The title of the play is most commonly translated as A Doll's House, though some scholars use A Doll House. John Simon argues that the only significance in the alternative translation is the difference in the way the toy is named in Britain and the United States. Egil Törnqvist argues that the alternative "simply sounds more idiomatic to Americans."Nora Helmer – wife of Torvald, mother of three, is living out the ideal of the 19th-century wife, but leaves her family at the end of the play.
Torvald Helmer – Nora's husband, a newly promoted bank manager, suffocates but professes to be enamoured of his wife.
Dr. Rank – a rich family friend, he is secretly in love with Nora. He is terminally ill, and it is implied that his "tuberculosis of the spine" originates from a venereal disease contracted by his father.
Kristine Linde – Nora's old school friend, widowed, is seeking employment (sometimes spelled Christine in English translations). She was in a relationship with Krogstad prior to the play's setting.
Nils Krogstad – an employee at Torvald's bank, single father, he is pushed to desperation. A supposed scoundrel, he is revealed to be a long-lost lover of Kristine.
The Children – Nora and Torvald's children: Ivar, Bobby and Emmy
Anne Marie – Nora's former nanny, she now cares for the children.
Helene – the Helmers' maid
The Porter – delivers a Christmas tree to the Helmer household at the beginning of the play.
The play opens at Christmas time as Nora Helmer enters her home carrying a number of packages. Nora's husband Torvald is working in his study when she arrives. He playfully rebukes her for spending so much money on Christmas gifts, calling her his "little squirrel". He teases her about how she spent weeks making gifts and ornaments by hand last year because money was scarce. This year Torvald is due a promotion at the bank where he works, so Nora feels that they can let themselves go a little. The maid announces two visitors: Mrs. Kristine Linde, an old friend of Nora's, who has come seeking employment, and Dr. Rank, a close friend of the family, who is let into the study. Kristine has had a difficult few years, ever since her husband died leaving her with no money or children. Nora explains that things have not been easy for them either: Torvald became sick and they had to travel to Italy so he could recover. Kristine further explains that when her mother was ill, she had to take care of her brothers, but now that they are grown she feels her life is "unspeakably empty". Nora promises to talk to Torvald about finding her a job. Kristine gently tells Nora that she is like a child. Nora is offended, so she reveals that she borrowed money from "some admirer", so they could travel to Italy to improve Torvald's health. She told Torvald that her father gave her the money, but in fact she managed to illegally borrow it without his knowledge. Over the years, she has been secretly working and saving up to pay it off.
Krogstad, a lower-level employee at Torvald's bank, arrives and goes into the study. Nora is clearly uneasy when she sees him. Dr. Rank leaves the study and mentions that he feels wretched, though, like everyone, he wants to go on living. In contrast to his physical illness, he says that the man in the study, Krogstad, is "morally diseased".
After the meeting with Krogstad, Torvald comes out of the study. Nora asks him if he can give Kristine a position at the bank and Torvald is very positive, saying that this is a fortunate moment, as a position has just become available. Torvald, Kristine, and Dr. Rank leave the house, leaving Nora alone. The nanny returns with the children and Nora plays with them for a while until Krogstad creeps into the living room and surprises her. Krogstad tells Nora that Torvald intends to fire him at the bank and asks her to intercede with Torvald to allow him to keep his job. She refuses and Krogstad threatens to blackmail her about the loan she took out for the trip to Italy; he knows that she obtained this loan by forging her father's signature. Krogstad leaves and when Torvald returns, she tries to convince him not to fire Krogstad. Torvald refuses to hear her pleas, explaining that Krogstad is a liar and a hypocrite and that he committed a terrible crime: he forged someone's name. Torvald feels physically ill in the presence of a man "poisoning his own children with lies and dissimulation".
Kristine arrives to help Nora repair a dress for a costume function that Torvald and she plan to attend the next day. Torvald returns from the bank, and Nora pleads with him to reinstate Krogstad, claiming she is worried Krogstad will publish libelous articles about Torvald and ruin his career. Torvald dismisses her fears and explains that, although Krogstad is a good worker and seems to have turned his life around, he must be fired because he is not deferential enough to Torvald in front of other bank personnel. Torvald then retires to his study to work.
Dr. Rank, the family friend, arrives. Nora asks him for a favor, but Rank responds by revealing that he has entered the terminal stage of tuberculosis of the spine and that he has always been secretly in love with her. Nora tries to deny the first revelation and make light of it, but is more disturbed by his declaration of love. She tries clumsily to tell him that she is not in love with him, but that she loves him dearly as a friend.
Desperate after being fired by Torvald, Krogstad arrives at the house. Nora convinces Dr. Rank to go into Torvald's study so he will not see Krogstad. When Krogstad confronts Nora, he declares that he no longer cares about the remaining balance of Nora's loan, but that he will instead preserve the associated bond to blackmail Torvald into not only keeping him employed but also promoting him. Nora explains that she has done her best to persuade her husband, but he refuses to change his mind. Krogstad informs Nora that he has written a letter detailing her crime (forging her father's signature of surety on the bond) and put it in Torvald's mailbox, which is locked.
Nora tells Kristine of her difficult situation. Having had a relationship in the past before her marriage, Kristine says that Krogstad and she are still in love and promises to try to convince him to relent.
Torvald enters and tries to retrieve his mail, but Nora distracts him by begging him to help her with the dance she has been rehearsing for the costume party, feigning anxiety about performing. She dances so badly and acts so childishly that Torvald agrees to spend the whole evening coaching her. When the others go to dinner, Nora stays behind for a few minutes and contemplates killing herself to save her husband from the shame of the revelation of her crime and to pre-empt any gallant gesture on his part to save her reputation.
Kristine tells Krogstad that she only married her husband because she had no other means to support her sick mother and young siblings and that she has returned to offer him her love again. She believes that he would not have stooped to unethical behavior if he had not been devastated by her abandonment and been in dire financial straits. Krogstad is moved and offers to take back his letter to Torvald. However, Kristine decides that Torvald should know the truth for the sake of his and Nora's marriage.
After literally dragging Nora home from the party, Torvald goes to check his mail, but is interrupted by Dr. Rank, who has followed them. Dr. Rank chats for a while, conveying obliquely to Nora that this is a final goodbye, as he has determined that his death is near. Dr. Rank leaves, and Torvald retrieves his letters. As he reads them, Nora steels herself to take her life. Torvald confronts her with Krogstad's letter. Enraged, he declares that he is now completely in Krogstad's power – he must yield to Krogstad's demands and keep quiet about the whole affair. He berates Nora, calling her a dishonest and immoral woman and telling her that she is unfit to raise their children. He says that from now on their marriage will be only a matter of appearances.
A maid enters, delivering a letter to Nora. The letter is from Krogstad, yet Torvald demands to read the letter, taking it from Nora. Torvald exults that he is saved, as Krogstad has returned the incriminating bond, which Torvald immediately burns along with Krogstad's letters. He takes back his harsh words to his wife and tells her that he forgives her. Nora realizes that her husband is not the strong and gallant man she thought he was, and that he truly loves himself more than he does her.
Torvald explains that, when a man has forgiven his wife, it makes him love her all the more, since it reminds him that she is totally dependent on him, like a child. He dismisses the fact that Nora had to make the agonizing choice between her conscience and his health, and ignores her years of secret efforts to free them from the ensuing obligations and the danger of loss of reputation. He preserves his peace of mind by thinking of the incident as a mere mistake that she made owing to her dumbness, one of her most endearing feminine traits.
Nora tells Torvald that she is leaving him to live alone so that she can find out who she is and what she believes and decide what to do with her life. She says that she has been treated like a doll to play with for her whole life, first by her father and then by him. Concerned for the family reputation, Torvald insists that she fulfill her duty as a wife and mother, but Nora says that her first duties are to herself and that she cannot be a good mother or wife without learning to be more than a plaything. She reveals that she had expected that he would want to sacrifice his reputation for hers and that she had planned to kill herself to prevent him from doing so. She now realizes that Torvald is not at all the kind of person she had believed him to be and that their marriage has been based on mutual fantasies and misunderstanding.
Torvald is unable to comprehend Nora's point of view, since it contradicts all that he has been taught about the female mind throughout his life. Furthermore, he is so narcissistic that it is impossible for him to understand how he appears to her, as selfish, hypocritical, and more concerned with public reputation than with actual morality. Nora leaves her keys and wedding ring, and as Torvald breaks down and begins to cry, baffled by what has happened, Nora leaves the house, slamming the door behind herself. Whether or not she ever comes back is never made clear.
Ibsen's German agent felt that the original ending would not play well in German theatres; therefore, for it to be considered acceptable, Ibsen was forced to write an alternative ending for the German premiere. In this ending, Nora is led to her children after having argued with Torvald. Seeing them, she collapses, and the curtain is brought down. Ibsen later called the ending a disgrace to the original play and referred to it as a "barbaric outrage". Virtually all productions today use the original ending, as do nearly all of the film versions of the play.
A Doll's House was based on the life of Laura Kieler (maiden name Laura Smith Petersen), a good friend of Ibsen. Much that happened between Nora and Torvald happened to Laura and her husband, Victor. Much like the play, Laura signed an illegal loan to save her husband. She wanted the money to find a cure for her husband's tuberculosis. She wrote to Ibsen, asking for his recommendation of her work to his publisher, thinking that the sales of her book would repay her debt. At his refusal, she forged a check for the money. At this point she was found out. In real life, when Victor discovered about Laura's secret loan, he divorced her and had her committed to an asylum. Two years later, she returned to her husband and children at his urging, and she went on to become a well-known Danish author, living to the age of 83.
Ibsen wrote A Doll's House at the point when Laura Kieler had been committed to the asylum, and the fate of this friend of the family shook him deeply, perhaps also because Laura had asked him to intervene at a crucial point in the scandal, which he did not feel able or willing to do. Instead, he turned this life situation into an aesthetically shaped, successful drama. In the play, Nora leaves Torvald with head held high, though facing an uncertain future given the limitations single women faced in the society of the time.
Kieler eventually rebounded from the shame of the scandal and had her own successful writing career while remaining discontented with sole recognition as "Ibsen's Nora" years afterwards.
Ibsen started thinking about the play around May 1878, although he did not begin its first draft until a year later, having reflected on the themes and characters in the intervening period (he visualised its protagonist, Nora, for instance, as having approached him one day wearing "a blue woollen dress"). He outlined his conception of the play as a "modern tragedy" in a note written in Rome on 19 October 1878. "A woman cannot be herself in modern society," he argues, since it is "an exclusively male society, with laws made by men and with prosecutors and judges who assess feminine conduct from a masculine standpoint."
Ibsen sent a fair copy of the completed play to his publisher on 15 September 1879. It was first published in Copenhagen on 4 December 1879, in an edition of 8,000 copies that sold out within a month; a second edition of 3,000 copies followed on 4 January 1880, and a third edition of 2,500 was issued on 8 March.
A Doll's House received its world premiere on 21 December 1879 at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, with Betty Hennings as Nora, Emil Poulsen as Torvald, and Peter Jerndorff as Dr. Rank. Writing for the Norwegian newspaper Folkets Avis, the critic Erik Bøgh admired Ibsen's originality and technical mastery: "Not a single declamatory phrase, no high dramatics, no drop of blood, not even a tear." Every performance of its run was sold out. Another production opened at the Royal Theatre in Stockholm, on 8 January 1880, while productions in Christiania (with Johanne Juell as Nora and Arnoldus Reimers as Torvald) and Bergen followed shortly after.
In Germany, the actress Hedwig Niemann-Raabe refused to perform the play as written, declaring, "I would never leave my children!" Since the playwright's wishes were not protected by copyright, Ibsen decided to avoid the danger of being rewritten by a lesser dramatist by committing what he called a "barbaric outrage" on his play himself and giving it an alternative ending in which Nora did not leave. A production of this version opened in Flensburg in February 1880. This version was also played in Hamburg, Dresden, Hanover, and Berlin, although, in the wake of protests and a lack of success, Niemann-Raabe eventually restored the original ending. Another production of the original version, some rehearsals of which Ibsen attended, opened on 3 March 1880 at the Residenz Theatre in Munich.
In Great Britain, the only way in which the play was initially allowed to be given in London was in an adaptation by Henry Arthur Jones and Henry Herman called Breaking a Butterfly. This adaptation was produced at the Princess Theatre, 3 March 1884. The first British production of the play in its regular form opened on 7 June 1889 at the Novelty Theatre, starring Janet Achurch as Nora and Charles Charrington as Torvald. Achurch played Nora again for a 7-day run in 1897. Soon after its London premiere, Achurch brought the play to Australia in 1889.
The play was first seen in America when, during 1883, in Louisville, Kentucky, Helena Modjeska acted Nora. The play made its Broadway premiere at the Palmer's Theatre on 21 December 1889, starring Beatrice Cameron as Nora Helmer. It was first performed in France in 1894. Other productions in the United States include one in 1902 starring Minnie Maddern Fiske, a 1937 adaptation with acting script by Thornton Wilder and starring Ruth Gordon, and a 1971 production starring Claire Bloom.
A new translation by Zinnie Harris at the Donmar Warehouse, starring Gillian Anderson, Toby Stephens, Anton Lesser, Tara FitzGerald and Christopher Eccleston opened in May 2009. In August 2013, Young Vic, London, Great Britain, produced a new adaptation of A Doll's House directed by Carrie Cracknell based on the English language version by Simon Stephens. In September 2014, in partnership with Brisbane Festival, La Boite located in Brisbane, Australia, hosted an adaptation of A Doll's House written by Lally Katz and directed by Stephen Mitchell Wright. In June 2015, Space Arts Centre in London staged an adaptation of A Doll's House featuring the discarded alternate ending.
A Doll's House questions the traditional roles of men and women in 19th-century marriage. To many 19th-century Europeans, this was scandalous. The covenant of marriage was considered holy, and to portray it as Ibsen did was controversial; However, the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw found Ibsen's willingness to examine society without prejudice exhilarating.
The Swedish playwright August Strindberg criticised the play in his volume of essays and short stories Getting Married (1884). Strindberg questioned Nora’s walking out and leaving her children behind with a man that she herself disapproved of so much that she would not remain with him. Strindberg also considers that Nora’s involvement with an illegal financial fraud that involved Nora forging a signature, all done behind her husband’s back, and then Nora’s lying to her husband regarding Krogstad’s blackmail, are serious crimes that should raise questions at the end of the play, when Nora is moralistically judging her husband. And Strindberg points out that Nora’s complaint that she and Torvald “have never exchanged one serious word about serious things”, is contradicted by the discussions that occur in act one and two.
Because of the departure from traditional behavior and theatrical convention involved in Nora's leaving home, her act of slamming the door as she leaves has come to represent the play itself. One critic noted, "That slammed door reverberated across the roof of the world."
A Doll's House has been adapted for the cinema on many occasions, including:A 1922 lost silent film A Doll's House starring Alla Nazimova as Nora.
A 1923 German silent film Nora was directed by Berthold Viertel.
A 1943 Argentine film starring Delia Garcés, which modernizes the story and uses the alternative ending.
Two film versions were released in 1973: one was directed by Joseph Losey, starring Jane Fonda, David Warner and Trevor Howard; and the other by Patrick Garland with Claire Bloom, Anthony Hopkins, and Ralph Richardson.
Dariush Mehrjui's film Sara (1993) is based on A Doll's House, with the plot transferred to Iran. Sara, played by Niki Karimi, is the Nora of Ibsen's play.
The Young Vic theatre in London released a short film called Nora with Hattie Morahan portraying what a modern-day Nora might look like.
A scheduled 2017 film adaptation is set against the backdrop of the current economic crisis and stars Ben Kingsley as Doctor Rank and Michele Martin as Nora.
A live version for American TV was broadcast in 1959 which was directed by George Schaefer. This version featured Julie Harris, Christopher Plummer, Hume Cronyn, Eileen Heckart and Jason Robards.
A 1974 West German television adaptation, titled Nora Helmer was directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and starred Margit Carstensen in the title role.
In 1992, David Thacker directed a British television adaptation with Juliet Stevenson, Trevor Eve and David Calder.
A June 6, 1938 Lux Radio Theatre production starred Joan Crawford as Nora and Basil Rathbone as Torvald.
A later version by the Theatre Guild on the Air on January 19, 1947 featured Rathbone again as Torvald with Dorothy McGuire as Nora.
In 2012, BBC Radio 3 broadcast an adaptation by Tanika Gupta transposing the setting to India in 1879 where 'Nora', now Niru, is an Indian woman married to 'Torvald', now Tom, an English man working for the British Colonial Administration in Calcutta; this production starred Indira Varma as Niru and Toby Stephens as Tom.