50 Ways to Leave Your Torvald
As times change, so does Ibsen's landmark vision of the clash between the sexes
By Toby Zinman
Clockwise from top left: Kim Staunton and Harvy Blanks in OyamO's A Selfish Sacrifice, at Denver Center Theatre Company in 2005 (photo by Terry Shapiro); Anne Tismer in Thomas Ostermeier's Nora (A Doll's House) at BAM in 2004 (photo by Richard Termine); Sarah Agnew and Peter Christian Hansen in Rebecca Gilman's Dollhouse, at the Guthrie Theater in 2010 (photo by Michal Daniel); and Maggie Siff and Anthony Starke in Gilman's Dollhouse at the Goodman Theatre in 2005 (photo by Michael Brosilow)
"Why, Nora, you've changed!"
Torvald Helmer is mildly surprised. He and his wife have come home from a late-night party and she has changed into street clothes rather than a nightdress. What's up?
In short order, as he hears what Nora has to say on this unexpectedly momentous night, Torvald's bemusement turns to astonishment and disbelief. Their exchange—and the door slam that concludes it like a warning shot fired in advance of a revolution—is a signal moment in the history of modern theatre and, the case can be made, in the progress of modern human relations. Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House continues to be one of world literature's most controversial and theatrically tempting plays.
And since its shocking premiere 132 years ago, audiences have been echoing Torvald, exclaiming, "Why, Nora, you've changed!" As one translator after another updates Ibsen's text (from fusty Victorian English to whatever is "modern" at the moment), as one director after another adjusts the trappings of the play (its setting, its costuming, its casting), as actor after actor embodies Nora and Torvald for his or her own time, as one playwright after another riffs off Ibsen's original to create contemporary versions of the drama, Torvald's famous double entendre resonates with altered emphasis. One door slams shut, another opens.
There is no shortage of "straight" productions of A Doll's House—Torvald may be the most frequently dumped husband in the history of marriage. But even where realism and floor-length dresses still hold sway, Nora changes. As gender politics go, so goes Ibsen.
A quick survey of legendary actors essaying the roles on film (and telefilm) demonstrates how shifts in the culture (if not in hemlines) can affect the Nora-Torvald dynamic and the tenor of the drama:
1950s: Julie Harris is a meek Nora, all wistful eyebrows and tremulous voice, opposite Christopher Plummer's patriarchal, patronizing Torvald. Father, after all, knew best.
1970s: Claire Bloom's Nora is largely an actress—skilled at becoming whoever she's required to be until finally turning firm and stern. ("Sit down," she tells her husband.) Anthony Hopkins's Torvald is verging-on-violent and thoroughly self-congratulatory. The decade also gives us Jane Fonda as Nora. I am Woman, hear me roar.
1990s: Juliet Stevenson's Nora is all self-discovery and brave-new-world wonder, while Trevor Eve counters with a bewildered and tearfully emotional Torvald. Sensitivity session.
Directors, too, can't resist the pull of the zeitgeist. A few major examples, these from the stage, illustrate the temptation to situate the Helmers in the mutable moment:
1981: Ingmar Bergman launches his trilogy A Project for the Theatre with Nora, in which he deconstructs A Doll's House (followed by Julie, based on Strindberg's Miss Julie, and then Scenes from a Marriage, a stage adaptation of his own film). In this renowned director's view, the characters are in hell where "the damned are condemned to torture one another." Although Bergman doesn't rewrite Ibsen, he reconfigures him, placing all the play's characters on stage all the time, thus changing the dynamic among them. Mrs. Linde becomes the villain of the piece, triggering the play's catastrophe out of spite and envy. (A new production of Nora opens this month at New York City's Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex, staged by the recently formed Marvell Repertory Company.)
2003: Lee Breuer creates his "little men" production Mabou Mines DollHouse, wherein the women and the children are "normal"-sized, squashed into a miniaturized house, while the male characters are played by little people—and are no less tyrannical for their lack of height. This is accompanied by creepy/jokey music plucked from silent-movie melodrama.
2004: German iconoclast Thomas Ostermeier ends his production not with a door-slam but with a series of gunshots, as Nora unloads, literally, on a squirming Torvald. Nora wears a Lara Croft costume, becoming her own avatar, and Dr. Rank is a cigar-smoking angel with wings.
Perhaps the two most exotic entries in the global Doll's House sweepstakes are a 1998 production in Beijing and a 2006 production in Delhi, demonstrating that Ibsen's play is not only for all times but all places.
Noting that Ibsen has been a major influence on modern Chinese drama since early in the 20th century, Playbill's China correspondent Wang Ling reports that the Central Experimental Drama Theater's production was reset in turbulent 1930s China rather than in 19th-century Norway, although Nora was played by a Norwegian actress, Agnete G. Haaland, who spoke in both English and Chinese. The sound design featured musicians performing traditional Chinese melodies.
According to The Hindu's reporter Leela Venkataraman, the Indian production of A Doll's House, presented in honor of International Women's Day, was an adaptation for dance and puppets by a group called Sadhya, with the dancers costumed in 19th-century European clothes. The concept had the figure of Henrik Ibsen as the still center around whom the female dancers performed "in adulation of his support for the cause of gender equality."
At the International Ibsen Conference in Skien, Norway, in September 2010, there were three performances of the play, including a Turkish version called Nora Nure. Nure is a figure in traditional Kurdish stories, and this interpretation presented its two main characters as counterparts representing East and West, the ancient and the modern, thus revealing and extolling their ultimate similarities. Also on the program was an Egyptian dance performance by Lamousika called Nora's Doors, a choreographic meditation on the famous exit and on the situation of women in Egypt today. The third, a Norwegian production, used the original script but the venue was extraordinary: the actual living room of Ibsen's family home in Venstop.
An irresistible aside: No catalog of Doll's House permutations, historic or otherwise, can be evoked without imagining the 1886 "amateur" production in a Bloomsbury drawing room, when Eleanor Marx (daughter of Karl) played Nora and Bernard Shaw played Krogstad!
Closer to home, American playwrights have also shown interest in exotic approaches to Ibsen's classic. Charles F. (OyamO) Gordon's 2005 play A Selfish Sacrifice, which premiered at Denver Center Theatre Company, depicts Nora, now called Aku, as the wife of the Nigerian ambassador to the United Nations. When Aku joins her husband Aki in New York, she discovers how different her life as a Nigerian woman is from the lives of American women. This idea, suggested by OyamO's collaborator, the late director Israel Hicks, seems to provide a contemporary sociopolitical equivalent to the 19th century's audience-shocking experience of the play's proto-feminism.
The title, OyamO explains, "was about choices that canceled each other out: It was selfish of Aku to leave the family to pursue her life, but it was also a sacrifice—she sacrificed her joys of her children and of a secure marriage to a loving, if insensitive, husband. She needed her freedom to have the kind of life she felt she deserved and that she could never have achieved with the typical male. My sympathies lie with the women in this macho world."
What's the significance of Aki (the Torvald figure) being a convert to Islam, and Aku being a Christian? OyamO explains, "I did not want to leave out the kind of religious and tribal tensions that plague Nigeria: Did Aki convert to Islam to make his life easier in Nigeria? Did he feel that Christianity was just another sort of animist religion? Did the Islamic man's attitude toward women attract him? In any event, I thought it would be much more interesting to see what happens between an Ibo-Christian and a converted Yoruban who left a vibrant, colorful religion to join an austere, strict one—a religion that was forced, initially, upon Africa in the centuries following the founding of Islam in the 7th century A.D."
Rebecca Gilman stakes out perhaps more familiar terrain in her intriguing updating of the play, called Dollhouse, which premiered at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 2005 and had a remounting at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis last May. Gilman sets Dollhouse in a condo in Lincoln Park, Chicago, in 2004. Nora is called "No-No" by her husband Terry, and she more or less sums up their marital dynamic when she tells him near the end of the play, "Your nickname for me is a scold...a scold for a wayward child."
Here Krogstad has become Raj Patel (another great name), and his financial difficulties are caused by an investment venture involving illegal stem-cell research. When I asked Gilman whether the character's failure and moral breakdown suggest a parallel collapse of the American Dream—he is, in this configuration, the immigrant son undone by greed—Gilman replied, "I wasn't thinking of Raj's experience as emblematic of the immigrant experience. Rather, I was looking for a way to make him an outsider in this world, as Krogstad is in the original, due to class. I felt that the other characters would regard him as a grabby intruder based on their own xenophobia."
Gilman's play is likely to make contemporary audiences squirm with embarrassment at its indictment of their own materialism. "So much of the dialogue in Ibsen's play is about money," Gilman points out. "Torvald and Nora are the yuppies of 19th-century Bergen. I think Ibsen was very aware of how much they valued physical comfort and things."
Perhaps Gilman's most shocking alteration of Ibsen comes when, after the door slams behind her, Nora relents and comes back. Is this paradoxically dismaying and delicious surprise (proving that doors slam both ways) intended to convey ambiguity or just a contemporary "never mind, just kidding" posture? "I was going for both surprise and ambiguity with her reentry," Gilman avows. "I felt that, given the contemporary setting, Nora's leaving at the end was not the radical act that Ibsen intended. It was Ibsen's intent to shock the audience, and I was hoping for some shock value with her return. I felt like a contemporary adaptation had to ask the question of how far feminism has come since Nora first left Torvald, and the answer I arrived at was: not far enough. Given our options, I'm afraid that sometimes women choose comfort and security over real freedom. This modern-day Nora returns to the safety of established gender norms." (Gilman's deliberations would surely not seem alien to Ibsen, given the notorious alternative ending he was coerced into writing for an 1880 German production—having Nora decide to stay, standing at the door of her children's bedroom weeping.)
Following this same line of women's questioning voices is the Sophie Reynolds adaptation for a Theatre Delicatessen production currently running through Feb. 5 in London. Reynolds's provocative concept is an all-female cast who, according to press sources, "retell Ibsen's sensational story of one woman's emancipation through the eyes of a generation of women who were told they could have it all...challeng[ing] the complacent modern view that women and men are equal in the eyes of the law, the home and wider society. How far do women contort themselves in order to fit in with patriarchal customs, physicalities, languages and emotions?" Good questions. Reynolds and company seem to have taken up Ibsen's mighty line, delivered when he was asked about his support for a bill that would grant separate property rights for married women: "To consult men in such a matter is like asking wolves if they desire better protection for the sheep."
Austrian author Elfriede Jelinek, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004, would seem to agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment. Her novels (including The Piano Teacher, which was adapted for the screen with Isabelle Huppert) emphasize female sexual desire and capitalist society's marginalization of women. In Jelinek's 1979 play What Happened After Nora Left Her Husband; or Pillars of Society (Was geschah, nachdem Nora ihren Mann verlassen hatte; oder Stutzen der Gesellschaften), written as a sequel to A Doll's House to commemorate the original play's centennial, Nora frees herself from her upper-class role as a wife and mother to become a factory worker. Her transformation is signaled as Nora sheds her Tarantella party costume and dons street clothes, then in this outfit walks from the last scene of Ibsen's play into the first scene of Jelinek's.
The sequel, which appears to be unavailable in English, has a dual time frame: Germany of the 1920s, undergoing the economic collapse that led to the rise of Hitler's National Socialism, and the late 1970s, a period marked by accelerated economic development and the emergence of Germany's feminist movement. Here Jelinek seems to imply ideological continuities between National Socialism and the contemporary German Wirtschaftswunder, or "economic miracle."
Political concerns of that or any sort were hard to detect in an unlikely American musical based on a similar trope—what might have transpired after Nora slammed the door?—that played briefly on Broadway in 1982. A Doll's Life, with book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and directed by Hal Prince, sent Nora off on the train to Christiania, where (a Times review dryly observed) she "became lost in the combined mechanics of Broadway and the Industrial Revolution." Over the years, the commercial theatre has fared better when it has served its Ibsen unadulterated by concept or attempted renovation.
Not so in the more adventurous not-for-profit theatre sector, where yet another all-American rethinking of the play—this one by prolific playwright Theresa Rebeck—makes its debut this month. DollHouse, premiering Feb. 27-March 20 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown, Mass., in a production by the New Repertory Theatre, differs from such more familiar Rebeck works as Spike Heels and The Understudy in that it isn't funny—at least not on the page. Because the playwright holds a Ph.D. in Victorian melodrama, the allure of engagement with the Master Builder must have been great.
What struck me most forcibly from reading Rebeck's script was that Nora's identity seems shaped less by mores embedded in the culture, a hallmark of Ibsen's characterization, than by the psychology of the individual personality. Here Nora tells Evan (her Torvald), "You don't want to know me." Her wish to have a marriage based on the connection of "souls" seems less a matter of public definition of the institution than of private concerns. One result is that DollHouse comments less on Ibsen and the permutations of his legacy than it does on contemporary society, in which psychology has replaced sociopolitical activism.
Rebeck confirms that analysis. "I think it's true now that engaging in this particular type of claustrophobic marriage is a matter of choice—it is personal now, and so many people fall into that paradigm that there is something spooky about it. The reality television shows suggest all men want a pretty, slightly inane wife, and women want a big guy to take care of them and make all the money and let them stay home in a really nice house and spend it. It's not necessarily a societal structure now, but it retains power as a cultural fantasy."
This syndrome continues when we see that Rebeck's Nora responds to and consciously acknowledges Dr. Rank's feelings for her—this updated explicitness seems to uncomplicate her as a flirt and a manipulator. The notion that Nora doesn't work, especially since she enjoys the benefit of a live-in nanny, seems, of course, far more unusual than it must have in the 19th century. And the fact that Rebeck's Nora, unlike Ibsen's, doesn't work secretly to pay off the plot-tipping debt—she merely takes the money she inherited from her father to replace the stolen money, and thus never discovers the thrill of economic self-sufficiency—alters the play's moral crux.
"I think I did that," Rebeck reasons, "because I didn't want to write a Nora I disliked as much as I dislike the original. She seems not 'complicated' to me but blind and selfish. I found it hard to spend that much time with her that way. I wanted her to be someone whom I wanted to see evolve."
Rebeck specifies that the Helmers' "dollhouse" should be "architecturally spectacular": "Just because you're rich doesn't mean you're without taste—and one of the qualities Ibsen gave Nora was that she kept a good home. I wanted this couple, and this family, to be admirable people—without peering too much behind that facade to see that the marriage has the same problems a 19th-century couple in Norway might have had."
Rebeck gives Nora an exit line that sounds like it flew out of a morning talk show: "When I'm more of a person, when I'm stronger—when I'm wiser than I am now—I will come to you, I promise, and...we will see where we are." Her husband's very contemporary reply is, "I may not wait." Nora fires back, "I doubt that you will. And you should. Because I will be worth waiting for." With that, this self-important brat of a Nora slams the door behind her.
Ibsen wrote in 1878, "A woman cannot be herself in contemporary society," pointing out that men and women "do not understand each other, but in practical life the woman is judged by man's law as though she were not a woman but a man." It would seem as good an explanation as any for the fact that A Doll's House has endured as an endlessly fascinating work of modern drama. Torvald's assertion, "First and foremost you are a wife and mother," provokes, over and over, in different countries, languages and eras, Nora's enduring reply: "I am, first and foremost, a human being."
Toby Zinman is a professor of English at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and theatre critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, BroadStreetReview.com and Variety. Her most recent books are Edward Albee (University of Michigan, 2008) and Arthur Miller: All My Sons (Methuen, 2010).blog comments powered by Disqus
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