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Drama - Analysis Of "a Doll's House"

( Originally Published 1913 )



To Illustrate all Technical Points Previously Mentioned

FOLLOWING the suggestions in the first chapter, the study is begun by relating, in chronological order, the events which took place before the first curtain rises. As " A Doll's House " is catastrophic (see next chapter), the story is of some length.

The " Story " of " A Doll's House"

About 1850 there lived, in a small town in Norway, a man of extravagant tastes, a spendthrift, who was continually in debt, and was sometimes accused of dishonesty. He was a widower with an only child, a daughter, who was much like himself, and whom he indulged and spoiled, calling her his doll child, and playing with her as she played with her dolls.

Her name was Nora ; and she becomes the heroine of this play.

As the heroine, then, she must be in the center of a group of characters closely related, but so set apart from the rest of the world that the plot can work itself out free from casual interruptions. Nora probably had many friends, for, like her father, she was of a social nature. But Ibsen, always economical of minor characters, selects only one of these friends to help form the setting Nora's schoolmate, Christina, who becomes the Mrs. Linden of the play.

Christina is a girl in rather poor circumstances, who has lost her father, and whose mother and younger brothers are in need of help. She may be described as having a trait which Ibsen admired more than any other —moral courage. And she proves to be the only character in the play who has this trait.

While Nora is still very young, she marries impulsively, and without much deep feeling. She soon finds that Torvald Helmer is the direct opposite of her father cautious, conservative, fearful of debt, conventional, and rather pompous and self-righteous. She discovers, too, that he is destitute of moral courage. He has been in government service, but seeing little prospect of advancement, he begins to practice law after his marriage. He and Nora make their home in Christiania.

Christina falls in love genuinely and sincerely with a man by the name of Krogstad, a college chum of Helmer's, who is also a lawyer. But Krogstad is poor, and Christina is greatly burdened, for her mother has become bedridden, and her young brothers need an education. She has another suitor who is well-to-do, and whom she thinks it her duty to marry. Believing that if she breaks with Krogstad, it is only right to try to put an end to his love for her, she writes him a heartless-sounding letter, saying she has ceased to care for him. She then marries the other suitor, Linden by name, who has the means to make her and her mother and brothers comfortable. But the marriage proves unhappy.

Krogstad, disappointed, disheartened, and shipwrecked (as he afterwards says),, removes to Christiania where he marries — unhappily too — and lives in poverty and discomfort.

Meantime Helmer, Nora's husband, overworks in building up his law practice, so that a year after his marriage he falls ill, and is ordered to Italy to save his life. But there is no money. Nora dares not go to her father to ask help, for he is ill and not expected to live. So in despair, and without her husband's knowledge, she appeals to Krogstad, who negotiates a loan for her, with her father as security. But Nora is unable to get her father's signature, and so forges his name on the promissory note. Furthermore, she dates the endorsement three days after her father's death thus incriminating herself. Krogstad knows all about this, but sympathizes as an old friend, and has at the time no motive for revealing it or making trouble.

Nora's view of the matter is refreshing. She explains later that if the law takes no account of motives, it must be very bad indeed. " Do you mean to tell me," she exclaims to Krogstad, " that a daughter has no right to spare her dying father anxiety? — that a wife has no right to save her husband's life? I don't know much about the law, but I 'm sure that some-where or other you will find that that is allowed."

Nora and Helmer go to Italy for a year. Of their life there we know only one detail. At Capri, Nora learns to dance the tarantella, , that wild dance which the Neapolitans throw themselves into when they are glad, and when they are sad, and when they are mad. This becomes the symbol of the play.

Helmer's health being restored, he and Nora return to Christiania, where they live frugally. Nora saves from her personal allowance, and sometimes works at copying far into the night, in order to pay installments and interest on her debt; and she practices all kinds of deception, to keep her husband in ignorance of the matter.

At this point it becomes evident how complex is Helmer's character. His fear and loathing of debt is creditable rather than otherwise ; but with it is involved a pompous superiority, a dislike to owe any-thing to his doll of a wife, and a dastardly cowardice in face of the world's opinion.

As time goes on there are three children, and they are all as contented as is possible in the circumstances, not realizing that a doll's house can never be a real home.

Krogstad, meantime, is living in bitter poverty, with a large family to support. Once when his wife is very ill he forges a note, feeling that he is doing no worse than many others. The crime becomes generally known, though it does not get into the courts, and Krogstad finds himself down and out. Finally he is forced to take a subordinate position in the Joint Stock Bank of Christiania.

Mrs. Linden continues to live in the small town from which they all came. Her husband dies, leaving his affairs in a bad state. She struggles for three years to support her mother and brothers, doing everything possible to turn an honest penny. At intervals she does some office work.

Finally, eight years after Nora's forgery, an event happens which, though it seems as ordinary and commonplace as all the rest, is eminently dramatic. That is, it starts up a train of events out of which a play can be made. Or, to use another figure, it begins to tangle the life lines of these four people into a knot which, once it is tied, will mark an effective dramatic culmination.

Helmer is made manager of the Joint Stock Bank.

This brings the affairs of Nora, Helmer, Mrs. Linden and Krogstad to one and the same crisis, in this way:

Krogstad foresees at once that Helmer, whom he knows of old, will throw him out of the bank. Now Krogstad has held his position very creditably for a year and a half. His sons are growing up, and he is trying for their sake to win back his respectability. His foot is on the first rung of the ladder, and he is desperate at the thought of being kicked off, back into the mire. So he goes to Nora, and threatens to expose her forgery if she does not plead for him with Helmer. And he is very explicit in what he says to Nora: " This I may tell you — if I 'm flung into the gutter a second time, you shall keep me company."

The Use of the Material

But this is not the play : it is merely preparation. The play is just ready to begin. All these details, which make a rather long story and take some time in the telling, must be woven into the dramatic warp and woof, the play all the time making progress — forging ahead, as well as looking backward to bring in all these facts.

Thus we begin to see, faintly and vaguely, what it means to build a play. Every great speech must do three things at the same time : it must reveal character, it must keep the plot moving, and it must be interesting on its own account.

To illustrate how the briefest lines may be so skillfully worded and so adroitly introduced as to serve several structural purposes at one and the same time, the following passage from Act III may be quoted. Nora is in colloquy with her old nurse.

Nora. Dear old Anna — you were a good mother to me when I was little.

Anna. My poor little Nora had no mother but me. Nora. And if my little ones had nobody else, I am sure you would — nonsense, nonsense !

From these few words we learn something of the past, namely, that Nora was a motherless child. We also learn something about the present, namely, that Nora is becoming desperate and planning flight or suicide. In the same instant also a fact is planted or impressed upon the attention of the audience to be recalled later the fact that Nora's children have always been in the care of the motherly nurse who reared Nora herself. This recurs with significant meaning when Nora finally leaves her home without a last look at the children, saying, " I know they are in better hands than mine."

To accomplish so many purposes in such brief, effort-less, unforced speeches, without break in the dialogue or pause in the steady development of the plot, is art indeed the high and difficult art of dramaturgy.

Building the Play

The exposition of " A Doll's House" is made in Ibsen's earlier manner, by means of a conversation between the two old friends, Nora and Mrs. Linden, who have not met in ten years. This is a conventional way of beginning, and the audience knows that it is being talked at, but as it is getting information all the time, it does not become impatient.

The exciting force is Krogstad's threatening speech to Nora. But since, as far as possible, everything must be objectified on the stage, this threat has a corresponding action. The exciting force is something done as well as something said. Krogstad drops the fatal letter to Helmer into the box. As Nora sees and hears it fall, she cries, " In the letter box : there it lies. Now we are lost ! "

Mrs. Linden's fortunes are intertwined with the event as follows : During this winter she finds herself, for the first time in her life, relieved of care. Her mother dies, and her brothers are in business. She is very poor, but free to do as she likes. She sees in the newspaper that Nora's husband has been made manager of a bank, and she decides to go to Christiania and ask for employment, getting Nora to inter-cede for her. As fate will have it (and fate still has something to do with the working out of plots on the stage), she makes her plea to Nora before Krogstad has made his threat. Then, when Nora appeals to Helmer on behalf of her old friend Christina, Helmer at once thinks of the place which will be vacant after he has thrown Krogstad out; and so he replies that he may be able to manage it.

Then when Nora, in terror, tries to intercede for Krogstad, she finds that she has unwittingly made her own disaster more certain. The destinies of these characters are becoming fatefully intertwined.

Helmer's appointment as manager of the bank, then, is a dramatic event, because it brings about a crisis in the lives of four people, and begins to tie their life lines into a knot.

But it is dramatic for another reason also. It turns or reverses or recoils upon itself, like a crisis in Greek tragedy. It seems the very event that would be likely to bring Nora and Helmer out of their difficulties, giving them a comfortable income, and making it possible for Nora to pay the last installments on her debt. In reality, however, instead of being a fortunate event, it proves most unfortunate and disastrous and tragic. The very irony of fate is in it.

At this point in any play there must be suspense -- something to hold up the interest. The play cannot rush on directly from exciting force to climax. So we find that Mrs. Linden, to whom Nora tells everything, offers to help her to influence Krogstad not to revenge himself upon her. This promise for the moment seems to arrest the action, and avert the calamity entirely. Krogstad offers to get the letter out of the box, or at least to recover it from Helmer before it is read. But there has been a little interval of time, at the end of which Mrs. Linden declares that she has changed her mind — that there must be a full understanding between Nora and Helmer. She says in a later interview with Krogstad, " I have learned more about them since first talking with Nora; they cannot go on like this." So disaster again threatens. Then Krogstad declares, " One thing I can do and at once." He exits, and the audience, being in doubt as to the meaning of his words, is again in that suspense which is so dramatic, and has so much to do with making a good play.

But we are approaching the climax. It is to be a spiritual climax, like that in Hamlet, yet with two marvelous effects, powerful as in Greek tragedy :

First : Reversal or recoil.

Second : Recognition or revelation.

The climax comes when Helmer learns of Nora's forgery. Nora has hoped for that moment, and at the same time has dreaded it. She has hoped, because, in the midst of her tumult of feeling, she realizes that when Helmer learns of her crime, he can, if he will, show the first real proof of devotion he has ever given her. She fears, because she is determined that, if this miracle does happen — if Helmer does offer to take the blame upon himself — she must not allow him to make the sacrifice. She is determined to go away and perhaps commit suicide in order to show the world that she was the forger.

But the wonderful thing does not happen. Indeed, it is the reverse that happens. When Nora says, in the most ironic speech of the play, " You shall not take my guilt upon yourself," it at once appears that Helmer has no intention of shielding her, but is fiercely and cruelly determined upon quite the opposite. He calls her a hypocrite, a liar and a criminal, casts all the blame upon her, reflects upon the memory of her father, and makes no attempt to protect her.

It is interesting to note, by way of contrast, that " The Thunderbolt," Pinero's latest play, furnishes a fine instance of a miracle that really happened. In that play, when Phyllis confesses to her husband that she has destroyed a will, he instantly, without a moment's thought, takes all the blame upon himself, and is ready to face every consequence.

To return : At the point of this reversal, there comes in marvelous guise what the Greeks called recognition, the clearing up of a mistaken identity. Only in this case it is not the discovery of a long lost brother or child. It is a mistaken spiritual identity which is cleared up. Nora cries, " In that moment it burst upon me that I had been living here these eight years with a strange man."

But before this, the last hope has appeared and disappeared, quite in Greek tragedy manner. Krogstad's second letter comes, returning the promissory note and withdrawing all his threats. There is one breathless moment in which the audience hopes that the disaster is averted. Helmer, overjoyed, exclaims, " I am saved," and assures Nora that he forgives her. But at the sound of that word " forgive " Nora realizes as never before how totally and hopelessly they are missing each other's mental track. Finally she unties the knot of the plot by taking her life into her own hands and departing. It is by far the greatest dénouement in modern drama.

The Subtler Devices

Having examined the structure or building of this play, we now turn to those technical qualities, the observation of which is so interesting, and the intelligent appreciation of which adds so much to the pleasure of playgoing.

First, the transitions are made smoothly, so as to carry conviction. Think what the situation was at first, and then what it is at the end. We begin on Christmas eve with not a happy family in a real home — but a merry family in a doll's house. In fact, the family is rather merrier than it has been for a long time, having just come in for a piece of good fortune. But in three days all is changed. Dire disaster has befallen, and the home is broken up. To accomplish so much in three scenes with any appearance of probability, any smoothness in the succession of events, is not easy.

In viewing the stage presentation of a great play, it is interesting to notice also with what measure of success the actors solve their difficult problem, that of shading their parts and making them fluent, so that one mood merges naturally and imperceptibly into another. Obviously they can work to good advantage only when the playwright has moved skillfully from point to point, keeping the stage and the actor constantly in mind. The shading of Nora's part in this play is an invigorating trial of skill for the greatest actresses, difficult but not impossible to accomplish.

Then there is dramatic irony, that technical expedient which is as old as the drama itself. Ironic speeches, it will be remembered, are those which have one meaning on the stage, and another, perhaps deeper and more significant, to the audience. In this play we discover some of the finest irony in all dramatic literature.

In the second act, Helmer says to Nora, " Are you trying on your dress? "

It is the masquerade costume; and Nora replies, with bitter meaning, " Yes, yes, I am trying it on. It suits me so well, Torvald."

Then a little later, Helmer says, " Nora, you 're dancing as if it were a matter of life and death." Nora. So it is.

But perhaps the most tragic irony of all is in Helmer's speech in the third act, just before the revelation. " Do you know, Nora, I often wish some danger might threaten you, that I might risk body and soul, and everything, everything, for your dear sake."

To the audience, with its knowledge of Nora's terror and danger, this speech comes across with mighty force.

The most marvelous and thrilling achievement of all in great drama is the pressure as the climax approaches, and often from that on to the close of the play. When the ending is tragic, the pressure sometimes becomes so powerful as to be almost unbearable. But always when this driving force makes itself felt, the speeches begin to come inevitably, quite of themselves, so that it seems as if anybody might write that part of the play, granted the foregoing scenes.

In " A Doll's House," the whole work appears to be constructed for the benefit of the closing speeches, so that they may be simple, natural, unforced, yet great in import.

Twelve years after the opening night, Ibsen himself testified, " I may almost say that it was for the sake of the last scene that the whole play was written."

Only a few of the lines can be quoted.

Helmer. I would gladly work for you day and night; bear sorrow and want for your sake. But no man sacrifices his honor, even for one he loves.

Nora. Millions of women have done so. . . . Helmer. I have loved you more than all the world. Nora. You have never loved me. You only thought it amusing to be in love with me.

The whole play drives Nora's speeches home. These lines never fail to startle an audience. There is no time to think in the theater, but the words are always carried away to be pondered indefinitely.

Greater Pleasure in Playgoing

Thus we begin to see what drama can do for us, if we meet it half way. It can give us a sharp sense of life, make us forget ourselves, kindle our imagination, and expand our whole being in response to the greatness of its art.

We may be enthusiastic over great plays without knowledge of technique. But understanding technical points and all the subtle ways by means of which the dramatist triumphs over the thousand and one difficulties which beset him, we may be even more enthusiastic; and enthusiasm, to return to our opening chapter, is a wonderfully recreating emotion.

It is to make possible some degree of mental and spiritual refreshment in the theater that the study of the art of play-building should always tend.



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