‘We’re actors — we’re the opposite of people!’ (Tom Stoppard). Constructing character in ‘A Doll’s House’ and ‘Dr Faustus.’

“The aesthetic representation of character becomes problematic when disparities are marked between that which is imitated and imitation itself – that is, between the human subject and its artful depiction in literary narrative or drama.[1]” This problem is instilled within the protagonists of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, where there is a discrepancy between whether or not Faustus and Nora embody something human and tangible outside of the theatricalities of the stage. Experiencing journeys in reverse, with Faustus degenerating from an ambitious scholar to a low-level practical joker and with Nora transforming from a frivolous, subjugated housewife to a self-assured woman of independence and strength, various methods are utilised to construct their characters. Ideas of classical tragedy, the Renaissance and psychology are implemented, alongside carefully placed symbolism, which help open up the debate as to whether the actors who play Faustus and Nora truly help reflect “people” in the wider sense; ultimately, the result appears to be that their seemingly contentious decisions is in fact reflective of human behaviour.

A point of argument that in fact seems to support Stoppard’s quotation is that Marlowe and Ibsen both manipulate ideas of tragedy when constructing their protagonists, particularly Aristotlean tragedy through the experience of Peripeteia. Faustus is a character that is imbued with hubris, likening his story to that of the tragedy of Icarus who flew too close the sun and melted his wings – indeed, Hazlitt argues that the character of Faustus can be considered as “a personification of the pride of will and eagerness of curiosity, sublimed beyond the reach of fear and remorse.”[2] As a self-aggrandising tragic hero, his tragic flaw, or hamartia, is that he wants to transcend himself: “A sound magician is a mighty God: /Here, Faustus, tire thy brains to gain a deity.” He is like the naively inquisitive Adam in the tragedy of the Fall of Man, like how “[Nora] is a daughter of Eve… [an] irresistibly bewitching piece of femininity…”:[3] both make decisions that are considered a tragedy to those around them. Marlowe implements characteristics of a Greek tragedy and classical Greek drama to show Faustus as a tragic hero; the presence of a choir, for example, and the symbolic apparition of Helen of Troy, help set Faustus up as man who will inevitably have a downfall. Nora’s shockingly emboldened actions liken her to Medea, who turned violently against her housewifely duties; both women serve to reiterate the dangerous anomalies which can unfold when in a social framework women are not given their just freedom, and in particular Euripides’ Medea conglomerates with Ibsen’s Nora to reflect a nuanced portrayal of women’s struggles to take charge of their own lives in a male-dominated world. To some, Nora is an “unloving egoist who abandons her family in a paroxysm of selfishness […] a housewife Medea, whose cruelty to husband and children is tailored down to fit the framed, domestic world of realist drama.”[4] Nora’s experience of anagnorisis, bearing semblance to Aristotlean tragedy, push her to make the decision to leave her family behind. She was indeed a figure that shocked contemporary audiences who may have thought that a woman leaving her husband and children was a crime of tragedic proportions; she rejects this societal imposition thrust upon her:

HELMER:—Before all else you are a wife and a mother.
NORA:—That I no longer believe. I think that before all else I am a human being, just as much as you are—or at least I will try to become one.

In this manner, perhaps both Nora and Faustus are characters that seem extreme and controversial to their modern audiences, perhaps reinforcing Stoppard’s assertion that actors are “the opposite of people.”

Nora and Faustus are also constructed by the playwrights as characters who desire to break free from the constraints thrust upon them, imbuing them with traits that are more human and not merely just as a theatrical effect for the actors playing them. The Renaissance in Europe carried a new emphasis on the individual, on classical learning, and on scientific inquiry into the nature of the world, and Faustus is the paragon of the Renaissance man, with the rejection of the medieval, God-centered universe, and the embrace of human possibility: “[…] read no more; thou hast attained that end./ A greater subject fitteth Faustus’ wit./ Bid economy farewell, and Galen come./ Be a physician, Faustus.” By turning away from religious strictures of the Medieval Age in favour of the enlightened age of reason and human achievement, his character is constructed as one who yearns for something more; yet perhaps this contributes to his naivety and downfall, as only “a fool, such a clever fool as Faustus, would dream that any power but evil could be won by a bargain with evil, or that truth could be wrung from the father of lies.”[5] Indeed, Nora’s desire to break free from the ties of her suffocating family life signifies a rebirth of ideals, and Ibsen delineates her with the qualities of a protofeminist figure ready to embark on a quest of personal enlightenment; Mephistopheles’ nihilistic admission that “marriage is but a ceremonial toy” is something Nora begins to experience within her stifling doll’s house, yet as Nora’s decision is rejected not only by the people around her but by modern audiences as well, perhaps she “is not just a woman arguing for female liberation; she is much more. She embodies the comedy as well as the tragedy of modern life.”[6] Stoppard’s quotation, then, in the title of this essay, can be refuted; Ibsen constructs Nora is a way that is applicable and relatable to life outside of the theatre; Ibsen himself explained that A Doll’s House is “the description of humanity.”[7] Like Faustus is dissatisfied, Nora is restless: her restlessness being best symbolised in the tarantella dance. The dance, characterised with gradually quickening and dizzying, frenzied movements, which then cause the dancers to drop with exhaustion, is a symbol of Nora; its wild, unresting movement is the tragedy of her nature; light and frivolous on the surface, but concealing a dark secret. Ibsen’s decision to open the play on New Year’s Day is significant also; traditionally viewed as a new beginning, with Torvald due to start a new job and Nora anticipating being “free” from her debt, it carries an irony that starting afresh carries a certain level of tragedy. For both Nora and Faustus their new beginnings and new discoveries are what provide their characters inevitable tragedy, and desires to break free can indeed be applied to life off the stage.

Stoppard’s notion that actors are “the opposite of people” can also be confounded when one psychologically analyses the protagonists to find inherently human and base qualities within them – yet for some audiences, their abnormalities can also be seen as something unrelatable to a world outside of theatre. According to Jung, the death of meaning in the mythical symbols of Christianity was beginning to occur during the Renaissance period at the age of Dr Faustus, stating that “mankind has never lacked powerful images to lend magical aid against all the uncanny things that live in the depths of our psyche.”[8] Yet Faustus is seemingly no longer affected by these images of Christian mythology and they continue to operate only in the nature of the neurotic; indeed, Faustus succumbs to what Jung calls “ego-inflation, a chief danger encountered by the Renaissance man.”[9]  Faustus, like his tragic counterpart Icarus, is placed in danger of enantiodromia, the reversal of opposites; it contributes to the change of direction from zenith to nadir as explored through Faustus’ alliance with Mephistopheles, and “the grand plan on which the unconscious life of the psyche is constructed is so inaccessible to our understanding that we can never know what evil may not be necessary in order to produce good by enantiodromia.[10]” In Nora’s case, she is “unprincipled,” which, when applied to Freudian thought, could be seen as abnormal behaviour. Like Faustus, Nora sees the death of Christianity’s mythical symbols too – Helmer furiously asks her, “Can you not understand your place in your own home? Have you not a reliable guide in such matters as that?–have you no religion?” to which she replies that does not. In the final, climactic scene of the play, Ibsen provides Nora with qualities of female hysteria, and she becomes “what we have come to know as the hysterical personality – bright, unstable, impulsive, romantic, quite immune from feelings of guilt, and at bottom, not especially feminine.”[11] Helmer’s explosive interjection of “What sort of madness is this!” further helps the audiences to come to the conclusion that Nora is indeed suffering from a case of feverish delirium, just as the use of emphatic punctuation in Faustus’ final, begging speech gives off a ramblingly incoherent and delirious feel:

O, I’ll leap up to my God!—Who pulls me down?—

See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!

One drop would save my soul, half a drop:  ah, my Christ!—

Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ!

Yet will I call on him:  O, spare me, Lucifer!—

Marlowe and Ibsen’s construction of their characters, then, opens up an ambiguity as to whether their works are truly just a piece of entertaining theatrical consumption or whether they reflect the real, tangible dangers facing their audiences.

To conclude, it is indisputable that, through the intricate construction of character, what happens on the stage of Dr Faustus and A Doll’s House can indeed engender empathetic responses from their audiences as opposed to being fictional fabrications with no real consequence in real life. Hattie Morahan, playing Nora in a 2012 production of A Doll’s House, explains “how resonant the play is even now – obviously on the surface it’s about a middle class woman’s journey to emancipation in 19th-century Norway, but what emerges are utterly timeless and urgent questions about identity and human relationships.”[12] Indeed, the skilful construction of Faustus’ character provides an insightful lens for examining our devotion to, and consequence of knowledge, and in a more modern sense, technology. Actors, then, aren’t “the opposite of people” – the characters that they inhabit hold relevance in the face of human nature.

[1] William Storm, On the Science of Dramatic Character, Narrative, Vol. 19. No.2, (May 2011), 241-252 (p. 241).

[2] William Hazlitt, Lectures on the Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth: Delivered at the Surrey Institution (BiblioBazaar, Oct 2009).

[3] Hermann Weigand, The Modern Ibsen: A Reconsideration. (New York: Holt, 1925).

[4] Joan Templeton, The Doll House Backlash: Criticism, Feminism, and Ibsen, PMLA, Vol 104. No. 1, (Jan 1989), (p. 29).

[5] W.W. Greg, The Damnation of Faustus, MLR 41 (1946), 100.

[6] Einar Haugen, Ibsen’s Drama (University of Minnesota Press; Minnesota Archi edition, 1979).

[7] Henrik Ibsen, ‘Speech at the Festival of the Norwegian Women’s Rights League, Christiana’, 26 May 1898; in Dukore (1974, 563)

[8] Carl Jung, Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, 2nd edn (Routledge, Jun. 1991).

[9] Kenneth L. Golden, Myth, Psychology, and Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus,” College Literature, Vol 12.No. 3, (Autumn, 1985), 202-210 (p. 203).

[10] Carl Jung, Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 9 (Part 2): Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, trans. by Gerhard Adler, 2nd edn (Princeton University Press, Jun. 1979).

[11] Maurice Valency, The Power and the Castle: An Introduction to Modern Drama (New York: Macmillan, 1963).

[12] Hattie Morahan, We Talk To Ibsen’s Nora, Interview with Imogen Sarre, 2016, accessed at http://www.atgtickets.com/blog/hattie-morahan-interview/


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