Julie Holledge, Jonathan Bollen, Frode Helland, and Joanne Tompkins, A Global Doll’s House: Ibsen and Distant Visions

Julie Holledge, Jonathan Bollen, Frode Helland, and Joanne Tompkins, A Global Doll’s House: Ibsen and Distant Visions (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2016) 234 pp. £55.99 EPUB & PDF, £99.99 Hb. ISBN 978-1-137-43898-0

Nora’s slamming door has led scholars and historians constantly to rethink and interrogate Ibsen’s play and its thousands of production records. Ibsen’s Et dukkehjem (A Doll’s House) was first published in Copenhagen on 4th December 1879 and since its première in 1879, it has been performed in thirty-five languages in over eighty countries and adaptations have been shown in over three thousand venues (1). The authors of A Global Doll’s House: Ibsen and Distant Visions explore the significance of social, economic and political forces to answer a very simple question: what accounts for the global success of Henrik Ibsen’s most popular play? (1) This ‘simple question’ is explored through the complex angles of cultural transmission and adaptation. One aspect that accounts for the play’s success is its apparently liberal feminist message. Ibsen’s Doll, Nora, through her naïve persona demands gender equality, individual freedom, and self-realisation (9).

The authors argue for a different approach, one that promotes the idea that the play’s feminist trajectories cannot be the only justification for its global success in performance. Drawing on theatrical aesthetics and conceptual approaches including the dynamics of transmission, and cultural particularities, the authors offer instead an original reading of the play, demonstrating the play’s multifaceted global reach. Using the techniques of data analysis – quantitative metrics to understand the production history of the play – this volume investigates how these forces continue to shape the production of drama. This approach, aims to provide a complete explanation of the global reach of A Doll’s House. The book marks a significant contribution to both Digital Humanities and Ibsen studies, and additionally explores the impact of ‘distant visions’ on the performance history of the play. As a result, the authors present various readings of the mapping and charting of the performance database, which allows for a nuanced and complete explanation extending beyond the ‘conventional research’ (9). The writers draw upon the performance records of The Ibsen Stage Performance Database that includes over three thousand performance records (available at https://ibsenstage.hf.uio.no).

A Global Doll’s House is divided into two parts: Part I, ‘Cultural Transmission’, and Part II, ‘Adaptation at a Distance’. The performance of early Noras is the focus of the first part, along with the impact of external forces in shaping the play’s distribution. The writers also closely examine maps and graphs in order to establish and identify a pattern in the ‘global’ tours of the play. Part II considers the multiple forms of analysis, ideologies and relevant to adaptation studies. It provides a framework for reading the adaptations of A Doll’s House, positioning the play’s flexibility as a contributing factor in the global impact of the play (112-3).

At its core, the book is concerned with connections between culture, performance and the inner dynamics of transmission. It incorporates Franco Moretti’s reading of ‘distant vision’ and uses his graphs, maps, and network theory. In this respect, the writers produce a succinct and well-documented study that draws on extensive data sets and the play’s historiography. In particular, it is through this approach of looking at performance records from a distance, that the writers suggest we can closely ‘look at the work and lives of particular artists, commercial and government funding, specific performances, genres of adaptation, and multiple versions of a single scene to find the evidence that can help explain the global success of the play’ (6). The authors argue that scholars have often adopted a limited approach to understanding the global Doll’s House phenomenon, and thus there are three arguments predominantly used to justify the global success of the play: ‘the theatrical representation of a human being striving for individual freedom and self-realisation’; ‘the iconic status of the character of Nora as a representation of an emergent female subjectivity tied to modernity’; and ‘the development of theatrical modernism and aesthetics’ (9). Although important in understanding individual freedom and women’s rights, these ideas do not explain the theatrical dynamics and global success of the play. Instead, these main ideas draw on the popular readings of Nora’s success and Ibsen’s canonical position within the theatrical world.

In the chapter, ‘Mapping the Early Nora’, the authors offer a sustained reading of the play’s commercial history; it follows the journeys of the actresses who portrayed the character of Nora and their journeys to Asia, Australia and the Americas. A close reading of the biographies reveals the lives of eight early Noras where the interrelation between the artist’s lived experiences and Nora’s role was astonishingly similar and rather ‘entangled’ (30). Furthermore, the authors suggest that playing Ibsen’s heroine allowed them to subjugate social boundaries and transgress ‘social ostracism’: ‘by identifying with the fictional character of Nora, they could reimagine the incidents in their lives that had attracted criticism as fierce struggles for personal freedom (56-7).

The chapter, '‘‘Peddling” Et dukkehjem: The Role of the State’, focuses on the factors that contribute to the play’s dominant performance tradition, including, public broadcasters, government departments, and Norwegian theatrical families (71). Using records of the touring maps, the writers draw attention to various aesthetic exchanges in Nordic theatre. Moreover, several theatre productions collaborated with artists and as a result the ‘Nordic Noras’ performed in different theatres because of their diverse characterisations. This leads the authors to examine artistic interconnections with the play, and tracing these patterns, they emphasise the importance of interpersonal experiences in the performance tradition (83).

The chapter on ‘Adaptation at a Distance’ uses ‘dramaturgical structures’ to highlight the repetitive patterns present in some adaptations of the play. The cross-examining of the dramaturgical structures calls for a re-thinking of theatrical adaptation. As a result, the writers suggest that by examining the details of specific performances, different key areas emerge, including temporal structures, cultural constraints, and the interrelation between genres and ‘spatial relocations’ (19). The final chapter, ‘Ibsen’s Challenge: The Tarantella Rehearsal’, which is perhaps the most invigorating analysis in the book. The several branches analysed through the aesthetic transmission recorded in the photographs, point to a development in the interpretive patterns and likewise uncovers the boundaries and limitations on the female performing body.

In conclusion, A Global Doll’s House with its theoretical and analytical approach is an invaluable contribution to the field of Ibsen studies. While the book identifies the conventional explanations of the play’s global success, with a close examination of photographs, maps, graphs or networks, it incorporates new methods in Digital Humanities and a deeper interrogation of digitised production records.

Mariam Zarif, King’s College London