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A Doll's House (Extended Essay)

Literature (Year 12) - Essays and Close Readings

Jeckmen Wu

Discuss how a play utilises dramatic conventions to portray complex issues of society.

Theatre as Ibsen found it was dominated by melodramatic pièce bien faite, Victorian burlesque and religious pantomimes, all of which were highly superficial and idealistic, and worked to be “morally uplifting to society” by representing the world as it ought to be rather than the world as it is. In stark contrast, Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House premiered as the first Realist play on 21/12/1879 at the Royal Theatre, Copenhagen. The emergence of Realist theatre derived from the combined and individual thoughts of Auguste Comte, Charles Darwin and Karl Marx that led to social questioning of contemporary religious, political and economic beliefs; the need for political and social reforms was expressed through the rejection of romantic ideals, the Revolutions of 1848, and the uprising of working & middle class. Feminism was also gaining traction with the suffrage movement (1848) and, most famously, John Stuart Mill’s heavily criticised essay The Subjection of Women (1869). The goal of realism was to portray everyday life in a “faithful, accurate manner, unclouded by false ideals, literary conventions, or misplaced aesthetic glorification & beautification of the world” (College), therefore it did not attempt to “maximise the illusion of reality” (Moi) but instead Ibsen’s controversial play “[offered] us a theatre of monstrous epiphany, a perception of some illuminating truth arising out of dialectical conflict” (Joyce). Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879) utilises dramatic conventions such as stage directions, props & costuming to completely deconstruct conventional thinking and address the glaring problems – especially around marriage of his era. As such, the play portrays the complex social issues of contemporary society that are often hidden away under idealistic façades.

Realist theatre creates facsimiles of real life in a ‘box set’ that is situated on a proscenium arch stage consisting of three walls, a ceiling, décor and an invisible fourth wall facing the audience. It is no surprise that Ibsen, “the father of realism”, has skilfully developed the structure of the play to allow for all events to take place in this one constricted ‘playroom’. Ibsen strikes a perfect balance between the realistic and the pièce bien faite conventions of stage setting to tell “stories of real people” (Ibsen). He utilises realism by setting it indoors (‘[a room in Helmer’s apartment]’) to craft a relatable interior of a typical bourgeois house, but then manipulates features of the well-made play to subtly emphasise an aspect of illusion and that this is in fact a doll’s house. Ibsen incorporates a touch of melodrama from la piece bien faite through the excessive number of props on stage: ‘[beside the window a round table, easy chairs and a small sofa]’ with another ‘[two easy chairs and a rocking chair]’, and the excessive number of doors for that matter: ‘[a door to the right… another to the left]’ and ‘[in the middle of the left-hand wall is a door]’. However, despite the numerous doors which characters use to freely roam in and out of the house, Nora is always confined within the ‘playroom’ and watched by the audience through the proscenium arch. This reveals the reality of marriage for women in contemporary society: they are forever trapped in domesticity within a claustrophobic and uncomfortable environment, as shown by Nora’s restless movement: ‘[walking about uneasily]’ and ‘[goes cautiously to her husband’s door]’, depicting marriage & domesticity as a labyrinth that women can never escape. Ibsen sets the scene by fostering the audience into a close sense of relatability and identification with what is in front of them, to which he then uses as his stage to criticise society. Although he denies having “consciously worked for the women’s rights movement” (Ibsen), the stagecraft he employs to create a microcosm of reality through setting and props can be viewed as a direct criticism of the oppression of women in his contextual society.

The tarantella scene is melodramatic in all the usual meanings of the word, with ‘exaggerated expressivity’ (Cavell) & fast-paced music that naturally stands out in a Realist play, where music was strictly diegetic. For Nora, the tarantella dance of death was a ‘desperate misperformance in face of the encroaching reality’ (Kallenbach), a final act to display her humanity and ultimate desperation to live. Hence, she dances ‘wildly’ ‘as if her life depended on it’, employing all possible means to divert Helmer away from the letterbox. Nora hastily drapes on a ‘long variegated shawl’ and ‘[swings] the tambourine’ as ‘her hair comes down… over her shoulders’ (known as ‘back hair’, a Victorian sign of madness), the costuming and raucous prop serves to generate a striking sense of theatricality. This was an obvious showstopper that allowed Ibsen to pose the issue of women having to ‘[deliver] all individual will into the hands of a man’ (Mill) when married, transforming the female body to an object, a doll, a marionette to be corrected & orchestrated by the man. Nora’s doll-ness becomes pronounced when Helmer ‘[takes] her in his arms’, instructing her to be ‘slower’ and ‘not so violent’. The stage direction reveals Helmer bombarding Nora with ‘frequent directions’, literally controlling her movements and acting as her director, not just in this dance, but in their marriage as well. By displaying the theatrical marriage of Nora & Helmer, where they each perform the role of the ideal wife/husband, “Ibsen makes us think about the way we theatricalise ourselves and others in everyday life” (Moi). We can read this intertextually with Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy As You Like It (1603), where Jaques states that “All the world’s a stage”. Shakespeare’s metatheatre blends life/reality with theatre/illusion, blurring the boundaries between them & illustrating how reality & illusion can seep into both life & drama. By suggesting that life can be theatrical & illusory, it forms a similar idea to what Ibsen attempts to convey through the tarantella scene: the dominance of theatricality in a society where “all the men and women [are] merely players” who perform to maintain the idealistic façade of the contemporary society. This melodramatic scene utilises stage direction & metatheatre to address the illusory characteristics of society, portraying a complex social issue many idealistic groups such as institutions & religions tend to avoid.

According to John Mill’s The Subjection of Women, all women were brought up to believe that it is “their duty… to live for others” by “[setting] aside their own wishes & interests and have no life but in their affections”. This made the ending ‘deeply problematic’ (U. Kallenbach). Whilst the contemporary audience may have expected a potential melodramatic suicide ending for Nora, they were instead hit with an ‘unrealistic and unexplainable’ (U. Kallenbach) ‘sound of a shutting door’ that saw Nora ‘desert [her] home, [her] husband and [her] children’. The SFX indicates action offstage as the final curtains are drawn, all but confirming her radical departure. When Nora finally neglected her ‘most sacred duties’ of wife & mother to fulfil ‘duties to [her]self’ & become a ‘human being’, it signified a progression to the Kierkegaardian ethical stage where ‘individuals take the command of duty and translate it from the outer to the inner, thereby moving beyond duty’ (R. Perkins). By translating the duty ‘from the external to the internal’ (Kierkegaard), Nora now seeks to fulfil ‘duties to [her]self’ to become a ‘human being’. Nora’s performance for Helmer has been quite emphatically symbolised by the fancy dress she wears during the tarantella dance, when the theatricality of their marriage was made apparent, if not confirmed. The change in costuming when Nora ‘[takes] off [her] fancy dress’ and comes out ‘in her ordinary clothes’ marked the end of this performance and the beginning of her search for an identity. From the very start, Nora and Helmer were representations of decaying idealism and by the end it was clear that underneath the bourgeois façade, the marriage consisted of two individuals with different ideological positions. Nora no longer wants to be Helmer’s ‘little squirrel’ or the ‘doll-wife’ in his voyeuristic fantasies, withdrawing offstage to symbolise her departure from domesticity and towards freedom, leaving Helmer to grasp onto the det vidunderligste Nora promised would have to happen for their reunion. But after the numerous lies, deceits, and façades throughout the play, it is hard for any audience to take this promise seriously. Through sound effects & costuming, the ending scene thoroughly reflects the severity of complex social issues such as the confinement, imprisonment and enslavement of women in 19th century marriage.

With the tarantella scene, “Ibsen asks us to consider that even the most theatrical performance may at the very same time be a genuine expression of the human soul” (Moi). For Nora, the tarantella dance of death was a ‘desperate misperformance in face of the encroaching reality’ (Kallenbach), a final act that displayed her humanity and ultimate desperation to live. Nora’s absolute economic dependency on Helmer reduces her to nothing but her own body to trade and barter with. Women use it to capture and sustain the male gaze in order to progress their pursuits, reflecting the only form of power women possessed over men during this era. In this scene, Nora employs her ‘womanly’ body to divert Helmer from the letter box. She ‘plays the first bars of the tarantella’ and hastily drapes on a ‘long variegated shawl’ before dancing ‘as if [her] life depended on it’, the SFX and costuming acts as appealing features to the male gaze, successfully capturing Helmer, Rank, and even the audience’s attention. If we take Nora's dancing body to be a ‘picture of [her] soul’ (Wittgenstein), her ‘cogito performance’ could be a representation of Nora’s yearning ‘to make her existence heard, to make it count’ (Moi). To do so, she needs to deliberately make a spectacle of herself. The frantic movement onstage paired with costuming and a raucous prop, Nora’s ‘onset of madness’ is amplified, and so too is her humanity: she dances ‘more and more wildly’, ‘laughing and swinging the tambourine’ and ‘her hair comes down… over her shoulders’ (known as ‘back hair’, a Victorian sign of madness). Feminists argue that the significant manipulation of the male gaze when Nora theatricalises her body could be viewed as ‘quasi-pornographic’ (Moi). This idea is supported during the intimate exchange between Nora & Rank in the dark when Nora pulled out ‘flesh-coloured silk stockings’ and allowed Rank to ‘look at [her] feet’. Given the adamant contemporary opposition to women flaunting their legs, Nora took it dangerously close to infidelity when she displayed ‘[her] legs too’ and flirtatiously ‘hits him lightly on the ear with the stockings’. The suggestive props, stage directions and close proxemics inform us of Nora’s attempt to manipulate Rank’s feelings to get money out of him. Through sound and movement, the play portrays yet another social issue around women’s lack of rights & power, leading to their survival solely dependent on how well they can perform the perfect object to be pleasing to the male gaze.

In Karl Marx’s Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei (1848), he states: “The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family relationship its sentimental veil and has reduced it to a mere money relationship.” This is a social flaw of capitalism that Ibsen portrays in A Doll’s House through Nora & Helmer’s marriage. Marxists believe that the money-driven social system of capitalism grants power to wealthy men to manipulate and exploit the economically inferior, namely the working class and women. This degrades marriage to being a relationship purely based on money and the only morally acceptable option for women to survive in the contemporary misogynistic society of Marx & Ibsen. After Krogstad threatened to blackmail Nora using her fraud, the ‘splendid’ Christmas tree in the middle of the room became a tree ‘stripped of its ornaments with burnt-down candle-ends on its dishevelled branches’. Considering the Marxist view of Christmas as a money-making scheme and a winter fest reserved only for the rich, we can view the Christmas tree as a symbol of money, making its centrality in the room a reflection of how a bourgeois marriage (such as Nora & Helmer’s) revolves around wealth–or more accurately, the appearance of wealth. Just as the tree begins to deteriorate, so too is the façade of their wealth and, subsequently, their “perfect” marriage. The underlying issue with their marriage, or any marriage in general, can be attributed to women’s physiological trait of childbearing that has led to their consignment within the domestic sphere, becoming workers of reproductive labour who go unrecognised/uncompensated in capitalism because they fail to produce anything of monetary value. Their exclusion from productive labour means they are forced to beg & plead for money from their husband to at least have a measly bit of economic freedom. We see an example of this when Nora is ‘playing with [Helmer’s] coat buttons’, hoping that he would ‘give her some money’. Helmer also utilises money to please and subdue his little ‘spendthrift’:

“Helmer: … [Taking out his purse.] Nora, what do you think I have got here?

Nora [turning round quickly]. Money!

Helmer. There you are. [Gives her some money.]”

At the mention of money, Nora can’t resist but helplessly gawk at it, reminiscent of a child in a candy shop. Dramatic conventions, such as props and stage direction, are used to reflect social class issues around the prominence of money in marriage and the economic superiority of men, resulting in marriage becoming–what Marxist feminists refer to as–‘a form of legalised prostitution’.

Karl Marx famously claimed that "the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles". All throughout the 19th & 20th centuries, countries across the world experienced labour revolts that saw the uprising of the working class. This class conflict is similarly portrayed within the play, where the audiences witness conflicting viewpoints and characteristics between the bourgeois (Nora & Helmer) & the proletariats (Krogstad, Mrs Linde & the Maids). In a scathing rebuke, Marx blamed the bourgeoisie and the capitalist system for the “absence of the family among the proletariat” (R. Weikart). In the play, this problem is imputed to society’s double standard around children based on class, reflecting how bourgeois children are valued above those of the working class:

“Nora: … think of my little children.

Krogstad: Have you and your husband thought of mine?”

A confronting dialogue onstage forces the audience to contemplate the logic and morality of this double standard. Just like the maids in many households of Ibsen’s contemporary bourgeois audience, Anne Marie had to abandon her own children to come take care of Nora’s, although this abandonment wasn’t at all crucified by society like Nora’s departure was. The exchange also serves to portray dialectical materialism as the reason behind Krogstad’s evil intentions. Marxist dialectics emphasizes the importance of real-world conditions, mainly in terms of class, to depict good and evil as a product of one’s economic status. Ultimately blaming class structure that forces the economically inferior/desperate to commit crimes like blackmailing to support their family. The social conflicts between the bourgeoisie and the proletariats continue to be portrayed through another Marxist idea known as conspicuous consumption. Whilst Mrs Linde only wants ‘what one needs’, Nora desires for ‘heaps and heaps of money’. Not only that, but she also wants to ‘wrap [some money] up in beautiful gilt paper and hang it on the Christmas Tree’. The dialogue and prop embody conspicuous consumption at its finest and provide a prime example of the corruption and greediness of the bourgeois. The stage setting also reveals the bourgeois room is filled with ‘engravings on the walls’ and ‘carpeted floors’, perhaps a subverted melodramatic convention used by Ibsen to reveal conspicuous consumption gone mad. Ibsen effectively portrays complex social issues around class in this play, utilising dramatic conventions such as dialogue and setting to illustrate class conflicts through Marxist ideals, including dialectical materialism and conspicuous consumption.

“Realism was the death of art” (Dow), it wasn’t the enriching, uplifting or idealised depiction of reality conveyed in many literary texts at the time, but instead an “attempt to reflect life “as it actually is”” (College). Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879) was a harrowing account of society that left his audiences stunned and outraged, especially at the contentious ending. By incorporating subverted conventions of la pièce bien faite into his Realist play, Ibsen finessed his audience into expecting a standard melodrama, not a ‘problem play’ that poked holes at society’s façade of ideals and demanded changes to the treatment of women. By creating a microcosm of reality onstage through Realist theatre, Ibsen utilises dramatic conventions such as props, costuming & setting to portray significant and complex social issues around marriage & the flaws of capitalism, challenging contemporary society’s class & gender ideologies to reveal the corruption beneath the façade.

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