At first, it is necessary to mention that all the terms which are connected to ‘Naturalistic theatre’ in this paper are used in the meaning they had in the 19th century. Since the terms ‘naturalism’, ‘naturalistic’ or ‘naturalist’ were already used in ancient philosophy it is important to point out that all these terms that describe a certain element or phenomena in literature, science, theatre or society, are in this case always linked to their definitions, descriptions and influences of and in the 19th century.
Hendrik Ibsen’s Norwegian middle-class family was very educated and well situated, so Ibsen was familiar with the elements of the time he was living in, such as the starting and ongoing industrialisation. However, Ibsen had a difficult childhood; the depression of his father and the aim to keep something in the family to hide it from the society is reflected in a lot of his plays. After he wanted to become a painter in his childhood, Ibsen started to be an author in the age of 16 when he left his family in Skien to start an apprenticeship as a pharmacist in Grimstad. He was very interested in proclamation of the French Republic in 1848, which took place when he was about 20 years old. Therefore this political event and its following influences on Germany, Austria, Czech and Italy, for example the Franco-Prussian war and the American-civil war became an important influence on him and his work:
‘The cry of revolution came to him, of revolution faint indeed and broken, the voice of a minority appealing frantically and for a moment against the overwhelming forces of a respectable majority, but it came to him just at the moment when his young spirit was prepared to receive it with faith and joy. The effect on Ibsen’s character was sudden and it was final […]’
These movements and changes all over Europe were undoubtedly shaping factors for the development of Naturalism and its effects on society, science, philosophy and ethical trends of the 19th century. ‘The cry of revolution’ explains the focus on social topics of even other classes of society in Naturalistic theatre like family, marriage and the struggling with everyday-problems. Another influence which led to the concentration on presenting characters as case studies in human behaviour or social problems was Karl Marx’s analysis of society; the German philosopher published ‘Das Kapital’ in 1867. Marx’ political philosophy argued against urbanisation and for a more equal distribution of wealth, which coincided with ‘the struggle for legal equality and voting rights’ in Europe, as well as ‘with a new sense of national identity in Scandinavia, and with the liberation of the serfs in Russia.’
Additionally, it is necessary to mention that the impact of science was noticeable in Naturalistic theatre as well. One of the most important examples is Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, published in ‘On the Origin of Species’ in 1859, where he suggests that life developed gradually from common ancestry and that life favoured “survival of the fittest” by a process of natural selection.
‘These new ideas led to the assumption that peoples’ character and personality are formed by a combination of heredity and their social environment, plus the value placed on the individual. This meant that ordinary citizens, including workers and the poor (…) became the protagonists, and attention focussed on the family.’
Naturalistic theatre no longer portrayed only aristocrats but also middle-class and working-class characters and their issues and concerns. Though female characters were often the focus of naturalistic plays, and though the early women’s movement was often reflected in naturalistic plays the connection between Naturalism and the movement for the emancipation of women in naturalistic society, literature and theatre should be challenged since these plays and novels were predominantly written by men.
The 1879 play ‘A Doll’s House’ mirrors a Victorian marriage; Nora Helmer has three young children with her husband Torvald, who just got a better position in a bank, they even have a maid, a nurse and a servant. Their children do not play a big part in the play at all, but that the relationship full of secrets, between the couple Nora and Torvald, is established by Ibsen within the first scenes. Nora is always the focus of the action and the first two persons she has to deal with are Torvald and after that, her old friend, Mrs. Linde visits her; the two women did not see each other for nearly ten years. First of all, Nora is coming back from her Christmas shopping tour and hides the macaroons she bought for herself from her husband. Torvald talks to her as she would be a puppy who needs to be educated: ‘Is it my little squirrel bustling about?’ It sounds like Torvald would not take his wife and mother of their three children too seriously: ‘Hasn’t Miss Sweet-Tooth been breaking rules in town today?’ Nora did ‘break rules’ by buying macaroons, which appears childish and a little bit ridiculous to the reader. In this first scene Ibsen already establishes that Torvald has very fixed and definite opinions about things, such as borrowing money:
‘But seriously, Nora, you know what I think about that. No debt, no borrowing. There can be no freedom or beauty about a home life that depends on borrowing and debt. We two have kept bravely on the straight road so far, and we will go on the same way for the short time longer that there need be any struggle.’
The reader feels the slight pressure Torvald is giving her and knows why Nora might have secrets she keeps for herself. This is important for the following scene with the widow Mrs. Linde who lost everything and now asks Nora for a job in Torvald’s office. Christine Linde knows Nora from earlier times and assumes that Nora did not change in the years: ‘How kind you are, Nora, to be so anxious to help me! It is doubly kind in you, for you know so little of the burdens and troubles of life.’ Nora’s answer is quite significant: ‘You are just like all the others. They all think that I am incapable of anything really serious—‘. In passing, Nora tells her the secret of her life: years ago she borrowed money from someone to take Torvald to Italy for one year but she told Torvald it would be her father’s money. Nora’s father died before they left for Italy which actually saved Torvald’s life because he was seriously ill. Christine’s rather shocked reaction represents the Victorian ideas and norms of women or wife’s behaviour: ‘No, a wife cannot borrow without her husband’s consent.’ This is where the main conflict of the whole play is transparent: ‘Is it imprudent to save your husband’s life?’ asks Nora.
Later, Nora is forced to talk to Mr. Krogstad who is a widow and a lawyer, and from whom she borrowed the needed money. Since he is in a very bad position, Krogstad wants to push Nora to use her influence on Torvald for saving Krogstad’s reputation and therefore the future of his children. He found out that Nora’s father did not sign the paper for borrowing money but Nora herself, which is forgery. While Mrs. Linde embodies what women in the Victorian era were supposed to be and supposed to do, Krogstad’s position represents the actual social position of women in society and in their marriage by law.
‘Nora: You? Do you ask me to believe that you were brave enough to run a risk to save your wife’s life.
Krogstad: The law cares nothing about motives.
Nora: Then it must be a very foolish law.
Krogstad: Foolish or not, it is the law by which you will be judged, if I produce this paper in court.’
The very detailed description Ibsen gives the reader about the room, furniture and decoration as well as about the appearing persons and their clothes and habits, is an important element of Naturalistic theatre. With the help of those clear and concrete details, it is easier to create a very complete picture of a person or a situation, due to a perfect illusion. Those descriptions are also linked to the supposition that individuals are greatly influenced by their environment, which includes how they live and which persons like friends and family surrounds them. Moreover it is another step to the exact analysis of man, which was also an idea of Naturalistic Theatre. That something or someone can have an extremely bad influence on others is a main concept of ‘A Doll’s House’ and leads to the conflict between Nora and Torvald which changes everything. Darwin’s claim of the inheritance appears several times:
‘You are an odd little soul. Very like your father. You always find some new way of wheedling money out of me, and, as soon as you have got it, it seems to melt in your hands. You never know where it has gone. Still, one must take you as you are. It is in the blood; for indeed it is true that you can inherit these things, Nora.’
In opposite of being created by a Divine Will, man is quite close to the animal level, at the same time as life is a permanent struggle. Furthermore, with the impact of science on society evokes the idea that science could be the solution for human problems. This is an enormous contrast to the idealization of man by the Romantics for example.
‘Helmer. Because such an atmosphere of lies infects and poisons the whole life of a home. Each breath the children take in such a house is full of the germs of evil.
Nora (coming nearer him): Are you sure of that?
Helmer: My dear, I have often seen it in the course of my life as a lawyer. Almost everyone who has gone to the bad early in life has had a deceitful mother.
Nora: Why do you only say—mother?
Helmer: It seems most commonly to be the mother’s influence, though naturally a bad father’s would have the same result. Every lawyer is familiar with the fact. This Krogstad, now, has been persistently poisoning his own children with lies and dissimulation; that is why I say he has lost all moral character. […]’
These ideas were later supported by the work on psychology of the German psychiatrist Sigmund Freud on psychology at the end of the 19th century and also influenced the Naturalistic theatre.
In the second Act of ‘A Doll’s House’ Ibsen is going one step further and points out how much Nora and Torvald would clash, if he ever finds out about the ‘free will’ and the activities of his wife: ‘Helmer: Nice?—because you do as your husband wishes? Well, well, you little rogue, I am sure you did not mean it in that way. […]’. Besides that, the thought of heredity comes into sight again through Dr. Rank, who is a close friend of Torvald and Nora Helmer. Dr. Rank, who secretly loves Nora, is going to die soon and only tells her about it: ‘Oh, it’s a mere laughing matter, the whole thing. My poor innocent spine has to suffer for my father’s youthful amusements.’
In the third act, Christine Linde and Nils Krogstad talk with each other; they know each other from earlier times and were in love with each other when they were much younger. Now they decide to live their lives together again, because Christine is alone and Krogstad’s children need a mother. Before that Krogstad wrote a letter to Helmer which tells him about the money Nora illegally borrowed from Krogstad. This letter is still in the letter box when Nora, Helmer and Dr. Rank came home from the party upstairs. When they were alone again and Torvald read the letter from Krogstad, the worst thing happens, just as Nora knew before: ‘What a horrible awakening! All these eight years—she who was my joy and pride—a hypocrite, a liar—worse, worse—a criminal! The unutterable ugliness of it all!—For shame! For shame!’ Torvald’s last sentence before Krogstad is ringing the bell is:
‘But I shall not allow you to bring up the children; I dare not trust them to you. To think that I should be obliged to say so to one whom I have loved so dearly, and whom I still—. No, that is all over. From this moment happiness is not the question; all that concerns us is to save the remains, the fragments, the appearance—‘
Torvald reads the letter Krogstad wrote to Nora and feels absolutely released because Krogstad wrote that he will not tell a single person about the borrowed money and Torvald Helmer’s reputation is not in danger anymore. Helmer takes back all the horrible things he said to Nora but this is where she is getting very serious.
Nora: That is just it; you have never understood me. I have been greatly wronged, Torvald—first by papa and then by you.
Helmer: What! By us two—by us two, who have loved you better than anyone else in in the world?
Nora (shaking her head): You have never loved me. You have only thought it pleasant to be in love with me.
Nora realized that her husband does not love her as the woman she is but that he has an idea of what Nora as his wife is supposed to do and think. She just experienced that Torvald will let her down as soon as she does not please him anymore or does not follow his rules, not important for which reason. So she leaves him, gives him her keys and her ring and slams the door behind her.
B i b l i o g r a p h i e
Balme, C. B. 2009, The Cambridge Introduction to Theatre Studies.
Cambridge University Press.
F u r s t, L. R. and Peter N. Skrine 1971, Naturalism. Methuen & Co. Ltd.:
I b s e n, H. 2005, A Doll’s House. eBook: http://www.gutenberg.net.
I n n e s, C. 2000, A Sourcebook on Naturalistic Theatre.
London/ New York: Routledge.
Gosse, E. 2005, Henrik Ibsen. eBook: http://www.gutenberg.org.