Essay On A Doll’s House as a ‘well-made play’

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A Doll’s House as a ‘well-made play’

A ‘well-made play’ is a play constructed according to the strict technical principles that produce neatness of plot and theatrical effectiveness. It consists of 3 to 4 acts. This means that a well-made play has a careful exposition in which the ground is prepared, a period of complication in which information is withheld, incidents follow in a chain of cause and effect, startling reversals, and suspense is created often bringing scenes to climax and finally there is a bringing together of various stands and a resolution of the problems. In A Doll’s House, the major components of a well-made play are clearly presented. Ibsen has used the formula of a well-made play with great effects because it provides a very satisfying theatrical experience, never allowing the audience to relax completely, yet moving towards a resolution that can form a talking point after the play. The following characteristics can depict that A Doll’s House is ‘a well-made play’;

In a well-made play, the plot is majorly based on a secret known to the audience but withheld from certain characters. Ibsen in A Doll’s House presents a secret which is explained in the exposition. Through effective use of flashback, Nora borrows money from Krogstad without the knowledge of her husband. She also went ahead to forge her father’s signature to acquire the money to take Torvald to Italy for treatment. As readers and characters like Mrs. Linde, we are aware of this big secret.

Another major characteristic is the revelation of a secret in the climactic scene which unmasks the fraudulent character. In the play, when Torvald reads the content of the letter sent by Krogstad he is amazed with what he sees. Helmer discovers that Nora had been doing things behind his back. He calls her a liar, a hypocrite and a criminal for forging her father’s signature and borrowing money behind his back. Nora is thus the fraudulent character in the play as depicted by her actions.

The ‘well-made play’ also seeks to restore good fortune of the suffering hero. After the revelation of the secret to Torvald in the climactic scene, Helmer calls Nora names. He says that she is not fit to be entrusted with their children. Nora decides to leave Torvald and find her own life. When Torvald asks her if she knows what she has done after reading the letter, she ironically replies saying that she is now beginning to understand thoroughly. Torvald takes it as a simple acknowledgement of her fraud while in the real sense she refers to the mistake of staying with Helmer for eight years and being treated like a doll. Her fortune is restored when she decides to walk away and makes a statement that the most sacred duties to her are those of herself after Torvald tells her that she is abandoning her most sacred duties by leaving her children. It is a bold step for her to take and discover her potential that have for long been so limited.

In addition, a ‘well-made play’ has a pattern of increasing intense action and suspense prepared by exposition and assisted by sudden and contrived entrances, exists, letters and other devices. This means that suspense is slowly built up as characters are being introduced in the play which happens in the exposition.’ Coming in and leaving’ of some characters help build tension in the play. With the entrance of Mrs. Linde, and through their use of flashback, we are able to learn about what had really happened in the past and the loan that Nora had borrowed from Krogstad. Ibsen creatively uses these characters to reveal most crucial information that happened earlier. For instance we are able to know that Nora is a spendthrift and Kristine and Krogstad had a past. Information about Krogstad dismissal from work is also provided in the exposition. Because of his proposed sacking, he comes to Nora to asking for settlement of the money she owes him. He has disregarded the agreement they had had concerning the payment. Krogstad in what is seen as blackmail wants Nora to protect him from losing his job or else he will reveal that she forged her father’s signature in order to obtain a loan and more so did that behind her husband’s back. At this point tension is high. When Nora realizes that her husband is on her way, she asks Krogstad to use the back door only to be asked by Helmer whether Krogstad was there. Her negative answer builds the tension and suspense since Torvald saw him. Krogstad’s letter also increases tension which builds a lot of suspense. As readers we are not aware of what will happen when the contents of the letter are revealed to Torvald and this keeps us glued to the play to the very end.

Furthermore, A Doll’s House has a series of ups and downs in the hero’s or heroine’s fortune caused by conflict with an adversary which is also a characteristic in well made plays. The hero in A Doll’s House is Nora and the adversary is Krogstad who causes a nightmare for Nora. Krogstad after realizing that his job is in doubt and he will be sacked, he blackmails Nora using the loan she borrowed with the threat of revealing to her husband how she forged her father’s signature to acquire the loan. Nora tries effortless to sweet talk her husband to avoid that but to no avail. Nora feels overjoyed because of the job promotion of her husband. She sees it as a new dawn to the family and they can now spend and live more comfortably than they do now.

It also has obligatory scene marking respectively the lowest and highest point in hero’s or heroine’s adventure and caused by revelation of secrets. Nora says that she will not allow Helmer to take the blame upon himself. She is determined to go away and perhaps commit suicide in order to show the world that she is a criminal or forger. But the wonderful thing does not happen. Indeed, it is the reverse that happens. It turns out that Helmer is not willing to defend her but instead calls her a hypocrite, a liar, and a criminal, casts all the blame on her and makes no attempt to protect her. At this point Nora is experiencing her lowest point in the play when indeed she had done what sensibly could be referred to as the best way to have acted when one’s husband is ill. Reversal of Nora’s character in the play after the revelation of the secret allows for a quick denouement. Krogstad sends a promissory note withdrawing all his demands and blackmails. Helmer is totally excited saying that he is willing to forget what Nora has done and forgives her but Nora is thinking otherwise. This turns to be her greatest point of rediscovering herself and reassessing her personality. She objects the idea of being treated like a doll and decided to move out of the family she has lived for the past eight years. Nora tells Torvald that the most sacred duties to her are no longer of her family but those to herself. Realizing that she has greater potential than just being a housewife turns out to be her greatest strength hence her optimal turning point.

There is central misunderstanding which is obvious to the audience but withheld from some characters. The central misunderstanding in this play is in between Torvald and Nora. Torvald thinks Nora is extravagant yet Nora asks a lot of money saving some to pay back the loan. Krogstad and Nora also have a misunderstanding because Krogstad is going against what they had agreed upon and start blackmailing her but this is withheld from Helmer.

A Doll’s House has a careful exposition telling the audience what situation is, usually including one or more secrets to be revealed later in the play which is one of the major characteristic of well-made plays. In this extensive exposition, the ground is prepared by introducing the most vital elements in the play such as characters and secrets to be revealed later as the play progresses. This exposition reveals the secrets and fears of characters. At the exposition is where we learn that Nora is hiding a secret from her husband. This secret which we learn that it is the loan she borrowed from Krogstad through forgery becomes the basis in which captures the reader’s attention on the play. Mrs. Linde, Krogstad, Helmer, Nora and other characters such as Dr. Rank are introduced and their relations with each other established.

Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House as one of the ‘well-made plays’ has surprises such as letters to be opened at a critical moments and identities to be revealed later. The ‘Krogstad’s letter’ comes as a surprise to Nora Helmer since they had had a memorandum of understanding that Nora will be paying the loan in installments. It also comes as a way of blackmail from Krogstad who is not willing to lose his job. The presence of this letter creates a lot of tension that builds in the play. Torvald gets the shock of knowing that his wife used unlawful means to acquire a loan that she used to take him to hospital. The promissory note that Krogstad sent after the revelation of the secret in the letter he sent earlier comes as a surprise to Helmer who gets excited that Krogstad is willing to withdraw all the blackmails and demands he had made.

In a ‘well-made play’, the climax comes almost towards the end of the play. The climax is always the turning point of the play. It is where there is the most intense action in the play. It is also the point when the play begins to resolve itself. It is the final most exciting event in a series of events. In A Doll’s House, the climax happens when Torvald reads the letter and angrily denounces his wife, provoking Nora’s decision to leave him. Nora can no longer live in the illusions of a happy marriage.

Well-made plays usually describe a long story. The story begins at Medias res i.e in the ‘middle of things’. A story of what happened in the past is described through the use of flashback. The story begins with the entrance of Mrs. Linde and Krogstad. Through that long story, the relationships of the past come to light. The story of the way Nora borrowed money to take her husband to hospital in Italy.

The play follows a strict logic of cause and effect. In A Doll’s House, the actions bring about the effects i.e things or actions or flow of the play are interdependent. Torvald falling sick causes Nora to go looking for a loan which involved forgery. The repayment of the loan makes Krogstad have a weapon to blackmail Nora so as to maintain his job at the bank since she never wants to tell her husband what had truly happened. She had told him she acquired the loan from her father which is not true. This secret Nora intends to keep at any cost keeps the events going in the play. Torvald is not convinced that Krogstad should retain the job. Krogstad is sacked and hence writes a letter that is supposed to reveal what Nora had concealed from Helmer. After torvald reads the letter, he denounces her wife calling her names when all she did was all in his interest which is saving his life. In a twist of action, Krogstad withdraws all threats but Nora is really fed up and decides to walk away from her home.

Ibsen’s A Doll House being a ‘well-made play’ uses recurrent devices such as letters falling into wrong hands or unintended hands in order to bring OOO about the plot twists and climax. Krogstad’s letter intended to reveal Nora’s secret keeps the audience eager not knowing what will happen if Helmer gets hold of it. She is not at ease concerning it and even dances desperately and with a lot of vigor than she always does in order keep Helmer from reading it. Nora expected that Krogstad had left with the letter but the unexpected and Torvald gets to read it which happens at the climactic scene.

Besides all the characteristics stated above, it has a strictly codified dramaturgy that involves a precise curve of action based on sudden and unexpected turn of events. After long years of both of them parting, Mrs. Linde and Krogstad reunite. After reading the letter, it was audience’s expectations that he will be on her side and support her for doing everything possible to save his life but he is the first one to condemn her calling her names. A mere letter turned out that it broke a marriage that had survived for eight years. Torvald was furious but it was not to the point that Nora will walk out of their marriage and leave her children behind.

Lastly, a ‘well made play’ has a figure reasonneur who serves as a playwright’s mouthpiece to restore the moral order and confirm the belief of the audience. Mrs. Linde plays that role by clearly advising Nora on what is right in every situation. She convinces her that what she did to save her husband was totally correct and the best thing to do in such situations. Mrs. Linde’s account of her life of poverty and underscores the privileged nature of the life that Nora leads. In order to support her mother and two brothers, Mrs. Linde found it necessary to abandon Krogstad, her true but penniless love, and marry a richer man. Also, we learn that Mrs. Linde took responsibility for her sick parent, whereas Nora abandoned her father when he was ill.

From the above stated characteristics, this paper has attempted to show that A Doll’s House adheres to the principles of ‘a well made play’.


California Institute of the Arts, fall (2010). cs178a: Survey of World Theater
Ibsen, H. (1973). A Doll’s House