"Even today a woman's personhood is contingent on her children in a way that a man's isn't."
A new Broadway play prods our biases
Even if you've never seen A Doll's House, you might be interested in a sequel. Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's 1879 masterpiece ends with Nora Helmer, a cosseted and infantilized woman who has realized she's smothered by her marriage, leaving her family for an independent life. The play's final moment – of Nora's husband Torvald yelling for her to return as we hear her slamming the front door – leaves us gasping for more because it's less a resolution than a fraught beginning. What happens to Nora now? Will she regret her awakening, or will it help her thrive? And no matter what she believes, will she survive in a world that's hostile to unfettered women?
Almost immediately after the play's premiere, outraged writers tried to end the story. The late 18th and early 19th centuries saw a wave of sequels that either "corrected" Nora's departure from her husband and children by sending her home or stigmatized it by sending her family into immediate ruin. Ibsen himself even supplied a new ending for use in German theatres, with Nora trying to leave and then collapsing into a crying heap when she sees her sleeping children. Ibsen felt this was "a barbaric act of violence" against his play, but he knew that if he didn't deliver a "happier" conclusion himself, then lesser writers would just make the changes without his permission.
That sentimental finale has since been jettisoned, of course, and the world's opinions of Nora have evolved. Today it doesn't seem so shocking for a woman to leave her husband or crave a life in which she is more than a man's plaything. It's also easier to see Ibsen's frequently argued point that the play is not so much about women's rights as it is about human rights, about the need for both women and men to live without the suffocation of societal expectations.
But that doesn't mean we accept Nora completely. Even the most liberal viewer might blanche when she leaves her children. Regarding her own reaction to the play, the novelist A.S. Byatt has written, "I was quite happy for the ethics of marriage to be put in question. But there is a Darwinian imperative (to do with the selfish gene) that a woman should not leave her children. Nora shut the door, and I was as perturbed as Ibsen could have hoped."
That is precisely the breach that playwright Lucas Hnath is diving into with A Doll's House Part 2, his own sequel to Ibsen's work that is now on Broadway at the Golden Theatre. He wants to explore not only what's happening to Nora, but also what's happening to women at large. He uses the heroine's continuing adventures to prod our own beliefs about where half the population belongs.
That's why his play lives in the past and the present at the same time. Even though they're wearing 19th-century clothes, the characters use boxes of Kleenex and drink bottled water. They drop curse words and slangy phrases, and they're surrounded by modern furniture. This reminds us that nobody on stage is talking about dusty old issues. "It's remarkable how far we've come and how far we haven't," Hnath says. "Pretty much after the plot launches, every dilemma that comes up applies to then and now."
Lucas Hnath (photo by Zack DeZon)
About Hnath's plot: The play opens with Nora (Laurie Metcalf) knocking on the very same door she slammed. 15 years have passed, and she's had a thrilling, successful life as a novelist. She has recently learned, however, that Torvald (Chris Cooper) never officially granted her a divorce, and because it's illegal for a married woman of that time to conduct business without her husband's consent, she is facing both prison and ruin. She has come back to end her affiliation with him once and for all.
Right away, however, she makes it clear that she wants a divorce for more than legal reasons. She delivers several fiery speeches about the strictures of any marriage, and some modern listeners may cheer her on. "When I started writing the play, one of the thoughts that had gotten into my head was, 'Wait, why do we have marriage?'" Hnath says. "And the more I would research the history of marriage, the more I became surprised that it still exists."
Before Nora can seem unimpeachable, though, we're reminded that her children were raised by her former nanny. Nora's grown daughter Emmy (Condola Rashad) also turns up to deliver some pointed criticism.
Emmy might get people cheering as well. As Hnath says, "Something that [producer] Scott Rudin did early on was get me access to just about any feminist and Norwegian scholar I could possibly ever want access to. One of the things I asked them was, 'If the play were being written for the first time today, what would be the most shocking thing Nora could do?' And they said, 'Walk out the door and leave her children.'
"So that's a major topic that's up for examination. It raises a lot of questions about double standards. Because one thing [my collaborators and I] talked about a lot was this notion of 'contingent personhood,' that even today a woman's personhood is contingent on her children in a way that a man's isn't. And that's just one example of many things the play is holding up."
In fact, Hnath and director Sam Gold have specifically shaped their production to make us engage in debate. When they're speechifying, characters frequently move downstage and face the crowd, so they're provoking us as much as each other.
"This play is written in a mode that I would describe as 'public forum,'" Hnath says. "You're going to get more vocal responses – gasps, sounds of disapproval when a character expresses a certain idea."
That's been happening during early performances. "I anticipated that," Hnath says ." But still, the degree of response is almost like what you get in sports. There are these moments where the audience erupts into noise or applause, which is a nice surprise. I'm really happy about the visceral level of engagement."
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