Miss Julie’s struggle against the societial expectations of her time can be compared to that of another female character of modern drama, namely Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Nora believed in her ability to realize her true self, but it relied on her escaping her home, which represents the trap of her loveless marriage. Nora’s own psychological struggle is also referenced to the arrangement of the set. Similar to Miss Julie, the dramatic activity throughout A Doll’s House is focused entirely on the one room (with four doors) that is visible on stage.
The set creates a visual correspondence that communicates the essential dramatic idea of the work: Nora is sheltered from the outside world in her fantasy ‘doll house’. Early in the play, Ibsen defines the space onstage as Nora’s: “Is that my little lark twittering out there? ” Helmer calls from his room in the opening lines of Act I.
This simple line not only identifies the space on stage as Nora’s, but Helmer’s allusion to the ‘lark’ further suggests that Nora’s life is much like a bird cage – protected, confined within the ‘boundaries’ of her home.
Nora’s space thus defined, certain actions take on a symbolic context of meanings. We notice that Nora always keeps the doors leading to the other rooms closed, except when there is motion through them; for example, Nora is able to bolt the door shut to Helmer’s study, she takes the children out of the living area when Krogstad enters, so in a sense she has control as it relates to people invading her space.
Her life in her “doll’s house” is thus defined by the stage space, so when her life is interrupted, so is this space.
For instance, Krogstad’s entrance through a door left ajar upsets her, unleashing the sequence of events that determines her departure. Ibsen’s stage directions read: Meanwhile there has been a knock at the hall door… The door is half open and Krogstad appears. 3 Ibsen emphasizes the fact that the door through which Krogstad makes his unsolicited entrance had been left open – and Nora’s life susceptible to intrusion, leaving her in a disquieted state of mind. Nora’s psychological struggle is further emphasized by Ibsen through the use of the Christmas tree, which – aside from its use as a conventional indicator of the passage of time – serves as a visual representation of Nora’s emotional turmoil. Soon after Krogstad’s visit, Nora tries to set aside the imminent threat to the destruction of her “doll house” by asking the maid to bring in the tree, and place it in the middle of the floor.
She is confident that her home and her family must come first – before any legal matter. The audience recognizes the tree as a powerful symbol representing family security and happiness, set defiantly in the center of the stage to dominate it, as if its mere presence is sufficient to banish Nora’s troubles. As Nora begins to dress the tree, she states: A candle here – and flowers here -. The horrible man! It’s all nonsense – there’s nothing wrong. The Tree shall be splendid! I will do everything I can to please you, Torvald! 4 Thus, the tree is the visual representation of Nora’s blind conviction that things will be fine, merely because she says so.
However, the opening of Act II presents a very different atmosphere. In the opening stage directions, Ibsen indicates that The Christmas tree is in the corner by the piano, stripped of its ornaments and with burnt-down candle-ends on its disheveled branches. 5 One soon realizes that Nora finds herself in a greatly altered state of mind. At this point, she has become fully conscious of the reality of Krogstad’s threat, and she loses hope that she will succeed – she is terrified. The family gaiety and happiness is spoiled, and she dares not play with the children.
Whereas before, the Christmas tree dominated the stage, in Act II, when the curtain goes up, the tree has been stripped of its ornaments, and it has been pushed in a corner of the room – a very fitting symbol of dejection. In Act III, there is an implication that the Christmas tree is no longer present, foreshadowing Nora’s shocking decision to leave her family. The act opens in the same scene, however there is no mention of the Christmas tree, which develops the symbolism one step further, seeing as the scandalous rezolution can be clearly foreseen at this point.
Similarly, Strindberg utilizes prop pieces to expose Jean’s psychological struggle; however, unlike Ibsen’s dynamic prop pieces, which change in appearance and position with the advancement of the plot, Strindberg uses several objects that remain static throughout the duration of the play. This technique is employed in portraying the Count, whose powerful presence and influence over the characters is represented mostly by scenographic means: the ringing bell and speaking tube that mediate his orders, as well as his riding boots.
At the beginning of the play, Strindberg’s stage directions read as follows: … Jean enters, dressed in livery and carrying a pair of large riding boots, with spurs, which he puts down on the floor where they remain clearly visible. 6 Strindberg’s insistence that the boots remain visible throughout the play is meant to symbolize the Count’s omnipresence in the house as well as his supreme power over the characters. Jean, in particular is tormented by the count’s invisible presence. Throughout the play, Jean expresses an avid desire to climb up from his social position.
There are numerous power shifts between Jean and Miss Julie throughout the play, however, in the end, both end up in submission to the Count, who is both father and master. The superiority Jean gains in relation to Julie immediately founders when he is reminded of the Count, which causes him to acknowledge his inferior position in society. At one point, he exclaims: I only have to see his gloves lying on a chair, and I feel so small – I only have to hear that bell up there, and I start like a frightened horse – and now, when I see his boots standing there so high and mighty, it sends a shiver down my spine!
At this point, Jean has just shared his plans for starting a hotel abroad with Julie. He talks about his dreams of buying a title in Romania and becoming a Count. However, as soon as Julie makes any mention of the Count or his house, Jean becomes insecure and disquieted because he realizes that he is still just a mere servant – despite his many ambitious plans for the future. Thus, although often undermined when reading a play, scenography is a vital component of dramaturgy; it unleashes a powerful vocabulary spoken by space and props, which act to convey ideas and define character in their own right.
As was shown above, both Ibsen and Strindberg’s careful attention to visual detail uncovers an entirely new dimension of the work, exposing many metaphoric parallels between the scenography and the psychology of the characters. The scenographic dimension of a drama is one of the key ones that enables the audience to interpret the private world of the fictional heroes – the physical surroundings of the heroes functioning as objectifications of their inner world, and as such, acting as a window through which the audience can understand the internal struggle of the characters.