A Well-Made Doll’s House: The Influence of Eugene Scribe on the Art of Henrik Ibsen
Posted by Jennine Lanouette on Sunday, December 24th, 2000
A famous writer once said, “Because someone does a thing first, doesn’t mean they will do it best,” and the history of drama certainly has done its part to bear this out. Playwrights who boldly introduce new dramatic forms (Seneca, for example) have often left to those who came later the job of raising their innovations to the level of art (as Shakespeare did). Indeed, it can be said that the creation of drama is a collaborative effort down through time, as much as it is in a single theater space.
On occasion, the best of these efforts spring from the most unlikely of collaborators. It may seem a considerable stretch to say that Eugene Scribe, an early 19th century French writer of light comedies and vaudevilles, had a profound influence on the late 19th century playwright Henrik Ibsen, who is often called “the father of modern drama.” Nonetheless, it appears to be true. While it was Scribe who first developed the structural model of the “well-made play,” it took an artist of the magnitude of Ibsen to utilize those dramatic concepts in the creation of plays that were actually well made, and more than well made. A structural analysis of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House reveals his utilization of the components of the “well-made play” to offer the audience, in addition to a well-constructed plot, a high degree of depth and complexity in character and theme.
Nora, a sheltered housewife, is visited by Krogstad when her husband Torvald’s new position at the bank threatens his employment there. Years ago, Nora secretly borrowed money from Krogstad to finance a year in Italy when her husband Torvald was very ill. Krogstad pressures Nora to use her influence to prevent Torvald from firing him. Otherwise, he will expose the fact that she forged a signature on the promissory note. Nora’s attempts to intervene with her husband on Krogstad’s behalf are futile and Krogstad is fired. Krogstad leaves a letter of blackmail in Torvald’s mailbox, which Nora manages to delay Torvald from opening while she both hopes he will save her from ruin and plans her suicide to save his reputation. Nora’s friend Kristine, who had a love affair with Krogstad years before, asks him to take her back, which prompts Krogstad to return the I.O.U. to Nora. But before he does, Torvald opens the blackmail letter and cruelly chastises and abuses Nora as a criminal unfit to be the mother of her children. When Krogstad’s letter with the I.O.U. arrives, Torvald rejoices at his redemption and decides to forgive Nora. However, having seen the fickleness of his commitment to her, Nora announces that she is leaving him.
Ibsen’s overall body of work, in addition to foreshadowing a number of literary forms of the future, is often viewed as representing the culmination of three pre-existing forms dominant throughout the 19th century–the melodrama, the social drama and the well-made play. Indeed, elements of all three of these genres can be found in A Doll’s House in various guises.
In Torvald’s best friend Dr. Rank, Ibsen gives us a counterpart to the consumptive female of the mid-19th century social problem play. Rank’s tragic quality stems both from his degenerative illness and the unrequited love he harbors for Nora. But Ibsen is also using Rank to show us the kind of relationship Nora doesn’t have with Torvald. Nora admits that she talks more openly and equally with Rank and prefers being with him to being with her husband. We might even be led to feel that Nora is woefully misguided in not valuing that as a basis for love, setting the stage for a romantic tragedy.
But Ibsen also makes Rank morbid, sickly and miserable, thereby making sure we don’t want her to go off with him. Nora’s refusal to consider her relationship with him as a solution to her problems is a way of signaling that she is not leaving Torvald in order to take up with another man. She is leaving to seek a life altogether outside of the male/female power imbalance. Rank’s character also points up a double standard by showing a fragile, sickly man as unattractive, in contrast to the romanticized consumptive female. While Rank’s subplot has elements of the social problem play, Ibsen makes clear that there is nothing noble about Rank and his Camille-esque postures.
In the Kristine and Krogstad subplot, we are provided with our happy ending melodrama. Kristine is a typical mid-19th century “fallen woman,” having abandoned the man she loved to marry for money, then being left with nothing when her supposedly rich husband dies, forcing her to fend for herself, as well as supporting her brothers and mother. By the time she is freed of her obligations by the death of her mother, years of grueling work have aged her considerably. She is given a so-called happy ending when she gets reunited with her former love, but it is hardly satisfying since that man is the bitter, mean-spirited Krogstad. Now she has the privilege of taking care of him and his children, as well as working a full-time job. (Once again Ibsen shows his remarkable foresight in anticipating the raw deal handed the “Super Moms” in the 1970s.) Our only consolation is that presumably she will be able to lighten him up a bit with her presence in his life. Again, Ibsen has taken a well-worn dramatic form and inverted it slightly to say something more realistic about the human condition.
Whereas the melodrama and the social drama show up in A Doll’s House in subplots highlighting issues of content and theme, the well-made play has a great influence on the play’s structure. In his introduction to Camille and Other Plays, Stephen S. Stanton identifies the structural features of the well-made play, placing first among them “a plot based on a secret known to the audience but withheld from certain characters (who have long been engaged in a battle of wits) until its revelation (or the direct consequence thereof) in the climactic scene serves to unmask a fraudulent character and restore to good fortune the suffering hero, with whom the audience has been made to sympathize.” Indeed, the entire drama of A Doll’s House is based on Nora’s secret of borrowing the money several years before and paying it back bit by bit ever since. It is the revelation of this secret in Krogstad’s letter that unmasks the fraudulent nature of Torvald’s commitment to Nora (with whom we have been made to sympathize) and while it doesn’t exactly restore her to good fortune in her circumstances, it does have a profound effect on her character, elevating her to a level of personhood she has not previously experienced.
Stanton then takes us through the dominant characteristics of the Scribean drama: “As the play opens, the likable but helpless hero is overwhelmed by adverse circumstances and dominated by an opposing character.” At the beginning of A Doll’s House, Nora is certainly likable (she implores Torvald not to be such a skinflint on Christmas) and helpless (she is dependent on him for money). She is also overwhelmed by adverse circumstances (the need to pay back her loan) and dominated by an opposing character (the vindictive Krogstad).
Stanton continues, “Because the play presents only the crisis of the whole story, the first act is almost entirely expository.” A Doll’s House is in fact the story of a marriage, starting from the time Nora leaves her father to marry Torvald, through the period when she borrows money to save his life, through the many years she has spent paying it back, and up to the moment she is confronted with his ingratitude for her sacrifices. However, the on-stage action begins three days before the marriage ends. To facilitate the exposition, Nora’s childhood friend Kristine arrives and most of the background information is brought out in the process of their “catching up.”
“Often the hero is loved by two women,” says Stanton, and our hero, Nora, is in fact loved by two men, her husband Torvald and his best friend Dr. Rank. “The machinery of complication,” Stanton goes on, “is often the misdelivery of a letter or other document,” which we see when Nora is powerless first against Torvald’s delivery of the letter of termination to Krogstad and then against Krogstad’s delivery of the blackmailing letter to Torvald. In fact, in solid Scribean fashion, Ibsen makes ample use of letters, notes and calling cards as plot devices but manages to invert the technique by turning Krogstad’s purposely delivered letter of blackmail into a “ticking bomb” when Nora gets Torvald to promise not to open it until after the ball the next night.
Stanton also makes reference to “contrived entrances and exits,” which Ibsen seems to use with no shame. In act 1, Torvald goes out in time for Krogstad to arrive with his threat and then Torvald conveniently returns just after Krogstad has left. The next day, Krogstad calls again, this time leaving the letter, and only minutes after he leaves Kristine sets out to find him at his place to convince him to take it back and returns, again only moments later, to announce that he has already left for the country.
Also attributed to Scribe is the technique of “plant and payoff” which Ibsen uses by having Dr. Rank complain to Nora about his health and promise to send her a calling card with a black cross on it when he knows for certain that he is dying. This serves as a plant, which is paid off close to the climax when Torvald finds two such cards in their mailbox just before opening his mail. Scribe is often faulted with using too many coincidental meetings between characters, a practice which Ibsen apparently finds no fault in since he uses it himself as when Kristine, on her first visit to her childhood friend’s home, meets up with her former lover Krogstad, whom she has come to Oslo to find.
While these techniques are considered typically Scribean, he is by no means credited with inventing them. He is, in fact, considered to have invented nothing, except his method of combining the most effective and time-tested techniques into a tightly structured action, with no extraneous parts, utilizing a progressive logic based on cause and effect to steadily build the drama to its climax. Perhaps Scribe’s greatest contribution to the history of drama was his discovery of the intentional use of cause and effect to heighten dramatic intensity. While Scribe is roundly criticized for his relentless and superficial plotting, it is ironic that his energetic use of cause and effect in his plots actually prepared the ground for later playwrights to explore social and psychological causation, which led directly to considerable enrichment of character and theme.
In A Doll’s House, we see cause and effect relationships at work in both the plot and character elements. The plot-based cause and effect progression is fairly simple, in great contrast to the Byzantine complexity that Scribe employed. Torvald Helmer gets a new position at the bank, which leads him to fire Krogstad. Krogstad uses Nora’s past forgery to blackmail Torvald, which reveals to Torvald Nora’s mistake. As a result, Torvald effectively abandons her, prompting Nora to leave Torvald. In pure plot terms, A Doll’s House is pretty thin.
However, Ibsen’s intention was not simply to engage his audience in the external suspense of whether or not Krogstad will succeed in his blackmail or whether or not Nora will be saved by Torvald. In fact, a somewhat casual attitude towards plot on Ibsen’s part is evidenced in the rather flimsy cause and effect relationship in the story’s lynchpin event–Krogstad’s decision to retract his blackmail simply because Kristine wants to marry him. How does regaining a lost love make a man need a job less? How does marrying the woman who usurped his job lead a man to forgive the man who fired him? When closely examined the plausibility factor of this particular cause and effect doesn’t hold up. But that doesn’t bother Ibsen because the dramatic momentum at this point is not coming from the plot machinations. It is coming from the character issues. He simply needs a device through which to reveal Torvald’s duplicity to Nora so that she can experience her revelation.
Much more interesting than the plot construction in A Doll’s House is the subtle way in which Ibsen uses cause and effect to create the character progression. The mere presence of Kristine, a more worldly and experienced peer who Nora knew as an equal in childhood, serves as an instigating force in Nora’s transformation. Nora is offended when Kristine refers to her as a child, which leads her to confide to Kristine that she saved Torvald’s life by borrowing a large sum of money. This serves both an expositional function, by revealing critical background information, as well as a character function, by showing us Nora’s reactivity to Kristine’s patronizing treatment of her. Nora is ripe for a change. This is supported when she reveals to Kristine and Dr. Rank, her two confidants, that there are two words she would really love to say in front of Torvald–hell and damnation (gasp!).
The nature of her relationship with Torvald is further revealed when the plot-based cause and effect event of Kristine arriving in town and Nora getting her a job with Torvald is given a character twist with the manner in which Nora does it. She doesn’t simply ask Torvald if he has a job for Kristine, as Kristine no doubt would have done. She flatters his ego by telling him that Kristine is looking for someone very experienced to work for so that she can develop her skills at office work. This does the trick and Torvald magnanimously assures Kristine he can find something for her.
Shortly after Nora learns from Krogstad that he knows she committed forgery and he plans to use it against her if she doesn’t help him, we hear from Torvald that Krogstad also was once a forger and, more importantly, we see the contempt Torvald has for such people, viewing them as unfit to raise children. This serves in plot terms as a plant since it is critical preparation for Torvald’s reaction to the blackmail at the climax. But it also is a cause which leads to a whole series of effects such as Nora’s subsequent shunning of her children, Nora’s discussion with the nanny about giving up her own child, and Nora’s increased urgency to stop Krogstad from getting to Torvald.
However, Nora makes a fatal mistake. On her second appeal to Torvald to keep Krogstad on at the bank, he confesses to her that he is embarrassed by the fact that Krogstad calls him by his first name. Nora, perhaps due to her desperation, forgets her tried-and-true technique of flattering his ego to get what she wants and instead blurts out that he is being petty. Torvald takes great offense to being chastised by his wife and in response immediately puts the letter of termination in the mail to Krogstad. Nora’s individualized self has begun to speak out, but the effect in this moment is to get her into deeper trouble.
The effect of Torvald putting the letter of termination in the mail is that Nora asks Dr. Rank if he will do her a big favor. In response, he tells her he would give his life for her and confesses his love. In the face of this revelation, Nora can no longer ask him for his sacrifice. In this case, not only is the cause and effect based on character issues, but Ibsen has employed another plot-based dramatic technique–that of throwing obstacles in the path of the main character just when it looks like they have solved their problem–in character terms. Nora is prevented from borrowing the money she needs to pay back Krogstad not by Dr. Rank refusing her or not having it available to him. She is prevented by his love for her and her own conscience that makes it impossible for her to exploit his feelings.
Similarly, the climax of the plot hinges not only on Kristine’s act of reconciling with Krogstad, but also on her refusal to let him take back the blackmail letter before Torvald sees it. The plot needs Torvald to see the letter for Nora to witness his reaction and come to a new understanding of her marriage. But rather than have the letter reach Torvald’s hands through a series of mishaps or the devious motivations of the main character’s enemies, Ibsen makes it happen because Kristine, after witnessing Nora’s desperate and frenetic dancing for Torvald, makes the decision that the truth must come out for Nora’s sake.
Of course, all these examples of character-based cause and effect are only preparations for the seminal cause and effect event at the play’s climax–Torvald’s reaction to the blackmail and Nora’s subsequent decision to leave him. The immediate cause of Nora’s decision is supported by numerous other causes displayed throughout the drama. Nora’s secret endeavor of paying back the money has given her a degree of empowerment. She has led a parallel independent life and learned to sacrifice through economizing. She has enjoyed feeling like a man as she sat up late doing copying work to earn money. She has reacted to being patronized by Kristine. She has described how as a child she loved her father most but preferred being with the servants and how in that regard Torvald is like her father (with the double meaning implied that he also functions as her father). And she has begun to show impatience with Torvald’s treatment of her as when she calls him petty and when she asserts that it was good of her to agree to his suggestion of her costume for the ball. Finally, seeing Torvald’s callousness at the news of his best friend’s imminent death, she becomes angry and tells Torvald to go read his letters. All of these moments are elucidations of Nora’s character that also serve as causes for her final transformation.
Another essential component of the well-made play, according to Stanton, is “the counterpunch of peripeteia and scene a faire [or obligatory scene], marking, respectively the lowest and the highest point in the hero’s adventures, and brought about by the disclosure of secrets to the opposing side.” Ibsen utilizes the punch/counterpunch effect in his third act when Torvald reads the blackmail letter and Nora is forced to see his lack of devotion to her (her lowest point), followed by the arrival of Krogstad’s letter rescinding his threat which frees Nora from obligation to Torvald who she now sees as a stranger (her highest point). Then comes the “logical and credible denouement,” another fundamentally Scribean element, in which Nora sits down with Torvald and explains to him all the reasons why she can’t stay with him any longer. Finally, she leaves, and the door slams shut behind her.
Up until Nora’s decision to leave, she is a relatively passive character. With the exception of making pleas to various men–Torvald not to fire Krogstad, Krogstad not to send his letter and nearly asking Dr. Rank for money–Nora does very little on her own behalf. This lack of action is made logical by the fact that the stakes have been set so high from early in the story. Krogstad threatens to expose Nora as a forger if she doesn’t secure his job. Torvald refuses to secure his job because Krogstad is also a forger, which Torvald considers among the lowest forms of life. Given these parameters, there is not much that Nora can do to help herself. She must simply meet her fate and see what will happen. Therefore, the action of the story is not directed towards helping her avert disaster, it is directed towards preparing her, and us, for her profound life change. She only becomes an active character at the end when she makes her decision to leave and then does so. It is by making all action impossible at the beginning, and then making only one action possible at the end, that Ibsen gives himself the room to thoroughly and deeply explore so many facets of character on the way through.
Camille and Other Plays, Stephen S. Stanton (Hill and Wang, 1957) xii.
Ibsen, Henrik. Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House. Trans. Christopher Hampton. London: Faber and Faber, 1989.
Koon, Helene and Richard Switzer. Eugene Scribe. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980.
Matthews, Brander, ed. Papers on Playmaking. New York: Hill and Wang, 1957.
Murray, Edward. Varieties of Dramatic Structure. New York: University Press of America, 1990.
Stanton, Stephen S., ed. Camille and Other Plays. New York: Hill and Wang, 1957.