Sunday, May 2, 2010

Learning from the Past

As Ibsen’s plays open they are smartly staged with few characters and even fewer sets. His ability to get the most out of every line and arrangement of setting is even more evident by his placing us in the middle of people’s lives yet cleverly introducing characters by conversations of past events. The audience is given glimpses of the past which slowly fill in the missing pieces of characters lives building their personalities and suspense of the story simultaneously. As Helmer says in A Doll’s House, “Ah, I understand; it is recollections of the past that scare you.”
The stories presented by Ibsen originally appear quite simple but he slowly reveals the depth of his characters by delving into their pasts. He inventively does it in passing, interweaving it into the conversations between his creations. The audience feels as an eavesdropper does when listening in on a deep, dark secret.
In A Doll’s House Ibsen seems to be whispering to us that Nora is not quite what she seems. He shows her as a simple, beautiful, happy-at-home housewife without a care in the world. The farce of this is made evident though as Ibsen cunningly presents Mrs. Linde, a forgotten and lost friend from the past. Mrs. Linde’s part allows the audience to understand much of what has happened in Nora’s past life as they “catch up” on what they have been doing all the years since they have parted. It is also Mrs. Linde to whom Nora confides, sharing that the trip to save Torvald’s life was not paid by her father, “I was the one who raised the money.” Slowly as Ibsen fills in the gaps of Nora’s past she is revealed in truth. Piece by piece each character contributes a small bit of the real Nora. Even Nora herself displays how tired she is of pretending and her wish to rebel against her husband by exclaiming, “I’ve the most extraordinary longing to say: ‘Bloody hell!’”. Krogstad helps us understand Nora as a person that has and will go to extremes to get what she wants when he confronts her about the forging of her father’s name, “Mrs. Helmer, that your father signed this document three days after his death.” It is now understood that Nora is a much deeper character and the crux of the entire play, not just a “little squirrel.” Although the symbolism of this reference is not lost on all, a squirrel being an animal that gets as many acorns as she can and hides them away for winter. Nora being the type of person to squirrel away all the money she can in order to satisfy her debt to Krogstad.
It is not only the characters conversations that help the audience to see the past, the settings also lead to a revelation of prior events. In Ghosts we are shown a large table with an array of books, periodicals, and newspapers. This display allows Ibsen to draw upon the hypocrisy of Pastor Manders condemning the material even though he admits to not reading them himself, “You don’t think I waste my time examining publications of that kind, surely?” The publications are presented in such a way that clearly Mrs. Alving has become somewhat of a free thinker. Later it is revealed that Mrs. Alving may in fact have turned to such publications because she no longer had faith in the advice of people such as Pastor Manders, he being the one that told her, ”And your duty was to stand by the man you had chosen, and to whom you were bound by sacred ties, ”even though this husband was “just as debauched when he died as he had been all his life.” Mrs. Alving tells us that she no longer believes in popular opinion as indicated by the type of reading material when she states to Manders, ”you are simply taking it for granted that popular opinion is right.” She had a rude awakening in her past that led to her no longer accepting or taking for granted that which was told her as truth. Manders being the agent of this ice bath of realism.
There are also symbols that reveal past events throughout Ibsen’s plays. In A Doll’s House the tarantella is the dance Nora learned in her past. The dance is from southern Italy and performed by those that were bitten by a tarantula. It was believed that if the dance was not performed by the person bitten that they would die. The dance itself is erratic, changing from minor to major keys, and increases in speed as it goes until the performer reaches their limit and falls exhausted to the floor. It is a dance of unpredictability and uncertainty and is a representation of the true Nora. As Nora practices the dance she is like a bird trying to break free of her cage, exuberant and wild, fighting for freedom. Her enthusiasm and craze alarms Helmer so much that Dr. Rank offers to play the piano and Helmer agrees stating that, “I’ll be better able to tell her what to do.” Again forcing Nora into what he wants her to be by squashing all her spirit and ignoring her bid for recognition of the true Nora.
Another important symbol in A Doll’s House is Krogstad’s first letter. It represents the ever pervasive Ibsen theme of “truth will out.” Nora tries to turn Helmer away from it, she tries to destroy it, and then when all else has failed hopes for her miracle. Unfortunately, the truth is exposed, the truth of her past.
Even the names of Ibsen’s plays are symbols of what he intends. The name of the play isn’t Mrs. Alving Builds an Orphange but Ghosts, symbolizing how past events and persons continually haunt the living. The title of A Doll’s House indicates that all players within are pretending to be something they aren’t but could easily have been called something simple like Nora. Gradually, Ibsen in his later plays tends toward the abstract when it comes to his titles.
Ibsen is calculating in is his ability to build suspense and drama through the skillful stacking of the past through his use of symbolism, conversation, and setting. He adds layer upon layer until it absolutely screams with too much personality and secrecy leading to a resolution of any kind in order to satisfy. Such revelations of the past grab hold of the present and change its appearance. Ibsen’s characters with their past revealed can move forward in the “now” toward resolution of their future.

Word count: 1096

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