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Approaching plays
Approaching plays

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3 Stage directions

Here is a longer passage from the scene from A Doll's House (The MAID referred to is the NURSE).

[RANK, HELMER and MRS LINDE go downstairs. The NURSE comes forward with the children; NORA shuts the hall door.]
NORAHow fresh and well you look! Such red cheeks! – like apples and roses. [The children all talk at once while she speaks to them.] Have you had great fun? That's splendid! What, you pulled both Emmy and Bob along on the sledge? Both at once? That was good. You are a clever boy, Ivar. Let me take her for a little, Anne. My sweet little baby doll! [ Takes the baby from the MAIDand dances it up and down ] Yes, yes, Mother will dance with Bob too. What! Have you been snowballing? I wish I had been there too! No, no, I will take their things off, Anne; please let me do it, it is such fun. Go in now, you look half frozen. There is some hot coffee for you on the stove.
[The NURSE goes into the room on the left. NORA takes off the children's things and throws them about while they all talk to her at once.]
NORAReally! Did a big dog run after you? But it didn't bite you? No, dogs don't bite nice little dolly children. You mustn't look at the parcels, Ivar. What are they? Ah, I daresay you would like to know. No, no – it's something nasty! Come, let us have a game! What shall we play at? Hide and seek? Yes, we'll play hide and seek. Bob shall hide first. Must I hide? Very well, I'll hide first.
[She and the children laugh and shout and romp in and out of the room; at last NORA hides under the table; the children rush in and look for her but do not see her; they hear her smothered laughter, run to the table, lift up the cloth and find her. Shouts of laughter. She crawls forward and pretends to frighten them. Fresh laughter. Meanwhile there has been a knock at the hall door but none of them has noticed it. The door is half opened and KROGSTAD appears, he waits a little; the game goes on.]

Unlike Caryl Churchill, Ibsen writes very full stage directions, which in this extract take up almost as much space as the dialogue.

Activity 4

What do you think is the significance of these directions?


In the first place the directions tell us about the movement of characters on and off the stage. We learn that three characters who have been onstage now leave, while the Nurse brings the children in and then leaves to go to the kitchen. Nora, consequently, is left alone with the children. Notice the careful direction that she should close the hall door by which the Nurse has entered with the children. We are aware of other people being in the house, but it is important that Nora should feel safely enclosed within her domestic space, and that Krogstad should come in as an outsider. His knock is not heard by Nora, who is so happily involved with the children, and when he pushes open the door, he stands for a moment as a silent observer of the scene. This emphasizes his exclusion from the domesticity enjoyed by the Helmers, and lends a slightly sinister element to his appearance. As the scene continues we find that not only has he been excluded from the Helmers' life in another way (by being sacked from the bank), but that his intrusion into the Helmer household brings a threat to Nora's security.

Furthermore, the directions indicate not only movement but sound. No lines are written for the children, but they are far from silent; they talk and laugh and shout. Nora's questions in her first speech indicate something of what they say. Incidentally, her speech also indicates further action: ‘No, no, I will take their things off, Anne’.

Speech and stage directions together give us a picture of a mother happy to play with her children at their level. When she takes their outside clothes off, she ‘throws them about’ rather than putting them tidily away, as a responsible adult might, and the directions tell us that there is a good deal of romping about for Nora and the children, and that it is Nora who hides under the table. The scene contributes to our view of her as a vigorous, playful young woman, and links with the way she is represented in other scenes in the play. Nora's passionate physicality is evident later, in a more sexual sense, in the scene when she dances the tarantella. And the way she addresses her children (‘My sweet little baby doll!'; ‘No, dogs don't bite nice little dolly children’) recalls the way her husband has spoken to her in the first scene of the play (‘Is that my little lark twittering out there?'; ‘It's a sweet little spendthrift, but she uses up a deal of money’).

Stage directions are perhaps the most obvious way in which a playwright will indicate how the text is to be performed, but they need to be interpreted as much as the speeches do, and will not necessarily be followed literally. Here, for instance, is the description of the Helmers’ living room with which the play text starts:

SCENE – A room furnished comfortably and tastefully but not extravagantly. At the back a door to the right leads to the entrance hall; another to the left leads to HELMER'S study. Between the doors stands a piano. In the middle of the left-hand wall is a door and beyond a window. Near the window are a round table, armchairs and a small sofa. In the right-hand wall, at the farther end, another door, and on the same side, nearer the footlights, a stove, two easy chairs and a rocking chair; between the stove and the door a small table. Engravings on the walls; a cabinet with china and other small objects; a small bookcase with well-bound books. The floors are carpeted, and a fire burns in the stove. It is winter.

Activity 5

What is the impression created by this description?


What strikes me is the number of doors and the quantity of furniture! If you try to map out the stage, as though you were a director or stage designer, bearing in mind that the actors need to be able to move round the stage without treading on each other's toes or knocking into the furniture, you will see how difficult it is to fit everything in. I think that Ibsen is creating the impression of a comfortable but cluttered domestic interior. The piano, engravings, china and books indicate that this is a middle-class home with some interest in cultural pursuits, but the quantity of furniture limits the space in which the actors can move and this is, I think, an important way of indicating the constraints upon Nora.

This is her space (Torvald has his study offstage), and she is seen in it for almost the whole play, only being absent for the scene between Krogstad and Mrs Linde at the beginning of Act III. The visual impression should be of a claustrophobic interior, and this may be created in a literal way, following Ibsen's instructions as closely as possible. But it may also be interpreted more freely. The last production that I saw, performed by Shared Experience, actually included in the set a fairly large doll's house, large enough for adult characters to crawl in and out. This does not form part of Ibsen's directions, but is one way of interpreting the claustrophobia that the directions suggest, as well, of course, as giving literal expression to the title of the play.