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In A Doll’s House by Ibsen, the author takes the preconditions and viewer expectations of the play format established by earlier writers and uses them to shock his audience rather than lull them into oblivion with simple entertainment. Ibsen inherits these preconditions and expectations from two main theatrical trends, the tragic tradition and the well-made play tradition. By manipulating these two formats, he arrives at a theater experience that is truly innovative, one that involves not only the history of the dramatic stage but its future.The history of the tragic tradition is one that determines its various influences and expectations within A Doll’s House. The “rules” of this format were set out by Aristotle in his Poetics, namely the 1 – 2 punch of pity and fear: an undeserved fate paired with a similar reality. Audiences watched as an uncomfortably familiar character was wrecked onstage by a cruel and unearned turn of fate. The effect was one of catharsis – viewers fears were fulfilled vicariously through the tragic format, leaving the audience in a purged state where they had witnessed but not actually participated in man’s downfall. This format obviously laid the framework for Ibsen – his characters are familiar, his fate is unmerited, and his struggle is painfully and intimately emotional and mental.
But although Ibsen uses the tragic tradition as a chassis, his car is completely different from the classic tragedy. Pity is updated and deepened from a simple twist of fate to a moral questioning of societal restraints and predestinations – Nora and Torvald’s struggles with classism and the necessary façade of European bourgeois society demand the viewer to approach fate not as an uncontrollable, inhuman outside force but an animal of our own creation, a built-in wrecker inside the machine of human civilization and social culture. Ibsen also brings this evolution to the idea of fear – the characters that were once royalty with similar dilemmas are now middle-class bourgeoisie who could be ones neighbors. Going to the theater evolved from the vicarious experience to the reflective experience – audiences were watching themselves in their own living rooms onstage. The gender stereotyped, male-dominated universe and capitalistic system that ruled both the work-world and the household were not only familiar themes to Ibsen’s audience – they were their themes. Nora’s flittering, doll-like exterior and Torvald’s patronizing, patriarchic and idiotic character are all slight exaggerations of the common middle-class household. Thus Ibsen took the tragic tradition and used its characteristics to modernize the dramatic stage, creating a whole new class of theater that shocked the audience with its brutal criticism.
Ibsen also used the influences of the well-made play tradition to transform modern theater. The well-made play produced theater slickly-oiled like a machine, with a format specifically designed to entertain the audience and release them for at least a few hours from the daily grind of their lives. The settings were fantastical, the jokes were crude and repetitive, and the plot was often known beforehand. The well-made play’s format contained four main characteristics, the obligatory first act exposition, the climax, the dénouement, and the object that moves and controls the plot. Ibsen took these rules and applied them in a way that converted them into a very mockery of themselves – the first act is almost ridiculous in its gender stereotyping and melodramatic tension. The characters own superficiality is a critique, while the gradual unraveling of the perfect world Nora and Torvald inhabit is like a fantastical journey through reality. The climax of Nora’s departure is scathingly shocking to the bourgeois audience, and Torvald’s empty hope at the final end suggests not only an essential void to his character but also the scarily implacable nature societal customs and façade-building rules over middle-class citizens. The letter and IOU from Krogstad are the obvious objects that control the plot, but even there Ibsen modernizes the well-made format. Traditionally the object was a trivial and humorous trifle, such as the glass of water in The Glass of Water, but in A Doll’s House the objects represent the enveloping and detrimental influence of the capitalistic bourgeois system, a culture in which all morality is based upon money.
Ibsen thus utilizes the rich inheritance of the tragic and well-made play traditions to modify and even perverse the classic formatting of theater. His stylistic and character-based innovations brought about a realism in theater unheard of until his modernist perspective changed the face of the dramatic stage. In A Doll’s House, this perspective is brought to life, as a whole set of characters reveal a society unto itself.
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