First in a series, Plays for Our Times
Rethinking a classic work of art is like rethinking your own DNA: It’s not easily done, because you and said work of art are so at one. And if said work of art is a “classic” — with a vintage of at least 100 years or reaching back to ancient times — its durability is its argument. Depending on your psychic need, the truth embedded in said classic — be it drama, novel, poem — not only speaks to you in the abstract. It may change your life forever: shape your psyche, drive your actions, guide you in a crisis.
Certainly that is how the dramas of the great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828–1908) have affected me. Ibsen, who was revered by his fellow artists, was brilliant at showing human beings contending with the forces of their social and historical context — -with the intensely human dramas he depicted speaking as powerfully to our disjointed times as to his own. In his time, his dramas scandalized his hidebound society.
Most especially, Ibsen’s plays “An Enemy of the People” (which premiered in 1883) and “A Doll’s House” (which premiered in1879) both entered my DNA when I read them in high school, with Dr. Stockmann of “Enemy” and Nora Helmer of “Doll’s House” resonating at signal junctures throughout my life. Principally Dr. Stockmann, who tries to protect public safety by raising the alarm that the waters of his famous spa town have become contaminated, only to meet universal resistance and be forced into exile, learning in the process that “The majority is never right” and, in a parallel to our Trumpian era, truth-telling makes one “an enemy of the people.”
Nora of “A Doll’s House” resonated with me in the crisis of my first marriage. Like Nora, driven to rage and out the door forever by the infantilizing treatment from her husband — an act that George Bernard Shaw called “the door slam heard round the world” — I did the same. As I headed out the door forever, I can’t say I thought, “This one’s for you, Nora,” but she (and my survival instinct) did point the way — out.
Yet, for me and no doubt for other playgoers, there has always been a big “Yes, but” to Nora’s convention-defying action: In going out the door forever, Nora also leaves behind forever her three small children — a daughter and two sons — whom she abandons to the care of her emotionally ill-equipped husband Torvald. (I did not have children, so the comparison ends.) In…