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Realism in Ibsen’s a Doll’s House and Churchill’s Top Girls

In: English and Literature

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Realism in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Churchill’s Top Girls

Nineteen-century Europe held rigid conventionalisms of class division, social order and gender roles. Society hid behind the mask of hypocrisy in an attempt to preserve bourgeoisie’s position of power. In that concern, conceptions of ‘liberty of the spirit’[1] and ‘liberty of thought and of the human condition’[2] came to question. Thus, Henrik Ibsen drew attention to the threat to ideas of freedom and public opinion by giving life to A Doll’s House (1879). He aimed to critique constraints of Victorian society rather than vindicating the rights of women. In that sense, in a speech given in his honour by the Norwegian Women’s Rights League on 26 May 1898 he stresses: ‘Whatever I have written has been without any conscious thought of making propaganda. […] To me it has seemed a problem of humanity in general.’[3] Ibsen clearly states he strove to expose the manipulation of individuals’ liberties as he worked for the human cause. In Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls (1982) the aim of the play is to reveal how the fulfilment of women’s self-realization needs in the personal and social spheres is achieved by compromising humanity and morality. In the end, what ‘The New Woman’ gets is disillusionment and loneliness as she finds herself in a predicament: mother or career woman, sensitive or hardened. In Top Girls what is represented is the price women pay to go up the corporate ladder in a male-dominant world. Thus, I will explore how trends in Modern Drama are used and blended throughout time to address social problems of a particular contemporaneity. Next, I will illustrate the parallels and counterpoints between the two plays to demonstrate how class division is key in determining an individual’s insertion in the ‘enterprise culture’. I will argue, though, that Modern Tragedy[4] does challenge society’s views of the world; yet, does not put forward alternatives for change. Through Realism[5], Ibsen, represents his own impression of the world to criticise society by depicting realistic conflicts that lie between the individual and the world. In this sense, he focuses on ‘the individual in opposition to a hostile society’[6] That is, Nora’s understanding that she shifted from being a doll-daughter to a doll-wife. It is Nora’s turn to stand for herself on the path to self-discovery: ‘I have to stand completely alone, if I’m ever going to discover myself and the world out there. So I can’t go living with you’[7] As previously stated, Ibsen places the individual against society’s conventions and the problem becomes evident. In Ibsen’s words, A Doll’s House is ‘the tragedy of the contemporary age’[8] as the play presupposes the character will leave in the quest for truth, freedom and independence. In Top Girls, Marlene, the epitome of ‘The New Woman’, has also been at a crossroads. Retrospectively we learn she does not acknowledge Angie as her daughter. It is her sister Joyce, who juggles with four jobs as a cleaner, who has raised Angie as her own daughter. Marlene had to leave her home, just as Nora did, to climb the ladder to success. The action in realistic drama is organic and causal[9] Thus, realistic trends and the position of the character in conflict can be traced indistinctively in both plays. Yet, trends in Modern Drama tend to blend as the aim in Top Girls’s Act One is to convey an partly effect of Naturalism[10] During Marlene’s dinner party in a restaurant in London, the five characters from the past get together to celebrate Marlene’s promotion as Managing Director of the ‘Top Girls’ Employment Agency. A cheerful dialogue and broken monologues of five women involve its realistic representation. Natural interruptions and undertones of irony and disbelief are perceived during the first Act. A veneer of realism is also conveyed as Churchill makes use of skip connecting and overlapping dialogue to represent the inability of women to communicate. This also works as a means to make the audience follow the play and listen more attentively. The blend of innovations into Modern Drama allows the genre to be organic, not ecstatic. Therefore, ‘Modern plays, for instance, often blend representational techniques as a way of challenging the audience’s understanding[11] In Top Girls, Churchill uses Brecht’s alienation effect to draw audience’s attention to the themes of the plays. Audiences become more self-reflective and critical. A common theme shared in both plays is deception. Nora hides the truth from Torvald about a bank loan she asked for to save his life. At the time, women had their very limited freedoms. In an attempt to save Torvald’s life she forges her father’s signature to obtain the money and move to Italy where Torvald can recover his health. Not only does she lie to her husband about important matters but also about silly things such as the macaroons she eats when Torvald is not around. Although Top Girls is an all women play, in both plays the fate of men and women depend upon the values and codes of contemporary society. When Torvald finds out the truth he pretends that nothing has happened and assures Nora: ‘You mustn’t mind those sharp words I said – that was all in the first confusion of thinking my world had collapsed. I’ve forgiven you, Nora; I swear I’ve forgiven you.’[12] Pretending and appearances are the themes Ibsen sought to critique. Torvald proposes Nora to continue living a lie. Yet, Nora is suspicious of the values she has been taught to embrace. Not only does she not believe in what is written in the books but also she questions the value of religion by stating: ‘I’m really not sure what religion is’[13] Moral law has the same effect on her, her beliefs are shaken by the realisation that Torvald was not the man she had imagined[14] Unlike her devoted commitments and sacrifice to save her husband’s life, she found that Torvald preferred to save his own honour and reputation than take the blame for Nora’s sake. In the same line, politics fragment people’s relations. Class distinction makes the existent gap between Marlene and Joyce bigger and bigger. Status is also depicted throughout the play as Marlene and Joyce do not reconcile in the end. Marlene is the arquetype of the corporate woman, individualistic, and independent. She believes in self-determination: ‘Anyone can do anything if they’ve got what it takes’[15] She also scorns the lower classes as she thinks ‘they are lazy and stupid’[16] However, Joyce shifts from a defensive to an offensive and pessimistic attitude. She reveals how angry and resented she feels by stating unabashedly: ‘I spit when I see a Rolls Royce, scratch it with my ring / Mercedes it was.’[17] Joyce anticipates doom in the future for Angie and her. There is a sense of inevitability which is pervasive throughout the play. Another point of comparison between the plays is the use of language. In A Doll’s House Torvald uses patronising phrases and expressions towards Nora. He also calls her dismissive names such as ‘skylark’ or ‘squirrel’. Perhaps he stresses the idea that she is a childish wife and not an individual. When rehearsing for the Taratella, Torvald makes use of imperatives: ‘Now, now, now – no hysterics. Be my own little lark again’[18]. However, at the end of the play, these roles are subverted. Nora is the one who givers orders: ‘Here, take your ring back’[19] She is the one in charge of herself and the situations. In Top Girls, a masculine discourse is evidenced between Marlene and Win and Nell. Interchanges such as: ‘Any use?’ or ‘Serious?’ make the speech far less feminine and arbitrary. Class division is the ‘traditional demarcation between rich and poor’ and this is what is depicted in both plays. Churchill wrote Top Girls as a condemnation of Margaret Thatcher’s government which promoted individualism where ‘there [was] no place for the uneducated and underprivileged, such as [Marlene’s] niece.’[20] It could be said that this is what Nora achieved one hundred years after leaving home. Although, Marlene joins the world of top girls, her denial of motherhood and sense of belonging has eroded from herself. The play also conveys absences[21], absences of family, friends and loved ones. In the struggle to vindicate women’s rights, women became the oppressors of women by adopting patriarchal roles, by turning into men. The allegory is ironical as it is implied men are heartless, rational and exploitative. What is not portrayed on stage is the proposed change to break from a continuum of class distinction and women’s lack of representative in male dominating spheres. The character who calls for a change in social conventions is driven to leave his comfort zone and search for truth and freedom. However, in that journey the individual leaves and everything else remains the same: ‘realistic drama tacitly accepts the world and its values as an unchanging, and unchangeable, environment in which the characters live out their lives.’[22] Therefore, it raises questions such as, will something change? Has something changed? Nora leaves her doll-house to become independent and educate herself; however, the audience is left with a feeling of uncertainty about Nora and Torvald’s future. In that concern, Max Stafford–Clark suggests to George Farquhar: ‘We’re a bit unused to happy endings in modern drama, George; they went out in the sixties. Nowadays we usually end plays on a melancholic note of elegant despair. It suits the political climate.’[23] Perhaps this is the starting point for understanding the pessimistic continuation of the immediate future. Marlene is already educated and fully empowered. She has taken advantage of the system she takes part in the quest for financial stability and peer recognition. However, is there hope for Marlene and Angie? Is Marlene prepared to give in her career for the sake of a lost motherhood? Will it have been worth it? It may seem there is no hope for reconciliation. In this essay, I have illustrated that although Realism drew attention to break conventions of gender roles and awareness of class division it offers a vision of incompleteness as it does not offer replacing solutions to these social issues. In the search of equality and freedom from male dominance, ‘The New Woman’ finds herself trapped within her own thirst for power.

Word count: 1,985.

Bibliography

Brandes, George, Main Currents in Nineteenth Century Literature, quoted in ‘Ibsen and feminism’ in The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen, ed. by James McFarlane (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 2007), pp. 89-105.

Churchill, Cary, Top Girls, ed. by Bill Naismith (London: Methuen Drama, 2009).

Fraser, Bashabi, Modern Drama, Lecture Week 4 and 10.

Hemmer, Bjorn, ‘Ibsen and the realistic problem drama’ in The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen, ed. by James McFarlane (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 2007), pp. 68-88.

Ibsen, Henrik, Letters and Speeches, trans. by Arne Kildal (1909) (New York, 1964).

Innes, Christopher, ‘Caryl Churchill (1938-): from the psychology of feminism to the Surreal’ in Modern British Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 512-28.

Stafford-Clark, Max, in Letters to George (1989), quoted in Churchill, Top Girls, ed. by Bill Naismith (London: Methuen Drama, 2009).

Worthen, W. B., ‘The Modern Theatre’, in The Wadsworth Anthology of Drama (Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007).

-----------. ‘A Doll’s House’, in The Wadsworth Anthology of Drama (Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007).

-----------. ‘Forms of Modern Drama’, in The Wadsworth Anthology of Drama (Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007).

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[1] George Brandes, Main Currents in Nineteenth Century Literature, quoted in ‘Ibsen and feminism’ in The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen, ed. by James McFarlane (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 2007), pp. 89-105, (p. 90).
[2] Ibid., p. 90.
[3] Henrik Ibsen, Letters and Speeches, trans. by Arne Kildal (1909) (New York, 1964), p. 229.
[4] Bashabi Fraser, Modern Drama, Lecture Week 4, slide 10.
[5] ‘The Modern Theatre’ in W. B. Worthen, The Wadsworth Anthology of Drama (Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007), p. 533.
[6] Bjorn Hemmer, ‘Ibsen and the realistic problem drama’ in The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen, ed. by James McFarlane (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 2007), pp. 68-88, (p. 73).
[7] Henrik Ibsen, ‘A Doll’s House’ in W. B. Worthen, The Wadsworth Anthology of Drama (Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007), p. 575.
[8] Hemmer, p. 75.
[9] ‘Forms of Modern Drama’ in W. B. Worthen, The Wadsworth Anthology of Drama (Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007), p. 536.
[10] Fraser, slide 12.
[11] ‘Forms of Modern Drama’ in W. B. Worthen, p. 537.
[12] Henrik Ibsen, ‘A Doll’s House’, p. 574.
[13] Ibid., p. 576.
[14] Ibid., 576.
[15] Cary Churchill, Top Girls, ed. by Bill Naismith (London: Methuen Drama, 2009), p. 96.
[16] Ibid., p. 95.
[17] Ibid., p. 95.
[18] Ibsen, ‘A Doll’s House’ in W. B. Worthen, The Wadsworth Anthology of Drama (Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007), p. 570.
[19] Ibid., 576.
[20] Christopher Innes, ‘Caryl Churchill (1938-): from the psychology of feminism to the Surreal’ in Modern British Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 512-28, (p. 513).
[21] Fraser, Lecture Week 10, slide 24.
[22] ‘Forms of Modern Drama’ in W. B. Worthen, p. 534.
[23] Max Stafford-Clark, Letters to George (1989), quoted in Churchill, Top Girls, ed. by Bill Naismith (London: Methuen Drama, 2009), p. li.

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