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Ibsen's part in the development of modern drama revolves around his concentration on realism, which centered around modern social problems and "social institutions." This can be clearly seen in his play, A Doll's House.
In the early days of drama, conflict revolved around the three-sided relationship between the hero, heroine and villain. Some of the first changes of "modern drama" were found in the alteration to the story's villain—now the "internalized" villain, found within characters—this changed occurred around the turn of the last century.
Modern drama, with its hidden "villain," did away with heroes, heroines and villains of older drama; they were replaced with average people—though these characters often became "their own worst enemies." We can see Ibsen's unique contributions to modern drama in A Doll's House, specifically in the character of Nora.
At the time Ibsen wrote this play, women had few rights—especially middle-class, married women—"enslaved" by marriage in a male-dominated society. Ironically, more rights were available to lower-class women. At the beginning of the play, Nora seems to adhere to society's expectations of "a good wife," outwardly acting as Torvald wishes. She's like an "automaton" posed like a doll or controlled like a robot. Beneath the surface, however, Ibsen allows Nora to defy social conventions. She forges her father's signature onto documents to finance a trip needed to save her husband's life. She manipulates Torvald to get extra money to pay the loan back, flirting and pleading with him. She even sneaks candy that Torvald has declared forbidden to his wife. While Nora appearspliable beneath her husband's will, her own spirit is rather strong. Nora's character defies the social convention of marriage at Ibsen's hand.
Torvald is quick to speak of the proper behavior of women. He chastises Nora for standing up for Krogstad; he criticizes Kristine Linde for knitting, noting there is something unattractive about it— something "Chinese." He prepares to exercise his marital rights after the dance, even though Nora is unwilling (fearing exposure by Krogstad, and perhaps the end of her life). Torvald comes across as overbearing and pompous, selfish and inflexible. The final unveiling of the true person within is a man who cannot be indebted to his wife in saving his life; he has no idea how to treat a woman as an equal; and, he ends up begging Nora to remain at the end. This would have reflected Ibsen's concern for the social double-standard that enabled men to control the lives of women who had few options to survive without a husband or family.
Even Nora's decision to leave her family at the end provides a twist to the commonly accepted role of a woman: family came first. The idea that Nora would abandon her children was not welcomed with many critics when Ibsen first put on the play, and he had to write an alternate ending so that it could be presented in certain cities. However, the concept was exposed regardless of society's discomfort with it.
Ironically, Ibsen never saw himself as a women's rights advocate: he insisted that he was concerned for human rights. Whereas Nora is a major focus of the play's action, Ibsen spoke out about other social aspects from the stage. However, A Doll's House is still considered a play about the equality of women, and an enduring example of realism in modern drama.
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