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Staging the Play A Doll’s House

One of the foremost characteristics of Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House is that its plot appears linearly defined, which in turn, explains the semantic realism of play’s overall sounding. As it is being the case with most of Ibsen’s other plays, throughout A Doll’s House, characters’ existential stances never cease undergoing a qualitative transformation – the manner in which characters position themselves at play’s beginning is being different from the manner in which they position themselves at play’s end.

There are good reasons to believe that the realism of this particular play is being reflective of the actual workings of author’s analytical mindset – apparently, Ibsen never ceased being aware of the fact that the extent of play’s realistic sounding reflects the extent of presented characters’ intellectual flexibility, extrapolated in the particulars of how they address life’s challenges.

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As Kaufmann (1965) put it “[Ibsen] knows that truth never is a possession, but a constant effort to find the appropriate response to every situation which demands a decision” (22). The legitimacy of such our hypothesis can be explored in relation to play’s synopsis:

Nora Helmer is a married woman, who helped her husband Torvald Helmer (bank clerk) once by borrowing a large sum of money from the bank, after forged her dad’s signature. Torvald is completely unaware of the forgery that had taken place. Initially, he is presented as a loving husband, who treats Nora in particularly affectionate manner, even though he also appears to be utterly ignorant of Nora’s basic humanity – throughout the play, Torvald treats her as pretty but soulless doll. Krogstad is another important character in the play.

When being faced with the prospect of losing his job in Torvald’s bank, he threatens to blackmail Nora (because of her forgery) if she does not convince Torvald to refrain from firing him. Eventually, Torvald finds out about Nora’s forgery and becomes enraged over his wife’s presumed infidelity.

He ends up accusing Nora of moral depravity, while suggesting that under no circumstances should Nora have considered keeping secrets from him. Torvald’s behavior opens Nora’s eyes to the fact that she has been loyal to an unworthy man, incapable of addressing life’s challenges outside the structure of conventional morality, and for whom the continuous observation of social customs meant so much more then ensuring his wife’s happiness.

It begins to dawn upon Nora that, her stay with Torlvald may very well be compared to the stay of a bird in the cage. After having realized it, Nora decides to leave Torvald, who in her eyes has been downsized from a respectful head of the household to a regular moralistic hypocrite, unable of appreciating Nora in a way she truly deserved. Nora says good-bye to Torlvald and her children and embarks upon the quest to find her long lost sense of identity.

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The earlier provided outline of the plot points out what can be considered the foremost indication of play’s dramaturgic uniqueness – the strongly defined dramatics sounding of its themes and motifs. Therefore, it comes as not a particular surprise that the action in A Doll’s House appears spatially limited. As it was pointed out by Jakovljevic (2002): “Ibsen’s family drama [A Doll’s House] is set within the space of perspectival constraints.

The entire play takes place in this single set that represents the living room in a middle class family flat” (432). What it means is that, while staging A Doll’s House, directors must focus their attention on ensuring the psychological plausibility of themes and motifs, contained in this particular play, as their principal priority. The best way to accomplish this is by exposing the essence of psychological anxieties, experienced by the play’s characters, as such that relate to psychological anxieties, on the part of audience’s members.

Within the context of Ibsen play’s staging, ensuring action’s psychological plausibility will not represent much of a challenge.

The reason for this is simple – unlike what it is being commonly assumed, A Doll’s House is not solely concerned with exploring the theme of women’s liberation from patriarchal oppression, which could make this play ideologically outdated, but also with exposing what accounts for existentialist incompatibility between husband and wife – subject matter that even today remains utterly relevant.

As it was rightly noted by Haugen (1979): “Ibsen’s Nora is not just a woman arguing for female liberation; she is much more.

She embodies the comedy as well as the tragedy of modern life” (vii). In other words, there is a well defined rationale for a modernist staging of A Doll’s House, as such staging that would emphasize the play’s contemporary themes and motifs. One way of ensuring the conceptual relevance of Ibsen’s play for a modern audience is to stage an unconventional production. The following is how four elements of theatre (set, costumes, characterization and audience participation) can reflect a modernist staging of A Doll’s House.

Set

A Doll’s House, does not leave the boundaries of one single room. This eases up the process of designing the set. Given the minimalistic traditions of modernist theatre, a table and few chairs in the foreground are more than adequate for the set.

After all, the action in this particular Ibsen’s play can be best referred to as essentially verbal, which suggests the lessened importance of an onstage environment, as an additional instrument of ensuring action’s plausibility: “In a word, A Doll’s House is a play about writing. It is a play about writing with consequences, about words that act and generate action” (Jakovljevic 433).

Nevertheless, to make unraveling of the plot more authenticated, the trappings of a middle class home may be utilized as well. By simplifying onstage set to a minimum, the director will be able to “kill two rabbits with one shot”: to modernize the play’s action in the eyes of the audience, and to emphasize the sheer extent of play action’s drama.

Costumes

The dramaturgic value of A Doll’s House is Ibsen’s ability to expose characters’ psychological anxieties, rather than his talent in authenticating the realities of 19th century’s Norwegian living. Therefore, a modern production should dress actors in contemporary or ‘minimalist’ costumes.

It will provide an additional stimulus for the audience to focus on play’s themes and motifs if Torvald, Krogstad and Dr. Rank wear black trousers and black golf sweaters. Nora and Mrs. Linde can wear black shirts and matching tight skirts. In its turn, this will substantially increase the extent of production’s intellectual appeal.

The suggestion, in this respect, correlates with the point, made in Cima’s (1983) article: “The director might choose to present A Doll’s House so that the action is ‘to discover oneself’ (a ‘feminist’ approach), or he might focus on the action ‘to play the game” (15). By having actors dressed in minimalist costumes, the director will prompt them to be more focused on ‘playing the game’, as opposed to be concerned with maintaining the spirit of historicity.

The utilization of ‘minimalist’ costumes in production of A Doll’s House is the pathway towards ensuring production’s modernist sounding.

Characterization

As mentioned earlier, with the possible exception of Torvald, the characters in Ibsen’s play are represented in the state of undergoing a constant intellectual transition. For example, the manner in which Nora reacts to life’s challenges in Act One is qualitatively different from the way she reacts to these challenges in Act Three.

What it means is that, while striving to ensure the genuineness of actors’ onstage performance, the director will have to look into creating objective preconditions for actors’ interaction to serve the purpose of revealing developmental aspects of played characters’ psychological makeup: “With the advent of Ibsen’s plays… a revised category of gestures became necessary: the autistic gesture, or subtle visual sign of the character’s soliloquy with himself” (Cima 22).

This can be achieved with the means of encouraging actors to perform in essentially spontaneous manner, while going as far as even indulging in verbal interaction with the audience, if thought contextually appropriate.

Audience participation

The success of using a modernist approach to theatrical productions depends of turning viewers into active participants, often despite their desire to remain passive. Encouraging actors to improvise thought-provoking remarks, even if these remarks have nothing to do with play’s actual script, can do this.

Within the framework of A Doll’s House modernist staging, actors were prompted to expose parallels between Torvald’s behavioral superficiality and the behavioral superficiality of many of today’s overly effeminate men, who despite their willingness to ‘act responsibly’, exhibit a number of psychological weakness in their daily lives.

For example, while coming up with his moralistic speeches, Torvald may very well refer to political correctness, as the source of conventional morality, which will undoubtedly trigger strong emotional reactions in the audience.

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The legitimacy of an earlier outlined production proposal can be explored in relation to Gardner’s online article, where she elaborates on the particulars of Erica Whyman’s staging of A Doll’s House. According to Gardner (2008), Whyman had made a deliberate point in representing play’s plot as such that is being unraveled during the course of fifties: “The 1950s setting works very well; it is a period far enough away in time for the stifling social code of Ibsen’s play not to jar, but modern enough to connect with today” (Guardian).

Moreover, as it appears from Gardner’s article, Whyman considered it fully appropriate altering the semantic subtleties of play’s characterization: “Well-meaning but misguided Torvold is no villain; indeed, initially it is the beautiful Nora – a self-conscious spoiled child – who is the least appealing of the protagonists” (Guardian).

Apparently, Whyman had no reservations about modernizing the, which contributed immensely to production’s success with the audience. It is understood, of course, that the manner in which Whyman had gone about staging Ibsen’s play, points out to the fact that it would indeed be appropriate, on director’s part, to utilize modernist approach in designing the theatrical production of A Doll’s House – just as it was initially hypothesized in the paper.

References

Cima, Gibson Gay “Discovering Signs: The Emergence of the Critical Actor in Ibsen.” Theatre Journal 35.1 (1983): 5-22. Print.

DiYanni, Robert. Literature: Approaches to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. 2nd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill Humanities. Print.

Gardner, Lyn “A Doll’s House.” 28 Apr. 2008. Guardian.Co.Uk. 24 Apr. 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2008/apr/28/theatre1

Haugen, Einar. Ibsen’s Drama: Author to Audience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1979. Print.

Jakovljevic, Branislav “Shattered Back Wall: Performative Utterance of A Doll’s House.” Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002): 431-448. Print.

Kaufmann, F.W. “Ibsen’s Conception of Truth.” Ibsen: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Rolf Fjelde. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall. 1965. 17-30. Print.

Appendices:

Erica Whyman’s fifties-styled production of A Doll’s House.

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