Ibsen’s A Doll’s House as a Well-Made Play
Eugene Scribe defined the structure of a well-made play to describe how the best play should be laid out. The components of this basic outline include exposition, suspense, development and complication, strong curtain, cause and effect, resolution, scène à faire, and dénouement (Prośniak 448). Although Henry Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is one of the earliest plays to follow Scribe’s structure of a well-made play, the drama moves away from the structure to embrace features of a social problem play and melodrama.
A well-made play uses a feature called exposition to let the audience know all the essential details of the situation in an unobvious way. While most plays written during the time used a narration from one character, A Doll’s House begins with an exposition built into the play itself. Almost the entire first act is an exposition that reveals important information to the reader. Nora speaks to several other key characters, including Helmer, Krogstad, and Mrs. Linden, to set up the play’s situation for the audience. Mrs. Linde or Christina arrives at Nora’s house, and as they catch up, most of the play’s expository information is revealed, including Nora’s childhood, marriage to Helmer, and a debt that saved Nora’s husband. As the first act closes, the reader has all the necessary information to understand a pressing matter.
Suspense is a significant element in Ibsen’s play, and it begins towards the end of act one. As the curtains fall, Krogstad approaches Nora with his first demand, which requires Nora to intervene and prevent his job loss by influencing her husband. She tries to talk Helmer into sparing Krogstad’s job, but he ends the conversation with, “It gives me a positive sense of physical discomfort to come into contact with such people” (Ibsen, line 860). The author increases suspense further through props, contrived entrances and exits, and misunderstandings between characters known by the audience. An instance of contrived exits and entrances is when Krogstad arrives at Nora’s house immediately when Helmer leaves, returning shortly after Krogstad’s departure.
The drama uses a tight plot where the story is told from various perspectives leading to missing information and revelations that build more suspense. For example, when Krogstad leaves a letter in the mailbox for Helmer, Nora uses several tactics to prevent him from opening and reading the letter. There is a great deal of suspense as the audience awaits Krogstad to collect his letter after Mrs. Linde’s persuasion. The tension builds when Krogstad does not collect his letter, and Mrs. Linden asks Nora to reveal the truth (Ibsen 165). Suspense is built into the whole play as a component of the well-made play.
During the second act of A Doll’s House, the development and complication components of the well-made play are eminent. According to Scribe, complication involves delivering letters, and Ibsen uses both letters, cards, and notes in the plot (Prośniak 450). Nora explores all possible solutions to her problem with Krogstad. One possible remedy includes trying to talk her husband out of the idea of firing Krogstad, a move that backfires, leading to the immediate delivery of the dismissal letter to Krogstad’s residence (Ibsen 150-230). The second attempt to resolve the problem is by borrowing money from Dr. Rank. However, he discloses his love for Nora, and she desists from asking for help. Krogstad complicates the situation when he leaves a letter for Helmer detailing his ‘business transaction’ with Nora.
In a crisis mood, Nora opens up to Mrs. Linde to seek help, who in turn proposes to speak to Krogstad and convince him to collect his unread letter. Frantically, Nora plays a tarantella with Helmer to delay his reading of the letter until Krogstad picks it up (Ibsen 595). This frantic situation creates a strong curtain for the second act as the audience yearns to know if Helmer reads the letter and what happens after that. A strong curtain is an event or dialogue in a well-made play just before the beginning of the final act that creates suspense concerning the climax. Nora’s tarantella provides this event as it closes the second act and leaves the audience with tension.
Cause and effect is a significant component of Ibsen’s plot in A Doll’s House. Following a thin plot, the first cause is Helmer’s new position as the Joint Stock Bank manager, whose effect is the firing of Krogstad (Ibsen 195). His dismissal from the bank acts as the reason for blackmailing Nora and Helmer into reinstating him into his position. The effect of the blackmail is the revelation of Nora’s mistake to her husband, who abandons her. When Helmer exposes his true self to Nora, she, in effect, leaves him. Ibsen also uses cause and effect to progress his characters. For instance, Mrs. Linden’s visit to the Helmers is the cause of Nora’s change. Ibsen’s plot moves from cause to effect until the final act.
A well-made play has a resolution component that involves the tying of all loose ends representing the final moments. It begins with Krogstad’s change of motive, which makes the audience think that he will destroy his letter. Ibsen delays an ending by allowing Helmer to read the letter. When he finally reads the blackmail letter, the play reaches Scribe’s scène à faire moment, a confrontation. The period presents a punch and counterpunch component when the hero faces the highest or lowest points. Nora reaches her lowest point after discovering that her husband is not as devoted to her as she had imagined. Her highest point is Krogstad’s second letter, in which he gives her the promissory note, and she is no longer obliged to Helmer. The scène à faire is the scene that the audience awaits from the beginning of a play.
A well-made play ends with the revelations of all the secrets in the story. Dénouement is the term that describes this component of the play. The ending of A Doll’s House was unexpected as Helmer apologizes and asks for forgiveness a little late, and Nora announces that she is leaving and does not look back. She had been a passive character throughout the play, but circumstances have progressively pushed her into an active role in her life. Ibsen explores various character facets by allowing only the last action to be possible for Nora.
A Doll’s House moves away from the classic, well-made play into a social problem play and a melodrama. In addition, the play’s unexpected ending shows an element of modern drama. Ibsen highlights the social issues of the time through Dr. Rank, Mrs. Linden, and Nora. Dr. Rank and Mrs. Linden are supposed to be society’s best models due to their old age. However, Dr. Rank’s illness and love towards a married woman destroy this quality. On the other hand, Mrs. Linden abandoned her true love to marry another man for his riches. As a married woman, Nora feels that she can relate better with other people than her husband. She explains to Dr. Rank that her relationship with Helmer is similar to what she had with her father. Through these characters, Ibsen portrays the issues in society at the period. Mrs. Linden’s subplot is a melodrama with a happy ending as she reconciles with her first lover. She and Krogstad have experienced challenges in their relationships and financial life. The audience can only hope that their reunion will positively transform their lives.
In conclusion, A Doll’s House has all the components of a well-made play and moves away from a melodrama and social problem play. These elements include exposition, suspense, development and complication, strong curtain, cause and effect, resolution, scène à faire, and dénouement. Exposition is built into the play itself, with almost the entire first act revealing critical information to the audience. The author creates suspense through props, contrived entrances and exits, and misunderstandings between characters that are only known by the audience. Complication involves delivering letters, and Ibsen uses both letters, cards, and notes in the plot. The play reaches a scène à faire during the confrontation between Nora and Helmer. Melodrama is manifested through a subplot that involves Mrs. Linden and Krogstad’s reunion. Social problem play is represented by Nora’s relationship with her father and later her husband. The play has an element of a modern dram in its ending twist where Nora decides to leave the marriage and does it.
Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’s House. Translated by T. Weber and Michael Meyer. Hard Press, 2007.
Prośniak, Anna. “Sardoodledom” on the English Stage: TW Robertson and the Assimilation of Well-Made Play into the English Theatre.” Text Matters: A Journal of Literature, Theory and Culture 10 (2020): 446-459.