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...