A Doll’s House and the Performance of Gender in American Silent Cinema

In the US during the silent period, four film adaptations of Henrik Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House (Et dukkehjem) from 1879, were produced, all of which are considered to be lost films: a one-reel film produced by the Thanhouser Company in 1911; a 1917 production directed by Joseph De Grasse and starring Dorothy Phillips [fig. 1]; a 1918 film directed by Maurice Tourneur and starring Elsie Ferguson [fig. 2]; and finally the 1922 adaptation produced by and starring Alla Nazimova, and directed by Charles Bryant [fig. 3]. [1] As all the films are lost, what is left are their discursive surroundings: the responses they elicited in (a limited group of) viewers, as suggested by film reviews and trade press articles, and also strategies chosen for advertising the film, as evidenced by promotional materials and publicity photos. This discursive material reveals how the gender politics of Ibsen’s play became explicitly linked to modernist notions of the female performer and the relationship between stage and screen. The film adaptations of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House are of particular interest in the history of women and the silent screen because they served as points of departure for discussions on how to represent modern womanhood and gender relations – both on narrative and thematic levels, and through the physical performances of each of the lead actresses.

Figure 1 - Publicity photo for A Doll’s House (Joseph De Grasse, 1917). The Margaret Herrick Library, Los Angeles.

Figure 2 - Publicity photo for A Doll’s House (Maurice Tourneur, 1918). The Margaret Herrick Library, Los Angeles.

Figure 3 - Publicity photo for A Doll’s House (Charles Bryant, 1922). The Margaret Herrick Library, Los Angeles.

During the 1910s and early 1920s, around 30 known Ibsen adaptations were made in a number of countries. Mostly adaptations of stage plays, these films often generated debates in reviews and articles on the differences between cinema, theatre, and literature. In trade press and film discourses of the 1910s, Ibsen was a recurring cultural reference, but also an ambivalent and paradoxical one. He is often mentioned as an important source of inspiration with regard to the aesthetic of realism, the use of social themes, and his intricate and precise dramaturgy and plot construction. At the same time, Ibsen is also considered old-fashioned, representing an aesthetic to be avoided in cinema, and a set of social themes belonging to a time long passed. Ibsen’s stage plays were thus widely understood paradoxically as a model for – and as the antithesis of – cinema’s assumed medium specificity.

The film adaptations of A Doll’s House were produced at a moment in the reception of Ibsen (at the end of the “progressive era”) where the limitations of his “women’s plays” were being considered, not only by film critics (who, in the material I have studied, are predominantly male), discussing the various adaptations of the play, but also on a more general level in contemporary feminist debate. Along with arguing for Ibsen’s diminished relevance to discourses on the position of women and gender relations in early twentieth-century modernity, contemporary reviews emphasized the individual performances of the lead actresses in the films, and linked their diverging acting styles to specific cultural and national contexts and backgrounds. Perceived in individual rather than collective terms, and disassociated from inter- or transnational feminist issues, such readings of the characters and their gender relations seem to have diminished the political potential of the films.

Ibsen, the female performer, and acting styles in theatre and silent cinema
The American silent film adaptations of Ibsen were not only explicitly linked to the feminist movement, but also the possibilities for women of an independent economic and public life. For example, an unknown author writing in Photoplay magazine on the first American adaptation in 1917 starring Dorothy Phillips commented that “Ibsen is going around the camera field as he swept the women’s clubs twenty years ago.” [2] In a typical move, the upsurge of Ibsen adaptations in the 1910s is explicitly linked to a broader social context. Nora leaving her husband and children at the end of A Doll’s House has been described as signalling the advent of both the modern drama and the women’s movement. [3] In the advertisements for all four of the now lost American adaptions there are recurring references to the famous actresses that had played the role of Nora in the theatre. [4] Such references not only bolster the high art aura of the adaptations by referring to the legitimate stage, but also draw attention to theatre-specific practices of female entrepreneurship. The first English production of Hedda Gabler in 1891 was put on through the joint management of actresses Elizabeth Robins and Marion Lea after their propositions to stage the play had been rejected by several male actor-managers on the grounds of it being a “woman’s play”. [5] Eleanora Duse, Italy’s first Nora, performed several Ibsen roles throughout Europe, and also established her own company, using a repertoire of Ibsen to introduce a different style of acting. Ibsen is thus specifically associated with the actress as manager or producer in the theatre of the late nineteenth century, a practice that challenged dominant structures to a large extent controlled by men.

The late nineteenth-century stage was a podium for the ‘new drama’. This was characterized by social realism and the ‘new actress’, one who was associated with a quieter, more subdued acting style. Naturalism and the new drama stressed the psychological development of character and cultivated an underplayed acting style that departed from earlier theatrical practices that produced pictorial effects. Ibsen’s plays to a large extent dealt with repression and the concealment of emotions, as well as an indirect representation of events in the characters’ past, gradually revealed through Ibsen’s retrospective technique. Commentators describe, for example, Duse’s Ibsen performances as “restrained” and “anti-melodramatic”. American actress Minnie Maddern Fiske described her own interpretation of Hedda Gabler as “the personification of self-control”. Likewise, the melodramatic conventions of the “fallen woman” were supplanted by roles featuring the “new woman”. As Elaine Aston explains, these new roles were “psychologically drawn portraits of social and sexual female discontent.” [6] Katherine E. Kelly notes that female discontent became a symptomatic reference to modernity. Indeed, male authors of modern drama often presented modernity in the “figure of a woman in crisis”. [7]

During the 1910s both psychological realism and the naturalistic acting style of the “new drama” influenced American cinema. However, Ben Brewster and Lea Jacobs have argued that the influence of naturalist acting techniques were not as pronounced as asserted in some studies, in particular with regards to the restraining of pictorial effects in silent film. They state: “Naturalist theatre was famously wordy, and to some extent the emphasis on the language compensated for the opacity of gesture and action typical of the acting style. It required considerable sophistication to adapt it to the new medium.” [8] The challenges of adapting Ibsen to the screen were referred to in a Moving Picture World review of A Doll’s House starring Dorothy Phillips. As the reviewer explains, “The absence of the theatrical in the Ibsen method and the difficulty of conveying the fine shades of meaning in the dialogue without the aid of speech render the task of the actors in the cast doubly hard.” [9] To portray Nora on the screen was understood as a demand that specifically tested the performance skills of the individual actress.

Nora, the star system, and performances of individual transition
In the 1911 Thanhouser film, the actress playing Nora is uncredited. As far as I know, she is still today unidentified. In the Morning Telegraph she is described as “the leading woman”, in the New York Dramatic Mirror simply as “the actress”. Reflecting the changing status of actors and stars in cinema during the first half of the 1910s, this anonymity is replaced by an emphasis of the name and personality of the lead actress in the subsequent three films that appeared a few years later. In discourses surrounding all these later films, the stage background of the lead actress is emphasized. This is particularly evident in the case of Nazimova, whose fame to a large degree was associated with interpreting Ibsen in both Russian and English. She had already enjoyed success as Nora on stage. Indeed, Nazimova formed her own production company in order to produce a film version of the play, 15 years after her first performance of the role in 1907. As I will discuss below, this distance of time was integral to the reception of her Ibsen adaptation.

Rumours of a film version of the play starring Nazimova were reported in Moving Picture World as early as 1912. [10] In fact, Nazimova appears as a reference in advertisements and reviews of all the three American film adaptations of A Doll’s House that were produced before her own effort. Even a review of the 1911 Thanhouser film mentions a theatre performance of the play starring the actress several years earlier. In a review of the 1918 film, it is stated that comparing Elsie Ferguson’s screen performance to the stage work of Nazimova “is to compare the beauty of white roses to those of a crimson hue. It is all a matter of taste.” [11] These floral metaphors, as well as the emphasis on taste in the description of performance styles, are significant. They suggest that many of the reviewers saw female beauty and star power in an individual sense. In this context, female agency in a collective or social sense was not a significant element of the reception of the films.

Nazimova began her screen career in 1916 with War Brides (Herbert Brenon, 1916). She had a reputation as both a famous stage actress and as an “exotic type.” In an interview with Cinema Chat in 1920, her foreignness becomes a metaphor for the transition from stage to screen. [12] As she continued her career in the US, her challenges with regards to performing in a foreign language are described, in the article accompanying the interview, as a preparation for the cinema:

What those next six months meant to Nazimova she alone must know. Trying to swallow the English language whole is a choking process, to say the very least of it – but to portray Ibsen characters as well! That took almost superhuman effort.

From that time began her unconscious preparation for cinema art. Because she realized that she must play in a new language and that the words as she spoke them might at first mean but little to the audience, she knew she must depend for the most part upon her facial mobility, upon the expressive gestures of body and hands. She studied appearances as well. Where the lines of Hedda Gabler required a tall, dominant personality, she disguised her height by costumes of sweeping lines; where the buoyant child-wife Nora plays with her children in A Doll’s House, she used the scant, short gowns that made her seem in truth a child. In Master Builder she seemed an immature young girl in a sailor suit until the strength of the character of Hilda required more dominance, then by clever use of steps, she took command of the scene in appearance as well as in the lines. All this was excellent preparation for the cinema. [13]

Here, the adaptation of her acting style on stage is seen to take place both with regard to gestures of her body and through clothing and props. These changes are made comparable with – and become a consequence of – the translation from one language to another. In cinema, however, Nazimova embodied a double foreignness. She combined an exotic cultural background – a review described her as lending “a Russo-Latin air to Ibsen’s heroine” [14] – and she was an actress who came from the theatre. A famous gesture made by Nazimova when playing Nora on stage occurred as the protagonist of the play was leaving her husband: she caressed the door with her hands before going through it. This trademark gesture was repeated in Nazimova’s 1922 film. In addition, this film shows scenes that were never displayed on stage. For example the last scene featured Nora outside, walking away into the snow, alone. [fig. 4]

Filmplay described this moment in the following terms: “It is a cruel night that Nora goes into. A great wintry storm of snow and wind is blistering down the street. She stands for a moment hesitant and then steps out into the world and with arms outstretched and a great air of invincibleness, she exultantly breasts the elements”. [15]

Figure 4 - Publicity photo for A Doll’s House (Charles Bryant, 1922). The Margaret Herrick Library, Los Angeles.

In contrast to Nazimova, Elsie Ferguson had a background in musical comedy. This background was commented upon in connection with her dance scene in Tourneur’s 1918 Doll’s House film. Explaining the appeal of dance and the female body in this scene, the Moving Picture World stated: “Possessed of an exceptional voice, blessed by nature with beauty of face and symmetry of figure, and displaying unusual grace as a dancer, Miss Ferguson might today be known as a queen of musical comedy if the call of her ambition had not led her into emotional dramatic channels.” [16]

These descriptions of Nazimova and Ferguson are, to a large extent, preoccupied with narratives of transition: Nazimova’s conversion from Russia to the US and from stage to screen, and Ferguson’s leap from popular culture to serious drama. Similarly, reviews of the films produced in 1917, 1918, and 1922, are concerned with the performance styles of the leading actresses. They highlight how actresses physically embody Nora’s changes on film. In this context, the transition of Nora’s character becomes a recurring and discursive trope in film reviews. However, the cinema’s potential – particularly as a vocally ‘silent’ medium – for making the transformation of character visible rather than audible, through the physical body and gesture, seemed to accentuate the transitions of individual bodies. Rather than expressing political change on any collective level, performance was understood to be grounded in the individual performer, expressing different forms of femininity and proving the ability and power of the actress. Here, power can be understood both in terms of highlighting Nora’s strength and integrity, and in the sensory, aesthetic terms of the virtuoso acting performance.

Most reviewers draw attention to Nora’s change from “girl” to “woman” and from complacency to agency. Reviewing the 1918 film starring Elsie Ferguson, Moving Picture World indicates the extent of this change, explaining how the “quick transition from the assumed character of the light-footed, smiling doll-wife without a care in the world to the woman enduring the strain of terrible fear makes heavy demands upon the dramatic ability of Miss Ferguson.” [17] In another review, Ferguson’s Nora is described as “the girlish and irresponsible wife who is entirely at sea as to what is right and wrong under man-made laws.” [18] Similarly, Nazimova’s Nora is described as a “restless, twittering girl-wife suddenly awakened to wisdom and maturity,” [19] and a “childish, but self-sacrificing and finally rebellious wife.” [20] Nazimova’s acting style is also compared to previous performances on stage and screen. Photoplay writes, for instance, that “The Russian star, usually eccentric, curbs her Camille tendencies, and as Nora, one of the drama’s most absorbing women, really acts. Or rather, thinks. At times she is over-expressive.” [21] Although Nazimova’s function as both producer and star of A Doll’s House (along with the increased emphasis on the ability of the individual performers in reviews and film discourse) can be seen as a continuation of the practice of the actress as entrepreneur already established with staging Ibsen, the descriptions of these efforts mostly remain detached from any implication of gender politics.

Style and the durability of gender roles
The question of whether or not to consider the Doll’s House films as period dramas or as contemporary narratives can also be understood as an aesthetic concern. There are connections between, for example, Nazimova’s acting in her 1922 film and other aspects of the film, such as set and costume design. Several reviews mention that the costume design (by Natacha Rambova) suggests that it is a contemporary story. This view is also reflected in interpretations of Nazimova’s performance. As Louis Reeves Harrison states in Moving Picture World:

she has made Nora into an extremely timely person; not flapperful exactly, but full of antics and a youthful exuberance which more than once strained our credibility. We don’t know that the motherhood of three children necessarily implies a sombre maturity, yet one scarcely expects to see a woman who has attained to that dignity jumping over furniture and turning somersaults. But Nazimova’s Nora did both of these and more[…]” [22]

Performance style is, in this instance, associated with the relevance of the play to contemporary gender roles. Do Nazimova and Ferguson embody manifestations of gender that belong to the past, or is what they are displaying relevant to the progressive era? In several instances, the mixed reception of these films included recurring arguments on how the depiction of gender in the original source text was outdated, antiquated, and primarily of historical interest. Several of the US reviewers of the film stated that most steps towards gender equality were already taken. Their choice of words when describing gender relations, however, often suggest otherwise. For example, Louis Reeves Harrison stated that it is “doubtful whether [Ibsen] would have treated this theme as he did had he lived in another environment, for instance, that of our own to-day. The same theme would be handled according to conditions, and present ones are very different from those of the society he knew.” [23] Reviewing the film starring Nazimova, Arthur Denison in Filmplay made a similar argument about how the world was completely changed in terms of gender structures. This made the play of “academic interest” only. He adds: “We venture to think that if the narrative of A Doll’s House was submitted anonymously today to a picture company, as the suggested synopsis for a photoplay, it would be immediately and scornfully returned with contemptuous mirth laughing out from between each of the printed lines of the rejection slip.” [24] According to Harrison, Nora’s act of leaving her husband and children is redeemed only by a specific social context, apparently long gone in 1922:

She leaves her three loving children, not because she has ceased to care for them, not because she has been lured away. It cannot be for a principle, because no wife and mother of principle would do such a thing to-day. She leaves in bitterness, in resentment and revolt against the humiliating position of the Scandinavian wife at that time. What might have seemed justified then and been justified, is a line of conduct completely out of modern sympathy. [25]

Harrison thus indicates that Nora’s behaviour is still unacceptable. The majority of the reviews in the material I have had access to have been written by men. In fact, the only writing that I have found that claims that the play still has relevance is by a female writer, Adele Whitely Fletcher. As the editor of Motion Picture Magazine, reviewing the Nazimova film, she writes: “Altho [sic] Ibsen wrote “The Doll’s House” in the latter half of the nineteenth century, it is particularly pertinent today. As a matter of fact, he was undoubtedly premature in his conception of Nora, the woman who demands her right to be an individual before and above everything else.” [26]

However, as mentioned earlier, a critique of Ibsen is not only limited to the male-dominated reviews cited above but can also be found in the contemporary feminist discourse of the 1910s and 1920s. As recently pointed out by Penny Farfan, Elizabeth Robins – who produced and starred in several Ibsen plays in the 1890s – later joined the suffragette movement. Robins became a vocal first-wave feminist advocate. In 1928, Robins stated that Ibsen had represented an advance in the representation of women in the theatre and the art of acting. But he did not, according to Robins, have a similar political importance for feminism. In fact, Robins critiqued Ibsen for not reflecting the full range of women’s experiences, which could also involve activism and taking on a progressive and constructive political role. [27] A similar criticism can be found in Virginia Woolf’s novel The Voyage Out (1915). Here, Ibsen provides heroic female role models for the lead character. However, at the same time (and frustratingly), he does not present any viable alternatives to established gender roles in society. [28] In the discursive surroundings of the four silent film adaptations, it is therefore perhaps not surprising that the performance of gender and the transition and maturity of Nora is understood exclusively on an individual level. Nora is a woman whose personal development is portrayed in a specific manner by a specific actress. She is not a figure who speaks of a collective transition from subjugation to power, modernity and equality.

A Doll’s House starring Nazimova represents the last silent film adaptation of Ibsen in the US. Ibsen was not adapted to the screen again until 50 years later, during the period of the second-wave feminist movement. It’s instructive to compare the reception of the American silent cinema versions of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House to that of two English-language film adaptations of the play released in 1973, one directed by Joseph Losey and starring Jane Fonda, the other directed by Patrick Garland and starring Claire Bloom. In the reviews of the 1970s, the persistent relevance of the play to the present was often commented upon. [29] Maybe the play’s theme of gender relations within a family was more fitting to the 1970s politics of the personal and the debates taking place in second-wave feminism. Alternately, perhaps the play in the 1910s and 1920s belonged to a past that was still was too recent. Taking this view, we might argue that without a necessary distance, films of A Doll’s House in the silent period were perceived as an uneasy mix of social realism and film d’art. Hence, although Ibsen is credited with laying much of the groundwork for several of the stylistic developments that cinema underwent during the silent period, his stage plays were not what cinema at the time was looking for. Likewise, as important a figure as he was to the early stages of the women’s movement and the position of female actresses at the turn of the century, his gender politics were not central to feminist discourse in the 1910s and early 1920s.


[1] An overview of films adapted from works by Henrik Ibsen, including the silent film adaptations of “A Doll’s House” discussed in this essay, is available in Karin Synnøve Hansen, ed., Henrik Ibsen, 1828-1992: En filmografi (Oslo: Norsk Filminstitutt, 1992). In addition to the four American adaptations, silent films based on the play were also produced in Russia (1917), Italy (1919), and Germany (1923).
[2] “The Shadow Stage”, Photoplay Magazine, 1917, 91.
[3] See Penny Farfan, Women, Modernism, and Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 1.
[4] See for example “Dorothy Phillips Makes Progress”, Moving Picture World, May 5, 1917, 778.
[5] See Jo Robins, “The Actress as Manager,” The Cambridge Companion to the Actress, eds. Maggie B. Gale, John Stokes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 157-172. See also Farfan, Women, Modernism, 11-32.
[6] Elaine Aston, “‘Studies in Hysteria:’ Actress and Courtesan, Sara Bernhardt and Mrs. Patrick Campbell,” The Cambridge Companion to the Actress, 262.
[7] Katherine E. Kelley quoted in Farfan, Women, Modernism, 1
[8] Ben Brewster, Lea Jacobs, Theatre to Cinema: Stage Pictorialism and the Early Feature Film (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 96.
[9] Edward Weitzel, “A Doll’s House” [review], Moving Picture World, June 16, 1917, 1796.
[10] Clement H. Congdon, “Correspondence – Philadelphia”, Moving Picture World 1912, 548.
[11] “Across the Silversheet”, Motion Picture Magazine 16:8 September 1918, 84.
[12] “The Great Nazimova”, Cinema Chat 64, August 9, 1920, 2-3.
[13] “The Great Nazimova,” 3.
[14] Review in the New York Daily News quoted in “First Runs on Broadway: Their Presentation and Press Comments by Various New York Dailies,” Exhibitors Trade Review 11:13, February 25, 1922, 940.
[15] Arthur Denison, “Views About Previews: A Critical Inspection of Some of the Filmplays of the Month,” Filmplay 1:11, May 1922, 42.
[16] “Elsie Ferguson Dances in ‘A Doll’s House’”, Moving Picture World, June 15, 1918, 1595.
[17] “Elsie Ferguson Dances,” 1595.
[18] Louis Reeves Harrison, “‘A Doll’s House’” [review], Moving Picture World, June 8, 1918, 1473.
[19] Alison Smith, “The Screen in Review,” Picture Play Magazine, May 1922, 65.
[20] Review in the New York Globe, quoted in “A Doll’s House Pleases the Critics”, Exhibitors Trade Review 11:14, March 4, 1922, 956.
[21] “The Shadow Stage”, Photoplay 21:6, May 1922, 61.
[22] Denison, “Views About Previews,” 42.
[23] Harrison, “‘A Doll’s House’,” 1473.
[24] Denison, “Views About Previews,” 42.
[25] Harrison, “‘A Doll’s House’,” 1473.
[26] Adele Whitely Fletcher, “Across the Silversheet: The New Screen Plays in Review”, Motion Picture Magazine 23:4 May 1922, 72.
[27] Farfan, Women, Modernism, 12-15.
[28] Farfan, Women, Modernism, 2-3.
[29] See for example the review of A Doll’s House (Patrick Garland, 1973) by Sege, Variety, May 9, 1973: “Femme lib movement has given the play, and this film, new interest. Although original is set in the Victorian period, the interaction of husband-and-wife has extraordinary poignancy as a contemporary issue.”

About the Author

Eirik Frisvold Hanssen

About the Author

Eirik Frisvold Hanssen

Eirik Frisvold Hanssen is Head of Section for Film and Broadcasting in the Department of Research and Dissemination at the National Library of Norway. He has a PhD in cinema studies from Stockholm University (2006) and has published on colour and cinema, visual culture, and classical film theory in various edited volumes and journals such as Film History and Visual Anthropology ReviewView all posts by Eirik Frisvold Hanssen →