Ibsen, the New Woman and the Actress

  • Sally Ledger


It would be an exaggeration — but only a small one — to claim that Ibsen invented the ‘New Woman’ in England. From the moment that his plays began to be translated and performed in Western Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, he began to receive remarkable accolades for his dramatic representation of women and womanhood. Numerous feminists of the time acknowledged a debt to the Norwegian’s radical intervention in the gender debates of the fin de siècle; his impact on Victorian cultural modernity in the 1880s and 1890s was immense. On 7 June 1889, the first unbowdlerized production of A Doll’s House was performed at London’s Novelty Theatre. It was attended by a dazzling array of bohemians and intellectuals, including George Bernard Shaw, who was subsequently to become one of the Norwegian’s most significant publicists in England. Eleanor Marx, one of the first to translate Ibsen’s plays into English, and other metropolitan feminists and novelists such as Olive Schreiner, Edith Lees Ellis and Emma Frances Brooke, were also there. This was not the usual London theatre audience that would have attended the mainstream productions of comedies, romances and melodramas throughout the Victorian period. Writing thirty years after the London premier of A Doll’s House, the writer Edith Lees Ellis wrote how:

A few of us collected outside the theatre breathless with excitement. Olive Schreiner was there and Dolly Radford the poetess … Emma Brooke … and Eleanor Marx. We were restive and almost savage in our arguments. What did it mean? … Was it life or death for women? … Was it joy or sorrow for men? That a woman should demand her own emancipation and leave her husband and children in order to get it, savoured less of sacrifice than sorcery.3


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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2002

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  • Sally Ledger

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