The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Trouble With Torvald: Plot Contrivances and Torvald's Tsuris in "A Doll's House"

(Above, Young Vic Director Carrie Cracknell's "Nora: A Short Film Responding to Henrik Ibsen's 'A Doll's House'")

Right, sorry; a little breather from the blog. In the week since I last posted, though, I did get to see the Young Vic's extraordinary production of Ibsen's A Doll's House (of which Ben Brantley's review and my theater companion, Karen Clark pretty much say it all).

The production was, as Brantley writes, harrowing:
What we had just witnessed was a harrowing account, directed with breathless momentum by Carrie Cracknell, of a woman pushed to the breaking point by the fear of being found out. Yes, I mean Nora Helmer, the pretty, childlike wife of an adoring businessman and a woman whom no one, not even Nora herself, would believe capable of illicit doings.

As played in a galvanizing, star-making performance by Hattie Morahan, Nora is forced into devastating awareness of just how devious she’s become and how warped she has been by the subterfuge. That’s a revelation from which no one is likely to recover quickly, including anyone lucky enough to see this production, which runs only through March 16.

Don’t go, though, expecting a highbrow equivalent of the latest Liam Neeson nail-biter, or not only that. Working from a sharp new adaptation by the playwright Simon Stephens, which underscores the imprisoning powers of sex and money without sounding didactic, Ms. Cracknell’s canny production knows that the quickest route to the head is through the guts.

Feeling Nora’s concentrated fear forces us to ask just what it is about her situation that turns a comfortable home into a hell. What we have here is visceral consciousness-raising, a venerable form of theater that was the favorite of the ancient Greeks, I believe, but is seldom so successfully practiced these days.
Let me just add that Dominic Rowan, as Torvald, more than holds his end of the play up, turning in a nuanced, three-dimensional--by turns a paternalistic, loving, creepy, terrified, and, ultimately, pitiable Torvald. The added complexity enriched the play, as did the set. As Karen writes:
The "doll's house" quality of the revolving set gained a visual piquancy from our being seated that high up. I was reminded, gazing down, of the dollhouse I'd had as a child, of creating and directing the lives of the small stand-ins for who I thought I was going to be when I attained the coveted status of grown-up, and the twinkling charm of a peek from above at an unreal reality. So must the gods upon Olympus see our lives.
So, an admirable production of an admirable play, yes? Yes. Nothing specially for me to add? We-eelll…

The efforts involved in getting the plotting of Phineas at Bay right has, perhaps made me a little more aware than I used to be of how other writers do it. So, in viewing A Doll's House, which I hadn't seen in some two decades (!), I noticed something I might not have previously: Torvald is indeed a very weak, and quite possibly a stupid man--or Ibsen has blundered, not in his amazing depiction of these characters, but in the contriving of his plot. I'm not sure, and your thoughts solicited. (Let me point out that my beloved Anthony Trollope had made legal errors that undermined his plots, leading him to, in frustration, commission an opinion by counsel to avoid legal errors in The Eustace Diamonds; I dread the pointing out of any errors in my own plotting, come to that.)

But I get ahead of myself. Here is the situation. Torvald is presented as an able young lawyer, with a head for affairs:
Nora. Just fancy, my husband has been made manager of the Bank!

Mrs Linde. Your husband? What good luck!

Nora. Yes, tremendous! A barrister's profession is such an uncertain thing, especially if he won't undertake unsavoury cases; and naturally Torvald has never been willing to do that, and I quite agree with him. You may imagine how pleased we are! He is to take up his work in the Bank at the New Year, and then he will have a big salary and lots of commissions. For the future we can live quite differently--we can do just as we like. I feel so relieved and so happy, Christine! It will be splendid to have heaps of money and not need to have any anxiety, won't it?
(Act I)

On a smaller scale, so too is his former friend, Nils Krogstad:
Nora. Who is it?

Krogstad [at the door]. It is I, Mrs Helmer. [Mrs LINDE starts, trembles, and turns to the window.]

Nora [takes a step towards him, and speaks in a strained, low voice]. You? What is it? What do you want to see my husband about?

Krogstad. Bank business--in a way. I have a small post in the Bank, and I hear your husband is to be our chief now--

Nora. Then it is--

Krogstad. Nothing but dry business matters, Mrs Helmer; absolutely nothing else.

Nora. Be so good as to go into the study, then. [She bows indifferently to him and shuts the door into the hall; then comes back and makes up the fire in the stove.]

Mrs Linde. Nora--who was that man?

Nora. A lawyer, of the name of Krogstad.

Mrs Linde. Then it really was he.

Nora. Do you know the man?

Mrs Linde. I used to--many years ago. At one time he was a solicitor's clerk in our town.
(Act I)

In all of the interactions between Torvald, Nora, Dr. Rank (their great friend, in love with Nora), or Mrs. Linde, there is nothing to suggest that either Torvald or Krogstad is unintelligent or imprudent, rash or foolish in business or professional affairs--Krogstad's respectability has been ruined due to a scandal, not ineptitude and his work at the bank is unobjectionable. Got that? Good.

Now here is the plot contrivance upon which the marriage of Nora and Torvald is wrecked: Seven years before the action of the play, as Nora relates, Torvald "over-worked himself dreadfully. You see, he had to make money every way he could, and he worked early and late; but he couldn't stand it, and fell dreadfully ill, and the doctors said it was necessary for him to go south." Nora raises the money by a loan from Krigstad (by then, a usurer, after the unspecified scandal that wrecks his respectability--clearly some kind of professional misconduct), but forges the signature of his father as co-signer, mistakenly dating it three days after his death (of which she had not yet received word). When Torvald fires Krogstad from the bank, in part to oblige Nora by hiring Mrs. Linde, but really because his former friend's misconduct rankles him (Act II), Krogstad blackmails first Nora, and then, by a letter describing Nora's fraud, Torvald. As Krogstad describes the letter and its goal:
Krogstad. Besides, it would have been a great piece of folly. Once the first storm at home is over--. I have a letter for your husband in my pocket.

Nora. Telling him everything?

Krogstad. In as lenient a manner as I possibly could.

Nora [quickly]. He mustn't get the letter. Tear it up. I will find some means of getting money.

Krogstad. Excuse me, Mrs Helmer, but I think I told you just now--

Nora. What do you want, then?

Krogstad. I will tell you. I want to rehabilitate myself, Mrs Helmer; I want to get on; and in that your husband must help me. For the last year and a half I have not had a hand in anything dishonourable, amid all that time I have been struggling in most restricted circumstances. I was content to work my way up step by step. Now I am turned out, and I am not going to be satisfied with merely being taken into favour again. I want to get on, I tell you. I want to get into the Bank again, in a higher position. Your husband must make a place for me--

Nora. That he will never do!

Krogstad. He will; I know him; he dare not protest. And as soon as I am in there again with him, then you will see! Within a year I shall be the manager's right hand. It will be Nils Krogstad and not Torvald Helmer who manages the Bank.

(Act II)

When Torvald reads the letter, he exclaims "I am in the power of an unscrupulous man; he can do what he likes with me, ask anything he likes of me, give me any orders he pleases--I dare not refuse." So it's blackmail, savvy?

By now, you have probably anticipated where I am going with this. Krogstad can raise a scandal involving Nora and her efforts to protect a dying father whose heir she was and a sick husband by a forgery that, in view of the mores of the time, would probably dish Torvald's career.

And Torvald can send him to jail using the blackmail note. They have mutually assured destruction--if anything, the facts involving Krogstad, thanks to the letter, are much less equivocal, much more recent, and are written in the culprit's own handwriting.

In sum, Torvald has--if only slightly--the upper hand And as lawyers, both he and Krogstad should know it. Yet Torvald, in his panic, is anxious only for himself, abusive to Nora, and utterly mean-spirited in his extremity, which, in fact, is no extremity at all.

So, there you have it. A dazzling bit of character drawing, underscoring Torvald's abject weakness (and it may very well be, if Torvald's breakdown was as much psychological as caused by overwork--Nora is hardly a reliable narrator)? Or a ploy contrivance designed to put the screws on Torvald, which he should have been able to effectively reverse--I mean, who signs a blackmail note?

Well, gentle reader, what say you?


Anonymous said...

Anglo Cat.

I believe that Torvald, like many other characters before or after him, lives two disparate lives and, in essence, is the weaker of the two Helmers, both physically and mentally. She did something truly courageous, and he only sees the horror of the incipient consequences.

If he were not so obtuse, Nora's final act would be somewhat muted.

I love your theatrical musings! You have always been a joy to read!

Much love, Ivan b

Anglocat said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anglocat said...


Thanks for reading and commenting. I appreciate your insight, and yes, I believe that Torvald as the weaker Hellmer is absolutely the intent. I just never realized before exactly how much weaker than Nora he was.