengangere (pb. 1881, pr. 1882; Ghosts, 1885) and Hedda Gabler (pb. 1890, pr. 1891; English translation, 1891). In doing so he led the way for major realistic playwrights such as George Bernard Shaw Shaw, George Bernard to create a continuing tradition of drama.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clurman, Harold. Ibsen. New York: Macmillian, 1977. An excellent overall study by an important mid-twentieth century critic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McFarland, James, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. The most complete general work on Ibsen still available.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shaw, George Bernard. The Quintessence of Ibsenism. London: Walter Scott, 1891. Despite its age, this book by the great English playwright is an excellent introduction to the realistic dramas of Ibsen. It clearly demonstrates the powerful immediate impact that Ibsen’s new psychological realism had on modern drama.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Templeton, Joan. Ibsen’s Women. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. The background and psychology of Nora and the other women in Ibsen’s works are thoroughly explored and explicated.

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