In 125 years of audiences, undoubtedly many women have wanted to shoot Torvald Helmer, but most directors, male or female, would hesitate to louse up a great play by turning the famous door-slam into a gunshot. Leave it, one might say, to the Germans. Thomas Ostermeier, artistic director of Berlin’s Schaubuhne, has managed, by giving Torvald a gun for Nora to borrow, to louse up not only a great play but what was in many ways a great production. The gun wasn’t his only dumb idea: The one question in my mind is which will remain stronger in my memory of this Doll’s House after months and years have passed—the frequent brilliance of the acting and directing, or the equally frequent lapses into directorial self-indulgence. It’s aesthetically unjust for an artist so gifted to be so foolishly wasteful of his gifts.
Granted, the reverberant ending of Ibsen’s play—”the door-slam heard round the world,” somebody once called it—is so famous that it can probably withstand a little tampering. Virtually every work written about women’s position in society since 1879 refers to it. In China in the 1920s, emancipated women were known as Noras. The legion of writers who’ve attempted sequels to Nora’s story ranges from Claire Boothe Luce to Elfriede Jelinek; it even includes Ibsen himself, since Hedda Gabler‘s Thea is a sort of Nora who has run off with a healthier Dr. Rank. Over the years, I’ve seen Nora weak and strong, indecisive and repressed, lascivious and maidenly; I’ve seen her played superbly in Urdu, for an enraptured audience made up mostly of headscarved Muslim women, by the Pakistani actress Samina Peerzada. Julie Harris, Jane Fonda, Claire Bloom, Janet McTeer—what actress, at a certain stage of life, couldn’t make a suitable Nora? And to what culture in the modern world, from the evangelical to the East Village–cal, is Nora’s story inapplicable?
In part this is true because of the element in the play that Ostermeier’s gunshot effectively killed: Nora’s spiritual transcendence. Not only is she the kind of person unlikely to commit such violence, but as her speeches in the last scene (retained by Ostermeier) make clear, she has advanced a step in her spiritual development. She wants to go forward, not crash down, and wants Torvald to do the same. Her problem is that this is impossible while they stay together; the separation is meant to be temporary and subject to the growth of his understanding, which will come from the shock of her departure. There are no guarantees in Nora’s assumption; she may simply be a naive sentimentalist doing a very silly and futile piece of acting out, as Herman J. Weigand asserted in his once famous book The Modern Ibsen. Like Jesus, Ibsen is famously nonjudgmental about his people; he lets Nora have her say and do what she does without instruction from him. Over a century before Ostermeier pulled a gun on him, Ibsen wrote an alternate ending, because German actresses were refusing to play the final door-slam. In that version, Nora doesn’t leave; Torvald forces her onto her knees by the children’s bedroom door and says, “You must stay!” Ibsen did this, he explained, to avoid having it done worse by someone else; it mutes the shock without erasing the moral and social questions that hang in the air at the play’s conclusion. (In Ingmar Bergman’s last production, Nora slammed the auditorium door behind her, abandoning illusionist theater as well as her home.)
Not one to let questions of any sort hang in the air for long, Ostermeier updated the play to a contemporary, high-tech elite setting, creating lively and detailed performances (his five principals were uniformly excellent) in a luxury-apartment set whose architectural style might be described as post-Bauhaus nightmare. The Helmers’ maid was an African au pair; Dr. Rank, far younger than usually played, was bisexual and HIV-positive; Nora’s plea to rehire Krogstad interrupted Torvald at his laptop; the children’s arrival brought with it a tidal wave of heavy-metal rock. Neither jocose nor irrelevant, this sort of modernization made sense, giving the acting style an extra zap of contemporaneity and bringing the text a welcome fresh breeziness. Unfortunately, this wasn’t all. Every 15 minutes or so, Ostermeier seemed to feel an itch to prove that he was up-to-date. So the large, bulky set kept revolving or shifting its angles for no particular reason. Artists who plainly knew their craft would lapse into amateurish screaming with even less justification. (Nora’s plea to Helmer not to open the mailbox was done in a sitcom screech.) And there were a fair number of idiotic lurches into irrelevant physical violence, which proved that Ostermeier’s cast was courageous as well as skillful, but only subtracted from the force of the event. That Krogstad, like every other man in the play, should be sexually attracted to Nora was a new and valid concept; that he should attempt to rape her was merely cheap, intrusive slapstick. There was so much beauty, skill, and vividness in Ostermeier’s work that his way of diluting it with these interruptions became an increasing irritant as the show (played without intermission) rumbled on. For the sake of the artistry involved, one wanted it to be more its best self—exactly what Nora wants for herself and Torvald. Under the circumstances, one has to do what Ostermeier’s Nora did and leave, depleted, not slamming the door but closing it quietly on the kind of German theater that has to wallow in self-indulgence to prove to itself that it’s alive.