Analysis of A Doll’s House and Top Girls

Writers consider genre, writing styles, and literary techniques to tell the story they wish to tell, but their stories are often modeled after formulas pioneered by theorists like Gustav Freytag and Bertolt Brecht. While Freytag was a traditional writer, Brecht was every bit as non-traditional. Both theorists pioneered the way for generations to come. Antonin Artaud wrote, “If the theater has been created as an outlet for our repressions, the agonized poetry expressed in its bizarre corruptions of the facts of life demonstrates that life’s intensity is still intact and only asks to be better directed” (The Theater and its Double 9). Freytag and Brecht represented the eras that they wrote which heavily influenced future writers like Henrik Ibsen and Caryl Churchill. Even with a century separating Ibsen and Churchill, the fight for equality allowed advancements in the women’s movement to continue to have a voice on the modern stage. An analysis of both plays will show that the writers chose differing theories because of how they wanted their audiences to relate to feminist ideologies. Ibsen wanted his audience to relate to both the characters and the theme using Freytag’s Pyramid by altering the formula to include all five elements in only three scenes. Churchill wanted her audience to be alienated from the characters but cognizant of the theme which speaks to why she chose Brecht’s writing style. By analyzing the feminist themes in A Doll’s House and Top Girls, a student will learn how Ibsen used the theory of Freytag to create his traditional dramatic prose play while Churchill used Brecht’s theory to create the non-traditional contemporary dramatic epic play.

Ibsen’s writing style shows he used the structure of Gustav Freytag who modeled the Freytag Pyramid by using each scene to develop a controversial ideology that women could leave their husbands if they found themselves in Nora’s position.  Bisson and Paiva write, “In 1863, Freytag defined the Freytag Pyramid and stated that drama (based on what he had studied) in general followed the same pattern of development along a variable that he called tension (Bisson and Paiva).  Ibsen divides these five elements over three Acts to which the crisis, conflict, and resolution can be found.


The exposition is defined in Are we Telling the Same Story? as, “…the information about the environment, the characters, and their relations” (Bisson and Paiva 11). Ibsen lists the characters not as they appear in the play but how society would define their importance in the home. The narrator notes, “The action takes place in Helmer’s home” (Ibsen). It seems to be a strategy by Ibsen to plant the seed for the audience to question Nora’s role in the marriage.  It helps to foreshadow at the very least the themes of patriarchal roles and women’s rights.  While the themes of sexism and feminism are relevant to today’s audiences, neither were terms known to the Norwegian society in 1879. But, protests for women’s rights began well before Ibsen’s play as evidence documents, “Even earlier laws were those of Norway in the 1840s and 50s which equalised inheritance and gave women the freedom to go into business” (Helsinki University Library). The audience will witness how Nora is treated in the dialogue as a representation of the familial roles they practiced as a society. The narrator also sets the scene for the opening of Act 1 with, “A room furnished comfortably and tastefully, but not extravagantly” (Ibsen). The narrator gives considerable descriptive information that incorporates the use of exposition in Ibsen’s play. Act I provides the best example of character development found in the play. To understand the coming conflict, one must first understand the dynamics between husband and wife which Ibsen masters with the use of literary conventions and well-thought-out word choice. Nora enters the stage with the porter carrying her purchases, and she tips him generously (Act I).  She also tells her maid to hide the Christmas tree until it is dressed so the children do not see it bare (Act I).  These are examples of literary devices used by Ibsen to foreshadow that Nora is much like the tree in that she is hiding a secret, too. Also, Ibsen uses the macaroons to foreshadow Nora’s hidden independence as she hides them from her husband as he does not approve of her eating them. It is also within the first act that Ibsen used carefully worked phrases to define the marital state between Helmer and Nora.  Her husband says, “Is that my little lark twittering out there?” (Ibsen Act1). He also refers to her as his ‘little squirrel’ and ‘spendthrift’ that seems to characterize her as a dependent woman whose role is to serve him and his home. But, the language gradually changes to reveal tension building between the two. The use of the literary conventions to foreshadow and the use of character development both help to set the stage for a rising action that leads to the conflict between the husband and wife. Ibsen breaks from Freytag’s theory just a bit in that he puts the rising action in Act one. The rising action is defined as, “the reaction to some negative events that are preventing the protagonist from reaching his or her goals” (Bisson and Paiva 11).  The rising action starts when Nora has a conversation with Mrs. Linde as she speaks of their financial situations in less happy times.  Nora says of being asked about having to work, “Yes; odds and ends, needlework, crochet-work, embroidery, and that kind of thing” (Ibsen Act 1). It is at this point that the mood shifts from happy to gloomy as the audience sees a woman different than what has been portrayed as she speaks of Torvald’s illness that affected his ability to work early on in their marriage. The audience can also feel a sense of what it was like for women like Mrs. Linde whose husbands died and left wives with nothing (as per the law to property and business rights discussed on page three). Mrs. Linde says to Nora, “No, a wife cannot borrow without her husband’s consent” (Ibsen Act 1). This supports the idea of a rising action taking place between Nora and Mrs. Linde about the loan is leading the audience to a negative realization. Ibsen uses the dialogue between Nora and Mrs. Linde to tell how she deceived her husband by getting the loan. However, the rising action continues when Krogstad enters Nora trembles in fear of him.  As they speak in dialogue, he says to her, “Hmm!—suppose I were to tell him?” (Ibsen Act 1).  The threat guides the audience to think about the impending conflict when her husband finds out.

The crisis and climax reveal to Mrs. Linde that Krogstad is the person who loaned Nora the money. Ibsen creates tension as Helmer is heading to check the mail, but she feigns the need of his services which brings him treating her in a condescending manner where he must teach her everything if she is to do anything right. He says to Nora, “You have forgotten everything I have taught you” (Ibsen Act II). She then takes advantage of the moment by replying, “Yes, you see how much I need it. You must coach me up to the last minute.  Promise me Torvald!” (Ibsen Act II). The tension-building-technique Ibsen uses helps the conflict to reach a pivotal point that will not be lost on an audience. The conflict is revealed is when Helmer receives the letter about the loan which leads to the next element of Freytag’s Pyramid. The climax is defined as, “…a turning point, usually leading to a positive solution” (Bisson and Paiva 11). When Helmer reads the letter, he says to Nora, “Miserable creature-what have you done? What a horrible awakening! All these eight years-she who was my joy and pride-a hypocrite, a liar-worse-a criminal” (Ibsen Act III). But, it is the change in Nora that represents the falling action. The falling action, “brings everything back to normal” (Bisson and Paiva 11). The narrator adds descriptive language like “coldly and quietly” (Ibsen) to show her mood change from desperate to cool and detached as she realizes that he did not love her but the idea of a perfect her there to serve him.  He says, “The matter must be hushed up at any cost. You will still remain in my house, that is a matter of course.  But, I will not allow you to bring up the children” (Ibsen Act III). She brought him shame he notes, but it seems by Ibsen’s characterization of him that he might also feel that he was no longer in control of his wife. This leads to the final part of Freytag’s theory called the denouement defined as, “…the conclusion of the story” (Bisson and Paiva 11). Nora speaks to him of her desire for independence to which he can not understand until she leaves and he says, “Empty.  She is gone. The most wonderful thing of all” (Ibsen Act III).  This should lead the audience to appreciate things/people while they are there before you lose them just as the dramatic traditional play promises.

Top Girls is a British contemporary fantasy/dramatic epic play written by Caryl Churchill and performed at the Royal Court Theatre in London on August 28, 1982. At that time, Queen Elizabeth II ruled Great Britain because of birthright, but Margaret Thatcher was England’s Prime Minister by choice.  Before Churchill’s eyes, women were conquering political and economic systems considered male roles. The three-act play lays a foundation of feminism with the use of an all-female cast. In Top Girls; In Plays, it says of influence, “I remember before I wrote Top Girls thinking about women barristers-and how they were in a minority and had to intimidate men to succeed” (Churchill). While Top Girl’s character Marlene is an intimidator of men, the various characters set the stage to define forms of feminism. Churchill’s socialist theory asks the audience to question Marlene’s radical feminist character to the other characters who embody the bourgeois beliefs of equality.

The dramatic epic play embodies the stylistic approach of Brecht in writing to alienate the audience by using effective literary techniques. In Uncomfortable User Experience, it notes, “In the 1930s, German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht proclaimed theater should contain some level of verfremdung (alienation), causing unease or discomfort by encouraging the audience to look at something or someone from another’s point of view” (BenfordGreenhalgh, and Giannachi). The play has a limited narrative voice, “Restaurant. Table set for dinner with white tablecloth.  Six places. MARLENE and WAITRESS” (Churchill). With such a limited instruction, the audience must rely on the first Act to understand the setting, scene props, and themes. As Brecht and Anderson notes, “De-familiarization was required to make things understood” (19). Marlene speaks with an authoritative presence as she says to the waiter, “One of them is going to be late but we won’t wait” (Churchill). The line represents a woman who is used to giving and not receiving instruction, but it also sets her apart as the hostess which tells the audience she is a key player. As the ladies arrive, an unrealistic scene unfolds before the audience with the appearance of Lady Bird (1831-1904), Lady Nijo (b, 1258), Dull Gret (subject in Brueghel’s painting Dulle Griet), Pope Joan (854-856), and Patient Griselda (dutiful wife in The Clerk’s Wife) (Churchill Note on characters). To understand Marlene’s feminist extremism, it is important to understand the women who came before her in their various roles. In Theatre For Learning, it notes, “To make the events understandable, it had become necessary to play up ‘the bearing’ of the environment upon the people living in it” (Brecht and Anderson 19). Churchill does that by adopting Brecht’s method of non-linear approach to time that starts with her promotion and ends a year before. Churchill also adopted Brecht’s use of speech patterns (where actors talk over one another) so that the audience focuses more on the themes than the people playing the parts. One of those interruptions occurs when Isabella says, “This is the Emperor of Japan? I once met the Emperor of Morocco” and Nijo interrupts by saying, “In fact he was the ex-Emperor” (Churchill Act I). Nijo responds to a question about rape, “No, of course not, Marlene, I belonged to him, it was what I was brought up for from a baby” (Churchill).  It subjectively compares the social condition of women centuries ago to the contemporary movement for equality. In just that line, the social conscience is awakened in the modern minds of the audience to question just how a 14-year-old left in torn gowns after being forced to the marriage bed with an older man could not be considered rape. Lady Isabella traveled, Lady Nijo was a courtesan, Dull Gret (visual in Dull Griet) charged forward into Hell with only an apron and armour, Pope Joan lived as a man but was stoned to death after a pregnancy, and Patient Griselda was the poor and dutiful wife forced back to a father as represented by Chaucer in The Clerk’s Wife. These women at some point in history defied patriarchal systems that they were born leading to the bourgeois feminist.

Act I, Scene II begins with Marlene and Jeanine in the Top Girls Employment Agency. The audience sees Marlene’s rigid work ethic as she judges her grades with, “No As, all those Os you probably” (Churchill). It shows Marlene is a woman who has no sympathy for women as she sees Jeanne as just another average woman with no assets to reach the top.  The audience will see familiar faces (Griselda as Jeanine) as Churchill uses Brecht’s method of doubling (where actors play various parts) to play contemporary figures in Act II.  The use of historicization helps separate history and modern feminism. Brecht says, “The ‘natural’ had to be given an element of the conspicuous.  Only in this way could the laws of cause and effect become plain” (20).  And by epic principles, the audience then relates not to the characters but to the circumstances the women found themselves.  Jeanine says to Marlene she wants to get married, and Marlene replies, “Does that mean you do not want a long-term job, Jeanine” (Churchill Act II Scene I). The audience might for the first time recognize that Marlene is different than the other women in that she believes they can not be married with children and have full-time jobs. Scene III represents the familial issues of the stay-at-home mother of Angie (who happens to be Marlene’s sister) Joyce. She says of Angie, “She’d better get married. She’s one of those girls might never leave home” (Churchill Act II Scene II). The level of disconnect between Joyce and Kit is explained when Angie says she believes she is Marlene’s child. It leaves the audience to question the balance women play in society.  Doubling continues to compare the two gender roles as Win (who also played Lady Nijo) comes in talking about her affair (like Lady Nijo had done in Act 1). These Top Girls use language like, “Howard thinks because he’s a fella the job was his by right. Our Marlene’s got far more balls than Howard” (Churchill Act II). It’s strong and effective.

Act III takes place a year before Act I displaying the family dynamics between Angie, Joyce, and Marlene. Churchill offers the audience a final thought on the balance of the socialist feminist with lines like, “…who’s got two children, she breastfeeds in the board room…an extremely high-powered lady earning a great deal of money.” (134).  The talking over and interruptions give a sense of competition as both of their lives were bound by Angie just as the historical characters were bound history. Churchill uses each act to represent feminist views to question the social injustices of some women while criticizing women who do not feel that a balance can be had. By using Bertolt Brecht’s Marxist methods, Churchill created the conflict (Angie tells Kit she is Marlene’s daughter Act II), crisis (Marlene, Joyce roles of motherhood and class systems Act III), and resolution (the promotion in Act I) using fictional characters to implement methods like historicization, non-linear scene-setting, doubling, and speech overlapping dialogues. The audience weighs the balance of women in patriarchal societies, lack of equality in economic situations, and dominance as women begin to take male-dominated roles.  By creating a mirage through time by using double-casting, it leaves the audience to question their roles in society. The play also represents the history of feminism in that it is left to women to decide how they want their stories to be recorded in history.

There are varied differences between traditional (Ibsen) and non-traditional (Churchill) plays. Traditional plays follow strict patterns, and the audiences are involved in the process. Non-traditional plays have curveballs, and the audiences are alienated from connecting to the characters. Choosing the genre is key to relaying the theme effectively.

dramatic and epic form

As the chart above shows, Ibsen created a real vision of life for families in that era, and the audiences related by seeing themselves through the voices of the characters. Churchill related the theme of feminism by using fictional literary characters that the audience was unable to relate. Ibsen does not tell his audience that women should leave but suggested it by having her engage in it. Churchill showed her audiences the feminist spectrum so that they could find the balance. Nora was a replication of the housewife, but the cast was a variety of male and female actors that represented the family and society he lived. Churchill’s characters were all females that indicated to audiences that men were no longer needed by women. A Doll’s House was written in perfect unison with dramatic form while Top Girls used reverse timelines which fit in with epic form. Both writers chose their genres, forms, and writing theories they knew would work in delivering the theme to their audiences.

No social issue is without controversy, but writers know who is going to be offended or uplifted simply by paying attention to those around them. Ibsen understood his society because he saw successful campaigns on women’s reform, but he also understood women were seeking independence which might lead to criticism. Churchill was a wife, mother, and worker who saw the birth of feminism rise up to include many different forms that made even the feminist groups debate. As more women took their places in the workforce, she offered the view that women did not have to make a choice. Both seemed to understand that their audiences had social consciences, yet Ibsen used the theory that was common in the 19th-century while Churchill used a contemporary theory to give a fresh perspective to the argument. By writing controversial feminist literature, they contributed to the debate in documenting their own beliefs. Regardless of dictates, it is a fair assumption that in all societies there are women much like who is represented in the plays. The goal is not to write a perfect story for one group but to write where people in society are going to debate so that the theme continues to be relevant. The spectrum started with men controlling women, but it ended with women who did not need men. Has feminism reached its peak?  As Antonin Artaud wrote, it will depend on writers finding innovative ways to continue the legacy of women’s rights. Women have still not left abusive relationships, and men are still dominating most fields economically. Ibsen may well have been the father of feminism in the theater to tell women to march on, but Churchill used the same platform in which to say be careful not to go too far as to upset the balance of nature. Because those ideas are still being debated, it is a good indication that this theme has not run its course on theater stages worldwide.

Works Cited
Artaud, Antonin. The theater and its double. Vol. 127. Grove Press, 1958.
Benford, Steve, et al. “Uncomfortable user experience.” Communications of the ACM 56.9 (2013): 66-73.
Brecht, Bertolt, and Edith Anderson. “Theatre for learning.” The Tulane Drama Review (1961): 18-25.
Brisson, António, and Ana Paiva. “Are we Telling the Same Story?.” group 11 (2007): 12.
Churchill, Caryl. Top girls. A&C Black, 2013.
Churchill, Caryl. Top Girls. In Plays: Two. London: Methuen, 1990. 51-141.
Helsinki University Library, Women’s Politics: The Feminist Movement, (n.d.). retrieved on Feb 11, 2017, from http://www.helsinki.fi/science/xantippa/wee/weetext/wee214.html
Ibsen, Henrik, A Doll’s House, The Project Gutenberg, ebook, 2008, retrieved on Feb 10, 2016, from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2542/2542-h/2542-h.htm

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