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How do Henrik Ibsen and Ariel Dorfman use the mediums of music and dance to convey the masculine vs. feminine power struggle in "A Doll’s House" and "Death and The Maiden"?

NBilani By NBilani Published on February 5, 2016

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We can trace the origins of music and dance as far back as fifty thousand years. Since the inception of these practices, human expression has evolved enough to surpass communication whereby an entire spectrum of emotions and signals can be transmitted to those around us. Music and dance have also taken on prominence in literature: sometimes employed as tools to narrate scenarios otherwise inexplicable through verbal language, or perhaps as means to create dramatic tension. In the plays A Doll’s House, by Henrik Ibsen, and Death and the Maiden, by Ariel Dorfman, these forms of expression are also present, but have been used as literary devices to convey conflict between the masculine and feminine. To investigate this motif, I will observe the initial statuses of the female protagonists in relation to their male counterparts, before looking at how music and dance fabricate the oscillating portrayals of dominant personas throughout the plays.

The female protagonist of A Doll’s House is Nora: a playful but naïve woman who appears ultimately subservient to her husband, Torvald. Ibsen communicates the inferiority of Nora by highlighting the unusual interactions between the couple. For example, Torvald often uses subtly condescending language when dealing with Nora, nicknaming her things such as his “little skylark” or referring to her as a “scatterbrain” . The diction carries connotations that belittle the status of Nora in their relationship. Ibsen further likens Nora to a child with her actions and stage directions. For example, when happy, she claps her hands and jumps up and down, as a child might. Finally, with an air of haughtiness, Torvald commonly states platitudes to his wife, such as “a songbird must have a clear voice to sing with – no false notes” . Once again, the dialogue’s diction reveals much about how Torvald perceives Nora. For example, the ‘must’ enforces an imperative tone, underlining Torvald’s power over his wife. To these deprecating actions, Nora retaliates with small acts of rebellion, like hiding macaroons from her husband after having been forbidden from consuming them. At first, she never breaks free from the 19th century Norwegian mindset that Ibsen criticizes, where marriage was an ultimate, inviolable sanctity.

This portrayal contrasts with Dorfman’s illustration of the leading female in Death and The Maiden, Paulina: a woman who arguably emerges as a relatively more dominant character than her husband. Paulina highlights the common denouncement of women from the start of the play, lamenting that it is “always got to be the wife who has to fix everything” . At times, she even acts offensively towards Gerardo, protesting that he expects too much of her and accusing him of being unfaithful. She says: “I knew that you’d find someone to help you out. Was she pretty at least? Sexy?” Once again, the syntax of the dialogue is significant, for the sequence of Paulina’s interrogatory questioning emboldens her sense of resentment regarding her past ordeals during the dictatorship. Dissimilarly to Torvald, Gerardo does not use disparaging remarks when dealing with his wife. Rather, he always embraces Paulina and attempts to placate her throughout the play, acting as the voice of reason when she advocates the torture, and at a point even the murder, of Roberto Miranda. The blatant force that Paulina uses when abducting Roberto, and her unbendable determination, establishes her as a more empowered figure than Nora in A Doll’s House.

In both plays, the playwrights use artistic mediums to first portray the masculine hold over the feminine, but then to present a reversal of roles. In A Doll’s House, when conversing with an old friend, Nora states that she intends to inform Torvald of her role in saving his life “when my dancing and dressing up do not amuse him any longer.” Subsequently, when discussing a gathering that she must attend, she claims that Torvald “wants me to go as a Neapolitan fisher-girl and dance the tarantella that I learned in Capri.” These statements imply that Torvald expects to be entertained by Nora through dance, ergo objectification of the feminine is established because Nora is presented as a plaything for Helmer. In fact, in a scene following Nora’s performance, Torvald reveals that he brought her home early because of his desires to make love to her. In this case, Ibsen also uses dance to allude to Nora’s sexual submission to her husband. In Death and The Maiden, Paulina is entrapped by music, or more specifically, the string quartet she was forced to listen to whilst being tortured and raped. Therefore, Dorfman illustrates how, through music, the male antagonist has established supremacy. Paulina says: “Do you know how long it’s been since I last listened to this quartet?” Along with other evidence from the play, this implies that the piece Death and the Maiden is a symbol of Paulina’s former self; an image she wishes she could enjoy again but has been taken away from her. She also says that when she heard the quartet: “My body decided for me, I felt extremely ill right there and Gerardo had to take me home.” The subtext of her mental deterioration, hence, is represented by the physicality of the illness her subconscious associates with Death and The Maiden. This has the effect of hyperbolizing the ascendancy of the masculine.

Thenceforth, the female protagonists employ the weapons previously used to belittle them in order to transcend. In a scene where Nora attempts to prevent Torvald from reading a letter from her blackmailer, Nora approaches a piano and “plays the opening bars of the tarantella” . Following this, Nora pleads “Torvald dear; criticize me, and show me where I’m wrong, the way you always do.” Nora’s efforts succeed, and indirectly, she uses Torvald’s desire of control to manipulate him into doing exactly as she wishes. The uses of the soothing diction ‘dear’ and ‘show me’ quite blatantly present Nora taking on the persona of an inferior individual to emotionally manipulate Torvald. This dramatic irony carries much significance because it is the very first occurrence in the play when Nora displays a cunning initiative. Ibsen explicates that “(Helmer, taking up a position by the stove, gives her frequent directions as she dances. She does not seem to hear them.)” These stage directions communicate Nora’s newfound authority; she is no longer interested in what Torvald has to say, which is highlighted in her carefree movements as she dances. The imagery of Nora – in a trance-like state: completely impervious to her husband’s orders – thus prefigures her eventual complete empowerment. The dance is, of course, symbolic: it represents the role she maintained throughout her life, which Torvald has controlled like a puppet, but is now a true picture of herself. In Death and The Maiden, it is unclear whether or not Paulina finally decides to execute Roberto. At the end of the play, he appears in a supposed dream sequence, hinted at by the “phantasmagoric moonlight quality” of the scene. Dorfman fabricates ambiguity through this sequence, in which Paulina and Gerardo sit in a concert hall. Paulina acknowledges Roberto’s presence in the audience, but he “stays behind, watching Paulina and Roberto from a distance” , alluding to the scar that will remain with Paulina forever. As they take their seats, Paulina and Roberto make eye contact and the quartet by Mozart plays in the theatre. This imagery, like that of the dance in A Doll’s House, is also symbolic in nature: it portrays the transcendence of the feminine simply by showing Paulina’s accepting nature as she turns away from Roberto. The piece Death and The Maiden can thus also be interpreted as an emblem of redemption, because Paulina is only able to regain her former self by letting go of her obsession for revenge. Although Dorfman has illustrated the male as the possessor of power, he has conveyed the feminine as tolerant and resilient. These are admirable qualities indicating a higher level of sophistication.

Artistic expression plays large roles in both of these texts; however, the methods by which they have been employed vary considerably. In A Doll’s House, dance has been used as a tool by Nora to manipulate her husband and gain control, thereby allowing Henrik Ibsen to explicate the feminine as being the more powerful gender. At the end of the play, an empowered Nora ventures out into the real world, ready to define herself. In Death and The Maiden, Paulina was restrained by music; which symbolizes that which was taken away from her by masculine dominance. In this, Ariel Dorfman has the ability to display mental and physical weakness in the feminine. However, the final scenes of the play highlight endurance in Paulina because she is able to rise above the ordeal inflicted upon her by the embodiment of masculinity, Roberto. Therefore, although both Ibsen and Dorfman expose the power of the feminine, Dorfman does so in a much more subtle manner. Regardless of the technique, however, both playwrights have conveyed the transcendence of the feminine, where strength has emerged from oppression, objectification and maltreatment, before manifesting as art and unquestionable beauty.

Bibliography:

Dorfman, Ariel. Death and The Maiden. Trans. Ariel Dorfman. London: Nick Hern Books Limited, 1994. Final Definitive Edition. Print.

Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’s House and Other Plays. Trans. Peter Watts. London: Penguin Books, 1965. Print.

Medical student intent on pursuing Oncology, writer and reader. B.S. Biology - American University of Beirut (2012-2015) M.D. - American University of Beirut (ongoing)

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