Although set in the late 19th century, the issues and themes explored in Ibsen’s play can still be seen in modern day society. In the 21st century, women leaving their husbands is not nearly as uncommon or taboo; yet audiences in 2005 may still see abandoning one’s children as unjustifiable. Torvald’s behaviour would be seen as severely unfair now, whereas it was typical in the 19th century “You are a wife and a mother before everything else” Audiences today would be appalled at this type of discrimination, and would therefore have more sympathy for Nora’s character. Plays written more recently such as Death and the Maiden, Dancing at Lughnasa and Shirley Valentine still challenge gender roles in the same way as A Doll’s House did 100 years ago. The situations may have been updated, but many of the controversial elements Ibsen introduced still remain.
Ibsen hated the kind of playwriting that was superficial with little variety, and instead wanted to create realism in his plays. He was frustrated with the current styles of drama that were melodramatic, and the complex and misleading texts. Ibsen wanted to create plays that reflected the true Bourgeois society, and used plays like A Doll’s House and The League of Youth as an outlet for his creative abilities and as an opportunity to criticise society. He often used aspects of his own life to create characters or situations; his wife Suzannah Thoresen was not unlike the character of Nora. Suzannah was independent and strong-willed, a possible reason for Ibsen creating a female heroine in Nora. Ibsen believed that the husband and wife in a marriage should be equal, and this belief is clearly shown in A Doll’s House.
Ibsen used the French ‘piéce bien faite’ meaning ‘well made play’ as the basic form for A Doll’s House. This usually involved using typical characters such as the jealous husband, the villain, the reliable friend and the distressed, fragile woman. The structure consisted of a build up of tension to a climatic scene where all the characters’ problems were resolved. Ibsen took this form and gave it layers. The characters became more complex, and so did the plot. The innocent woman evolved into a manipulative, strong and passionate protagonist, and the typical villain had a conscience. The storyline also became far less predictable and standard for traditional play of the time. Mistaken identities were replaced with deception, and morals were replaced with controversy.
A Doll’s House is divided into three acts. Ibsen chose this format to give the impression of a beginning, a middle and an end. The first act is used as an introduction, and a foundation for the characters personalities. By doing this, we can see the development of the characters’ personalities and behaviour throughout the play. It also physically sets the scene, and we see the ‘warm, well-furnished room’ in which Nora spends almost all of her time.
Ibsen uses the retrospective technique, by making all the main events actually taking place before the start of the play. This means that we see each individual character discovering the event, essentially Nora’s fraud, at different stages of the play. As the play progresses, the past is unveiled. Because her crime has already been committed, Ibsen creates tension by revealing this to the audience before the other characters. The same technique is used for Krogstad and Mrs Linde’s relationship, as well Krogstad’s crime and the doctor’s illness. Because the play is set over only three days, the major events are compressed to a shorter amount of time. This is even more dramatic, as the tension is created more rapidly with little time to digest all the new information. This clearly has a drastic effect on the characters, as Nora becomes even more panicked “Never, never, never ever could it be true”.
The introduction of these characters at different points in the play is part of why the structure works so well. For example, we need Krogstad to interrupt Nora and her children while they are happily playing, in order to create tension. Mrs Linde’s entrance is also used at a specific point as a contrast to how Nora behaves with her husband.
Act two shows this heightened panic in Nora, as well as in Krogstad; his repeated visits emphasise his fear of losing his job and his desperation to keep it. At this point, the audience is aware of Nora’s crime, and so the second act is where most of the tension is created. Added complications to an already difficult situation also contribute to this tension. Ibsen often uses symbols and dramatic irony within the structure, and hints towards the future are shown to the audience. Characters like the nanny symbolise Nora’s replacement after she has gone, and the game of hide and seek represents how Nora she is hiding from the truth.
Act three is the climax to the play, yet the characters’ problems are revealed, and not necessarily resolved. We see the development and complexities of every character, even in the space of three days. A Doll’s House does not end like a typical piéce bien faite of that time; it does not have a “happy ending” as most would see it. The letter that Krogstad sends represents this rise and fall of tension. In Act 1, it is only touched on, and not a threat; the tension at this point is low. In Act 2, we see Krogstad actually posting his letter, and at this point, the audience realise that Torvald will eventually discover Nora’s secret. Because Nora cannot access the letterbox, tension is at one of the highest points here. Act 3 sees Torvald reading the letter, and the climax of tension.
A Doll’s House has elements of multiple styles of playwriting. As much as Ibsen attempted to move away from melodramatic, superficial styles, there are moments in the play which do have subtle melodramatic indications. This type of play is characterised by exaggerated emotions and stereotypical characters. The structure in particular is typical of a melodrama; it has a clear build up of tension to a climax. The controversy of Ibsen’s final moment, where Nora slams the door and walks out on her bourgeoisie lifestyle, alone makes it melodramatic. Other elements related to this style include the vivid imagery Ibsen uses, and his use of monologues as a dramatic device is clearly non-naturalistic.
Much of A Doll’s House is symbolic; another style Ibsen’s play could fall into. He uses symbols and metaphors throughout the play, such as the ‘new savings bank’ to signify the Helmer’s new start, and even the title ‘A Doll’s House’ clearly represents how troubled Nora feels with the confines of her doll-like existence. This symbol has the effect on creating more sympathy for Nora’s character, as it reinforces the idea that she is trapped in a materialistic world, and is being constantly controlled.
Ibsen’s play has also been seen as a modern tragedy. The definition of tragedy originated with Aristotle, a philosopher who theorised that tragedy results in catharsis is, and is what made Greek tragedies so appealing. Catharsis refers to the “cleansing of emotions”, and when in drama, explains why audiences took some kind of satisfaction in seeing these types of plays.
Mostly however, the play is naturalistic, which is what made it so unique when it was written. The characters in A Doll’s House are not just catergorised as ‘bad’ or ‘good’ as they would be in melodramas. Krogstad for example, has both cruel and forgiving elements to his personality. This complexity of character is very naturalistic, and gave audiences something to relate to. The detail of the rooms and even something as simple as the chronological order of the scenes also adds to its naturalism.