This analysis of Peer Gynt was originally published in The Continental Drama of Today. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1914. pp. 31-4.
Ibsen's so-called "social dramas," written between 1867 and 1899, differ widely in spirit and style from [his earlier works]. Most of them consist of the end of a story, most of the events of which happened long ago, and have been aptly called "catastrophic" plays, because they deal almost exclusively with the end or catastrophe. Ghosts is perhaps the best example. When the curtain rises on that play, everything but the inevitable result has taken place. Ibsen is interested and actually concerned only with the end. Ghosts is the dramatization of an effect; the cause of the tragedy is over years before the play begins. A Doll's House is similar, because the audience sees only the last part of the story.
The gist of the play is in the last half of the last act, in the conversation between Nora and Helmer. Ibsen once said that the play was written for the sake of this scene. The first three acts and the first part of the fourth are preparation. The exposition in the first act, the unfolding of Nora's previous history, serve as additional preparation. Therefore, when the momentous conversation takes place, the audience has firmly in mind the important events in the lives of the characters.
Technically, this play is one of Ibsen's best; it is clear, interesting, unified. No time is lost in letting the audience know what has gone before. We are curious to know more, to learn how Nora will extricate herself from her difficulties. Throughout the play, there is scarcely a superfluous word: all tends toward the final scene, all is virtually preparatory explanation.
In studying this play -- and, for that matter, all plays -- it will be well to reconstruct the story of what has happened previously to the rise of the curtain.
How does the conversation between Nora and Mrs. Linden advance the story in the first act? In other words, what is the purpose of Mrs. Linden in that act?
It has been said that every line in a good play does one of two things, if not both: advance the plot or reveal character. What is the purpose of the scene between Rank, Nora, and Mrs. Linden in the first act? What is the purpose of the scene with the children?
Do you see a good reason why Helmer should speak of Krogstad before his wife in the first act rather than in a later one, or why he should speak of his dealings with Krogstad at all?
Near the beginning of the second act, Nora says to the maid who tells her that if she goes out she may catch cold: "Worse things might happen." Is this a good example of foreshadowing? In the first two acts, are there any better examples? What are they?
What structural purpose is served by Rank's exposition of his views on heredity?
The play has sometimes been criticized on the ground that it was impossible for Nora to develop to so abnormal a degree within the three days allowed her by the author. Trace the steps by which the development has progressed, and try to determine whether Ibsen has justified such a change.
Read the scene between Nora and Helmer in the last act and notice how, during the preceding acts, the scene is prepared for. Nora's acute reasoning power should not come as too great a surprise, for an audience has a right to be prepared for what is the outgrowth of the early part of the play.
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