Mainstream American playwriting is driven by the will to explain. Every effect has its causes, and dramatic action is often merely a process of meting them out. By the end of typical contemporary works of psychological naturalism, we come fully to understand why the characters have committed some less than honorable acts, and thus we sympathize with and possibly even excuse them. The imperative of our national dramaturgy remains that holy of hoary holies: motivation. Playwrights must deploy it, actors depict it, and audiences detect it in order for all to feel fulfilled in the American theater.
That’s bad enough on its own. The promise of new works for our regional and commercial stages grows ever thinner as the years pass and the clunky play-building pieties become even more Oprahfied. It’s potentially even worse when American playwrights bred on these principles try to adapt the masters of modern drama, whose works remain rich and fascinating precisely because they do not seek to reduce everything to the tenets of pop psychology or simple social platitudes. Arthur Miller’s version of An Enemy of the People—arguably the flattest of Ibsen’s prose plays — is a textbook example of explication’s reductive results. It turns Ibsen’s early social drama into a tedious contest between damaged, doctrinaire people, losing the texture and unanswered questions of the original. What greater injury might be done to the more intricate and enigmatic plays of the period?
The question couldn’t help but temper my genuine excitement over the prospect of a Broadway season opening with new American adaptations of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (Jon Robin Baitz) and Strindberg’s Dance of Death (Richard Greenberg). Both plays, in vastly different ways, assume some measure of motiveless malignancy in their portrayals of impossible marriages. The stifling conventions and constraints of bourgeois marriage were resonant metaphors for these playwrights a century ago. And they paralleled the stifling conventions and constraints of the period’s well-made plays, which both Ibsen and Strindberg were blasting open with their revolutionary new forms. Could Greenberg—and his audiences—get beyond seeing prototypes of Albee’s George and Martha in Strindberg’s Edgar and Alice? Could Baitz resist leading us by the hand to grasp the reasons for Hedda’s petty cruelties and gruesome acts?
Greenberg is the breezier, even fluffier, of the two contemporary playwrights, and at first glance seems unsuited for Strindberg’s vitriol. Though there’s a darkness beneath Greenberg’s wit and plenty of marital torment in works such as Eastern Standard, Life Under Water, and Hurrah at Last, he has seemed more interested in surface tensions than in seething psychic warfare, more attuned to dialogue with punch-lines than emotional TKOs. But the production (reviewed here last week by Charles McNulty) plunges along with a verve that comes not only from the capacious energies of Ian McKellan and Helen Mirren. Greenberg revels in the given-ness of the overwrought hatred between Edgar and Alice, offering a colloquial lilt to the sniping that emphasizes both Strindberg’s humor and his bilious bite.
Not so easy with Hedda Gabler. If only her wimpy husband, George Tesman (Michael Emerson), or even her once-debauched comrade Eilert Lovborg (David Lansbury) would rise to do battle and allow Hedda to take part in a drama of some significance, to act meaningfully outside the domestic realm. Hedda is more complex than Dance of Death, for starters because only one of its protagonists is participating in a momentous tragedy—and it’s one of her own devising. Baitz, concerned with matters of conscience in plays such as The Substance of Fire and Three Hotels, is probably the playwright of this generation most akin to Miller. And he brings to Ibsen the same deadening tendency to make character completely knowable.
A century’s worth of mundane Ibsen criticism and production has sought to explain why Hedda would do the things that, as Judge Brack famously says in the curtain line, people just don’t do. Some critics and directors have diagnosed her with hysteria; others have blamed her inappropriate identification with her deceased father; still others have suggested that she was a male spirit trapped in a woman’s body. But the more astute analysts and producers have understood that Hedda’s suicide—as well as all the rest of her baffling behavior—is so overdetermined that any explanation must be insufficient. She’s simultaneously self-destructive and self-aggrandizing.
Baitz’s version, starring Kate Burton, has been roundly praised for demystifying the troubling hero. That’s precisely its problem. Directed by Nicholas Martin, this Hedda cuts its heroine down to size. She’s a bored and bitchy housewife, clattering around her cavernous new house (designed by Alexander Dodge). Her primary preoccupation is carrying out bits of business: She moves chairs here and there, picks up and puts down a shawl dozens of times, rushes to the window or to the portrait of her father in moments of unease. There are no histrionic fits or big gestures, just more fidgeting and increasing sarcasm in her tone.
Burton is commanding on stage, but her ability to reach for grandeur is thwarted here—not in a way that parallels the squelching of Hedda’s aspirations, but in a way that suffocates them further. The dull domesticity, the doting husband, the coming demands of motherhood—these are the conspiring forces that break Hedda’s spirit at the Ambassador Theatre. Of course all of that is the ground of Ibsen’s play, and critics who sweep Hedda into a metaphysical sphere where her gender and circumstances are irrelevant simply ignore reality. At the same time, those metaphysical layers are all-important, too. Disregarding them leaves Hedda as a forlorn homemaker whose predicament might be simply solved by signing her up for tango lessons.
Or performance art. The confessional autobiographical form, when it doesn’t look past the personal experiences of the author/actor, is the apotheosis of explanatory psychological American drama. In Rave Mom, Ann Magnuson recounts her travels through 1999—a year of Ecstasy-popping, bad romance-chasing, and searching for escapism and meaning after her brother’s death from AIDS. Magnuson has a thoroughly charming presence, moves deftly, and writes some amusing lines. But her stories of celebrity-studded Oscar parties, kid-filled raves, a wealthy dotcom suitor, and so on come off as utterly self-absorbed and trivial, even if she does learn in the end that money isn’t everything.