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 Nora’s quest for personal freedom — a quest still devoutly sought by women a century-and-a-half later — she abandons any responsibility to the very children she brought into existence and whom, or so it seemed until the door-slamming, she lovingly nurtured.
This conflict — personal freedom versus responsibility to others — appears to be what drew playwright Lucas Hnath to write his sequel, “A Doll’s House, Part 2.” Every serious playwright knows Ibsen’s original classic and has speculated about what happened to Nora: Hnath has said he thinks that, after her famous exit, she did “absolutely great.” In his play he re-examines Nora’s quest for personal freedom, but he is equally if not more interested in examining what happened to the people she left behind: What was the impact of Nora’s abandonment of them?
That this is Hnath’s objective is clear from his structure: The play takes place 15 years after Nora left, with its five scenes each focused on a key character, examining the impact of Nora’s act on each, including, in Scenes 1 and 5, on Nora herself. Scene 2 focuses on Torvald; Scene 3 on the housekeeper Anne Marie; Scene 4 on daughter Emmy; and Scene 5 on Nora and Torvald. (That it’s a male playwright questioning Nora’s responsibility to others does not strike me as illegitimate. As a woman and a feminist — my first marriage made me one — I had the same question.)
Good drama, as this one is, examines what Herman Melville, another classic artist, called “the springs and motives” of character. In the masterful production now up at Seattle Repertory Theatre — ably directed by artistic director Braden Abraham and aided by a spare and elegant set and a cast who uniformly work to “keep it real” — these springs and motives of character are rendered crystal-clear throughout.
Interestingly, it is this crystal-clear delineation of motive that, for me, ultimately reduces Nora to a lesser light than she heretofore commanded as a classic heroine.
The disillusionment begins with the first scene, which opens with a knock at the famous door: It is Nora, come back to ask Torvald for the divorce he never filed for and for which only he can file (Norwegian society at the time afforded women few legal rights). The well-dressed figure she presents to Anne Marie, the housekeeper, is formidably successful: She has supported herself, very well, as a writer — she writes about women and “against marriage”; her novel about her marriage to Torvald made her name (or rather her pseudonym) in the publishing world. But, she is rather full of herself (“Surprised to see me?”). More concerning, she stipulates she does not want to see her children, nor does she ask much after their welfare.
Torvald, arriving home from his bank job, initially does not recognize Nora in her finery. Though he insists he is not “broken,” clearly he remains broken by Nora’s abandonment and, no, he’s not inclined to give her a divorce. Anne Marie, in Scene 3, in salty language, unloads on Nora what she deserves: She, Anne Marie, raised the children Nora abandoned, and in doing so she, Anne Marie, abandoned her own child, not to forget she also raised Nora; thus the first words out of Nora’s mouth on coming back should be, per Anne Marie, “Thank you.” Blowing past this effort at a rebalancing, Nora urges her to push Torvald on the divorce. As incentive, the now-wealthy Nora promises the housekeeper her own house.
But it is the scene with her daughter Emmy that Nora seems most diminished as a human being. Emmy, her demeanor preternaturally assured, claims she has been much better off without her mother in her life. As Emmy goes on and on with her well-formulated argument, one expects her to break out singing “I don’t care, I don’t care.” But anyone, most especially a mother, should be able to see her daughter’s preternatural calm masks profound hurt and loss. Alas, Nora does not really see it. Emmy waxes lyrical about marriage (she’s engaged to a man working at her father’s bank): Rejecting her mother’s life as a “nomad,” she welcomes marriage, she wants to be embraced, known, trusted. (Little reference is made in the play to Nora’s two sons. Who knows, with their mother abandoning them as children, they may be out now looking for love in all the wrong places.)
The final scene and its surprises will not be discussed here, but suffice it to say Torvald grows, as a human being who can express his feelings, and Nora continues to diminish in humanity, as one so captured by her own feelings she sees little else, notably her responsibility to her children. At one point I wanted to say to the self-justifying Nora, “Stop, Nora, just stop.” And as Nora is now a writer, one wonders: What is a writer without her humanity, her sense of moral responsibility?
As such, “A Doll’s House, Part 2” speaks directly to our times, when responsibility, especially to children, too often has been sacrificed on the altar of personal freedom, by people who take care only of themselves. Children are precious, we so often aver, yet in fact our precious children are continuously short-changed by society — see: our inaction on child molestation, gun violence, climate change, cost of college, etc.
All players in the Seattle Rep production are memorably strong in their roles — Pamela Reed as Nora, Michael Winters as Torvald, Khanh Doan as Emmy, Laura Kenny as Anne Marie. Laurie Metcalf won the 2017 Tony award for lead actress playing Nora in the Broadway production. “A Doll’s House, Part 2” was nominated for Tony best play and was the most-produced play in U.S. theatres in 2018. Serious as this play sounds, it contains humor throughout, which sparkles all the more because of the seriousness.
This play will remain memorable for me because it lifted the curtain about the ultimate Nora. I am hoping the playwright will consider writing Part 3, wherein Nora may redeem herself and mature. The classic works of art, including Ibsen’s plays, rarely went in for redemption, but we Americans still yearn for it.
This production of “A Doll’s House, Part 2” at Seattle Rep runs until April 28. For other reviews of the play, see here, here, and here. For a documentary on Ibsen, see here. For my other commentaries on theatre, see here, here, here, here, here, and here.